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

Get In Front of It

Is it me, or has there been a stronger-than-usual reaction to the recent actions in Washington D.C.? Before you toss this newspaper, stop the video, or cancel whatever medium this is reaching you, don’t worry; this is not going to be like the rush of angry social media posts that have been keeping you from viewing photos of people’s children all dressed up for prom, or videos of their dog eating the baby’s food while the child laughs hysterically. But a recent survey did discover that the average worker today spends an average of two hours reading political posts on social media during the work day. Kind of makes you nostalgic for the days when people just wasted fifteen minutes hanging around the water cooler, doesn’t it?


No, I’m not going to weigh in with my thoughts on the current administration. I made an agreement with my wife not to publish anything that would result in angry mobs with torches and pitchforks gathering outside our castle. And these days, no matter which side of the debate you’re on, you can count on even the mildest opinion resulting in a feud that rivals Kylie Jenner and Blac Chyna (but seriously, did you see what Kylie posted about her? OMG!).

The division between left and right, totally engaged and completely uninterested, or slightly annoyed and obsessively furious has never been greater. There are even reports of divorces occurring because couples couldn’t reconcile the fact that their partner pulled the wrong lever in the voting booth. The implications of the current political climate, however, do run deeper than people not getting their work done because they are too busy seeing how many people Like their posts. It doesn’t matter to a business leader if an employee Unfriends someone on Facebook, but it does matter if they do it at work. How is a team supposed to work side by side to get a project done when half the team thinks the other half is either evil incarnate, or spineless snowflakes? If the cornerstone of a productive team is trust (as evidenced by about a bazillion studies), how can trust survive the realization that the person you formerly thought of as a great guy you now consider to be unethical, uneducated, narrow-minded, unreasonable, or a “sore loser.”

The answer, of course, is leadership. (Cue the Roman-style trumpets.) But this situation calls for leadership of a very specific kind, and it might not be the kind that you grew up with. One of the hallmark attitudes of the Traditionalist Generation (born roughly between 1900-1945), is the mantra, You don’t have to like your job, you just have to have one. The need to find employment, when employment was impossible to find, also led to, You don’t have to like your co-workers, you just have to work with them. Certainly, the threat to one’s livelihood would be incentive enough to quell any personal disagreements. But we no longer live in a keep your head down and do your job world, and leaders cannot simply tell employees to keep their nose to the grindstone. This approach is not only unrealistic, it is ultimately self-defeating.

One company I worked with has actually instituted a rule that no conversation in the workplace may include the topics of politics, religion, ethnicity, or even sports. Sports? “Dude, the Hope University volleyball team totally stepped over the foul line on that spike.” “That’s it. Meet me in the parking lot with your gloves on!” The no talking about sensitive issues at work rule might seem like a reasonable approach. If an issue isn’t likely to ever find a peaceful resolution, why bring it up? I am sure many families across America employed that strategy at Thanksgiving. The problem is, not talking about an issue doesn’t make it go away. You might not have said to your brother, “Please pass the mashed potatoes, you racist pig!” but you can’t hide the sentiment. Leaders who try to quash disagreement by prohibiting conversation create an environment of avoidance and resentment. On the list of qualities of productive teams, avoidance and resentment rank below apathy and irresponsibility. Essentially, taking away the right, and the responsibility, to talk about tough issues with team members is like saying, “You kids can’t play well in the sandbox. So, rather than teaching you how to play well, we’re taking the sandbox away.” Kids without a sandbox rarely blame the parent who took it away; they blame the other kid in the sandbox.

Good leaders are so because they protect team members, even if from each other. This is not a time to hide from the tough issues of the day, it is time to get in front of it. The first step is to put it out there. Don’t pretend that it only affects people outside of work. If it hasn’t been brought up yet, be the person to bring it up. The next step is to lay out expectations. Employees need to know that no matter how they voted, or if they voted, or how they feel about the issues at hand, these are our expectations when you step through our doors. Employees need to know that you don’t want them to just put their heads down and work, you want them to talk to each other. People don’t have to agree, but they have to disagree the right way. And, as their leader, you are there to protect everyone in the company. Because, in the end, things in the world will always change, but people still have to work side by side.

When All You Have Is Your Voice

In the pecking order of communication, face-to-face will always reign supreme, because the evaluation centers of the brain are treated to all the subtle signals they need in order to judge whether the other person can be trusted. Next in line is voice-to-voice, with text bringing up the rear (which is suited to serve the brain’s needs only slightly better than semaphore (if you are younger than 50, Google it).

Face to face meetings are a treat for the brain, but nearly impossible when your offices are spread across the universe. So how do you ensure a good outcome when all you have is your voice? Let me offer some tips. These tips are based on research that has discovered that the brain takes a great many cues about how to think from how the body is moving.


