Five Neuroscience Techniques that Improve Brainstorming

Several years ago I started a small side business to create ‘white board’ animations for companies that wanted to communicate difficult concepts, train employees, or market their products. I managed the process, created the script, and did the voiceover for the animation (done by an animator). With client I spent a half-day with four members of the company that had hired us to create a three-minute animation to explain a very complicated proprietary brokerage service they offered. I used several neuroscience techniques in that meeting that you might try the next time you lead a brainstorming session. I unpack what I did using those techniques below.

Neuroscience techniques to improve brainstorming.

  • To help set up the day I created a clear agenda and emailed it several days prior to the meeting. This is called pre-encoding. Encoding is the process of learning when our brain lays down new networks of neuronal connections. Pre-encoding, as the word implies, sets up the brain to receive that learning (the actual encoding). The agenda clearly articulated the meeting’s objectives and set us up for greater productivity. When we met, we knew exactly what we wanted the brainstorming session to accomplish. Here’s what it included.
    • Who: Clarify the target audience for the animation and the audience’s felt needs
    • What: Clarify the call to action the animation should evoke
    • How: Create a rough draft of the script and brainstorm potential visual concepts that could illustrate the message
  • I began the session by sharing a bit about my life to create a relational connection (two in the group were total strangers). When people feel they relate to you, they will follow your leadership and more readily learn from you. The early church understood this when they met house to house and built strong relational bonds through Biblical community (Acts 2.42).
  • I gave everybody a chocolate bar and explained that chocolate can aid focus and creativity by causing helpful neurotransmitters in our brains to release (Roizman, n.d.). Not only did I provide brain fuel with the candy, but I also heightened expectations that the session would result in lots of ideas. The brain needs both oxygen and glucose (energy) to function well. While too much sugar can certainly cause a brain lag later on, providing chocolate, coffee, or healthy snacks can help the brain function optimally.
  • During the meeting we needed to generate personality traits to describe the target audience (the broker), list potential metaphors to use in the animation, and create a basic script. Instead of using the traditional brainstorming technique where everybody shares their ideas out loud, I asked each person to first privately write down their ideas. Then they shared them out loud and I recorded them on the white board after which we eliminated the ones that didn’t fit. Traditional brainstorming, where everybody verbalizes their ideas at the beginning, has been shown to not generate as many ideas as when people are asked to generate them privately (Lehrer, 2012). So, the simple act of having then jot down their ideas privately encouraged more idea generation.
  • During our discussion time I subtly encouraged dissent and disagreement about the ideas, contrary to traditional brainstorming (get all the ideas out without criticizing any of them). Neuroscientists have found that dissent, when done in a “non-threatening to status” way, actually increases creativity (Nemeth et al., 2004).

The next time you lead a staff brainstorming session include a few of these five ingredients in your meeting and see what happens.

  1. Healthy dissent to prompt creative thinking.
  2. Private idea generation before public discussion.
  3. Food such as chocolate or coffee to get the brain focused and alert.
  4. Relationship building to engender likeability among the team.
  5. A clear agenda to pre-encode what you want to accomplish.

What have you found that has helped make brainstorming more productive?


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Sources:

Lehrer, J. (2012) Groupthink. The New Yorker. Available from: <http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/01/30/120130fa_fact_lehrer> [Accessed 25 February 2013].

Nemeth, C.J., Personnaz, B., Personnaz, M. & Goncalo, J.A. (2004) The liberating role of conflict in group creativity. European Journal of Social Psychology, 34, pp.365-374.

Roizman, T. Chocolate & Dopamine [Internet]. Available from: <http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/chocolate-dopamine-3660.html> [Accessed 23 February 2013].

Is this the #1 Reason Why Leaders Succeed? Take this quiz and find out.

Bill George, Harvard Business School Professor and best selling author thinks self awareness or the lack thereof is a key to why leaders succeed or not. When he did research for his book True North he interviewed 125 authentic leaders. These leaders revealed that self-awareness defined the essence of great leadership. You can read his article hereRead the follow 10 questions and rate your self-awareness.

  1. Am I aware of my strengths and gifts?
  2. Am I aware of where satan trips me up the most?
  3. Am I aware of my internal mind chatter that drains me?
  4. Am I aware of how I come across to others?
  5. Am I aware of unhealthy relational patterns I bring from my family of origin?
  6. Am I aware of how much God loves me, despite my faults?
  7. Am I aware of how much God loves those who give me fits?
  8. Am I aware of when circumstances are setting me up for a fall?
  9. Am I aware of my deepest longings and dreams?
  10. Am I aware of my blind spots?

Honestly answer all 10 questions.

Did any area of unawareness jump out at you?

If so, what should be your next step?

