Get Used to Watching Yourself – December 2019

If you never have to stand in front of an audience and deliver a presentation, you can stop reading. For the rest of you, I am often asked, “Should I bring notes on stage, or script my presentation word for word?” As with most of life, the answer is never simple. Before I get into the meat of the issue, let’s dispense with one question right off the bat. Unless you are giving a legal deposition, never script your presentation. The two most common reasons people script speeches are: they are too nervous to face the audience and talk, or they are worried about forgetting important points of information.

If you are uncomfortable facing and audience, reading off a script won’t make you appear any more comfortable. In fact, because you are trying to follow words on a page, you are more likely to stumble when you fall off script (which always happens). If you are worried about forgetting something, bring notes on stage. If you have key words to follow, your natural conversational tone will take over, and you will appear more genuine and authoritative; and the notes will make sure you tick off important points as you go.

There is another important reason not to script presentations. When we write, we use more words than when we speak; we also use different vocabulary. It is rare that someone can read a prepared speech and not sound canned. The result is a disconnect from the audience, and a loss of trust on the part of the listener.

So, if you can’t script a presentation, how do you improve your speaking skills? An effective tool comes from an unlikely source; stand-up comedy. Comedians have the same challenge as speakers, they must remember important points in their presentation, and yet they must appear to be speaking off the top of their head. Comedians use what is called a set list; a list of key words that take them from one piece of material (called a bit) to the next. The best comedians take honing their craft to the next level. They record their act, then afterwards they transcribe their set word for word; essentially creating a script after the fact. This allows them to examine their act on paper and look for better word choices, clear up unnecessary or meandering segments, and rearrange material for better flow.

Besides reviewing their act on paper, disciplined comedians also watch themselves on video. They look for distracting mannerisms. These are usually repetitive movements that people aren’t aware they are doing unless they see it on screen. They watch for movement and physicality that either supports or detracts from their message. Anyone who has seen themselves on video can attest that it can be very uncomfortable. Few people like the way they look or sound on tape, so good performers must develop an objectivity; the ability to look at themselves on screen as if they were an audience member. Gaining objectivity helps us improve our style without getting rid of the things that make us personable.

Years ago, I was acquainted with a successful news anchor. He reached the top of the #14 media market in the country, and was eventually hired in Los Angeles, the #2 market. I asked how he gained the skills to be a top-notch news anchor, and he said, “I review every single news broadcast I deliver. I evaluate my performance as if I were someone sitting in his or her living room and I ask myself, ‘Would I like watching this, or would I turn the channel?’” I thought about what my friend said, and I thought about the thousands of conferences I have attended over the years. I thought about how many speakers made me want to change the channel.

Few comedians, or news anchors, follow through with the discipline of transcribing their performance and reviewing themselves on tape; but the best ones do. I do it every so often, and every time I do, I am surprised at what I learn about my performance. Even if you can’t transcribe and review yourself after every presentation, do it as often as you can. It is the only way to make sure the audience doesn’t want to change the channel.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

One Thousand Punches a Day – October 2019

This is a monumental year for my company; it is our 30th anniversary. I know, you see my photo or videos in the Business Journal and think, “Stevie, you don’t look a day over forty!” I stay out of the sun. When people find out about the big 3-0, they invariably ask how we kept our little enterprise going for three decades. This is especially pertinent given the statistics of business survival. According to the Small Business Administration, 30% of new businesses fail in the first year, 50% during the first five years, 66% during the first ten; with only 25% making it to the fifteen-year mark.

As a born talk, I try to come up with sage advice to others who ask about our longevity, but I always go back to the wisdom of previous generations. A lot of that wisdom comes from outside the world of business. I have been practicing martial arts for over forty years and I use the lessons of ancient martial arts to guide much of what I do in life. I say ancient martial arts to distinguish it from the trophy-hunting practice often seen today. I learned the most valuable lesson for business on my first day of karate training.

When I first walked into a karate dojo in 1977, my teacher, Mr. Okamura, was an older Japanese man. Like most young men, I was eager to learn the high-flying antics of movie stars like Bruce Lee. When I asked Okamura what I had to do to become an expert martial artist he said, “Practice one thousand punches every day.” I stared at him. How could practicing the simplest of techniques help me become a master? I asked, “When do I learn the flying kicks, the spinning kicks, or the secret death blows?” (Note: there is no such thing as a secret death touch.) Okamura sighed and said, “Someday, you will learn those, but they are worthless.”

