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.

Small Document, Big Impact – November 2018

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It wasn’t that long ago that companies realized that rewarding healthy behavior among their employees paid off in big ways. Healthier eating and exercise meant fewer sick days, increased longevity, and higher productivity. So, companies instituted perks and bonuses for employees who took better care of themselves; this, in turn, took better care of the company. This long-view of employee health and behavior can now be applied to a part of life that few companies talk about; the end of life. It may surprise you to learn that how an employee prepares for death can have far-reaching implications for your business. I am not talking about after a person dies, I am talking about the months or weeks leading up to death. I will explain by way of example, then I will end with a few steps you, and your company. can take to better prepare.

The story comes from the small town of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Just shy of 52,000 people, La Crosse spends less on end-of-life care than any other city in the United States. Why? Largely because of the work of Bud Hammes, Medical Ethicist with La Crosse’s Gunderson Health System. Part of Bud’s job is to help patients and families deal with end-of-life issues; and a big part of that process is making sure that the patient’s wishes for meeting the end are honored. The way to do this is to make sure the patient has an Advance Care Directive, also called a Health Care Directive.

Most people think that all they need regarding their death is a last will and testament. Wills dictate what happens after a person dies, but what if you have an accident that leaves you unable to speak for yourself? Now your family must decide about issues like life support, pain management, and emergency resuscitation. With different views about personal, spiritual, or religious beliefs, these issues can be difficult to resolve among family members. In fact, more families have been torn apart by not have a Health Care Directive than by not having a will. If you die without a will, the state will step in and mediate the process. Without a Health Care Directive, there is no right answer to “How long do we maintain life support?”

Having a Health Care Directive includes choosing a Health Care Agent. This is the person who makes sure your end-of-life wishes are followed. Most people assume the best person for this role is a spouse or partner, but that isn’t always best. When tragedy strikes, emotions run high, and burdening a spouse with making life-and-death decisions might be too much to ask. The best person for the job is someone who can navigate family members who might disagree, as well as work with health care professionals about your care.

Bud Hammes knew this, so he trained other health care professionals to make conversations about end-of-life planning more comfortable. The momentum grew to include the entire community. Now, it isn’t uncommon in La Crosse to hear people chatting over coffee and asking, “Got your HCD done?” The result is, while the national average for Health Care Directive participation is about 30%, La Crosse has a 96% participation rate. The outcome is that La Crosse also spends less money on end-of-life care than any city in the country. Hammes didn’t begin his campaign with cost savings in mind, but doctors do report that a good deal of health care spending is done in the final year of life; and a good deal of that spending is during the patient’s final days. Sadly, much of that spending is against the patient’s wishes. Without a Health Care Directive, physicians must make decisions on the spot, with no input from the patient. I spoke to an ER doctor who said it wasn’t uncommon for him to resuscitate a patient, only to have the patient be angry to be brought back. Those who know the end is coming would like to meet it on their terms.

And, it is easy for younger employees to think this is only an issue for older folks, but anyone can be in a car accident and be left unable to speak for themselves. In fact, a 24-year-old member of my company completed a Health Care Directive as part of our initiative. A few days later, he was coaching a youth hockey game and tripped on the ice. He was rushed to the emergency room to check for a concussion, and the first thing the admitting nurse asked was whether he had a Health Care Directive. None of us will get out of this life alive, and everyone should meet the end on his or her own terms.

How does this affect your business? Just like employees engaging in healthy behavior affects the company’s long-term bottom line, so does planning for end of life. Of course, it is easy to see how eliminating the cost of unwanted procedures, medications, and hospital care would affect a company’s cost for employee benefits, but it goes further. Studies have shown that when employees deal with the end-of-life of a family member, if a Health Care Directive is not in place, the employee’s work life is greatly affected. Lost hours, and loss of productivity at work are all the result of not having one simple document.

The good news is, Health Care Directives are free, and easy to complete. Unlike a will, attorneys are not needed to complete an HCD. You can download the form online, fill it out, and hand it to your doctor. It then becomes part of your medical record, so your wishes can be honored if you can’t speak for yourself. Here is what I encourage you to do: 1) Assign someone in your company to be the Advance Care Director. Many hospitals have this role; someone in your company should champion the process. 2) Make having a Health Care/Advance Care Directive an expectation of employment. While you can’t, and shouldn’t, force someone to take part, people do respond favorably to a culture of expectation (as they learned in La Crosse). 3) Make the HCD a living document. Don’t just stick it in a drawer and forget about it. Discuss it with loved ones so they know about your wishes, but also review your HCD every now and then to see if your feelings and wishes might have changed.

