I recently watched a fascinating TED talk by a neuroscientist called Uri Hasson. He presented his findings from years of work on communication to deliver a compelling explanation of what your brain looks like when you communicate.
At the heart of Hasson’s talk was the idea of entrainment, essentially the harmonization of different and separate bodies – perhaps best exemplified by the physical entrainment of metronomes. Interestingly this is the same phenomenon that cause the Millennium Bridge in London to close after it’s grand opening – the synchronization in people’s footsteps caused the bridge to sway.
However, there is also another form of entrainment – neural entrainment. When people’s brain patterns become synchronized, better enabling us to transmit our thoughts and feelings and ideas to someone else. Whilst Hasson’s examples are straight from the fMRI machine, in a very real sense you can see this neural entrainment at work in any good presentation through the body language people give off. Leaning in, nodding, eye contact – all signs that they the audience is synchronized with you. Or as Hasson put it, you are ‘coupled’.
In market research, nearly all projects end with, or at least involve, some kind of presentation to the client. A research presentation is literally the transferring of the new knowledge – and hopefully insights – you now have from your mind to theirs; in the hope that it has some positive impact for the client. A good presentation makes all the client’s time, effort, and money poured into the project worthwhile. A bad presentation means you might not be getting a new brief any time soon.
So, any tips that can improve our presentations are of use. And what stood out for me in Hasson’s talk was how much of his research could be applied to research presentations as tips and tricks on how to make the biggest impact with presentation.
1. Kill Jargon.
In my previous job there were reams and reams of acronyms and jargon, to the point that there was even a dictionary of terms for all the TLAs (three letter acronyms). Whilst this was great for efficiency in the office, when it came to presenting we had to ‘translate’ these terms back to everyday language for the client. What was fascinating was when someone let slip one of these TLAs mid presentation, and the immediate impact it had on the audience – suddenly they didn’t follow the presentation so well, and if it continued, would quickly loose interest and switch off.
I’m sure ours wasn’t the only company that did this, and I’m not the only one that’s watched an audience’s attention fade because of it.
Well, finally, Hasson has explained what’s happening here. When you clearly understand someone, when they’re telling a coherent story, your frontal and parietal cortexes are engaged. These are the areas needed to make connections with memories, process information and essentially understand what someone is saying.
But when jargon is played, these cortexes stay dormant. Rather, only the auditory cortices are engaged. As Hasson puts it – you ‘preserved the auditory features but removed the meaning.’ It’s words, Jim, but not as we know it.
When you use jargon the client doesn’t understand their brains switch off, literally.
2. Deliver meaning
E.M. Foster famously once said, “a fact is ‘the queen died and the king died’, a story is ‘the queen died and the king died of a broken heart.’” The second phrase is immediately more engaging, memorable and impactful. Why, because it tells a story – it’s the combination of context, emotion, meaning and facts.
And delivering this meaning is at the heart of entrainment. In this way, whilst the words you use are important – especially to avoid jargon – more important is the sum of the words you use; meaning. Only when a full, engaging story is delivered do you get a consistent level of neural entrainment across the key areas of the brain used in communication. It’s not enough to articulately state the facts of your research project – you have to turn this into impact for the client. What is the so what for their business? This is the stuff that will get them leaning in, and so ensure your message is heard, remembered and passed on.
3. Context is everything
In the talk, Hasson explains an experiment where they told their subjects a J.D. Salinger story, where a husband is at a party and asks his best friend, ‘have you seen my wife?’ And then they watch the neural patterns of the subjects as they process the story. However, before being told the story, the subjects were split into two groups, both given a single piece of background context. For one group, they were told the wife was having an affair with the best friend. For the second group, they were told the wife is loyal, but the husband is very jealous.
Based purely on these single lines of context, the neural patterns of the two groups were dramatically different from one another. If the way you interpret information can be so clearly altered from one sentence, heard moments before the story, you can only imagine how separate groups within your audience will react differently to the same presentation. Whether that is different company departments; different levels of seniority; or different nationalities. They will all have separate contexts which will colour the story you are telling.
So, the final tip is to know who is in your audience. Who are they? What department are they from? What do they want to get out of the project or the presentation? Do they have any expectations from the project? Only by knowing the context behind the audience can you tailor your presentation to deliver maximum impact.
All of these tips have one thing in common, a desire to bring people’s thoughts and minds closer, to mentally couple with someone else. Jargon, lack of meaning, and multiple contexts can all hamper that coupling, and so limit the impact of your presentation. If you can remove as much of these barriers as possible, then you’re much more likely to get the reaction you want from the audience. Or as Hasson put it - “Our ability to communicate relies on our ability to have common ground.”