Okamura explained, “It is unlikely that you will ever need to use your martial art to defend yourself; but if you do, it will be in a moment of fear or panic. If someone attacks you, you have no time to think; you must act. Fancy techniques require thinking. In a real situation, you will only have time for either a quick punch or simple kick. In that moment, you must deliver your technique with power and precision in a split second. If you practice a simple punch or kick one thousand times every day, the technique will be there when you need it. If you scatter your training across every technique available, you won’t master anything. Better to master one thing than be average at many things. He who chases two rabbits gets no dinner.”

I can’t say I have always heeded Okamura’s advice, but it has served as a guide when running my business. I even wrote a book, One Thousand Punches a Day. I identify simple acts that I think will grow my business, and I employ them every day. These simple acts could be five e-mails or calls to prospective clients, or follow-up contacts with previous clients; every single day. And, when I am tempted by some plan that promises to jump my business ten-fold, I treat it like a spinning jump kick; I may learn it some day, but I can’t rely on it when the chips are down. I also remembered when Okamura said to have a good teacher who would examine how well you punched; and make corrections if needed. There is no point in practicing something every day if it isn’t getting you anywhere.

There isn’t a business alive that doesn’t survive on simple acts performed every day. Focusing on simple acts is a challenge. It is tempting to shift our attention to a new and exciting technique, rather than continue plugging away at what works; but focus is the key to a successful business. It is also hard to keep one thousand punches a day in mind when we are surrounded by stories of billionaires who created mega-companies overnight with one cool new idea; but those people are like Bruce Lee. You can’t duplicate them, and they don’t come along very often. Better to have a simple punch that you can rely on.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

Why We Argue – September 2019

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I like to keep my wits sharp. To do this, I often listen to debates on my computer while performing mundane tasks at work. The debates cover every issue you can imagine; immigration policy, foreign affairs, education, you name it. As you might expect, there are experts on both sides of the issue armed with reams of documents. As you also might expect, neither side gives an inch. No matter what either side says, the other team remains cemented to the notion that the opposing team is mis-informed, ill-intentioned, or outright evil.

This particular program polls the audience prior to the debate, and then again afterwards. The winner is not the team with the highest number of followers among the audience, but the team that changed the most minds. As in our two-party political system, there are people on both sides of each issue, and there is a percentage of undecided voters. In politics, most strategists acknowledge that there is little chance of converting a Republican to a Democrat, and vice versa; they focus on the independent voters. But, the teams in the debate program are hoping to change everyone’s minds. And indeed, when the results are displayed at the end of the debate, I am pleasantly surprised as to how many people began the debate voting for one side, yet changed their vote based on what they learned.

How does this relate to business? There isn’t a day that goes by in any company without some sort of debate. The problem is most debates bear little fruit. People typically come to the table with a point of view, and facts to defend their position. A lot of talking occurs, with very little listening. Most people are just waiting for the other side to stop talking so they can make their point. If one person makes a point, and the other person doesn’t agree, the strategy is to re-state the position; louder. We humans seem to think that the only reason other people don’t agree with us is that they didn’t hear us the first time. Then, when the other person says, “I heard you the first time,” we re-state our position, using different wording. (Perhaps they heard us, but just didn’t understand our version of English.)

I can’t think of a bigger waste of time for the American worker than debates during meetings (other than surfing Facebook to see photos of your friends on vacation). Bad debates can cause long term damage to working relationships. When people agree with us, we view them as smart and well-intentioned. When people disagree with us, we don’t trust them even if they are correct. This not only makes for poor teamwork, but poor decision making. Many times, decisions are made based on facts, but on which decision will cause the least amount of grief among the team.

If I were looking to hire people, I wouldn’t hire the experts who fervently present their case and stick to their guns, I would hire the people who either had the courage to admit that they were undecided in the first place, or those who had the ability to change their minds. These are the kinds of people who demonstrate respect for various points of view, and who keep their ego out of the equation.

Examining one’s ego is a crucial part of leadership; since our ego does more decision-making than our intellect. A neuroscientific study examined why people become so angry when their beliefs are challenged. It was discovered that, when a firmly held belief is challenged, the same parts of the brain activate as when we are threatened with physical harm. In short, the brain feels that a challenge to our beliefs is the same as a challenge to our very safety. It is no wonder that, when arguing an issue, people will scream, sweat, and pound the table. Their brains are preparing for a fight that goes beyond words.

