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Left Brain Versus Right Brain

Scientists have long been fascinated by the way in which different mental functions are centered in different areas of the human brain. Most of the higher brain activities occur in the cerebrum, which is divided into left and right hemispheres. According to most scientists, the left and right halves of the brain are responsible for different forms of reasoning. The left side controls logical functions. It's associated with structure, form, sequence, ranking, and order and tends to operate in a linear, first-one-thing-and-then-the-next fashion. The right side controls creative functions. It's associated with concepts and is essentially nonlinear in its operations. The right brain bounces around among concepts, following connections that are impossible to explain logically.

Most presenters, when developing their stories, tend to apply a left-brain approach to what is really a right-brain process.

Building a presentation is a creative process. That means starting with the right brain.

Here's the problem: Most presenters, when developing their stories, tend to apply a left-brain approach to what is really a right-brain process. They try to jump immediately to a logical, structured, linear end product, when their right brain is still caroming around in nonlinear mode.

Why? Because businesspeople are essentially results-oriented rather than process- oriented. Now, I'm sure that you, like most businesspeople, are quite process- oriented when it comes to critical matters such as long-term strategy, product design, or problem-solving; but these are all subjects for offsite meetings. Backstage!

When it comes to results-oriented tasks, like a presentation to a very important client with a deadline (on-stage), you want to get there in the shortest distance between two points. A time-consuming process can delay the result. If the process (left-brain ordering) is not effective (a data dump) while the right brain is doing what it's going to do anyway (free-associate concepts), you will have to traverse that seemingly short distance over and over and over again. You'll end up spinning your wheels.

Let the right brain complete its stream-of-consciousness cycle before applying the left brain's structure. Focus before flow.

The solution is timing. It's not a matter of more time; it's about the proper use of time. Get the sequence right: Let the right brain complete its stream-of-consciousness cycle before applying the left brain's structure. Focus before flow.

The Speaker Is Out of His Right Mind

A vivid illustration of the distinct difference between right- and left-brain functioning is spoken language. Speech reflects the way the right brain operates in its spontaneity, its grammatical and syntactical messiness, and its frequent logical leaps.

Let me illustrate with an excerpt from the live presidential debate between then-Governor George W. Bush of Texas and then-Vice President Al Gore. The debate, in a town hall format, took place on October 17, 2000, and PBS anchor Jim Lehrer was the moderator. Each candidate was given a chance to respond separately to questions posed by ordinary citizens. Here is Governor Bush's response to the following question: "How will your tax proposals affect me as a middle-class, 34-year-old single person with no dependents?"

I think also what you need to think about is not the immediate, but what about Medicare? You get a plan that will include prescription drugs, a plan that will give you options. Now, I hope people understand that Medicare today is—is—is important, but it doesn't keep up with the new medicines. If you're a Medicare person, on Medicare, you don't get the new procedures. You're stuck in a time warp, in many ways. So, it will be a modern Medicare system that trusts you to make a variety of options for you.

You're going to get tax relief under my plan. You're not going to be targeted in or targeted out. Everybody who pays taxes is going to get tax relief. If you take care of an elderly in your home, you're going to get the personal exemption increased.

You're going to live in a peaceful world. It'll be a world of peace because we're going to have clearer—clear-sighted foreign policy based upon a strong military, and a mission that stands by our friends; a mission that doesn't try to be all things to all people. A judicious use of the military which will help keep the peace.

You'll be in world, hopefully, that's more educated, so it's less likely you'll be harmed in your neighborhood. See, an educated child is one much more likely to be hopeful and optimistic. You'll be in a world in which—fits into my philosophy; you know, the harder work—the harder you work, the more you can keep. It's the American way.

Government shouldn't be a heavy hand. That's what the federal government does to you. Should be a helping hand. And tax relief in the proposals I just described should be a good helping hand.

Remember (if you still can) that the original question had to do with how a 34-year-old single person with no dependents would be affected by the candidates' competing tax plans.

The response given by Governor Bush (soon, of course, to be President Bush) veers and rambles all over the place. He never specifically addresses the question of how a 34-year-old single person would be affected by his tax plan...except at the very end of his ramble with the broad, general assertion: "You're going to get tax relief under my plan," which doesn't explain how much relief or what kind.

Governor Bush begins by talking about offering an increased tax exemption to those who care for "an elderly," forgetting or ignoring the fact that the person who asked the original question specified that she had no dependents.

Next, he skips to Medicare (a subject of less-than-immediate interest to a 34-year-old). Then he skips further off the path on to the topics of world peace, military policy, education, and finally, work ethic.

Six subjects later, in his last sentence, probably recalling that the original question dealt with taxes, Governor Bush belatedly refers again to "tax relief in the proposals I just described," skimming over the fact that he never did describe any tax proposals.

Leaving the Left Brain Behind

I don't mean to pick on George W. Bush. Some of our most effective political leaders have been known to speak in a rambling, incoherent fashion (Dwight D. Eisenhower, for one). And, speaking crisply and logically is no guarantee of statesmanship or political wisdom. Depending on your own political views and personal tastes, you might find Bush's speaking style infuriating, comic, or refreshingly human.

My essential point is a more general one. An excerpt of spoken language, when transcribed and printed, will never read like well-crafted prose. As a personal example, I recently recorded myself during a program with my clients, delivering the same material I've delivered for nearly a decade and a half. When I read the transcription, I was most surprised to see how irregular my word patterns were. The reason: Spoken language is governed by the right brain. Rather than focusing on the rules of logic, grammar, syntax, and consistency, it flows freely, wherever the concepts lead.

Spoken language is governed by the right brain. Rather than focusing on the rules of logic, grammar, syntax, and consistency, it flows freely, wherever the concepts lead.

By contrast, the production of written language tends to be governed by the left brain. When most people sit down to write a letter, memo, or report, their minds are front-loaded with left-brain functions: logic, grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Rather than bouncing freely from one idea to the next, dragging in names, references, pronouns, and concepts that might or might not be clear, they move methodically through a sequence of points, meticulously self-correcting their syntax and logic as they go.

...because the writer ruled by the left brain is concentrating on the rules of logic, grammar, and so on, the natural flow of concepts is often impeded.

The result is a document that is technically correct. It doesn't contain fractured sentences like Governor Bush's, "You'll be in a world in which—fits into my philosophy; you know, the harder work—the harder you work the more you can keep," or repetitions like his, "Now, I hope people understand that Medicare today is—is—is important."

But because the writer ruled by the left brain is concentrating on the rules of logic, grammar, and so on, the natural flow of concepts is often impeded. Almost inevitably, the writer omits ideas that are necessary or includes ideas that are unnecessary, overly detailed, or irrelevant.

You've probably written documents this way yourself: sitting down cold at your keyboard and banging out a memo or letter, "editing" it for style and content on-the-fly, as you write. If so, you might have had the experience of reading the memo or letter afterward and discovering that you'd completely forgotten to mention an important fact or idea, or you might have stuck in a completely irrelevant detail. This is a natural by-product of left-brain dominance.

Starting the work of developing a presentation with left-brain considerations such as logic, sequence, grammar, and word choice (or, for that matter, the color, style, and design of slides) is simply not effective. Crafting a presentation is a creative task; it must start with the kind of creative resources that are available only on the right side of your brain. Use the right tool for the right job.

...start the story development process by doing what your brain is going to do anyway: Follow the stream of consciousness and capture the results during brainstorming.

Therefore, start the story development process by doing what your brain is going to do anyway: Follow the stream of consciousness and capture the results during brainstorming.

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