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

Coach or Critic: How to Get the Best Out of Your Employees

The brain can be a negative thing. There are all kinds of evolutionary reasons for this, but chief among them is that avoiding bad rather than seeking good has kept humans alive on a planet filled with threats such as dangerous animals, nasty neighbors, and convenience store sandwiches. How this negative tendency affects the workplace depends on which part of the brain you choose to dial up when responding to situations; the reactive brain or the thinking brain. This distinction is especially important for leaders because a reactive leader acts like a critic—negative, whereas a thinking leader acts like a coach—positive. Before you dismiss this by thinking “I am a great coach because I give my employees knowledge and support,” let’s take a closer look at how you might react to situations without knowing it.

Here is a clear illustration on the difference between critic and coach; between someone who uses the reactive/negative brain versus the thinking/positive brain. Have an employee stand up in a room. Place a bowl on the floor behind the person. Give the employee a handful of pennies. The goal is for the employee to toss a penny over his head and try to hit the bowl, without turning around to look at it. Your job is to direct the employee toward a successful outcome. This game is  a metaphor for every task you give an employee, and the outcome depends on whether you act like a coach or a critic.

A critic begins with “Your job is to hit the bowl. Go” The employee tosses a coin and misses. The boss says, “You didn’t hit the bowl. Did I make the assignment clear? Do you know where the bowl is located? Do you have all the pennies you need? Great. Now hit the bowl.” Another coin is tossed, and it lands on the floor. The critic/manager says, “You missed again. I thought the goal was clear. You have a bowl. You have plenty of pennies. You should have everything you need to hit your target, now go!” This continues until all the pennies are gone and no one is happy. Laugh if you want, but a lot of managers treat employees this way without knowing it. They make statements that only point out what is wrong, what is missing, or what is inadequate.

Now play the game with a coach. A coach says, “Alright, we’re going to work together to make sure we hit the target. What do you need from me to help you? Where should I stand? What kind of direction works best for you? Let’s try the first coin and see what kind of adjustments need to be made.” After the first miss, “Great! If you toss the next one a little to the left and with a little more power, I think you will have it.” After each miss, there are more corrections, until a coin finally makes it in the bowl.

I have used this game as an illustration of coach vs. critic at many workshops and some managers respond, “The second way takes way too much time. I don’t have time to molly-coddle my employees through every project.” The reality is it takes less time to be a coach than to be a critic. To be sure, coaching takes more work up front. There is usually more discussion and more clarification. Being a critic may take less time during each meeting because the boss simply says “yes” or “no” and that’s it, but this approach ultimately wastes more time because you will need a lot more meetings to get things right.

Everyday comments are either critical, “This report doesn’t have all the necessary facts!” or coaching, “So far, so good. All we need to do is add more supporting facts to back up our position.” Both approaches will eventually result in the same outcome—the boss getting what he or she wants, but one builds a better relationship and a stronger, more educated employee for the future. The tough part is, coaching requires using the highest centers of the brain. Criticizing is an instant reaction; no thought is needed. Coaching requires knowing the employee and just what is needed to get him or her to the next level of development. Criticizing only looks at what is wrong. Coaching examines what is needed to make it right. Simply put, being a coach takes more smarts.

I made reference to this in an earlier column about effective teams. It has been discovered that a crucial quality for a good team is psychological safety. A team that provides a safety net for its members develops more innovative ideas, solves problems faster, and has higher retention. Some managers don’t like this construct. One reader e-mailed me after reading the column about psychological safety and ranted about how I was promoting weakness and lack of accountability (in fact, teams that display psychological safety report a greater feeling of accountability to fellow members and to the outcome of the project).

In a similar vein, there are people who feel coaching is weak, and criticizing is strong. It is true, coaching has the appearance of being softer because it doesn’t seem to carry the weight of authority that critics have. However, the psychological outcomes are quite opposite. Whereas a critic instills fear, a coach inspires a feeling of obligation on the part of the mentee. With a coach, the employee feels obligated to reciprocate the positive direction and teaching; creating a good fear, of not wanting to disappoint the coach. For a coach, employees will walk through fire. For a critic? They won’t even grab a bucket of water.


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

This Technique Will Shorten Conversations and Get You to “Yes” Faster

There is a little known technique that is one of the most effective means of communication; whether you need to explain an intricate concept, persuade someone to your way of thinking, or ease a disagreement. The technique is the use of metaphor. A metaphor is a comparison of two things that are not the same, but share similar characteristics. For the grammar nerds out there, a similar term is a simile. A simile is a type of metaphor that uses the phrase “is like” in the comparison. “My heart is like an open book” is a simile. “I am steaming mad” is a metaphor. All similes are metaphors, but not all metaphors are similes. But let’s get back to practical application.

