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

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

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

Tim Pollard, author of The Compelling Communicator: Mastering the Art and Science ofExceptional 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