To Manage Future Anxiety, Remember Past Success – July 2018

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I was working with Terry, an executive at a software development company, to prepare him for an upcoming conference. When I asked about his greatest concern, he said, “I have to deliver the closing keynote. I am supposed to wrap up the entire three-day event and send the attendees away with a positive attitude and clear action steps.” Terry is a seasoned pro when it comes to software, and he is a respected figure in his field. Given that he was held in high regard in his profession, I wondered why he was so anxious about his upcoming speech. Terry said, “I’m freaking out because the last time I did this, it went completely off the rails. I couldn’t follow my notes, so my presentation was jumbled. The Q & A session at the end was a joke because I didn’t have answers for half the questions. And the stage lights were so bright, I couldn’t see anyone in the audience.”

Terry was engaging in a pattern of behavior that is inherent to humans; predicting future success based on past experience. Recalling similar experiences to prepare for a consequential event does seem like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. After all, what do we have to reply upon other than the past? And we cannot simply walk into an important event without some mental preparation. The problem is, while Terry was engaging in a normal behavior, he was also engaging in an utterly destructive one. It was a behavior that, for a number of reasons, guaranteed failure.

The first reason is that the brain hates a blank slate. If we are about to undertake a task, and there are an endless number of possible outcomes, it is highly stressful to people. If you ask someone where they would like to have lunch, the plethora of eating options causes a meltdown. However, if you ask someone whether they would like Italian, Chinese, or Mexican food, they can quickly list their favorite choice. Likewise, we can’t go into a situation, like Terry’s presentation, without some hint as to the possible outcome. In short, the brain must predict the outcome of every situation. The second reason Terry’s behavior was destructive was not because he was using history to predict the future; it was because he was using his memory of history. Any neurologist will tell you that human memory is the most inaccurate source of information on the planet. Our brains are not computers that store data and images for later retrieval. Our brains will first interpret the input and then store the interpretation of events; no matter how faulty the interpretation. So, our memories of history are not the real history at all. The third mistake Terry made was to use past failure to predict a bad outcome in the future. When the brain makes a prediction, it will seek to make that prediction come true; even if the prediction is against the best interest of the brain’s host (you). This is a phenomenon called Psychological Consistency. The brain is more concerned about its predictions being accurate than it is in having a positive outcome.

While Terry was succumbing to the natural urge to enter a tense situation without a blank slate, by dredging up horrible memories, he was ensuring that—through the use of Psychological Consistency—he would subconsciously sabotage his own performance. We all do this in a variety of settings: important meetings, new encounters, what have you. The good news is, there is a simple way to reverse this mistake; you must remember good things, not bad.

To activate this mental mechanism, I asked Terry, “Do you remember the last time you delivered a closing keynote at a conference in which you did a great job?” Terry had to think for a minute (we often tend to let bad experiences shove their way to the front of our memories). He finally said, “Yeah. It was a few years ago when I had just moved into my new position. I needed to introduce myself to the attendees and give them my ideas for how I was going to direct this division. Not only did I think I did a good job, I had a lot of people coming up to me afterward and complimenting me on my presentation.” My question had started Terry down the right path, but I needed to continue in order to take full advantage of this brain trick. I asked Terry to recount every detail of the successful event; what he wore, the room set-up, the type of people in the audience, and exactly what he said. The more questions I asked, the more Terry was able to recall details about his successful event that he had previously forgotten.

Why did I ask Terry to remember the successful event in such detail when I just got done saying in this article that human memory is unreliable? Because it didn’t matter that Terry remembered his past event accurately; it mattered that he remembered it positively. The brain assumes that everything that happens in our past will recur in the future. It is easier for the brain to recreate the past than to create from a blank slate. If you remember past negative events, they will affect future outcomes. If you remember past successes, the brain is tricked into thinking that the past will rise up and ensure a good outcome. The trick is to remember with as much detail as possible. The more detail you can bring to the picture, the greater effect it will have on the brain’s predictive mechanism. Basically, if you remember past failures with vagueness, but past successes in great detail, the successful past wins; and so does your future. Our memories might be flawed, but we can easily use that flaw to help us find greater success.

