Public (Speaking) Enemy #1: “The Cognitive Miser”

Perhaps you’ve met this person:

  • Jumps to conclusions
  • Doesn’t listen
  • Talks over other people
  • Puts everything in the context of “Oh, I’ve heard/seen/done this before.”
  • “Tunes out” quickly – has difficulty paying attention
  • Thinks they already know everything
  • Doesn’t “get” concepts or ideas that seem simple to you

If you’re trying to drive a change and behavior and thinking when you present – and all of us are – that person is your worst enemy.

Here’s the problem: that person is every single person you talk to. Every single one.

Why? Because that person is in the brain of every single person you talk to. “The Cognitive Miser.”

Who, or rather, what is the Cognitive Miser? And why does it make us – and our customers, clients, and audiences – do all of those horrible things?

Psychologists Susan Fiske and Shelly Taylor (who coined the term) explain: the human brain “will think only as much as it feels it needs to, and no more.” At any given moment, our brain – everyone’s brains – is trying to take every possible shortcut in thinking it can.

Our brain will assume that something that starts in a familiar way will also finish in a familiar way. It will instantly categorize new information based on patterns it’s seen before. It will provide immediate (and often unconscious commentary) on everything it sees, hears, and experiences. It will tune out as soon as it doesn’t think a situation, a piece of information, or even a person is important. It will stop paying attention if it considers something “too much work” to figure out.

Think you’re immune? Try this:

  • A bat and ball together cost $1.10.
  • The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.
  • How much does the ball cost?ball and bat

10 cents, right? Not quite.

As Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman tells us: “the distinctive mark of this easy puzzle is that it evokes an answer that is intuitive, appealing… and wrong.”

How?

Think about it: If the ball costs 10 cents, and the bat is a dollar more, then the total cost would be $1.20 ($0.10 + $1.10 = $1.20), not $1.10. Whoops.

That means the ball costs five cents ($0.05), which makes the bat $1.05.

$1.05 + $0.05 = $1.10

Even if you got that particular puzzle right, there are still thousands, if not millions of times a day when your brain – and again, your audience’s brain – is doing something similar.

So yes, there’s a Cognitive Miser in every one of us, and in every person we talk to. But that doesn’t mean you’re doomed as a presenter.

You’re only doomed if you forget that it’s the Cognitive Miser you really have to talk to.

And how do you do that? By making sure your big ideas and insights are (a) relevant to your audience and (b) crystal clear to them, as well. Start your presentation or conversation by describing situations they’re familiar with and want to improve. State your conclusions clearly, and make it clear that they are your conclusions (“Here’s what this means…” “In other words…” “This is key…”).

It also means you need to follow the advice of your high school math teachers and “show your work:” make sure the context and support for your big ideas is also crystal clear. Ask yourself “What does my audience need to know to agree with or believe this idea?” Articulate those questions that the Cognitive Miser automatically pops into their heads – and answer them.

In other words, when you’re putting a presentation together, ask yourself not just, “What does my audience need?” Ask yourself, “What does the Cognitive Miser need?”


Written by

tamsen