Rule 1: Stand

Thinking quickly and creatively while sitting certainly isn’t impossible, but sitting for too long signals to the brain that it is time to rest. Standing while on the phone can energize your thinking and amp up your communication. If standing is impossible, at least lean forward so your back isn’t resting against the chair.

Rule B: Pace

The brain actually thinks fastest when the body is engaged in repetitive, rhythmic movement. This is why taking a walk is a great way to break loose mental log-jams. If you pace while speaking on the phone, your mental energy level will increase; making it easier to listen, respond, and engage.

Rule Next: Smile

Phone sales professionals and customer service reps have long heard the adage, A smile can be heard, but smiling while on the phone goes far beyond simply having a pleasant demeanor. This is because of the two-way path of communication between the brain and the body. The brain may tell the body how to move (I feel happy, so let’s have the facial muscles smile), but the body also tells the brain how to think; which is why, if you force a smile, it is impossible to stay angry.

Positive facial expressions affect both the speaker and the listener. When you smile while speaking, your facial muscles signal to the brain to convey a positive message. Smiling has also been shown to increase creative thinking. And studies have shown that the listener can actually hear if the speaker is smiling, even without visual confirmation. The brain’s auditory cortex is highly sensitive, and designed to pick up subtle signals in the speaker’s voice. We are not consciously aware of this process, but it greatly affects our decision-making.

Rule After Next: Gesture

When you gesture while speaking, your physical movements not only reinforce your thinking, but gesturing helps your brain communicate with more impact. Gesturing also improves your word choice and the timbre of your voice. A good friend of mine, John, is a voice-over professional. He gets paid to lend his voice to TV commercials and corporate training videos. He is one of the top three voice-over talents in Minnesota. I have seen other voice-over talents during recording sessions, but wanted to see why John was hired so much more than the competition, so he allowed me to watch a recording session for a TV commercial. While I sat with the sound engineer, John was positioned in a glass recording booth. The first thing I noticed was that, while other people simply held the script by hand and spoke into the microphone, John made sure there was a music stand to hold his script; leaving his hands free. The other thing I noticed was that, even though John was speaking only to a microphone, he gestured wildly.

By all appearances, you would have thought John was speaking to a large audience. I asked the sound engineer if this was common and he said, “No. Most people just stand there and talk, but that’s why this guy is one of the top paid people in the business. As a recording engineer, I have heard hundreds of people doing voice-overs, and the ones that use their body just sound better.” When I asked John about it later, he said, “Yeah, it took me a while to be comfortable using my body when I spoke. At first, it feels kind of silly.” I asked, “How did you get over feeling goofy?” He said, “When I realized that, with at least fifty people auditioning for the same commercial, I always get the job. Believe me, taking money to the bank takes away feelings of doubt.”

Rule Last: Don’t Sound Like You Are On the Phone

A work environment changes the nature of our speech, but being on the phone takes away even more of our “vocal humanity.” This is why it is so important to be conversational. One of the most damaging signals to the listener’s brain is when it hears disingenuous tone of voice. Phone conversations, especially at work, can sound false because we lose much of the up-and-down pitch and vocal variety that occurs during normal speech. We level off our vocal pattern, taking away its vitality and life; and also its believability.


Having a wireless headset allows you to stand, pace, gesture, and converse more easily than being tethered to a handset. If your job requires phone interaction, invest in technology that will help you perform your best. And, if you feel silly using your body while on the phone, just think of John taking his checks to the bank while his competition is still waiting for the next audition.


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 Biggest PowerPoint No-No

If you never give presentations to an audience, you can stop reading now and go back to posting on Facebook while pretending to work. If you do give presentations, but never use PowerPoint, Visme, Haiku Deck, Emaze, Prezi, Keynote, Projeqt, Slidedog, Zoho Show or any of the dozens of visual aid software programs available, you can stop reading now and go back to thinking you are better than all those losers posting on Facebook. For those of you still reading, I am going to help you avoid the single most damaging practice people engage in while using slides.

The advice comes in two parts; 1) stop reciting the text on the slide! , 2) stop putting text on the slide in the first place! Some of you may have already heard this advice, but you are likely not employing it to the degree needed in order for you to avoid having a roomful of people silently wishing for your demise at the end of your presentation. Others of you may have heard advice to the opposite. Those who know not to recite text aloud while the audience is reading it may wonder how such bad advice continues to persist. Let me provide story to illustrate.

