Book Review – Brain Rules by Dr. John Medina

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I recently finished reading “Brain Rules” by Dr. John Medina.  It was a fantastic read and many of the rules were directly applicable to presenting and presentation design.  Regardless of your occupation, I think every reader will take a lot of important information that can help them in their careers.  It is written in a way that keeps your brain engaged, combining technical information with funny anecdotes and real world examples.  If nothing else, it will certainly change the way you look at cubicles, classrooms, and the way we all learn.  I highly recommend it.

Of the 12 Brain Rules Dr. Medina outlined, three rules struck at the core of presenting.  I couldn’t stop highlighting and earmarking pages in these chapters.  These rules are rules #4, #9 and #10.  I’ll break each one of them down a little further.


If you want your audience to learn something new, you have to keep them engaged.  The more attention the brain gives to a given stimulus, like your presentation, the more likely they are to retain the given information.  If you can hit some sort of emotional nerve, even better.  “Emotionally arousing events tend to be better remembered than neutral events” says Dr. Medina.  Unfortunately, science tells us that after about ten minutes our brains will “check-out” and start thinking about something else unless you can regain our attention.  This means that the given stimulus must change after about 10 minutes.  How can you do that?   There are plenty of ways.  Tell a personal story.  Show a video.  Engaged your audience in conversation.  Ask a question.  Start a group activity.  This constant change in stimulus will reengage your audience and keep them from “checking out.”

The most efficient way to ensure that your audience retains information, whether your teaching Chemistry or selling steak knives, is to present in a way that stimulates multiple senses.  According to Dr. Medina, “Extra information given at the moment of learning makes learning better.”  This is where visuals can be so effective when used properly.  Instead of just repeating your words on the screen in the form of bullet points, stimulate another one of their senses.  Let them hear the information and support it by seeing a vibrant image. Combining two senses vs. just one will increase recall by more than 75%.  (Please note, a slide full of bullet points is NOT a visual stimulus.  Seeing the word “despair” and seeing an image of a starving child are two different things.)  Inherently, PowerPoint doesn’t cater to smell or touch.  But by all means, if you can incorporate these things into your presentation, do it.  The more senses you can stimulate, the better.

Want to improve the ability of your audience to recall a message by 55%?  Add an image.  According to Dr. Medina, vision is by FAR our most dominant sense, taking up half of our brain’s resources.  The dominance of images has been called the Pictoral Superiority Effect, where the more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognized and recalled.  If you want someone to remember your idea, your product, your value proposition, support it with imagery.

The problem with PowerPoint is that the templates all contain places for bullet and sub-bullet points.  In my perfect world, the default template would be a white slide with one big box entitled “IMAGE.”  If you insist on putting bullet points, you’ll have to go through a few clicks to get there.  Maybe I’d even password protect it somehow!

Those are just three of the twelve Brain Rules, all of which are extremely interesting to learn about.  Go out and pick up Brain Rules and I know you won’t be disappointed.  Check out some of Dr. Medina’s videos on YouTube as well.  Some were made specifically for the book, and others are clips of his own live presentations.  If nothing else, read this book to find out why you should NEVER drive while talking on the cell phone!

Additional Information:

Brain Rules Website
Brain Rules YouTube Page
Garr Reynolds’ take on Brain Rules, including a 131 slide presentation

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