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

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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.

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.

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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

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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.

777: How to Observe and Listen like a Master Interrogator with Certified Forensic Interviewer Michael Reddington

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Michael Reddington shares valuable skills–learned from having engaged in many interrogations–that make you a more observant listener and influential communicator.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The trick to staying focused and attentive 
  2. The subtle conversation cues to look out for
  3. How to ask better questions to get better answers 

About Michael

Michael Reddington, CFI is a certified forensic interviewer and the President of InQuasive, Inc., a company that integrates the key components of effective non-confrontational interview techniques with current business research for executives. Using his background in forensics, and his understanding of human behavior through interrogation, Reddington teaches businesses to use the truth to their advantage.

Reddington received his bachelor’s degree in business administration and management from Southern New Hampshire University, and received additional education on  negotiation and leadership degree from Harvard University. He currently lives in Waxhaw, NC. 

Resources Mentioned

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Michael Reddington Interview Transcript

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

Michael Reddington
Thank you for having me here, Pete. I appreciate it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to hear your wisdom associated with listening and interviewing. And, maybe, could you kick us off with a riveting story about an interrogation you did and what went down?

Well, could we start off with a riveting story about an interrogation that you did and what happened?

Michael Reddington
Riveting story. So, now I have to come up with extra drama to make sure we put into the retelling of it. I think the one that jumps first to mind for me was, years ago, I was in the Midwest and I received a call from the owner of an organization that, it’s no overstatement, was in a bit of desperate straits. As part of their operation, they sold firearms. And as part of an organization that sells firearms, you’re subject to periodic audits from the federal government to make sure that you’re doing everything you’re supposed to and securing firearms the way you’re supposed to. And as part of this unannounced federal audit, the auditors who were from the ATF found that two firearms were missing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, wow.

Michael Reddington
So, the agents who, I mean, I wasn’t there. I can’t speak for the techniques that they used, but they were unable, with their initial efforts, to learn who may have been responsible for taking those guns, so they passed it on to the local police who were also unable to determine who was responsible for taking those guns. And the case languished, I believe, if I recall correctly, for eight weeks.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, dear. That’s kind of spooky.

Michael Reddington
Yeah, for not knowing where these could be. And when you think about why those would be stolen, to oversimplify it, it’s either for money or to be used. So, not that either is good, but we certainly don’t want them to be used. So, about eight weeks had gone by, they reached out to my former company, I ended up having the conversation with them about potentially going out to handle it.

So, I flew out. Met with the owner of the facility and reviewed the employees’ HR files for a couple of hours to, then, get up early the next morning and start the interviews.

And I believe that I had a pretty good idea who was responsible, interviewed some other employees who were able to give me some supportive information. And then when it came down to interview who was the gentleman who was the main suspect at that point, really from our standpoint, it’s important to remember that he has no good reason to tell us the truth, he’s already withheld it several times, could likely believe that he’s going to get away with it, or has already. He’s got to know there’s repercussions for this.

So, as we went through the conversation, the whole plan was to use a technique that he likely wasn’t familiar with, which, this might surprise people, was be nice and show respect and show empathy, and not necessarily give the impression that it’s totally cool to go out and steal guns, if that’s what you want to do, but at least show respect for him and his potential position in the situation. And, thankfully, it worked.

It’s about 23 minutes into the conversation, I asked him, “What’s the most expensive item you ever took from the store?” because my thought was he might admit to stealing something else before admitting to stealing guns, so if that’s what he wants to tell me, we’ll start there. And he exhaled deeply, looked down on his shoes, looked back at me, and said, “It was a gun.” And at that point, we were off to the races.

So, getting the admission to the two guns, it turned out to be the least difficult part of the process. As we were talking about the two guns, he told me that he had one and told me exactly where it was in his house, and told me that he had sold another one. To your reaction earlier, I got to find that. I can’t just say, “Okay, cool. Thanks,” and leave. So, he was far more resistant to sharing the name of the person who he sold the firearm to than he was telling that he had taken the two firearms.

And the empathetic approach that eventually worked in order to get that information from him after a period of, could’ve been 10 minutes or so, of resistance where he didn’t want to share the name, was illustrating to him, without using any names or pointing to anybody specifically, that if law enforcement were sent to recover a firearm and they are uncertain as to how that process might go, they might enter that building with one set of expectations where it could lead to a situation we’d all like to avoid. Considering how much we would care about anybody involved in that situation, the more we can level-set the expectations going in, the more we can ensure that any type of recovery efforts doesn’t go sideways.