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

Time for Old-School Note-Taking – June 2018

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I sat in the back of the conference room as Margaret, a corporate trainer, was conducting a workshop for a group of financial professionals. She gave the audience a handout of her presentation and they were dutifully flipping through the booklet, page by page, at her command. She would say, “Okay, let’s all turn to page eight. As you can see, it says…” Then she would expound on the material for a while, before turning to the next page. By the end of the hour (which seemed like four hours), the audience had effectively been turned into zombies. At the end of her presentation, the zombies absentmindedly stuffed her hand-out into their folders and filed out of the room. There were bagels and more break-outs waiting for them. I considered putting them out of their misery by pulling the fire-alarm, but I didn’t want to spend a night in jail.

I have seen many surprised expressions when I tell clients I don’t use follow-along hand-outs for my sessions. After all, they think, printed material makes the experience seem more professional. And the audience walks away with something in their hand. A glossy hand-out puts the finishing touches on the presentation. I further surprise my clients by asking that attendees not be allowed to take notes on their laptops, they must hand-write notes with paper and pen. You can imagine clients of a certain generation freaking out at this archaic practice. They assume that hand-written notes could never out-perform typing, especially when typing allows for recording a greater volume of material? I’ve known people who can type so fast that they are actually able to record every word the speaker says; which is precisely the problem.

There is sound research as to why follow-along hand-outs and typed notes are the worst thing you can allow during training. Studies conducted at UCLA and Princeton have discovered that hand-writing charges up different parts of the brain than typing. It is precisely because writing cannot capture the same volume of material that the brain must decide which bits of information are most important. Instead of simply recording information, as with typing, hand-writing forces the brain to think. Hand-written notes are more concise, and they represent the most salient points of the material. In tests where students attending a lecture were given either pen-and-paper, or a laptop, those that typed their notes (hence, capturing a higher verbatim count of content), actually tested lower in comprehension, retention. More importantly, they also tested lower in conceptual understanding. Great presentations are about more than understanding and remembering the material. You want your staff to use the information to create positive changes and growth within the organization. It appears that typing notes doesn’t foster such growth.

The process of writing engages more of the brain’s senses. There is a strong connection between engaging in a tactile exercise and increased comprehension and retention. The motion of writing is tactile. Typing, while being a movement of the hands, doesn’t qualify as a tactile experience, so it doesn’t provide the same mental benefits as writing. Also, because writing is slower than typing, it forces the brain to slow down and thoroughly absorb the information; rather than simply allowing the words to pass directly from the ear to the keyboard. Typing prohibits thinking about the content.

At first, researchers thought that the students who tested higher in understanding and retention simply reviewed their notes before the test. After all, frequency of exposure to information is helpful. To check this, lectures were delivered with some students writing and other typing; but, immediately after the lecture, all the notebooks and laptops were taken away; allowing for no review of the material later. When tested a week later, those that took hand-written notes posted scores that were twice those of the typers. Because hand-writing requires us to take the speakers words and make them our own, whatever we write becomes stickier. Also, when we reform someone else’s words into our own hand-written thoughts, we avoid simply parroting words onto paper. We instead create thoughts of our own; thoughts that extend beyond the material being delivered. This means you can write notes, never review them once, and still do better than people who type.

As for follow-along hand-outs, if you just shove them into people’s hands and have them read along as you cover information, you create the same dulling effect on the brain. There are no sparks of realization, no reforming of ideas; just listening and nodding. Frankly, every time I see an audience with hand-outs, they are looking down at them 90% of the time. Hand-outs are a great reference tool, but they should be given after the presentation, as a companion to hand-written notes. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that, once they put a handout into a folder in their drawer, they never look it again. If we aren’t going to take the time to review material, shouldn’t we engage in a practice that allows the information to stick in our memory better in the first place?