Americans are not alone in avoiding conversations about death, but we are adept at it. Take the simple steps to get your employees ready, and comfortable, with the end. You may not see the financial benefits right away, but they are there. And, you will see immediate benefits that go much deeper.

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

Why the Eiffel Tower Went on Strike – October 2018

Sorry, no video for this column.

I couldn’t believe it. My wife, stepdaughter, and I were actually taking a full two-week vacation. I am like most Americans; any time away from work more than seven and half days and I get antsy. “Who is going to handle things while I am away?” “The longer I am gone, the more there will be to do when I return.” “What if I come back and they have moved my desk next to the guy who showers once a month and eats fermented fish in the cubicle?” In truth, I like what I do so much that I never feel the need to get away. But my wife, who is a director of surgery in a hospital, she needs a break. And we wanted to take our fourteen-year-old where we didn’t speak the native language. I think it is important to visit places where yours is not the dominant culture or language. Having to rely on the kindness of the host population changes your perspective when working with newcomers to America.

So, off to Europe we went; with stops in Venice, London, and Paris. If you think London didn’t count as visiting a foreign culture, remember what George Bernard Shaw once said, “Britain and America are two countries divided by a common language.” Some valuable lessons were learned on that trip. One lesson; when you ask for directions and you don’t speak the native tongue, pay close attention to where the person is pointing; head in that direction, and ask someone else two blocks down.

The most surprising lesson was gained in Paris. My wife (aka, The Planner), had arranged for a visit to the summit of the Eifel Tower on our first day in France. During the ride from the airport to the Airbnb, the news reported something we thought we would never hear, “The Eiffel Tower is closed!” The workers were on strike. Of course, they were. And, of course they chose to strike during the only four days we were going to be in town.

What shocked me was not that the workers were on strike, but the reason they walked off the job was that they felt the customer wasn’t being treated right. You see, the Eiffel Tower is like any major attraction. You can buy tickets to see the summit, wait in line for two hours to take the elevator to the top, or you can buy Skip the Line tickets, which allow you access to a special elevator. As you speed to the top, you get to look down at all the losers standing in the regular ticket line. (Oh, admit it. You silently call them losers.)

What irked the Eiffel employees was that the Skip the Line elevator was often ascending only half full. Regular ticket holders were standing in the hot sun waiting for their elevator, when there was room in an elevator right across the square. They told management about the problem and suggested that the Skip the Line elevator could be filled with the special ticket holders, and any room leftover could be given to regular ticket holders. This would fulfill the promise of premium treatment for those who paid more, while giving better service to every guest.

No one knows why management turned this idea down. I can only guess that they were comfortable with the status quo. Things had been running smoothly for years; why go through the hassle of changing procedure? The problem was, things were running smoothly for management, not for the guest. Just like the restaurant owner who doesn’t sit in his own booths, or the retailer who doesn’t try making a purchase through her own website, Eiffel Tower management only looked at quarterly P&L statements. They never stood in their own line.

My company was part of an event in a 2,100-seat theatre recently. During the pre-production phase, my co-director had me walk the stage while she sat in each of the farthest seats in the house, just to make sure the people with potentially problematic sight-lines would be given the same experience as the front row. Theatre owners are often coached to sit in every seat of their venue during productions, so they are always reminded that what is on stage isn’t as important as the experience of the person watching it.

The Eiffel Tower strike only lasted two days. Management realized that a simple change in the placement of the queue ropes would accomplish what the employees first suggested. Guests are happier, employees are happier, and the tower can now accommodate more guests per hour than ever before. I imagine that shows up on the quarterly P&L as well.

This isn’t to say that French employees are better than American workers, but it is rare that a US company goes on strike because the customer isn’t being treated properly. It would certainly be nice to have a work environment where the employees feel so strongly about doing well that they are willing to hold management’s feet to the fire until things are done right. It makes me wonder, do the people who work for me care enough about the outcome that they would protest outside my office on behalf of my customers? And, would it take a protest for me to listen?

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

I’m in Sales, Not in Service – September 2018

Sorry, no video for this column.