I was in a large ballroom as a corporate convention was about to begin. I was speaking to the client, Marsha, about last-minute details for my keynote when one of her younger associates, Julie, approached. Marsha asked Julie, “Are you ready for your segment of the presentation?” Julie’s expression showed that this was likely the first time she had to speak in front of a group of top executives. “I’m freaking out!” she said. “Don’t worry,” said Marsha. “It’s easy. All you have to do is make sure everything you want to say is printed on the PowerPoint. Then you just flip from slide to slide and read everything to the audience as you go. That way you won’t forget anything.”

Julie sighed with relief and walked away. Marsha looked at me with a satisfied smile, as if she had just saved one more soul from Podium Damnation. I couldn’t speak, I had bitten my tongue in half. I didn’t correct Marsha at the time. I figured it wasn’t my place to say anything (plus, I hadn’t been paid yet).

Here are the main reasons why you should avoid placing text in PowerPoint, and when you have to use text, never read it. It confuses the brain. The brain absorbs information best when it uses one input channel at a time; reading, watching, or listening. The brain isn’t good at using more than one input channel at once, even if the focus in on the same material. In fact, using more than one channel causes all of them to shut down. If you recite the same text that someone is trying to read, you cancel out all channels of input; causing the audience to actually remember less of the material. This shut-down is also quite frustrating for the brain. So, rather than guiding people through the material, you are stressing them out.

Reciting text destroys meaning. Ever heard someone point at numbers on a screen and say, “As you can see here…”? If we can see it, why are you saying it? We don’t need you to point out the obvious. The reason you are speaking is not to perform functions, life reading, that we can do ourselves. Your main function as the speaker is to provide meaning. Is the 2% figure on the graph a fantastic thing, or a lousy thing? How should we feel about what you are showing us? The ultimate goal of every presentation is to inspire action. Action is the result of emotion, not information. Look at every slide in your deck and ask yourself, “Does the audience really need to know this? What do I want them to do about it, so how do I want them to feel about it?”

Reciting disconnects you from your audience. I have heard many presenters say they like to use PowerPoint because it puts the audience’s focus on the screen instead of themselves. It is fine to be nervous in front of an audience; if you weren’t, you wouldn’t care about them. But all eyes on the screen shows the audience that you don’t really care enough to connect with them. You have to be more powerful than the slides or you don’t deserve our attention.

Text circumvents the brain’s best functions. People love to read, but reading is a solitary act. When we read, it is at our own pace and in our own time. Presentations are meant to enlighten and inspire. To do this, you need to reach the proper brain cortices. The most efficient function of the human brain is pattern recognition. Recognizing patterns is the brain’s default running system. It helps us determine feelings, which lead to action. Pattern recognition is best achieved visually. Even though we use our eyes to read text, reading is not actually a visual function, it is cerebral. Charts, photos, and graphs are visual. Numbers on a page are not as meaningful as lines that go up and down. Visual images allow the pattern recognition centers of the brain to size up information, compare it to other images, and create realizations, which form opinions. Take the textual information on your PowerPoint and convert it to images that the brain can absorb and evaluate. If you want to convey a happy thought, flash a photo of a smiling person. Images not only have greater impact, they are retained longer in our memory; making your presentation more effective.

These simple steps will keep your audience engaged as well as position you as a more polished presenter. And if Marsha tells you to do otherwise, send her to me.

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 Collect Receipts, Build Equity

I had a conversation some time ago with Jackson, a friend of mine. It was one of those talks where you cover everything from how we had the best ideas to fix the national debt to “were you good at sports as a kid?” It’s funny how two guys talking over coffee seem to have a greater bank of wisdom than the president, congress, and all of our friends combined. And, since business mirrors life, we folded a lot of the conversation into how we behaved in our respective careers. When we started talking about how we made big decisions, Jackson said, “If I am ever at a loss as to which direction to go, I always think of what my father told me the entire time I was growing up under his roof.”


Jackson leaned back and said, “I can hear him now as we would both be working on the lawn. ‘Jackson, there are two ways to go through life, collecting receipts or building equity. Receipts are faster, easier, and usually more fun, but they don’t give you anything at the end. Building equity takes planning, discipline, and hard work, but you get more for your effort in the long run.

‘Take relationships, for instance. There are a lot of pretty women, and there will always be someone who will catch your eye. And, for a while, you should date and have a number of relationships. It teaches you who you are, and what you can offer somebody. But dating is just collecting receipts, not building equity. Equity is something you have at the end. It is something of value; something you own. Receipts are just a pocketful of paper. Dating leaves you with pocketful of receipts; quick memories of short encounters. Marriage builds equity.