Many people say they prefer laptops over notepads because typing is more convenient. This is true. It is also true that taking a diet pill is a lot more convenient than exercising. Just ask all the people who take diet pills and still struggle with weight gain. There is a reason why some practices are more difficult than others; it is because something worthwhile takes work. Others say that typed notes are more easily shared with others. Again, this is true. It is more of a hassle to scan notes and e-mail them. And that would matter if anyone ever shared their notes. Even if they did, shared notes are of little use. Someone’s recollection of a presentation doesn’t do much for you.

To be honest, I hate writing notes as much as the next person. There are also days when I don’t feel much like exercising. But, if I want my mind to be as toned as my muscles, I’ve got to get my brain to the gym. And that means pulling out pen-and-paper.

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

How to Shake a Hand – May 2018

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I was conducting a workshop at a law firm on how to build good client relationships. I do this workshop for the firm every year as part of their New Lawyer Training program. This is one of the larger firms in the area, and they hire about sixty new attorneys every year. The workshop content is pretty much the same from year to year, but this year, a few days before the workshop, Barry, the director of training and development, called and said, “We need you to dumb things down this year.” This is not a request I get very often, so I was all ears. When I asked what the issue was, he said, “You normally teach more advanced communication skills, but the new lawyers coming out of law schools don’t have the basic skills needed to interact in a professional environment. You see, Stevie, law firms don’t really compete with each other based on our knowledge of the law. You either know the law, or you don’t. You either win cases, or you don’t. We really compete based on how our clients feel about us. If clients feel good about the firm, we keep the client. Our firm isn’t located in one of the big three markets, but we routinely steal clients away from New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. This isn’t easy to do because some clients have the impression that any firm outside those areas is, at the least, unsophisticated, and at the most, incompetent.”

He continued, “When the senior members of the firm are out of the office, either gaining new business or litigating cases, the junior associates are left behind to mind the store. Every now and then, a client might be flying through town and want to visit the office of their firm of record. When they show up for a surprise visit, we have to trust that junior staff members will be the face of the firm. If our staff doesn’t look and act sharp, the client will think, ‘I guess these guys really are the hayseeds I thought they were.’ Then they take their business back to Chicago, New York, or L.A.” When I asked him about how the associates handled such challenges, Barry was blunt. “They do a horse-s*** job! They don’t know how to greet a client professionally. They don’t understand the subtleties of conversation. They don’t even know how to dress for the office. The men dress like they are going to change the oil in their car, and the women dress like they should be dancing around a pole. If our clients see this, we don’t just look bad, we lose the client; billable hours literally walk out the door.” I asked Barry why the firm didn’t simply discuss proper attire during the hiring process, but I knew the question was a waste of time. If people don’t have a clear understanding of why they are being asked to dress, or act, a certain way, regulations are worthless. Barry said they needed a workshop that would give the new staff a deep understanding of why etiquette was important.

So, I designed a workshop with Gary, a colleague of mine. We gave the new lawyers a challenge. We had the group split into tables of 6-8 people; and each person had a note pad and pen. We told them that Gary and I were going to act out a typical interaction between client and professional. Gary would play the client, and I would play an attorney. We would carry on a pleasant conversation, but I would commit certain social/professional faux pas during our brief interaction. Gary and I determined the gaffs ahead of time. At the end of the interaction, each attorney would write down every mistake they saw me commit; then the table would compare notes. The table that caught the most faux pas would win. (If you want to get lawyers’ attention, add competition to the game.)

Gary and I acted out a typical professional interaction, and I committed a range of faux pas¾not standing when he approached my table, stretching out my legs so you could see bare skin where my socks had slipped down, calling loudly to a server across the room, ordering a drink for myself without first offering something to my client¾all while Gary rolled his eyes. I ended our interaction by saying that “someone from our office will be in touch soon,” without agreeing to a firm date or time.

