Tag

Communication Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

816: How Anyone Can Build Powerful Executive Presence with Harrison Monarth

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

Harrison Monarth shares simple but effective approaches to get others to perceive you as a leader.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why it’s easier to build executive presence than you think
  2. The easiest way to improve people’s perception of you
  3. How to still contribute when you don’t have answers

About Harrison

Harrison Monarth is one of today’s most sought-after leadership development-and executive coaches, helping CEOs, senior executives, managers, and high-potential employees develop critical leadership skills and increase their interpersonal effectiveness and ability to influence others. He has personally coached leaders from major organizations in financial services, technology, medical, legal, hospitality and consumer industries, as well as those in start-ups, nonprofits and politics.

Harrison’s client list covers organizations such as General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, MetLife, AT&T, Northrop Grumman, Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank, Deloitte Consulting, Cisco Systems, GE and Standard & Poor’s among others, as well as start-up entrepreneurs, political candidates and Members of Congress.

Resources Mentioned

Harrison Monarth Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Harrison, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Harrison Monarth
Hi, there. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to hear your wisdom about executive presence and more. And I’ve got to hear the story about you proposing marriage on your first date.

Harrison Monarth
Yes, so I had seen my wife over the course of a couple of years. She worked in the same neighborhood where I worked. At the time, I lived in Denver, Colorado, and had seen her from afar, admired her from afar, she was very beautiful, and didn’t know her but circumstances led us to get to know each other through a mutual friend.

And since I had already been in love with her for a couple of years, at our first date, we had a wonderful first date that dragged into the evening, seeing a movie. And it was after the movie that we went back to our café, and after some more conversation and other shenanigans, I proposed, she accepted, and eight months later, we got married.

And, by the way, it’s been almost 20 years, so that was 19 years ago.

Pete Mockaitis
Hotdog. Congratulations. Well, we keep the show G-rated but I’m curious what shenanigans we’re referring to that lead to both of you feeling, like, “Yup, feel pretty certain this is going to be just fine”?

Harrison Monarth
I think it’s a bit of a cliché when you say you just know and you click with someone, and everything just really connects in all levels. And, yeah, it was that for us, so it’s just a feeling of knowing. Yeah, we’ve been inseparable since.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s awesome. Congratulations.

Harrison Monarth
There’s no secret to it, actually. It’s just I think we’re lucky, so.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I think that here’s where I make a forced segue, I think that a lot feels the same way about executive presence, Harrison, in that it feels like, “Hey, some people have it. They’re lucky. They got it. And some people don’t.” But I’d love to hear your perspective on this. Your book Executive Presence, Second Edition: The Art of Commanding Respect Like a CEO shares some learnable behaviors that anyone can take on.

Maybe, can you kick us off with a particularly surprising or counterintuitive or extra fascinating discovery you’ve made about executive presence from your years of research and work in the field?

Harrison Monarth
Now you said something interesting. I think you said you either have it or you don’t, or people have maybe the perception, “You have it or you don’t.” And I think that is one of those misperceptions about executive presence. It’s often how we describe a nebulous quality-like charisma, somebody has it or they don’t.

Executive presence, I found in my research over the last 20 plus years, and probably unconsciously over many years before that, is a set of behaviors, traits, qualities, characteristics that we can identify and where we can understand that we all have a profile of certain behaviors that serve us, that help us, and others that perhaps get in the way of having an executive presence and having that positive influence.

And so, for me, the big aha was the understanding that, you know what, all these qualities, these behaviors, you don’t have to have all of them, but you need to know where you are on that scale and what you have and what you don’t have, so you have to start somewhere. And then you can create a plan and decide based on your circumstances, based on the company in which you work, the people you work with, the system you’re in, what’s important to develop and what you need to maybe continue doing and what you need to intensify or magnify.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, a collection of behaviors. Harrison, could you perhaps segment the lofty concept of executive presence into a manageable set of categories we can get our arms around?

Harrison Monarth
Sure. So, if I were to break it down, and, again, this is the world according to me. This is by no means an exact science, obviously. But executive presence is a combination of communication, behaviors, communication skills such as managing difficult conversations, about engaging others, being the kind of communicator that can easily engage other people.

Telling strategic stories in business and to explain complex topics and subject matter. Being inspiring and persuading. Helping people understand something and come to a decision. So, these are all, say, behaviors under communication. Political savvy is important. Do you have the ability to create alliances to manage up, to generate buy-in and support from people?

Courage. Competence. To me, you have to have competence in something. You have to be able to communicate both develop a level of expertise and intellect, and develop sort of a persona that lets other people know that you can be counted on, that you’re a person of substance and competence in order to be seen as having that presence.

Delivering results is an important part as well under the category of competence. You can’t deliver results if you can’t contribute value to an organization, to a group, to a team. We’re not necessarily seen as having an executive presence, or we will have an executive presence that’s shallow, like a politician, let’s say in cases.

Acting decisively is part of it. Having courage. Being calm under pressure. Those are all some. I’m not going to rattle off the whole, let’s say, 27 or 30, but those are some that I think are very important.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s a whole boatload of things. I’m curious, if that feels overwhelming for folks, could you give us some hope, some inspiration with a story of someone who was kind of low on this collection of behaviors, but then did some things to make a huge upgrade to executive presence and see good results?

Harrison Monarth
Yes, I can. I had a client not too long ago who was at a management level in a company, and networking was something that she found distasteful. She didn’t like it. It was uncomfortable for her, and just generally reaching out to strangers. Considers herself an introvert and, generally, just uncomfortable with engaging people that she had no business reason to engage.

And so, what I helped her with, a couple things, number one is changing her mindset to basically say, “Look, what can I contribute to the person, to the company, to the organization that would be of value?” So, this one important shift in terms of how to even get out of your shell or think about yourself not by way of grabbing or self-promoting, but to actually contribute value.

The other part was what I talked about, helping her create a stakeholder map. So, creating a visual representation of where people are in the company and who has influence, who is someone that could help you get things done, who is somebody that can help you do better at your job, hit the ground running if you’re new in the job, and, basically, contribute value more quickly.

Once you have those people, once you have a map like this, once you have a good overview of who’s who in the organization, then you obviously need to engage and have substantive, hopefully interesting, conversations. And I think this is where a lot of people have shied away. They are worried that they have nothing in common with the person, that they are at too low a level, let’s say, they’re relatively new in their career, new at the company, “What would that person want to talk about with me?”

And so, what I asked her to do in this case is I asked her what she would be genuinely curious about if she were stuck in an elevator with that person for two hours, “What would you talk about? What would you ask that person that you’re genuinely curious about?” And so, it kind of broke it down for her, and she really thought genuinely about, “Okay, I would want to know this. I would want to know what is the person thinking about our division, or my job, my role, how we could most contribute value, what challenges that they have in a similar role or at a different part of the company.”

There were so many questions that she herself generated after a while, and then she felt very confident all of a sudden to there was no status differential, all of a sudden. It was just, “How can I connect with that leader in a way that I show that I’m genuinely interested in them but so I can learn from them as well?” So, that’s one of the ways I helped, and it made a huge difference for her because, obviously, she uses that now to engage with others that she really has no business reason to connect with.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. So, I’m curious, if we’re going to put forth some effort into developing executive presence, what might you suggest as some top high-leverage starting points in that they need development for a lot of people, and it’s relatively easy to do something about it, in terms of, “Well, just videotape yourself a couple of times, and you’ll stop doing that, bada bing”? Are there any kinds of domains and practices that have a really strong bang for the buck there?

Harrison Monarth
Yes. I’m looking at this as building it from the ground up, because, first of all, again, we’re all a mixed bag. We’re strong in some areas, we’re not so strong in other areas. And so, my recommendation is always to get feedback, first of all. And I ask people two questions. Number one, and to use these questions with others that know them, that can actually make comments, “What do you appreciate about me? How do you perceive me?” number one.

And the second question is, “What would make me even stronger?” And the first question is somewhat open, it’s “How am I perceived? How do you perceive me?” People will generally, because it’s not anonymous, they’re telling you face to face, generally speaking, they’re going to tell you a lot of nice things about you, the things they actually like about you, that they appreciate about you, that make you strong, which is great, but you also need to know what could potentially hold you back.

So, I coach them and ask them the second question in a very specific way, and not, “What are my blind spots?” not “What am I not doing well?” or, “What could I be doing better?” All of these things put the other person in sort of a negative mind space. It puts them into criticizing mode, and nobody wants to criticize you face to face.

And so, what people do like to do, rather than give negative feedback, is they like to give advice, and that’s why I would like to give keep second question, I tell them keep it very positive. Instead of saying, “What are my blind spots? Or, what am I not doing well?” first, I’d tell them, “Thank them for all the nice things they just said about you, because they probably did.” And then you say, “Now, what would make me even stronger?

And the word even is so important because the premise here is that, “Well, you just told me a lot of nice things that I’m strong in these areas. Now, what would make me even stronger?” That will then allow the other person to keep it very positive to actually give you advice. So, for instance, if somebody thinks you’re a micromanager, or that you’re too controlling, had you asked, “What am I not doing well?” chances are they probably wouldn’t have told you the truth, or they might’ve sugarcoated it so much that it would’ve been too vague.

And so, if they do feel though that you’re a little bit of a micromanager, simply by asking the question, “Now, what would make me even stronger?” they could say to you, “Well, if you give people a little bit more autonomy at work, how they arrange their projects, how they set up their time in order to get the results you need and get the work done, that might make them more engaged, and that might increase their productivity, so give them a little more autonomy.” They just told you the exact same thing, and gave you advice rather than criticize you for being a micromanager.

So, I think you start there. You get feedback first. And you said, “Well, what are some quick bang for the buck, basically?” I would say something that anyone can do. So, this will give you an idea of what you need to work on. But I always tell people, whether you’re an introvert, whether you’re shy, whether you’re generally more quiet, these people are typically thinkers, contributing your perspective, your ideas in a meeting is probably the number one thing that could move you up in people’s minds as somebody who’s contributing value and somebody who’s engaged and wants to contribute to solutions and challenges and help solve challenges.

Speaking up, that’s something anyone can do, once we get over the discomfort of doing so, but it’s something that can give you influence almost instantly. And too often, people are just hanging back.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I’m having flashbacks, Harrison, to in high school and college, my Model United Nations days, going to conferences, pretending to represent different countries. And there was a guy, shout out to Robbie Clayber, if he ever listens to the show, who I just got a chapter started in my high school, and he won a lot of awards for being an outstanding representative.

And it’s like, “So, what’s the trick?” He’s like, “Honestly, just keep going up to the microphone and talking.” I was like, “But what if you don’t have anything smart or insightful or worthwhile to say?” And he said, “It doesn’t even matter. Just the more you get up and say stuff at the microphone,” that’s how he won all these best delegate awards.

And I thought that seemed off, but then in my experiences, as I was watching it happen, too, yes, the exact same pattern played out. Now, life is not exactly, or business careers are not exactly a Model United Nations conference for a high school or college student, but I think some of the same principles apply in that just talk more, and, hopefully, it’s value-added so you’re not just wasting everybody’s time.

But, Harrison, if anyone has concerns that, “Oh, I don’t know if what I have to say is that insightful or worthwhile in speaking up,” do you have any pro tips on either overcoming that resistance, or a quick way you can do an internal safety check, like, “Yup, that is a worthwhile contribution” versus, “No, folks will probably roll their eyes internally and wish I would shut up?”

Harrison Monarth
By the way, there are studies, there are a number of studies from the Haas School of Business, for instance, that showed that in small and medium-sized groups, speaking up and contributing your perspective makes other people see you as having leadership, potential leadership qualities, they see you as influential, and then other studies confirm that as well, and even see you as more competent, by the way, even if you don’t always get the answers right. They just see you as more competent to lead because you’re seen as hardworking, as contributing, again, to solutions, as one that could make a difference to the team. So, there are some great qualities.

But, to your point, “So, what if I feel like I just don’t have anything to add?” So, I’m going to give you the light version, and then I’m going to give you the power version. The light version is, think about, “Why are you there? What’s the point of you even being in this meeting?” And, hopefully, you’ve thought about this beforehand.

And if you haven’t, then maybe you learn a lesson that next time you do think about “Why am I there? What questions do I want to ask? What do I need to find out? What’s the objective? What are we trying to accomplish? Are we trying to solve a problem? Are we trying to brainstorm? Are we trying to come to a decision or discuss, get to a consensus?”

There is obviously some sort of objective. And if there isn’t one, or if you don’t know what the objective is, ask other people, “What are we trying to do here?” and then think about why you, why are you there, and then, hopefully, you can connect the dots there. But generally, I say prepare for these meetings even if you feel, maybe you’re new, and you don’t have anything super relevant to add. Well, you could probably ask some good questions. So, think about what those questions are.

And then you might actually be the person, those meetings often go off the rails, people start rambling, they go all over the place, they go down rabbit holes and start talking about things that really had nothing to do with the meeting objective. So, you could be the person that brings everybody back on track, and say, “Hey, weren’t we trying to decide between A and B? We’re really just going way off of that, so here’s what I would like to add to that discussion.”

And so, there are lots of different things if you prepare, ask questions, and make points, and point out maybe some things that others hadn’t thought about. But then the power version, I want to tell you a quick anecdote. So, I’ve done a lot of work for PepsiCo, and worked with some senior leaders on Indra Nooyi’s leadership team.

And an anecdote that I thought was just incredibly inspiring from her was when Indra Nooyi was a consultant for Boston Consulting in the 1980s, from there she was hired to become the head of strategy for Motorola’s automotive electronics division. And in one of her first executive-level staff meetings, she said she was completely out of her depth.

So, they were talking about two things that she didn’t really have much of a clue about: cars and electronics. And so, she said that based on her skill and experience as a consultant, she could’ve asked smart questions and created a framework of understanding for herself and survived, but that she really wanted to make a difference as soon as possible, make a contribution, have an impact on the business.

And so, what she did, in order to be able to contribute, she hired two professors as tutors for herself, on her own. So, she hired an electronics professor who would teach her about electronics from a thick electronics textbook, and then an automotive technology professor, somebody from the automotive technology college, to teach her about the inner workings of a car. And she would do that for an entire year.

So, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, she would have two hours of electronics tutoring from 7:00 to 9:00 a.m., and then the rest of the week, Thursday, Friday, somebody from the automotive college would stop by and help her, for an entire year. And she said it was extremely hard, but think about it, the impact that had on the others around her and her understanding of subject matter and of being able to connect the dots, to me, that’s another level of wanting to make an impact and wanting to contribute value that that’s up to us.

We have to think about where, “What time can I carve out? Where am I willing to make some sacrifices, of tradeoffs to develop my understanding of things, my expertise?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s powerful. And I’ve heard it said here a couple times that if you read the top five relevant books to your field, you’ll be more knowledgeable than 90 plus percent of the people in that domain. And I think that varies by domain, but I think that’s often rather true, that it may not take ten hours of one-on-one professor-tutorial a week for 15 plus weeks to pull it off. It might take 16 hours of reading over a couple of months, and, bam, there you are having some knowledgeable perspective.

Harrison Monarth
Yeah, I totally agree with that. And I think and then you decide how much further you want to go. And you’ll see, “Do you have an impact? Are you making a difference?” And I agree with you that you don’t have to necessarily have the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell talks about becoming an expert at something, or a master at something. I think small steps, like you said, reading a couple of books on the topic, reading insights and papers and articles can make a huge difference already.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Harrison, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Harrison Monarth
No, I would say the idea of getting feedback, understanding, having developing your internal self-awareness, external self-awareness, how you show up to the world, and then deciding, “What do I need to work on?” is a great foundation to, then, increase your executive presence.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Harrison Monarth
There’s a quote by George Bernard Shaw who said that, “Life is not about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely.

