Communicate Under Pressure


Our brains weren’t designed to listen under stress

If we don't get it right, communication can fail when it matters most and it has to do with the way that people process information in the brain. People can experience “auditory exclusion” when their brain switches to stress mode and directs brain power away from their ears to their eyes.

"Our ears don't have lids but they can certainly shut down under stress." [Tweet this]

Consider how the brain functions to improve communication:

Sound (auditory) processing

  • Only 3% of the cerebral cortex (the wrinkly part of the brain that processes high level thinking) is involved in hearing.
  • The auditory nerve that carries the signal from the ear to the brain has only 30,000 fibers.

Visual processing

  • 30% of the cerebral Cortex is involved in visual processing.
  • There are over 150 million rods and cones that make up the retina in the back of the eye to capture the light and translate it into signals the brain can process.
  • The optic nerve that carries the visual signals from the eye to the brain has 150,000 fibers.

Vision > Hearing


Clearly, the visual system wins. Unfortunately, most of the time, high pressure communication is either spoken or written.

Researchers use the term “pictorial superiority effect” (PSE)1 to describe the fact the more visual the input to the brain, the more likely it will be remembered and recognized. If people are given spoken information and tested several days later, they only remember about 10%. But people can remember more than 2,500 pictures with at least 90% accuracy for several days after they see them even though they only got to see each picture for about 10 seconds. It gets even better. Accuracy rates a year later still hovered around 63%! And, some images last for years!!2

But I’m not a “visual learner”!

In the world of adult learning we hear a lot about learning modalities. Based on the work by Barbe, Swassing, and Milone we are taught that there are three types of learners:

• The visual learner

• The auditory learner

• The kinesthetic learner

When you and your team are under pressure, visual learning trumps the other two. Even when someone thinks that they are “not a visual learner”. According to Dr. John Madina “One of the reasons that text is less capable than pictures is that the brain sees words as lots of tiny pictures… To our cortex, unnervingly, there is no such thing as words.” 3

I can’t see what you’re saying. If you want to communicate: Show me!

So what’s the key to communication under pressure? Here it is: Draw a map or a cartoon to get your point across. There are several types of maps that can be helpful:

Communicate with an org chart
Communicate with an org chart
  • Organizational Maps - These are useful for defining organizational roles and responsibilities. Think “org chart”.
Communicate with a Flowchart
  • Process Maps - These can be used to communicate goals, steps, resources, risks and opportunities. Think “flow-chart”.
Communicate with a Map
  • Directional Maps - Get out your compass or GPS. These maps show you where to go. Think “treasure map”.
Communicate with a Mindmap
  • Brainstorming Maps - These maps are used for problem solving. They can reveal new connections, distinctions and opportunities. Think “scratch pad, circles, arrows, diagrams".
  • Cartoons - Sometimes a simple cartoon can convey a fantastic point. Think of the Gary Larson’s Farside Cartoon that is forever etched in my brain: “Pull Out Betty! Pull out! You’ve hit an artery!” (Ideally I would show the cartoon here but, for copyright reasons you’ll have to click HERE.) By the way, you don’t have to be fancy to get your point across. You can learn more about this communicating with cartoons by reading The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam. Great book. Highly recommended. 

Next time communication really matters, get out your pencil and draw!

"Use maps to engage, solve, communicate and improve recall." [Tweet this]

Please share your experience with us.

Please let me know what you think. I’d love to hear about your experiences. Have you had any times when communication failed or succeeded based on the use of voice/words vs maps/cartoons?

  1. Whitehouse, A. O., Maybery, M. T., & Durkin, K. (2006). The development of the picture-superiority effect. British Journal Of Developmental Psychology, 24(4), 767-773. doi:10.1348/026151005X74153 
  2. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School – John Medina ©2008 Pear Press 
  3. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School – John Medina ©2008 Pear Press