Brain-Friendly Communication

By Walsh, Robert | Training & Development, February 2000 | Go to article overview

Brain-Friendly Communication


Walsh, Robert, Training & Development


How can you capture and sustain the attention of a roomful of participants with differing backgrounds, knowledge, and skills? Start by recognizing that they all use the same instrument to process information-the human brain-and design your presentation to be brain-friendly. This phrase, brain-friendly, perhaps reminds you of other brain-related approaches to analysis and communication that have become well known.

So, let me begin by saying what this article is not about. It is not about whole brain or split brain or left brain or right brain. It is not about emotional intelligence, multiple intelligences, or lateral thinking. There is no mention of the neocortex, the hippocampus, the amygdala, or any other brain structure. This article is about general principles of cognitive processing. Specifically, it is about how you can present information in ways the brain likes to deal with it.

With that in mind, consider a scenario: John is at home channel surfing. He samples all 50 TV channels in just over a minute, tentatively selecting one to watch. During the first commercial break, he reviews all 50 channels twice around. The next morning, at the office, John goes through 17 email messages in about two minutes, deleting all but four. John is not so much making decisions as he is confirming them.

According to Daniel Goleman, messages arrive at one's consciousness with a preformed bias. Research has shown that in the first few milliseconds of perceiving something, we not oniy comprehend what it is unconsciously but decide whether we like it. The cognitive unconscious presents our awareness with the identity of what we see and an opinion about it. How can we access the cognitive unconscious of participants and gain their sustained attention? By exploiting the brain-friendly communication principles revealed here. Principle 1: The brain seeks relevance. I use the term relevance as Sperber and Wilson do in their book, Relevance: Communication and Cognition. They assert that messages having the greatest relevance are characterized by high impact and low processing effort.

In the matrix, a message is assigned to a quadrant (or block) according to the relafive weight of two factors-contextual effect (or impact) and processing effort.

* Block 1 messages: strong contextual effect, little processing effort

* Block 2: strong contextual effect, considerable processing effort

* Block 3: weak contextual effect, little processing effort

* Block 4: weak contextual effect, considerable processing effort.

Our job as communicators is to develop and deliver highly relevant, Block 1 messages. How can we craft them?

Consider first the matter of impact. Once a theme is announced, a context is established. Impact amounts to some convmcing change in the context. That can be achieved by inserting new information into the context, making new connections (thereby extending the context), challenging or defending established ideas, opening up new perspectives, and so on.

Now, consider the processing effort- the degree of difficulty involved in interpreting new information in terms of existing assumptions. When confronted with new information, new ideas, or a new perspective on familiar material, we assess the probable processing effort and tend to reject the material if the effort seems too high for the probable gain or impact.

In that rejection, we see the cognitive unconscious in operation. It is ready to accept Block 1 messages and ignore the others. Now we see why some participants tune out during the introduction or recitation of not-new or too-new information. It's not clear to them what significance-toself the material has. Is the recitation changing the context in some way that makes the processing effort worthwhile? Is it changing the context so extensively that the processing effort will be excessive? This is not to suggest that your opening statement has to make an immediate, strong impact. …

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