When we finished, we had the group compare notes to see which table caught the most mistakes. One table noticed nine faux pas, another caught thirteen, and so on. When we got to the table where the managing partner of the firm sat, he caught thirty-two faux pas. As he read the long list of mistakes, Gary and I looked at each other. We had only planned twenty four mistakes. Apparently, the manager partner should have taught the workshop. We asked him if we could have his list before we left.

The interesting outcome was, even though the younger attorneys thought it was okay for them to wear clothing to the office that was better suited for a nightclub, when they saw the faux pas I committed, they had a negative feeling about me. They reported that they thought I was not as competent, and wouldn’t want to do business with me. Barry was right; we could have lectured all day about the importance of professional conduct, but the lesson wouldn’t stick until they saw a firsthand example. One woman even admitted to the group that she had never been taught how to give a proper handshake. As shocking as that was for some older staff members, other younger attorneys echoed her sentiment. Hers was a reminder that people only know what they are taught, and if business etiquette isn’t taught at home, where will people learn? I was taught by my father how to “shake a man’s hand” (this was at a time when it was considered impolite to extend your hand to a lady, unless invited to do so), but it appears that such training will be increasingly left to employers; at least the ones who want to keep clients.

Technical skills are important, but if the person delivering those skills comes across as a lout, you risk losing business to other companies that put on a more professional face.

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

Giving a Good Presentation is Like… – April 2018

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I was sitting in the back of a conference room waiting for a speaker to finish her presentation, so I could have my turn to take the stage and wow the audience. I was at a professional development conference, so the room was filled with corporate executives from every industry you can imagine; health care, law, finance, real estate, manufacturing, and the like. Everyone was there to gain an edge on their skills, so they could either keep climbing the ladder, or not be bumped off the rung they had achieved. If you have ever given a presentation, you know that the person speaking before you will greatly affect your success. If your lead-in bombs, you have to work twice as hard to reel the audience back in. The entertainment world has a phrase for this, digging a hole on stage. If someone bombs, they dig a hole on the stage that you have to fill in before you can gain traction with the audience.

As you have probably guessed, the reason I am writing this now is because the speaker before me didn’t just dig a hole, she excavated an open pit for me to fall into. If you had taken a brain scan of the audience, they would have flat-lined. The speaker who was following me looked in my direction with an expression of, “Please fill in the hole before it is my turn.” It took the first fifteen minutes of my session to perform emergency resuscitation on the audience. And, as much as speakers get a feeling of accomplishment bringing an audience back from the dead, we would just as soon not have to.

I know what you are thinking. “Stevie, please tell me what that speaker did wrong. Tell me how I can avoid the fate of not only boring my audience to death, but of inciting the wrath of those who share the stage with me.” The speaker’s chief failure was in not recognizing the difference between the brain of a speaker and the brain of a listener. Communication is not as simple as one person talking and the other person receiving the information, analyzing it, storing it, and recalling it later. Human communication is complicated, (and not just for parents of teenagers). In fact, communicating with another human being is so tricky that it demands more brain resources than any other mental function. Knowing how the brain changes from speaking function to listening function is the key to delivering a great presentation.

The women who dug the hole on stage for me provided the audience with piles of data to support her position. That approach would seem logical. After all, you can’t expect an audience to support you without evidence to back you up. However, as easy as it is for a speaker to recall and recite statistics, the listener’s brain doesn’t absorb data at all well. Statistics can be delivered easily, but not received easily. In a nutshell, this is one of the greatest challenges facing workplace presentations. The reason is it easier to recite statistics is because the speaker is relying on memory. The listener’s brain is not prepared for such data-heavy input, so it is searching for the general meaning behind the information. The brain of a listener is constantly asking, “So what?” The speakers brain is relying on evidence, whereas the listener’s brain is seeking meaning. How can you speak to a group if the very process that works for the speaker doesn’t work for the listener?

The answer is, use metaphors. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which one thing is compared to another thing that is not the same, but that can be connected in theory. Investing in this stock would be like planting a seed on a rock. The seed is good, but there isn’t any soil for it to grow. The comparison between two unlike concepts provides clarity through comparison. Metaphors break a message down to its core meaning by comparing ideas on a visceral level. Metaphors also play a trick on the listener’s brain by bypassing analysis and jumping directly to basic understanding.