I have often mentioned in my columns that the brain’s least efficient function is data processing. The parts of the brain that handle what is called executive thinking—judging information, organizing it, and storing it—were the last to evolve in the human brain. Judging by the behavior of some people I see in the stands at sporting events, the evolution is still not complete. Because these areas were the last to evolve, their functions don’t come naturally to us. No matter how adept you might be at processing information or evaluating facts and figures, your brain doesn’t participate in that exercise naturally, or willingly. Ask the brain to process too much data and it will simply shut down. How soon the shut-down occurs depends on the individual. An actuary can stay focused for hours while analyzing the cost-benefit of insuring a teen-aged driver with three multiple-vehicle accidents on his record. I, on the other hand, start to check out the moment my account says, “I have something for you to read.”

On the flip side (a metaphor), the brain’s most efficient function is also one of its default mechanisms; pattern recognition. The brain seeks patterns all day, every day because patterns ensure survival. Patterns of behavior—or habits—help us perfect skills; and following habitual behavior is less stressful than trying something new. These two disparate brain functions dictate how we accept or reject new information. If you are trying to explain a concept that is difficult for me to understand, but one that is familiar to you, you are likely to rattle off a string of statistics. You use data to try to prove your point, thinking that if I get enough information thrown at me I will eventually give in and admit that you are right. Nothing could be further from the truth. The more data you shove at me, the quicker my brain will wave the white flag (metaphor) and start day-dreaming about that slice of cheesecake I left in the fridge that I hope my wife doesn’t get to before I do.

Metaphors are better at creating understanding because they access the pattern-recognition part of the brain. Because the brain likes patterns and hates data, it is easier for the brain to remember something old than to imagine something new. (Imagining, in this case, refers only to imagining the concept you are forcing upon me, not the fanciful daydreaming kind of imagining.) Imagination requires processing, however memories are simply patterns set in the brain’s neural network. If I said, “This new policy is better for you because it provides a 3% higher return than the national average, due to an accrued interest based on the basis point of…” the listener will smile and nod her head, but not know what you are talking about. If, however, you said, “Policy A is like driving a Porsche; it will get you there faster, but sports cars get in more accidents. Policy B is like driving an eighteen-wheel truck; it will carry more stuff and get you there safely, but it’s not as much fun.” the concept is clear, and more easily understood.

The magic of metaphors is that they not only make concepts easier to understand, they make them easier to agree with. When people get a light-bulb moment (another metaphor), they tend to agree with you. Sudden realization, or enlightenment, is accompanied by a release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released when we experience pleasure (food, sex, or when a police officer says, “I’ll let you off with a warning this time.”). Dopamine also controls the flow of information in our cognitive system. So a release of dopamine not only makes learning pleasurable, it makes it more mentally efficient. And we tend to agree with people who make us feel good.

To make metaphors effective, you must tie the comparison to something with which the listener is familiar. Using a fishing metaphor is useless with someone who has never picked up a rod and reel. Take a look at all the information you have to share when talking to others. Almost every concept can be broken down to a simple metaphor. Doing so will make the conversation shorter (metaphors take much less time than detailed explanation), and will make agreement a piece of cake (one last metaphor).



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

Five Rules I Broke By Relying Too Much on E-mail

I would make a great doctor, because I am a lousy patient. I am better at examining other people’s problems than curing my own. Case in point, I have spouted off for years that a phone call will beat an e-mail every time. Whether it is a sales call, a customer service issue, or an internal conflict among staff members, a voice works better than text. Of course, it is easier to dispense that pill than swallow it myself.

My company has been trying to connect with local associations to promote our services. I first had a staff member reach out to a number of associations on my list. I admonished him not to take the lazy route of e-mailing. I was worried that, because he is a Millennial, he would shy away from person-to-person interaction. I explained to him that nothing sells like a voice. He reported each week about the difficulty of reaching people by phone and having to leave multiple voice mails and not hearing back from anyone. I eventually decided to take on the project myself. Since I’m a busy man, I thought I might reach a broader batch of prospects if I crafted a well-worded e-mail. “After all,” I thought, “if I create an e-mail, not only can I get it in front of more people in a shorter period of time, I will be able to choose just the right phrases to entice the reader to act.” It never dawned on me that all the excuses I wouldn’t accept from my staff member, I allowed for myself.

