Brainy Business Book Review: The Compelling Communicator by Tim Pollard

Brainy Business Book Review: The Compelling Communicator by Tim Pollard - A Top 25 Must-Read!A Top 25 Must-Read

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By popular demand, the Brainy Business Book Review is back! Here’s another savvy book summary from my Brainy Business Dad, Don Fletcher.

My dad is a real career advice guru: he’s read about 500 business books just in the last 15 years. (How did he find the time?? We’ll talk about that in a future post.) With all those books under his belt, he really knows the good from the bad from the just plain boring.

Dad has been raving about this book for months! So I’m delighted to present another “Top 25 Must-Read” review for you. Here we go…

The Brainy Business Book: The Compelling Communicator by Tim Pollard (2016)

The Compelling Communicator: Mastering the Art and Science of Exceptional Presentation Design is a top 25 must-read book. It provides groundbreaking insights, based on current brain science, on how to craft and deliver messages that truly resonate.

As CEO of the communications consulting firm Oratium, Tim Pollard’s purpose is to provide a creditable alternative to what he calls “show up and throw up” presentations, also referred to as “Death by PowerPoint.” The Compelling Communicator is a distillation of the concepts he developed over the years while coaching his clients – from senior executives to TEDx speakers – on how to create communications with impact.

Even if you are thinking, “I don’t do PowerPoint presentations!” this book is still for you. The principles in Pollard’s model apply to any form of human communication, whether it’s a presentation, blog post, training course, or conversation with your teenage daughter. [Brainy Business Babe note: I have no idea what he’s talking about.]

What is compelling communication? Pollard describes it as the ability to “powerfully land a small number of big ideas.” Citing recent brain science research findings, he has identified a three-step process to guide anyone to extraordinary communications.

Of the many insights to be found in the book, here are my top 5:

Insight #1: Communication Makes or Breaks a Leader

Why is communication so important? According to Pollard, it is a crucial element of career success.

Here’s a rundown of the bad, the good, and the ugly:

The Bad

The bad news is that shoddy communications can really harm your career, even if you are talented in other areas.

Pollard cites survey data demonstrating that poor presentation skills are career-limiting for aspiring leaders, and severely hinder the effectiveness of those already in leadership. For example, one research survey featured this question:

When a senior executive delivers a poor presentation, how does it affect your perception of his or her critical thinking/analytical skills?

In this case, 74% of respondents said that poor communication [has] a notable negative impact on their perceptions of a leader’s critical thinking skills.”

In another case, the respondents reported that 2 out of 3 presentations they had witnessed were “mediocre or worse,” and 1 in 5 were “really stinking up the joint”!

The Good

The good news is that the opposite is also true: excellent communication skills can skyrocket your career!

Pollard tells the story of how he got a chance opportunity, as a young employee, to present in front of his company’s largest client. He nailed the presentation, and his career was launched!

Lest you label him a braggart, Pollard follows up this success story by promising, “I assure you, you will read about several of my many screw-ups as this book progresses.” You have to love his self-deprecating humor! He goes on to say that he included his own triumph “because it’s crucial to demonstrate the positive side of communication.”

The Ugly

Next, Pollard states the logical question: if communication is so incredibly important, “why haven’t we fixed this” yet?

His answer: “The real reason we present badly is because we don’t know what the rules that govern great communication are, and if we don’t know what they are, we can never know if we are breaking them.” (click here to tweet) This leads us to Insight #2.

Insight #2: Crime and Punishment – What Happens When We Break the Rules?

Pollard recounts a noteworthy story that illustrates how tempting it is to break the rules for effective presentations, and the dire consequences of doing so:

A conference keynote speaker’s first PowerPoint slide consisted of several bullet points, one of which contained a terrible typo. The mistake was so bad that a man in the audience interrupted the speaker to point it out.