‘Every relationship you have in life, whether at work, at home, or with friends, will either be collecting receipts or building equity. Now there is nothing wrong with receipts, as long as you know that receipts are what you want at the time. Not every friendship will last a lifetime. Some aren’t supposed to. Not every date will end in marriage, and not every job will last until you retire. But even the people you meet who will just be receipts should be treated as though they deserve your equity. There is a time in life when you want to think seriously about what kind of equity you are building.

“To be sure, dating is easier than marriage. If things get tough while dating, you can jump. And dating is a lot more fun because of the excitement of always meeting someone new. There is also a lot less stress when you don’t have to think about where you two are going and how you will handle the future. Dating is easy because it doesn’t involve anyone except the two of you. You get to only think about yourself. How great is that? But I have yet to meet a person that spent their life that way and felt really good about themselves in the long run.

‘The same is true for work. You can jump from here to there, collecting receipts along the way, but I haven’t met too many people who do that and are happy at the end. They never stuck around long enough to have a real impact, to make a difference. That’s what equity is, making a difference so you know that your time on Earth has meant something to other people.

‘So Jackson, you be a young man for now. Date different ladies, take on new jobs; see where your fancy takes you. But there will come a time when you need to start building equity so you don’t end up with nothing but a pocketful of receipts.’”

That’s the kind of story that puts the conversation on pause. It is also the kind that sticks with you. I know, because that talk took place about twenty years ago, and it is still fresh in my mind. So what does this have to do with business? Maybe nothing, maybe a lot. I certainly have a list of employees, customers, and clients who might feel like they were little more than receipts to me. It is true that not every relationship is meant to be lifelong. You can’t marry every client or staff member. However, when I remind myself that there is a big difference between being treated like just another receipt instead of like valuable equity, I think I do my job better.


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

Behave as if the Neighbors are Watching

You can’t get through a day lately without hearing, “I’m glad I am not a kid growing up in today’s world. I couldn’t handle all the cell phone cameras, videos, and social media broadcasting every stupid mistake I made.” These comments are almost always accompanied by a reminiscence of earlier times when life was simpler. A time when people were supposedly allowed to be themselves without the entire world knowing their business. A time when children were to be seen and not heard, instead of now, when kids post a photograph of their meal so all their friends can know just what they had for lunch. And a time when a handshake was as binding as any contract.

These sentiments all center around one common theme, we treated each other better back then. People seemed to say “please” and “thank you” more, they opened doors for each other, and seemed generally more civil. Personally, I grew up being taught to open doors for others (men as well as women), and to speak with courtesy. I grew up long before the pressures of instant media. My house had a single land line with one phone in the kitchen and one in the basement; both rotary dial. The strength in my fingers came from learning to type on a manual typewriter in 7th grade. And our house was the first on the block to get one of those new-fangled kitchen wonders; the microwave oven (for the first three months, we stood five feet away when it was on, just in case).

I did not learn civility, however, because of the absence of Big Brother’s eyes-everywhere presence. You see, in my day we had something that would put social media to shame. We had an institution more instant than cell phone video; the neighbors. No matter what my siblings or I did while terrorizing the few blocks surrounding our house, it got back to mom and dad; often before we even got home. Many dinnertime conversations included “Mrs. Tarnow said she saw you kids playing at that house that is under construction. You know the one. The one we said to stay away from.” We kids could place watch guards at every corner, but we never saw Mrs. Tarnow; somehow she always saw us. And if it wasn’t Mrs. Tarnow, it would be Mr. DeFrang, Mrs. Higgins, the Frieds, or some neighbor we didn’t even know existed.

So, the truth is, those of us of a certain age did grow up in an era where our every mistake was broadcast. And it wasn’t broadcast to a world of faceless strangers, it was circulated to people who actually knew you. People who saw you only days after you were born when the neighbors would all come over to “see the new baby.” They heard about your every antic over coffee and doughnuts. And the reason the neighbors ratted on you to your parents was that they wanted to see you reach adulthood intact. And, of course, what is a neighborhood without a little gossip?

So, what does this have to do with running a company? Maybe nothing, maybe a lot. Why do employees do things that are bad for the company? Why do some managers treat staff the way they do? Why do we see business leaders at the peak of their careers one day and being indicted for fraud the next? People have a lot of fancy answers to these questions, but I think the answer is simple; anonymity. Quite simply, it is easier to hurt people you don’t know.

There was a TV show some time ago in which a married couple received a gift from a mysterious stranger. Inside the box was a metal cube with a red button on top. A note was attached that read, “Every time you push the red button you will receive $10,000 in cash. The money will show up at your doorstep, but you will not know who delivered it. However, every time you push the button somewhere in the world an innocent person will die. You will never know who the person is, and they will not be anyone you know or care about. You can keep the box as long as you like and push the button as often as you want with no consequences. Every time you do, you will receive $10,000 and someone, somewhere, will die.”