How does a leader handle this? When a difficult issue is at hand, remind the group that they need to distance themselves from the issue. Treat ideas as facts, not a representation of the person discussing it. And remind the group that how they debate will carry into how they work together once the debate is over.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

The One Reason You Exist – August 2019

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I was on the phone with my web hosting company because I was having trouble setting up new e-mail service for my business. After weeks of working out the kinks, I was not able to sign on to my new service. The tech support guy confirmed that I wasn’t able to open my e-mail because I did not buy a special secure package. I said that I was never told about having to pay more just to use the service I already paid for, he said, “You know what I would do? I would cancel this other package you bought and install the secure package. You will save more money in the end.” By the time we were done, I was so happy about his service I had forgotten that previous reps at the company had sold me unnecessary packages. It got me to wondering about how that rep’s manager was able to instill in him the urge to go beyond the basics of his job and serve the needs of the customer.

This is a trend among businesses I work with lately. Leaders can’t seem to get employees to do more than just the bare minimum. The first scapegoat is employee motivation, but motivation is a delicate balance of internal and external factors. And a lack of motivation isn’t solved by an occasional pep talk. Motivation is not a goal; it is an outcome. An outcome of skills combined with empathy; the ability to feel what another person is feeling. When a customer is frustrated, simply solving their problem isn’t enough. Empathy empowers an employee to alleviate the stress and frustration the customer feels.

To foster empathy, you must first create a picture of why everyone’s work is important, but also important for the right reasons. If people understand how their work affects the big picture, they will always go above and beyond. I call this The One Reason You Exist.

The one reason you exist is a simple phrase that describes the one goal your organization strives to achieve with every interaction, with every customer. The one reason your company exists is not the mission statement, it is a simple phrase that every employee could repeat. The One Reason You Exist goes beyond tasks and functions; it speaks to what you bring to the world. It goes beyond what you do and examines what you do for others. During a workshop for a group of government employees, I asked each department to tell me why they existed. A group from Child Services started rattling off their mission statement; filled with “to provide” and “ensure” statements. I told them that, if they wouldn’t use the statement over coffee with friends, they couldn’t use it as the one reason they existed. I left the group to discuss and they came back with a great reason to exist; Feed the babies.

The reason having this clear, concise statement is important is that every decision a staff member makes must be measured against that goal. If a staff meeting gets bogged down over disagreements, one can simply ask, “Does your idea help us feed the babies?” If it doesn’t, out it goes. Many companies claim to give “superior customer service,” including the one that sold me e-mail packages I didn’t need. The trouble is, “superior” isn’t something you can feel; so, employees go through the motions and follow procedures. They figure that, if they didn’t piss anyone off that day, they did their job. That behavior isn’t superior.

Another company I worked with replaced “superior customer service” with the one reason they existed, We bring the wow. That statement might sound too slogan-y or cutesy to you, but it brings clarity to what is expected of everyone at the company. You have done your job when the customer says, “Wow!” Employees at that company are motivated to go beyond their job description. The goal of bringing the wow encourages them to empathize with the person they are serving. In fact, staff members will now hang up the phone and announce to the room, “I just brought the wow!”

Set aside your fancy mission statement and think about the one reason your company exists. Provide motivation for your employees that comes from within.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

If You Want Creative Thinking, Stimulate – July 2019

Here is how most companies conduct a brainstorming session. They take a bunch of staff members and pack them around a table in a conference room. The walls of the room are the same dull gray as the local penitentiary. The only artwork is a motivational poster from the ‘80s with a photo of people rowing a boat with word TEAMWORK at the bottom.  There is a fridge full of Snapple drinks and a basket of granola bars, plus some leftover Halloween candy someone brought in from home. The session kicks off when the leader stands up and asks, “Who has an idea?”

When this question is met with silent stares, the leader thinks, “I chose the wrong people.” This is one of many mistakes made by companies seeking innovative ideas. The first being the notion that there are creative people and normal people. Creative people are the ones with nose rings, facial tattoos, and clothing with colors from the outer ranges of the spectrum. They show up late, talk about their feelings, and give hugs instead of handshakes. You want creative people around for brainstorm sessions, but not for shareholder meetings.

The fact is, there is no such thing as a creative or non-creative brain. All brains have the same capacity for rational thought as well as free-wheeling noodling. Accountants are just as creative as artists. The reason some people are better at creative thinking is they have received the proper stimulation. Given the right stimulation, any brain and produce ground-breaking ideas. However, the stimulation needed must be both internal and external.