It should come as no surprise that the number of responses I got from my e-mail campaign equals the number of times I have won an argument with my wife. And my laziness didn’t stop there. Not long ago we had to have some company members step down from their roles in the organization and take a lesser position. After years of complaining about Generation Y kids have a tendency to break up with boyfriends/girlfriends by texting them, I made the decision to inform these staff members via e-mail. I had all the convenient excuses; I wanted to reach them as soon as possible and knew that an e-mail would reach them right away, I wanted to word the notice in just the right way, blah blah blah. So I broke up with them over e-mail. How Millennial of me. Later, while speaking to those staff members about the issue, they said that they were less affected by the decision itself than the fact that they were not given the courtesy of a face-to-face conversation. Sure enough, when the same thing had to be done with a different staff member, and my business partner and I met with him face-to-face, he ended the meeting by thanking us for taking the time to meet with him personally.

So let’s go down the list of rules I broke:

  1. The brain is wired to react to sound, not text. Reading can certainly elicit an emotional response, just look at the vitriol caused by Facebook posts, but text rarely inspires action. Our brains are wired to react to another human voice, which it is so difficult to say “no” to someone who makes a request, even if we intensely dislike the person.
  2. The risk of hearing “no” can be so great that we will create any excuse to avoid face-to-face conversation.
  3. Even though a good quality of a leader is the ability to delegate, you can’t delegate to e-mail. Never confuse delegating with making excuses.
  4. The old advice of leading by example can’t be overstated. I told the story before about a restaurant manager who saw a mess on the floor, walked right by it, and ordered an employee to clean it up. The employee didn’t use a cheap bus rag to wipe up the mess, he grabbed a handful of expensive bar napkins. If you show that, as a leader, you are above doing a workplace chore, don’t expect your staff to support larger initiatives.
  5. We all want tricks and shortcuts to success, but they just don’t exist. Now, before I get an inbox packed with complaints reminding me that sometimes there are benefits to text (the recipient prefers it, text provides an accurate record of an interaction, you can choose your words more carefully), ask yourself “Am I really applying these reasons because they fit the situation, or am I wimping out?” You may be able to word an e-mail or test more carefully, but a conversation that is full of bumps and bumbles is still better than a crisp text. In fact, voice is better precisely because it isn’t perfect. Humans have a healthy distrust of anything too neat and tidy. It reeks of over-preparedness.

The whole situation reminds me of a theatre director who was asked by his cast why they didn’t employ more multi-media in their performances. He said, “The only time we will use a TV screen is when the message cannot be better delivered live.” As such, the TVs were almost never used. Gotta go, I have to take my own prescription and make some phone calls.


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 Learned Why Customer Service is So Bad in America

Well it’s been a long few weeks. My wife and I completed a process that would make Ghandi rethink his stance on nonviolence; we moved. After years of living in the same neighborhood, we thought things were going along too smoothly and decided that selling our house and buying a new one, and moving during the holiday season, was a great idea. The entire process brought to light some valuable lessons in customer service.

The process of moving puts you in contact with customer service representatives from every facet of your life; trash removal, cable, phone, internet, electric, heating, etc. And the first thing I noticed was how true it is that good word of mouth about your company isn’t caused by the experience you give the customer, it comes primarily from how easy you make the process. I am astounded that, in this day and age, so many companies still don’t have a simple, automated process. For some of our services, all I had to do was log onto our account on the company’s website and enter basic information. The others? I’m still making phone calls weeks later. Take this early part of 2016 to examine, not your service or product, but your processes. Are they really easy to use? Or are they just easy for you because you are already familiar with them? My suggestion is to find a nonagenarian and see if he or she can navigate your process. If not, make it simpler. If you can’t find someone in their 90s, call me; I’m about the same when it comes to technology.

The next lesson was on hearing “We can,” vs. “We can’t.” Surprisingly, the companies that have the most resources to draw upon to help the customer often offer the highest level of nonservice. For the move, we decided to save money—and our backs—by renting trucks that I would drive, but have a moving service do the loading and unloading. If you are ever planning a move, I highly recommend this plan. The old saying is true; when you are in your 20s, all you need to get your friends to help you move is free pizza and beer. Any age after that, you have no friends come moving day. We got better customer service from the mom-and-pop moving company than from the multi-national conglomerates handling our other services.

No matter how hard you prepare in advance, when the day of the move arrives you are not fully boxed and ready. Even so, the moving folks said, “No problem, we’ll take care of it.” And a key part of their approach was that we, the customer, were never wrong. No matter what the issue—a box not being closed properly, mislabeling, an additional truck needed because we underestimated our level of consumerism—it was never our fault. The movers simply treated everything as a condition of the situation; a problem that needed a solution, not a scapegoat. This is different than the old the customer is always right. Frankly, I have never believed that the customer is always right, but a person can be incorrect, misinformed, or unaware, without being wrong. Throughout the entire moving process I made many errors, but I wasn’t made to feel wrong about them, I was shown the proper way to correct the situation as well as how to avoid the same problem in the future.

