The Croc Brain: Keys to Effective Presentations

By Stephen T. Messenger

April 26, 2022

Eaten by the Crocodile

A few years ago, I gave a presentation to a senior military leader. It was a brief I’d given several times before in different variations. I was well prepared, well-rehearsed, and felt both confident and nervous right before going on stage. It was GO time!

Four minutes in, this senior leader literally dismissed me. He said something to the effect of, “Yeah, thanks Steve. We have other things to talk about.” I slunk over to my seat in shame, and the meeting could not end fast enough for me.

He chewed me up like a crocodile.

While professionally embarrassing, this experience encouraged me to work on being a better presenter. I wanted to know the secrets to captivating an audience instead of boring them.  

I wanted to be one of those Ted Talks people who mesmerize the audience.

Thinking about the Crocodile

Oren Klaff, in his book Pitch Anything, talks about the give and take of communication.  People prepare presentations with the humanistic, thinking part of their brain (the neo cortex), but your audience first receives the ideas with the “croc” part of their brain, technically named the basal ganglia. This is where information is initially processed.

The croc brain has an instinctive fight or flight mentality. How do we know?

Some scientists thought it would be a great idea to wrestle crocodiles into an MRI machine and watch them think. What they found, besides the fact that crocodiles don’t belong in MRIs, was a primitive brain that only cares about things that are dangerous, new, or interesting. It is focuses on survival, filters out all perceived worthless information, and reacts only when stimulated.

  1. If it’s not dangerous, ignore it
    1. If it’s not new and exciting, ignore it
    1. If it’s new, summarize as quick as possible and forget about the details
    1. Do not send anything to the neo cortex for problem solving unless its highly unusual

In humans, the croc part of the brain is the gatekeeper of the mind. It’s the first to receive information and either pass it onto the thinking part of the brain to make better decisions or ignore it.

When introducing an idea in a speech, written document, presentation, or conversation, we must get past the receiver’s croc brain and into the thinking part. This is particularly important in social media.

You clicked on this article because your croc brain found it new, interesting, or threatening. Otherwise, you’d be onto the next email or post.

Engaging with the Crocodile

There are ways to tame the scaly beast.

  1. Be a Storyteller. People respond to stories that relate to them and evoke emotions. The best presenters capture their audience with a narrative and use humor or suspense to keep them.
  2. Time. All the important stuff must fit into the audience’s attention span. In a presentation, it’s less than 20 minutes. Use that time wisely.
  1. Confidence Is Key. You must understand your information cold and be prepared to go off script. Your confidence and excitement level rubs off on the audience—even if it doesn’t seem like it.
  2. Monitor the Croc Brain. The other person is trying to figure out if this is an emergency, important, or new. If not, they’re going to ignore it.  Continuously check the temperature of the croc.
  3. Never get flustered. If you’re a regular presenter on new topics, you’re going to have some hits and misses. It’s okay. The important thing is to end with confidence and learn for next time.


Some people you talk to begin with their neo cortex. They want to get right to business and skip the croc part. It’s important to know who you’re talking to, the environment, time constraints, goals of the meeting, and a host of other factors. The best leaders KNOW THEIR AUDIENCE and communicate effectively.  

Owning the Crocodile

Brian Hagen, author of Problems, Risks, and Opportunity, speaks about how leaders need to be star presenters. You must strive to be the one senior management loves hearing from based on your ability to speak directly and succinctly about issues based on narratives and solid data.

You are the one who is interesting, minimizes small talk, has a sense of humor, is confident but not cocky, and thinks from an enterprise perspective. Your audience wants to hear you speak.

You’re graded by how you present. Either people like hearing from you, want to throw you off the stage, or are somewhere in the middle. Whichever way they lean, learn from my failure, and put effort into being a world-class presenter at every crocodile encounter.

Lead, and present, well!

Join the over 100 people who receive a weekly, free email on leadership every Tuesday from The Maximum Standard. Leaders are like crocodiles and must find new, interesting, and threatening leadership information to hone their skills. We hope this forum is one of many ways you grow as a leader!

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