Harrison Monarth
And I think that’s powerful because it puts the control in your hands.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Harrison Monarth
Francesca Gino, a few years ago, led a study with Adam Grant on gratitude, the power of gratitude. And they found that, aside from Gallup also found that showing gratitude, managers showing gratitude to employees can boost productivity by 5% to 10%, people feeling appreciated by their managers, being more engaged at work, and being happier at work. So, I love that study because it just reinforces something that we all intuitively know, I think.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And could you share a favorite book?

Harrison Monarth
As a matter of fact, right in front of me, it’s called Daily Rituals. Daily Rituals by.. oh, Mason Currey. And it just talks about rituals that famous artists, composers, painters, writers, have had, and it’s full of failures.

So, the book is full of how these people tried to get out of work, tried to avoid work, procrastinated, but then found themselves still producing masterpieces and great works. And I think it just sort of humanizes them, and it makes you feel less like a loser if you don’t feel like getting off the couch for a full day.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Harrison Monarth
For me, a favorite tool is reframing, so reframing things. I think the power of reframing, looking at things from different perspectives, first, it makes you calmer. Taking different viewpoints on something because there’s so much that stresses us out, but if we’re able to put things in proper perspective, reframe them in not just one different way or look at one different perspective, but look at it from many different perspectives, it makes you calmer and it actually helps you find solutions. It opens your mind to other approaches.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Harrison Monarth
A key nugget. Well, actually, to be honest with you, it’s connected to that, it is this looking at things in a different way. And one thing that people often either cite or remind me of that I’ve talked about at a workshop or in a coaching session is this idea of rather than thinking of yourself, think about others and how you can contribute value to others will make a lot of things easier from speaking up to networking, to increasing visibility, to getting involved with people and things. That just the idea of looking at it from the perspective of “I’d like to make a contribution. I’d like to contribute value” has a huge impact on our willingness, our motivation, to actually go out and do it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Harrison Monarth
LinkedIn is a great way. I’m on LinkedIn. Certainly, we have our website, GuruMaker.com, but LinkedIn, I post on LinkedIn not as often as I’d like but, yeah, messaging on LinkedIn and just connecting that way and staying in touch that way is great.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Harrison Monarth
Yes. I would say a challenge would be, and this is often I give challenge in the workshop, I would say pick six people that know you, have worked with you maybe, or working with you, ask them the two questions, “How am I perceived?” Wait for the nice answers and maybe they’ll tell you something interesting. And then the second question, “Now, what would make me even stronger?” and listen, wait for the answers, be grateful for the answers. Probe if you want to have clarity, and then you have something that you can work on, potentially, to make you even more effective and even stronger.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Harrison, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you much fun and success and executive presence.

Harrison Monarth
Thank you very much. Pleasure talking to you.

808: How to Become a Great Listener with Oscar Trimboli

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Oscar Trimboli explores the science behind listening–and how you can become great at it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The difference between a good listener and a great one
  2. How to get into the great listening mindset
  3. The one question that will cut your meetings in half

About Oscar

Oscar Trimboli is an author, host of the Apple award-winning podcast Deep Listening and a sought-after keynote speaker. Along with the Deep Listening Ambassador Community, he is on a quest to create 100 million deep listeners in the workplace.

 He is the author of How to Listen – Discover the Hidden Key to Better Communication – the most comprehensive book about listening in the workplace, Deep Listening – Impact beyond words and Breakthroughs: How to Confront Assumptions. We adapted our previous episode with Oscar into the LinkedIn Learning course called  How to Resolve Conflict and Boost Productivity through Deep Listening.

Oscar is a marketing and technology industry veteran working for Microsoft, PeopleSoft, Polycom, and Vodafone. He consults with organizations including American Express, AstraZeneca, Cisco, Google, HSBC, IAG, Montblanc, PwC, Salesforce, Sanofi, SAP, and Siemens.

Oscar loves afternoon walks with his wife, Jennie, and their dog Kilimanjaro. On the weekends, you will find him playing Lego with one or all his four grandchildren.

Resources Mentioned

Oscar Trimboli Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Oscar, welcome back to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Oscar Trimboli
Good day, Pete. Looking forward to listening to your questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, look forward to listening to your answers and insights. It’s been about two years since we last spoke. And I’m curious to hear, any particularly exciting lessons learned or updates?

Oscar Trimboli
Well, we’ve spent our last two years going into deep research on listening in the workplace with the research over 20,000 workplace listeners. We’ve published a book How to Listen, to make the title really simple, and we’re tracking 1410 people who’ve put up their hand who want to be part of a long-term study about how their listening behaviors change in the workplace.

So, through that research, we’ve got a view on that by country, we’ve got a view on that by gender, we’ve got a view on that by industry and professions, so that’s really rich information that tells us what really gets in the way of people’s listening in the workplace. And for a lot of us, there’s so many distractions that are getting in our way, and that’s just level one. It’s a first level of distractions that people are dealing with.

So, for me, I guess, many things changed my mind about listening, and I think the big thing was how to help people become conscious of listening for similarities versus listening for difference. And there’s a beautiful story that three is half of eight, just would love to get into it a little later on.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, let’s do it. So, I’m intrigued, with all this research, any new discovery that was particularly surprising or counterintuitive or striking to you being a listening expert?

Oscar Trimboli
I think it comes down to the importance of the self-awareness bias. So, one of the questions we ask people in the research is, “Rate yourself as a listener,” and then we got them to rate others from the perspective of a speaker. And what was fascinating in this research, on a five-point scale from well below average, below average, average, well above average, etc., 74.9% of people rated themselves either well above average or above average listeners. So, three quarters of people think they’re above average listeners.

When we ask the question the other way, from the speaker’s perspective, 12% of people rated the person listening to them above average or well above average. So, there’s a six times delta in the perception of myself as a listener versus what the speaker perceives your listening quality to be. So, the value of listening sits with the speaker not with the listener.

And this is completely counterintuitive because there are so many listening filters that are in people’s way. And the first filter is the filter that we think that we’re good listeners. We don’t have frameworks. The periodic table of elements is a beautiful example of an international guide that’s consistent across the world that tells us high energy, low energy, dense and light material, but we don’t have the equivalent for listening. And we can probably speak about wine and cheese better than we can about listening.

So, learning, the thing that was counterintuitive for me was, “Why do people think they’re above average listeners?” And a lot of people just simply said, “Well, because I think I am.” Whereas, there’s a very clear descriptors in math, in the way language is constructed with nouns and verbs and adjectives, there isn’t an equivalent framework for listening. And when people start to go, “Oh, okay, maybe I’ve got some room for some improvement.”

So, adult learning theory will always tell us that improvement only happens when awareness is high, Pete, the need for change is high. So, this six times gap, Pete, is the biggest thing that I’ve learned. It’s like, “Wow, I knew there was a gap but, mathematically, six times was huge.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then that’s intriguing. And could we zoom out a little bit and hear about the big idea or core thesis in the book How to Listen?

Oscar Trimboli
In How to Listen, we want people to know the difference between a good listener and a great listener is a good listener will listen to make sense of what’s said, and great listeners help the speaker make sense of what they’re thinking. And the reason there’s a fundamental disconnect between the thinking speed of the speaker, on average 900 words per minute, and the speed at which they can speak, which is about 125 words per minute, so the likelihood that the first thing they say is what they’re meaning, it’s 14%.

And great listeners are conscious of this gap and move their orientation from, “How does this make sense for me?” to “How does this make sense for them?” and, ultimately, “How does it make sense for us in the outcome that we’re trying to achieve, not just in one-on-one conversations, but also in group meetings and organizational systems as well?” So, good listeners are focused on what’s said, and great listeners are focused on what’s not said.


Pete Mockaitis
Whew, so much good stuff to get into there. And that’s a handy framework there in terms of, “Oh, yeah, I’m a good listener because I absorbed a few of the things that you said. Therefore, I’m a great listener and ask for you to just raise the bar here.” It’s like, “Ah, but did you understand it and reflect it so well that the speaker themselves said, ‘Oh, wow,’ you’re taking it to a higher place and they themselves understand better what they are trying to convey.” That sounds awesome. Oscar, tell us, how do we ascend to such a level?

Oscar Trimboli
Well, I think getting the basics right is crucial, and a lot of us don’t set ourselves up for the basics. But let’s come back to listening for similarities and differences. Jennifer is a primary school teacher, and she’s raising her family, and she’s at home, and her son Christopher is three years old, comes home from school. And, like any good mom, she says, “What did you learn at school today, honey?” And he said, “I learned math today, mommy. I learned that three is half of eight.”

Now, Jennifer is a busy mom where she’s rushing around the house, she’s got other things going, and she misheard him, she was sure. And she said, “Honey, could you say that again?” And he said, “Yes, mom. I learned that three is half of eight.” And being a primary school teacher, she put her hands on her head, shook her head, and thought, “What are they teaching kids at school these days?” And the first clue is Christopher is three, and he’s already making sense of math.

So, Jennifer goes to the cupboard. She gets eight M&M’s out, and she puts them on the kitchen table, and she lays four M&Ms out like soldiers in a line, and four on the other side as if they’re facing each other. And then she picks Christopher up and puts him on the table, and said, “Honey, could you count these rows of M&Ms?” And he went, “One, two, three, four, mom.” “And on the other side, Christopher.” And he goes there, facing each other, “Four.”

And Jennifer says, “See, Christopher, four, not three is half of eight.” And with that, like Superman, Christopher jumps off the table, goes to a cupboard, pulls out a piece of paper, gets a Sharpie, and draws the figure eight, and shows it to his mom. And then he folds the piece of paper vertically and tears it in half and separates two threes for his mom.

And in that moment, Jennifer realized that the way Christopher appreciates the world was completely different to the way she thinks and processes it, and she knew that something was extraordinarily different about Christopher. Now, I said earlier there’s a hint. He was at school at the age of three. He graduated college much earlier than most, and he’s a world champion bug catcher today.

Pete Mockaitis
Bug catcher.

Oscar Trimboli
And when I say bug catcher, I mean computer software bug catcher.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Oscar Trimboli
So, he’s solving some of the most complex computer problems around the globe. And what you don’t know about Christopher is he’s neurodiverse, and the way he experiences the world is very different. Now, when you were hearing three is half of eight, three is half of eight, were you screaming at the pod, and saying, “Four is half of eight? What are you talking about, Oscar? You got this story wrong.”

And this is a magnificent example of how we listen to pattern match, how we listen to anticipate, how we fill in with our own experience, education, cultural background, our evidence to code what we think the speaker is going to say next. And in that moment, we spoke earlier 125 words per minute speaking speed and 900 words thinking speed for the speaker, but for the listener, it’s very difficult because you’re listening at 400 words per minute, which means you’ll get distracted, you’ll jump ahead, you’ll anticipate.

Now, Pete, it took a while for you for the penny to drop. And the minute I said he folded the piece of paper in half, you went, “Ah.” But what was going through your mind until that point when we’re talking about three is half of eight?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s funny, with models and mindsets, I’m thinking about, “It’s half of eight in a bigger sense.” I was thinking like strategically, or the 80-20 Principle, or the vital few versus the trivial many. I was like, “Okay, Oscar is probably going to go land somewhere along these lines,” which speaks to my own way of representing the world as opposed to visually the number three looks like half of the number eight, whatever will you do.

Oscar Trimboli
Yeah. And thank you, you were anticipating, you were jumping ahead, you were using historical evidence, and yet zero is half of eight, too.

Pete Mockaitis
It is? Vertically speaking.

Oscar Trimboli
So, if you fold the paper vertically, it’s three. If you fold it horizontally, it’s zero. So, for many of us, you’re going to have a three is half of eight moment every day at work with your manager. You’ll have it with a coworker where they’ll say something and your mind is firing off and going, “They’re completely wrong. I’m going to wait for them to finish but then I’m going to tell them why they’re wrong.”

So, do you operate with a listening mindset that says, “Four is half of eight,” and that’s the only answer and that’s the only correct answer? Or, do you listen for difference and to explore a landscape where zero is half of eight, three is half of eight, four is half of eight, and who knows what else could be half of eight as well?

And I think many of us who operate in complex, collaborative, competitive, constrained environments would probably miss the opportunity because we’re trying to solve, we’re trying to prove, we’re trying to anticipate. And if we can just empty our minds and just be present and ask them to tell you more about that, you’ll soon help the speaker make sense of what they’re saying as well as you.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s powerful. Thank you. Okay. So, then that’s a really cool illustration right there in terms of, “I’m locked in to how I’m thinking about it. If I think that you’re wrong, I’m already kind of discounting and not listening and are waiting for you to stop talking, or maybe I’m already thinking, ‘How do I kindly say this to Oscar that he’s mistaken? Hmm, let’s see.’ I’m not going to say, ‘You’re wrong.’ I’m going to say, ‘Well, Oscar, have you thought about how, mathematically, eight divided by two equals four?’”

And so, cool, that’s a really helpful story and galvanizing framework. Can you help us unpack a little bit of in the moment of listening, if we catch ourselves doing some of that, what do we do?

Oscar Trimboli
So, the first thing to become conscious of is to notice how you’re listening for similarities or difference. Now, what I want to point out is neither is correct or incorrect, or what’s appropriate for the conversation. So, a simple example is if you’re meeting somebody for the first time, if all you’re doing is listening for difference, it’ll be difficult to form a relationship because you want to find some common point of connection.

But if you’re on a project team, and the project is in its first third and it’s stuck, now is probably a good time to start to listen for difference. And for listening for difference is you need to move your orientation from the current context of the conversation, both zooming out in terms of time, in terms of orientation. So, some questions you could post to yourself is, “Is this true across time? If I went back a decade or went forward a decade, is it possible that what’s being said is true?” If it is, great. you’re starting to open up your mind to listen for difference.

“Is this true in my organization, in all organizations in our industry, in our country?” Again, if you zoom out and ask yourself, “If a competitor was listening to this, would they be agreeing or would they be laughing?” So, move your listening orientation not only to where you’re currently at in the dialogue, but start to ask yourself, “If I came back in ten years, would it matter if they’re right or wrong or can I just listen a little longer?”

Now, three simple questions you can always ask, “Tell me more,” and, “What else?” and the last one is the easiest to say and the hardest to do, it’s also the shortest, here it comes. Now, don’t worry, nothing blanked out on the mic. It’s no coincidence that the word silent and listen share the identical letters. So, for many of us, we just need to pause. The best way to unpack any conversation is to pause because that extra 125 words will come out.

So, Pete, zooming out and zooming in is one way to do it. The other thing to listen for carefully are absolutes. People give away wonderful coded language when they say, “always,” “never,” “precisely,” “impossible.” You start to listen for these code words, you know that there’s an assumption sitting behind that person.

I remember working with a lady who ran an organization that looked after the whole country, and the way they split up their business was commercial customers and private sector customers, sorry, and public sector customers. And the public sector customers, she said, “They never grow. They’re always difficult. It’s really hard. I really just want to shut down that part of the business.”

And hearing the word always, Pete, I simply said back to her, “Always?” And she smiled at me, and she took in a sigh, and she went, “Well, you know what I mean. Not always but mostly.” And I said, “If you lined up all your public sector customers in a room, which ones would be the closest to commercial?” And in that moment, she stared up at the ceiling, it felt like five minutes but it was only 30 seconds, and she looked back at me, and she goes, “There’s five customers that behave like commercial customers, and they’re growing and are really…and our team love working with them. But we’ve put a label on them and we’ve created a barrier to our own growth.”

Anyway, she took that back to her team and they had a whole discussion about these five customers, and they moved those five customers into their own business unit because, in that moment, I simply noticed her using this absolute word, always. So, listen carefully when people would use phrases like always and never and precisely and impossible. When people say that, what they’re sending a listening signal to you is there’s something to explore.

There’s a mental model, there’s a framework, there’s some kind of historical pattern that this person is matching to. But we know we all operate in dynamic systems, whether that’s our workplace, a government organization, a non-for-profit. Be open to the possibility that always is not always. And when you listen in at that level, you’ll help both parties make a big difference.

Now, Pete, it’s impossible to listen at that level if your phone…

Pete Mockaitis
Impossible, Oscar?

