Playing by the Brain’s Rules to Make Communications Stick

Guest post from Tim Pollard:

Despite the fact that the stakes of business communications are often high, it’s sad reality that most are really not very good.  Survey after survey reveals that only about one quarter of internal business presentations are rated as good or better by their audiences, while 75 percent languish as mediocre, poor, or terrible.

And for those critical sales presentations that companies make to customers, the score is no better. Data we’ve gathered shows that while companies self-assess the quality of their solutions on average at 8.1 out of 10 (where 10 is excellent), those same companies self-assess the quality of their solutions messaging at only 3.9/10. It’s little short of tragic to battle to finally get that elusive customer meeting, only to deliver a 3.9/10 presentation.

Which raises a fascinating question. Given that communication is such a high-stakes affair, why are we so poor?

We have all been subjected to some mind-numbing PowerPoint deck where the speaker toiled through an endless series of slides, and in our gut we know that this can’t be the right way to do it. But while it’s tempting to simply blame PowerPoint, that is missing the point completely. The real problem is far more interesting than the poor use of a software tool. It’s all about the poor use of an audience’s brain.

Here’s the real problem: the human brain is wired in very particular ways in how it wants and needs to take in information. When communication aligns with how the brain wants to consume information, incredible, breakthrough effectiveness is possible. But when you misalign with the brain, you are guaranteed to fail. It is certainly true that dense, excessive, poorly sequenced PowerPoint slides are doomed to fail, but the reason is how badly that approach misaligns with the way the brain works. The key isn’t prettier slides. The key is understanding what the brain really wants.

For example, at a cocktail party you are introduced to a random stranger. Three minutes later you’ve completely forgotten his name.  The reason this happens tells us something critical about how the brain stores information.

The brain stores information contextually. When presented with new information the brain looks for context – for something to attach that information to. If it can find it, the information can be stored. But if no context is found, it can’t be stored. We call information like this an “intellectual orphan.”

Why does this matter to communicators? When you create any argument that simply moves from point to point – “That was point 3, let’s look at point 4” – but where there’s no logical flow BETWEEN those points, you are presenting intellectual orphans and your argument is destined to be forgotten within minutes.  And it’s what most presenters do most of the time.

So what’s the solution to this particular problem? You need to take the substance of the argument and create a logical sequential narrative, because sequence creates the context that the brain needs.  When you read a book, chapter 6 makes perfect sense because of chapter 5. But if you read the chapters out of sequence it won’t make any sense at all, even though it’s exactly the same content. It’s the context that creates comprehension.

This is just one example of the relationship between brain wiring and communication, and it’s the reason why most people communicate badly – because they have no idea what the brain’s rules are.

Based on 15 years work and research, I’ve identified six critical brain violations that show up in almost all communication, and a six-step process for message design that solves for these. And when communication is built using this model, whether it’s a sales pitch, a TED talk or a CEO message to the troops, impact and effectiveness skyrocket. (One client saw a sales conversion rate for one solution jump from 15% to about 90%, simply because they finally learned how to tell this complex story in a much simpler way.)

So, in the spirit of giving you a really valuable and practical takeaway, let me share the biggest lesson, and the most valuable thing you will ever learn about the way your audience’s brain works.

Your brain and mine operate at the level of ideas. If you were to sit through a long presentation, even a great one, and afterwards, I asked you “what was that all about?”… automatically, without even knowing you were doing it, you would reduce that hour to one or two big ideas. It’s how our brains work. They are reductionist. They traffic in ideas. They do NOT traffic at the level of facts and data (especially lots of fact and data).

Do you immediately see the problem? The overwhelming majority of communicators take an approach that is thoroughly at odds with this reality. We bombard our audiences with as much fact and data as we can, usually thinking that we are making the best case we can, when in fact we are likely making the worst.

In the famous OJ Simpson trial of 1993, the prosecution presented a mind-numbing seven months’ worth of fact and data. And yet, history clearly suggests that this was all undone by ONE simple idea of eight words…. “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit”… and the fact that most of you reading immediately recognized the phrase (even after a quarter of a century) is huge testimony to the incredible brain-stickiness of an idea.

In almost any presentation I see, the big ideas are murky at best, or completely hidden at worst. Indeed, in most “decks” you can’t find the ideas at all. Next time you are building any communication, go and apply this principle by asking this question: “What are my 2-3 big ideas?” Then build around them. Make them clear, prove them with your best data, not the most data you can, and strip away everything else that’s secondary.

And watch what happens.

Tim Pollard, author of The Compelling Communicator: Mastering the Art and Science of Exceptional Presentation Design (Conder House Press, 2016), is the founder and CEO of Oratium, a communications firm helping organizations from Fortune 500 companies to law offices hone their presentation and messaging skills.

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