Leadership, Neuroscience and Presentation
Copyright: Steve Whiteford 2012
What is old is new. We keep finding out that simple things we’ve known for years, things like eating a balanced meal with fresh vegetables and home-grown food, are really good for you.
Recently I’ve been excited to see how advances of neuroscience are substantiating practices I’ve taught for years, promoting them as strongly valid methods for self- management, behavioral change, interpersonal savvy and keys to effective leadership. I noticed how what was old was new when Emotional Intelligence took the spotlight – and I realized how much of what I taught in presentation and communication workshops was being legitimized by the measures of emotional intelligence, and neuroscience. In fact in one of his books Emotional Intelligence Guru Daniel Goleman noted that the retention and improvement level for presentation skills training (after one week) was 37%, in contrast to other communication training that yielded 10%. I attribute this advantage to the on-your-feet practice that presentation skills requires. Body based learning is consistently stronger than purely cognitive learning.
A fun principle of neuroscience is that awareness of how you’re using brain regions to learn, enhances the process! Understanding the mechanics makes the new circuits stronger. If you know which parts of the brain you’re connecting and can visualize or imagine the process of building the new neural channels, those channels are cut deeper.
Let’s start by taking a look at one model that describes Powers of Leadership –
A classic breakdown of leadership powers includes Position Power, Expertise Power, Information Power, Communication Power, Relationship Power – and I add Resilience. I have seen many versions of this model, with different but similar titles for the powers. The model can easily be shown with descriptors to fit specific cultures and their behavioral values, but most labels used to describe the powers reflect these original titles. Using such a model is a good way to define leadership in your culture, while also providing tangible examples of effective behaviors with sensible practices to ensure learning and demonstration of the desirable behaviors.
You could say Position Power is a “no brainer.” You either have it or you don’t. The catch is, if it’s all you’re using you won’t nave it for very long. We can liken this executive power to the executive region of the brain; the frontal cortex. Though often a little lazy in relation to its older, front line partner – the limbic system – the frontal cortex, particularly the left prefrontal cortex (for right handed people) has decision power over other sectors of the brain.
Expertise Power is enhanced by staying current in skill and knowledge of a particular discipline, and also by keeping expertise visible. You might say expertise is enhanced by consistent learning, and continuous improvement coupled with a practice of show it, use it, or lose it.
Information Power is thought to be the ability to acquire and skillfully use organizational information. Structures of the brain, particularly the limbic system and the pre-frontal cortex work together to acquire and distribute information. The brain is truly an information machine with all of its parts acquiring, interpreting and distributing information from the internal and external world. Just as in the brain, delivering and using the right information at the right time is a characteristic of effective functioning of this power.
The remaining three powers; Communication, Relationship and Resilience, tie together strongly in their expression and through the practices that fine tune them. They are essential for high performance expression of the first three powers.
It makes sense that Goleman cited Presentation Skills training as highly effective. Much of what we learn in the process of a good presentation workshop addresses the sustaining powers of Communication, Relationship and Resilience. Perhaps the most pivotal of all the powers listed is Communication.
These components of Leadership Communication: Vision, Referent Power, Command and Positive Resonance, Authenticity, Listening and Empathy, and Facilitation are all vital skills of presentation tap into particular circuitry described by neuroscience. These skills not only strongly influence our own minds and behaviors but certainly those of the people we lead.
When we talk about communication and presentation skills we are talking about primary behaviors. Foundational behaviors that prime ourselves and others. In particular – having a clear Vision is known to be a powerful motivator. Communicating with vision is a way to prime minds to expect and create a desired outcome.
The brain automatically responds to Referent Power. The limbic system functions strongly through the assumption that the way something appears is what it is. Many an election was won by the most attractive or presidential looking candidate.
A Commanding Presence and communication style is also strongly associated with leadership and increases the opportunity for a leader to take advantage of another neural reality by infusing the environment with Positive Resonance. We’ve all experienced “catching” a leader’s energy and enthusiasm.
