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Getting past your audience's 'Lizard Brain'

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Most presenters set themselves up to fail from the word ‘go’ because they concentrate almost exclusively on the part of their audience’s brains that is logical and analytical and businesslike (the Neocortex) at the expense of the more ancient, more powerful, more animalistic parts (the Core) that actually control access to the brain in the first place. It’s as if they have a message to deliver to a scientist sitting in a nightclub but can’t because they’re refused access by the Neanderthal doormen who tell them they’re ‘not on the list.’

Access denied

So one of the most important thing for successful presenters to understand is how to get past the Lizard Brain's 'security' so their message will be considered. Because if you don't understand how to do this, your messages just won't get through.

So here's a brief explanation of how our brains evolved. Our brains have two main parts: the Core (alternatively called the Limbic System) and the Neocortex.

The Core itself is split into two parts. Right at its root is what neuroscientists call the Reptilian Brain, which sits on top of the spinal column at the base of the skull. Every living thing has a version of this. Fish, lizards, even insects have their own tiny versions. It’s several hundred million years old and it’s what we had when we first crawled out of the primordial swamp. I prefer to call it the 'Lizard Brain' simply because it trips off the tongue easier

All a reptile has to worry about is staying alive and passing its genes on to the next generation. It doesn’t play or show loyalty – ever - so won’t make a cuddly pet. It doesn’t emote in any way at all, so doesn’t feel joy or sadness or love. It doesn’t ‘hang out’ with other reptiles socially. It doesn’t even bother with its own young; it ignores them, steps on them, deserts them and from time to time, even eats them. Everything coming out of the Lizard Brain is to do with survival. It governs the body’s basic functions (such as breathing, temperature control, heartbeat, hunger and thirst) and – very importantly - our survival reflex and reproductive drive.

The other part of the Core is the more sophisticated Mammalian Brain, which developed about a hundred million years ago. This governs our basic emotions such as hate, fear, anger, anxiety, jealousy, lust, maternal love and nurturing, plus our attack reflex. This is the part of the brain that enables mammals to be social and interact with others, whether they’re part of a school of dolphins, a pack of wolves or a cartload chimpanzees (and before you google it, ‘cartload’ really is the collective noun for chimps, although you can use the far more pedestrian ‘troop’).

Reactions from the Mammalian Brain are based purely on emotional impulses that are unaffected by reality.

Its motto could easily be, “Don’t bother me with facts or logic, they’ll only get in the way of my emotions!” Reptiles don’t need one of these, so they don’t have one.

Brain evolution

The second part of the brain, the Neocortex (the thing you probably imagine when you think about a brain; it looks a bit like a huge gray walnut, or the head of a cauliflower) is a much more recent development. It’s only a few hundred thousand years old, which in evolutionary terms is the blink of an eye. We share this with other mammals like dolphins and primates, but what differentiates us from them is its size. It’s much larger in us and takes up about 2/3 of the human brain.

It’s responsible for logic, analysis, language, creativity, ethics and morality and is the bit that keeps our emotions in check. It’s the bit that makes us different from the rest of the animal world.

Because it’s relatively juvenile compared to the Core, some people liken it to new software, which hasn’t yet had its design flaws ironed out. But it’s probably more accurate to say it’s like an iPod which has been grafted on to a 1970s 8-track stereo system.

Now you probably think that when you present the carefully crafted, rational, logical argument you’ve formulated using your Neocortex it will be received and analyzed by the audience’s collective Neocortex. However . . . it doesn’t work like that.

Nothing you say or do gets to their Neocortex without being first received and filtered by their Core. To repeat the analogy, it’s as if you’retrying to get a message through to a scientist in a nightclub only she never even gets to hear it because the doormen won’t let you in to deliver it.

The first thing your message goes through is the filters of their ancient Lizard Brain. There are three of these, which we can call the ‘3 F’s’ – fear, food and . . . the reproductive process, i.e.

