Jonathan Kemp MSc, Human Intelligence Expert and creator of SmartWisdom, shares his expert advice on how to improve your brain performance for your next important meeting including conference calls and Zoom/Skype calls when remote working.
Great emphasis is placed on improving physical health, but how about increasing your brain’s performance? There are many places this can be done but improving brain performance when managing day-to-day knowledge can be very easy to do and has great health benefits, particularly a feeling of being more in control, more relaxed and confident. As so much work time is spent in meetings, where the ability to manage both knowledge and relationships is key, this is a great example of where simple actions can have great results.
First, a reminder of some key brain facts. There is much talk about us only using a small percentage of our brain and that is very likely. What is less talked about is that we are all restricted by what the brain can do at any given point in time, which to a certain extent makes the first pointless of a missed opportunity than it first seems. The key restrictions are:
Short-term memory: this is the memory we will use during a meeting, phone call, passing conversations. The capacity is around 7 plus or minus 2 chunks of knowledge. An easy way to think about this is in a busy meeting, how many action points can you easily remember? Many people say 3 or 4. Trying to remember more than this at the same time as listening, can be increasingly stressful, so the easiest solution is to extend the working memory by writing the information you want to remember down – simple but very effective.
Cognitive load: this is the amount of brain processing the brain can do at any one point in time. The brain is performing at its optimum if it is only focusing on one mental activity at a time. So, for example listening is an activity, memory another. A good way to test this is to think about the times you have wanted to ask a question and must wait to do so. What happens to the listening? This is another reason why writing information down improves brain performance. It is worth noting that the act of multi-tasking is largely a myth… in fact what the brain is doing is switching from one mental activity to another and the switch time can last a few seconds. Do this all day and it is both tiring and reduces productivity.
So to improve brain performance in all your meetings (you can equally apply this in conference calls, phone calls), here are a few simple brain performance tips.
Prepare for a meeting
Brain fact – by preparing you are clearing your working memory before you go into the meeting, which then enables you to focus on what others are saying. You will also feel more relaxed and confident.
How to do this – record what you want to say or ask in a meeting, regardless of whether there is an agenda. If you are busy, then just write down the top three things that you want to cover and put a mark next to the most important point. You can either write this down or use your laptop (writing is often quicker and easier). The more senior you are and the greater the level of responsibility you have, the more important this key action of preparation is.
Advanced planners – once you have done your preparation you can empower your brain even further by changing your questioning and using just one key word: ‘could’. The question: ‘what could I cover in the meeting’ will open the brain to new possibilities. If you want to take it one step further and tap into your creative thinking there are three final questions at the end of your plan: ‘Apart from everything that I have recorded, what other opportunities, risks or actions are there or could there be?’ This is a very simple process to get used to and your brain will certainly generate ideas it would not have thought of otherwise.
Point of note – if you see someone going into a meeting without a pen, paper, laptop or tablet, you can be reasonably certain that they have not prepared for the meeting, and by default they are at some level not taking the meeting or your time seriously. Their brain will not be able to bring their best thinking to the meeting, as the moment someone else starts talking, their brain will start to listen to and be distracted by what is being said… ouch! But true!
During the meeting
Mobiles – The efficiency of a meeting can be transformed by one simple act… turning off your mobile and if you are able to do so, ask everyone else to do the same. If you want to make a play on it, and if you are with people you respect you can say out aloud ‘I must turn my mobile off as I do not want to be disturbed’, turn it off in front of them and turn it over or put it away. This is a very simple act that shows you respect the other person and is, at the same time, prompting them to do the same. For your brain it means it is not tempted to try and task switch between the mobile and the conversation and to focus on the meeting, thereby increasing brain performance.
Laptops – in many ways, like a mobile, are a distraction machine. But in some ways they are worse, as the second you open your laptop you put a barrier between yourself and others, which increases the temptation to start task switching. The design of keyboards on laptops and tablets and the fact that most people will type into a word document, is not an efficient use of your brain. In fact, it restricts your brain’s ability to really question, analyse and see the bigger picture. Why – if we go back to one of the brain’s key restrictions – impose limitations on your cognitive load? When you type, your primary focus is storing accurate information in the short-term memory and then there is the act of typing. This doesn’t leave much brain processing available for other key mental activities that will add value – it is a brain restrictor.