This is not to say that information is unnecessary; far from it. However, unless the core meaning of the message is first accepted by the listener, all the data in the world will go in one ear and out the other. If you look at the beginning of this column, you will see metaphor in use when I mention getting bumped off the rung of a ladder, taking a brain scan of the audience, or someone digging a hole on stage. Imagine how much less impact would have been achieved if I had written “lost the status they had previously achieved” instead of “bumped off the ladder.”

Metaphors foster instant recognition of your message; an “I get it!” response. And, when people understand a message more easily, they are less likely to resist it. In a sense, we believe what we understand. So, here is your homework. When you prepare your next presentation—a big speech, a staff meeting, or a sales pitch—look at the key concepts you are trying to convey and create a metaphorical comparison for each. For maximum effect, end your entire presentation with one overriding metaphor. This leaves the audience with a picture in their head, not a head full of numbers. Ending with a metaphor is like closing a book at the end of a good story. See what I did there?

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

We Can See You – March 2018

I was participating in a workshop with the late Paul Sills many years ago. You don’t likely know his name, but Sills is one of the founders of The Second City in Chicago. Second City is known for sketch and improvisational comedy, and is the birthplace of such stars as Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and Dan Aykroyd. Improvisation is a skill that is becoming widely recognized as an important tool for communication in the business world, and I was eager to learn from one of the masters. Sills was known for being a bit cranky (I am being kind, here), so our group of sixteen improv professionals from around the country were prepared to be taken down a peg or two at his hand.

During one exercise, two participants were engaged in a conversation in which they had to resolve an issue, but they could not talk directly about the issue. As the rest of us observed the exercise, we thought they were doing a good job, but halfway into the exercise Sills stood up and walked up to one of the men and said, “Are you aware of the fact that we can see you?” This took us aback. We were so focused on the challenge of the exercise that we forgot that the underlying goal of any communication is to capture and hold the attention of the audience/listener. Sills had another pair try the exercise, reminding them that, in order to hold an audience’s attention, they had to move around. Halfway through this attempt, during which neither person moved more than a few times, Sills lost his patience. He stood up and yelled, “Move. Move. Look at ballet dancers, they never run out of goddam moves!” It sometimes took a minute to figure out what Sills meant, but it somehow made sense.

What does this have to do with business? A lot. All communication—whether it is two people sitting across a desk, a pitch in a small meeting room, or a major presentation in a conference ballroom—demands movement on the part of the presenter. The reason physical movement is necessary boils down to basic neurology. The visual cortex of the human brain evolved long before the auditory cortex; it is much larger and more efficient at gathering and evaluating input. Essentially, the brain is wired to see much better than it is to hear. If you only stand and speak, you are relying on the lesser efficient part of the listener’s brain to do the work. And the more work you ask the brain to perform, the quicker it will shut down.

To illustrate this point for my corporate clients, I play a game that I encourage you to try. I stand in front of the group and tell them that I will attempt to deliver a message. For the first attempt, I will not move at all. I will keep my hands at my sides and use only words. I ask the group to raise their hands when they first start to feel they are losing focus; that it is hard to listen to me speak. When I speak without physical movement, it only takes 15-20 seconds before their hands go up. And I am not talking about a few mentally restless audience members; with few exceptions, every hand in the room goes up at the same time. Human brains are pretty much wired the same.

Then I try a second attempt, but I add gestures. For instance, when I refer to something important, I make an accompanying gesture. If I refer to eye contact, I gesture slightly to my eyes. If I refer to the idea of two-person communication, I make a gesture that connotes back-and-back movement. By adding gestures to the presentation, I am able to deliver the same message and keep the audience’s attention. The surprising thing is, I use the exact same wording in both attempts. The only difference is, in the second attempt, I access the part of the brain that is more efficient; the visual cortex.

