Old School Speaking Doesn’t Work – September 2021

The worst thing to happen to presentation skills is the classic Speech Model. When I was in high school speech class, we spent one section on delivering an Informative Speech. The next section was on Persuasive Speaking, then Extemporaneous Speaking, then Inspiration Speaking, and finally Humorous or Entertaining Speaking. This approach to speech training allowed the teacher to organize teaching this valuable skill. The problem is, this method is built on a false assumption; that there are different reasons for speaking to a group; namely, to entertain, inform, or inspire.

The truth is, there is only ever one reason to speak to a group; that is to persuade them to act. Barring the most casual conversation, almost every time people talk it is because we want to influence someone. Even asking, “Hey, did you see the new Tom Hanks movie?” is not entirely benign. If you loved the movie, you try to persuade your friend that it is a great movie. Even the most innocent of remarks can be traced to an attempt to influence someone.

If you follow the old-school speech theory, you may consider an upcoming presentation to be solely informative. You then let yourself off the hook when it comes to being entertaining, inspirational, or persuasive. You will deliver logical, well-researched data, and the audience will leave knowing more than before, but not knowing what to do with what they learned. Most people who leave a meeting feeling that it was a waste of time, do so because they were given no clear direction.

For a presentation to do its job, it must be equal parts informative, inspirational, persuasive, and entertaining. As for the extemporaneous part of speaking, the ability to improvise is at the core of all good presentations. Solid preparation is vital, but the person has yet to be born who can foresee every question or objection, so regular practice in being thrown into the unknown is crucial.

There are many reasons why professionals rely solely on informative presentations. Some people are afraid of looking foolish in front of an audience (the most common fear concerning speaking), so they compensate by delivering lots of data. Others mistakenly believe that the information alone is compelling enough to inspire the audience to act. This is rarely successful. Others are just lazy; gathering and delivering facts is the easiest task when it comes to speaking. Furthermore, gathering and delivering facts requires little to no practice; making it easier still. The reasons above describe the three evils in business that I have written about frequently over the years; fear, ego, and complacency. If you have trouble connecting or motivating staff—fear, ego, or complacency are the likely culprits (on your part, the staff, or both).

The reason that information-only speeches are so easy to deliver, yet yield such poor results is simple brain function. Gathering and reciting information relies on the memory function of the speaker’s brain; a pretty effective tool, and easy to activate. However, while you are regurgitating statistics, the audience must input them. They must absorb the data, prioritize it to decide what to keep and what to ignore, compare it to previous facts, and then categorize it for storage. This is really hard. It takes enormous energy for the brain, and we can’t do it very well, or for very long. I think the greatest irony of speaking is that data is the easiest thing for the speaker to recite, but it is the hardest thing for the audience to hear. A good speech reaches the heart of the audience as well as the head; and it also tells them what to do with their hands after the speech is done.

So, what do we do now that we have kicked the stool out from under the most comfortable way to deliver a speech? The first step is to honestly assess the strengths and weaknesses of your presentation. Inspiration comes from a good story. Find one that fits your message. Humor comes from being honest and vulnerable. So, let your guard down. Speaking off the cuff takes really talking to your audience. So, lose the script now and then. And ultimately, being persuasive means knowing exactly what you want the audience to do, not just what you want them to know. You must give them actions to take, not just information to ponder.

Take all the old-school methods of speaking and put them in a blender. A great speech is not a single drink, it is a balanced cocktail.

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

An Unexpected Gift at an Unexpected Time – August 2021

In the movie, Finding Forrester, Sean Connery plays an aging writer who mentors a high school prodigy. When the mentor discovers that the young man is dating a fellow student, he tells him, “The key to a woman’s heart is an unexpected gift at an unexpected time.” The next scene has the young lady opening a gift from her boyfriend and saying, “This is so unexpected!” The mentor’s advice actually aligns well with research on how to manage distributed teams.

A distributed team is one that works in different geographic locations; not officed all in the same building. The delicate nature of human communication—with its reliance on visual and auditory cues—makes leading and influencing distributed teams a unique challenge. Without the benefit of face-to-face communication, distributed teams are at higher risk of turn-over, poor innovative thinking, and lack of engagement. If there is one thing the pandemic has created, it is a massive shift toward a distributed team model; with some companies planning to make distance working a permanent part of their culture. But, to do so without planning on how to manage communication in this new environment can spell disaster.

Research has discovered that, to keep distributed teams connected, communication with team members must have two important elements. The communication must be frequent, and random. The human brain craves communication, but it must be genuine. And genuine communication is not planned, it happens when it happens. When communication is both frequent and random, it is a signal to the receiver that the other person cares. If you only hear from someone every now and then, or it only occurs at scheduled times, it doesn’t appear there is much care involved. Like the advice to the young suitor, if you want to show you care, your actions must be unexpected event at an unexpected time.