At that point, he decided not only to give me the name but provide me with turn-by-turn directions, a work phone number, and a cellphone number to this gentleman. So, once we had all of that documented, we were able to turn him over to the police. I stayed in that town for the next two days because I was teaching a seminar. The schedule worked out perfect. And by the end of that week, I was able to confirm that both guns had been recovered, and both gentlemen had been incarcerated.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, happy ending. Well done. And so, the magic was just being nice and some lay out the situation. I don’t want to diminish your job, Michael, but it doesn’t sound too hard. What’s going on?

Michael Reddington
When we do a good job, it shouldn’t look too hard, it shouldn’t sound too hard. But, to your point, that belies the preparation and the technique that’s used. I don’t want to use an analogy that goes too far but, oftentimes, if you watch athletes on TV, it looks easy, without realizing the hours of preparation that they’ve put in behind that.

To answer the first half of your question, yes, being nice to people is a core component. If we are asking somebody to share sensitive information under vulnerable circumstances, especially if that sensitive information leads to potential consequences, the single most important thing we need to do is communicate with them in a way where they avoid feeling embarrassed and they avoid feeling judged. Period. That is the most important thing we can do.

If we can do that in a way that helps us build our credibility in the situation while allowing them to save face, and to steal a phrase, violates their expectation. In that situation, he was probably expecting another investigator to likely take a hard judgmental approach and try to corner him into feeling forced to admit. Well, he’s going to have a prepared defense for that. So, if I can go in being nice, not showing judgment and allowing him to save face, yes, that’s a core component where we like to often say, “You will be surprised what people will tell you when you’re nice.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so be nice, that’s a great takeaway for work and all kinds of places. I’m curious, when there are in terms of the conversations that occur at work, what are some of the key situations and scenarios you see are most applicable to using your toolkit here?

Michael Reddington
Thank you for asking. Many. Leadership and coaching conversations. Conflict between employees. Any type of investigative conversation, of course. Sales and business development. Negotiations. Candidate interviewing. For most leaders at any level of an organization, from frontline managers, all the way up the org chart, they spend a considerable amount of their day in conversations with people where their job is to, in some combination, acquire information and inspire a change in behavior. So, any time where we are communicating with people to obtain information, in order to help us make a better decision and/or change someone’s behavior, obtain a commitment to action, these concepts apply.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so we got a couple of takeaways associated with being unpredictable, allowing them to save face, being kind. Any other particularly surprising discoveries you’ve made about listening and conversations over the course of many, many conversations and lots of research in your career?

Michael Reddington
Yeah, I’ll go with two off the top of my head. The first one is our internal monologue is likely the single most dangerous factor in our conversations. Simply put, if you and I are talking, I can’t have anything more important to say to myself than you have to say to yourself.

So, if you’re talking to yourself at the same time I’m talking to you, you’re not listening to me, and I don’t blame you for that, it’s naturally how our brains are wired, but, unfortunately, in those situations, we trick ourselves into believing we listen because I’m picking up just enough on what’s somebody’s saying that my brain automatically fills in the blanks and makes the assumption that I got the full message.

As that’s happening, I’m likely focusing on what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling, defending my positions, thinking about my emotions, how do I feel, or maybe I’m just completely checked out. So, it’s not a double-edged sword because both edges are negative. Not only am I missing out on your message but I’m compounding that based on where my monologue is taking myself. So, the importance of developing the ability to limit our internal monologue is one.

The second that comes to mind right away is the concept that time is the enemy of empathy. Our brains can’t multitask. So, just like I can’t multitask, I can’t listen to myself while I’m listening to you, I also can’t focus on the intelligence buried within your communication, the layers and the nuances that are so very important to helping me create unexpected value, if I’m focusing on the time, “I need to be out of here in five minutes. I have another meeting in 10 minutes. When this conversation is over, I need to be somewhere else. I wish Pete would hurry up and get to the point so I can just say.”

As soon as I start prioritizing time, how quickly I need to end this conversation, or how quickly I need to learn information, I’m now prioritizing time over value, and my ability to empathize, understand, and connect with somebody is going to drop precipitously.

Pete Mockaitis
It sounds like it’s your awareness of time. I suppose you could conceivably just set an alarm. If you only have half an hour, you set an alarm and you just forget about the clock entirely, and it’s like, “Oh, crap. Well, that went beep so I guess we’re going to have to resume this a little later.”

Michael Reddington
That’s one way. One of the focuses that I took from a career in interrogation, quick backstory without deviating too far, the majority of the conversations I facilitated in my investigative interviewing career were noncustodial, meaning people were not under arrest, they were not Mirandized, they were free to get up and go at any time, and if I, in any way, attempted to impede their ability to leave, I was putting myself and my company in serious legal jeopardy.

