Why We Argue

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or

The One Reason You Exist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or

If You Want Creative Thinking, Stimulate

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 nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or

No Apologies Necessary

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?

  • “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.”
  • “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 nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or

Talk, Don’t Text

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 nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or

Chase One Rabbit

“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 nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or

Don’t “Fill ‘er Up”, Stevie Ray’s February 2019 nationally syndicated column in the Business Journal newspapers

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 nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or

Small Document, Big Impact

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 nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or

I Am In Sales, Not Service

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 nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or

To Manage Anxiety, Remember Past Success

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.”

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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 nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or

Time for Old-School Notetaking

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 nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or

How to Shake a Hand

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 nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or

We Can See You

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 nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or

Refighting the Last War

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 refighting 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 nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or

One Thousand Punches a Day

This month marks my 40th year as a martial artist. (I know. I don’t look that old). Of the many lessons I have learned as a martial artist, I keep two uppermost in my mind. One is the meaning of the title of teacher. In Japan and Okinawa, a teacher is called Sensei, in Korea, Sa Bum Nim, and in China, Sifu. But eastern countries translate those titles beyond simply meaning “learned one.” The actual translation of the title of teacher is one who is born before. It is understood that anyone who is born before you has wisdom that a newer student should respect and seek to gain. In fact, older, higher ranking students in martial arts schools are not awarded belts, sashes, or degrees because of their advanced technique. They are awarded rank based on how well they pass along what they have learned to the next generation.


Being born before does not only refer to age. If a younger person began studying at a school before an older person joined, the younger person was born before in that particular discipline. As someone who has trained in several schools over the years, I have had to line up behind people who were both younger than myself, and who had less overall experience in the martial arts than me, but they were born before me at that school, and as such deserved my respect.

Another lesson was called, one thousand punches a day. When I first started training, my sensei, Kiyohisa Okamura, told me I should practice one thousand punches every day. I couldn’t understand this. The straight punch is the easiest technique in the book. Why should I spend so much time on it when there were other, more difficult techniques to learn? (Plus, the punch is kind of boring.). He said, “If you ever need to use your training to defend yourself, you aren’t going to do any of that fancy stuff you see in the movies. You will use a straight punch or a simple kick. Also, in real life you don’t get to square off against your opponent, like they do in the movies. Everything happens so fast it is over before you know it. When you are in the moment, your training will take over without you thinking. If you have practiced one thousand punches a day, your punch will be there when you need it. If you haven’t, you will have to think about what you are doing, and you will fail.”

Okamura finished with, “This is the same philosophy as the Chinese lesson of, chop wood, carry water. An old Zen saying is, Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. This reminds us if we only focus on the end result, we forget to do the things that move us forward every day. This follows the philosophy that the way a person does one thing, is the way they do everything. Approach every day by doing the simple tasks that will eventually lead you to where you want to go. Don’t focus too much on the end result, or it will never arrive.” I saw Okamura put this into practice one day when a new student asked to join the class. The man asked, “How long will it take me to get a black belt?” Okamura said, “If you train three times a week, probably about four or five years.” The man asked, “What if I train five times a week?” Okamura said, “Then it will take at least eight years.” Confused, the man asked, “What if I train every single day?” Okamura replied, “Ten years.” “I don’t understand,” the man said. “If I train harder and harder, why would it take longer to get a black belt?” Okamura said, “Because the more you focus on an end goal, the more elusive it becomes. And once you achieve it, it is meaningless. If you just train, with no thought of reward or rank, you will learn something more valuable than what you tie around your waist.”

So what does all this have to do with business? A lot. I didn’t think of writing these stories because of my 40th anniversary in the martial arts. I thought of them because of the trend our country has taken in its attitudes in the workplace and beyond. I see disrespect for age simply because an older person isn’t dialed into the most recent technology; forgetting that one who was born before has much to offer, even if they aren’t on Facebook or Snapchat. The flattening of corporate hierarchy is a good thing if the days of kissing the feet of the boss are gone. It is not a good thing if newer employees forget that some people have spent years at the company perfecting their skills.