It is important to note that gestures demand a specific requirement; they must be a visual representation of the idea, not just random movements. Random movements are not gestures. We have all seen people who just move their hands around when they talk. This movement is not a gesture because it does not refer to a specific idea. Random movement is unconscious, and distracting. Random movement quickly becomes annoying for the listener to watch.

When working with executives to improve their presentation skills, I often add gestures to their script. If they are referring to an issue that has global implications, we will note that a wide gesture of some kind is needed. It doesn’t matter which gesture you use, as long as it visually represents the idea. In fact, I encourage people to avoid using the same gesture for a given concept too often; doing so can dull your skills. And you don’t use the same size gesture in every situation. Naturally, you wouldn’t make the same sweeping movement at a dinner table that you would in front of an audience of 500 people. Also, gestures should be used only for important ideas throughout a presentation. Too much gesturing is just as bad as too little.

If you observe people having day-to-day conversations, you will see that gestures are a natural function of communication. So, why is it that people stand stock still like mannequins during a formal presentation? Many reasons. One is nervousness. Humans don’t learn communication skills in a presentation environment. We learn to communicate in close-knit family and social situations. Standing in front of group isn’t natural for people, so it takes practice to bring your genuine self to an un-genuine environment. Another reason is gender. Because the communication system in the female brain is spread through the entire brain system, whereas the male brain has more of a central communication core, women tend to use their hands more when they speak. This isn’t a good or a bad thing, it is just one of the many differences between the sexes. Finally, our natural social mentality causes a mirroring between speaker and audience. Humans tend to blend into their social group, matching vocal dialect, physicality, and such. Since no one else in the room is gesturing during the presentation, it puts pressure on the speaker to do likewise. However, given the impact that movement and gestures have on peoples’ ability to listen and retain a message, the benefits of becoming adept at movement certainly outweigh the fears that must be overcome. Remember, we can see you.

A major obstacle in using gestures lies in voice-to-voice communication; on the telephone. If you want to access the same benefits of using gestures when people can’t see you, look at the video that accompanies this column on the Business Journal website.

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

Re-fighting the Last War – February 2018

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It is 1918. It is three years into World War I. The armies of France, the United Kingdom, Russia, the United States, and ten other countries are battling the Central Powers; led by the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire. The four-year battle was known as a war of attrition, owing to the central strategy of both sides of the conflict; outlast the enemy by making your opponents use more resources than they can afford to lose. Each side knew the number of soldiers they could enlist and train per year. Strategies were based on whether a tactic would exhaust the enemy’s weapons, ammunition, and manpower beyond their ability to replenish. The war became one of digging trenches and conducting head-on assaults on enemy positions.

World War I used what is known as the Assault Doctrine. Twelve-man rifle squads were divided into a squad leader, two scouts, a four-man fire section, and a five-man maneuver-and-assault section. This strategy allowed for locating the enemy, flanking him, and attacking under the safety of cover fire. Given that all combatants of the war were closely matched in warfare technology, however, a soldier’s only real chance for survival was to be drafted late into the war.

It is 1944. The Second World War has another year before a conflict that killed 85 million people and devastated 30 countries will end. At the beginning of WWII, the Assault Doctrine from the previous war was put into place. But, whereas WWI was fought across open fields, WWII was fought town to town, through thick hedgerows, and in ever-changing terrain. In World War I, a platoon leader could effectively guide his men to their greatest effect. In WWI, however, when a platoon was engaged in a firefight, the platoon leader found it nearly impossible to control the actions of his soldiers. WWII was also the first time an air force was used with decisive outcomes. It was also the first war to involved armored divisions and tanks to support ground troops. It wasn’t until the old tactics of WWI were abandoned that victory was achieved.

The Korean War, also known as The Forgotten War, lasted from 1950-1953. In Korean, virtually none of the military strategies developed in WWII could be brought to bear. The same held true of almost every military strategy in the wars to follow; Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. Leaders at the Pentagon claim that the greatest hindrance to victory is that America is always re-fighting the last war; using tactics that were effective only in a previous environment. And America is not the only country to face this challenge. It is only when military and political leaders have taken a step back and changed the rules and reinvented themselves, that victory was possible.