Most leaders would say, “Frequent and random doesn’t work in a business setting.” That is true. How do you surprise someone in the world of Zoom? Efficiency means you schedule a meeting so you can check in with everyone, and then get back to work. That certainly is efficient, but measure the time saved against the time wasted trying to fill positions that are vacated because your staff felt disengaged from the company. Or measure the effectiveness of tightly scheduled communication against lost productivity and poor creativity; all of which occurs when staff feels disconnected.

So, how do you engage in frequent, random communication when people don’t work in the same space. Ironically, you plan it. There is an old saying, Creativity is borne of structure. Leaders must plan random connections, without staff knowing that it was planned. To keep distributed teams engaged, leaders must recognize the importance of going beyond the information provided during communication, but whether the meeting did its job in connecting the workforce. The questions leaders should ask when planning engagement is, “How can I surprise my staff. And how often should I do it?” Regularly scheduled meetings are fine. Routine is necessary to provide a calming structure for the brain. But frequent and random connections are needed to keep the person connected to the group.

I had a couple of staff members who had been doing exceptional work for the company. When I told my co-director that I wanted to recognize them at a meeting, she said, “No. Send them each a surprise gift as a thank you.” She even directed that the gifts be specific to the person, based on their personal interests (reading, cosmetics, fishing, etc.). Because the gifts came as a surprise (random), the employees acted like they had just won the lottery. Communication doesn’t need to include a gift to engage your staff. If the communication is a surprise, and happens often enough, the communication is a gift in and of itself; especially if you talk about something other than work for a change.

Good leaders must plan to surprise their staff, and the surprises must occur more than once a year. So, the old sage’s advice can work for business could be changed to, “The key to a staff member’s heart is an unexpected gift at an unexpected time.”

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

Don’t Hide Behind Your Staff – July 2021

Earlier this year, my wife and I needed to replace our dual wall oven because the old one decided to run 100 degrees off the temperature we selected. We like to support local businesses, so we bought from a family-owned company in our area. Getting a new oven is like getting a new car, you take every precaution not to spill anything on or in it, but you eventually forget to put a sheet pan under the lasagna dish and end up with a gooey mess at the bottom.

We set the upper oven to self-clean (you can’t do both ovens at once), and headed to the living room. Twenty minutes later we heard a loud noise like shattering glass. My wife said, “That sounded like the oven door glass breaking.” Sure enough, the glass had shattered into a thousand pieces. We called the store, and they said they would order new glass panels and get them installed. A day later, my wife said, “You know, our oven could have been made from a whole batch of bad glass. We should check the lower oven.” Once again, she was right, and the now the lower oven was filled with shattered glass.

The problem is not that we got an oven with defective glass doors. A reasonable consumer knows that defects will arise, and it is not the retailer’s fault. It is annoying, but as long as the manufacturer and the retailer fix the problem, that is the best anyone can do. The problem came with communication from the retailer. For each stage of the process—reporting the issue, determining a resolution, setting repair dates, and follow-up—we had to contact the store instead of the store contacting us. Days would go by without us knowing whether a replacement part had been ordered, knowing when to expect delivery, or when the repair would be made. When a technician did arrive, he said the wrong part had been ordered, and it they would have to start over. He promised to let us know when to expect the replacement part (for the replacement part), but days went by with no word. Again, we had to initiate communication with the store.

For the final e-mail, I did an internet search and found the president of the company. I included him in the e-mail to the store manager and the repair department, describing the break-down communication within his company. We eventually heard from a customer service rep, who apologized and said they were working to find a resolution. She promised to call back with any new information. It has been a few days, with still no word. I checked online reviews of this company and every complaint echoed the same sentiment; a lack of communication. On the review website, the company responded to each complaint with “We are so sorry…”

Customer-Initiated Communication

If the customer has to track you down to get the information they need, you have already failed. Most customers understand that things break and that issues will take time to resolve. They just don’t want to feel like they have been forgotten. Even if there is nothing to report, check in and let them know that you are still working on it.

Apologies Are Worthless

The old adage, it is easier to be forgiven than to be given permission is a lie. Family members appreciate apologies, customers do not. There are a number of great research articles on this phenomenon, check them out. And, if you find that your staff is having to apologize repeatedly for the same problem, the issues lies with management.

Who Does the Customer Hear From?

If I send a complaint to Amazon, I don’t expect a call from Jeff Bezos. But the customer only hears from a nameless, faceless, customer service rep, don’t expect to gain a loyal customer. I included the president of this retailer on the final e-mail for two reasons, 1) as a fellow business owner, I wanted him to know about an issue in his operation, 2) I wanted to see if he would step up or hide behind his staff. He chose the latter. The bigger the problem is, the higher up the ladder the customer expects to hear from.