Oscar Trimboli
It’s impossible to listen at that level if your head is in a phone, on an iPad, on a computer because listening is something that happens in the modern part of the brain, and there’s a myth around multitasking that many people believe they can listen to a human conversation and actually listen. Now, you can listen to music and drive a car. You can listen to music and cook a meal. Any routine task, you can multitask very easily.

But when it comes to a complex dialogue, language is complex for the brain to process, you need to be present because your working memory, although it will switch between tasks, the consciousness to be present to listen, as you were, Pete, when I say, “It’s impossible to listen to human dialogue,” while doing something else.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Okay. Well, thank you, there’s a lot of goodies here. And it’s funny, as you unpacked a little bit of what listening for difference is, look, sound, feel like, it feels like I found that I was thinking, “I do that all the time, and it’s almost because, I don’t know, I’ve got a strategy consultant brain, and maybe I’m easily bored, and I’m trying to ramp up the intellectual meatiness or challenge of that is listening to someone.” But that’s a really great takeaway is if my main goal is building up relationship, then what I want to be focused on is listening for similarities. So, how do I do that well?

Oscar Trimboli
When you’re listening for similarities, you’re listening for very simple things, either common experience, common contexts, or more often than not, if you’re meeting someone for the first time, it’s a common outcome. So, a really simple question, and the deep listening ambassador community that I mentioned earlier on, 1410 listeners that we’ve been tracking for three years, we’ve got them to test this phrase. And one of my clients in the UK has become quite famous in her industry for using this phrase to find this common connection very early, in fact, immediately at the beginning of the conversation.

And it’s simply this, “What will make this a great conversation?” Now, this is an example of a how question rather than a what question. A how question is about the process of listening versus the content of listening. And Emma, who uses this phrase, had made it her own, she says, “What would make this a great conversation for you?” So, she’s very specific, she’s focused on them. I try my question in neutral, so eight words or less is a good heuristic to think about. Your question is neutral rather than a biased statement.

So, the first question you should always ask is, “What will make this a great meeting for you?” And this is the quickest way to find commonality in the context of this meeting. Now, the reason I say, “What would make this a great meeting?” because, ideally, Pete, you’d love them to ask you the same question as well.

Now, what we’d learned from our research is only 30% of people where the deep listening ambassadors ask that question, the respondents come back and say, “What would make this a good conversation for you, Pete?”

Pete Mockaitis
Take, take, take.

Oscar Trimboli
Now, the neat thing about this question is that it acts like a compass setting for the balance of the conversation. So, I’m going to take you through, let’s call it a one-hour meeting. Now, I don’t recommend one-hour meetings. I recommend 50-minute meetings, and I recommend 25-minute meetings, but we’ll get to that shortly.

With this compass setting, “What will make this a great meeting for you?” They say, “You know, I just want to bounce the idea off you. I don’t want a solution.” Great. No problem. So, if it’s a one-hour meeting, at the 15-minute mark, you can simply ask, “Hey, Pete, at the beginning of our conversation you said you just wanted to bounce the idea off me. How are you going with that?” And Pete says, “You know what, I’ve pretty much exhausted what I want to get out. Let’s cut the meeting. I’ve got what I need.” And off we go.

So, we find commonality in that moment in the context of the conversation. This is the most effective way to do it because many of us are already coded as humans, to start listening for similar emotions, to start to listen for similar backgrounds, stories, “Oh, well, Pete, you’re a strategy consultant. Wonderful. Which kind of strategy firm were you working for? Wow, I had a strategy firm overview my business in the 1980s, in the 1990s. Tell me more about that.” That would be how I would find a connection.

Now, if you and I were having a beer in a bar, I would kind of go the opposite way, and it’s like, strategy consultant actually cost me my job once but that’s a story for another day. So, it’s easy for most us to try and find that connection as humans. We’re kind of trained in that way but to find connection in a conversation, that really simple question at the beginning will shorten your meetings and will get to the essence of the conversation much faster. So, that’s how our deep listening ambassador community are listening for similarities and creating connections early on in the conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
So, Oscar, do all of us do listening for similarities and differences in every conversation? Or, do some have a slant or skew that we lean on more often?

Oscar Trimboli
Pete, I think one of the upsides of the pandemic for me is using online polling tools in the webinars I’ve been running. I know I’ve just got past 50,000 people across the English-speaking markets of the world, and, consistently, when I ask this question in a poll slide, which I will ask halfway through most of the webinars I run, “Your primarily listening preference is listening for similarities or listening for difference, listening for the familiar or the contrast.” And it’s very clear and consistent.

The majority of people, 92% on average, are listening for similarities as their primary listening orientation. You would need to be trained very differently because the Western education system from the earliest days all the way through to graduate schools are training people to patent-match and listen to similarities. Neither is right or wrong but just be conscious which one is useful.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, this is excellent stuff when it comes to listening for similarities or differences. Do we have some other categories we should explore?

Oscar Trimboli
When I interviewed Ret. Sgt. Kevin Briggs, he’s known as the angel of the Golden Gate Bridge. So, he’s a motorcycle police officer. He’s a first respondent to people who are planning to jump off the bridge, and it’s not a pretty sight when it happens. There’s nothing glamorous about that. And he will get down there as rapidly as possible. And he told me this story about he was talking to somebody on the bridge, and, ironically, this person’s name was also Kevin, so there were two Kevins.

And the first thing Kevin always does on the bridge, he takes his jacket off if they don’t have a jacket on. So, again, he’s creating connection, he’s creating similarity there, and he’s getting down to eye-to-eye level. So, he has to literally look through a beam on the bridge to get to their eye level because to hold onto the bridge, that person has to be facing the traffic.

So, Kevin gets to eye level, which means he needs to kneel down. And as he says, he’s not the youngest person and it’s hard on his knees. Now, what he says is he’s always listening for adjectives. He’s listening for describing words. He’s listening very carefully to the kinds of words that Kevin was using to eventually describe the joy he gets from his daughter when he comes to his life.

And as Kevin explained, he was on the bridge for the best part of an hour with Kevin, and for the first 20 minutes, conversation was short. It was monosyllabic, meaning yes, no, no responses at all, and Kevin just stayed there and was present. But he realized something changed when Kevin, the jumper, started describing richer and more descriptive adjectives about his daughter. So, initially, he mentioned the daughter, and then finally he talked about his energetic daughter, his playful daughter.

These adjectives, these describing words are very interesting cues for us to understand the way people see the world. I was working in an engineering project in a pharmaceutical company, and I was brought in with this project that was literally stalled. All the execs came in, and I’ve got them to write in an envelope one word to describe the project, because the group had very low trust.

Now, when I opened these envelopes up, they described the projects the following way, and they were using adjectives: the political project, the stalled project, the waste-of-time project. All these describing words were really interesting. And the easiest thing for me to do would be to go, “Okay, great. How do we fix it?”

In that moment, I asked the group a really simple question, “Have you described this project to others the way you have anonymously put it in an envelope?” and there was a very, very heated discussion amongst the group about these adjectives they’d never discussed with each other. They were always going through the motions with each other in this big project.

At the lunch break, one of the participants came to me and said, “Oscar, why do you think our group isn’t being honest with itself?” And I said to her in that moment, “Is that a question you’d be comfortable asking the group?” And she said, “Absolutely no way.” And in that moment, I realized that by asking the group to describe the project, not whether it’s making progress or not, the problem was the team listening to itself. The problem wasn’t the project.

Now, after lunch, we had a very robust discussion. Some people might call it an argument. And in that moment, the group moved because they kept coming back to this envelope and using those labels, and, eventually, the group itself had moved on. And the project that had stalled for six months got resolved within a month, even though it was a 12-month project because the group was honest in describing what they were struggling with.

So, for fun sometimes, Pete, you just have to ask people, “What color does it feel like? If this was a drink, what kind of drink would it be? If it was an animal, what kind of animal would it be?”

Pete Mockaitis
What kind of movie would it be?

Oscar Trimboli
Exactly. And they make sense of it much faster because they feel safe describing that movie, that color, that animal, but they don’t find it as safe to describe their own feelings and emotions in that context. So, for everyone, listen at the level of those describing words, and you’ll see the compass direction the conversation should be going in rather than the initial compass setting of the conversation as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Oscar, this kind of feels like a whole another animal, this psychological safety stuff but that’s huge in terms of if they were able to just talk about these things earlier, it probably wouldn’t have gotten stuck for so long. So, any pro tips on how listening can help develop that so people feel more comfortable saying what’s really on their mind and what needs to be said?

Oscar Trimboli
It’s back to that quick comment I mentioned about shorter questions. I think a lot of time, people are listening, and no matter what content the other person is saying, they’re using that to load their argument, “I have to shoot back the next time.”Well, the first tip is to ask questions rather than make statements. So, if you want to increase safety, be open to asking questions, “Pete, I’m curious about what you mentioned on the stalled project. Tell me more about that.”

But for many of us, we want to jump in. We either want to fix, solve, progress. So, the first thing, ask questions. The second thing, try to shorten your questions. The shorter the questions, the bigger the insight. As I mentioned earlier on, just the simple act of being silent will increase psychological safety because they sense your presence.

One thing you want to be conscious of is, when done well, a great listener will change the way a speaker communicates their idea. And because of that, they’ll feel safer to say it as well. Not just the idea that’s on their mind, but the idea that’s on their heart, what their fears are, and their aspirations, not merely the next part of the content in the conversation.

So, my pro tip is simply this. Ask yourself, “Is this question that I’m about to ask designed to help me understand or is it designed to help them expand their thinking?” The highest level of that question is, “Is the question I’m about to ask helpful for me, them, and the outcome we agreed at the beginning of the conversation where we said ‘What would make this a great conversation for you?’”

If you can tick all three boxes, psychological safety is not only present, but it helps both parties explore their fears and their aspirations in that context as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, Oscar, that’s beautiful. Well, tell me, we’ve covered some great stuff this time. Last time, we talked about the five levels of listening, which was beautiful. Is there anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Oscar Trimboli
For me, it’s simply this. There are four primary barriers we know to listening, whether you’re listening through the lens of time, whether you’re listening through the lens of connection, whether you’re listening through the lens of problem-solving, whether you’re listening through the lens of context. Take the listening quiz, ListeningQuiz.com. It’ll take you five minutes, seven is the maximum somebody has taken, but on average it takes five minutes.

You fill out 20 questions, and would give you a report that tells you what your primary listening barrier is and what to do about it. And we talk about that through the lens of the four villains of listening: dramatic, interrupting, lost, and shrewd, and the report outlines each of those. What we know is that when people become aware of what their primary barrier is, they can do something about it. Earlier on, Pete, we talked about the fact that people don’t often know because they think they’re six times better listener than most people do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s great. Thank you. ListeningQuiz.com.

Oscar Trimboli
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. Well, now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Oscar Trimboli
This comes from a book that maybe most people haven’t read that’s by Neil Ferguson. It’s about a metaphor, The Tower and the Square. And it’s about power, and it’s about the difference between distributed power and hierarchical power, and how, over history, humanity is kind of juggled with both. And Ferguson, he’s a Scottish intellectual, and his quote in the book that really stood out for me is, “Does power exist if it’s not exercised?”

And, initially, I thought, “Wow, it’s something I hadn’t even considered.” And Ferguson’s quote is in the context of those two systems of power, and “Does power exist if it’s not exercised?” And that got me reading up a whole bunch of other books about power over, power across, and how people exercise power as well. But, does power exist if it’s not exercised?

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing.

Oscar Trimboli
And it got me thinking because it was a question. Most quotes aren’t questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Oscar Trimboli
My favorite piece of research was around something I discovered with Speed City. Speed City was the San Jose University athletics team, which was around the Mexico Olympics, and the coach was an ex-military person. And he did very fascinating research around running styles and he broke the mold in running styles because, up until that point, running styles were very prescriptive.

And the coach had gone through, I think it was 12 and a half years of keeping track of high-performing athletes. Now, you have to remember, the athletes he trained held records from the Mexico Olympics for decades into the future in the 200 or 400. The 100 now, there was some advantages of altitude, of course, but not all of it accounts for altitude.

And the study was, and what he proved through his study was relaxing while running rather than being very prescriptive in the coaching, meaning using meditation before running. This was never done beforehand, using visualization before running, that was never used beforehand. And he got all these breakthrough performances.

In listening to the research around Speed City, at exactly the same time over at the University of Tennessee, the women’s running team, they also had breakthroughs using very similar things, and the only time they met was at the Mexico Olympics where they were able to compare notes, despite the fact they were doing this research in parallel for decades into the past. So, it tells you a bit about my running nerdiness, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, it’s fun. Thank you. And a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Oscar Trimboli
Good listeners listen to what’s said. Great listeners help the speaker make sense of what they’re thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Oscar Trimboli
Rather than learn more about me, learn more about your listening. Go to ListeningQuiz.com. Take the quiz and find out what your primary listening barrier is, and take the steps to do something about it. Or, you can get the book How to Listen and spend a bit more time unpacking the difference between good and great listening.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Oscar Trimboli
Just ask one more question. Keep it less than eight words.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Oscar, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much fun listening.

Oscar Trimboli
Thanks for listening.

803: How to Write Like the Greatest Masters of Persuasion with Carmine Gallo

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Carmine Gallo uncovers the communication secrets of masters like Jeff Bezos that help you write more clearly and concisely.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The basic grammar lesson that makes all the difference
  2. The easiest way to simplify complexity
  3. How a single sentence makes your data more impactful

About Carmine

Carmine Gallo is a Harvard instructor and program leader in executive education at the prestigious Harvard Graduate School of Design. A “communications guru,” according to Publishers Weekly, Carmine coaches CEOs and leaders for the world’s most admired brands.

Carmine’s bestselling books, including Talk Like TED, The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs, and The Bezos Blueprint, have been translated into more than 40 languages. 

His latest, The Bezos Blueprint reveals the communication strategies that fueled Amazon’s success and that help people build their careers.

Carmine is one of the most influential voices in communication, business, and leadership and has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Success Magazine and on MSNBC, CNBC, CNN, and ABC’s 20/20. He has built a global reputation for transforming leaders into powerful storytellers and communicators.

 Resources Mentioned

Carmine Gallo Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Carmine, welcome back to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Carmine Gallo
Thanks, Pete. Nice to see you again and thank you for inviting me back. Now, did I read or hear that you have now recorded over 800 episodes?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true.

Carmine Gallo
That couldn’t be right. I thought that was a typo. I thought somebody had said maybe 80 and had accidentally added a zero.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, 800. It adds up.

Carmine Gallo
Congratulations.

Pete Mockaitis
We had three a week then two a week for six plus years. Mathematically, that’ll get you there.

Carmine Gallo
Congratulations. That’s excellent.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Carmine Gallo
Good to hear.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, I’m stoked to talk about your latest The Bezos Blueprint: Communication Secrets of the World’s Greatest Salesman. And what I’m intrigued, Carmine, hey, we love lifelong learning here at How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Carmine Gallo
I know you do.

Pete Mockaitis
You’ve written some books and you’re an expert at communication but my understanding is you went back to writing class prior to writing this book despite having written other books already. What’s the story here?

Carmine Gallo
I’ve written books on how to deliver better presentations, like Talk Like TED, which was a book about how to deliver TED-style presentations, one of my earlier books was The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. A lot of what I’ve written is on communication with a lens on presenting. So, this was the first time that I took a deep dive into the art of writing because Amazon, one of the big things I learned, is that Amazon and Jeff Bezos have created a real writing culture. In order to advance at Amazon as a professional in your career, you have to be a good writer.

Well, in order for me to write about the art of writing, I’d better learn a little bit more about this frustrating art that just scares so many people, and it scares me when I’m looking at an empty page in trying to start a book, and I know it scares a lot of other people. So, I did kind of go back to class. I not only took writing classes again, I’ve been working on this for about three years, but I also interviewed a lot of experts and professionals who have written some of the best writing books so that I can just not write a writing book but distill the essence of what you need to know to be a better writer and a better communicator.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Got you. And so, I’m curious, if some of us want to sharpen those skills, any particular books, courses, resources, that were really awesome for you?