External stimulation is the engagement of the five senses. The brain is not a machine, it is an organism; an organism that responds to its environment. In order to stimulate the brain’s creative juices, the eyes must be dazzled with color and images, the ears must hear rhythm and tone, the hands must grasp objects, the nose must smell enticing aromas, and the tongue must savor flavors. Gray walls dull the senses. Silence tells the ears to tell the brain to stay quiet. Idle hands and sterile smells shut down thinking. And granola bars do not provide excitement (they hardly provide sustenance).

People spend more time selecting the right colors to paint their house than they do their office. We think, “If I am going to live in this room, it has to be just right.” But, the same is true of a workplace. Even if your company isn’t heavy on innovative ideas, adding visual stimulation keeps the brain from dulling down. One company I worked with forewent the standard headshots of employees. Instead, they filled the office with photos of employees engaged in their favorite hobbies. The CFO was swinging tennis racquet. The head of HR was reeling in a lake trout. And the shop foreman was in a karate uniform breaking a board with a kick. Not only are these images more stimulating than a blank wall, they help clients and co-workers see the people at the company as more than just a title and a suit.

Internal stimulation is a recognition that the brain is not a computer in which you can throw a switch labeled Create, and away it goes. When the brain is focused on completing a task, it is engaged in Cognitive Function. It closes parts of the brain not necessary for the task, thereby conserving energy. Cognitive Function is great for completing tasks, but horrible for creative output. To inspire creative thinking, you must shake off the cognitive shackles the brain has been wearing all day, and engage in Whole-Brain Function; in which the entire brain is awakened and connected. This is accomplished by one simple act; play. Play behavior differs from work behavior in that is has no stated outcome. Play is for its own sake. However, when people engage in play, certain chemicals are released in the brain, and they are better able to brainstorm immediately following the game.

Brainstorm companies will have participants grab nerf guns and have an all-out nerf battle just before the brainstorming begins. This play behavior engages whole-brain function, provides internal stimulation, and the ideas flow.

Creative thinking is not magic. It is the result of planning the right amount of internal and external stimulation.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

No Apologies Necessary – June 2019

I am often asked, “If I, or my company, has made a mistake, how should we apologize?” I used to tell people that one apology at the start of the conversation, and one at the end, was sufficient; any more, and it seems like you are begging for forgiveness. However, new research conducted by Case Western Reserve University has discovered that apologies almost never have the desired effect we want. Surprisingly, angry customers report greater satisfaction when the employee skips the apology altogether; focusing instead on finding an immediate solution.

This advice might seem counterintuitive, until you examine the delicate psychology of familial vs. non-familial relationships. If we have a lunch date with a close friend, and she is twenty minutes late, we not only expect an apology, we will stew in our anger until we get a heartfelt atonement. That is because the basis of the relationship is emotional, not based on an outcome. However, if the scenario is you not having an item delivered to a client when promised, the client is not interested in a positive emotional experience, he just wants to know how the problem is going to be solved. In fact, the researchers at Case Western Reserve discovered that, in non-familial relationships, employees who tried to express empathy or contrition were viewed as even less trustworthy than those who focused solely on solving the problem.

Why the opposite reactions to an apology? Because the brain has a special place for people in our inner circle—familial relationships—and for people who aren’t—non-familial relationships. People in our inner circle rely on shared experiences to cement the relationship. If people outside the inner circle try the same approach, the brain deems it inauthentic. The outcome of an inauthentic approach is that even good solutions can be viewed with suspicion. Even professions that rely heavily on empathy must be careful not to tread too close to the familial relationship border. Take, for example, a visit to the emergency room. You would expect that nurses, being in an empathic profession, could utilize apologies to great effect. Not so. Let’s say you injured your leg and are waiting in an exam room at the ER. When a nurse pokes his head in to see how you are doing, you say, “My leg is really starting to hurt.” Which of the following responses would you want to hear from the nurse?

  1. “Oh, I’m so sorry. You sure did bang your leg up pretty bad, and it must feel awful. I’m so sorry about the wait. We’re going to get to you as soon as we possibly can. We have some other patients, but I’ll be back when it’s your turn. Again, thanks so much for your patience.”
  2. “Okay, then we need to get your pain under control as soon as possible. The doctor is with another patient, but I’m going to let her know about your situation and we’ll get you taken care of right away.”