Compare that to any one of the seven dozen calls I had to make to get my bundled cable/phone/internet re-connected. First, I was made to feel wrong; second, I wasn’t educated in how to avoid problems in the first place. Granted, the technology that goes into IT is complicated and there are many steps the customer doesn’t need to be bothered with, but when I spoke to a customer nonservice rep, I was told that my service was “fully transferred to your new address.” My being a normal person who takes things at face value, I thought that was it. When none of my services worked at the new address, I called to find out why. “Oh,” said the rep. “You transferred your service, but you didn’t activate it at the new address.” This was one of many conversations in which I was essentially wrong. No matter how well the rep or technician fixed the problem, I was still left with a bitter taste from the experience.

The other misstep of the IT company was that they know the pitfalls I was likely to encounter, but they waited until I encountered them before educating me. It would have saved everyone a lot of time and frustration had they given me a heads-up first. Imagine how many fewer calls their service department would have received had I been given the information first. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of service calls.

Finally, the IT company was filled with “we can’t.” “We can’t let you keep your old company phone number,” “We can’t provide a forwarding service so you don’t lose customers,” “We can’t make it there until next week to fix the problem.” No matter how reasonable your excuses are for not being able to accommodate my request, the phrase “we can’t” grates on the ear of the person hearing it. If you must ever say “we can’t” to a customer, follow it up with “so here is what I would like to offer you.” Every time I told my wife about a company that couldn’t accommodate a request, she asked, “Did they at least offer you something?” The answer was always no. If a phone call only ends with the rep saying, “I’m sorry,” you will lose that customer as soon as the first other deal comes along. A bitter pill must be followed with a taste of honey.


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


Love and the Brain

This is a great article. First published in the Courier-Post

Survival of the Nurtured
Driving Lessons
Lu Hanessian, CherryHill 6:03 p.m. EST January 21, 2016

Once in a while, we need a phrase to get right to the heart of the problem. Something that grabs our attention, makes us stop and take stock. A catch-all phrase that acts as a container clarion call to action.

“We are not the survival of the fittest, we are the survival of the nurtured.”

These are the words of attachment scientist Louis Cozolino.

How does this sentence sound the bell for action?

The last 20 years have given us 90% of the brain science findings we now know. It’s the tip of the iceberg. But it’s a huge tip, a tip that gives us a glimpse of how much more there is to add to the significance of what we have learned.

Five critical discoveries:

1. Neuroscience has shown us that love has real estate in the brain. Love lights up the right (hemisphere).

2. Brain scans and longitudinal studies have revealed that neglect, abuse and early chronic stress damages the developing brain and primes people for addiction, disease and premature death.

3. Lack of love shrinks the brain’s hippocampus. Neuroplasticity allows for some neural growth and rewiring, but the damage from early severe neglect and abuse may be permanent…however…

4. Attachment science tells us that it’s never too late to create a secure base in relationship. While we are wounded in relationship, it’s neurobiologically true that we heal in relationship too. Maybe we don’t always heal in the same relationship where the wound originated, but studies show that, through attuned, reliable emotional connection, we can grow the front of the brain, our pre-frontal cortex, which mediates empathy, trust, intuition, self-regulation, even morality.

5. Practicing sensitive and responsive communication, mindfulness and compassion (including self-compassion) change the nervous system, our chemistry and circuitry from an anxious, vigilant mode to a calmer, more connected state.

Trauma specialist Bruce Perry has often said, “States become traits.”

The science, we now know, is not unilateral, but interdisciplinary. Edward O. Wilson calls it “consilience.”

It’s no longer dualistic “nature versus nature,” but both nature and nurture. We nurture

When we actively, intentionally and consciously practice strong bonds, we nurture our nature.

Our collective nature.

That means that when we nurture our babies, our toddlers, our young kids, our adolescents in the varying degrees in which they need us, we ensure their survival and promote their health, their wellbeing and their longevity.

When we nurture our students, we enhance learning.

Nurturing is not coddling. It’s not quick fixes and helicoptering. It’s not avoiding struggle or shielding our kids from the pitfalls of life. It’s not about prevention of breaks, but perhaps prevention of a broken spirit. Prevention of hopelessness and despair. Prevention of self-hatred and self-harm.