Carmine Gallo
Believe it or not, there is a YouTube sensation, her name is Gill, “English with Gill.” And Gill is a British grandmother who has like a million subscribers on YouTube, which is just unbelievable to me, and she teaches English as a second language but she takes a deep dive into why some words are more powerful than others or why some writing is more effective than others. So, if you just look at Gill, Gill teaches English on YouTube, you’ll be able to find her.

So, I went back to school and I talked to her and I’ve talked to other language and English experts, and it’s interesting because they do tend to come back to the same strategies, and they’re strategies that we’ve all heard before and maybe it brings back some bad memories of English grammar class, but they’re very effective when it comes to writing and communicating in the workplace.

And one of those in particular, if you don’t mind, I’ll dive right into something actionable that people can take away, and that is the focusing on the active voice versus passive. Almost every single – even Stephen King – every single great communication writer, everyone who writes about communication, always goes back to this idea of writing in the active voice, and it makes sense from a business perspective as well.

So, just to remind people, subject-verb-object is the active voice. “The girl kicked the ball,” that’s active where the subject performs the action, not “The ball was kicked by the girl.” So, now, if you look at…start looking at headlines. Look at, like, newspaper headlines in print where they only have a certain amount of space, it’s all active voice.

“Last week, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates.” The subject is the Fed, and what did they do? They raised interest rates. That is so much more simple, understandable, concise than saying, “Interest rates went up today because of action taken by the Fed in yesterday’s meeting.” There’s not enough space for that.

So, if you just think about writing more in the active voice than in the passive, your writing will improve substantially in emails, in memos. And when I reviewed 24 years of Jeff Bezos’ shareholder letters, which are apparently, among business professionals’ models of clarity, 94% of the writing and the sentences fell into the active voice. Out of 50,000 words, 94% are active, “Amazon achieves record revenue,” “AWS does this.” So, if you just stick to the active voice, it’ll make writing a lot easier, and your reader will find it more understandable.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I totally agree that active voice is strong. And I recall an assignment I had in high school in which we – I always use the passive voice right there – we were forbidden, our teacher, Judy Feddemeier, forbade us, not we were forbidden, there is a subject. Judy Feddemeier forbade us to use any form of to be verb. No is, are, was, were.Just none. It was hard. It stretched your brain. It’s not like, “The glass was on the table”; “The glass sat on the table.”

Carmine Gallo
But, Pete, we forget these things because I remember that as well from the classes that I took. But we forget that these are basic writing strategies and tools that will make us far more persuasive as communicators in the workplace. Imagine if your emails stuck to a more active type of sentence, everything would be so much more clear and understandable, and people appreciate it when you get to the point.

I was just thinking of some examples the other day when it comes to emails. I would rather see an email with a subject line, if I’m an employee, that says, “New hybrid work policy requires three days in the office.” In one sentence, I get it. I may not even have to read the rest of the email or I can file it away for later. I know that the subject of this email is the new hybrid work policy and what does it require.

So, at Amazon, they call it BLOT, which is bottom line on top, which they sort of copied from the US military. The US military has a writing code called BLUF, bottom line up front. The point is, and I think this applies to every business professional listening, is that if you want to come across as more understandable and concise and clear when you’re writing emails especially, start with the bottom line.

Give me the big picture, like you always ask. Give me the big idea, you ask guests all the time. Give me the big idea. Give me the big picture up front and then fill in the details. That’s called bottom line on top at Amazon. Again, they’re teaching people how to be more effective communicators through the written word.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And it’s funny, as I think about the copy I see on Amazon pages, copy meaning the words for sales, they’re excellent and it really stands out when you’ve got some sketchy overseas supplier of a thing and their English isn’t on point, like it stands out even more against the backdrop of other Amazon writing, and it’s tricky.

And, for me, it’s like, “Well, if I can’t trust your writing to be good, and you’re highly financially motivated to have the writing on your sales page be as excellent as possible, I don’t know how much I can trust that you’ve gone through other quality control steps in producing your product.”

Carmine Gallo
Good point.

Pete Mockaitis
But, then, I think, “Well, Pete, maybe it’s just not fair. Like, English is not their first language but maybe engineering is, and so it’s just fine.” But it does, emotionally, make me a little skeptical, like, “I don’t know if I can trust this product if their English is askew here.”

Carmine Gallo
Pete, you brought up a good point, and this is not necessarily something I was going to mention but it really was a catalyst for the book. I wrote an article about three years ago for Forbes, which is one of the platforms I write for, and it had to do with Jeff Bezos banning PowerPoint, and that turned out to be a very popular article, and now a lot of people, some of your listeners may already know or have heard that, that he banned PowerPoint within Amazon.

He replaced PowerPoint with the written word. In other words, when he has a meeting, now he’s no longer at Amazon, but let’s say he’s at Blue Origin, his space company, when he has a meeting, he doesn’t want people to come in with a PowerPoint because he says, “PowerPoint doesn’t really teach me anything. It doesn’t tell me that you’ve really thought through this idea. Anyone can throw bullet points on a slide. I want to see full-written narratives that have sentences with nouns and verbs and subjects and paragraphs.”

And when I talked to a few people, one person in particular who had to tell the team that they no longer can use PowerPoint in the next meeting, and he said a lot of the engineers came back to him and they were very frustrated and upset, they said, “Well, I’m an engineer, that’s what we know is PowerPoint, and now you expect me to be a writer?” And Jeff Bezos said, “Yes, I expect you to be a writer. And if you want to succeed in this company, don’t pitch me with PowerPoint, pitch me with the written word,” a writing narrative is what he called it.

So, again, it kind of comes back to this idea, Pete, that people are not necessarily going to tell you that your writing needs improvement – I don’t think a lot of people will say that – but it makes an impression, and it leaves an impression. Every time you send an email or write a memo, anything in the written word, if it’s not clear and concise and understandable and gets to the point quickly and is easy to read, it leaves an impression, and it’s not always a positive impression.

Pete Mockaitis
It absolutely does. Well, it’s funny, and I come from a strategy consulting background so PowerPoint really is like our means of expressing ourselves. And I think it’s true that it’s easier to…well, I guess both artforms or communication media can be done well and they can be done poorly, but I think it’s more glaringly obvious to people if the written words alone are bad than the PowerPoint is bad because I think a lot of people don’t even know what a good PowerPoint looks like in terms of, “I have an action headline that says what the slide says.”

Instead of saying, “Sales over time,” it says, “Sales have declined dramatically since we introduced this product.” It’s like, “Oh, okay, that’s the point. And then I see a picture of data which shows me that point,” as opposed to, “Here’s a bunch of data pictures. Yup, that’s my business update.” It’s easier to maybe, I don’t know, stay by there.

Carmine Gallo
I would also argue that everything starts with the written word even when you’re creating a PowerPoint slide. I write my texts into the note section of PowerPoint and then I practice it, and I reduce it, and I cut it down, but almost everything is going to start from the written word somewhere. So, if you can be a stronger writer, it’s going to dramatically improve everything you do when it comes to communication.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely.

Carmine Gallo
But writing is hard. Writing is hard. I’ve written ten books, and you’re staring at these blank pages, I know it’s tough, I know it’s hard, and I think people are intimidated by it as well. That’s why I try to make it understandable and, at least, approachable.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, you did mention that I do ask for the big idea. So, lay it on us, what is the big idea for The Bezos Blueprint: Communication Secrets of the World’s Greatest Salesman?

Carmine Gallo
Well, Jeff Bezos turned an idea that most people said could not be done. People forget that. But in 1994, most people said, “What’s the internet? Oh, and you’re not going to be able to sell books on it.” So, he turned this bold idea into one of the world’s most influential companies. And we could argue, I can make the point that it touches your life each and every day.

So, the big idea, Pete, is that the communication and leadership strategies that Bezos pioneered at Amazon to turn that vision into a reality is something that any one of our listeners can adopt today in their career to move from where they are today to that next level or that next step in their career, the step that they imagine themselves to be.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you, that’s clearly stated, and it’s like you’ve been practicing, Carmine.

Carmine Gallo
You know where that came from, Pete? I’ll be honest with you. I’ll tell you exactly where that came from. I like to read The New York Times’ book reviews, and when they talk to an author, there’s a great exercise. This is a fantastic exercise. They want that author to be able to identify the book’s big idea, like you say, in 50 words or less, and that’s one of their first questions, “Tell us about this book in 50 words or less.” So, they place a limit on it.

And I have found that what a great exercise that people can do even in a professional setting. Before you walk into your CEO’s office to talk about this idea, before you send out that next email, can you express your idea in 50 words or less? That’s hard to do so you have to think through this. What is the most important element of that idea that you need to get across?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s fun. Arbitrary limits and constraints certainly can help with clarity and concision.

Carmine Gallo
Hey, with TED Talks, 18 minutes. That’s an arbitrary limit. 18 minutes. When I wrote my book Talk Like TED, the most common question I get is, “Well, how can anyone say everything they know in 18 minutes?” And the answer is exactly what the TED conference organizers tell people, “You don’t. You can’t. You have to select.” So, good communication is an act of selecting your best ideas and not compressing everything you know in a short amount of time.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely agree there. Well, so we’re going to talk a lot about great things that Jeff Bezos did in terms of strategy, tactics, principles, processes, practices that cascaded on through the organization. But just in case we got some Jeff Bezos haters amongst the listeners, I’ve got Marshall Goldsmith in my ear right now. I’m thinking everyone who’s successful, they succeed because of something, and they succeed in spite of some things.

So, I’m just curious, before we jump to conclusion that everything Jeff Bezos said or did was brilliantly perfect, are there any things that we should watch out for and not be so keen to model?

Carmine Gallo
That is a good question. When I decided to focus on Bezos, it wasn’t so much everything he did, every perspective from a management perspective, it wasn’t that at all. It was actually something that Walter Isaacson had said a few years ago. And Walter Isaacson, the great biographer, was asked, “Who of today’s contemporary leaders would you put in the same category as some of the people who you’ve profiled, whether it’s Ada Lovelace or Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs?”

And without hesitation, he said, “Well, Jeff Bezos. He’s like the visionary of all time.” And it’s interesting, when you ask people, if you ask ten people about their opinion on Jeff Bezos, you will get ten very different reactions. Some people are very critical, some people want to learn more about him, some people are fascinated by him, but you get ten very different reactions.

When you speak to people who works side by side with Jeff Bezos, I believe you had somebody on your show, Ann Hiatt. When you talk to people who actually worked side by side with Bezos, they all say exactly the same thing, they use almost the same words, which is demanding, yes.

but also someone who raised the bar on excellence. So, he had a commitment to excellence, demanding excellence. And almost every single person I spoke to ended with the same thing, “I never would’ve traded it for the world.” And those people took what they learned from Bezos and started their own companies using many of those methods, especially when it comes to communication, that they took away from Bezos and Amazon. That’s what I’m focused on.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, Carmine. So, lay it on us, what are some of the most killer practices that we should adopt or abandon when it comes to our communication? And I’d say, ideally, I’d love things that are surprising, lesser known, counterintuitive, and generate a huge return on our investment in terms of, with a little bit of effort, we have huge impact. So, no pressure, Carmine, but give me your greatest hits, succinctly.

Carmine Gallo
Yeah. The first part, and we’ve already touched on it, so I won’t go further into depth, but that’s the writing. Because Amazon is a writing culture, go back to class, understand that the written word is foundational to your success and to your career’s success. Communication itself is foundational, and that’s a big lesson that we learned from Jeff Bezos.

Jeff Bezos, when he first started Amazon, before he had hired one employee, put out a job posting ad, and it was for a coder. He needed a software coder, which would make sense, he’s starting an e-commerce startup. And in that ad, he said one of the most required skills, other than the basic coding knowledge, is top-notch communication because he understood early on that in order to communicate something that had never been done, or something that people felt uncomfortable with, that it would have to be communicated simply, very simply.

So, this whole idea, my first chapter in the book is “Simple is the new superpower.” I’m fascinated by people, not just Bezos, but a lot of other professionals as well, who can simplify complexity. Bezos did it well, and I think that it is a foundational skill now for anybody, how to get your point across in a complex environment in a way that is clear but also understandable.

If can give you one example, Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo, is now on the board of Amazon, and she said that her ability to simplify complexity was her go-to skill, which is really interesting to me because she’s crediting communication skills as one of the foundations and the pillars for her success, of rising through her career at PepsiCo, because people would say, “Wow, this is really complex and it’s really hard to explain and understand. Oh, send it to Indra. She’ll be able to analyze it and then explain it to us.”

And she said, “Be known for a go-to skill. Find that ability to communicate things in a way that is simple and understandable.” So, the biggest takeaway, I’ll give you one huge takeaway from the book and from the research that I think is counterintuitive, that the more complex information that you have to get across, use simpler words. Remember, I mentioned Gill teaches English? She took me back to 1066 when, during the Norman invasion, when the English language began to change from simple words to more complex Latin-based words.

When you want to get your point across, you have to go back to the ancient words, which are simple, one-syllable words for the most part. The more complex your topic, the simpler you need to keep your word choice. To me, that was so fascinating, and once I heard that, it made sense. And I was writing part of this book during the COVID pandemic, during the shutdowns, and I’ll never forget reading about healthcare communication.

Healthcare communicators learned that when there’s an urgent message to get out, you go back to simpler words. So, for example, “Wear a mask.” One syllable, “Wear. A. Mask.” Three words, all one syllable. Not, “In order to increase protection against COVID, the recommendation is that you wear appropriate facial coverings to reduce the transmission or airborne viruses.” No, it’s, “Wear a mask.” And what I learned is that, in healthcare communication, that’s what they’re taught.

Now, of course, there’s endless debates on that, but the point is when you have an urgent message to get across, simplify the message. And you simplify it by using simple, short words. And Grammarly is a perfect example of this. I’m sure a lot of your listeners, maybe you, have used Grammarly.

Grammarly will study your writing and make it better. That’s the whole point of the software, they make it better. And they try to strip out words, or they rearrange sentences, that’s what the software tells you to do, but it also gives you a rating. And that rating is based on what level or grade level that language is appropriate for. So, what do you think is the ideal grade level for good writing?

Pete Mockaitis
If we mean good, like it’s understandable such that folks can take action on it, it’s pretty low as a whole. And salespeople see this all the time with copywriting, like straight up, easier words make more sales. So, it might be like seventh grade or even easier, you tell me.

Carmine Gallo
It’s eighth grade.

Pete Mockaitis
Eighth grade, okay.

Carmine Gallo
It’s eighth-grade language. And here’s something fascinating that I learned. I was analyzing all of Jeff Bezos’ 24 shareholder letters. The first ones had a lot of great wisdom in them but they were…they didn’t register an eighth-grade level. They were a little higher than that, some were even college level. As he wrote more complex information in the years that followed, the grade level got lower. It got lower.

So, pretty soon, in the last part of his tenure as CEO, they were most eighth and ninth-grade level language if you run it through a software program like Grammarly. And that, from what I learned, was intentional. He got better over time. He was aware that the more complex and bigger Amazon got, he had to become a better writer and simplify it more for the audience.

So, the conclusion I came away with is that by simplifying language, you’re not exposing yourself as someone who’s not competent. It’s actually just the opposite. You’re not dumbing down the content, you’re outsmarting your competition. Simple. That’s why I call it simple is the new superpower, and that’s very counterintuitive, but I think it’s an important concept to get across.

Pete Mockaitis
I totally connect and resonate with that. That’s huge. And Grammarly is a cool tool for that as well as Hemingway. I also like the writing.

Carmine Gallo
I use Hemingway as well.

Pete Mockaitis
To me, interrupting phrases or too long the sentence length, that’s tricky. So, those are some easy ways we can get some more simplicity. Any other pro tips for boosting our simplicity?

Carmine Gallo
Speak in metaphors. Use metaphorical language and analogies as much as possible. Two people in particular, Jeff Bezos uses metaphors constantly, as does Warren Buffett use metaphors. So, when you have complex information or information that’s new or maybe unfamiliar to your audience, great communicators tend to rely on metaphorical language more often than not, and that’s an advanced skill.