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Are your sermons hard or easy to listen to?

While earning my executive master’s degree in the neuroscience of leadership, I learned some fascinating insights about the brain that can help us pastors lead, speak, and live more effectively. To prep you for today’s post, answer this question? How would people describe my sermons: hard to listen to or easy to listen to? Take a moment and stop reading and honestly answer that question for yourself. Whatever your answer, we can all improve our preaching. In this post I share some interesting insight about the brain that can make your sermons easier to listen to.

I’ve included below a short checklist based on neuroscience insight that might give you a clue and help you improve.

But before that checklist, I’ve listed a few important brain facts to set the stage.

  1. The executive brain functions like concentration, abstract reasoning, problem solving, and attention occur primarily in the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), the area roughly behind your forehead. This is the part of the brain you hope your sermons engage. If your listeners don’t engage this part of the brain, your sermon “went in one ear and out the other.”
  2. The PFC processes information in a serial fashion (one thing at a time). Think of a conveyer belt with an item on it followed by another followed by another, etc. You may recall Lucille Ball’s famous candy conveyor belt episode. If something happens at the front end of that conveyer belt and all the items get clogged up, then nothing moves forward. The same thing happens in the brain. It will only process one thing at a time and if overloaded, it processes very little information. Multi-tasking is a misnomer. See my blog post on multi-tasking here.
  3. The PFC tires easily. If a speaker does not give breaks for the listener’s brain to rest, it will take its own breaks.
  4. Five fundamental processes summarize what the PFC does: it understands, decides, recalls, memorizes, and inhibits (that is, blocks out distractions).

Many complex processes are happening inside the brains of our listeners. So, how can we maximally engage their brains so that the Holy Spirit has lots of biblical truth to work with in their hearts to ultimately bring about life transformation?

I’ve included a few ideas below based on neuroscience.

  • Start out telling the people where you’re going with your sermon. Give an outline or a metaphor that points in a specific direction. The term is called pre-encoding. Learning is the encoding part. Pre-encoding sets up the listener to learn.
  • Don’t aimlessly ramble. If you constantly chase rabbits, their brains will check out.
  • Don’t use complex terms and long sentences. When you do, the listener’s brain will tune you out to try to figure out what you just said. They essentially won’t hear what you say next.
  • A close cousin to the above: be careful about using abstract ideas. Again, the brain will try to process abstract ideas and tune out what you say next.
  • If you do present a complex idea, stop and pause a few seconds to allow people to process it and think about it. In other words, mix up the rate at which you deliver your sermons. Well placed pauses are good.
  • Simplify your power points. Use only a few words per slide. Pictures that explain your points are even better. In this post I suggest some practical ways to make your visual presentations better.
  • Don’t get long-winded. You may have the speaking ability to keep people’s attention for more than 30 or so minutes. If you do, you don’t need to read this blog. But in an age when attention spans are rapidly decreasing (the average person’s attention span is shorter than a goldfish, really), shorter sermons will stick better.

What insights have you discovered that help your listeners absorb more of your sermons?

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7 Neuroscience Keys to Effective Performance Reviews

Annually in my 35 years in ministry I spend hours preparing and delivering multiple staff performance reviews. I was shocked to learn that I may have been wasting my time. In a meta-study (a study of the studies) researchers discovered that only 30% of feedback and performance reviews actually helped (Kluger & DeNisi,1996). They discovered that 30% have no impact and 40% actually make things worse, not a very good track record. Does that mean we should drop performance reviews? No. It does mean that we can improve the performance review process by incorporating 7 neuroscience keys in our reviews.

7 Neuroscience Keys that Improve Performance Reviews

I’ve divided the 7 C’s into these two categories.

  1. The person: issues that directly relate to the person who’s receiving the review and the reviewer as well.
  2. The process: issues that directly relate to the process itself.

The Person

  • Community: Make sure that the person receiving the review feels emotionally connected to you as much as possible. Try to build a sense of community with those you review (Ibarra, 1999).
  • Coachability:Before the review, help your staff develop a coaching/learner mentality. Help them see the value of feedback and reviews. The more value they see, the more positively they will receive it (Atwater & Brett, 2005).
  • Connected: Help the staff person connect the feedback she receives to how she sees herself in the future (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996) and to her larger goals (Ashford et al., 2003).

The Process

  • Credible: Make sure you as the supervisor are unbiased and fully informed about the staff person’s job and performance before the review (Waldman et al., 1998).
  • Coupled: This is key. You must couple the review to follow up, ideally through a coaching process. Build into the process action steps to address areas that need improvement, all with a developmental rather than a punitive tone. Also, couple the process to a teaching session before the review to help staff understand the review process and how to get the best from it.
  • Consistent: Make sure that the process elicits consistent feedback from all sources giving input to reviews (Ashford et al., 2003).
  • Collaborative: The more collaborative the process, the more effective it will be. If possible, include in the process peers, direct reports, and supervisors. (London & Smither, 1995).