If I am in the right mood, listening to easy-listening jazz is fine. If I have been on hold for fifty-seven minutes waiting for customer service, easy-listening isn’t easy to listen to. It struck me that, when I first called Big Behemoth Communications to help my aging parents switch their internet and cable service, my call was answered tout de suite (or, as we Americans mispronounce it, “toot sweet”). That was because I was buying their service. Now, however, I was calling to report a problem, and the response was trés lent (no, I don’t speak French). But the problem with the call wasn’t the speed of response, it was the response itself.

When I first called Big Behemoth, they were anxious to get my parents to agree to a two-year service plan; so much so that they offered a free computer tablet if we signed up that day. The agreement was signed, the equipment was installed, and my parents were back to watching Shark Tank and e-mailing the grandkids. A few days later, they received an e-mail that stated that, in order to receive the free tablet, they had to go the Big Behemoth website and enter a ten-digit account number. Their account number was only nine digits. I was positive that a quick phone call would solve the problem, but I was quickly informed that, in order to receive the free tablet, we needed to add cell phone service to the package. When I explained that I was told that the service we purchased included the tablet, the guy said, “I am in sales, not customer service.” I was quickly forwarded to customer service.

I explained the problem to the young lady in customer service and she said she was very sorry about the mix-up. (Ever notice that you don’t feel any better after a customer service rep apologizes for the inconvenience. It is because you would rather they used the time spent apologizing to fix the problem.) She informed me that the free-tablet program had concluded months earlier, and that the first salesperson I worked with should have never promised the gift. I informed her that it wasn’t my concern as to the dates of their promotion; I was told something by a representative of their organization, and they either needed to honor the agreement or make some kind of compensation. “I’m sorry sir,” she said. “There is nothing more we can do.” I said, “You know, if you buy a car and give the dealership a check, you expect to either get the car, or to get your money back. You are telling me that I am not getting either.” “I’m sorry sir,” she said. “There is nothing more we can do.” I informed her that the company’s revenue for 2017 topped $160 billion. That’s billion, with a “B.” They can get a deal on a computer tablet for around $100.

When I asked to speak to her supervisor, she said that she was the manager, and there was no one else I could talk to. I assured her that, unless she owned Big Behemoth Communications, she did indeed have someone above her. After an extended back-and-forth over whether there was indeed someone who signed her checks, and who might care about honoring the company’s offer, I was transferred to the Customer Experience Department. I didn’t ask about the difference between the customer service and customer experience departments, I was just happy to speak to someone else.

When the customer experience rep heard my story, she was appalled. She promised to get to the bottom of it. She was going to review the tapes of all my phone calls with them. Remember those “this call may be recorded for training and quality assurance purposes” messages you hear? Maybe, for once, those tapes would come in handy. I was told to wait ten working days for a response. That was over a month ago.

I didn’t tell you this story to get a “woe is you” response. If you haven’t had a phone call like this yourself, you live in Antarctica. I relate the story because of one statement throughout the interactions that stuck with me; when the employee said, “I am in sales, not customer service.” I have hundreds of business leaders tell their staff, “No matter what you do for the company, we are all in the business of customer service,” but I almost never hear the leader say, “You are each empowered to take whatever steps necessary to solve the problem.” What good is it to admonish staff to all consider themselves customer service professionals if the only thing they can do is shuffle the customer to someone else?

Successful companies train their employees to treat the rule book as a guide, not a set of handcuffs. Well trained employees are taught to be creative, not reactive; to use their brains, not the policy book. And, if employees are trusted to safeguard the assets of the company, they know to start with sensible solutions that won’t break the bank, but will still please the customer. In every instance where employees refuse to budge from the rules, you can trace the problem back to a situation where they landed in hot water for thinking and acting for themselves. In the end, the problem can usually be traced to bad leadership. It starts with taking a long look at exactly what each employee can do to solve a problem without relying on the customer experience department. Frankly, if a customer needs to speak to the Customer Experience Department, it’s too late.

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

What is So Funny? – August 2018

Frank, a good friend of mine and a retired medical device consultant, was negotiating a contract with a prospective client. As is often the case, the sticking point was his fee. Every time he submitted a budget, the client sent it back with the note, “Can you shrink the budget a little?” Frank trimmed and trimmed, but each submission was met with, “Can you shrink it just a little bit more?” Finally, Frank put the budget through a copy machine and printed it half size. He sent the tiny paper to the client with a note, “This is as small as I can shrink the budget and still be able to read it.” The client got a good laugh, negotiations proceeded, and they reached an agreement.