  • Is it a threat?
  • Can I eat it?
  • Can I mate with it?

Which if you think about it, are basically the only three questions a primitive creature like a reptile ever needs to ask itself. Now in the twenty first century everyone reading this will have a surplus of things to eat, so the second question is no longer a major behavioral influence, and society has placed a variety of restrictions on what we do with the answer to the third (though it does explain how some people appear to think with a part of their anatomy other than their brains when faced with an attractive potential mate).

Which leaves the most basic and powerful part of any living creature’s brain, the survival filter. Because if an animal can’t make the crucial distinction between friend and foe and know when to choose flight over fight, it will die. Period. The survival filter overrides everything else, even the powerful logic and rationality of the Neocortex.

So the first thing anybody’s brain does upon receiving what neuroscientists call an ‘emotional stimulus’ (that’s a sound, sight, smell or touch to the rest of us) is very quickly decide whether it’s a threat to their immediate survival and well being or not.

The survival filter is extremely unsophisticated and black and white (reptiles never having been exactly renowned for their intellectual flexibility) and makes instantaneous decisions. It’s totally self-centered and disinterested in anything (or anyone) else. It has no patience for, empathy with or interest in anything that doesn’t directly concern its survival or well-being. It’s like the biggest diva you’ve ever heard of. It’s like J-Lo, Mariah Carey and Elton John all rolled into one. All it’s concerned with is me, me, me, me, ME!

Even as we evolved and became more sophisticated, we still remained weak and slow compared to many other animals, so the survival filter remained the most important part of our brains. Thirty thousand years ago on the plains of the Serengeti, virtually everything was, or could have been, either a threat or a source of food. But if we spent a lot of attention to every sight, sound and smell we encountered we’d never get anything done, so we evolved to very quickly pass everything through this survival filter before doing anything else.

That’s why a 100% rational Mr. Spock-like figure who relied purely on logic would never have survived; while he was calmly and unhurriedly analyzing whether a saber-toothed tiger constituted a threat and which of a myriad of courses of action to take if it was, he’d have been eaten!

Now the survival filter’s interpretation of what constitutes a threat doesn’t just concern itself with physical safety. It looks for threats to its well being as well as its survival. The brain only has so much computing power to devote to things that need serious thought (see Fast vs Slow Thinking). Our bodies are energy-saving machines, and our brain eats up energy by the bucket load.

In modern day society we no longer have to worry about where the next meal’s coming from, so we no longer need to do this, and can afford to ‘waste’ vast amounts of energy on non-essential activities. But our Lizard Brains don’t appreciate that. They still act as if we’re hunter gatherers on the plains of the Serengeti thirty thousand years ago. And although our brains account for about 2% of our body weight, they consume about 20% of our energy, which is a massive amount. So anything which makes the brain consume a lot of energy is automatically seen as something to be avoided at all costs unless there’s a very beneficial reason for not doing so.

The survival filter effectively asks three questions, and any message you communicate has to get past all three before it’s passed on to the Neocortex for rational analysis:

  1. Is this a physical threat?
    • If ‘yes’ and it’s a physical threat, fight it or run away (fight or flight – not a usual response in a business meeting, but many would be more interesting if it was!).
    • If ‘yes’ and it threatens my well being, dismiss it, argue against it, act defensively or flee from it (as in, “I refuse/don’t have to listen to this rubbish!” or "I don't know why we're even discussing this?").
    • If ‘no’, go to next question.
  2. Can I ignore it?
    • If ‘yes’, do so.
    • If ‘no,’ go to next question.
  3. How can I save energy and spend the least possible amount of brain power on it?
    • Listen selectively
    • Simplify everything wherever possible
    • Ignore or filter out anything complex or detailed.

  So in simple terms, unless your message is 1) Non-threatening, 2) Interesting, intriguing or new, and 3) Simple - it probably won’t ever get past the audience’s Reptilian Brains, and will therefore never even be received by the Neocortex, let alone analyzed by it.

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