Of course, the couple was aghast. No way would they cause the death of an innocent person, no matter how much they stood to gain. For the first few weeks, they were diligent. They hid the button away where they couldn’t see it, and they never spoke of it. Then one day, an emergency arouse. (Something along the lines of a life-and-death medical emergency). Convincing themselves that it was necessary, and that they would only do it once, they pushed the button. They got the money, the emergency was averted, and soon everything was back to normal. They never heard news about the death. As you might guess, the story progresses; with each new “emergency” being a little less dire, but still worthy of pushing the button. By the end of the story, the couple was pushing the button every day, sometimes because they just wanted extra cash for shopping.

Most religions and spiritual philosophies encourage followers to “act always as if God were watching.” People in therapy for anti-social behavior are told to imagine that any harmful thoughts they might have are being broadcast to everyone around them. These beliefs are an attempt to combat the one thing that allows us to harm our neighbor, the anonymity that allows people to do bad things. Knowing someone isn’t the only reason we choose to do the right thing, but I can be an important reason. We don’t hurt, harass, cheat, or demean a friend. What if your workplace was like my old neighborhood? Not in the “Mrs. Tarnow is always watching you” kind of way, but in the “we are all neighbors” kind of way. In the end, I act the way I do, not because somebody with a cellphone camera might be watching, but because, in a real sense, Mrs. Tarnow is always watching.


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

Focus On Your Audience

Some years ago, I was asked to speak to a group of school children. Even though the subject of today’s column isn’t about humor, laughter was the subject of my talk for the kids. Not only am I a pretty funny guy (my wife and stepdaughter’s opinions notwithstanding), but I have studied in great detail how humor works in the brain, in everyday life, and how it affects communication and relationships. The teacher who called me thought it would be interesting for the children to know how our brains work when it comes to that most human of reactions; laughter. She also thought it would be socially educational for the kids to hear a message about what are not considered appropriate sources of humor. I told the teacher I could handle the first request, but as far as kids laughing at what kids think is funny, I am no miracle worker.

The real point of today’s story isn’t what I talked about, it is about who I spoke to. The teacher who arranged the presentation taught fourth grade. Knowing that the audience would consist of nine-year-olds was certainly an important consideration as I developed content. (Meaning that I should probably omit the theory that laughter is a homeostatic mechanism through which psychological tension is reduced.) The first rule of public speaking is know your audience.

A week before the presentation, the teacher called and said, “Another teacher at the school heard about your speech and thought it would be a great topic for her class. Would you mind speaking to a larger group? We would move from my classroom to the media room.” I didn’t have a problem with more kids. As long as the teachers stayed by to chaperone, bring ‘em on! A few days later, the teacher called again. Yet another teacher had heard about my upcoming talk and wondered if her class could join the fun. This would mean moving the whole group to the auditorium. The teacher was nervous about asking me to take on a much larger group. What she didn’t know was that, for those of us who speak and entertain for a living, the larger the audience the better. “Sure,” I said, “three classes of kids is really no different than two.” Can you tell by now that I have never been a school teacher?

Now is when the story gets interesting. I prepared a presentation geared toward about sixty nine-year-old children. I showed up at the school, was escorted to the auditorium, and waited for the kids to file in. The first class arrived; thirty giggling fourth graders. After a few minutes, the second class arrived; thirty second graders! Then the third group walked in; thirty twelfth graders. So I was to explain how humor worked to kids aged seven, nine, and seventeen. I was to access the specific knowledge base, intellect, maturity, attention span, and interest level of and audience ranging from post-toddler to pre-adults. My talk was scheduled for one hour. When I looked at the clock, I literally saw the second hand stop moving. I found out later that it had indeed stopped moving; the teachers pulled the plug so they could get a longer break.

I don’t remember much of what I said that day, but I do remember being more focused than for any presentation before or since. Every concept and example I spoke about I thought, “How can I make this accessible to the little ones and still interesting for the older ones? How can I not talk over the heads of one group without sounding like I’m talking down to the others?” The entire presentation demanded that I think about what was most relevant to each audience member; what was most on their minds at that moment in their lives. Not an easy task, given that what was uppermost in the minds of the second graders was remaining in constant motion, while the fourth graders were most concerned with trying to be funnier than me (the goal being met, in their minds, by inventing as many ways to emit noises from their bodies as they could), while the twelfth graders were most concerned with what the other twelfth graders thought; especially those for whom a romantic interest had sparked.