Immediately, the presenter congratulated him on his observation and handed him a $20 bill. Then, the speaker announced that there was one more typo in his presentation, and that the first person to spot the error would be awarded $200!

Brilliant and memorable? Not so fast!

In this case, Pollard says, the speaker may have gotten the audience to focus on the text on the screen, but to the detriment of his actual message.

According to Pollard, that this speaker broke the three most important rules of communication. First, he used bulleted text on his slides. He entreats us: “don’t ever do that!” For one thing, presenting slides full of bulleted text allows you to bombard your audience with “Too Much Information” – more than they can digest during the time you are speaking. On top of that, the audience is distracted from your current remarks by reading what’s ahead.

Second, the speaker’s strategy directed the audience’s attention to the screen, as opposed to himself.  According to Pollard, this is “a trap that ensnares most speakers.”

Third, his audience failed to grasp the essence of his presentation. Their attention was totally consumed in scanning the text to capture the $200 reward. According to Pollard, this third violation was the speaker’s biggest error. By failing to “powerfully land a small number of big ideas,” the speaker rendered his entire presentation pointless.

Insight #3: Work With the Brain, Not Against It

The good news is you can learn to communicate effectively by following the right framework. The reason his system works, Pollard says, is because the framework is “based on how the human brain consumes information.”

Modern neuroscience researchers, using tools like functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), have revealed many of the secrets of how our brains process information. We can use these discoveries to our advantage. According to Pollard, “when communicators line up with how the brain wants to consume information, amazing effectiveness is possible.” But, on the flip side, “when they violate these natural laws of how the brain works, failure inevitably follows.”

So now that you understand WHY using a brain-oriented communication method (to understand the reason for the capitalized “why,” refer to last month’s book review of Start with Why by Simon Sinek), let’s peer into Pollard’s approach of HOW to communicate effectively using his framework, which he calls “the Carbon Atom model.”

Insight #3: Visualize Your Message Using the Carbon Atom Model

Pollard calls his process for designing a presentation, email, or any other communication the Carbon Atom Model. It’s named for the element carbon, which has six electrons orbiting its nucleus. Pollard’s model has a “nucleus” and six related steps/tools.

At the center of the model – the nucleus – is the audience. It’s critically important that communication be receiver-centric. Pollard argues that most presentations are constructed in a sender-centric way that turns people off, since it’s about you or your organization and not about the listeners’ needs.

So Pollard insists that you begin your design effort by identifying the audience’s problem and building your content around that need. Think about it: when you take your valuable time to listen to someone else, your ultimate question is, “What’s in it for me?”

Like electrons circling the nucleus of a carbon atom, the rest of your message should center on this key concept. The six steps in the Carbon Atom Method fall into 3 categories:

Right Content

  • Selection
  • Simplification

Right Sequence

  • Sequence
  • Initial Engagement

Right Engagement

  • Whole Person Engagement
  • Supporting Materials

Read on to Insight #5 for an explanation of each step in the process.

Insight #5: Mastering Content Design with the Carbon Atom Method

How do you create great content based on the Carbon Atom Model? You may be thinking, how do I begin? Does the presentation order matter? How do I ensure the message is memorable for the listener? Is this so hard that only a PhD can be successful at it? Read on for Pollard’s answers to all these questions.

Step 1: The Right Content

In Step 1, you create the “Right Content” through two steps: Selection and Simplification.


Pollard’s communication messaging process begins with “one of the most fundamental questions in all presentation design – that of relevance.”  He argues that this effort is “most critical, because if you don’t have the right content, it doesn’t matter how you then sequence it, illustrate it, etc. It’s simply the wrong content, and that can’t be redeemed.”

If you don’t have the right content, it doesn’t matter how you then sequence it, illustrate it, etc. It’s simply the wrong content, and that can’t be redeemed. - Tim Pollard

Pollard defines relevance as what is valuable or important to the audience. According to Pollard, “audiences will most deeply engage with information that helps them with a particular problem.” Determining the Relevant Content starts with “the action you want your audience to take, and work[s] back from there. Hence, the first question you want to ask is: What is the desired outcome of the presentation?”