In the two examples above, even if the length of time to solve the problem turns out to be the same, the second response is more effective because it displays a sense of urgency. In non-familial relationships, chit-chat is not only perceived as disingenuous, it wastes time. I experienced the wasting of time while trying to clear up an issue with a customer service rep on the phone. I was trying to gain access to an online account and my password wasn’t working. I was clearly dealing with a rep who was trained to follow a script (one of my biggest pet peeves in the customer service industry). Every time I stated a problem, she responded with, “We are very sorry you are experiencing this issue.” After at least a dozen, “We are very sorry” statements, I finally said, “At the risk of being rude, I need to ask you to stop apologizing. It is taking way too much time, and I need to resolve this quickly.” She paused and said, “I am very sorry for apologizing so much.”

There is an old saying, People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Demonstrating how you care is different, depending on whether the listener is in your inner circle. Skip the chit-chat, and solve the problem.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

Talk, Don’t Text – May 2019

I got a call from Charles the other day. Charles is the Vice President of Sales of a software company. He said, “I handle high-end client issues. By the time an issue reaches my desk, it means that things are serious. The first thing I do is check the e-mail thread between my staff and the client. Sometimes the e-mail thread is three to four weeks long, but my staff member never picked up the phone and talk over the issue with the client. When I review the e-mails, I see that, around the second or third exchange, a phone call would have easily resolved the problem.”

Charles added, “Instead of solving problems by calling clients, my staff continues to e-mail. I end up having to give refunds and discounts just to keep a client that is ready to walk. Our company spends months or years to woo new clients, only to almost lose them because a staff member would rather use his thumbs than his mouth.” I asked Charles why he didn’t just instruct his staff to pick up the phone instead of e-mail or text. He replied, “Would you put a jockey on the horse if he didn’t know how to ride it?”

I was surprised to discover that the problem was not that Charlie’s staff were millennials who grew up only communicating through cell phones; there were just as many Gen-X and Baby Boomers in the room. We began by examining the pros and cons of voice, text, and face-to-face communication. Too many people choose one form of communication over another without thinking. In a nutshell:

Text: the pros. Text is trackable, allowing for accountability and accuracy. Text can also be reviewed before sending, avoiding mis-statements. Text allows both sender and receiver to engage on their own time. Text can also be stored for later review. These pros make text appropriate for sending data that might be reviewed at a later date.

Text: the cons. Text usually takes more time to convey the same amount of information, making it a less efficient means of communication. Text also lacks the subtly of voice or face-to-face, increasing the risk of misunderstanding. This next point might seem trivial, but text isn’t fun. Communication is not meant solely to convey information. Even staid business relationships must have an element of human connection. Only the most skilled writer can make textual communication fun. With inboxes filled with dozens of messages every day, one more message adds stress for the receiver. No matter how necessary your text is, it is not a welcome part of someone’s day. Conversation is almost always more pleasant than reading. Most important, it is virtually impossible to influence behavior or resolve issues using text.

Voice: the pros. Reading is a relatively recent addition to the brain’s evolutionary abilities; and quickly tires of it. The brain prefers listening to a voice. Subtleties of pitch and tone make voice communication more effective at influencing behavior and developing a relationship. Voice also allows for more information in a shorter time. Voice enables humor; a powerful tool for communication.

Voice: the cons. If you aren’t adept at conversation, you can ruin it by interrupting or not delivering with smooth flow of information. Also, unless you take accurate notes, voice communication can be remembered differently by both parties, leading to problems later. Finally, it can be difficult to align schedules that allow both parties to be available to talk at the same time.

Face-to-Face: the pros. As much as the brain loves to listen instead of read; it loves to look at visuals even more. The combination of face and voice are what our brains are most attuned to. Every benefit listed in the voice section belongs here, but with slightly less risk of misinterpreting signals.

Face-to-Face: the cons. Besides scheduling conflicts, there aren’t many other cons for face-to-face communication, unless you are socially challenged.

Now that the pros and cons are out of the way, I’ll bet you were expecting a tutorial on the best techniques and voice and face communication. If only life were that easy. If you want to sharpen these skills, you have to practice. Have your staff call you to make practice runs. Train your jockeys before putting them on a horse.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

Chase One Rabbit – April 2019

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“What is it you want your people to do better?” I pose this question to every client as I prepare for a workshop. This time, I was speaking to, Hank, an executive at 3M. He was driving an initiative to improve innovative thinking and shorten the time between idea and implementation. Hank didn’t hesitate to answer, “Focus! In order to work together and create new ideas, we have to get all of our minds centered on an issue, but I can’t get them to stop looking at their blasted laptops or phones. Everyone is so distracted, we can’t get anything done.” When I first started hearing about this problem from clients a number of years ago, the solution seemed easy; just make a rule that all digital devices must be turned off during meetings. But, even with such rules in place, the ability to focus among modern humans has diminished to the point where our mental productivity is tragically hampered.