Laughter is one of the most ignored tools of communication, and it is also the most misunderstood. Because the use of humor is tricky at best, especially given the increasing number of social landmines that must be sidestepped these days, many people choose the safe route of remaining boringly neutral in the workplace. This is a mistake for many reasons. Research in psychology and neuro-science shows that the act of laughter has effects that go beyond it simply being a delightful day-brightener. Before we continue, let me be clear in the distinction between laughter during daily interactions and joke-telling. Telling a joke is okay, but structured humor has less power than laughter that takes place during regular conversation. So, you can skip buying a joke-book. I’m going to ask you to work a little harder, for a better outcome. First, here are just a few benefits of laughter.

Laughter inspires agreement. Although some laughter is used to ridicule those we dislike, the act of laughter is, at its core, a form of social agreement. The majority of laughter is a signal that we are aligned with the speaker’s message. When psychologist, Dr. Robert Provine, conducted nationwide research into the causes of laughter, he discovered that the most common phrases that accompanied a laughter episode were along the lines of “You’ve got that right.” In fact, it is nearly impossible for someone to laugh and disagree with you at the same time.

Laughter increases retention. When we laugh, the subject of our laughter is instantly transferred to long-term memory. Many people try to make their message memorable by adding a sense of importance. While it is true that urgency is a necessary component of memory, the risk is that urgency can often lead to feelings of stress or anxiety, which decreases retention. Laughter is a memory booster without the risk of stress.

Laughter improves brain and body. When we laugh, hand-eye coordination improves (after you are done laughing, of course). Also, laughter causes the highest thinking centers of the brain to activate and cross-connect, and it does so in a way that no other form of human communication can match; improving quick-thinking, problem-solving, and innovation. Psychologically, it is impossible to experience anxiety, sadness, anger, or fear while the body is engaged in a laughter episode. And those unpleasant emotions do not easily return once the laughter subsides.

Given the power that laughter has in influence, communication, leadership, and personal improvement, it stands to reason that laughter should be practiced on par with any other professional skill. The trouble is most people think humor is something you are born with. You either have it, or you don’t. Take it from a comedy professional, nothing could be further from the truth. Humor is a muscle that can be toned, but it does take discipline. Here are a couple of daily routines that anyone can employ.

Pay attention and re-create. The next time you are with friends or colleagues and you get a laugh, remember what you said. Try to remember the wording of your story or comment, the context, every detail. Then re-create the laughter with a different group of people. Humor is less about waiting for an opportunity to inspire laughter as it is re-creating a moment to your advantage. Not only will you hone the ability to insert humor when you most want it, but paying attention to the laughs you get during the day may surprise you. You may not be a professional comedian, but you are likely funnier than you give yourself credit for. Professional comedians rarely sit down and write funny material. They pay close attention to what gets laughs on a daily basis.

Practice when it doesn’t matter. I rarely let an interaction at the bank or grocery store go by without inspiring laughter. When I received a follow-up call from my dentist’s office, the clerk said, “Are there any problems I can help you with?” I replied, “Yes, my teenager thinks my jokes are lame.” The clerk laughed and said she couldn’t help me with teenagers, and we ended the call. I take advantage of these interactions to hone my humor muscle. That way, when an important client meeting or phone call comes up, I can rely on a finely tuned skill, rather than an untested one.

Contrast and incongruity. Humor is about inserting what doesn’t belong. Comedy is saying a silly thing in a serious way, or a serious thing in a silly way. Being silly in a silly situation is not comedy, it is clowning. Likewise, being serious in a serious situation is drama, not comedy. My comment to the dentist’s assistant was out of place, unexpected, for such a call; but entirely welcome.

See failure in the right light. Practice of any kind demands a certain degree of failure. When starting out, be prepared to get more groans than laughs. If you don’t get a good response, try again with a bit of adjustment, but don’t think of a lack of laughter as failure; think of it as building a muscle you have long ignored. And frankly, people are so bored with the same-old, same-old that any attempt at humor is welcome; even if it isn’t a home run.

It is easy to avoid the embarrassment of humor that falls flat by sticking to a stoic approach, but if you remember the edge that laughter can give you, it is worth the work. Remember, if the other guy is more adept at humor than you, you are in a race where he has a motorboat and you have a canoe. So, get out there and practice.

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

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