Manage the knowledge effectively – this makes all the difference and is a powerful approach to increasing your brain’s capabilities. There are two effective ways of doing this and they both involve writing on either paper or on a digital tablet. As we have seen, typing is an inefficient use of the brain’s resources. Some people resist writing things down. They might do this for a variety of reasons, one of which is the connection between note-taking and study – a not very interesting activity to capture information for use at a later point in time. The very thought, ‘I should take some notes’ can have a negative psychological impact. If you replace the word ‘notes’ with the word ‘knowledge’ and think, ‘I should capture this knowledge’, your brain is being reprogrammed to understand that this is a very valuable activity.
Proactive note-taking – extends the brains capability, reducing the amount of information you try to store in the working memory by writing it down. By capturing knowledge externally, you are effectively extending your working memory. This reduces stress and allows you to listen and concentrate more effectively. What should you capture are the key points which are relevant to you to make decisions or use later, any questions that arise which you can not ask straight away and any actions. I would also recommend capturing Ideas as these come into the short-term memory very quickly and leave just as quickly. The key with proactive note-taking is not to record any more than you need to and what you do capture, you should try and link together.
Next generation note-taking (Knowledge Harvesting) – as with planning you can take your knowledge capturing up another level and use a technique such as SmartWisdom (www.smartwisdom.com) which is scientifically proven to increase your real-time understanding above that achieved by others by 20% (23% if you are dyslexic) and enables you to listen, record, analyse, question and interact simultaneously in real-time. Knowledge Harvesting enables you to collect an hours’ worth of information on one page which, as you work with others, you can see and use real-time. SmartWisdom knowledge harvesting enables you to achieve your true brain’s capabilities, to manage knowledge effectively at a level that cannot be achieved by anyone else who is either listening, taking traditional notes or using a laptop. So, for example concentrating and listening in a one hour meeting becomes easy, as does having a holistic overview of all the knowledge, including all the detail and being able to spot questions, links and connections that no one else can. Remember what has been said even 6 months later is par for the course. In effect by increasing your cognitive skills to this new level it also gives you a competitive edge.
At the end of the meeting
There is one simple act that can help to increase both your short-term memory and your long-term memory and it requires no complex brain training, yet is very powerful on a number of levels and that is to do a quick summary of the meeting, the key discussion points and any actions. This is powerful because it checks you have the right understanding of what has happened and helps to ensure others do too. It is also a good relationships builder, as everyone appreciates being listened to and understood. By repeating what has happened this will have helped your brain process the knowledge and start to store it and make it much easier to return, too. You then have an advantage over many people who a few weeks or even days later look at their notes and have not got a clue what they are about (this is normal as people speak at about 140 words a minute and only record around 30 if fast, so they have an incomplete record of what has been said in the other person’s language, in a time sequence that makes sense to them).
Understanding some or how the brain works in a practical work scenario, such as a meeting, its natural structural limits and how to overcome them, can make a big difference to optimising your brain’s performance on a day to day basis. A secondary benefit is that this has mental and emotional benefits such as feeling more relaxed and more confident.
 Optimising the use of note-taking as an external cognitive aid for increasing learning, British Journal of Educational Technology, Vol 40, No 4, 2009.
About the expert
Jonathan Kemp MSc, Human Intelligence Expert and creator of SmartWisdom – the advanced note-taking technique which helps save time and increase productivity at work /study – gained a Masters in Finance, International Trade and Shipping – coming in the top 15% and he developed SmartWisdom to help him study. Over 20 years he’s helped large corporations and students (many of whom are dyslexic), increase productivity and efficiency. SmartWisdom is scientifically proven, giving a huge competitive advantage for dyslexics. Jonathan won ‘Entrepreneur of the Year Award’, with regular press appearances including the BBC and Sunday Mirror and is a TEDx speaker. Find out more at www.smartwisdom.com