Nurturing, then, is about preservation. Of heart. Of spirit. Of connection with self and others. Of perspective and hope. Of trust and will to grow and a yearning to thrive.

Survival of the nurtured is survival of the thriving.

Comedy Clinic?

Written by: Dave Berggren

You could say Stevie Ray’s Comedy Cabaret is one part theater – and one part hospital. That’s right, those of us who perform are more like doctors than actors. I mean, the pay is very similar.

Think I’m crazy? All you have to do is dust off the greatest book ever written. The Bible.

Flip to the book of Proverbs and it says, “a joyful heart is good medicine.” Some translations simply say, “laughter is good medicine.” There’s just something about a cheerful heart that can relieve stress, cure bitterness, and turn a tough day around.

It’s that time of year when kids go back to school, summer breaks come to a close and the busyness of life returns. And with it stress, frustration, and worry. Sounds like something a trip to the hospital can cure.

Take two shows and call us in the morning.

Great article about a company’s purpose


Go to the address below for a great Gallup article about a company’s purpose and how it affects employee engagement.

Customer Service Surveys Don’t Work. Here is Why.

This is from Peter Roesler, a contributing writer for the Business Journal newspapers.

It appears that retailers truly only have one chance to make a good impression. LoyaltyOne and Verde Group r eleased a study that found four out of five consumers who have had a bad customer experience don’t provide feedback, and only a small percentage will give retailers a chance to fix the issue.

The study of 2,500 U.S. consumers found that nearly half of consumers have experienced a problem when they shop, but only 19 percent of consumers will tell the retailer to give them a chance to address the problem.

Dennis Armbruster, VP and managing partner at LoyaltyOne, noted in a news release, “The results are a resounding confirmation that poor customer experiences have a considerable negative impact on shopper spend and attrition, which can run into the billions.”
Brick and mortar problems

The researchers noted some of the ways that these unsatisfied customers can cost retailers money. Among these silent shoppers, about one in three said they were unlikely to recommend the retailer to friends and family, putting these shoppers at risk of decreasing their spend with the retailer.

The study also found that customers who spend the most are the more likely to be annoyed by a negative experience. Shoppers frustrated by checkout wait times reported spending 23 percent more than the average mass retail customer.

Department stores should be concerned about the attitude their employees show. Shoppers troubled by an associate’s not-my-department attitude reported spending twice as much as the average department store customer.

For years I have told clients that surveys are an inaccurate way to track customer satisfaction. Not only are customers only interested in completing a survey if there is a reward, or if they are dissatisfied; but surveys also rely on a customer’s memory to relate the experience. Human memory is horribly flawed. A business is better off using first-hand observation.

Stevie Ray
For more, go to

Think smarts are enough? Think again.

Science has finally confirmed what many of us have suspected all along. A study that followed children from Kindergarten through adulthood discovered that intellectual skills such as math and science had less of an impact on overall success than social skills. Children who, early in life, were adept at sharing toys and communicating were more likely to be accepted into college and develop successful careers.
It should be no secret that social skills enable a person to manage the world around them to theirs, and others, advantage; but America’s over-focus on S.T.E.M. education has clouded over the social nature of humanity. Of course these technical skills are important, but abilities in managing people and communicating well have been relegated to the “soft skill” closet. Anyone who has been a manager or leader knows that soft skills are the hardest of all. Finally, research catches up to intuition and experience.

Great Article about Customer Service

The below is by Philip Krim, CEO of Casper

There’s no shortage of endearing customer service stories — the hotel chef who flew to Singapore for special ingredients, the airline that went out of their way to let a grandfather say goodbye to his grandson or the retailer that organized a small army to recover a diamond earring from the store’s vacuum cleaners.

But these happy ending stories don’t always happen in the customer-service world. There are also the nightmare tales – Time Warner ‘robocalling’ a customer 153 in a year and Comcast changing a customer’s name to an offensive term are just a few. Don’t be these companies.

Here are four customer-service mistakes your company may be making and how to correct them, so you can be on the path of providing a memorable experience for customers, rather than an awful one.

Related: 3 Ways Successful Entrepreneurs Build Outstanding Customer Experiences
1. Customer service keeps different hours from your customers.

Just because most people work 9 to 5, doesn’t mean your customer service team should keep the same schedule. If your phone and chat lines are open strictly during normal business hours, you’re operating under the belief that you expect customers to take time out of their busy work day to call you to solve a problem. It’s inconsiderate and inconvenient. Stagger your customer service team’s hours to provide a convenient and realistic range of service availability to those calling and live chatting — and make sure to maintain weekend time.