Authenticity is an aspect of communication and being that promotes trust. Both Presidents Reagan and Clinton were cited by an article in the Harvard Business Review to have led with this talent. They each demonstrated an ability to Facilitate the concerns of the citizens while truly Listening; demonstrating that they understood and Empathized with them.
It’s interesting that all of these skills and qualities of leadership are put to use in the construction and delivery of an excellent presentation. And a well-constructed presentation skills workshop teaches these skills.
Presentation training is often diminished by being positioned last minute fix, an
necessary evil instead of a powerful learning methodology. Let’s also consider how Presentation (communication) training can not only affect, but also define an organization’s culture.
Primates form societies and cultures. As with other living creatures, this social ability is integral to how humans survive and thrive. In fact the unique feature of a large neo- cortex is said to have developed to ensure our survival on a social level. The more cohesive the society, the better its members thrive. The neo-cortex provides the circuitry that enables us to command the older instinctual parts of the brain for increased social capacity.
Culture can be described as a collection of behavioral agreements, both implicit and explicit. Generally, they are absorbed by living in the society; they are actively taught, and consistently demonstrated. The demonstrated agreements often become rituals and taboos within the culture. Rituals are repeated behaviors (like celebrating Thanksgiving) that in some way help maintain the culture and its values. Taboos are behaviors that contradict the culture’s beliefs, values and behavioral agreements. Violating taboos can result in expulsion from the society or even death.
Take a moment to answer these questions about your organization:
- How would you describe your organizational culture?
- What would you consider its rituals and taboos?
- What are the common and accepted presentation/communication behaviors in your culture?
- How would you imagine your current presentation norms help determine your culture?
- Do they support the mission or vision of the culture?
- How might tying presentation/communication behaviors to your organization’s values and vision strengthen their expression within your culture?
Let’s take a look at why Presentation skills can be a primal cultural training – and how “what is primal, is powerful.”
Adopting a culturally specific and clearly defined approach to Presentation can be the first step of training for your corporate culture, communication and leadership practices.
Primal Communication Skills: posture, body-language, movement, eye communication, vocal tone and diction, listening, verbal skills, facilitating – are sometimes dismissed as primary school; “charm-school” for business people. Yet in the most successful ancient civilizations these skills were considered integral to high intelligence, good health and proper socialization. They were taught as part of primary (essential) education. Consider ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, China, etc. Today, neuroscience substantiates the ways in which these basic skills have a powerful effect within an individual and a culture.
Self-awareness is established in the learning process – in becoming conscious of what we sense and what we know and don’t know – and maintaining that awareness through the steps of learning. As a by-product, self-awareness increases other awareness and thereby improves empathy (the basis of social/interpersonal skills.) Psychologists call this effect “theory of mind.” Self-awareness is core to self-management and self-directed growth (continuous improvement). It’s the foundation of Emotional Intelligence.
When we have an Intention and mindfully follow through, we create the habit of keeping our word and achieving our goals. We lay down specific neural paths that strengthen integrity and the increase probability of success.
When I studied with Gay and Katherine Hendricks, they showed how the simple exercise of stating, “I’m going to place this pencil on that table,” and then repeatedly making the declaration and performing the action built the psychological pattern and self-concept of integrity – the experience of I do what I say. Recent studies of neuroscience have proven their exercise to be scientifically valid.
Stealth Learning is when many learning opportunities are imbedded in a single learning project. This clearly applies to presentation skills training. Although the definition of stealth learning includes the idea that some learning may happen sub-consciously, neuroscience reminds us that being aware of the process yields deeper learning.
Approaching presentation as a set of foundational skills delivers strong learning in communication, leadership, interpersonal skills, and social and emotional intelligence.
