Understanding Your People’s Brains Can Make You a More Engaging Leader

Maybe this has happened to you. I was looking forward to hearing a presentation. Instead, it beat me up and stole my lunch.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” in Speech Form

This was a fancy-shmancy fundraising dinner in a packed ballroom. The main event was a keynote from a futurist. After hearing her introduction with lots of bona fides, we settled in for a stimulating and challenging talk.

Most of us stuck with her for the first 20 minutes. She had a wealth of ideas to share.

And then things started piling up. She read from a script because there was too much for her to remember, and she became a one-woman infodemic.

At the 45-minute mark, I noticed the man sitting across from me had closed his eyes and was drifting—if not outright asleep. The friend next to me developed a case of nervous leg syndrome. Soon I was stifling my own yawns.

The speaker received resounding applause when she finished at the one-hour mark. The reason for my clapping was a 50/50 split: interest in parts of what she said and relief it was over. I’ve never seen such a large room empty out so fast.

You can bet she was surrounded by people who told her how great she was. I’m guessing this was, in part, because she is very smart, and they didn’t want to look foolish.

What Her “Success” Teaches the Rest of Us

To be honest, this woman makes more money for a keynote than I likely ever will. I can’t rule out that there’s some jealousy in here. But the rest of us—who can’t use celebrity to cover any shortcomings as presenters—need to be better.

Here are my three takeaways on how to do that. You won’t be surprised they involve neuroscience.

The Rule of Three Know that people can only hold three ideas in their short-term memory.

The speaker covered everything from the implications of the one-child policy in China, to the merger of human beings and technology, to more interest in the metaphysical. The only idea I clearly remember is that all these Chinese boys will grow up without aunts, uncles and cousins.

When you give any kind of presentation, it should have three main topics, with three supporting points each. If you want us to remember your ideas, prioritize and pare them down.

The Rule of Seven Know that people can only listen to a talking head for seven minutes without taking a brain vacation.

The speaker could have asked us questions. Had us raise our hands in answer to these. Or had us imagine how our lives might look. Instead, she kept talking. And we struggled to stay with her.

To keep our audiences engaged, we need to involve them in what we’re saying. That means using ways to change the level of energy in the room at least every seven minutes.

The Rule of 20 Know that people can only hold 20 minutes’ worth of content in their short-term memories. After this, they’re maxed out.

The speaker could have focused on three main topics, for 20 minutes each. Then she could have asked us a few questions to help us personalize what we heard. Or even have us stand up and stretch. Her choice was to continue sharing more data until people started shutting down (like the snoozer at our table).

We need to give people a chance to absorb what we share: maybe talk back to us or with each other. The hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for short-term memory. I say, every 20 minutes, you need to let your audience take a hippocampus dump. That allows them to move things into their long-term memory and create more space in the short.

Make It about Your Audience

The 10,000-foot view question is, “Why am I speaking?”

If I were asked to answer that question after the speaker’s keynote, my response would have been, “To make the audience feel overwhelmed and fearful about the future.”

Chances are good, whatever your answer, it’s not to waste your and everyone else’s time. Speak to your audience—whether it’s through a formal presentation, a phone call, a virtual or in-person meeting—in a way their brains can process what you have to say.

Only after they understand, and care, can you expect them to take action.