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Three things a skeptic should know about neuroscience

Three things a skeptic should know about neuroscience

Below is the reaction between octane and oxygen that takes place in the internal combustion engine.  Will that help you repair a car?  Will it help you win a Grand Prix?  Perhaps not. Systems can be analyzed a number of levels from the quantum to the cosmic.  Does knowing that your cortisol is elevated help you deal with stress?  Does knowing your amygdala is activated when afraid make it easier to cope? Does knowing the “love hormone,” called oxytocin, exists make you a nicer person?

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    Reading today’s neurohype, you might conclude that the true path to a great life is a course in neuroanatomy, or biochemistry.  And unlike much pop leadership pseudo-science, lots of what is written in the neuroscience world is reasonably accurate scientifically.  But although “true,” is it really useful?

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    Among all the ten syllable words and grandiose promises, some neuroscience is very useful. Below are three simple things I think business people should know that derive their validity from findings in neuroscience.

    1. Mindfulness rocks

    Mindfulness conjures up images of saffron robes, or new-age hippiedom. Yet, in the world of self-help aphorisms, and things gurus advise, mindfulness stands way, way above the crowd.  In contrast with its woo-woo image, there is more hard scientific evidence for its effectiveness than just about anything else in the self-help world.  

    What do I mean by effectiveness? It has been shown to improve depression, ADD, anxiety, and stress.  But maybe you are not mentally ill, so what does it do for healthy people?  It improves attention, focus, and emotion control.  More abstractly, mindfulness strengthens our metacognitive, or executive functions.  It makes you much better at observing yourself in action, and much better at self-correcting deficits in thinking, feeling and acting.

    We are all mindful some of the time.  Recall those moments of maximum clarity, focus and engagement.  If you are like me, borderline ADD, those moments are too few, rare even.

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    My brain needs training and that training is meditation.  Meditation is to mindfulness as practicing free-throws is to basketball.  To return from distraction, lack of focus, and not being present, first you have to notice, then you have to come back.  If you are like me, however, you can spend an entire morning distracted.  The faster I notice, the faster I can return to my zen-like focus and being present.  Sure, it will quickly disappear: “I wonder what is happening on Facebook.” But because I’ve practiced my free throws, I might notice more quickly, and come back more quickly.  Or, perhaps not even go there.

    Wise leaders cultivate perspective, can handle stress, react less and create more, and are generally in control of their moods.  People have often said that when you talked to Nelson Mandela, so great was his focus and attention on the moment that it felt as if you were the only person in the room.  That kind of presence is part of the mindfulness package.

    If you worry that it will take 10 years of an hour a day to “get there,” think again.  In a recent study, some mood management and focus benefits were realized after just 5 days of 20 minutes of meditation per day.

    Back in the day, we used to have smoke breaks.  Perhaps, in the 21st Century, it will become commonplace for people in workplaces to say “I’m just gonna go sit for ten minutes.”  Some companies are taking it seriously: Google runs a program, called Search Inside Yourself, that has mindfulness at its core.  It has been a small part of the dozens of leadership programs I’ve run during the last decade, most of which have been for very senior investment bankers, but based on current research, I’m giving serious thought to making it more central, perhaps even the core of the leadership work I do.

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    2. Inauthenticity stinks

    Ever listen to someone saying something enthusiastic or positive, and it just feels wrong? While we are listening to words, our brain is processing micro gestures, posture, tone, inflection, cadence and other non-verbal cues.  We now know of a structure called mirror neurons that fire in synchrony when people do things as if we were doing them ourselves.  That means that humans understand each other and relate at a deeper level than just information (word) processing.

    To communicate powerfully, to inspire and persuade, all of that must be aligned. That means you have to believe, at the deepest possible level, all you are saying. Pretending (that you are excited when dejected, or confident when afraid) works poorly. To boot, it can be hard work, under pressure, to keep the game face on.

    This finding speaks strongly to another leadership buzzword: authenticity. Although the word is misunderstood and overused, there is fundamental truth at the heart of it.  Inauthenticity smells, and the leader needs to do the internal work to align thoughts, feelings, and actions to produce an authentic presence.

    3. A tip and a tool to make you smarter

    The human brain is superb at processing, but poor at juggling numerous items in “working memory.” The more juggling you do, the less present, focused, attentive and sharp you will be when you need to be. Working memory can get clogged by to-do lists, calls, worries, and creative ideas. Tip: create the practice (or habit) of clearing out working memory and dumping all that into a safe place. Just doing this “mindsweep” thoroughly once a week can yield improvements in concentration and clarity of thought.