The learning is especially strong because it produces immediate, observable change (reinforced by acknowledgment from the instructor, other participants and video recordings). It is practical, repeatable, and useful on a daily basis. It is also self- reinforcing through the brain circuit changing properties of body-mind integration, social interaction and real-time feedback.
Mirror neurons are neurons throughout the brain designed to enhance social connection and learning by prompting us to mimic the actions and mental states we observe in others. (The 100th monkey – “Monkey See Monkey Do”).
Consider the environmental impact of people practicing the mental/emotional/ physical habits of good communication!
Now that we have a conceptual foundation, I want to get a little more specific about the neuroscience of how some practices taught to increase presentation skills are validated by neuroscience. We’ll consider them by brain region.
I find it interesting that in a time when it seems everybody’s next door neighbor could be the next winner of America’s Got Talent, and many young people blatantly perform on personal videos sent by cell phone – the no. 1 fear in the US still tests out to be public speaking! So – let’s talk about one of the areas of the brain involved in the presiding result of #1 fear, and look at how some tried and true practices can impact both it and the functions of the brain….
- the amygdale (there are two, one on each side),
- the hippocampus (memory),
- the basal ganglia (pattern recognition and formation, reward),
- and the hypothalamus (regulates sex drive, hunger, and manufactures the feel-good chemical oxytocin).
The amygdala is a portion of the brain that regulates emotional response, particularly fear. It is one of the most active parts of the brain and may have the most connections of any brain part to other areas of the brain – because its function is vital to our survival. It scans the environment for threat and preps us for action by producing the chemistry of fear. It also notices other things that might suggest threat – like novelty. Its response is swift and automatic.
For reasons of both nature and nurture, some people’s behavior is more amygdala driven than others. However it’s highly active in every human brain. It urges us to instant conclusions and seeks to close the gap of uncertainty. Most humans would opt for physical pain over suffering the fear induced pain of uncertainty. Daniel Goleman coined the term “amygdala hijack “for those times our thoughts and actions are driven by fear.
This helps explain why Presentation (Public Speaking) can maintain its rank as the #1 fear. Some people rank “death” #2 after public speaking! We are confronted with many unknowns when we stand up to speak in front of a group. Uncertainty! If we have had any embarrassing experiences when speaking in the past, other parts of the limbic system will call them to mind to warn us of the impending danger.
The Pre-frontal Cortex (PFC) is considered to be the executive center of the brain; the decision maker. It has the capacity to override the perceptions and impulses sent by the limbic system. The cortex is the most recently evolved part of the brain and regulates thought and action in a manner that can be characterized as a “higher self.” It enables social consideration for the “greater good” over personal survival.
The blue double-arrow in the illustration above represents the vital connection for balanced and effective thought and action; strong circuitry from the PFC to the amygdala.
Calming our fear impulses is most effectively done by connection / interaction of the amygdala with the pre-frontal cortex. When mindfully engaged, the PFC evaluates the emotional impulses from the limbic system and provides options and direction.
The left-prefrontal cortex (LPFC) is the highly rational center of the brain. With it we can observe our own impulses and thoughts and make assessments and decisions about them. It is associated with working memory, positive emotions, logic, verbal and math skills. Executives who are good leaders function as the LPFC in their organization – an LPFC with strong connections throughout the brain and the body’s nervous system.
The right pre-frontal cortex is also capable of calming limbic impulses with visual or sensory information. It is the emotional lobe of the cortex. It adds meaning to facts. It is the seat of non-verbal skills and is associated with creativity and artistry.
There is also the Medial Pre-frontal Cortex, which is associated with integration of information but also rumination, and discursive thinking – the story behind impressions or thoughts. It is our mental chatterbox where we can get stuck in looped thought patterns of fear and worry. Noticing we’re stuck in an MPFC loop and using the skills of the right or left PFC to get out of it helps us focus back to the present and get on with our life.