I also lament the culture we have created where people get a medal just for showing up. I was working the registration desk at a youth event where competitors vied for trophies. In order to make sure no child felt bad, the organizers added a trophy for fourth place. And every child get a ribbon with a medal just for attending. As parents registered their children, the kids asked, “Where is my medal?” I responded, “You haven’t done anything, yet.” One parent didn’t like my comment and said, “Half of success is just showing up,” (misquoting Woody Allen’s “Showing up is 80 percent of life.”). I looked at her and said, “Yes, but the other half is doing something when you get there.” We are raising a generation that believes a room full of awards means something, even if they were bought and paid for.

We wonder why our employees have a hard time accepting criticism, or being passed over for a promotion, when they haven’t even done the job they were hired for. It is because we have forgotten to teach them that they must practice the one thousand punches a day that lead to growth and learning. One thousand punches a day means that sales professionals make phone calls every single day, instead of sending out an e-mail blast and waiting for the phone to ring. Doctors and nurses make rounds. Customer service reps listen to the same issue every day. Managers mentor employees face-to-face instead of by text. Business leaders sit down with clients instead of handing the job to a subordinate. To skip one day of practice punches is to focus only on the goal, and not the process.

How do managers and business leaders re-instill respect for those in the company who were born before? How do we get employees back to the discipline of practicing one thousand punches a day? First, make both expectations clear from day one. Too many leaders expect that, because they were raised that way, it is part of everyone’s workplace DNA. It isn’t. Second, reward those who are part of the process, not just those who cross the finish line. Don’t forget that the person who won the race had a lot of punchers pushing from behind.


Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or

The Power Position

There is a term used in the theatre world, blocking, which is when the director decides where each actor should stand, walk, or sit during a play. The term came into use in the early 1960s when directors would stage a play using a miniature model of the set, with wooden blocks representing the actors. To most audiences, the movement during a play seems so natural that it appears the actors are just allowed to position themselves. Only the outside eye of a director can see exactly what the audience sees, so a third-eye approach is necessary.

The term crossing is used to mean moving or walking (“Charles, on your next line let’s have you cross to the sofa.” Upstage means away from the stage front, and downstage means toward the audience. These terms come from a time when theatre stages had to be built angled up toward the rear because the audience was seated below the stage on flat floor, as opposed to the raised seating we have now. To counter is to move in accordance with the crossing of another actor, so the stage picture remains balanced. To cover is to stand between another actor and the audience, thereby stealing focus, also called upstaging another actor. Every decision the director makes is to guide the focus of the audience to the appropriate actor onstage at any given moment. Television and movies accomplish this task by simply focusing the camera where needed. A theatrical production is much trickier; without tight blocking the audience’s focus will scatter. Be aware during the next play you attend and you will see that, when an actor makes an entrance and begins to speak, the other actors will turn their eyes to the speaker. This is a subtle hint to the audience to look where the actors are looking. It is called directing focus.

What does all this have to do with business? A lot. The reason most business presentations are horrible is because the speaker has forgotten that every presentation is a performance, not a lecture. And good performance demands knowing how to direct the audience’s focus. Mastering focus is half the battle of capturing an audience. One step toward directing focus is understand the Power Positions of the Stage. Every performance area, whether a stage or an open area in front of the room, has spaces that demonstrate power or weakness on the part of the speaker. The most powerful position in any room is front and center. If you stand toward the front of the performance area, and at a point midway between the farthest audience member on each end (the center), you appear the most powerful to the audience. If you take a few steps back from the forward position, you appear weak; likewise if you step to either side of the center position. If you step too far forward, the appearance of power shifts to become intimidating (or intimate, depending on your relationship with your audience).

Try this experiment. During your next staff meeting, ask those seated to tell you how you appear to them—powerful or weak—depending on the various places you stand in the room. You will likely hear that standing in the far corner (rear and to the side) appears the weakest. Weak staging can ruin the best speaker and even the most powerful message. No theatre director would have Mark Antony deliver his “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” speech from the back corner of the stage.

Unfortunately, in this time of bowing to the gods of technology, the thing that is given the power position in the room most often is an A/V screen. Everywhere I go I see the presenter standing off to the side while a huge white PowerPoint screen is front and center, the power position. The screen is literally upstaging the speaker. This might seem logical, since most speakers have abandoned their power to PowerPoint, but it ignores the cardinal rule of presentations: the only reason you are personally standing in front of the audience is to bring life to the presentation. Your audience can read for themselves, they don’t want you reading text on a screen for them. They want you to give meaning to the stats, life to the proposal, and personality to the meeting. You can’t do that from behind a podium or stuck in a corner.