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    We call this “distributed cognition” and in today’s distraction-fest world, having tools at your disposal that enhance cognitive function, in this case easing the strains on working memory, is critical.

    There are two information-overload problems solved by one incredibly powerful free app: Evernote.   The first problem Evernote solves is multiple information sources: meetings, phone calls, websites, email, post-its, voice-mail, and social media.  You want an app that with one-click will save and intuitively categorize it all in a snap no matter what it is.  One click, wherever you are and it is saved, and indexed. Onto the next one.

    The second problem is that we cannot afford multiple storage systems.  If you make a note on your tablet, you don’t want to go hunting for it a few hours later when you are in a cab with just your phone.  Evernote syncs your “dumps” and all those other inputs across tablet, PC, laptop and smart phone instantly. You now can safely park that great new product idea, knowing it won’t be forgotten, and attend 100% to the moment.  You can insta-clip that website you bumped into (when you ought to be doing something else) and get back to what you were doing.

    Neuroscience is in its infancy, but a deeper understanding of the brain can help leaders in daily situations such as these without having to learn arcane neurotransmitters and the names of cortical structures.  These are just a few examples, so I am curious what students of Neuroscience and behavior would add to this list and what managers make of the usefulness of these concepts. Let us know in the comments!

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    Last Updated on February 11, 2021

    10 Secrets of Making Every Presentation Fun, Engaging, and Enjoyable

    10 Secrets of Making Every Presentation Fun, Engaging, and Enjoyable

    Not a lot of people are good at public speaking. You could even say that virtually everyone needs to get some practice, and preferably good guidance, before they can learn to stay calm when facing a room full of people. Having all eyes on you is an uncomfortable experience and it takes time to get used to. However, even if you can manage to control your stage fright and stay focused, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your presentation won’t put people to sleep. This is usually the case with long presentations on a very dull subject, with the presenter speaking in a monotone voice and dimming the lights to play a PowerPoint presentation.

    You have to work hard to develop the right skills

    If you want to be remembered and actually get people engaged, you need to make your presentation fun and enjoyable, without coming off as corny or desperate to please. I know, it doesn’t sound that easy at all! A good presentation during a promotional event or given to an important client can be a game changer for your business, so it is easy to get stressed out and fail to perform all that well. Luckily, giving an interesting lecture is something that can be practiced and perfected. There is plenty of advice out there on the topic, but let’s look at the most important aspects of giving a memorable and fun presentation.

    1. Make your presentation short and sweet

    With very long, meandering speeches you tend to lose the audience pretty early on, and from then on out it’s just a test of endurance for the few bravest listeners. Not only will people’s attention start to drop rapidly after sitting and listening to you talk for 30 minutes, but you also risk watering down your core ideas and leaving your audience with little in the way of key phrases and important bits of information to take away from the whole ordeal. Famous speakers throughout history have known the importance of condensing the information by using well thought out sentences and short phrases loaded with meaning.

    JFK’s famous: ”It’s not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” expresses so much in very few words and gets the audience thinking. Ancient Spartans, for example were famous for their quick, dry wit, often demolishing their opponent’s argument with a single word or phrase. You’ll want to channel that ancient spirit and be as concise as possible when preparing your presentation.

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    2. Open up with a good ice breaker

    At the beginning, you are new to the audience. There is no rapport, no trust and the atmosphere is fairly neutral. Even if some of the people there know you personally, the concept of you as an authority on a particular matter giving a speech will be foreign to them. The best way to encourage a warm and friendly atmosphere is to get some kind of emotional response out of the audience right at the beginning. It doesn’t matter what emotion it is, you just need to connect with them on a more personal level. It can be shock, curiosity, laughter, knowing smirks, nervousness – whatever gets them out of that initial feeling of indifference. There are different kinds of effective ice-breakers, but generally speaking, the most successful ones utilize one of these tactics:

    • Joking
    • Tugging on their heart strings
    • Dropping a bombastic statement
    • Telling an interesting and relevant anecdote
    • Using a metaphor or drawing comparisons

    You can make a small, self-deprecating comment, stir the presentation one way and then suddenly surprise the audience, use sarcasm, open up with a short childhood story that taught you a lesson, quote a famous person and elaborate on it from personal experience, use an inspirational anecdote or hit them with a bit of nostalgia. Just remember to keep it short and move on once you’ve gotten a reaction.