The easier you make it to get in touch with you, the more they will enjoy an engaging and memorable experience.
2. You’re not obsessed with social media.

People are busy — really busy — and social media is an easy, quick, and direct point of contact with your company. And if your company doesn’t realize this and isn’t “on” all the time on social media, you are making a huge mistake.

Reply to customer-service questions through your social channels promptly. Train your social-media specialists about the ins and outs of your product or service and maintain easy communication between your social and customer-service teams for fast problem solving. The faster and more efficiently the interaction is, the quicker you can reply with an accurate and helpful answer.

One way my company, Casper, a mattress startup, stands out is by literally being on all the time. We even share our #linksomnia reading series with night owls. We also occasionally tweet free coffee to people in need of a midday pick-me-up.

When your customer-service team focuses on social media, you set the stage for creating unique experiences — proactively balancing support and community. Make sure you share powerful and energizing content, surprise and delight customers and chime in on relevant conversation to show off your brand’s personality. Make sure your customers feel special, and your customer experience, brand and consumer advocacy will strengthen countless times over.
3. You think robots can replace people.

Most people press “zero” the second they call a service line to connect directly with a human being. Don’t do this. Customers want to communicate with a person, not a pre-determined flow-chart of scripted answers — and certainly not a robot. An automated response should always be your last resort.

Train your team to know your product, company, brand and voice inside and out. Turn them into users (in our case sleepers) of your product or service. Trust your team to communicate clearly, efficiently and with a little bit of their own personality and experience to solve problems and be brand advocates.

Related: How to Deal With a Difficult Customer-Service Conversation

At Casper, all our employees sleep on Caspers, providing first-hand accounts of how a Casper feels. We also maintain organized time slots throughout the day for the team to rotate between calls, live chats and emails. We allocate extra hands to be on standby to avoid any lines that may form with customers calling in.
4. You treat it like ‘just another call.’

For a majority of your customers, this will be their only interaction with the company. This short conversation may be the one point of direct contact with you as a company, so don’t treat them like they are just a number, another call in your day.

Instead, treat each customer as the most important call (or tweet, email, chat, etc.) your team takes all day. They have taken the time to contact you to provide feedback — good or bad. Listen carefully, empathize with the caller and work quickly to provide any solutions or further information you can. Do everything for your customers that you’d want done for you if the roles were reversed. For instance, at Casper, we call UPS on a customer’s behalf to resolve shipping issues and send airbeds to those who might be stuck sleeping on the floor due to a snowstorm.

It’s important for a customer to hang up the phone after having a personal interaction with your team feeling like you not only helped them in every way possible, but also like they made a friend — someone they’d be delighted to talk to again if the need ever arose.

You don’t have to greet someone at the airport, or provide endless refunds in order to have decent customer service. But you do need to provide a service that resonates as one they want to shout about from the mountaintops. Personal interactions stick. A two-minute conversation can often leave an impression that lasts longer than a great ad campaign. By going the extra mile, you have the power of a strong base of consumers who would recommend you, and your memorable product, any chance they get.

Sorry, Not My Department

By: Stevie Ray

Click Here to download the video version of Stevie Ray’s nationally syndicated column in the Business Journal Newspapers.

The little red light kept blinking. The screen on my office phone read, “Messages Waiting.” When I dialed the code to retrieve my voice-mail, however, the nice female computer voice said, “You have no messages.” After a few rounds of trying to clear the system by entering my security code, age, Zodiac sign, and date of my last Diphtheria vaccination, I tried calling the modern-day equivalent of the maze at the Minoan Palace at Knossos; the customer service help line. I have found the phrase customer service to be an oxymoron when dealing with the call centers of most large organizations. After being told for twenty minutes by a recorded message that I was first in queue (it doesn’t matter if you are first in line if you can still read War & Peace while waiting), I finally got through. The first thing the lady told me was that, since I bundled my services with their cable company, I was a preferred customer. I resisted telling her what I preferred to do with their service. When I told her my problem she said, “Oh, that’s a business account. This is the residential service. You have to call a different number.” So much for being a preferred customer.

I called the business service number she gave me and waited on hold for 57 hours. This guy said, “This isn’t the business service number.” I said, “But this is the number the other lady gave me.” He said, “Yeah, they give the wrong number a lot. Here is the number you have to call.” The question in my mind was, if the other people give the wrong number a lot, why doesn’t this guy do something to stop that? When I reached the new number they told me that, even though I have a business, since I have my office in my home I am classified as a residential account. I would have to call residential services. The number I called in the first place.

