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So, you want to influence others? Harvard neuroscientist explains how…

As authors, publishers, distributors, bookstore owners, and sales professionals, our job is to influence others. We exist to pass new ideas, information, and wisdom to others. Put simply, we exist to help others learn.

Despite this, I am often surprised at how little most professionals understand about learning. We’ve all been through school, yet very few of us can recognize and exploit the learning process. As you can guess, this lack of knowledge can greatly impair our influence. 

Luckily, this situation can be remedied. With a few simple tweaks, it’s possible to enhance our influence to ensure our message is heard, understood, and remembered by others.  All it takes is a little brain science!

In my latest book, Stop Talking, Start Influencing: 12 Insights from Brain Science to make Your Message Stick (Exisle Publishing, March 2019), I explore a series of principles that shed light on how people learn. Whether you’re writing an e-mail, giving a presentation, or negotiating a deal – you can use these research-based principles to greatly enhance your impact.

Here’s a brief overview of 3 learning principles explored within the book.

  • Spoken Word and Written Text do not Mix

Here’s a simple experiment.

Pop on a nearby television or radio and tune it to a ‘talking-heads’ show.  The content doesn’t matter, so long as the program features spoken word.

Your job is to try to listen to and understand the people speaking on that program whilst, at the same time, trying to read and understand this article.

Chances are you’ll quickly realize that it’s impossible to simultaneously read whilst listening to someone speak. Perhaps you find yourself jumping back and forth between listening and reading, but this only leads to deeper confusion.

Unfortunately, within the brain, silent reading is processed nearly identically to vocal oration. As such, there simply is not enough neural real-estate within the brain to process both speech and reading at the same time: it’s one or the other.

This means that if you ever deliver a presentation while standing in front of a text-heavy PowerPoint slide, if you ever try to discuss details as someone peruses a contract, or if you try to orally guide someone through a densely written passage – you are asking the impossible. These common practices all greatly impair learning and will only serve to diminish your impact.

Now, about trying to listen to someone speak while writing…

  • We Don’t Think About Things we Remember; We Remember Things we Think About

When it comes to forming deep, lasting memories, most people focus energy in the wrong spot.

For instance, it’s commonly argued that people only remember things that are highly emotional. However, if this were true, then why is it so easy to remember radio jingles from your childhood? I’m guessing these songs aren’t deeply personal to you – yet there they are just the same.

Similarly, it’s commonly argued that repetition is the key to forming deep memories. However, if that were the case, why is it so easy to remember your first kiss (which only happened once), yet so difficult to remember math equations you practiced hundreds of times in grade school?

It turns out, the secret to forming deep memories is not about how information goes in – it’s about how information comes out. The more you actively recall a memory (regardless of how emotional or repetitive), the stronger and more easily accessible that memory becomes.

This is why I can remember Game of Thrones so well. I may have only watched the show once, but I’ve thought about, talked about, and debated about it hundreds of times – my memory becoming deeper with each recall. This is also why I can’t remember the periodic table. Although I memorized it for several exams throughout my school career, once the exams were complete, I never again recalled any of these ideas.

With regards to influence, this highlights the importance of shifting focus from input to output. Sure, it’s important to develop and present material in a way that grabs and holds attention – but beyond this, we must consider how to ensure others personally and actively recall said material. This is why interactivity, guided discussion, review, and questioning are some of the most powerful tools in our influence arsenal.

  • Context, Context, Context

Deeply embedded within your memory for every piece of information you’ve ever learned is the context within which you learned it. Your memory for this article will not simply consist of the words you’re reading now – it will also consist of any smells, sounds, tastes, emotions, or sensations entering your brain right now.

Importantly, all of these contextual features (both external and internal) will play an important role in how (and if) you access this information in the future. For instance, if you’re reading this while relaxed by the pool, it will be much easier to access this material in the future when you’re relaxed by the pool (as opposed to stressed in a crowded office).

Once we recognize the important role of context in learning, we can better guide our influence to resonate with varied outcomes. Sometimes we want to pass along information that is highly specific to a single circumstance. In this instance, we need to embed as many relevant contextual features into the learning as is possible. However, sometimes we want to pass along information we hope is more general and applicable across many circumstances. In this instance, we need to mix and vary the learning as much as possible to eliminate contextual interference.

Where and how we learn is just as important as what we learn.

Where Can I Learn More?

You are an influencer. 

Importantly, with a little brain science, you can enhance your influence to ensure others truly learn from and grow with you.

My new book Stop Talking, Start Influencing: 12 Insights from Brain Science to Make your Message Stick provides this science. By reading this book, you will come to better understand the learning process and be able to leverage this knowledge to better impact and inspire others.

Jared Cooney Horvath PhD, MEd is a neuroscientist and educator with expertise in human learning, memory, and brain stimulation. He has conducted research and lectured at Harvard University, Harvard Medical School, the University of Melbourne and over 50 international schools. Jared currently serves as director of the Science of Learning Group and NeuroEducation: two teams dedicated to bringing the latest in brain and behavioural research to education and business alike. His work has been featured in numerous popular publications (including the New Yorker, the Economist, the Atlantic, the New York TimesScientific AmericanNew ScientistWIREDVICE, and Men’s Journal) as well as television and radio programs (including NOVA: Science Now and Catalyst).

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