What surprised me was how well the session went, especially given that I had to completely scrap my original outline. People are surprised to hear me say that, since I am a professional practiced in improvisation, but the rule of thinking on your feet is creativity is borne of structure. And the situation into which I was thrown caused me to abandon almost all my prepared structure. What took the place of structure—indeed, what the lack of structure demanded—was focus. Because I couldn’t just coast along, referring to my pre-planned outline, my focus on the audience’s needs and interests was my only guide. And because I focused solely on my audience, my audience was better served. All three grades were engaged throughout the presentation. And all the kids said it was “cool.” I was never called cool when I was in school, but the wait was worth it.

Next time you are preparing a presentation, think more about your audience than your outline. Make sure the information you are eager to share is what they really need, or want, to hear. You might start by asking yourself, “What would I do if the audience I didn’t expect walked in the door?


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

Keep Your Business Card in Your Pocket

Last month I riled up a few folks by claiming, rightly so, that the elevator pitch was a terrible way to network. The lack of hateful backlash encourages me to make another networking claim, but first let’s talk about why I am focusing on networking lately. The reason is simple, people are getting worse, not better, at dealing with the face-to-face part of life. Generations of kids are growing up using their thumbs as the sole instrument of communication. When my family was at a restaurant recently, I looked around and saw half the tables not speaking to each other during dinner. A trio of teenaged girls, a couple on a date, an entire family; all on their phones texting, gaming, snap chatting, taking pictures of their meal—essentially, doing anything except acknowledging that there were other human beings present. (Seriously, can Pokemon Go just go now?)

The result of all this focus on the device in the hand? A month ago I was conducting a networking workshop with an audience ranging from seasoned executives to graduates just entering the work force. One young graduate said, “I hate to admit this, but I have never been taught how to give a proper handshake.” I admired her courage for admitting this in front of the group, but I really wanted to find her parents and ask them what they thought would happen when she eventually left home. Would she somehow magically absorb business etiquette? Or perhaps this skill is another in the long list that is relegated to “they should learn this in school.” (Schools already have enough to do raising our kids for us, let’s not add teaching business acumen to their plate.)

A simple handshake might not seem like a big deal, unless you have been on the receiving end of a bad one. I don’t know which is worse, shaking someone’s hand that feels like you are holding a dead fish, or having your phalanges crushed by a guy who is trying to prove he can bench press you and everyone else in the room. So we discussed how each culture’s handshake reflects their particular views on personal space. The wider the space around each individual, the less physical contact is possible (resulting in the fingers only handshake in some European countries). Cultures that have closer personal space boundaries will naturally have handshakes that involve both hands; one hand shaking while the other grasps your arm. Or even a quick hug. The standard American handshake involves crook-of-thumb to crook-of-thumb, two quick shakes, and release. Holding on to the other person’s hand any longer and you risk becoming that guy.

All this might seem too obvious to warrant the space I just took up describing it, but if your business depends on personal contact, it might be a good idea to forward a quick reminder to your staff, and make it a practice to critique this essential part of business etiquette before letting employees go forth and represent your company. But I said I was going to make another nasty criticism of networking, so I should. My advice is, never give your business card to anyone unless they ask for it. Now you are probably thinking, “Great. I’m supposed to just hope that when the prospect needs me someday, he or she will find me on the internet?” No, but the two important words in that statement are need and someday.

The crux of my advice is carried in the qualifier unless they ask for it. We have all been on the receiving end of someone who says, “Let me give you my business card.” We didn’t want his card, which is why we didn’t ask for it. The person giving us his card doesn’t suddenly make us want it. We accept the card out of politeness, knowing we have a recycling bin at the office. The goal of networking is not to get your card into as many hands as possible, hoping that one prospect will contact you. The goal is to establish a need for what you do; right now, not someday. If you give me your card without first establishing an urgent, immediate need, your gesture is seen as lazy. In a sense, you want me to do the work of connecting the dots between your business and mine.

If you give your business card to someone without first establishing a need on their part, they have no interest in staying connected with you. It is the same as connecting on social media networking sites. I receive several requests each week to connect with someone on LinkedIn, Facebook, or the like; and it is instantly apparent as to their motive behind the request. The relationship either involves me helping them, them helping me, or both helping each other. If the relationship is one-sided, I am offended at the request. Savvy professionals are only interested in mutually beneficial relationships. And if you say, “I think there are things we can do to benefit each other,” without really knowing how you can benefit me, you aren’t fooling anyone. That approach results in even greater distrust than if you had just come clean with, “Help. I need business!”