Now you might be saying to yourself, “I’m glad my company doesn’t operate like that.” Let me assure you that, unless you are a one-person operation, you are at risk of someone in your company saying, “Sorry, that’s not my department.” Any time this phrase is used it is a sign of three problems: 1) the company is so rule-bound that employees are afraid to step outside their role to serve a customer, 2) there is no cross-training, making employees unfamiliar with any part of the process other than their own, 3) the focus is on individual functions rather than the big picture; serving the customer. When I finally got someone on the phone who cared more about solving my problem than just doing her job, she said something remarkable, “I’m going to stay with you until this is solved.” She didn’t burden me with whether the issue fell under her job description, she was only concerned with making sure someone who was having trouble got some help.

Take the case of Werner Tarnowski. He was appointed to manage the Stuttgart office of Scandinavian Airlines in the 1980s. At the time, customer service scores were low and employee engagement poor. Werner decided that refocusing everyone on their jobs wasn’t the answer. It was the problem. If a passenger asked a ticket agent or gate attendant about a special meal request, no one knew the answer. By the time the passenger got on the plane, if there was a problem it was too late to do anything about it. What Werner did was to flatten the organizational structure at the Stuttgart office. He trained all employees to know, at least to a certain degree, what every other employee was doing. If a passenger asked a question, the employee would either know the answer or know immediately who to ask. Passengers began seeing issues handled on the spot. Not only did passenger satisfaction scores go up, but so did employee engagement. Employees don’t want to just do their jobs, they want to accomplish something. Even though employees may not want to do someone else’s job, they like to know how their work contributes to the big picture.

With my voice-mail problem, for instance, the instructions I was finally given to correct the problem were not specific to a business or residential account. The instructions could have come from anyone, if the company had taken the time to provide a modicum of cross training. Companies often avoid such cross training because of the time and effort required, but think of the amount of time wasted by employees shuffling angry customers from one department to another and the scales balance very quickly.

Got to go. My phone in blinking, so I have messages waiting. At least, I think so.

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

This article was originally written for The Business Journals. You can find Stevie’s other articles HERE.

How Customer Loyalty Programs Really Should Work

By Stevie Ray

Customer loyalty programs should be renamed. They should be called, “Our employees don’t know how to be nice to you, so we have to give you gifts to keep you coming back.”

Like most people, I am a neighborhood shopper. I go to the same grocery store, bank branch, pharmacy and gas station every time. Since I have been in my neighborhood for more than 13 years, you would figure that I am one of the more familiar faces for the employees.

But after all that time, the only place where I’m greeted by name is by the guy behind the counter at the gas station. The place where you would expect the surliest and briefest of encounters actually gives me the most joy.

After one visit, Ray (the regular afternoon guy), said, “Have a good day Steve. Are you going to Chicago to visit your wife’s family this weekend?” My wife asked me, “How does he know your name? And how does he know I am from Chicago? And how does he know we go there some weekends?”

“Simple,” I replied. “He asks me.”

Finding the Blame

My bank has great customer reward programs. They will deposit $25 into my checking account if I refer a friend who opens an account there. Wow. All I have to do to earn $25 bucks is to turn my friends into referral tools. I’m sure that will make my friends cherish our relationship all the more.

Now the tellers at the window and loan officers sitting at their desks don’t have to know who I am, or treat me like someone who has been coming in once a week for longer than some of them have been alive. That $25 takes care of it all.

When you treat people like that, they feel like cattle. First, they think something is wrong with themselves, then they think something is wrong with you.

For example, I was in my backyard doing some spring planting. I noticed my next-door neighbor Joe putzing around in his backyard so I said, “Hey, Joe.” He didn’t respond. He didn’t even look up.

Being human, my first response was to internalize. I thought, “Did I do something to upset Joe?” I ran through my memory for the entire winter, trying to think of what I could have possibly done to make Joe completely ignore me. I couldn’t think of a thing I had done, but I was sure I must have done something. I convinced myself that he must have not heard me.

So I waited the appropriate three minutes and said again, “Hey there, Joe.” This time I added more cheerfulness than was called for. Nothing. Joe didn’t even look up.

Now is when we go from internalizing to externalizing. “What a jerk,” I thought. “The least he could do is wave.”

First, something was wrong with me, then something was wrong with Joe. I found the proper place to lay the blame; all was right with the world. I kept glancing over at Joe while I continued my work. I made sure to look when Joe was turned away, I didn’t want my paranoia to be obvious.

Finally, I noticed two little white wires drooping down from Joe’s head to his pocket. And his head was nodding in rhythm. He was wearing earbuds and listening to music. When he looked up and saw me he gave a big smile and a wave. I waved back, feeling like an idiot.