    3. Keep things simple and to the point

    Once you’re done warming up the crowd you can ease them into the core concepts and important ideas that you will be presenting. Keep the same presentation style thoughout. If you’ve started off a bit ironic, using dry wit, you can’t just jump into a boring monologue. If you’ve started off with a bang, telling a couple of great little jokes and getting the crowd riled up, you have to keep them happy by throwing in little jokes here and there and being generally positive and energetic during the presentation. You need a certain structure that you won’t deviate too far from at any point. A good game plan consists of several important points that need to be addressed efficiently. This means moving on from one point to another in a logical manner, coming to a sound conclusion and making sure to accentuate the key information.

    4. Use a healthy dose of humor

    Some of the best speeches and presentations in the world, which have been heard and viewed by millions, all feature plenty of humor. No matter the subject, a great speaker will use natural charisma, humor and beautiful language to convey their points and get the crowd excited about what they are saying. A great example of building rapport with the audience through the use of humor is Barrack Obama talking about the government building Iron Man.

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    It is silly and fun, and absolutely not something that you would expect from a man in a position of power speaking in such a serious setting – and it’s exactly why it works. The more serious the situation and the bigger the accent on proper social behavior, the harder your jokes will hit.

    5. Try to tell a story instead of ranting

    Some people can do all of the above things right and still manage to turn their short and fun little presentation into a chaotic mess of information. You don’t want your speech to look like you just threw a bunch of information in a blender in no particular order. To avoid rambling, create a strong structure. Start with the ice breaker, introduce the core concepts and your goals briefly, elaborate on the various points in a bit more detail, draw logical conclusions and leave your audience with a clear takeaway message. You want to flow naturally from one part to the next like you are telling a big story chapter by chapter.

    6. Practice your delivery

    Standing in front of the mirror and practicing a speech or presentation is a technique as old as mirrors – well, come to think of it, as old as human speech, since you can see yourself reflected in any clear and calm body of water – and that means that it is tried and true. The theory is incredibly simple, yet the real problem is actually putting in the effort day in and day out. Work on your posture, your tone of voice, accent, pauses between sentences and facial expressions. The most important thing is to talk slowly and loudly enough to be heard and understood clearly. Many famous speakers, such as Demosthenes and King George VI, overcame speech impediments through hard work.

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    7. Move around and use your hands

    Although you won’t instill confidence in your project if you are very jittery, moving around erratically, not knowing what to do with your hands and making fast movements, standing dead still can be just as bad. You shouldn’t be afraid to use your arms and hands when talking as it makes you seem more passionate and confident. The same goes for moving around and taking up some space. However, try to make slower, calculated and deliberate movements. You want your movements to seem powerful, yet effortless. You can achieve this through practice.

    8. Engage the audience by making them relate

    Sometimes you will lose the audience somewhat in techno-babble, numbers, graphs and abstract ideas. At that point it is important to reel them back in using some good, old-fashioned storytelling. Make comparisons to events from everyday life that most people are more than familiar with. By making things look simple, not only will you help your audience get a better understanding of the subject by enabling them to visualize the information more clearly, you will also draw a connection between you. After all, you are all just regular people with similar experience, you just happen to be performing different roles at the moment.

    9. Use funny images in your slides

    Although slides are not really necessary at all times, if you do need them to make your point and present your information more effectively, it’s best to liven them up. They say that facts aren’t always black and white, and your presentation should reflect this. Add a bit of color, make the information stand out and use an interesting animation to switch from slide to slide. You can use the slides to add some more humor, both in terms of the text and the images. An image that is used to elicit a positive response needs to be funny within the context of what you are discussing. For example, if you are discussing the topic of authority, an image of Eric Cartman from South Park in a police uniform, demanding that you respect his “authoritah,” is a nice way to have a bit of fun and lighten things up.

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    10. End on a more serious note

    When all is said and done you will want the audience to remember the core concepts and keep thinking about what you have said after the presentation is over. This is why you should let things naturally calm down and end with an important idea, quote or even a question. Plant a seed in their mind and make them think. Let us turn to Patrick Henry for a great way to end a speech: “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.”

    As you can see, there is quite a bit to learn when it comes to giving a good presentation, one that is both memorable and fun. Be sure to work on your skills tirelessly and follow in the footsteps of great orators.

    Featured photo credit: Austin Distel via unsplash.com

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