Try applying some of these ideas the next time you do a staff review and see how it helps.

If you’d like to get a copy of a self-evaluation tool I’ve used, email me here. I give it to the staff person I’m to review first and ask them to fill it out before our actual review session. After they complete it and I’ve reviewed it, then we meet for the review.

What have you discovered that has helped your reviews improve performance?

In my most recent book, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry, I give many more leadership insights we learn from recent neuroscience findings.

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Cotton Candy Sermons: Every Pastor Needs Them

The phrase “cotton candy preaching” is a derogatory term that implies that sermons lack depth. And of course no pastor wants to be considered a “cotton candy preacher.” On the other hand I’ve heard pastors say that Christians need “meat and potatoes” preaching which they define as sermons with depth. Such pastors often begin their sermons with, “Please turn in your Bibles to today’s text.” Once they read the Scripture, they’re off to the races to give a deep, theological sermon, a meat and potatoes kind. But, is that the right approach?

After spending 15-20 hours per week preparing a sermon, how do we really know if it connected with the listener?

Is the test of a good sermon simply that we delivered a deep, theological, sound talk?

Is it all about good content?

Is it up to the listener to get it and figure out how it applies to his or her life?

Or is this the true test of a great sermon: that we truly connect to the listener’s heart and mind so that the Holy Spirit changes attitudes and behaviors?

I think it’s the latter. That’s where cotton candy preaching comes in.

One of my passions is intersecting neuroscience with ministry and I’m learning how important the brain plays in persuading others to change. I wrote my last book on the subject, Brain-Savvy Leaders, the Science of Significant Ministry. You can purchase a copy here. Understanding brain insight has helped me be more OK when others have criticized my preaching, saying that my preaching did not connect with their  heart.

The old sage Aristotle helped us when he described three domains that affect persuasion (and preaching).

  1. Logos: persuasion through reasoning and logic.
  2. Pathos: persuasion by appealing to emotions.
  3. Ethos: persuasion through the force of character or personality of the speaker or writer.

People in your congregation are largely persuaded through these factors. Either reasoning or emotion moves them. I tend to be more of a thinker, so I’m persuaded more by thoughtful, reasoned sermons rather than ones that I might classify as cotton candy (more emotion based). I’ve tended to be more of a meat and potatoes preacher. But I’m in the minority because emotions persuade many more people than does logic.

Consider TV commercials. Most commercials don’t list the benefits of their products. They tell a story or evoke emotion or move the heart. Dodge Ram’s God Made a Farmer commercial with Paul Harvey beautifully illustrates how emotion moves the heart. I tear up every time I watch the commercial, yet it does not lack depth.

In the past I’ve wanted to avoid being pegged a cotton candy preacher. But I now realize that for any meat and potatoes sermon to stick, we must incorporate some cotton candy techniques, those that we may think don’t contribute much to a message’s depth.

Consider these cotton candy preaching ideas the next time you prepare and deliver a sermon.

  • Remember that because most of the people in your congregation came from hectic and difficult weeks, they aren’t in a mindset to listen to you. It’s your job to help them get ready, along with the other elements of the service.
  • During the week live a life of integrity and authenticity. Love people and spend time with them so that your ethos (force of character) works on your behalf. People must believe you are a credible person before they will believe you have a credible message.
  • Start your message with pathos (emotion) and then move to logos (logic). Use emotion, within reason, because it grabs attention. Remember, nothing is learned that is not paid attention to.
  • Use novelty. The brain loves novelty (Eide, 2006). Start, illustrate, and deliver your sermons creatively. Don’t become so predictable that people can guess what you’re going to do next.
  • Use humor. Humor makes people feel good and when they feel good they learn more.
  • Make sure you provide lots of application. Neuroscience tells us that self-referent information (that which we can apply to ourselves) is more easily learned and retained (Rogers, Kuiper, & Kirker, 1977). After all, we teach and preach so that God can take His Word to change people’s lives.
  • Keep your messages simple. Less is often more.

What cotton candy ideas have worked in your preaching?


Related posts:


Eide, D.F.A.B. (2006) Eide Neurolearning Blog: Shake Things Up – Novelty Boosts Learning. Eide Neurolearning Blog. Available from: <http://eideneurolearningblog.blogspot.com/2006/11/shake-things-up-novelty-boosts.html> [Accessed 8 June 2012].

Rogers, T. B., Kuiper, N. A., & Kirker, W. S. (1977) Self-reference and the encoding of personal information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (35), pp. 677-688.