Business Implications

Translate that scenario to your business. When people visit your organization over and over throughout the years and are still treated like they are complete strangers, first they think there is something wrong with themselves, then they think there is something wrong with you.

When they reach the stage that something is wrong with you, a $25 reward isn’t going to mean squat.

Ray at the gas station treats me like you would actually treat a loyal friend — remembering my name, remembering things that matter to me, giving a genuine “glad to see you” smile instead of a “this is how I was trained to smile” — I go out of my way to give him my business.

The rest? If another store opened that was a few cents cheaper or a few blocks closer, I will treat them like they have treated me: like I don’t even know who they are.

This article first appeared in The Business Journals HERE

Trick Your Brain Into Success

Trick Your Brain Into Success
Stevie Ray

People who are about to face a stressful situation will often get advice from others. Some advice is solicited, some not; some helpful, some not. Luckily, brain research has begun to catch up with old Aunt Edna’s sage wisdom and it has provided some useful tidbits when facing a mental or social challenge.
For instance, we have all heard the old adage that, when you are about to deliver a speech and you are hit with stage fright, just imagine the audience in their underwear. I don’t know who first thought of this trick, but not only is it completely ineffective, but it borders on creepy. More importantly, it actually takes the brain in the opposite direction of being able to deliver a great speech.
The trick to overcoming stress and ensuring a successful outcome is to activate the parts of the brain needed in order to meet the challenge. Imagining an audience in their Underoos distracts the brain from the task at hand and inhibits the kind of thinking needed to present well. Instead, just before taking the stage you should imagine with as much detail the last time you gave a really successful presentation. If you take the time to recall the situation in rich detail—the image of the stage, the smell of backstage, the warmth of the room, the sounds of the audience—your brain will engage positive memory activities, helping you stay mentally sharp. Also, remembering positive situations from the past causes the brain to assume that the best is about to happen again; greatly increasing your chances of success.
Distraction is a great technique for overcoming negative or obsessive thoughts, but that is about as far as the technique will take you. For true positive control over your thoughts, you must make a conscious effort to link happy outcomes from the past to lay the foundation for positive outcomes in the future.

Want to be a leader? Military and sports analogies don’t fit.

This is going to sound a bit cranky, but I trust it will be taken in the spirit intended. I am tired of hearing leadership and team work lessons from the military, sports, or from people who have survived horrible disasters. The most notable example was when the business world latched onto Ernest Shakleton’s Arctic Expedition in the early 1900s. When his ship was crushed by shifting ice, Shakleton led his men to safety by surviving over a year in the Arctic. Make no mistake, this story is one of great heroism and self-sacrifice, but I challenge any manager to translate the lessons of Shakleton’s voyage to the daily task of keeping a working group motivated and productive.
The same holds true for lessons from the military. Again, make no mistake that I hold our men and women in the armed forces in the highest regard, but teamwork in the field is quite different than teamwork in the office. In the military, and for Shakleton, teamwork has one goal; stay alive. The laser focus of survival, of keeping every team member at your side and breathing, allows one to forget petty disagreements and personality clashes. That is neither the kind of workplace we should strive for, nor one that would produce lasting results.
Sports analogies are also worthless in the workplace. All you hear is how “teamwork helped them to victory.” Duh. We understand that if one basketball team has five players on the court and the other has one, the team will probably win. But the world of sports is not creative, it is authoritarian. The coach creates the plays, the players each have one part to play. Any company or organization that followed this plan would not last long.
First of all, fear—whether for one’s survival or one’s job—creates a stress that only allows the brain to focus on one thing, eliminating the fear. This kind of stress cannot be endured for long, which is why managers have learned not to use the threat of firing as a motivating tool. Also, stress does not enhance creativity, it kills it. Those under extreme stress are always encouraged by leaders to “rely on your training.” This advice is effective for the military and for sports, where individualism is harmful to the team. For a working group, however, this atmosphere would quickly suffocate the company.
No one in a military unit would dream of harming a teammate, just as everyone on Shakleton’s team knew that their survival depended on the survival of everyone. In sports, the loss of a valuable teammate is obvious. That attitude, however, is not as easily maintained in day-to-day working environments. In some cases, the loss of a teammate can actually be beneficial to someone looking for an opportunity.
So now you’re asking, “So what? Why the tirade?” Simple. As leaders we must stop wasting our time by looking for simple analogies—military, sports, survival—to teach how us to lead. We have to dig deeper and work harder. We have to read, research, and challenge; not simply accept advice from people who hold a title. We must truly understand how people are motivated, not just what makes them want to survive.