So what do you do if the A/V screen is already set up to take the power position away from you? Simple. Use the Mute Screen function. The screen should be blank while you stand center stage and deliver your message. After each major point in your presentation, un-mute the screen to show a visual reminder (not text!) to support what you just said. Then mute the screen again, cross to center, and move on to your next point. Each PowerPoint slide should be a visual accompaniment to the words you spoke, not a direct copy of what you are saying. In this way, visual and auditory work hand in hand to create maximum impact for your audience. Even if you have pages of statistics to share, you should break down the numbers into major ideas, without simply displaying them on screen.

Just as actors turn to look at someone entering so as to direct the audience’s focus, you do the same. When you display a slide, cross to the side and direct your focus to it; telling the audience where to look. When you mute the screen, cross center and look at your audience. That is a signal that it is time for them to look away from their hand-outs or cell phones and engage with you.

One last step, if you truly want to improve your business presentation performance, you must do what actors and directors do; review your performance. Take videos each time you deliver a presentation and review them with the eye of an audience member. Ask “Do I look powerful?” “Where is my focus being directed?” “Is my interest piqued?” Direct your presentation like Shakespeare and you can avoid death by a thousand snores.



Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or

Don’t Bother Me with Facts

I was engaged in a political debate over social media the other day with an acquaintance of mine. Have you ever done something that you know is a complete waste of your valuable time, will accomplish no discernable good, and will almost certainly end with everyone right back where they started; only angrier? Such is debating social policy on social media. “Larry” had made a derogatory comment about one of the past U.S. presidents concerning how a particular industry was being treated in America. According to Larry, this president was a terrible leader because his policies “destroyed” this particular industry.


I knew that debating of whether a single president has the power to build or destroy any industry wouldn’t get far with Larry. When it comes to economics, cause and effect are nearly impossible to prove, much less agree upon. So I did something even more foolish, I introduced facts to the party. Admittedly, it can be arrogant to claim to have facts while accusing others of resting on opinions; but in this case, my facts were facts. They were flat-out statistics, not opinions about why the statistics existed or where they came from. In fact, the facts were so universally agreed upon by all sides of the debate, and on both sides of the aisle, that it has long been agreed upon that the statistics are valid. By everyone, except Larry.

After unloading both barrels of facts into the debate, I sat back, crossed my arms, and waited to Larry to grovel at the feet of truth. I didn’t expect to be metaphorically lifted on the shoulders of rectitude, but it would have been nice. Have you ever posted a response on social media and the other person took forever to reply? All sorts of thoughts go through your head. “I’ve got him now. He’s on the ropes and gasping for breath.” Or, “I bet he is surfing the internet to find a rebuttal statistic. Cheater!” Larry finally replied, “I trust my own eyes and ears more than I trust a bunch of Ph.D. bean counters.” I realized then what I should have known at the outset of the debate; Larry wasn’t interested in sparking a lively, thought-provoking conversation. He wanted to connect with people who hated that president as much as he did. I wasn’t playing the game Larry had set up. I replied with something weak, like “We’ll have to agree to disagree,” which translates into “You’re an idiot, but I’m tired of trying to convince you that you’re an idiot.”

What does all this have to do with business? A report was issued recently that suggested that one of the most damaging traps executives in America fall into is confirmation bias; the tendency to make a decision, and then ignore any evidence that might threaten that position. The Harvard Business Review published an experiment in which people were placed in one of two groups based on their opinions concerning capital punishment. Each member of the group was then given a report that contradicted their original position. The contradictions were not simply differing opinions; cold hard facts were presented to support the opposition. Regardless of any new evidence, almost no one changed their position.