So, if you can’t shove your card into someone’s hand without them asking for it, how do you get them to ask for it? Simple; you focus on the needs of the other person instead of your own. At the last networking function I attended I gave myself a rule; I wouldn’t talk about myself or my business at all. (Those who know me know what a difficult task that is.) Instead, I would only ask about the other person; what challenges he or she was facing, what obstacles they had, and what they were hoping to achieve in the near future. Then I would offer ideas of my own or offer to connect them with someone who could help. “I know someone who might be able to help, let me put you in touch with her.” I positioned myself as such a valuable source of information, everyone wanted my card, and I never had to sell them on my business. My focus on other people’s needs did the selling for me. If you focus on the needs of others, your business, and the card that goes with it, become a valuable commodity. You have to make them want it.

There. In the span of two months I have faced, head-on, two of the most common myths of networking; the elevator pitch and the business card hand-off. What madness will next month hold?


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

Is Our Greatest Strength Our Ultimate Weakness?

It has recently been theorized that humans grew to dominance on this planet for reasons we didn’t learn in elementary school. We used to believe that having opposable thumbs gave us a leg up, but as handy as that fifth digit is, there are other animals capable of grasping and using tools. Then we thought our advantage was speech and language, but again, there are some species that communicate at least on par with us (and, if you follow Facebook and Twitter, some animals have us beat). Neuroscientists have now discovered the one thing humans are better at than any other animal on the planet; the ability to think as a group. Our minds are wired to literally read each others thoughts, detect each others intentions, and adjust our behavior to fit in with the group. This type of group thinking is crucial when you are one of the weakest animals on the planet. It also comes in handy if you are one of twenty pre-teens and you want to send your parents into a melt-down at the amusement park.

Sadly, as with all things in the grand scheme, everything has its price and every advantage has a down side. In order to create group-think, humans have developed mental triggering mechanisms that dictate our behavior. As much as we would like to believe that, when we make decisions, we weigh pros and cons and arrive at conclusions based on facts, it is these mental flip-switches that guide almost every decision we make. And one of the strongest triggers we have is the urge to be the same as everyone around us. Simply put, we do things because people who look like us, sound like us, and dress like us, do those same things. In fact, the same action performed by different people will be seen as evil (if committed by someone dissimilar to us), or good (if committed by one of our own).

Lest I appear to be damning the human race for this trait, the fact that our urge for similarity exists is not, in and of itself, a problem. It is, after all, what kept us alive for generations. The downside is that when this mental trigger flicks on it limits higher brain function. When we react with a knee-jerk “we are different from them” mentality, it shuts off a different key function of the human brain; empathy. Humans possess the rare ability to understand and share the feelings of fellow two-leggers, unless the triggering mechanism of “they are not us” overrides it. The trigger of similarity is a lower-brain function, empathy is a high-brain function. Without conscious control, lower-brain functions win.

Empathy is another mental faculty that, while not entirely unique to humans, is rare in the animal kingdom (especially at one-day-only clearance sales). We use “they aren’t like us” reasoning to explain all manner of behavior in people we don’t understand or agree with, but this assessment is frequently wrong. More often than not, the other party is actually exactly like us, but they act against us because they believe that we are the “different” ones.  For an extreme example, we believe the only reason terrorists can commit heinous acts of violence is because they are insane. After all, only a psychopath could kill so indiscriminately. Psychologists who were recently allowed access to terrorists in the Middle East discovered that these individuals tested negative for any signs of insanity. In fact, the terrorists displayed high degrees of the one mental faculty the psychologists expected to be absent; empathy. The reason the terrorists were able to maim and kill others without feeling guilt was because their empathy only extended to those within their own social group.

So what does all this mean to someone running a business, leading a team, or selling a product? It would be easy to dismiss these facts because, “Hey, I’m no terrorist.” However, a lack of empathy, or reserving empathy only for one’s own social or professional group, is quite common and can cause incredible damage to a company. An attitude of “we are different than them” causes breakdowns in communication, destroying productivity. The same attitude causes turmoil between co-workers. People who lack empathetic abilities misread co-workers’ behavior, and almost always with a negative twist; “He keeps interrupting me because he doesn’t respect a thing I do.” And ask any top salesperson how the ability to read a client’s feelings affects negotiating a deal.

All this can be a bit much for business-folk with a disdain for psychological mumbo jumbo or soft skills. The workplace is rife with people who are better at talking about stuff than they are at talking about people. To these individuals, any conversation other than the task at hand is time wasted that could be put to better use “getting something done.” What these people don’t understand is that ignoring issues of territoriality (the result of over-focus on similarity), and misreading other’s motives (the result of a lack of empathy) can cost the company dearly in time, productivity, and money. Make no mistake, the feelings of anonymity that comes from a population that communicates less face-to-face than ever before are making dissimilarity and lack of empathy an epidemic.