You really have to think through the metaphors that you use. But what I’ve noticed is that I’ve spoken to a lot of people who are in the startup community or in Silicon Valley where I live, and they use a lot of, in conversation, they use a lot of metaphors that they don’t even realize came from Jeff Bezos and Amazon. One in particular is called two-pizza teams. And you may have heard of that, the two-pizza team.

The two-pizza team means, “Let’s break down these projects into smaller teams of people who can…” And they say, “Well, how big should a team be?” Jeff, many years ago, and he said, “Well, when we started at Amazon, we could feed an entire team on two large pizzas, so let’s call them two-pizza teams.” And that stuck, it stuck and it pervaded the organization, so there’s two-pizza teams. And people who I’ve talked to who have left Amazon, who now are in higher positions or even CEOs of other companies, still use those. They use the metaphors that they learned from Bezos and other communicators.

Pete Mockaitis
So, sixteen tiny people are two large pizza is what I’m getting. Is that right?

Carmine Gallo
The other one is day one, the day-one mentality. Jeff Bezos is famous for calling everything day one, which is simply a metaphor, it’s a shortcut, which is exactly what metaphors are. And it’s a shortcut for thinking like an entrepreneur, “If this were day one of the startup, how would we be looking at this project?”

You can write an entire book on what it means to have a day-one mindset, that’s kind of a growth mindset, well, there’s a whole book written, like Carol Dweck on the growth mindset. But this whole idea of just day one, have a day-one mindset kind of took hold, and people understood intuitively what it meant.

And then it became a symbol, and that’s another fascinating area that I studied as well – symbolism as communication. So, day one not only became a mantra but it became a symbol. So, now there’s the Day 1 building, or the Day One Awards at places like Amazon. So, you can turn metaphors into symbols as well, again, which I think is a very fascinating aspect of communication, but those are advanced skills.

You really have to think through metaphors and the stories you use ahead of time. It’s not as easy as just putting up a slide and throwing up some bullet points on a PowerPoint slide. These are advanced skills but it makes a difference if you want to advance and flourish in your career.

Pete Mockaitis
And I hear you that a metaphor can simplify something complex. Although, if what you’re saying is already simple, metaphor might actually get in your way, “Customers are mad because they have to wait too long to get stuff.”

Carmine Gallo
That’s exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
“The customer is a pot on the oven, boiling over.”

Carmine Gallo
The kind of metaphors, though, has got to be Warren Buffett. Jeff Bezos is good, he’s pretty good, but Warren Buffett is the king of metaphors because I watch CNBC, like in the background. Every single day, I hear a stock analyst say, “Well, we like this company because it has a moat around it.” Yeah, where did they get that?

Well, that was years ago, about 40 years ago, Warren Buffett said, “I look at investments as economic castles. And if they have a moat around them, which means it’s hard for competitors to enter the industry, that’s a great investment.” So, this whole idea of, “Oh, yeah, economic moat. Does it have a moat?” it catches on.

Pete Mockaitis
It does.

Carmine Gallo
So, that’s the fascinating thing about metaphors is you start looking at language and what catches on and what resonates with people, more often than not, it’s a metaphor or it’s some kind of an analogy that allows people to think very differently about a particular topic but it also cuts through everything and gets right to the point.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, totally. A moat is much clearer to internalize than a proprietary competitive differentiator that gives us a strategic advantage likely to preserve long-term profitability.

Carmine Gallo
Did you just come up with that because that sounds like pretty much every press release I hear?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I mean, that’s what a moat is. It’s like you’ve got a patent, you’ve got huge market share, you’ve got screaming loyal fans, you’ve got a novel design that you just can’t copy, you’ve got the best lawyers who are going to sit in defense of, there’s something but moat sort of captures all that, like, “Yeah, it’d be harder to take over a castle if there’s a big body of water around them,” and so that’s cool. So, metaphors, simplify, low-grade levels. Beautiful. Tell me, any other top takeaways you want to make sure to gather here?

Carmine Gallo
Humanize data. Again, I spent years getting into data. Your listeners probably know about data visualization. They’ve heard of data visualization before. But this whole idea of taking data and making it simple to understand, how do you do that? Not just in the animation, but how do you do that when you explain it? And it’s actually a very easy technique, which is simply add one sentence that puts the data into context. People will remember you for it.

But let me give you a very quick example. True story, I was working with a country manager, this was several years ago before I started researching this book. But I was working with a country manager for a big company that every one of our listeners knows and probably consumes their products daily. Big company, one of the biggest in the world.

So, he’s in the middle of the totem pole, maybe upper level, and he had aspirations to grow within the company. He was preparing a yearly presentation to the rest of the managers, which was simply an update. They’re just a simple update, “Here’s what we’ve been doing this year.” One of the big things was they launched a big tree-planting campaign for environmental reasons. Obviously, everyone has to talk about, “What role are you taking to solve environmental issues?”

So, on a bullet point on one of his slides, like the last slide, “And we launched a tree-planting campaign this year, and our employees loved it. They found it very satisfying.” A little bullet point, I said, “Wow, okay, that must not have been much but you probably just threw that in.” And he goes, “Oh, no, no. This was a major thing. We planted like 200,000 trees.” I’m like, “Well, hold on. That sounds like a lot. Now, I don’t know. Is that a seed? Is that a seedling? Maybe it’s more than I think but it sounds like a lot. How can we put that in perspective?”

So, we started brainstorming, we started being a little bit more creative rather than just putting up a bullet point, and we came up with a solution that, or the idea, because the presentation was being given in New York near Central Park, we did some quick calculation, and he said, “We planted the equivalent of one Central Park every month in my region. That was all because of the employees. Because Central Park is 18,000 trees, we did the math.”

“Hey, take a look outside. After you leave the conference, after you leave the event, take a look at Central Park when you walk back to the hotel. We planted the equivalent of one Central Park every month this last year, and we’re really proud of that,” and then show a PowerPoint. Then you can show a PowerPoint with faces and people planting trees.

That particular country manager was recognized for delivering a great presentation. He is now second in line to become the CEO of one of the biggest companies in the world, and I’ve kept in touch with him for years. So, he gives me some credit, which is interesting, because he realizes that you can be really good at your job, and this is the big takeaway for everybody now, you could be really good at your job, you can be very competent, but it’s your communication and your presentation and your storytelling skills that will get you noticed. That’s the takeaway.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, now let’s hear about a few of your favorite things. Can we hear a favorite quote?

Carmine Gallo
I’m going to go to a Daniel Kahneman quote and one that I used in this book that applies completely to what we’ve been talking about. So, Daniel Kahneman, a great behavioral psychologist, Nobel Prize winner, “If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Got it. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Carmine Gallo
Anything Daniel Kahneman. Go back to the book Thinking, Fast and Slow which is the great behavioral psychology book. But one piece of research that I think really applies today, you can look this up, it’s a scholarly research paper, and it’s got a fun title called “Bad is Stronger than Good.” And it’s one of the most quoted and cited research papers of the last decade.

And “Bad is Stronger than Good,” by a guy named Baumeister – Baumeister is an Australian scholar – explains almost everything that’s going on today. And it simply talks about the negativity bias that we all have. So, we do tend to skew toward the negative, which explains why, in our social media feeds, we tend to get things that make us angry or frustrated or anxious. It explains why, before you give a presentation, you get nervous because you’re focusing on the bad outcome rather than the good, because, as we evolved, it was more important for us to focus on threats than the positive, as a species, so it makes sense.

But now, those very same things are used by social media companies to keep us in a constant state of anger. They put a lot of pressure on you, they make you nervous when it’s public speaking. So, just understanding that bias that we have toward the negative is actually very empowering if you can learn to kind of reverse-engineer that and start focusing on positive. It’s hard to do but you got to start somewhere.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Carmine Gallo
My favorite book. The other day I did a TikTok. Believe it or not, Pete, I’m doing TikToks. I love TikTok. I’ve become a monster on it. I love it. But I talked about a book, I love history books. So, this is called Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin. And the reason why I like it, it’s one of my favorite public-speaking books, and it doesn’t have public speaking in the title.

Because she looks at great leaders throughout history, obviously, it’s a US history book, but she looks at all these great leaders, mostly US presidents, and she talks about them through the lens of mostly communication and leadership. So, you learn why Lincoln was a great storyteller, or why Franklin Roosevelt was a great simplifier. So, it’s my favorite public speaking book that’s not a public speaking book, if that makes sense.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. I got you. And a favorite tool?

Carmine Gallo
I’ve got several but, recently…I love Canva now. Canva makes design so much simpler. And I’ve interviewed Melanie Perkins. She has an amazing story, an entrepreneur behind Canva. So, I like Canva. And, recently, I’ve been using Vid Studio which kind of makes video editing easy. It’s kind of like the Canva of video editing. It makes it very easy for anybody to quickly edit things that then you can send out via email or other platforms.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Carmine Gallo
Because I have ADHD, diagnosed ADHD, which is a blessing and a curse. Blessing because I have so many ideas. Curse because it’s hard for me to stay focused, even during these interviews, you probably have noticed. But the habit is a lot of ADHD people know the Pomodoro technique, and I found that, I think, a lot of business professionals use it, which is if you’re having a hard time getting started on something, set aside 20 or 25 minutes. Pomodoro technique, technically, is 25 minutes which is too long for me, so I start with 20 because you can do anything for 20 minutes.

And, as a writer, when you’re staring at a blank sheet of paper, that really helped. I’m just going to set aside 20 minutes today as that task. And before you know it, you’re writing for more than 20 minutes. But if that’s all you do is just write 20 minutes that day, that’s success. So, it kind of breaks down bigger projects into these smaller timeframes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Carmine Gallo
There is. I wrote a line in a previous book called Talk Like TED, and I started that book by saying ideas are the currency of the 21st century. And I get that requoted a lot, and I think it’s more relevant now than ever because you’re only as valuable as your ideas. So, you need to become the best and the most persuasive person you can because you can have a great idea, but if you can’t get it across in a way that’s actionable and convinces people to join you on whatever your initiative is, then it doesn’t really matter that much that you have a great idea.

You have to be able to communicate it as well. And so, I think this whole idea of ideas are the currency of the 21st century, use that currency and become a more powerful communicator, I think, it’s an important subject.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Carmine Gallo
CarmineGallo.com. Just go to my website. But if you’re on LinkedIn, look for a good Italian name, like Carmine Gallo. I think I might be the only one in California. So, LinkedIn has been a very engaging platform, and if you contact me, connect with me and send me a message. I get back to everybody. I like LinkedIn. But CarmineGallo.com if you’d like to learn more about my books or get in touch with me.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Carmine Gallo
Communication, public speaking is a skill. And like any skill, you can get better at it if you apply yourself to it and you practice it. So, I get a little frustrated when I hear, especially clients say, “Well, I’m not good at public speaking.” Okay. Well, I can show you people like I’ve written about – Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and many others – who, early in their career, were not very good at public speaking either.

Public speaking is a skill, and like any skill, you can improve, and you can become one of the top speakers in your company and in your field if you apply yourself to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you, Carmine. This is good stuff. I wish you much luck in all your communications.

Carmine Gallo
Thank you. Thanks for inviting me back, Pete. Appreciate it.

In Memoriam: 457: How to Persuade through Compelling Stories with DonorSee’s Gret Glyer (Rebroadcast)

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Gret Glyer says: "These people don't emotionally connect with facts but they will connect with another person and another story."

Gret Glyer discusses how you can increase your persuasion power by telling compelling stories.

If you’d like to help Gret’s family cover funeral expenses, please consider donating to his GoFundMe or organization DonorSee.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why stories succeed where statistics fail
  2. What makes a story compelling
  3. How storytelling can earn you a promotion

About Gret 

Gret Glyer has helped raise over a million dollars through storytelling. He is the CEO of DonorSee, the platform that shows you that your money is helping real people in need with personalized video updates. From 2013 to 2016, Glyer lived with the world’s poorest people in Malawi, Africa where he built more than 150 houses for the homeless and crowdfunded $100,000 to build a girls’ school in rural Malawi. Glyer has been featured in USA Today, National Review, HuffPo, Acton Institute and is a TEDx Speaker. He is currently fundraising for his first ever book on Kickstarter called, If The Poor Were Next Door.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Thank you, sponsors!

Gret Glyer Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Gret, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Gret Glyer
Thanks for having me, Pete. It’s a pleasure.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m excited to dig into this chat but, first, I want to hear a tale from you. I understand you’ve had some encounters with the wildlife of Africa. Tell us about them.

Gret Glyer
That’s right. So, I spent several years living in a part of rural Africa, it’s a country called Malawi. And while I was there, there was a place where you could rent a sailboat and sail around this reservoir. You had to drive like 30, 40 minutes through these villages and on a dirt road and so forth, and eventually you got to this like oasis, like green trees and this really beautiful lake/reservoir and you could rent 10 or 15 boats just like in the middle of nowhere.

So, I went with some friends out to this reservoir, we rented a boat, and I had never sailed a boat myself, but I’d been on other sailboats so I thought I could manage it, and it wasn’t too big of a boat. And there wasn’t much time before a big gust of wind came over and almost knocked us over. That was kind of scary and so we thought, “You know what, maybe we should turn around.”

But before we had the chance to do that, a second gust of wind, I can’t even explain physically how this happened, but a second gust of wind, like 10 times stronger than the one that we had just gotten, again blew us over, flipped our boat completely upside down so our sail was pointing downward, like down into the water, and it was like a violent flip so we were all scattered about.

So, I was the first one to crawl on top of the boat and I was sitting criss-cross applesauce on top of an upside-down boat while I was like bringing my friends on the shore. And the guys on shore, they kind of saw what had happened and they sent a canoe out to rescue us and bring us in. And as we were being brought in, there were a bunch of kids on shore who were just shouting and pointing at the water, and they just seemed really excited.

So, we’re being pulled in by this boat, and we turned around and, right where our boat had flipped over, there was a hippo who had surfaced, and I thought, “Oh, my goodness.” So, I was a little bit like just in shock, but that’s actually not where it ends. So, we get pulled into shore, and I’m kind of shaking from what could have just happened. So, I go up to the guy who is on shore kind of running the whole operation, and I asked him, like, “Wow, I see the hippo out there. Is that like a dangerous hippo? Is it deadly?” And the guy said, “No, it’s not that dangerous. It’s only killed like one person before.” And I thought, “Wow, we have different definitions of what is and isn’t dangerous.”

So, yeah, that was one of the first times I ever saw a hippo in real life and very scary, very dangerous experience.

Pete Mockaitis
And just how big is a hippo when you are right there and this one in particular?

Gret Glyer
Oh, they’re gigantic. In fact, I think one of the things that people don’t realize, people think of lions as the deadliest animal, maybe crocodiles, but it’s actually hippos are the deadliest animal in all of Africa, and it’s just because they have these massive jaws. And whenever they collapsed their jaws onto their prey, it’s several tons of force that’s coming down and just completely crushing it, so they’re very big.

Pete Mockaitis
Mercy. Well, thank you for sharing that story. And storytelling is the topic du jour, and I want to get your take on you’ve got a real skill for this and have seen some cool results in terms of your non-profit activities. And so maybe we could start with your story in Malawi and how you came to learn about just how powerful storytelling is.

Gret Glyer
Sure. So, I actually moved to Malawi right after college, or a year after college, but before that I was a private school kid, I went to a private college, and I worked at a corporate job, and I lived in northern Virginia right outside Washington, D.C., I lived in a very wealthy zip code, and that was all I knew. I was a wealthy person, I was around other wealthy people, and the people around me were like a little wealthier than I was so I kind of thought I was poor just because that was the people who were surrounding me.

And then when I moved to Malawi, at the time Malawi was ranked as the absolute poorest country on the entire planet, and I saw people who were living on a dollar a day, and I was dumbstruck, like that’s the best way I can put it. I didn’t know. I knew that, intellectually, I knew that type of poverty existed, but for someone with my background and my upbringing, it was like emotionally I had never truly connected with that.

