04 Aug 2015

The Brain Filter

You’ve just sat down to watch your finance manager Carol deliver her annual report. She cracks a joke about how there are some worried faces in the audience. You laugh and think that was funny. She shows a slide with her agenda for the day. Your mind takes in the slide whilst you can just about make out sounds coming from her mouth. She moves to the next slide and it’s a table with lots of numbers. You start to think about what you’re going to have for lunch. Just as you are picturing the shopping mall beneath your office and the restaurants you haven’t tried yet, your colleague nudges you to get your attention. You refocus on Carol and she’s now talking about…You’re not quite sure what she’s talking about. You go back to thinking about lunch. Suddenly your attention is caught by Carol as she says the words “Actually, I’ll tell you a funny story about why these numbers are so high…”. You listen to that story with interest. Then she goes back to the numbers and you start looking at your watch.

In fact, that person in the audience may not have been you, but it was definitely me. Some people are quite good at listening, but I am not. I am atrocious. I cannot force myself to listen to something boring. At University that was a big weakness of mine, but as a trainer it’s actually a strength. When I train, I always imagine everyone in the audience is just like me. They can’t force themselves to pay attention to something boring. This has forced me to fine tune everything I say to make sure it’s interesting. And over time I have developed a strong sense of what I call The Brain Filter.

It’s actually very simple. There are many different types of information and presentation methods. Some things go directly into our heads. Whereas other things go directly over our heads, or smack us in the face and then bounce back. Let me give you an example…

Did you know the iPhone 6 has an improved polariser? No, I bet you didn’t. In fact, I bet you don’t have a clue what a polariser is or what it’s used for. No, neither did I. However, if you look at the iPhone 6 page on Apple’s website, you’ll learn very quickly what it is.

It’s obviously something that has something to do with the sun and helps give you a clearer view when wearing your sunglasses. OK, maybe that doesn’t seem very clear, but it’s enough. As an average user you don’t need to know anymore than this. And as an average user, this gives you a clear picture of what it’s for. And this is exactly my first point. Let me explain this a bit.

Think about where you are right now. How do you know what’s around you? Right now, I know I’m sitting on a leather seat because it feels…Well…It feels like a leather seat. I know I’m drinking a Frappuccino because I can taste it. I know I’m in a cafe because I can see people around me, sitting down drinking coffee. I can hear music and people chatting, and I can smell the coffee. Thanks to my 5 senses I know exactly where I am. My 5 senses have processed all of this information to give me a clear understanding of my environment. And this is pretty much how we take in most of the information we’ll ever encounter, through our 5 senses.

So what Apple has done in that polariser example is translate it into sensory language. Apple has described things using the 5 senses so that we can easily picture it. And when we can picture something, we can understand it.

Let’s imagine you are trying to rent out your spare room. It’s 25 square meters. Great…Well, no, not great. What does 25 square meters mean? Try translating it into sensory language. It’s got a double bed, a desk, a wardrobe and enough floor space to do yoga! Perfect.

Sensory language will almost always be granted entry into the mind. Although it very much depends on that person’s understanding of the language you use. At the beginning of some of my communication skills trainings, I like to ask this question: What picture comes to your mind when I say “Red Flag?”. Some people think of the red flag on a beach at high tide. Others think of the red flag in their email inbox. Some people think of the Vietnamese flag. Some people think of danger. And I think of the Chinese flag.

Everyone understands words differently. For example, think of what comes to mind when I say the word “Dog”. When I think of “Dog”, I think of the Alsatian that lived up the top of my lane when I was a young child. I remember learning this word when I walked past it with my mother. She would point at it and say “Look at the dog!”. Over time I came to associate that animal and the sounds it made with the word “Dog”. Later on, I came to associate other animals with the word “Dog”, but that Alsatian always had the strongest association. Probably because it was through that Alsatian that I learnt the meaning of this word. When you think of “Dog” you might think of a labrador, or a poodle, or maybe even a wolf. It all depends on your experiences.

If your audience share a similar background or experience, then they are likely to interpret words similarly. If I say “Red Flag” to a Chinese audience, most of them will think of the Chinese Flag. If I say “Difficult Customer” to people who work in the same company, most of them will probably have the same customer in mind. If I say “Sport” to British people, most of them will think of football. And if I say “Football” to Americans, most of them will think of a sport that ironically does not involve the use of a foot!

Which brings me to my next point. Use analogies. Analogies are powerful learning tools. They use things the trainee knows very well, to describe something they don’t know at all. Imagine you are sitting on the sofa and your foot goes numb. You shuffle around, and your 3 year old daughter looks at you funny. You say to her “My foot’s gone numb!”. She says “What does numb mean?”. You use an analogy to explain it to her. “It’s when your foot goes to sleep and feels like there are lots of stars shooting at it”.

Analogies are things the audience can relate to. They already have the neural pathways formed to comprehend the analogy. The more of those existing neural pathways your message can connect to, the more you will be relating to the audience.