Here are a few practices that both use and affect the neural connections of the brain:
The simple act of breathing deeply – Diaphragmatic Breathing – helps calm a fear response and bring us back to the present. Fear naturally produces a tightening and acceleration of the breath in preparation to flee, or holding of the breath to freeze and hide. (If the beast can’t hear you breathing it may not be able to find you as easily in the of the dark woods….) Breathing deeply relaxes the response and fuels the brain.
Humming lightly (as a vocal warm-up) using that diaphragmatic breath to support the sound, relaxes and prepares the vocal chords. It also focuses vibration on the front/center of your face integrating the activity of the right and left PFCs – which delivers a calming, mind-clearing effect.
Postural Loop and facial loop – uses the fact that the limbic brain reacts to and reinforces what we do with our body and facial muscles; we can produce change from the outside-in. When we smile we feel happier. (and also lower our pulse rate). When we stand strong and tall we feel confident and look like a leader.
Even Charlie Brown knew about this! In an early comic strip, he teaches Lucy if you want to get any power out of being depressed, you have to stand with slumped poster, head bent forward. He expertly demonstrates postural loop.
Simple behavioral, physical choices affect how you feel, how others see you, and by hijacking their mirror neurons – how others act, look and feel! (“Entrainment” or “monkey See – Monkey Do.”)
When you discover your behavior is being controlled by an amygdala response, or you catch yourself in a Medial PFC loop, you can also regain balance by doing a quick Shifting process:
#1. Identify the feeling being produced. (i.e. Fear) and label it.
#2. Then accept it – notice the sensations it produces in your body and breathe into them.
Make it OK you’re feeling the way you are. (A big emotional obstacle is “second suffering” beating ourselves up for how we feel. Emotions are valuable information, sometimes about us, sometimes about the situation.) Breathe out and release the sensations and the emotion.
#2. Determine what quality or emotion would work better. (i.e. courage, or confidence)
#3. Depending on whether you prefer; a. visual, b. auditory or c. kinesthetic learning:
- Visual – use your RPFC to visualize a representation of the needed quality (i.e.- courage / some people picture a lion),
- Auditory – use your LPFC to verbalize a very short positive and logical statement (i.e. – “I can do this!”)
- Kinesthetic – use postural/facial echo by smiling and standing tall and strong or remember how you felt when you were courageous in a specific
There are other similar methods of shifting negative feeling/thinking. They all involve using LPFC or RPFC to interrupt and redirect your current state. When in meetings or presentations you can also shift focus by really seeing and listening to audience members or simply doing something “real” like noticing the temperature, the space in the room, or the texture of an object. Use your senses to get the focus off yourself and on the world around you.
The more you apply any technique the stronger it becomes and the easier it becomes for you to shift your state. You create optional circuitry that is instantaneously available by simply making the choice. But first you need to do a Cognitive Catch by noticing what your emotions and thinking are up to. What story are you running with? Is it verbal, kinesthetic or visual? You can change it! Our thoughts are often not truly reality based, they’re running on old circuitry. Being in the moment with the ability to shelve faulty judgment enhances all our capabilities.
Also, consider checking into what you’re feeling at the beginning of every meeting. Identify the feeling. Accept it. (Which doesn’t necessarily mean express it!) Notice the sensations of the emotion in your body. Take a deep breath and release the feeling on the outbreath. Focus on something tangible to increase your sense of being open and present – make eye contact with people around the room, feel the weight of your body in your seat, develop a sense of space in the room, feel the texture of the table, etc. One simple action will do. Open and connect with the present moment. Extend that openness to the situation. You’ve just increased your leadership ability 100%.
