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

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

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


How Exercise Actually Combats Stress

Here is a great article about how even moderate exercise can combat stress. Neuroscience now shows that exercise releases neurotransmitters that cancel the chemicals that depress our mood and slow the brain.

Good read and good info!