So, based on a rather nebulous Supreme Court ruling, we operated under the understanding that we have 60 minutes to get the first indication of wrongdoing, and once we had that, we had a reasonable amount of time to wrap up. But if we have no evidence and not even a tacit admission within 60 minutes, we ought to really start thinking about wrapping this up, transitioning, “Where do we go next?”

So, if I sat down in any interrogation and thought to myself, “I’ve got 60 minutes,” in my head I’m thinking, “59, 58, 57,” all the way down. Now, because I’m focusing on the time, I’m more likely to rush and make mistakes. Now, if I understand that I’ve got 60 minutes, that means I have this window, this timeframe to use to my advantage. So, one of the things that we preach is allow the conversation to come to you, because if we’re not listening, we’re not learning. And if we’re not learning, we’re probably not uncovering any paths to uncover this hidden value.

So, when we let the conversation come to us, really, what we’re doing is, in order to do that well, I should go back and say we really need to understand, clearly, going into the conversation, “What are our goals?” If I know where I want this conversation to end, it really doesn’t matter where you started. It doesn’t matter at all because I can use, wherever it starts, and over time, nudge it and guide it to where I need it to go.

So, as opposed to setting an alarm, if I can understand, “Well, this is where I need to be, so I’m going to allow the conversation to come to me, I’m going to let Pete start it, guide it, get whatever is off his chest or important to him first, and from there I’m going to work it to where I need it to be.” Now, I’m embracing that learning mentality towards goal achievement as opposed to focusing on, “I’ve only got 30 minutes. I need to make sure I get to the point.”

Pete Mockaitis
Now, your book The Disciplined Listening Method: How A Certified Forensic Interviewer Unlocks Hidden Value in Every Conversation, let’s hear the big idea behind the book, sort of like the core message or thesis. And what do you mean by hidden value specifically?

Michael Reddington
That’s how I write into the thesis. So, really, the big idea behind the book is that there are so many opportunities that we have, not only the ability to capture, but have the ability to create in our important conversations, and all the listeners can decide what’s an important conversation to them – business, personal, who they’re talking to, what the potential opportunities or repercussions of those conversations are, but, really, the big idea is, “What do we need to do in order to capture and create those opportunities and stop letting them fall through our fingers?”

And so, with that, The Disciplined Listening Method, ‘if we’re to use the coin analogy, has two sides to the coin. One is that strategic observation side, “How do I really evolve my ability as an observer to pick up on all the nuances of what’s happening in front of me, understand what I’m experiencing internally, and work through that in a goal-achieve mindset framework?”

And then the flipside of the coin is to improve our influential communication, “How do I communicate, how do I ask questions in a way that are more likely,” as we mentioned earlier, “to help people save face and increase their comfort level in sharing sensitive information with us so we gather more intelligence, we make better decisions, we achieve better outcomes, we solidify better relationships?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so you’ve got seven core behaviors in The Disciplined Listening Method. I want to dig into a few things you’ve said already, and then we’ll round out as many of the seven as we have time for.

Michael Reddington
Let’s do it.

Pete Mockaitis
So, the internal dialogue, that sounds like a huge foundational starting point right there in terms of if you’re more distracted by what’s coming up for lunch or whatever other interesting thoughts are in your head, then you’re going to have a heck of a time observing nuances, remembering your great questions, and influential communication approaches. So, can you kick us off by sharing, okay, we’ve all got internal monologue, how do we get a bit of control or handle on limiting that?

Michael Reddington
Great question. A couple alternatives for that. Number one, whenever possible, our preparation and the thoroughness of our preparation will help. Now, this is better prepared for a conversation more than a spontaneous conversation. But if I know where I want this conversation to go, if I’m comfortable with my material, if I’m comfortable with the questions I want to ask in advance of the conversation, then I don’t need to think about those things.

I’m not a musician so I’m going to steal this analogy. But as my musician friends tell me they can’t play guitar and think of the words at the same time. They can think of the words and have the chords on auto, or they can have the words on auto and think of the chords, but they can’t think of both at the same time. So, if I can be prepared with what I want to say, what do I want to ask, where do I need to go, I can work to shut down my internal monologue and really focus on you because there’s got many less variables I’m accounting for. That type of preparation isn’t always available.

During the conversation, the next one, is the intentional effort. So, when I pick up that my internal monologue is leading me astray, when I catch myself focusing on an emotion, or where I need to be in 10 minutes, or what else I’d rather be doing, or what I need to say next, or the point I need to defend next, that’s a checkpoint for me to say, “Wait a minute. I need to refocus.”