To answer this question, Pollard provides us with what I consider to be the most powerful tool in the book, the Pyramid of Planned Outcomes.  “The tool make use of an important flow or sequence in the brain works, which I can describe as Know > Believe > Do,” he says. What does the audience need to know and believe in order to be able to do what you are inviting them to do? With book in hand, use this tool to construct the powerful content that exemplifies any great communication.


Once you’ve identified your content, it’s time to simplify. Pollard says, “Bombarding with too much information is one of the more serious violations of a natural law of brain science.” Here, he gives two instructions: focus on only the most relevant material, and keep it as simple as possible.

We now have the right content to use in Step 2, Right Sequence.

Step 2: The Right Sequence

All memorable stories are told in a logical order, or sequence, from beginning to end. Educators know that we learn new information by connecting new ideas to something we already know. For example, teaching the alphabet comes before making a reading assignment. Which raises the question: how do we create the right sequence, so that the audience can easily comprehend what we’re trying to say?


Here, Pollard comes to our rescue once again. He uses storyboarding as the tool to string together the key concepts identified in the Pyramid of Planned Outcomes (Step 1) in the right order. The insights are linked by natural, logical questions as the transitions between your key points.

Selecting an appropriate transition is simply anticipating what question might naturally arise from you audience based on what you’ve just said.  As an example of a natural logical question, see the last sentence in the first paragraph of this section: “Which raises the question: how do we create the right sequence, so that the audience can easily comprehend what we’re trying to say?”

The point here is to ensure that the audience can follow the flow of thought. Pollard says, “You may not agree with everything you’re reading, but hopefully you’re never lost.”

Initial Engagement

Now you may be wondering, how do I make sure I get off on the right foot? According to brain science research on how we retain information, the way we launch our presentation – the first few minutes – is crucial. Pollard says, “Your presentation opening bears a huge load: it has to secure attention and interest, and it both anchors and sets the context for everything else that’s to come.”

The answer is: to begin with what is relevant to the audience. And the most relevant starting point is the problem. (The very same problem determined in Step 1, Right Content.)

Step 3: The Right Engagement

In this final step, we learn how to ensure that our big ideas are retained long after the presentation ends.

Whole-Person Engagement

To significantly improve the odds of the audience remembering our content, we incorporate elements of “stickiness.” These elements engage the brain in a way that makes the facts of our argument “stick,” or become much more memorable. The way to do this is to incorporate elements that engage both halves of the brain – the left or “logical” brain and the right or “emotional” brain.

The book describes five ways to engage the whole brain and improve your audience’s retention:

  1. Stories
  2. Visual Images
  3. Artifacts or demos
  4. Contrasts
  5. Metaphor
Supporting Materials

According to Pollard, handouts, pictures, and leave-behinds are a key component of long-term stickiness. His chapter on supporting materials offers five rules for becoming a “visual aid ninja”:

  1. Visual Aids Must Be… Visual
  2. The Visual Must Teach
  3. One Idea Only
  4. Take Them Down (once you’ve finished discussing a particular point)
  5. Not Too Many

Bottom Line: A Must-Read

The Compelling Communicator is the best book you will ever read on communication! (And believe me, I’ve read lots of them.) It’s also an enjoyable and very readable book. I’ve tried my best to cover the highlights, but there’s a lot more great content in the book to help you with the “brass tacks” of constructing your next presentation, blog post, or email. So what will you gain? “A significant transformation in the effectiveness of your communication.” Before you do anything else today, run to the library or bookstore and grab your copy.

Have you read The Compelling Communicator? What book should we review next? Let us know in the comments!

*Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you click on one of my affiliate links and make a purchase, I may receive a commission for referring you. This comes at no extra cost to you. I’m grateful for your support!

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