Confirmation bias is not simply a stubborn quality built into humans. We all have a psychological tendency to decide what we want to do first, then figure out why we want to do it. Combine this with another psychological urge—to engage only with things we like—and you’ve got a powerful combination of forces affecting important decisions; decisions that are better left to facts rather than opinion. However, failures in business throughout history have been traced back to someone in the corner office “Knowing what I know, and no bean counter is going to tell me otherwise.” Attitudes like this always make me laugh. Frankly, if you’re going to hire a bean counter, shouldn’t you trust the count she comes up with? And, even though there are some people walking around with Ph.D.s who I wouldn’t trust to watch my dog, by and large, a person got a doctorate degree because he or she devoted years to learn more about one single subject than most people on the planet. Ph.D. holders really are kinda smart. Smart enough not to use words like “kinda.”

If you want to avoid confirmation bias, be sure to have someone on your team whose job it is to take opposing sides of a debate. The person has to have the power to disagree with you without fear of recrimination. Also, when talking about an important issue, be aware if you are asking questions that aren’t really questions at all, but simply veiled attempts at forcing agreement from others. Remember, we are all psychologically built to seek out things that we like, and supporting evidence feels good. Constantly remind yourself that what feels good in the short term could end up feeling terrible in the long run. Be disciplined enough to approach major decisions from both sides of the debate, and do as much work arguing with yourself and you do with others.


Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or

Well Begun is Half Done

This column is aimed at those of you who either deliver presentations. A situation that deals with communication is a non-familial setting (as opposed to, say, a meeting with a co-worker whom you deal with on a daily basis). Delivering presentations involves apprehension on the part of the audience concerning the outcome. Is this meeting going to be worth my time? Am I going to be bored or excited? Will I like this person? The audience, or listener, in these circumstances experiences one of two emotions; nervous or comfortable. If the listener is comfortable, they will trust what you say, be engaged, cooperate with your suggestions, and speak well about you to others. If the listener is nervous, reverse all those responses.


Comfort is not only caused by a feeling that the listener likes the speaker, but that the speaker has behaved in such a way that the listener can trust that the experience itself will be pleasant. Essentially, the audience can relax because the speaker is confident and exudes an attitude that, not matter what may happen during the presentation, the speaker will remain in control and unflustered. In order to be comfortable, the listener has to know for certain that the worth of the presentation does not rest solely on the worth of the content, but in the quality of the delivery. Listeners may indeed become nervous if they are worried about how the content of a presentation might affect their lives (Will a new process be difficult to implement? Will a new policy be a hassle?). However, listeners can be just as nervous about whether the presentation itself will be difficult to endure. So nervousness isn’t just about what the speaker is likely to say, but about how well the speaker says it.

The nervous-or-comfortable reaction is the guiding force behind a listener’s decision making. If we like the messenger, we are more likely to follow the message. Sadly, many presenters approach their presentation incorrectly. They focus solely on the content, the meat, of the presentation. They ignore the fact that a listener will typically react with nervousness or comfort based, not on the entire presentation itself, but on the first thirty seconds of the presentation. If the first half-minute inspires a good response from the listener, you are in good shape. If, within the first thirty seconds, the audience is nervous about how well the rest of the experience will go, you have a lot of work to do to win back the crowd; if you can win them back at all.

One way to correct this mistake is to follow the old adage, Well begun is half done (often attributed to Aristotle, but was an oft-used axiom long before his birth). Even though most audiences will judge whether an experience is worthwhile within a few moments, many presenters focus their attention of the middle of the presentation. While it is true that all the statistics, charts, graphs, and recommendations are important, they are worthless if people have checked out before you get to that part of the presentation. So giving some thought to your opening is certainly worth the effort. The first few lines of your presentation should not simply be an attempt to buy time to get to the point, but to put the audience in the best frame of mind for the outcome you want.

Think of the greatest speeches throughout history. Each had an desired outcome, and the opening lines supported that goal. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his Pearl Harbor Address to the Nation, he needed congress and the public to support his appeal to declare war; “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy…” did that. When Martin Luther King needed to inspire unity for civil rights at a time when it was dangerous for minorities to advocate for themselves, his I Have a Dream speech began with, “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” And when Abraham Lincoln wanted his audience to reflect on the tragedy of war, as well as to honor those who had fallen, he created The Gettysburg Address, what is considered to be one of the greatest speeches in modern history; opening with, “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation…” None of these speeches started with, “Hello everyone. Thank you for having me, it is a pleasure to speak to you today.”