Feelings and limbic impulses are not all bad! They developed for a reason and to some degree have modified for modern life. Like thoughts, feelings are important information about yourself or about the external world. It’s difficult to separate feelings from thoughts. Do we ever have a thought that doesn’t come with at least a subtle feeling? I don’t think so. But there is a big difference between; “I’m scared,” and “My life is in danger.” Sometimes we confuse the two. If we accept a feeling or impulse as information versus reality, we have a split second of openness that makes us more capable of dealing with the answer to the question – “Is it about me, or them?” The trick to effectively using the information of emotion is to focus on the physical sensations of the feeling, accept them as information, but delay (for a heartbeat, and sometimes longer) interpretation and story. When we do this – we open possibility. We’re disarming the Medial PFC with the Left PFC by noticing and deciding, and naming feelings. We use the Right PFC by focusing on sensation versus content.
Another helpful exercise is to give feelings space. Ever notice how negative emotions have the quality of pressure? – How you feel like the room has closed-in around you? Taking a breath and giving the situation time and space will also create a sense of personal balance. As I mentioned above, just noticing the space in the room can bring you present and take the pressure off. This utilizes the RPFC in a positive manner.
Using and repeating any practice mindfully, actively engages the basal ganglia, another section of the limbic system, where several parts of the brain tie together in producing behavioral memory. The basal ganglia recognize and also record patterns. When you rehearse thoughts or actions it drives those mental and physical patterns into the hippocampus. It wires the behavior for future use.
Business people rarely afford themselves rehearsal of thought or behavior. But when we are asked to grow or change – rehearsal – practicing – repeating practices – quickens and deepens the process. Communication and presentation workshops offer built-in opportunities to rehearse new behaviors and lay down new circuitry.
Learning that involves pain, pleasure; or novelty – goes deeper. Like the amygdala, the basal ganglia also notice novelty. You only burn the roof of your mouth eating hot pizza once. You quickly learn the pattern of noticing the heat of the crust and blowing on the surface of the slice to cool it, or putting it down and waiting a minute before biting into it.
As little as three to five repetitions can drive a pattern to memory. (30 to 60 repetitions to create a habit, – 3000 repetitions for embodied mastery….) The trick is to pay close attention while you rehearse the pattern. New behaviors are embedded in the brain in steps, so conscious awareness of the steps as you practice will deepen the neural imprint. Repeating any physical action with feeling and a clear intention utilizes the neuroscience principle: “circuits that fire together wire together.”
#1 – unconscious incompetence,
#2 – conscious incompetence,
#3 – conscious competence,
#4 – unconscious competence.
Practicing until we reach unconscious competence frees up the working memory so we don’t have to think about what we’re doing.
In Presentation Skills training we practice the physical skills of communication. Once practiced – these core skills become an automatic part of our behavior. Positive habit. Characteristics like a pleasant demeanor, eye communication, physical openness, and confident, purposeful movement become part of who we are, and through mirror neurons permeate the environment. Such things are culturally contagious.
Working with staging provides another behavioral structure for self-assurance when speaking in front of a room, and can also positively condition your audience with visual cues. You benefit by having something real to do that involves your body and gives you another level of communication and influence while also directing the attention of the audience. When you learn the effect of influential staging and practice it to the level of mastery, you’re building advantageous brain circuitry that integrates body, brain, and interpersonal relationship. Also – you’re strengthening the circuitry of integrity and intention – “I do this, I get this….”
Taking the steps to know your material (not memorize it) is just common sense, and builds trust for to ‘speaking on your feet.” There are also specific exercises to engrain neural maps to access and present information in an organized fashion. Using verbal models builds automatic, reliable mental and verbal habits.
Whenever we’re working with language and the verbal aspects of communication, we’re using the Left Pre-Frontal Cortex.
The influence of this part of the brain on communication behavior and personality was discovered through the misfortune of a railroad supervisor in Vermont, in 1848.
Phineas Gage was severely injured when using a tamping rod to prepare a hole filled with gun-powder to use as an explosive device. A distraction caused Phineas to make a mistake and the hole exploded prematurely shooting the iron tamping rod up through his cheekbone, behind his left eye and out the top of his head. It took most of his left PFC with it. Phineas miraculously survived, but the once gregarious and empathetic man became aggressive and abusive. Physicians noticed, and it was a first clue of the LPFC’s function in regulating the amygdala and limbic system. Many discoveries of brain function have resulted from the study of brain injury and dysfunction.