And so, I moved to this place where some of my next-door neighbors are living on a dollar a day and I’m just astounded at this level of poverty, and that’s when I realized that I wanted to do something about it. And so, I started writing blogposts and I started making videos and, eventually, I started crowdfunding. And you could tell statistics all day long, and the statistics are shocking but they don’t resonate with people on a deep level.

And it was when I started learning about storytelling that I realized that storytelling is the vehicle by which I could get my message across. And the message I wanted to get across was we have our problems here in the developed world and those things are totally worth exploring and doing something about, but I also think that the message I have is I want to have a little bit more urgency about what’s going on in these parts of the world where people are suffering from extreme poverty, people living on a dollar a day. So, that was the catalyst for when I first got really interested in storytelling.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’m curious then, like did you have some experiences then in which you shared some statistics and numbers and data things versus you shared a story and you saw differing responses and reactions?

Gret Glyer
Yeah. Actually, the very first time I ever did a crowdfunding campaign I had this exact thing happen. So, at first, what I did was, and this is actually one of the first times I was exposed to true extreme poverty face to face, because when I moved to Malawi I was living on a compound, and the compound I was living on we had a lot more people like me, like a lot of people who were visiting from America and they were teachers so they were living there for the year.

But then this guy named Blessings had met me and he wanted to show me some stuff, so he brought me out to this village. And we went deep into this village and that was kind of my first exposure to like when you think of like an African village with grass thatched huts, that was my first exposure to that type of setting. And he introduced me to this lady named Rosina, and the phrase skin and bones, that’s used a lot, but that was like the true representation of what Rosina looked like at this time. She really looked like she hadn’t eaten in a long time. And, in fact, she hadn’t eaten in seven days when I met her. She was on the brink of starvation. It was a really sad situation.

And so, Blessings told me that this lady not only didn’t have enough food but she also didn’t have a house and she needed to build a house because the rainy season was coming in a month, and if you don’t have a house during the rainy season, you’re in big trouble. So, I asked him how much a house would cost, and he said it would be $800, which blew my mind coming from where I came from.

And so, what I did was I put together some statistics and some facts about people who need houses, and I sent it to my friends back at home, and I told them, “Listen, there are people who need houses here, and houses cost this much, and this is the building materials we’ll use.” And, lo and behold, I needed $800 and only $100 came in. For whatever reason, the facts and figures didn’t quite resonate with people.

So, then I took a different approach and I told Rosina’s story, I told the story about this lady who had a really tough life, and she’s now a widow and she’s in this tough situation through no fault of her own. And if it’s not for the participation of my friends and the donors back at home, she’s going to be in big trouble. And that was that one moment where it clicked, where I realized, “Okay, storytelling, this is the key. These people don’t emotionally connect with facts but they will connect with another person and another story.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And so, we’re talking about data versus storytelling, and you’re telling a story about telling a story, and you’re sharing numbers about it, so I’m loving this. Okay, so the first time you made your case with numbers, you got a hundred bucks. The second time, you made the case with a story, and what happened financially?

Gret Glyer
Oh, the money came in, I think, it was within hours. It was definitely within a day but, if I remember correctly, it was a few hours after I sent that email out to my friends and the money came in easily. I’ll kind of go a little bit further. Not only did the money come in, and not only did people like send it over excitedly, but we built a house, Rosina got her house, and actually we put the roof on the house a day before rainy season. So, time was of the essence and we barely got it, and Rosina was able to move in.

And I actually just went to Malawi a couple months ago, and I got to go visit Rosina and she’s still living in the same house that we built her, so that was a cool experience. But what was interesting was after the house was built, people started to continue to send me $800 to build more houses for people even though I wasn’t asking for it. They were just sending me money because that story had resonated with them so deeply.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, maybe you don’t recall it precisely here, but how many $800 bundles and houses were you able to construct as a result?

Gret Glyer
Well, so it started off there’d be a few people who sent over the money and then I would make a video. And then I went home over the summer and I actually met up with Scott Harrison who’s the CEO of Charity: Water, and he helped me get a 501(c)(3) setup and he kind of gave me some advice and so when I went back the next year, we started building more houses. I’ve never wanted to grow this particular operation beyond what it is but we continue to build houses every month even to this day. And we’ve done over 150 houses in all of Malawi at this point.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s striking. So, wow, from 100 bucks to 150 times 80 bucks. And in the early days it was even from the same people in terms of being able to do multiple houses whereas you couldn’t even do an eight beforehand. So, that is compelling stuff. And sometimes I get stuck in the numbers because I’m fascinated. I’m a former strategy consultant and I love a good spreadsheet and pivot table and so it’s natural for me to just go there without stopping and think, “Okay, what’s really the story here?” Tell me, what makes a story good, compelling, interesting, motivating versus just like, “Okay, whatever”?

Gret Glyer
Yeah, I think what it is about a story, especially if you’re trying to persuade another person or you’re trying to get someone to see your side of things, I think what’s compelling about a story is the person you’re talking to, they can see themselves within the story, whereas they can’t necessarily see themselves within a set of data.

So, you can look at a spreadsheet all day long and you can see these facts and figures, and that’s very persuasive to a small subset of people, and probably a lot of your audience really likes the data and the figures, and that’s really good. But for most people, for a general audience, they’re going to resonate deeply when they can see themselves as part of a story.

Pete Mockaitis
And we had Matthew Luhn on a previous episode, and he was a story supervisor for PIXAR, and that was one of the main things he said in terms of a lot of stories that they need to kind of fix or clean up or consult, tweak at it, have that challenge. It’s like, “Yeah, the audience can’t really see themselves in the shoes of the protagonist or hero and, therefore, we’re going to have to somehow make that individual more relatable in order for that to really compel the viewers.”

So, okay, cool. So, that’s one piece is that you can relate to it, like, “Whoa, I’ve had a hard time with regard to losing something and having some urgency with regard to needing some help or else we’re going to be in a tight spot.” And, boy, here we have it in a really big way in the case of her home and with urgency as well. I’m thinking I’m stealing your thunder, but one element is relatability to you and that person? Are there any other key components?

Gret Glyer
Yeah, when it comes to storytelling there’s a lot of different tips that I would love to share. I almost don’t want to share the tips because then people would be trying to do the tips instead of just doing like what they really need to do which is practicing. Like, if you just practice storytelling and you talk to other people and you see how much it resonates with them, eventually you’ll begin to learn. But there are a few things you can try.

So, one of the main things is you want to make sure that your opener is a hook. You say something where tension is created. Like, I could tell you a story right now. I woke up this morning, and I woke up, I reached across my bed, and my wife wasn’t there. And then I got out of bed, I started looking through my apartment and my wife was nowhere to be found, which has never happened before. And then I could stop right there and there’s some tension, it’s like, “Okay, well, what happened to your wife?”

Now, this is a made-up story, like it’s not true, my wife was there this morning. But you get the principle that you want to start up the story with some kind of tension that needs to be resolved. And then when it comes to persuasive storytelling, what you’re doing is you’re putting the person in the situation where they’re the ones that have to resolve the tension.

So, for crowdfunding, for example, you say, “This person needs a house and they’re not going to get their house unless you step in and do something about it.” And so that person gets to see themselves within the framework of that story. But I would say creating tension and then creating a satisfying resolution, that is the key to storytelling.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I’m with you. You’re right. So, I guess the tension kind of shows up in the form of a question, maybe you directly ask the question or maybe you just let it pop up themselves. And I think what’s so powerful about storytelling sometimes is I find folks, they’ll start a story just as a means of exemplifying a principle or concept, and then they think, “Okay, well, I’m exemplifying the concept,” but then everyone is just left hanging, like, “But what happened?”

Gret Glyer
Yeah, they want it. Everyone wants that. They love having that resolution. And, in fact, one of the biggest mistakes people will make when they first start storytelling is that they won’t resolve it. They won’t put as much time into the resolution. Because you can engage your audience just by creating tension, and you can create more and more tension. This is what a lot of these series on TV have done, like Lost and most recently Game of Thrones.

Like, I’m sure everyone has heard about how upset people were with the ending of Game of Thrones. And it’s a total rookie mistake to build up all this tension and have all of this tension that needs resolution, and then at the end kind of give a cheap ending. It’s a very tempting thing because you’ve still gotten the tension and the attention from your audience but you haven’t delivered. And learning how to deliver is the ultimate, the pinnacle of storytelling.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Boy, you bring me back to my favorite TV series ever is Breaking Bad and I’m not going to give any spoilers for those who have not yet seen it. I’ll just give you as a gift that Breaking Bad is extraordinary. But I remember, toward the end, boy, those final eight episodes, oh, my goodness, there was so much tension. I remember like the third to the last episode, in particular, entitled “Ozymandias,” was kind of an episode where a lot of stuff hit the fan, and we all knew it had to. It’s like there is no way that everyone is just going to be hunky-dory. Something is going to go down.

And then I remember I couldn’t wait, I was just amped, looking forward to it all week, and then I saw it, and then I was kind of sad by some of the things that happened. And I was sort of surprised at myself, it’s like, “Pete, did you think you would enjoy this? You care about these characters and you know some bad stuff is going to happen to some segment of them.” It was weird, and I thought that, “This is going to be so amazing. I can’t wait for this experience.” And then when I saw it, it was artistically masterfully done, but it made me sad, it’s like, “Oh, man, that’s a bummer for those guys and gals.”

Gret Glyer
Yeah, I’ll share one of my favorite examples to go along with that because it’s so simple. I was watching A Quiet Place which was the John Krasinski kind of horror movie, and there was one thing that they did at the very beginning of the movie, because they’re in this world where monsters might attack them at any moment. And there’s a staircase that goes from the first floor of their house to the basement. At the very beginning of the movie, what they did was they had a nail come loose, and the nail was sticking straight up so that you knew at some point, someone is going to step on that.

And what they kept doing was they kept having people walk past the nail, and they would show their barefoot like right next to the nail. And that’s there throughout the entire movie, and that’s just one way that they masterfully interwove tension into that story.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Well, so I want to get a take here. Let’s talk about, first, your world, how you’re seeing this all the time. So, you have founded DonorSee, and what’s it about and how do you use storytelling there?

Gret Glyer
Yes, so DonorSee is like the storytelling platform so I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished. So, the way that DonorSee works is whenever you give any amount of money, you get a video update on exactly how your money was used to help real people in real need, and these are mostly people living in extreme poverty like I mentioned earlier, people like Rosina, the person who needed a house.

And so, what you do is like, let’s say, there’s a girl in India, and she is deaf, you can donate money to her, you’ll know her name, you’ll know her story, and you’ll know her hopes and dreams. And a few days after you give your donation, you’ll get a video update of her hearing for the first time. And she might even say, “Hey, Pete, thank you for giving me these hearing aids.” So, it’s a very personalized video update and it’s a one-to-one transaction that gets to happen. So, that’s the concept behind DonorSee.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and it’s powerful. Well, we got connected because, a fun backstory for the listeners, my sweet wife saw a video about DonorSee and the good work you’re doing, and she made a donation, and she just thought it was the coolest thing. And that you, with your wise, best practice following organization reached out to her to learn more about where she’s coming from and sort of her behavior and thoughts and needs and priorities and values and whatnot to kind of optimize her stuff. And then your colleague listened to the podcast.

Gret Glyer
Yeah, my COO.

Pete Mockaitis
And here we are, you know, fun world.

Gret Glyer
Yeah, shout out to Patrick Weeks because I know he’s listening right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Hey, hey, hey. And so, I’m intrigued then. So, then you’re doing the storytelling on the frontend as well with regard to as you’re having videos on Instagram and Facebook and places with the goal of kind of getting folks to say, “Oh, wow, I’d like to be a part of that and make a donation.” So, I’m curious, in that kind of context of, hey, short attention span, social media, etc., how do you do it effectively?

Gret Glyer
Well, storytelling doesn’t change. There’s always the same kind of build tension and then provide resolution, and so you just have to find ways, you just have to find whatever is the hot medium, whatever it is that people are using, that’s where you want to be. So, right now, we test a million different things, we’re on every platform, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and we do a lot, we work with influencers and so forth. We’re constantly trying to get in front of whatever audience might be most receptive to us.

And so, what we do is we just test everything. We just see, “Where is it that people are responding to this the most?” And so far, what we found is that Facebook is where people are spending time and they’re open. Facebook is a platform where you’re looking at stories of other people’s lives on a regular basis so it’s very natural to be in your News Feed, and then this advertisement or sponsorship from DonorSee pops up, and it’s another story about another person’s life, and it kind of draws you in. And I think that’s been why that has been successful. And Instagram, of course, too also lends itself to that pretty well.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, I guess you’re doing that same sort of stuff, like you got video and you create tension the first few seconds, and then away you go. Are there any particular do’s and don’ts? I mean, this isn’t a digital marketing podcast, but, hey, there’s plenty of those so you’d be hit there too. But any kind of do’s and don’ts with the particulars of if you’re putting up a post, “We found that these kinds of things work well and these kinds of things don’t”?

Gret Glyer
So, to go along with your tips about storytelling and another thing, that is a crucial consideration whenever you’re storytelling and, specifically, when you’re trying to tell a story within an advertisement, is to really consider who your audience is and who you’re trying to speak to directly. And so, for example, I think this is a really helpful way of thinking about. Here’s a failure that we had and the success that we had.

So, there was a time when we would put up stories of people in need, stories like the one I told earlier of the lady who’s starving and needed a house. And we put up those stories and those resonate with a certain type of audience. But then, what we realized was that people were having a hard time seeing themselves in that story. I mean, seeing someone in destitute poverty is just so outside of your frame of reference. It’s hard to really to grasp it.

And so, what we started doing was we started using testimonial ads.  In fact, there’s this couple from Harvard that they’re big fans of DonorSee, and I’ve had the opportunity to talk to them several times. And the wife is getting her MBA at Harvard and the husband is getting his JD, and they have this really nice picture of them, but they use DonorSee every month and they’re really big fans of it, and so, they sent in a testimonial.

And so we’ve been running their picture with their testimonial underneath, and that seems to resonate with a certain type of audience where maybe they wouldn’t necessarily see themselves in another country on the other side of the world, but they do see themselves in the transformation that the donor themselves is going through. They were able to grasp it because they look at the ad and they saw someone who’s more similar to them, and that was why they decided to get involved.

Pete Mockaitis
And maybe even, I don’t how much this plays into it, but it could aspirational, like, “Dang, Harvard power couple.” It’s really cool.

Gret Glyer
Yeah, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
And, “Oh, this is something that, I don’t know, successful, smart, high-achieving people do, it is that they give.” And so, that could be a lever in there as well.

Gret Glyer
Yeah. I’ll give one more example. We have a few ads that we run for parents, and there are parents in the picture, they’ve got their kids, and maybe they’re looking at a phone or they’re smiling at a camera. And the testimonial is from these people who are saying, “I’ve used DonorSee to educate my kids about global poverty, and it’s created these wonderful conversations between me and my kids.”

And so, obviously, that’s not going to speak to the 18-year old kid who’s about to go to college, but for the parent who has young kids, or kids who are maybe even up to teenage years, that works really, really well because they seem themselves in that. So, yeah, you always just think about who your audience is and then you tell stories where they can see themselves inside of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Very good. And so, I know we do have a number of non-profiteers amongst the listenership just because they’re probably curious so I want to go here. So, okay, so you’re putting money into ads, and you’re seeing donations flow, how’s that work from like a fundraising expenditure kind of a thing?

Gret Glyer
Oh, totally. Yeah, absolutely. So, totally fair question. So, the way it works is we have overhead just like any other non-profit organization would have overhead, and so whenever you give there’s a small percentage that gets taken out. Our percentage is 13% and that money goes to keeping the lights on and we have a lot of video hosting costs and so forth. But the vast majority of it is actually going to the people in need. And then the last thing I’ll say, because people are always curious about this, I, as the CEO, make zero dollars a year from my organization.