Presidential elections have also succeeded or failed based on a party’s ability to recognize if they were refighting the last war. Nixon wasn’t nearly as adept as Kennedy at using television to his advantage. Regardless of your politics, you have to admit that Kennedy had a face for TV, while Nixon had a face for radio. Kennedy certainly wasn’t the first president to appear on TV (that distinction belongs to Franklin Roosevelt), but Kennedy was the first to master the medium. Obama is considered the first president to master social media to gain political advantage. Trump and Twitter? Enough said. It always seems that presidential elections follow the same, predictable path until someone decides that they aren’t going to fight the current battle using tactics from the previous war.

Of course, the outcome of wars or political battles is far more complicated that the tactics I have listed, but it is surprising how often the answer to “why did we win?” or “why did we lose?” boils down to one simple element; the other side didn’t rely on yesterday’s strategies. But, even after the lessons learned over hundreds of years, trying a new strategy seems outside the capabilities or will of most of us. With all that is at stake in a war or a political fight, you can bet that any time someone suggested a strategy that was a bit out there, there were plenty of people who panicked; who said, “But the old way worked just fine.” It is precisely because there is so much as stake that old methods must be put under scrutiny. Mistake in war cost lives, mistakes in business cost livelihoods, so no strategy deserves blind trust. To follow old strategies simply because they are familiar is not only foolish, it is costly.

I personally experienced this mindset when I was asked to conduct a workshop for political strategists in Washington, DC. Because I teach communication skills, presentation, and the art of persuasion, it seemed a perfect match for those in public life. The workshop was a great success, with participants leaving saying that the new techniques I introduced were refreshing, as well as in line with the needs of their profession. My sales manager, who had arranged the workshop, scheduled many follow-up meetings; excited at the prospect of a calendar full of booking. When he called me the following week, I expected to hear great news. When I asked how the meetings went, he said, “Everyone loved you, but no one will hire you.” He explained, “They all said the same thing. They said your ideas are spot-on, but they are too new; too out of the ordinary. I was told by every attendee, ‘You will never go broke in DC by telling a candidate to wear the blue suit, white shirt, and matching tie.’ These people are more concerned about keeping their jobs than doing a better job.”

I wasn’t terribly disappointed, I wasn’t thrilled about DC anyway. What did disappoint me was the realization that the very people who should be the most interested in learning new ways of doing things are the most resistant to change. I suppose I was a bit naïve to expect otherwise, but we can all dream, can’t we? It is a wise business leader who examines the tactics of today and asks, “Am I refighting the last war?”

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

Familiarity Breeds Business – January 2018

I was standing in line at the grocery store; nervous. I hadn’t intended to stop into this store, but as I was leaving the house my wife hit me with the “as long as you’re going out” request. She wanted me to return something she bought a few days earlier. We have a little game in our house. Neither of us likes returning things to stores, so we see who can most effectively dump the job on the other. It has gotten to the point where I don’t tell her if I am going to run errands anymore, for fear that my trip to one store will turn into a full day of driving throughout the entire metro area and standing in the Customer Service line. I am more afraid of hearing “As long as you’re going out” than I am “The IRS called for you.” As I stood in line, I wondered why the simple act of returning something was such a source of stress, especially since this store had a No Questions Asked return policy. I also wondered how far this stress could go in affecting the decisions of all customers, clients, and co-workers.