Initiate the conversation so you can control it, and don’t let your staff be your shield.

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

When to Use Your Voice Instead of Your Thumb – June 2021

The Silent Generation (aka Traditionalists), those born before 1946, still make up about 2% of the American workforce. It seems that a lifetime of grit and self-determination makes it hard to hang it all up and go sit on a beach somewhere. Baby Boomers, born between 1946-1964, make up 25% of the workforce. Generation X, 1965-1980, accounts for 33%. Millennials, or Gen Y, 1981-1996, make up 35%, and Gen Z, 1997-2012 are beginning to make their appearance in the office at 5%. But if you are a business leader, I wouldn’t ignore the impact that the youngest working generation could have on your organization. (I say working generation because those born after 2012 are only a decade away from jumping into the water themselves, we just haven’t named that group yet. My vote is Gen Alpha. If that term gets used, I want full credit.)

We have all heard the statistics about how Millennials have become the largest section of the workforce, but Generation Z accounts for over 25% of the nation’s population, and these two groups share a commonality that makes managing them a challenge: their love of technology. Generations Y and Z have grown up trusting technology to such a degree that navigating human interaction, especially in the workplace, can be a unique endeavor for them. As an expert in human interaction, I find this especially intriguing.

The first mistake any leader can make, especially leaders who are from an older generation, is to assume that, because younger generations communicate largely through digital means, they lack the ability for live interaction. To assume so is ridiculous. Barring atypical mental conditions, every human brain is designed to interact best when eye contact, facial expressions, and non-verbal signals are present. 

Rather than simply dismiss digital communication as inferior to live, business leaders must educate staff as to the advantages of each.

Digital — Pros: allows the recipient flexibility as to when they respond, allows for better tracking of information, eases the pressure on the recipient to respond immediately, does not require coordinating schedules. Cons: Lacks emotion, does little to build or maintain relationships, high risk of misunderstanding meaning or intent.

Live — Pros: better at resolving sensitive issues, builds relationships, more efficient use of time, easier for the brain to process. Cons: more difficult to coordinate schedules to meet, less comfortable for introverts.

Given the advantages of each style of communication, saying that one is superior to the other is like saying a hammer is better than a screwdriver. But what do you do when live communication is needed, and your staff is less than eager to engage? The difference between generations when it comes to technology vs. live communication comes down to three factors: familiarity, trust, and fear.

Familiarity: Too many leaders demand that employees pick up the phone or schedule in-person meetings without first giving the employee ample practice beforehand. Psychologists identify the three steps necessary to change human behavior as Awareness (first being aware a change is needed), Commitment (agreeing to make the change), and Practice (the opportunity to practice the new behavior in a safe environment before putting into practice in the real world). If you want staff to engage in live communication, set up practice sessions first. Throwing people in the water to sink or swim only works if they get to start at the shallow end of the pool.

Trust: It is reasonable for those who grow up trusting technology to distrust live communication. To overcome this, you cannot claim that live communication is always better. Discuss what is needed from communication at the time, and which method will deliver the best results. Trust is established when the reasons for an action are clear.

Fear: The one thing digital communication is best at is protecting the image of the sender. When you have all the time in the world to craft your message, you are safe. The greatest fear all humans share is looking foolish in front of others who matter to them. Take away the fear by first building the skills of face-to-face.

A balanced approach to these two means of communication—and an organized effort to build the skills needed for both—is the best way to capture the skills of every generation sharing your workspace.

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

We Will Laugh About This Someday – May 2021

Researchers have discovered that the main purpose of laughter is not to signal that something funny has happened, but to foster agreement. Laughter is meant to support something that has been done or said. Inversely, if you make someone laugh, they will in turn agree with you. It is nearly impossible to disagree with someone with whom you have shared a laugh. As such, the ability to incite laughter is as important a skill in business as analyzing a P&L. Laughter also acts as a sort of mental lubricant. Immediately following a laughter episode, people can solve complex problems more easily and create innovative solutions more quickly.

So how do you go about bringing laughter back when there has been so little to laugh about lately? The first step is to recognize how laughter is suppressed. There are many factors necessary for laughter to exist; one of which is Permission to Laugh. We cannot laugh unless we feel we will be accepted by those around us. All it takes is one person saying, “I don’t think that is anything to laugh at,” and we are shut down. The power of the group is so important that people are sixteen times more likely to laugh at something when they are with others than when they are alone.