Too many people have fooled themselves into thinking that they can multi-task and still be effective; effective listeners, effective thinkers, and effective problem solvers. The truth is, multi-tasking is a myth; and neuroscience proves it. The part of the brain that conducts our high-level thinkin’—the cerebral cortex—is a sequential organism. It can only handle one task at a time. Yes, it can switch from one thought to another quickly, depending on the individual, but it cannot effectively hold two thoughts at once. To attempt to do so is a self-defeating exercise. And, in order to be at our mental best, we need complete focus. We need what the Japanese call kime (“kee-may”), or focus. As in many Asian disciplines, the ability to focus on a single task is paramount. The tuning out of all distractions allows for mastery of one’s discipline. An old martial arts saying is, “He who chases two rabbits, gets no dinner.” The lesson is often illustrated in the following story.

Kiyohisa, a martial arts master in Japan, once took one of his students to attend a Noh Theatre performance. Noh is a form of classical musical drama that began in 14th century Japan. As in many Asian disciplines, Noh has masters and apprentices. Since Kiyohisa was a master in his discipline, he was eager to see Hideto, a well-known master of Noh Theatre, employ his craft. During the performance, while Kiyohisa’s young student was entertained by the play, Kiyohisa kept his eyes rivetted on Hideto. He marveled at the intensity of Hideto’s performance. When the performance ended, the young student asked his master what he thought of the play. Kiyohisa responded, “It was excellent. Hideto had superb kime; he only lost it once. I believe he was distracted by a gentleman in the front row.” Since Kiyohisa was well known, he and his student were invited backstage to meet Hideto. Kiyohisa said, “Your performance was a pleasure to watch!” Hideto responded, “I was mostly satisfied with it as well. I only broke kime once. I was distracted by a man in the front row. I must work to keep better focus next time.” Being students of different arts did not change how each valued focus, and its importance in mastery.

It is easy to see how a lack of focus can be dangerous in disciplines that may cause injury. Even a single second of distraction can be hazardous. But, the dangers of a lack of focus extend beyond getting punched during a sparring match. Examine those who are the best at what they do, and you will discover that they all share a common approach; to do their best work, they create environments in which all distractions are removed. From artists and writers, to accountants and mechanics; focus marks the difference between average and excellent. Dalton Trumbo, one of the most celebrated writers in US history, would lock himself in the bathroom and sit in a tub of water while writing. Some considered his demand for absolute solitude selfish or eccentric, but those people didn’t write Roman Holiday or Spartacus.

My profession, improvisation, also values focus. One of the classic Eight Rules of Improvisation is Listen, Watch, and Concentrate. This rule demands that all members of a team pay as much attention to the action as they would want on their own behalf. This may sound like a simple rule, but it goes beyond just telling people to pay attention to what is going on. Working together effectively isn’t simply a matter of taking turns, it is realizing that the other person cannot do his or her best work without the complete focus of the team. Anyone knows this who has given a presentation to a roomful of people who are mentally elsewhere. Theatre professionals are taught, If you break focus during a performance, every other actor onstage is forced to break focus until you get back into character.

Sadly, Americans’ ability to focus is getting worse by the day. I watch meetings where people glance at their phones every other minute. Some people have laptops open and are scanning multiple pages at once during a presentation. The onslaught of social media has fooled our brains into thinking we are receiving input, when all we are really getting is neural stimulation. And the need for constant stimulation has destroyed our ability to focus on a single conversation, line or thought, or workplace issue, for more than a few minutes. As a result, we check texts and e-mail at times when our focus should be elsewhere. We justify our lack of focus by telling ourselves that we must remain connected so as not to miss important calls. Yes, some clients need to hear from us right away, but the majority of time spent scanning screens and clicking phones is not only unnecessary, it is counter-productive. You know how you blame other drivers for dangerous habits on the road, when you pull the same stunts? People do the same with distractions. They hate it when people don’t pay attention when they are speaking at a meeting, but allow themselves those same distractions by labeling them necessary.

How hard is it to keep focus? In the course of writing this column, I switched to the e-mail screen four times, silenced a cell phone calendar alert, ran to the living room to see what the dogs were barking at, and called a company member to discuss an upcoming workshop. (Physician, heal thyself.) To my credit, however, when I am speaking with a client, I physically turn away from the computer. I sometimes go so far as to close my eyes so there are no visual distractions that could break my kime.

