Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is a pseudoscience of which the teachings have not been validated by empirical research. Public relations practitioners do well to stick with evidence-based knowledge.
There is no shortage of communications professionals who have taken up NLP classes or have otherwise been influenced – whether they are aware of this or not – by (parts of) the NLP school of thought.
Primary Representational System
At the core of NLP are presumptions on how the brain encodes and stores information, presumptions that are then used to craft communication that will create rapport with others. One cornerstone set of knowledge in NLP revolves around multi-sensory language. NLP believes that all people have process information in a way that shows a preference for one type of sensory language over others (Black, 2014) – in NLP parlance this is called people’s Primary Representational System (PRS).
Somebody will for example often use expressions pertaining to how things appear to him or her, how something looks, how things are in light of something, etc. Do you see what I mean? NLP even posits that the direction of your eye movements or your posture can reveal your PRS-mode.
So if you see that a person is looking left and upward, you know you are dealing with somebody who thinks visually. (Vermeren, 2020) To get through to somebody like that you need to employ expressions from the visual lexicon and tell that person that you see that they are concerned about something.
Another part of NLP talks to the types of commands brains can and can not process. Take negatives for example. NLP will tell you that you could not possibly process the ‘not’ in the sentence “This article is not about Renaissance art.” One should always stick to positives since the rest simply does not compute.
I see that it would make sense intuitively that the brain is a machine that has a hard time processing negatives, but alas, it is simply not true as I explained in this article on techniques your media trainer should never have taught you.
Also the multi-sensory styles of processing information have no bearing in the empirical world, as Patrick Vermeren explains in a dedicated chapter on NLP in his recent book A Skeptic’s HR Dictionary on Pseudoscience in Human Resources. In fact, Vermeren found that no piece of NLP thought can stand the test of scientific scrutiny (Vermeren, 2020).
As said, NLP is widely used and promoted in public relations. The book I used as a source for information on multi-sensory information is a PR handbook that is written by a NLP practitioner who dedicated part of her book to touting the usefulness of NLP to the PR trade. Kogan Page, a well respected publisher of professional literature for communicators, saw no objections at the time for having it in. Many pseudoscientific concepts of NLP make at first sight sense and are pretty easy to comprehend and explain, which makes them very sticky.
Luckily, there are alternative routes to take. For anyone looking to crack the code of how the mind works, there is plenty of behavioral scientific research out there that is based on legitimate research. The brain does not simply fail to process negatives but there are some circumstances where a negative might put a wrench in the machine and that is when you use ‘pragmatically unlicensed statements’ of which the negation does not add any value because it was taken for granted.
“Reading articles from this blog is not bad for your understanding of PR.” is such statement. Granted, these and many other insights are more difficult to summarize on a flipchart, but at least they are built on solid ground and will help PR practitioners serve their employers and clients well.
Caroline Black, The PR Professional’s Handbook, Kogan Page, 2014
Patrick Vermeren, A Skeptic’s HR Dictionary, 2020
Did you enjoy this piece on neuro-linguistic programming?
You might also like our interview with Patrick Vermeren on the abundant presence of pseudoscience in HR and communications.
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