So what do you do? An over-focus on similarity is actually a simple fix. Regular conversations that are not work related are a quick way for people to realize that they have more in common than not. This may seem easy, but devoting time to non-work communication takes discipline. All it takes is a few weeks of a crazy work schedule and tight deadlines and all conversation goes back to the grindstone. Establishing empathy is trickier. Many psychologists believe that people are either born with it or not; in the same vein that people cannot grow a conscience. The earliest signs of empathy emerge around two years of age, so if the prospective employee sitting in the interview doesn’t show it, it isn’t likely to pop up later at a team meeting. Managers can try to lead employees toward empathetic reasoning (“I know you are angry at Jack, but we know Jack is a reasonable guy. So what positive reasons can you think of for his actions?). Some managers are better at this than others, and the outcome is not guaranteed. It is up to you whether you want to screen for empathy during interviews or attempt to grow empathic skills later. I would vote for the former. Either way, creating a workplace where people see each other as ultimately the same, and being able to understand the feelings of others, are qualities no leader can ignore.


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

Nothing New Under the Sun

The Bible states, “What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun.” Of course, Ecclesiastes was written before anyone knew there would be the internet, cell phones, and the George Foreman indoor/outdoor electric grill with the nonstick surface and variable temperature control. We have been inundated with so many wild new inventions that many companies are in a race to create the next big thing. And the people who suffer from that race are the ones called upon to dream up that next, big, innovative break-through. This leads to brainstorm sessions with demands of “Who has a new idea?”

As more and more research into the brain reveals how that three pound organ on top of our shoulders operates, the more we are learning that, as marvelous and inventive as the brain can be, it isn’t built to invent; at least not the way we often ask it to. In order for a company to get the most creativity out of its employees, it is to shuck off a couple of common myths. The first is that necessity is the mother of invention. It is true that solving problems can be the impetus for new things. When the spring-loaded retractable tape measure was invented, carpenters were happy to ditch the old, wooden, folding measuring sticks. But the retractable tape measure was not invented to solve a problem. In fact, carpenters didn’t have a problem with a measuring stick. It was only after carpenters saw the new option that the old one became a problem.

As such, inventions create solutions to problems no one knew existed. This distinction is important because many companies, and brainstorm facilitators, approach new ideas as an opportunity to solve a problem, instead of the better goal of “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” The Wright Brothers didn’t build an airplane because we needed airplanes in our lives, they built one because they thought it would be really cool to fly. It wasn’t until years after the introduction of the airplane that we created a culture that relied on flight.

The second, and more important, myth that companies must dismiss is the notion that there are big ideas just waiting to be thought. The fact is the human brain is incapable of creating a completely original thought. (Just ask a parent who realizes that she has just spoken to her children using the exact words her parents said to her as a child.) This claim might seem ridiculous given that human inventions have grown exponentially with each century of our time on Earth. The rise in inventions has little to do with our ability to spontaneously create and more to do with numbers and free time. The larger the population, the more ideas are generated, and the less time we need to spend on finding food and avoiding big animals who are also looking for food, the more time we have to noodle on cool ideas. But no matter how much time and resources we have, the brain cannot conjure up a completely original idea.

While the brain is terrible at creating brand-spankity new ideas, it is great at incremental change. This is the skill of which companies should take the most advantage. If you ask people to deliver ground-breaking ideas, they will shut down. The overwhelmingness of the request will cause the person to mentally freeze. What you can ask is for people to make small changes to existing ideas. As long as they keep making small change upon small change, pretty soon you will have an idea that looks nothing like where you started. Each small change, while seemingly meaningless, spurs a colleague to add to the idea. This group process of mixing and adding ideas is what creates breakthrough innovations.

You also need to trick the brain into coming up with an idea without it realizing what is happening. The easiest way to accomplish this is to ask questions that challenge the status quo. Many companies assume they do this when they brainstorm about an existing product or service. (“How can we change what we already do?”) This isn’t necessarily a bad approach, but it is limiting. This approach carries the same overwhelmingness as “Who has a great idea?”

Instead of setting a goal to change an existing product or service, seek first to change how you value it. Reinterpreting the nature of the product, rather than discussing its inherent qualities, tricks the brain into viewing the world through a different lens. This is where “ah ha” moments are born. When the car-sharing service Lyft was created, it was not trying to compete with taxi services. It was attempting to change how we value the very notion of transportation. Good companies are able to view what they offer from perspectives that challenge the very nature of what they do.

Brainstorm sessions must start with a good hard look at the value of what you provide, and accepting that perhaps the value lies somewhere you have not yet considered. Companies should shift the focus from a problem that must be solved to “what would be really cool, if we could only invent it?” And facilitators cannot demand big ideas, they must do what seems most counterintuitive; they should ask for small ones.


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