The next time you think you can multi-task, remind yourself that your brain can’t do it any better than the other 7.7 billion brains on the planet. And, your lack of focus hurts more than just you, it forces everyone else out of character. Chase one rabbit, and you’ll get dinner.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

The Audience Must Remember – January 2019

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I was winding down a one-on-one session with Robert (his real name), the president of a financial services company, when he asked for advice about an upcoming speech he was to give at a major conference. “I am worried,” he said, “because I am the final speaker of the day; following a podium parade of other well-known and respected financial experts.” When I asked Robert what he was specifically worried about he said, “First, I don’t want them falling asleep after sitting for hours listening to speech after speech. Second, I want them to really listen to what I have to say.” I said, “We can solve the first problem quite easily. It is the second problem that takes more work.”

I told Robert that, to solve the problem of the audience’s brains being drained from a day of over concentrating, simply tell them to stand up for a moment and shake it off. The brain needs good blood flow to stay alert; sitting is the worst thing for circulation. Just a few moments of movement can re-energize the body and brain. I said, “Tell the audience that you know they are coming to the end of a long day, so you want to help them finish strong. They will appreciate your thoughtfulness. The real challenge, however, is not getting an audience to listen. People will listen because, frankly, that is what they came to the conference to do. Your real challenge is getting them to remember what you said once they get back to the office.”

I have stated an important fact many times in this column over the years; that the least efficient function of the human brain is information processing. The cerebral cortex—the part of the brain that processes information and engages in higher thinking—came along pretty late in our evolution. As such, it takes more energy to engage in higher thinking, and we tire of thinking pretty quickly. This is why we fall asleep faster when reading a book than when watching TV. So, getting an audience to remember what you say involves a lot more than just providing interesting stuff to listen to.

Memory is a tricky process, and it is affected by many factors; age (younger people retain better), health (poor health diminishes memory), intelligence (higher intelligence equals higher retention), speed (the faster you learn something, the better it sticks), and willingness to learn (obviously, if we are forced to learn something, we soon forget it). When you speak to a group, you are unable to affect all but a few factors that will determine their ability to recall what you said. Consider the three big factors of memory; Primacy (we more easily remember the first thing we hear), Frequency (the more we hear something, the longer it sticks), and Urgency (we remember what is important to us). A speaker can only affect one of the three factors; urgency. Sure, you can manufacture Frequency by repeating your point over and over, but when frequency crosses over into repetition, you become an annoying person to listen to. Urgency of the material is also referred to as the meaningfulness of the information. This is the primary function of a speaker when delivering a presentation, to instill meaningfulness to the material. Statistics and data don’t have meaning in and of themselves, the speaker must provide urgency.

As Robert was absorbing all this, I reminded him of another rule that affects retention and recall; the Rule of Three. For some reason, the brain most easily remembers information in groups of three. If I asked you to remember ten digits, 9525009230, it would take some work, but when you group the digits into three clumps, 952-500-9230, you have an easily recalled phone number. Even reading the un-clumped digits feels like more work; which is why most people would just skim over it.

One final factor came into my conversation with Robert, the means of delivery. For most people, it is easier to receive and understand ideas when listening, rather than reading. This meant that Robert would have to abandon PowerPoint slides (a huge crutch for him). He would have to treat the presentation like a conversation between friends. I told Robert to do something revolutionary (for him); leave the podium and walk the stage while speaking. He could carry a few notecards, but the speech would be left in his office. This took some convincing—and a few hits of oxygen—but Robert finally agreed.

After this deep dive into the nature of memory, and effective delivery, Robert and I revamped his speech. We looked through any data to make sure he was conveying the urgent meaning behind the numbers. To satisfy the speed of learning factor, we took complex ideas and gave them a “what this means to you” approach. The satisfy the willingness to learn requirement, we debated over the material. For every major point in his speech, I had him answer my “So what?” challenge? As interesting as information is to the speaker, the audience is always asking themselves, “So what?” With so much information coming at us every day, people look for any reason to hit the mental delete button. If a bit of info doesn’t pass the “So what?” test, we forget it. So, as we reviewed Robert’s speech, I would ask “So, what?” If he didn’t have a good answer as to why I should hear that particular point, we deleted it. Don’t be too quick to dismiss this step. You may think that everything you include in a speech is vital for the audience to hear; but if you review your presentation with an objective colleague, you might discover otherwise.