Of course, it would be foolish to suggest that workplace presentations should be approached with the same sense of grandeur or gravity as world leaders addressing matters affecting the country or the world, but the job of every orator is to put the audience in the best frame of mind; to instill comfort from the outset that the presentation will be worthwhile, as well as worth listening to. If your first few lines are just a weak jumble of sentences, you show the audience you haven’t given the effort to justify asking for their attention. Give the first few lines of your presentation, pitch, or speech the respect they deserve. If you do, the meat of the presentation will be better received by your audience.


Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or

How Do You Feel?: Emotions in Business

During a recent workshop, I was having a lively discussion with managers from various companies about how they navigate the emotional states of their employees. It is no secret that managers can play the role of therapist as often as they play the role of boss. In the old days, managers used to assume that employees left their personal issues out of the picture and just did their jobs. The truth is, it is impossible for people to be productive unless their heart is in the work. Sure, you can push through for a while, but if your emotional state is in the dumps, the outcome will be marginal and uninspired. So understanding how emotions affect decision making, cooperation, innovative thinking, and cognitive function is good information for any professional.

It was a nice coincidence that I had just finished reading a book on the subject. I volunteer recording books on tape for the blind, which means I am exposed to many books I would not otherwise read. And, since I select only from the non-fiction options, very often the books I record turn out to be great tools for a business owner such as myself. The most recent book was How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. The author, Lisa Feldman Barrett, discussed research that suggests that people don’t react emotionally as we once assumed. Without getting too deep into details, most emotions are not the result of the brain reacting to a situation. Instead, the brain predicts which emotion will be appropriate for the situation, and then corrects its emotional state based on input that follows. The trouble with this process is, once the brain makes its emotional prediction, it is hard for it to change course based on new input. Essentially, once we are angry, we stay angry even if we discover there is no reason to be.

Because our brains can so easily go down the wrong emotional path, and it is so difficult to course-correct once they do, Barrett advises people to increase their emotional granularity. Emotional granularity is the ability to make distinctions between different emotional states. Since different emotions can have different causes, knowing exactly which emotion you are experiencing can help you avoid being an emotional puppet on a string. So, instead of just “being mad,” are you frustrated (caused by repeated failure to achieve a goal)? Disappointed (caused by a positive experience being denied)? Resentful (belief that someone else is the cause of your problem)? Or angry (caused by a value of yours not being respected). All these emotional states are unpleasant, but they are not at all the same, and each needs a different approach to find a resolution. By the same token, there is a difference between feeling elated, joyful, relieved, or giddy. These are all pleasant emotions, but caused by different experiences.

Note that I used the words pleasant and unpleasant instead of positive and negative when referring to the emotions above. If you consider emotions positive or negative, you limit your ability to manage a situation. While some emotional states might feel unpleasant, they are still part of the Ying-Yang balancing act of the brain. All emotions, pleasant and unpleasant, are necessary to a functioning brain. An emotional only has a negative impact if it is too prolonged, or causes a person to engage in unhealthy behavior. Managers who are uncomfortable dealing with unpleasant emotions are more likely to try to suppress them in others. This often leads to the other person feeling even worse, and not connecting well with that manager in the future.

So what does all this have to do with business? A lot. The more research that is conducted on the brain, especially in the field of decision making, the more we realize that humans make almost every decision based on emotion. This fact has been known, and employed by, sales professionals for hundreds of years. And the marketing industry follows the axiom, people buy with emotion and justify with fact. But emotional states guide much more of the brain’s processing that just buying a car or choosing a movie to watch. Emotions affect teamwork, customer satisfaction, manager-employee relationships, and employee retention. A brain’s emotional state affects its executive function (decision making, planning, and negotiating), and creative thinking. Understanding how the brain constructs emotions as a result of its perception of the world is crucial to managing people, not just selling to them.

Customers report higher satisfaction when a service rep “really seems to understand my problem.” This can’t happen if a service rep lumps every disgruntled customer into the Upset column. If I call a company help line and hear, “We’re so sorry for the inconvenience,” I don’t feel heard, I feel patronized. Sometimes I am inconvenienced, other times I feel frustrated, or frightened, or disappointed. If the language of the person serving me reflected that they really knew how I felt, my loyalty to that company would grow. Beyond customer service, when people feel that others really understand them, they work better together and remain part of a team longer.