The LFPC is a major player in the leadership of self and others. “Embed a neural network of principals at a high level and the right behavior will follow.” (Charles Jacobs) Remember, in your brain, the LPFC is the “high road.” It is often considered to be the physical location of the higher self.
I’ve offered some techniques for using the PFC to balance urgings of the amygdala. Recent studies have shown that one of the most effective practices to develop the power of the LPFC is meditation. The simple process of sitting quietly and focusing on your breathing, noticing your thoughts, and choosing to return to awareness of the breath creates measurable benefits, strengthening attention and the ability of the LPFC to command. You can do it as little as ten minutes per day and measurable improvements may result in as little as two weeks of practice. Improvements are shown in learning, memory, emotional regulation, self-awareness and perspective taking (i.e. effective utilization of theory of mind.) Similar benefits occur from contemplation and prayer, but the most powerful technique is the simple process of noticing habitual thinking, and then shifting to awareness of the breath. Once again, we are practicing an active use of intention which exercises another area of the brain – the anterior cingulate cortex, believed to steady attention and integrate feeling.
When we consciously engage the LPFC and direct attention, we are choosing reason over a programmed response. We are choosing our thoughts and actions versus letting them be controlled by an external source, or an historic internal mechanism.
Remember that we’re easily hijacked by the Medial Frontal Cortex and the stories it concocts and replays. Notice and interrupt them so that you can maintain the advantage of being present in the moment. Also, be aware of the benefit of telling yourself and others positive stories that express a constructive vision. Conscious or unconscious, the stories we tell are powerful. When facing challenges the brain defaults to “causal interpretation; a.k.a. story.
Simply practicing positive thoughts and feelings is proven to enhance personal balance and well-being. This can be done through meditative contemplation, and also through simple recall – remembering a time when you felt good, loving, happy, etc. Feelings can be inspired by simply thinking of someone you love. Pets are great subjects for conjuring warm feelings. These choices of focus activate the feel-good chemical, oxytocin. Actors become very skilled at rehearsing feeling, and a little bit of “acting” helps you become skilled at evoking good feelings and managing emotions. Science has proven we have neurons in our heart and gut. Paying attention to body sensation when creating new habits of thinking and feeling strengthens the circuitry to access those states.
Consciously choosing a different perspective is a good exercise for the LFPC and facilitates better interpersonal relationships. The old saying “walk a mile in their shoes” is one easy way to get some perspective in a conflict.
In our technology driven age, we have environments filled with distractions. Whether working at our desk or speaking in front of a room, distractions have a tendency to make us tense.
Simply including the noise or interruption takes the pressure out of it. By making it OK, the irritating, distracting power of the disturbance seems to drop away.
Remember that the way we behave engages the mirror neurons of others. On the flip side, we can actively emulate the good leadership and communication skills we see in others. Any action taken with deliberate awareness deepens the resulting circuitry.
All of these practices establish neuronal paths that habituate positive foundational communication, presentation, emotional effectiveness and leadership skills.
Ultimately using the findings of neuroscience has the potential to positively shape our lives with more balance, satisfaction, interpersonal/social effectiveness and success. Many of the practices that can build new brain circuitry have been around for a very long time. We simply need to honor them and consciously use them.
The platform of Presentation Skills provides a natural context for using many of those practices to not only strengthen the leadership capacity of individuals, but also build and maintain intelligent and humane organizational cultures that are successful and self-perpetuating.
Please take a moment to review by answering these questions –
- How does the knowledge of neuroscience enhance leadership?
- How do presentation practices build leadership capability?
- How do presentation practices build and maintain culture?
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you will experiment with some of the techniques and concepts I have included. Please feel free to contact me for additional information, or with any questions you may have.
©Steve Whiteford, 2012, Whiteford Resources