We deny other people permission to laugh based on what we consider to be inappropriate targets of the humor, or improper timing. Since laughter cannot exist without a target of the humor, we must avoid sensitive subjects. As for timing, there is an old saying, comedy is tragedy, plus time. We manage tragic events by looking back at them humorously. How long it takes for an event to be acceptable fodder for humor depends on the impact of the event, and each person’s personal attachment to it. The phrase, “We’ll laugh about this someday” applies to everyone differently. Of course, some events should never be the source of humor, no matter how far in the past they reside.

What does all this mean to a business leader. First, a good leader not only sets the tone of a group, he or she also clarifies the behavior expected from its members. For instance, sexual harrasment usually begins with an inappropriate joke, and leaders who tolerate such humor signal that they will tolerate more than just tasteless words. A leader’s role is to step forward and acknowledge whatever elephants are in the room. A leader sets the boundaries that the group must respect. Children do not play a game of tag without first deciding that running past the tree in the front yard is out of bounds. Humor has the same requirements. We feel more comfortable to laugh when we are sure we will not step out of bounds.

The next task of a leader is to give permission to laugh. In acknowledging the stress the group has endured, the leader can say, “I know that we have (issue) on our minds lately, but we will not let that get in the way of us enjoying life together.” It is vital that leaders not shy away from the weighty matters that take up space in staff members’ minds. Employees need to know that issues are respected, and therefore not the target for humor, and that their need to laugh together is equally as important.

Whether your business has remained in-person throughout the pandemic, or if you are re-introducing yourself to faces you have only seen on Zoom for the past year, don’t let the weight of the world’s ills take away the real reason people work in groups; to laugh together.

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

The Cost of Doing Business – April 2021

Sorry, no video for this column.

Now that the pandemic is turning a corner, the big question is whether employees should return to in-person workplaces. Even though there are definite benefits to distance working, many business leaders are being short-sighted about this issue. After the initial shock of working from home wore off, many employees reported that they preferred it. Not having to commute was at the top of the Positive column. Not only does avoiding an hour of driving each way allow more time to get work done, but rush-hour commuting is rated as one of the greatest stressors for the human brain. The brain has the capacity to manage most difficult environments to limit their impact on our mental and phycial health, but the unpredictability and uncontrolled nature of rush-hour traffic eludes every trick the brain has to mitigate the effects.

Another benefit employees report is that they get more work done when not having to deal with the constant interruptions, lengthy meetings, and chaotic nature of a typcial workplace. These employees report feeling more productive in a distance-working arrangement. So, with lower stress and higher productivity, why would any business leader want to bring folks back to the office? The answer is based in two realities: 1) we need to endure short-term pain to enjoy long-term gain, 2) although leaders should always seek employee feedback, you must be careful not to trust everything you hear.

Humans are wired as a social creature. Almost everything we do relies on interaction with others. New and innovative ideas are produced most often through random, unplanned interactions. Chance meetings with people, especially those outside your immediate sphere, enhance creative thinking, and create solutions to problems; solutions that evade someone working solo. This cannot happen in a Zoom-based meeting environment. Yes, there are hassles involved with going to the office. You must actually dress for work (not just from the waist up for a video conference), you have to commute, you have to navigate busy environments, and you have to sit through meetings when you would rather be finishing that spreadsheet. But, in the long run, those things end up being good for us. They not only provide vital mental stimuli, but they connect us as teams and provide much-needed spontaneous feedback.

Recently, psychologists are reporting an increasing number of patients who suffer from Cave Syndrome; or the urge to stay at home and limit outside contact. The longer people are disconnected from the outside world, the less likely they are to want to re-engage when restrictions are lifted. Lack of social stimuli can cause the brain to shut down its social interaction processes. Once someone has disconnected from human interaction, even the thought of speaking to a stranger becomes stressful. Think of the last time you chose to send an e-mail or text when you knew that a phone call would have been a better option.

I have spoken to hundreds of employees who say that talking on the phone is one of the greatest stressors they face. Why is this the case, when not so many years ago a simple phone call was no big deal? Because we have chosen ease over effectiveness. We have allowed the comfort of the process to overshadow outcome. If we allow the urge to take the easier path to guide our business decisions, we will pay the price in the long run. Productivity may seem high, but only in terms of tasks completed, not the quality of the work performed. Retention will suffer because there will be no one to whom we remain loyal. And innvoation will most surely suffer.

It is easier to be single. Your life and your schedule are your own; you answer to no one. You eat what you want and never have to argue over who controls the TV remote. But, even with all the work and hassle that go into maintaining a long-term relationship, people with life partners report greater overall happiness and longer life spans. The reason is simple, good outcomes take work. Yes, in-person work can be a pain, and there is certainly evidence to show a blended model is worth considering, but if you want to get the real work done, being in the same room is worth the cost.

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

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