On the subject of relating to your audience, you also need to think about how you use your language. I deal with a lot mixed audiences, with varying levels of English. Obviously I am not going to talk to them like I do with my old friends from England. I need to downgrade my language a lot. The first thing I do is use short sentences. In fact, whilst I write this I am trying to keep each sentence to a word limit of around 20 words. When I exceed 20 words, there is a greater chance of including too much information for you to process. And so in training and presentations I keep my sentences short. I speak slow (but not so slow that they get annoyed). And I pause. I manage the amount of information I feed them so that they can easily digest it.

The second thing I do is tailor down the level of vocabulary I use. I could use lots of big adult words like Russell Brand does. But that would also confuse the audience. Why use words they are not likely to understand? Instead of “Major catastrophe” it may be more effective to say “Very big problem”. To be honest, this is not a problem I have as my English level has progressively declined. I blame living abroad for too long…

Anyway. I was talking about analogies. Analogies, combined with sensory information will guarantee your message makes an impact. But there are a few more things we can use as well. For example.

Last night, I let my pet parrot drink a sip of Red Bull…

Oh boy, I left you on a cliff hanger there! I bet you are dying to know what happened next? Did the parrot go crazy? Did it fly around the room in circles for 4 hours straight? Did it start repeating every single sound it heard? Did it suddenly become fully conversational in Swahili? Actually, I would never do that to my beloved Snuggles. But come to think of it, I wonder what would happen if I did do that?

I’m pretty sure you are thinking exactly the same thing as well. What would happen if you fed a parrot Red Bull? Now there are several reasons you are likely to think that. Firstly, that’s a lot of sensory data there. Pictures of Red Bull and parrots. You’ve also got vivid memories of parrots talking, flying, singing and doing crazy stuff, as well as your experience of drinking Red Bull. So it’s very easy for you to relate to. But you are also feeling very curious. What on Earth does happen when a parrot drinks Red Bull?

I’ve given you half of a picture, and the other half is a mystery. This mystery gives you a sense of curiosity. For some of you, the curiosity of wanting to know what happens when a parrot drinks red bull will drive you crazy. For most of you it will give you just a little itch that’s a bit hard to ignore. But this itch is enough to grab your attention and keep it. And it was this itch that drove the cavemen a bit crazy all those years ago…

What is that strange looking mushroom? I wonder if I can eat it? Hmm…

From the beginning of time humans have learnt to do experiments to satisfy curiosity. For some humans eating that mushroom caused an upset stomach. But for other humans, it raised their awareness of an alternative food source when the numbers of wooly mammoths were in decline. Christopher Columbus was driven by curiosity when he crossed the Atlantic Ocean. And Neil Armstrong was driven by curiosity when he travelled to the moon. To be fair I was also driven by curiosity when I was 4 years old and stapled my thumb. So curiosity is not always a good thing. But it is a trait that helps us discover and expand our potential as a species. Hence why we have it.

There are many ways of creating curiosity in our audience. One of the best is to tell them stories. There’s just something magical about stories. I notice that as soon as I say “So let me tell you a story”, heads shoot up. Stories generate a lot of curiosity. From start to end there is tension that gradually leads to resolution. Shelly sat down in her office. Suddenly the ground started shaking! She ran out of the office to find safety! Only to discover the shaking was from the construction work next door.

When combined with sensory data, a story upgrades your message from a simple sensory example, to a full out experience. Your audience are not just picturing your story, they are living it in their minds.?

There’s something else about stories as well. They tend to follow the same structure.?It generally goes around the theme of Problem > Solution > Outcome, although obviously there are countless variations. But because these structures are so familiar, stories are actually easy to remember. All you need to do is remember the context, then the existing structures in your mind will recall the rest.

Now going back to curiosity. What else do you think creates that itch?

Questions. Questions are extremely powerful. In fact, I would go so far as to call them mind control tools. Because that is what they do. When I asked you “What else do you think creates that itch?”, your mind probably started thinking about possible answers to that question. The simple use of a question sets your mind off on a journey of discovery. Sometimes it even does so without your permission!

Questions are especially powerful as learning tools, simply because they make your audience think. And the more your audience are thinking, the more likely they are to be learning. The best use of them is for creating new connections that didn’t exist before. Let me give you an example.

What must your audience do when you ask them questions? They must answer. To answer, what must they first do? They must think. How long does it take them to think? Anytime, probably up to 10 seconds. And during that time, what will you hear? Nothing, there will only be silence!

This is a string of questions I use in my training to help people deal with silence. Most inexperienced trainers and presenters’ natural reaction is to kill the silence by answering their question themselves, because they hate silence. But this string of questions helps them connect the fact that silence means the audience is thinking. Previously they hadn’t thought of silence as a good thing, only a bad thing. So this new connection helps them feel more comfortable with asking questions.

Another value of questions is that it puts the audience on the spot. They stop relaxing because they feel something is expected of them. That added pressure is enough for them to refocus their attention. Not only is it a form of information that goes straight into their minds, it’s also a tool for opening and activating their minds.

So to go back to the central idea of this post; our brain has a filter. Whenever you stand up and present, present only what will be granted entry into their minds. Completely remove anything that will not make its way in there. Only this way can you be delivering 100% value in everything you say. So let me just summarise with a list of the types of information I recommend you use:

  • Vivid (sensory) descriptions
  • Analogies
  • Simple language
  • Stories
  • Questions
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