Understanding brain preferences, the key to getting ideas approved

Many moons ago; Frank sat across a massive wooden table that was wide enough to seat four people with space left over. Frank had his arms folded in front of his chest and sat at an angle, never quite facing Marianne directly throughout their meeting. To Marianne, Frank was uncomfortably distant. 

Frank was the head of training for the Kuala Lumpur branch of one of the world’s largest hotel chains. He wanted an introduction to People Potential’s programmes, so he called Marianne in for a meeting. But from the moment Marianne walked into the room, she didn’t feel comfortable. Like two walruses fighting over a patch of floating ice, their ideas seemed mismatched, and their expectations clashed. After a tiring hour-long meeting that couldn’t have ended sooner, Marianne returned to the office and told her colleagues, “I don’t think we’ll get their business.” But to her surprise, Frank called her a week later and asked to talk over lunch. When Marianne met him the second time over a meal, Frank was a completely different person.


When you’re uncomfortable and out of your element, whether you’re in a meeting that isn’t going to plan or a project pitch that has everyone folding their arms, and you feel like a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t fit; it’s because you’re using words that don’t appeal to your audience’s brain preferences, and people are making statements that are incongruent with how your mind works. 

When we understand other people’s brain preferences and our own, we begin to speak in a way that appeals to their mental operating language, and we start to hear other people’s words from a different angle. We teach this concept in our flagship programme, The Case Maker™

In The Case Maker™, we demonstrate that there are 4 primary brain preferences (these are inspired by Herrmann’s Whole Brain Model). They are:

  1. Facts. This includes numbers and data to support your ideas or your pitch.
  2. Ideas. Such as the image of a better tomorrow and grand themes that excite.
  3. Feelings. Declarations of empathy towards other people, how people feel, how you feel.
  4. Practical applications. How is it useful? Can it be adopted? Steps to implement. 

Most people have a dominant brain preference and sometimes a combination of two or more preferences. Suppose you’re presenting to your manager, who prefers facts, but you leave out the Excel sheets, graphs, and opinion polls. In that case, you’re going to have a manager who might respectfully listen to your presentation but will leave unconvinced. 

Likewise, show a ‘feelings’ person pages of implementation details and copious amounts of data to support your argument, and you’ll be left with a person who is disinterested in what you have to say and won’t connect with you emotionally.

But how can you discover your audience’s brain preference? Especially when we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and guessing people’s brain preferences can often be inaccurate. The answer is time; if you’re in the same organisation and you regularly present your case or ideas to a particular person or group, then it pays to take time to get to know the people that you’re presenting to.


Marianne gingerly jogs into the Japanese restaurant, the spicy aftertaste of their last meeting still vivid in her mind. Then from the corner of her eye, she saw Frank waving at her. As Marianne got closer, Frank cracked a smile like they were old friends. It was her first time in a Japanese restaurant, so Frank walked her through the menu, pointing out what was delicious. Then over a meal of fresh sashimi, miso soup and ebifurai-maki, what followed was an hour of free-flowing conversation and an effortless exchange of ideas. Marianne left the restaurant a little puzzled, wondering, “What happened?”


There were a few people whom Marianne had significant trouble trying to convince or influence. One was Frank, the other was Anthony. But it all changed once Marianne began to understand brain preferences. 

In Marianne’s early days, her proposals to Anthony often fell flat, and that was because Anthony is an ideas person with a grounding in facts. But her early proposals to him didn’t tickle the part of his frontal cortex that loved big ideas (her ideas were not framed as big ideas). And Marianne didn’t include enough data “from the literature” (a phrase often used by Anthony) to satisfy his brain’s preference for facts. But she changed her approach once she understood that his brain preference was facts and ideas. She began reading what he was reading and started citing sources. Then Marianne’s suggestions started to gain traction. Even though she was proposing the same ideas, the shift of framing to include big ideas, data and citations was more successful in convincing Anthony.

But Anthony is Marianne’s peer and someone that she’s close to. Very few other people fall into that category. What about the people whom you’re not so close to? How do you get to know their brain preferences?

As for the people you work with inside your organisation, it pays to spend time observing them. Years ago, Marianne struggled to break through to a few close people; some were family and work associates, so she made a spreadsheet. On the spreadsheet columns, she laid out the different brain preferences, while on the spreadsheet rows, Marianne had the names of the people she was struggling to appeal to. After every interaction, she wrote notes next to their names and ticked off the times when she noticed that they were talking about facts, ideas, feelings, or practical applications. After months of observation, Marianne finally understood that Anthony was a facts and ideas person. (A few months isn’t a long time to get to know someone’s brain preferences, especially if you’re going to make many proposals to them.)

But how about strangers? Is it possible to know a stranger’s brain preferences?

When you’re a brain-preference sleuth at work, people will give you clues. In meetings, you might hear questions, objections, or statements that will point to a particular brain preference:

“The implementation plan is weak.” – Practical applications.

“The numbers don’t seem right.” – Facts.

“It’s been done before.” – Ideas.

“Your proposal isn’t fair to some staff.” – Feelings.

“Is this even worth our time?” – Ideas.

Ibrahim J. Mariwa, one of the master trainers for The Case Maker™, has found that LinkedIn is an unexpected tool for discovering someone’s brain preference. What they write on LinkedIn will closely resemble who they are at work. Earlier, I mentioned that brain preferences are contextual and that people have different brain preferences depending on where they are and what they’re doing. So, what you find on Facebook and LinkedIn could be different because while LinkedIn is for work, Facebook is for friends and family. And if you’re trying to influence someone at work, then LinkedIn is the more relevant tool – because people are more work-like on LinkedIn.

On LinkedIn, look at what they write in their posts:

“I feel that this is the right thing to do.”

“I hope they pull through.”

“Nobody should be treated like that.”

Also, look at the recommendations that they give to other people, as well as the recommendations that they receive.

“Cares about other people.”

“Goes above and beyond to help.”

“A team player.”

All these are synonymous with a ‘feelings’ person. And by looking at their posts and recommendations, you can then make an educated guess about their brain preferences.

But what if you’re presenting to a diverse group of people? Then there are two ways you can go about getting your ideas adopted. First, you can zoom in on the decision-maker and prepare your pitch with her brain preferences in mind. Second, you can speak to all the different brain preferences. In a South East Asian regional bank, we taught the management trainees to speak to the ‘feelings’ people, such as the HR manager. The ‘ideas’ person, such as the CEO. The ‘facts’ people, such as the CFO. And the ‘practical applications’ people, such as the project managers. We showed that they could appeal to all of them simultaneously when they incorporate elements that appeal to each brain preference in their presentations.


A few weeks later, Frank called us with good news; we ended up winning the contract with one of the world’s biggest hotel chains. The restaurant staff that we trained went on to win the Best Restaurant Award. Marianne has since become good friends with Frank. For years after he left the hotel chain, they’d meet regularly over a meal (mainly at the local kopitiam), exchange ideas, talk about technology and solve problems. 


Marianne’s experience with Frank and Anthony teaches us two important lessons:

  1. It’s worthwhile to spend the time to get to know people, and
  2. It’s helpful to take the time to discover their brain preferences so that we can better communicate with the people that we care about. 


Names and situations have been changed to protect the identity of the people featured in this article. This article is a modified excerpt from an interview with Marianne Vincent, the Director of Training Quality at People Potential.