So, if there’s any doubt, or if there’s any consideration that maybe I’m doing this kind of for my own pocket, there you go. I fundraise separately on Patreon and people support me through that, and I’m very grateful to be able to have the opportunity to do things that way. But, yeah, you can’t run these organizations for free, as much as we would all like that, and so that’s what we do.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. And so then, so the 13% also covers the advertising costs?

Gret Glyer
Oh, yeah. We use that. That covers everything. It covers the video hosting, the advertising, the development, all that stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really cool. And so, you’re seeing like a positive, I guess, I don’t know if ROI is the right term in this context, but in terms of, “Hey, we spent a hundred bucks on Facebook ads, and we’re seeing donations of substantially more than a hundred bucks flowing through.”

Gret Glyer
Yeah, the term that we use, which is similar to ROI, is we use return on ads spend, ROAS. And our return on ads spend is positive. And it’s really cool because once we get people in the door, we have lots of ways of keeping them engaged with our platform. What’s cool about our platform, not to pat myself on the shoulder too much, but what’s really great about DonorSee is that it keeps you engaged. Like, you give a donation, you get a video update, and then you’re back on our platform with lots of more opportunities to give, and you keep getting video updates every time you do that. So, we have a really strong recurring donation base.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool. That’s cool. Well, so let’s zoom in on the typical professional, you know, I’m in the workplace, and I got all kinds of situations where I got to be persuasive and influential. Maybe I need to have a project manager. I don’t have the authority to hire, or fire, or give bonuses, give raises, but I need colleagues to do stuff for me so my project gets done, or I just need to get some help and buy-in from other departments, etc. So, how would you recommend we apply some of these principles in a workplace setting, trying to get collaboration from others?

Gret Glyer
Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ve been thinking about it a lot because I knew I would be on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast and this would be a main point that we would talk about. So, I’ve been thinking about this for your audience specifically, and the way that I thought it would be best to think about is in terms of getting a promotion. I think that that’s something that’s on a lot of people’s minds and something that will happen several times throughout the course of their career.

And I think what I want to petition is that storytelling can actually help you get more promotions faster than any other skill that you have.

Pete Mockaitis
Bold claim.

Gret Glyer
Yeah, so your audience can test it out and we can get feedback at some point, but here’s how you use storytelling to get a promotion. So, let’s say that you have a boss, and your boss has some kind of problem and doesn’t have a solution for that problem. What you want to say is, you look for these kinds of opportunities, they’re not always lying around. But when you see the opportunity, then you jump on it, and you go to your boss, and you say, “Listen, I would love to help you with the problem that you’re dealing with. I’ve thought a lot about it, I thought about how I could be the solution to the issue that you’re facing. The problem is I don’t have enough responsibility. I haven’t been given enough responsibility to help you with your problem but I know I can do it if I’m allowed to be given this responsibility.”

And so, what you’re doing is you’re putting yourself into the situation, you’ve created tension with this problem, and the promotion is how you resolve the tension. So, you create tension in your boss’ mind, and then the way that the tension is resolved is by your promotion.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and what’s interesting about that is the promotion might not happen right then and there on the spot, like, “Gret, you’re right. Now, you’re a director.” But it’s probably like, “Yeah, okay. Yeah, sure, Gret, that’d be great for you to take on director’s responsibility and take care of this, this, and this.” And then some months later, it’s like, “Well, crap, he’s doing the job of a director. I guess we should probably give him the title and the compensation so we’re not flagrantly unjust/at risk of losing him to another employer.”

Gret Glyer
Yeah, and I think that’s another way that you can create tension, is you can kind of say, “Listen, I’m really excited about my job right now. I love what I’m doing but, unfortunately, there’s another company that is offering to pay me this amount, but I really want to keep helping you with this. And the way that that can happen is if you can kind of match what this other company is offering me.”

And so, again, you’re creating tension, “I’m going to leave the company unless the tension is resolved, which is that I get a raise or a promotion,” or something like that. And none of this is like… Make sure you are not like blackmailing your boss, or putting yourself in like an unhealthy relationship with other people. But just the concept of creating tension where you can be the solution and you can help people, I think that that is going to be a very, very powerful tool for your audience.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think that’s a really good frame or context there in terms of just like, “Hey, look what I got. What are you going to do about it?”

Gret Glyer
Yeah, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
“I’m really enjoying this and I’d love to continue helping but, just to be honest and level with you a little here, I’ve got this tempting offer over here, and my wife would sure love it if I had some extra money. It’d be awesome if I would just not even have to think or worry about that by matching.” So, yeah.

Gret Glyer
That creates the opportunity for me to just point out one more tip I have about storytelling, and that’s to use vivid imagery. So, when you said, “My wife would love it.” If you said, “My wife has really been wanting this red Camaro, and if I got this promotion, I’d be able to get that car for her.” That was a specific image in the person’s head that that creates a hook for them, and that image is going to resonate with them and make them think about it longer than they would’ve otherwise. So, using vivid imagery is a very powerful way to keep your recipients engaged.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and I think that the red Camaro is vivid imagery and I guess I’m also thinking about, it’s like, to an extent, again, does it follow the principle of can they see themselves in that story? It’s just like, “Hey, I don’t drive a red Camaro. Nobody I know drives a red Camaro. Tell your wife she’s going to have to hold her horses, you know.”

Gret Glyer
Yeah, maybe more achievable kind of a red Corolla.

Pete Mockaitis
But it could really be just like, “Hey, you know what, she’s really wanting to spend some more time, I don’t know, like with a medical thing.” It’s like, “It would really be helpful if we could be able to do more trips to physical therapy,” or, “It’d be really handy for the kids, boy, they love music but it’s so hard to find the time to get out to the school of folk music. And it’d be so handy if we could, I don’t know, have a nanny or chauffeur, or something, that they can relate to their gift. It’s very important for children to have music in their lives.” I resonate with that and so that might be more compelling.

But you get the wheels turning here just by bringing up these principles which is great. So, maybe before we shift gears, tell me, do you have any other sort of top tips you want to share about maybe being persuasive?

Gret Glyer
Yeah, I just think tone is very important. You can get people’s attention lots of different ways. When you become a good storyteller, you become very good at hooking people in. We’re kind of graduating out of the era of clickbait, like people are starting to get wise to it, but there was a time when people used clickbait in attention-grabbing headlines to get more traffic onto their website or to get more attention for their cause.

But if you don’t have follow through and you don’t have substance behind your hook, then it’s a very bad long-term strategy. So, it’s just the whole package of starting with the attention-grabbing hook with a satisfying resolution, understanding that whole framework is really important to healthy storytelling.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that’s dead on and I know what the expression was, it’s like, “All sizzle, no steak.” It’s like, “Ooh, what’s this about?” It’s like, “Oh, you don’t have it.” And, for me, it’s largely about, I don’t know, these days I’m getting so many messages on LinkedIn from people who want to sell me marketing services.

Gret Glyer
Yeah, I bet.

Pete Mockaitis
And it’s kind of like, “You know, I would love for my business to grow and I’d love to do more training and coaching and workshops and sell more courses or whatever.” But it’s kind of like, “I don’t know who the heck you are. And what would really persuade me, hey, is like I guess I want a story and with some data.”

It’s sort of like, “Hey, here is, I don’t know, a podcast or trainer person just like you, and here’s how they spent, whatever, $5,000 and then turned that into $50,000 with our help doing these cool things. And now they’re doing these great things with their business.” So, I think that will be way more compelling than, “Do you need more leads for high-ticket events?” It’s like, “Maybe, but I don’t know anything about you. It’s not the best way to start our relationship, new LinkedIn connection.”

Gret Glyer
I think you just made a really good point. The data is what makes your story more compelling but it’s definitely secondary to the storytelling itself. So, you’ve got the story, you’ve got the hook, and then people want to believe it. They want to believe that there’s this tension that can be resolved and you can be the person to resolve it. But if they don’t have the proof, then you’re going to lose them. So, I think having that data is so completely absolutely crucial but it should be embedded within the framework of telling a good story.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Gret Glyer
Yeah, I love this quote from Elon Musk, he says, “When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’m chewing on that. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Gret Glyer
So, I am someone who creates awareness about global poverty, so when I saw that I have the opportunity to talk about a statistic, I wanted to use that opportunity to talk about some statistics about global poverty very briefly.

So, if you earn $34,000 then you are in the global 1%. You are wealthier than 99% of the planet, which is mind-blowing to think about. But I’ve got two more that will kind of cement this. So, if you earn $4,000 a year, after adjusting for cost of living, then you are wealthier than 80% of the planet. So, it’s only 20% of the world who’s making $4,000 a year and up. And, finally, if you earn $1,000 a year, so about $3 a day, you’re wealthier than 50% of the planet.

So, there’s an exponential regression from the richest people in the world to the poorest people in the world, and that was what I wanted to bring up for my statistics.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and that could be a little bit of you can take that in all sorts of ways, like, “Oh, wow, we have a lot of work to do to help people who are in need,” to, “Hey, I ain’t doing so bad.” I guess because we tend to compare ourselves, like you said in the very beginning, with neighbors and colleagues, folks who are right in your midst. But if you zoom out, take a global perspective, it’s like, “You know what, I feel like my salary is disappointing at, whatever, $43,000, which is 9,000 more than 34,000, but I’m a 1-percenter, so I could probably find a way to make ends meet after all.”

Gret Glyer
Yeah, and I bring that up not to make anyone feel guilty or anything like that. Really, the reason I bring it up is because what I learned is it was perspective shifting for me. I was a private school kid growing up. I grew up in one of the wealthiest suburbs in the U.S. and so when I learned these things, it totally changed how I look at the world and my own situation, and I hope that others can have that same experience.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Gret Glyer
So, this is another interesting one. So, if you’ve seen the movie Les Mis there’s a guy at the beginning of the movie, the bishop, and he brings someone into his house who’s a known thief, and he gives him a bed for the night because he doesn’t have anywhere to sleep, and the thief ends up stealing a bunch of his stuff and running away.

That’s like a split-second thing in the movie Les Mis, the most recent one. And what happens is the guy ends up coming, the police catch the thief, they bring him back, and the bishop, instead of making the thief kind of go to prison and go back to the gallows, the bishop says, “Oh, you brought him back. Thank you for doing that. I actually forgot to give him the most important gift of all.” And he goes and he gets these two silver candlesticks and gives it to the thief, and says like, “Be on your way.”

So, the thief kind of stole from him and then he gave him more money out of this act of charity. And then that kind of was this catalyst that turned the guy’s life around. So, in the movie that’s like a very brief thing, but the first 100 pages of the book Les Mis, the book Les Mis is about 1600 pages. The first 100 pages are all about that bishop. And I found those 100 pages, like exploring that guy’s character and the way that he thinks about the world, I found those 100 pages riveting. So, I thought that’d be a different thing to what your audience is used to, read the first 100 pages of Les Mis.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it’s beautiful in terms of the power of mercy, and right on. Preach it. And how about a favorite tool?

Gret Glyer
Yeah. Well, the tool I was going to bring up, which I already mentioned earlier, is Facebook ads. Facebook does a really great job of reaching the audience that you are trying to find. And so, instead of you having to kind of say, “Well, people who like this, and who like this, send ads to them.” What Facebook does is it finds people who resonate with your ads, and then it shows more ads to people who have already resonated with it, like maybe they’ve clicked the Like, or left a comment, or something like that. And so, Facebook does a really good job of that and I highly encourage people to check out Facebook ads for that reason.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Gret Glyer
I go to the gym four times a week whether I work out or not. So, in other words, even if I don’t lift weights or don’t get on the treadmill or anything like that, sometimes I just go to the gym and I walk around. My only threshold for what is a successful health week for me is whether or not I went into the building of the gym four times a week.

You know, once you’re in the gym, obviously, you’re like way more likely to work out and you’re around all these other people who are working out. But the threshold for a successful workout is so low that it’s kept me in shape for several years.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Yeah, it does wonders for just keeping the habit alive even if you do almost nothing when you show up there. And how about a favorite nugget, something you share that really seems to connect with folks?

Gret Glyer
I always tell people to do what you’re afraid of. If the only reason you’re not doing something is because you’re afraid of it, then you have to do it. Sometimes you shouldn’t do something because it’s unwise, but maybe the thing that you’re afraid to do is you’re afraid to go skydiving. But you can afford it, there’s a place to skydive within 30 minutes from you, and the only reason you haven’t done it yet is because you’re afraid of it, do it, and that will help. That habit will help create many different opportunities for you in your life that that will lead to personal development.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Gret Glyer
So, right now, I’m using storytelling to sell my book, so I actually have a book that I’m fundraising for on Kickstarter, it’s called If The Poor Were Next Door, and I tell people to look it up on Kickstarter and back that project.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Gret Glyer
Yes, so the final thing is we have setup a link DonorSee.com/awesome just for you guys. And if you go there, you’ll be able to join DonorSee and get video updates on your donations. And anyone who does that, there’s a special offer for getting T-shirts and hats and stuff like that, if that’s interesting to you. But, yeah, DonorSee.com/awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Gret, thanks for sharing the good word today and the great work you’re doing at DonorSee. I wish you lots of luck in all the cool impact you’re making and folks you’re helping, and it’s really cool.

Gret Glyer
Thank you, Pete.

778: How to Make and Break Habits Using Science with Russ Poldrack

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Russ Poldrack reveals the science behind why our brains are habit-building machines and how to make the best out of it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to make good habits stick 
  2. How to strengthen your brain against bad habits
  3. Why habits never really go away–and what you should do instead 

About Russ

Russell A. Poldrack is a psychologist and neuroscientist. He is the Albert Ray Lang Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. He is also the Associate Director of Stanford Data Science, a member of the Stanford Neuroscience Institute and director of the Stanford Center for Reproducible Neuroscience and the SDS Center for Open and Reproducible Science. Prior to his appointment at Stanford in 2014, he held faculty positions at Harvard Medical School, UCLA, and the University of Texas at Austin. 

He is the author of The New Mind Readers: What Neuroimaging Can and Cannot Reveal about Our Thoughts and Hard to Break: Why Our Brains Make Habits Stick. He lives in San Francisco. 

Resources Mentioned

Russ Poldrack Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Russ, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Russ Poldrack
Thanks. It’s great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m so excited to talk about habits and brain stuff, some of my favorite bits. But, first, I’m a little curious to hear about your new practice, the hour of whatever, in your lab. What’s the story here? And what has resulted from it?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah, so the hour of whatever grew out of people’s, I think, and especially in the last couple of years, just feeling like we needed time to sort of connect without an agenda, no particular topics or anything. We just kind of come together and talk about whatever we want to talk about. A couple weeks ago, it was about the relative merits of raccoons.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, pros and cons.

Russ Poldrack
Yeah. And sometimes it’s been slightly kind of more academic topics, like, “What happens in an academic conference?” So, it’s a chance for people to just ask any questions they want to ask. And it’s been super fun. I think as we’re all struggling to kind of come back into kind of what used to be our normal kind of social life and social being, and this is meant to kind of be an opportunity to try to help re-engage those parts of our brain that might have withered a bit.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun. And so, does someone come in with a topic, or is it just sort of like, “Hey, here we are”?

Russ Poldrack
People do come in with topics but it’s also kind of a random walk at times as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, I’m excited to talk about your book Hard to Break: Why Our Brains Make Habits Stick. And maybe before we go into the depths of the book, could you kick us off with some of your most surprising and fascinating discoveries you’ve come about in your research here?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah. So, we’ve been interested for a long time in sort of how it is that so many different cognitive functions can be sort of crammed into the little two or three pounds of brain that sit in our head. And one of the ideas that has been around for a long time that has kind of driven a lot of the work that I’d done across my career is trying to understand how, like the brain has different systems to solve kind of related versions of different problems.

And so, one of those is actually directly related to habits. So, if you think about like what are the things that we learn as we go through the world, and I like to use driving a car as an example. So, when you drive to work, you don’t have to kind of think back and remember, “Oh, which pedal do I press to stop the car or to go?” And when we think about habits, those are often what we think about are sort of the different behaviors or the different knowledge that we build up through our experience in the world.