Later, as I dug into the issue further, everything pointed back to one fact about the brain. A fact that I believe affects the decision-making process in all business; our brains have not evolved one tiny bit from the hunter-gatherer stage of human evolution. Human propagation has advanced far too quickly for biology to keep pace, so the situations we force our brains to deal with don’t match its biological processes. Humans evolved in social groups—tribes. The tribe provided the most crucial element for survival; safety. Safety was assured by familiarity with everyone in your social group. Strangers threatened that safety. Oddly enough, safety was not often threatened by violence from other tribes; strangers brought with them germs and pathogens. More people have died on Earth from disease than war. In the simplest sense, anyone not like ourselves or our tribe is dangerous. Also, tribes usually consisted of about thirty people. This size made it easy to keep track of everyone in the tribe. Humans are hard-wired to value two things in other people, familiarity and similarity. These two qualities make trusting and working with each other easier. Even if there is conflict between you and the other person, the conflict will be resolved more easily in the presence of familiarity and similarity.

So, a brain that is wired to respond best when surrounded by and small group familiar people must now navigate in a world full of strangers. This is why, no matter how easy a store makes the return process, it is stressful. This is why people choose self-service options instead of working with a live human being, even if the self-service option is slower and more complicated. This is why online sales are outpacing brick-and-mortar retailers. This is why, when my wife and I suggested having a home help service visit her parents a few times a week to help with chores around the house, her parents’ main concern was, “Can we be sure to get the same person every day?” The American consumer is constantly trying to reduce the stress that comes from dealing with strangers. Sadly, the result is that people simply prefer to not deal with anyone else at all.

So, how can any business reasonably expect to overcome the neurological obstacle of the stranger-fearing brain? One answer might lie in emulating children. When you drop a six-year-old off at day care, the first thing he or she does is run up to the nearest child and ask, “What’s your name? Do you want to play?” I watched one child approach another and say, “Let’s be friends.” They ran off and spent hours together. The brain of a child has an entirely different focus than the brain of an adult; it is more intent on process than outcome. Essentially, “Am I enjoying this?” is more important than “Am I getting something done?” I am not suggesting that we adults abandon our outcome-based mentality. How else would the lawn get mowed? I am also not suggesting that we attempt to form close relationships with every person we meet. Frankly, our brains wouldn’t allow it. The human brain can only accept a handful of close relationships at a time, and about thirty acquaintances beyond that. Everyone else we meet must be relegated to the outer perimeter of our social circle. What I am suggesting is that, in order to compete with the ease and low-stress options of non-human contact, businesses must train employees to remove the obstacle of unfamiliarity.

A good example is the search for home services for my in-laws my wife and I just conducted. The first company I called was very professional and highly qualified. They were also entirely lacking in familiarity or similarity. The woman on the phone jumped right to her check-list. What was my name (with spelling)? The names of my in-laws (with spelling)? Any medical issues? Single-family home or apartment? I immediately felt stressed. I was searching for a service that involved intense human contact, but the conversation lacked any humanity whatsoever. It felt like I was refinancing a mortgage. In a very short period of time, I knew all about their services and pricing, and I didn’t want to buy them. Even after talking to the woman for ten minutes, I didn’t know her name. She didn’t make it into my tribe.

This company’s competitors might think, “This is good. We are so much better than that, and now we’ll stand out,” but the truth is, it only takes one experience like this for customers to assume that all companies that offer this service are the same. That first phone call made me want to skip the whole process and just have our in-laws move in with us. Then I made my second phone call. The next company on the list was a night-and-day difference from the first. When I started listing the services we were looking for, the man stopped me and said, “First, my name is Dave. What’s yours? Hi, Steve. Why don’t you start by just telling me a little bit about yourself, your in-laws, your wife, and what’s going on?” Dave’s approach took only a few minutes longer, but you can probably guess which company I recommended to my wife after I got off the phone.

Like it or not, people don’t make decisions about who to buy from, or who to work with, based on facts and statistics. We subconsciously choose associate with those who are familiar and similar to us; people in our tribe. And our tribe can easily extend beyond the outdated boundaries of race, ethnicity, dialect, region, or country. Humans have an amazing capacity to adapt to a changing environment, as long as we take steps to talk to each other like we are kids playing in the sandbox; to openly extend membership of our tribe. Train your staff to speak and behave toward customers, and each other, in ways that are more familiar, more human. Make people feel like they are part of the tribe.

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

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