Communication matters. When communication breaks down, marriages, parent-child relationships, and friendships can fall apart. And at an organization level, without effective communication, leaders can't lead, products don't sell, and cherished projects don't get funded.

Which presents a paradox: if it's that important, why does most communication fail? And fail it does...

If you look at two foundational places where you need to get communication right—Sales/Marketing messaging, and leadership communication—the level of effectiveness is strikingly low.

In our ongoing survey of sales organizations, we ask two questions:

  1. "On a scale of 1-10 (10 = stupendous) how good is the core solution you offer your marketplace?" Across several hundred companies, the average response is an 8.1—pretty high, but perfectly reasonable given how good these companies' solutions generally are. Which makes the responses to the second question so baffling...
  2. "On the same scale, how well do you tell the story of that solution?" And guess what? The number plummets to a measly 3.9. When you think about how hard it has become to get face-time with key customers, delivering a 3.9/10 message is little short of heartbreaking.

It's the same story with leadership communication. When we ask people how effective are the typical presentations they sit through, only around 25% are evaluated as good or better. A full 75% are mediocre or worse, with a pretty significant 25% being bad enough to be almost rage-inducing. We've all been in that meeting where a great idea died in the loving arms of 68 dense PowerPoint slides.

What's going on?

So, what is the problem? It's surprising for organizations to be so bad at something so important. What is going on here?

The answer is simple, profound, and utterly transformative: It's all about the brain.

The human brain is wired is very particular ways regarding how it wants and needs to consume information. When you understand and align with how the brain consumes information, breakthrough effectiveness is possible. But when you violate how the brain works, failure is biologically guaranteed.

And here's the kicker: Most communication thoroughly violates the way the brain works, which is why it fails.

Here's an example

We have a client in the electrical industry that sells a technical solution to power utilities. The client's historical approach was the fairly standard deck of 60 PowerPoint slides: dense, detailed, unclear structure, and entirely based on the rational appeal of fact, data, and specifications.

That message had a conversion rate of around 15%. And though not horrible, it was far short of what should have been possible, because this solution transforms grid reliability. When the power goes out at your home, it's because something like a branch or a squirrel has fallen on the line and blown the fuse on the power pole. But guess what? Seven out of ten times, the fuse didn't need to blow, because that electrical fault was temporary: The tree branch or the (now fried) squirrel falls off, and our client's solution knows the difference. It can spot a temporary fault, and not blow. (It's called TripSaver II, and it's amazing.)

After reworking the message in a way that would align with the customers' brain, the conversion rate jumped to... 94%. An unusually good result, but not as unusual as you might think. Pretty dramatic results are the norm with brain-aligned communication.

So... what changed?

Let's go back to the brain. There are six possible ways that communication can violate how the brain works, all of them serious. Let me briefly discuss three.


First, and most important, is this: The human brain operates at the level of ideas. It does not operate well at the level of data. Put another way, the human brain is reductionist: It reduces communication to a small set of ideas that it can then store.

For example: finish this sentence: "If the glove doesn't fit..."

You probably did so effortlessly, which is remarkable, given that the O.J. Simpson trial concluded in 1994, over 20 years ago! That is incredible. Though the phrase has been floating around in popular culture since then, the fact you could instantly retrieve it is amazing testimony to the stickiness of an idea.

Next time you are in a presentation, if someone later asks you "what was that all about?"—note what happens. You won't recount facts and data. You will automatically and without thinking reduce it to a few ideas: "Oh, it was this and this." Ideas.

Which makes the typical communication particularly toxic. Rather than ideas, we bombard people with data and fact, believing that if we prove our case by covering all our bases, we're guaranteed to succeed. No: we're guaranteed to fail, because the brain doesn't work that way.

Communication needs to be about big ideas. Name them, organize around them, and prove them with the best data you have, not the most data you can... Guess what: The TripSaver pitch is three simple ideas. They fit on two pages.


The second brain violation in most communication is easy to recognize. Have you ever been introduced to someone—let's call him "Phil"—and then immediately forgotten his name? This frustrating moment is a wonderful window into the brain. The brain stores information contextually. When the brain is presented with new information, it can be stored if the brain can find context for it. But without context, it can't be stored. The lack of context is why you forget new names. They are "intellectual orphans."

Which presents a vital lesson to communicators. When you present "five reasons to buy the T1000"—but there's no logical narrative to the list—it's simply "Phil Phil Phil Phil Phil... and guaranteed forgettable. (Which is why only 15-20% of typical PowerPoint presentations' content is retained after just a few hours.)

How do you fix it? You have to string the five things together into a logical, coherent story. It's not that hard, but we don't know that we need to do it, and lists are simpler to build than stories. But when you have the right understanding and the right tools, it's easy. With TripSaver, the three ideas form one simple story: It's not "Phil... Phil... Phil"; it's more "Mary... Tyler... Moore."


The third brain violation lies in the answer to the question, Why are songs so memorable in a way that poetry is not? This is an oversimplification, but it's because the brain stores the song in two places. The lyrics are in the left brain, and the melody is in the right brain. And the reason songs are memorable is because the brain has two places to go to retrieve them, as opposed to only one place for the poem.

Most presentations simply don't light up enough of the brain, which makes them as forgettable as poetry.

How do we solve that problem? Take your big ideas and intentionally plant them in more than one place in the brain, usually by means of visuals or stories.

Let's go back to TripSaver II for an example of how that might work: If I make the point that 70% of faults on a power line are transient, you "get" that data intellectually (left brain); but if, as we did, I show the squirrel running on the line, you can now visualize the data. And because the idea is now planted in two places... the idea now sticks.

* * *

When you understand the way the brain deals with information, and create communication that aligns with that, breakthrough effectiveness becomes within reach. You just need to be "brain-aligned." Embrace the squirrel: That's the big idea.

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Embrace the Squirrel: How to Achieve Genuine Breakthroughs in Your Communications Effectiveness

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image of Tim Pollard

Tim Pollard is the author of The Compelling Communicator: Mastering the Art and Science of Exceptional Presentation Design (Conder House Press, 2016). He is the founder and CEO of Oratium, a communications firm helping organizations hone their presentation and messaging skills.

LinkedIn: Tim Pollard