Molecular biologist John Medina, speaker and author of the best-selling book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, didn't set out to become a media star. But he got so fed up with encountering myths about the brain - that you use only 10 percent of it, for example, or that there are right- and left- brain personalities - that he once threw a magazine across a seat on an airplane. (The flight, he notes, wasn't full.) "So I decided to write Brain Rules," Medina said, "as an attempt to say, ‘Look, here's what we do know, here's what we don't know, here are a few things you can try that might have an application in the business world - and the meetings world as well.'"
Not that Brain Rules will tell you how the brain operates. "We don't know squat about how the brain works," said Medina, who has focused on brain research for nearly three decades. He added: "I don't know how you know how to pick up a glass of water and drink it. But we do know the conditions that [the brain] operates best in, even if we don't know all the ins and outs of that operation."
Which of the 12 Brain Rules has the most impact on meetings?
Well, probably, the biggest one would have to be about attentional states. This rule is very simple: People don't pay attention to boring things. So if you really want to have a lousy meeting, make sure it's boring. If you want to have a lousy classroom, make sure it's boring. And if you want to vaccinate against the types of things that really do bore the mind, we have some understanding of that.
So how do you design a good meeting?
Here are the top three "brain gadgets" that probably have a bearing on the question. First, the human brain processes meaning before it processes detail. Many people, when they put meetings together, actually don't even think about the meaning of what it is they're saying. They just go right to the detail. If you go to the detail, you've got yourself a bored audience. Congratulations.
Second, in terms of attentional states, we're not sure if this is brain science or not, but certainly in the behavioral literature, you've got 10 minutes with an audience before you will absolutely bore them. And you've got 30 seconds before they start asking the question, "Am I going to pay attention to you or not?" The instant you open your mouth, you are on the verge of having your audience check out. And since most people have been in meetings - 90 percent of which have bored them silly - they already have an immune response against you, particularly if you've got a PowerPoint slide up there.
How do you then hold attention?
This is what you have to do in 10 minutes. You have to pulse what I just said - the meaning before detail - into it. I call it a hook. At nine minutes and 59 seconds, you've got to give your audience a break from what it is that you've been saying and pulse to them once again the meaning of what you're saying.
What is the third "brain gadget"?
The brain cycles through six questions very, very quickly. Question No. 1 is "Will it eat me?" We pay tons of attention to threat. The second question is "Can I eat it?" I don't know if you have ever watched a cooking show and have loved what they are cooking, but you pay tons of attention if you think there's going to be an energy resource. Question No. 3 is highly Darwinian. The whole reason why you want to live in the first place is to project your genes to the next generation - that means sex. So Question No. 3 is "Can I mate with it?" And Question No. 4 is "Will it mate with me?"
It turns out we pay tons of attention to - it actually isn't sex per se, it's reproductive opportunity. [It is also] hooked up to the pleasure centers of your brain - the exact same centers you use when you laugh at something. Oddly enough, I think that's one of the reasons why humor can work. If you can pop a joke or at least tell an interesting story, it's actually inciting those areas of the brain that are otherwise devoted to sex. You don't become aroused by listening to a joke. I'm saying those areas of the brain can be co-opted. You can utilize them, and a good speaker knows how to do that.
What are Questions 5 and 6?
"Have I seen it before?" and "Have I never seen it before?" We are terrific pattern matchers. There is an element of surprise that comes when patterns don't match, but the reason why that happens is because we are trying to match patterns all the time.
Is there a Brain Rule that addresses whether you should try to control the use of laptops and phones during a meeting session?
I have this rule response, based on data, and then I have a visceral response, also based on data. In other words, I'm about ready to tell you a contradiction. Are you ready?
Yes, I am.
Alrighty. I do believe what you can show is that there are attentional blinks. The brain actually is a beautiful multitasker, but the attentional spotlight, which you use to pay attention to things, [is not]. You can't listen to a speaker and type what they are saying at the same time.
What you can show in the laboratory is that you get staccato-like attentional blinks. Just like you come up for air: You look at the speaker, then when you're writing, you cannot hear what the speaker is saying. Then you come up for air and hear the speaker again. So you're flipping back and forth between those two, and your ability to be engaged to hear what a speaker is saying is necessarily fragmented.
At the same time, if your speaker is boring, you could have checked out anyway. So you see, in many ways it depends upon the speaker.
If the speaker is really compelling and is clear and is emotion- ally competent, and has gone through those six questions, letting you come up for air every 10 minutes, I've actually watched audiences put their laptops away just to pay attention.
I have a style that is purposely a little speedier. And the rea- son why is that it produces a tension that says, "I need to pay attention closely to him or I'm going to lose what he's saying." I don't make it so fast that it's unintelligible - at least I hope I don't. But I do make it fast, and occasionally I see comments that say, "Great speaker, but you know, you were too freaking fast."
This interview originally appeared in the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) magazine Convene.