This took a lot of work for Robert. And it was frustrating. But it paid off. I met with him a month after his big speech and he said, “It was fantastic! I had people lined up to shake my hand after the conference; telling me that my presentation was the most useful. I even had people thanking me for just giving them a chance to stand and stretch. But the best part is, I have talked to people in the weeks since, and they comment on specific points I made.”

A presentation isn’t a success simply because you got through it without forgetting important information, or you weathered tough questions. A presentation is only worthwhile if people can tell you what you said, long after you said it.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

Don’t Fill ‘er Up – December 2018

I was sitting in the back of a conference room last week waiting to deliver a presentation. Speaking before me was, Barbara, a staff member talking about a new company policy. Soon after she began, I noticed she used what linguists call hesitation forms; more commonly known as fillers. Fillers are words or phrases a person injects into his or her speech in order to fill a pause or hesitation. Common fillers include um, ah, you know, okay, and my favorite, like. Barbara’s particular filler was the phrase “All right?”. Her presentation went like this:

You should always check with central division before sending out a repair order. All right? Because, if you don’t, we could double-bill the client, and that would cause problems. All right? So, if you don’t get approval from central division, hold onto the repair order and wait for approval. If it takes more that twenty four hours—all right?—call me and I’ll make sure that the correct person is assigned to the order. All right?

I started counting the number of all rights in her presentation. I stopped counting at 218. If fillers are limited to a few every now then throughout your speaking pattern, it is no big deal. However, if fillers become a regular part of your delivery, the impact is devastating. A quick look around the conference room and I could immediately see the impact of Barbara’s all rights on her audience. The audience, who—at the beginning of her speech—were giving her their full attention, were now looking down at their phones, their notes, their laps; anywhere but at Barbara. When people are uncomfortable, the first victim is eye contact. We simply can’t look at someone who is speaking poorly. Sadly, the less eye contact Barbara got from her audience, the more uncomfortable she became, so the more all rights she used. Even though Barbara was knowledgeable about her subject, she came off looking weak and unsure. The applause at the end of her speech was more of gratitude for the ending, than appreciation for the outcome.

Filler words have a specific cause. Humans grow up learning to communicate in a singular fashion; casual conversation. First with family, then with friends, then at school, verbal communication is always two-directional. During casual, two-way conversation, the listener is not passive. Listeners play an active role in furthering the dialogue. They nod their heads, show emotion with facial expressions, and keep the conversation going by interjecting phrases like, “What happened next?” or “Really, what did the other guy say?” These cues help the speaker deliver a smooth and continuous thought or story. The challenge in speaking to a group is, none of these cues occur. In fact, they are frowned upon because they can interrupt the flow. The lack of these cues can be disconcerting for a speaker who is not accustomed to one-way communication. This discomfort causes not only filler words to be used, but the tendency for speakers to pause after each thought; scanning the audience for a nodding head or accepting smile.

Speakers need to remember that, if communication is one-directional, they will not receive the cues they would during casual conversation. Given that the listener can think faster than you can speak, it is important to keep the delivery constant and uninterrupted. Waiting for signs that the audience understands or agrees with you will cause their minds to wander; making regaining their attention almost impossible. It isn’t that the audience is uninterested in your topic; they just don’t trust that you will be worth the effort of listening.

Here is the rub. You can’t simply say to yourself, “Don’t use fillers!” The rule of the brain is, if you tell someone not to think about something, they will think about it even more. Instead, recognize when you are expecting conversational cues during a speech, and power through the speech without them. Next, instead of avoiding fillers, replace them. Usually, the best replacement is to move onto the next point you intend to make in your presentation. Another good replacement for a filler word is a short pause. Taking a quick breath before moving on allows what you have said to sink in to the listener’s brain. It also gives you a quick stop to mentally move onto the next thought. Each point you make during a presentation should have its own space; its own beginning, middle, and end. Fillers drag one thought into the next; creating an endless drone of words and sounds. Pretty sound, the whole speech has a single tone; lacking the ebb and flow of an engaging presentation.

The first step to solving any problem is to recognize that there is one. To that end, either have a colleague observe your next presentation, or record it yourself to review later. Once you’ve counted all the filler words or phrases you use, you might see the need to tighten up your delivery. Do yourself a favor and make replacing fillers with more powerful delivery part of your every day practice. Rather than setting aside time every day to practice speaking, keep fillers top-of-mind during everyday conversation. Killing two birds with one stone; you become a better conversationalist and a better speaker. Good luck and…ah…you know…like…whatever.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

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