That’s very different than the knowledge of which particular parking spot you parked your car in this morning. That changes every day and you really have to use a different type of memory system in your brain to be able to go back and remember where you parked. And a lot of the work that we’ve done is try to figure out, “How do these different brain systems either kind of work together or even compete with one another?”

So, one of the big early findings that we had was sort of showing that these two systems, the system that kind of develops habits, and the system that helps us create these kinds of conscious memories of the past, like where we parked our car this morning, don’t just seem to be kind of working off on their own, but they actually seem to be competing with one another, such that when activity in one of those sets of brain areas goes up, activity in the other set goes down. They seem to be kind of pushing and pulling against one another.

And so, it really tells us that the brain is this big dynamical system that’s kind of got a lot of different parts that are working at the same time, and sometimes they work together, and sometimes they work across purposes.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, in practice, does that mean if I am exerting some mental energy in one direction, I would expect deficits elsewhere?

Russ Poldrack
In general, that’s going to be true, yeah. And we’ve showed it to work that, to the degree that you’re engaged in, for example, multitasking, trying to do multiple things at once, that that has a bigger impact on the brain systems that are involved in generating those conscious memories of the past, and less impact on the brain systems that are involved in developing habits.

the brain has limited bandwidth, and so it’s almost necessary the case that if you’re focusing on one thing, it’s going to be at the expense of other types of information processing, and that’s going to have an impact on kind of how you do and what you remember.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now could you share sort of the big idea or core thesis behind the book Hard to Break?

Russ Poldrack
Yes. So, I’d say that the big idea is really, like why are habits so hard to change? We all have habits we’d like to change. We all know how hard our behavior is to change. And I think the big idea behind the book is that behavior change is hard for a reason, and that is that habits, in general, are a really good thing. In fact, they’re essential for us to behave effectively in the world. So, if you think about what will happen if we didn’t have habits, we would be deliberating about every small act that we make, which, “Where exactly should I put my foot when I take the next step?” “Which of these ten different loaves of bread at the grocery store should I buy?”

And, obviously, some people still do deliberate about those things excessively. But habits basically allow us to offload a lot of the uninteresting stuff to what you might think of as our brain’s autopilot. When the world stays the same all the time, when we’re driving the same car every day, we don’t need to worry about where the pedals are changing, and all those old details. The habit systems in our brain basically allow us to not have to think about that stuff.

There’s a great quote from the psychologist William James, he actually wrote this in 1890, and it’s one of the most highlighted bits on Kindle in my book, which is, here’s the quote, “The great thing then in all education is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. For this, we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can.”

So, it really highlights the fact that, in general, habits are really important to us, and you wouldn’t want them to just go away easily until they become habits that are annoying, and then the stickiest of habits becomes like a real challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so given this, what do you recommend are some of the best practices for establishing new habits, and then, conversely, for breaking ones we don’t want?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah. So, I think when it comes to establishing new habits, the real key is consistency and in some sense, setting up a schedule. So, let’s assume that we’re talking about a habit that isn’t something one necessarily loves to do, like going to the gym. One of the things to think about is to make it as easy as possible for yourself to engage in the thing. One way to think about is don’t let yourself decide whether you’re going to do that thing or not today, but really have it be just part of a schedule.

So, for example, if you wake up every day and say, “Oh, should I go to the gym today?” It’s going to be a lot easier to say no than if you just decide, “I’m going to go to the gym on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at the same time of day, and I’m going to sort of fix that into my larger routine.” And so, the idea is sort of taking away a little bit of your ability to decide not to do the thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, burn the boats.

Russ Poldrack
Sorry, say that again?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, kind of like the burn the boats notion, like, “Oh, we can’t retreat because the boats are gone.”

Russ Poldrack
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Or, other sort of commitment devices or restraints. Okay.

Russ Poldrack
Yeah. Another interesting idea has come from Katy Milkman and Angela Duckworth and others, this idea called temptation bundling, where basically the idea is you give yourself a small reward in exchange for doing something that you don’t want to necessarily do at least until that thing can sort of become more habitual.

So, you might, for example, say, “Every time I go to the gym, I’m going to allow myself to have a little bit of chocolate.” Angela Duckworth and her colleagues did some research where they gave people free audiobooks to listen to while they were on the treadmill, and that actually showed that it increased people’s willingness to exercise. Even something, audiobooks are fun, they’re not like eating chocolate, but even the audiobooks were enough to sort of get people to be more likely to keep going to the gym.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if we’re trying to disentangle or get away from things we want to stop doing, what do you recommend there?

Russ Poldrack
So, I think one of the really important things is understanding what are the things that trigger the habit. We know that one of the things that makes a habit a habit is that it’s triggered by cues in the world. One of these, for example, you walk into a bar, you’re an ex-smoker, the smell of smoke or the other smells of the bar make you really want to have a cigarette. And almost every habit has some sort of thing that can trigger it.

And so, the first important thing is to like try to understand what the triggers are for you. They’re going to probably be different for every person. What are the triggers for you for the particular habit you’re trying to change? And then, one, can you get rid of those triggers? Can you kind of design your life to not encounter those things? Sometimes we can, sometimes we can’t.

If you can, then the more you can do to avoid the triggers, the better off you are because one of the other things that’s so hard about habits is once they get triggered, they’re really hard to stop. It’s much easier to prevent them from ever happening, to prevent you from ever being triggered to do the thing than it is to stop yourself once it’s been triggered.

Now, there are some things that we know that can strengthen one’s ability to stop, and we know that the prefrontal cortex is kind of the brain’s central executive to the degree that humans can exert any control over what they do, it’s the prefrontal cortex that allows us to do that. And there are things that we know that can make the prefrontal cortex work better or worse. We know that stress has a really strong negative impact on the prefrontal cortex and one’s ability to exert control.

Lack of sleep is also a big way to sort of cause the prefrontal cortex to not function well. So, working on stress reduction, improving sleep, exercise, those are all things that we know can help improve prefrontal cortex function. People think that this stuff is all about willpower, but willpower is, in general, pretty weak. And once the habit takes off, it’s very hard for us to actually stop it.

So, one of the things that seems to work, there’s evidence showing in a number of different domains that this can help people change their behavior, is this idea of planning for what’s going to happen when the situation arises. So, psychologists call this an implementation intention. When it comes time to have to stop yourself from doing the thing, what are you going to do?

And so, instead of saying, “Oh, I’m not going to smoke,” say, “Well, when I go to the bar and my friend offers me a cigarette, this is exactly what I’m going to do in order to prevent myself from smoking at that point.” It doesn’t always work but there’s evidence that these types of planning interventions do seem to help people change their behavior.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s so funny, my creative brain just runs wild with that because there can be an infinite number of responses. I’m thinking of like dramatic things, like you can break it into and say, “No, I have conquered nicotine forever.” Okay, that’s dramatic. Or, you can say, “Oh, no, thanks.” Or, it’s sort of like you have your script, or you’re going to, I don’t know, what the alternative to smoking are in terms of I guess there’s other nicotine delivery mechanisms.

There’s like a fuse, I don’t know what it’s called. It’s like a vape. It’s not nicotine or something. So, there can be any number of replacements. And, in fact, I was intrigued you have a chapter entitled “I forgot that I was a smoker” in your table of contents. I wanted to dig into that because we talk about those triggers. It’s kind of like some triggers are internal, like, “Hmm, when I’m bored,” which is sort of happens inside all of us daily, “I pick up my smartphone and see what’s going on in social media,” or whatever, or maybe it is a cigarette or food or drink type situations.

So, when that happens, and the triggers are internal and unavoidable, tell us what are some of the best practices? There’s strengthening of the prefrontal cortex, there’s having that implementation intention.

Russ Poldrack
Implementation intention, yeah. Another thing, so I talk a bit in the book about a bit of what we’ve learned from research on Tourette Syndrome. So, Tourette Syndrome is this disorder mostly in children where the kids have tics, and these could be vocal tics, they could be facial movement. Most kids grow out of them, some people have them into their adulthood.

And there’s a bunch of work looking at what’s called habit replacement, where the idea is like if you have something that, for example, a tic, and these tics, like a person often gets a really strong urge to like to do the thing, especially if they’re trying to prevent themselves from doing it, and finally it comes out.

So, the idea is to have some other thing that you do as a replacement, and that could be, in the context of tics, it’s often like a different movement. But you can imagine finding, for example, if you usually drink alcohol and you want to sort of not drink, finding things that are as close as possible to the thing that you would want to drink but that don’t have alcohol, or as you were talking about nicotine replacement, because those sorts of things can help break that…kind of break the link between all of the cues, like the taste of the thing and the response that you get from, for example, the alcohol.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, that person who forgot that they were a smoker, how did that go down?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah. So, it’s a really interesting case. There’s actually a number of cases where this was an individual who had a stroke and it damaged the particular part of the brain that seems to be really important for sort of storing these types of kind of, I don’t know if you want to think of them as just cravings, but sort of like associations that we have with stuff that we want.

And, yeah, he apparently woke up after the stroke, and suddenly didn’t…after years of waking up every morning and having to have a cigarette first thing, woke up after the stroke, didn’t feel the need for a cigarette anymore. And when he was asked to describe what happened, he basically said, “Yeah, I just forgot I was a smoker.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so, yeah, that has fascinating implications, I’m sure, in your research associated with brain pathways and what’s going on there. Okay. And then you’ve got a particular recipe for stickiness in terms of getting habits to stick. What are the components of this recipe?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah, so the brain has sort of brought together several different things that ultimately result in the fact that habits are really sticky.

So, the first one is that when a habit is developed, it never really goes away. As much as we might try to make it go away, what we’ve learned from a lot of research, especially research looking at rats learning habits, but we think it’s true in all organisms, is that when we have a habit and we want to try to get rid of that habit, what we have to do is, basically, push down the habit and learn a new behavior in its place. And as much as we might think that that old habit is gone, it’s always lurking there in the background. And if we get stressed out, or if the context changes, it’s likely to come back. That’s why we think habits are so likely to come back even many years later.

There’s also this thing that happens as something becomes a habit, our brain kind of moves it from initially relying on sort of parts of the brain that kind of make plans and plan out what we’re going to do, to the parts of the brain that are more involved in just doing actions. So, it’s almost like it becomes more of a hardwired action than something that we’re thinking about.

And another part of that is that we start to do lots of things together. We call this chunking in neuroscience, where initially we would have to plan out what are all the different actions we were going to do, say, to go to the store and go get some ice cream. And all of that becomes, in some sense, one bigger action.

And so, it’s easy for us to not sort of be thinking in the middle of what we’re doing. It’s almost like if the thing starts and it just kind of runs until it’s done. And then the other thing that starts to happen is that our attention starts to get driven by the things that are the sort of things in the world that are related to the habit.

So, for example, if you have a habit of eating ice cream, you might be particularly drawn to any kind of image of ice cream, anything in the store that has those features that you kind of associate with ice cream. And so, all those things come together to make it both really hard to get rid of a habit, and also really hard to prevent it from being turned on or to stop it once it’s going.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so given all of the knowledge and concepts and principles, can you share with us a few of the coolest stories you’ve encountered of folks who have put this into practice and done a fine job of creating habits or breaking habits that previously were eluding them?

Russ Poldrack
So, I think one really inspiring example for me is a friend of mine who, for a number of years, had a significant drug habit, narcotics, and was able to, ultimately, kind of hit bottom, and was able to come back. And I think one of the really impressive things that they used was really working on this kind of protecting the prefrontal cortex by doing meditation and really trying to obtain some kind of respite from all of the urges of the world and the voices that we hear. And I think that the ability to get some sort of mental clarity and really understand yourself like that really helps to think about, “How will I respond when the cues come up?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Russ Poldrack
No, I think we’ve hit all the high points.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, can you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah, this is from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Nice. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Russ Poldrack
One of the things that I always like to talk about and it kind of blows people’s minds, and they don’t believe me when I tell them about it, there’s a large body of work in psychology now on what are called flashbulb memories, which are these memories that we all have where something happens. I have one, I was in college when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, and I have this crystal-clear memory of like walking into my dorm room after class, and somebody telling me, “Oh, hey, the Space Shuttle exploded.” And we all think that those are…they’re called flashbulb memories because, for many years, many people thought that they were this perfect recording of exactly what happened.

It turns out that many people get the details of these memories completely wrong. There’s been a number of studies now that have looked at people’s memories. The first one was actually for the Challenger explosion, where they went back, they had people, like the day after the explosion, say, “Where were you yesterday when you heard about the Challenger explosion?” And then they go back months later, and say, “Where were you?”

And the people often give details that are just totally wrong but they’re still so confident in those memories. And it really highlights the fact that memory is not like a tape recorder. Memory is our brain reconstructing a story about the past.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. And could you share a favorite book?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah, one that I think is really fun is called How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, who’s an artist and writer. And it lays out this idea of what she calls the attention economy. It’s like the whole world is just sort of clamoring to grab our attention, and we start to think of like every moment as an opportunity to spend attention on something.

And she makes this, I think, a compelling argument, that we need to take back control of our attention, and that she refers to it as like a revolutionary act, and sort of choose to experience the world in a way that allows us to connect with other people, connect with the world around us. I think about when I was a kid, my mom would make me go to the fabric store with her, and this is before devices or anything.

And so, my brother and I would go to the fabric store with her, and we’d just sit there for 20, 30 minutes with absolutely nothing to do. And that kind of ability to tolerate boredom, like I could never go do that now, but I think that our ability to turn off our responses to the world and to…I think, mindful is a good word for it, to be more mindful about how it is that we’re engaging with the world, I think, is a really important thing.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah. So, I think the one piece of software that I use that I think is really useful is, and there’s a lot of things to do this, but I use this thing called Todoist, which is a really lightweight but effective to-do list manager. I like to try to keep my inbox, my email inbox down to one page so I can at least see everything that I immediately have to worry about.

And I’m sure you get as many emails as I do, you know how hard it is to keep everything down to about…I think my page is like 40 emails. And so, having a really good to-do list manager that integrates well with your email system is really important. And so, I find that probably my most important, like small tool that helps me stay on track.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about yourself when it comes to habits? Any favorite ones that really served you well over the years?

Russ Poldrack
I think I try to walk a lot, and I think that that’s a good thing to do both because you can’t be doing other things. Well, you can but I try not to. And I think habits, I’m trying to think habits of mind because, obviously, we all often think about our habits as being actions that we take in the world. But I think habits of mind are just as important, and I think being able to find the sweet spot where you’re almost perfectionist but not quite.
Because I think perfectionism is, at least in terms of productivity, is just a killer. I know so many people who are much more brilliant than I will ever be, sort of people who wanted to go into science but basically their perfectionism prevented them from ever getting anywhere because they were never happy enough with what they had done. And so, I think finding that sweet spot between good enough and perfect, it’s a really hard thing to learn how to do but I think, at least for me, I feel like that’s been a key to success.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, it’s been underlined a bunch in the book, or you hear people quote it back to you often?

Russ Poldrack
I think the important nugget is that habits are sticky for a reason. They’re sticky because, in general, we want them to be. We don’t want to do a handstand and have our ability to see completely rewired. And I think related to that, one of the points that I often try to make about the book is that it should be a message for people to not beat themselves up when they can’t change their behavior.

Their brains were built to do exactly this, and especially our brains didn’t evolve in a world with 64-ounce sugary drinks and potato chips and drugs of the sort that one can buy either at the store or on the street. And so, our brains are really badly overpowered by the world that we live in now, and so I think that finding some compassion for one’s self around these things, I think, is really important.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Russ Poldrack
I’m on Twitter @russpoldrack, that’s probably the best place.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Russ Poldrack
I think it kind of goes back, actually, to the quote, which is to just find as many chances as you can to do something that you’re afraid of.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Russ, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun good habits.

Russ Poldrack
Many thanks. It’s been great fun.