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Communicating with the brain

2 March 2022

Over the Christmas break, Account Director Dee got stuck into a couple of good books about how we communicate. Reflecting on what she learnt she provides some insight into how to make the most of our capacity to communicate with others.

It’s not news that the human brain is an amazing bunch of cells. It is so very complex, and we’re not even sure exactly how it all works. What we do know is that our brain allows us to learn and develop into the completely unique and interesting creatures that we all are. Yet, there are some things our brains do that are consistent across people from all backgrounds and cultures. And this has implications for how we communicate.

How people react to certain stimuli, how quickly we get bored, what makes us tune in (or tune out) and why we react to images, colours or words are important to understanding how to get our message across. More importantly, it is key to how we hear and really understand others and can help us get the best out of our work and relationships. In other words, knowing a bit about how our brains are wired can be really useful in life.

Taking some time to consider how people take in information can help achieve better outcomes. From setting up more creative teams and productive employees to presentations that are actually recalled, and more memorable communications.

The human brain has evolved over millennia to respond to a narrative. It has been estimated that people are 22 times more likely to recall information told via a story, because it involves the parts of the brain that require us to imagine, which triggers emotional responses. In his book Brain Rules for Work, John Medina notes, “Stories not only grab our attention but also usually fasten a drop of superglue to make the information super sticky.”[1]

Take a moment now and think back to the last YouTube video, public health message or even TV advertisement that made an impact on you. Did it give you a series of dry information, or did it capture your imagination? It probably used a combination of emotion, humour, beautiful imagery and music to weave a narrative, albeit a short one, that drew you in.

The most recent, highly acclaimed MLA summer Lamb campaign uses humour to tell the story of lamb helping to break down borders erected in the name of COVID-19.  As we follow the story of a world explorer and their apprentice rediscovering a whole world outside of ‘fortress Australia’ – we relate to the sense of isolation and can imagine ourselves travelling again.

Whilst we can’t always apply the creative genius of such campaigns to our everyday work, we can make sure we use these devices as we communicate. There aren’t many people that don’t dread their audiences switching off during a presentation, but there are some simple ways of keeping people engaged. Show at the outset that the session is about your audience and what they have to gain by tuning in, punctuate your presentation (about every ten minutes) with a relevant and succinct emotional hook such as an anecdote, example, short video clip or intriguing piece of information.

Images have been shown over and again to be effective in communicating, grabbing attention and provoking an emotional response. Using images or even better, animations or video, to depict the information you want to convey is likely to make it stick with your audience for longer than lines of text[2]. This applies no matter the subject, delivering a CEO address to an AGM is more than the financial results and operating statistics – it is the story of the company over the previous 12 months. It is about people – customers, employees and stakeholders and how the business has affected its operating environment. So, for example, whilst it may be important to present statistics about environmental sustainability outcomes, these can be presented to an audience via icons, graphics, animation and illustrated by images of the outcome. A pristine waterway or wetland habitat with cute chicks are more interesting and likely to be better recalled than a bunch of numbers on a screen.

The human brain has a lot to do – from making sure we breathe at appropriate intervals, remembering our Mum’s birthday and navigating traffic on the way to work right through to complex decisions about finance, sensitive negotiations or our philosophy on life. To manage the incredibly hectic day to day life the human brain has shortcuts, it ignores stuff that deems surplus to requirements.

So, when we want to communicate with others, it is worthwhile being aware of the amount of work the brains of our audience have to do, and offer our information and messages in ways that will help them take it in.  Making our messages relevant, interesting, well-illustrated and concise can help immeasurably with that objective – and making our communications a bit fun doesn’t hurt either!

[1] Dr John J Medina, 2021, Brain Rules for Work, the science of thinking smarter in the office and at home

[2] Dr John J Medina, 2021, Brain Rules for Work, the science of thinking smarter in the office and at home