Photo by Louis Hansel @shotsoflouis on Unsplash

Our brains are under pressure

Truth time: Over the past weeks as life has changed due to COVID-19, I have been taking way more afternoon naps than I ever have before. My dad used to call these “sinkers:” an inescapable slippery slope into slumber. Inevitable afternoon naps. They hit after a restless night or after a night of rock-like sleep–it doesn’t seem to matter. After some daytime hours, news scrolling, and new working patterns, my brain... Just. Can. Not. Stay. Awake. Anymore.

As I was contemplating this new pattern, I realized my brain...all of our brains...are going through a massive re-wiring, and we need extra resources to learn the new skills our environments are demanding of us.

New brain patterns for everyday activities

A couple of months ago, did you have to think very hard when you picked up food from the grocery store? Or about how to get to the meetings scheduled throughout the day? Or whether your loved ones were safe every day?

Perhaps we had put some effort into these activities, and certainly for the ones that were high-stakes, but I’m talking about the minimal effort required to accomplish mundane tasks.

These banal patterns suddenly need our full attention. How do I walk the 3’ store aisles and practice 6’ social distancing? Does everyone on my team know how to use the new online platform? Do I? What can I do to keep my precious elders and immuno-compromised friends safe?

Now, every event of normal life takes a new kind of thinking and a change to the past pattern. Even if we make a plan to navigate each task, it is uncertain if they can all be accomplished, which sets our brain working harder than normal yet again. Does my store have tp yet? Have I convinced my mom to stop meeting with her friends? If I go looking for a face mask will I find one?

How patterns are created in the brain.

Physical skills that are repeated over and over through time create neuron connections in our brain that get coated in a myelin sheath when they are re-activated. The more the skill is repeated, the thicker the sheath is, thus the faster and more efficiently we can perform the skill. You can see this in action in great artists and athletes who have spent years repeating actions that they now execute with ease.

The new patterns of every day living are requiring us to construct and use new neural pathways. We can’t rely on the well worn habits of daily life that we were experts in. We’re all reconstructing our brain patterns for how to navigate daily life.

Good news: our brains are becoming more flexible and resilient by doing new things and operating in new patterns. Who needs brain-strengthening sudoku when I have to figure out what to buy today in order to make dinner for 6 days from now? Why play memory brain games when I need to remember a growing list of people to check in on?

The effort of creating new patterns means less energy for other thoughts.

We are all on psychological overload right now. Perhaps this is manifesting itself for you with needing more sleep. Perhaps you can’t work as many hours as you used to. Perhaps co-workers are noticing that you’re not as quick on the uptake as you were a few weeks or months ago.

The mundane tasks of daily life have been a series of well-executed actions. Now, nearly all of those patterns have been disrupted. Each day we have a finite amount of time and energy, and with more of both going towards simple life navigation, there is less available energy available for hearing and comprehending each other’s new ideas.

All of this has a huge affect on our communications. As communication leaders, the content we present needs to match the absorption capacity of our community’s bandwidth. And it isn’t large this month.

If you want to be heard, and you want your message to stick, slow down and simplify.

Effective communication today = Simplicity

In current online meetings, if we have been allotted an hour to speak, it is our instinct to fill that hour with the highest density of facts and juiciest morsels of new information. Perhaps especially right now that is true since there is so much that we can’t do: shake hands, feel the vibe of a room, read whole body signals. We may have the urge to fill the space with more words and ideas.

Resist this urge.

Take a breath. Prepare your content beforehand, cut it down to smaller concepts, and add more stories and examples to help your audience internalize what you are giving them.

In these raw days of newly forming life patterns, you have a chance to make a memorable impression by deeply focusing on landing your message with your audience.

Five tools to simplify your communications

  1. Give the punch line first.

In Francis Frei’s brilliant 2018 talk, she points out that strong ideas can either lay out the reasoning first and build to the conclusion, or hit the idea first, then continue on with back up reasoning. She shows that you have a better chance of keeping your audience’s attention by hitting the big idea first.

2. Instead of more ideas, give us one good one.

Try on the TED mantra of “one idea worth spreading.” If it’s possible to simplify your presentation to one idea, you can make sure it hits home by giving us more examples, and telling supporting stories. Stories are shown to activate the entire brain, which results in better memory retention.

Also, this tact of centering on one idea and hitting it from different angles means that we get a small dose of dopamine in our brain when we recognize the pattern. “I’ve heard that before!” We leave feeling uplifted and remember the experience with you more fondly

3. Prepare before you speak.

One classic exercise to plan before you speak is to write out what you want the audience to think, feel, and do at the end of their time with you.

Also, make sure you understand your audience. What are they there for? What is a win for them? How can you solve problems or bring value to them?

4. Repetition.

Oldie but a goodie: “Tell them what you will tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them.”

5. Slow down.

Did you know that the perception of time is different between a speaker and the audience? Since the speaker is under some pressure, they tend to speak more quickly, pause less, and feel critical of their own moments of silence as they gather their thoughts. One rule of thumb is to give yourself 30% more time than you think is comfortable.

The other magic place to add time is to pause when you ask a question or ask for feedback. The audience’s brain is highly activated after you ask them a question, and let their own minds fill in the answers for themselves.

Speakership is Leadership.

Where do you want to lead your audience? You have something to say and you want to lead your audience to a place of calm where they can process, absorb, and remember what you are telling them.

Simplicity takes focus.

Focus takes time.

To make your messages effective and memorable, give yourself time to focus on what your audience needs.