Failed Communication? Blame It on the Brain

communication processing brain

Most business communication fails. Surveys consistently shows that about 75% of business presentations are rated as “mediocre” or worse by their audiences. More seriously, while companies on average rate the quality of the solutions they sell at 8 on a 1 to 10 scale, those same companies rate their sales messaging at a mere 4. At both the individual and institutional level, we often have a great story, but we just don’t know how to tell it well.

What’s going wrong? While it’s true that defaulting to building mind-numbing PowerPoint decks does play its part, PowerPoint is not the problem. The real reason is deeper and far more interesting. It’s all about the brain. Simply stated, the human brain is wired in particular ways with respect to how it wants and needs to consume information. When communication aligns with how the brain works, it succeeds. And when it does not, it fails. It’s as simple as that.

When communication aligns with how the brain works, it succeeds. Click To Tweet

For practical purposes, there are six key rules relating to how the brain consumes information, and it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the typical slide presentation tends to violate all six. All those years you’ve suspected that “bullet point” slides CAN’T be the right answer… ? You were right.

So what are the most significant aspects of brain wiring that relate to communication, and more importantly, what must we do in response? Let me lay out just three.

1) It’s All About Ideas

The single most important thing to understand is that the brain operates at the level of ideas. Your brain is reductionist: if you walk out of any presentation and later explain it to a friend, you won’t cite much data or detail. You will unconsciously and instinctively boil it down – reduce it – to a small number of ideas. As a result, the communicator must also operate at the level of ideas, giving the audience exactly what their brains want to consume, and will remember.

The ultimate goal of your communication is this— Powerfully Land a Small Number of Big Ideas. (And, yes, THAT is the big idea.)

How do you do it? The key lies in thinking through the action you want from your audience because this is how big ideas are derived. In human beings, an action is preceded by belief, which means the most important question in communication design becomes: “What does my audience need to believe in order to take the action I want them to take?” Answer that question and you have your big ideas.

What does my audience need to believe in order to take the action I want them to take? Click To Tweet
2) Simplify

Almost all presenters wildly overestimate the capacity of their audience’s brain. If you imagine the human brain has a total processing power equivalent to the U.S. economy, about $17 trillion, you may be surprised to learn that only about three dollars are allocated to the part of the brain that processes new information. This is why “fire-hosing” never works, because it overloads the brain’s circuits and your audience simply shuts down.

You must intentionally work to keep your argument within your audience’s mental “bandwidth.” There are two ways to do this.

  • The first is to reduce the quantity of your material. Instead of packing in everything you can in the name of completeness, you must pull everything out that you can in the name of simplicity, while still leaving your argument intact. How? Ask the question: “Does my audience really need to know this?” If they don’t, take it out. Be ruthless.
  • Secondly, beyond quantity, you must also reduce complexity. Most communicators work within their own field of expertise, but when the audience doesn’t share that expertise, it’s easy to confuse them with “insider” terms and irritating acronyms. It happens all the time, and it’s a big deal, because people do not act on what they don’t understand. The solution here is to conduct an intentional simplification round. Take a tour through your material looking only for complexity. You won’t spot it if you are simply proofing or editing.
People do not act on what they don’t understand. Click To Tweet
3) Logical Narrative Structure

Finally, think about any book you’ve read. Chapter 6 made sense because chapter 5 created the context for it. But if you read the same book out of sequence, the logical structure is lost, and the exact same content will now make no sense at all. This is one of the chief causes of communication failure. Without a clear structure, there’s no context for each idea, and context creates comprehension and memorability. (This is the exact reason you forget people’s names immediately after being introduced to them. No context means no stickiness.)

Look at each point you are making and ask, “What question does this raise?”… and then answer that question.

In summary, focus on big ideas, strip everything superfluous away, and create a logical narrative flow. These three examples are emblematic of the bigger idea. Build communication that aligns with the way the brain works. You will be shocked at the results.

Build communication that aligns with the way the brain works. Click To Tweet


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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