If managers and business leaders developed a higher degree of emotional granularity in their own lives, they would have a better command over situations and employees. As with any situation, you can’t develop a good resolution until you have accurately defined it. And getting to the heart of someone’s emotional state helps avoid offering the wrong solution. In the future, when you feel an emotion, put a specific label on it. Go beyond happy and sad. Increase your emotional granularity (you might want to use and expand your emotional horizons.

Instead of fearing unpleasant emotional states at work, fearing emotions all together, or lumping good and bad emotions into one big lump; accurately identifying emotions, and getting to the real cause, is a great first step to using the emotional brain we all have to work better together.


Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or

I Could Listen Better if You Would Stop Talking

Jeanine approached me with an interesting question after a workshop I conducted about professional networking. “I am always really interested in what other people have to say about themselves,” she said, “but I never know when it is okay to interrupt them to ask a question. For instance, if someone is talking about her family, I want to ask about the kids, but they haven’t stopped talking yet. I don’t want to be rude by interrupting, but I don’t want to forget my question, either.” I appreciated Jeanine’s question, not just because maintaining a good flow of conversation is crucial to professional networking, but also because she was being consciously aware of her behavior while networking; and weighing its impact on the outcome of the interaction. This is a far cry from some people I have observed, who bowl through conversations with no more thought about what comes out of their mouths than a five-year-old.


“Conversation,” I said, “especially in a professional setting, is like a game of catch.” When two kids toss a ball back and forth, there is an unwritten rule. Only throw the ball when the other kid is ready to catch it. And you only get the ball back when he is ready to throw it. While playing catch, the most important goal is to keep the ball from hitting the ground. If one kid throws the ball too far, it flies past the other kid and the game has to stop. The worst thing is having a game of catch that builds up a nice rhythm, only to have it come to a halt while one kid has to run to pick up the ball. The same is true of conversation. We have all been networking, and everything seems to be going fine when, thud, the ball hits the ground. Because networking conversations carry greater implications, dropping the ball is even more stressful for everyone involved.

I told Jeanine, “Before you interrupt someone, ask yourself if having the ball is worth taking it out of someone else’s hands.” Interrupting is the same as running over and yanking the ball out of another kids hands. The reason you didn’t have the ball in the first place is because they weren’t ready to throw it to you. Whatever reason you have for wanting the ball is never as important as the other person’s reason for wanting it.

I was at a networking event and asked a guy how he ended up in his current profession. His education began as a music major in college, which was a far cry from the consulting work he did for a living. I was curious about which musical instrument he studied, but he was still talking. And the point of his story was not about the instrument he studied, but about the circuitous route he took throughout his career. If I had interrupted to ask about his instrument of choice, I would have yanked the ball right out of his hands. I would have gotten the answer to my question, but ruined the game. So I waited, keeping my question in the back of my mind, but also realizing that, if we never got around to my question, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. After I listened until the end of his story, I was not only able to circle back to my question about his musical training, but because I truly listened, I was able to dig even more into his professional career.

“Beyond that,” I told Jeanine, “don’t overthink the conversation.” Given the delicate dance that is professional networking, you don’t want to err on either side of the coin. Being too cautious makes you appear unsure or nervous; we don’t trust tentative people to handle tough jobs. On the other hand, some people think that throwing caution to the wind makes them appear bold, but being careless during conversation can be perceived as reckless; and no one trusts a big mouth.

As Jeanine and I talked, Harvey listened and finally commented, “But some people never shut up. If you didn’t interrupt, you wouldn’t get a word in edgewise.” I said, “Networking is about building trust in as short a period of time as possible. When people talk, they trust the person who truly listens. Listening to other people talk never builds as much trust as being allowed to speak uninterrupted. If you want this person as a client, it doesn’t matter if you get a word in edgewise; if only matters that they want to see you again, and work with you.” I told Harvey about a client I had who spoke in such a way that it was clear she had a lot to say; and wanted a willing ear. I made a conscious effort to keep my mouth shut and my ears open. I kept thinking, “If she throws me the ball, I’m ready, but I’m not taking it out of her hands.” I ended speaking much less than I normally do during a conversation (just ask my wife), and my client ended up saying, “I’ve got some great ideas of how to use your services for my company. Can I have your business card?” To me, that is a great ending to a smooth game of catch.


Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or