The third one is the one that I have found to be most helpful. More often than not, our internal monologue has an emotional component, and when our emotions change, we generally get a physiological indication that our emotions are changing before we realize it in our mind, “Oh, no, my emotions are shifting.”

So, in order to catch it at the earliest piece, what we’d like to do is coach people to try to identify “What are your physical triggers? What are your first indications, physically, that your emotions are changing?” I will admit mine for everybody, which is a bit embarrassing, but it’s curling my toes in my shoes. Often, if I’m having a conversation with somebody and my emotions start to shift, I start curling my toes in my shoes.

So, as soon as I feel my toes curling, I might not rationally understand that my emotions are changing, what they’re changing to, or why they’re changing, but as soon as I catch my toes moving in my shoes, that’s my indication that I need to focus. Now, if my emotions are changing quicker, maybe I’m making a fist in my pocket, or maybe my face is getting red, or my heartrate is beating faster, or my lungs are breathing heavier, any one of these things as well. But, for me, largely, I’m going to listen to my body. And my tell, more often than not, is my toes.

So, for anybody that knows me and listens to this, I can’t wait to watch them stare at my feet from now on when we have conversations. But as soon as I feel those toes moving, I know I need to be focused and limit wherever my internal monologue is taking me at that point because it’s generating emotions that are likely counterproductive to the goals I’m trying to achieve.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, when you say emotions change, I mean, I think if the stakes aren’t that high, I don’t know, can these emotions change, just be a little bit from, “Oh, I’m interested,” to, “I’m kind of bored and tired”? Is that like the subtlety or minuteness we’re talking about an emotional change?

Michael Reddington
Yeah, it could be shifting to annoyed, to bored, to done, like, “I’ve heard enough.” And you’re right, even in these low-stakes conversations, the emotional shifts can be just that. And in that case, maybe it’s not my toes

It could be that I’m looking at my watch, or I’m looking at the door, or I’m starting to play with my coffee cup on the table, or some of these signals we might be sending consciously or subconsciously to our counterpart that this conversation is over. If I’m sending that signal that I’m clearly not listening, which means I’m clearly not learning.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, you said a few times that you observed something in yourself, and that’s your cue to refocus.

Michael Reddington
Yes, sir.

Pete Mockaitis
So, now, can we get very precise and granular and specific about what does refocusing consist of? Because I think people, they struggle with distractions of all sorts, of all shapes, and conversations and elsewhere, smartphones and more, so to refocus, for many, it’s easier said than done. How does one refocus?

Michael Reddington
Literally, for me, it’s by saying to myself, “I need to listen to Pete.” Literally. I’ll go back to the toes, I catch my toes, my first thought is, “I need to listen to Pete because clearly I’m not right now.” So, now as I go back and start listening to you, the next question in my mind, which I know dives back into internal monologue as I’m helping to get refocused here, the next question is, “How does what he’s saying help me achieve my goals?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then you‘ve got…I like that because the first one, in a way, as far as internal monologues go, it’s a little bit of a splash of cold water. It’s not too intense in terms of you’re not just terrorizing yourself, beating yourself up, but there’s a firmness to it. I’m thinking about my kids, like if I were to say that, “Hey, you need to go brush your teeth.” Okay, that’s escalating on the serious scale.

And then you return to your question. I guess that goes back to the preparation, is that you’ve got a sense for what the goals are, what you’re trying to achieve, which is “I probably best practice for most people and most conversations in work and elsewhere.” And so, there you have it. Now, if this happens again and again and again, well, you tell me, Michael, might you have to give yourself this stern admonition, like a dozen times a minute? Or, what are we thinking?

Michael Reddington
Hopefully not in a minute but maybe a dozen times in a conversation. One of the things, especially for leaders and getting in in-level in the organization, and it’s true for parents as well, coaches, youth sports, whatever it is, that any time we feel like we have a level of expertise in a situation, that level of expertise can hurt us as much as it can help us.

Because if I believe I know how this movie ends, if I believe I already have the right idea or the right solution, then I’m not listening to learn. I’m listening for the first opportunity I have to convey how smart I am, what my idea has, or to wrap this conversation up as soon as possible. So, if I keep falling into that trap, then, yes, I might have to kick myself back into this conversation multiple times. Hopefully, it’s not 12 times a minute, but, yeah, I might have to, multiple times in a conversation.

One of the things that we like to coach is that if we reflect on our communication experiences, so, let’s say that, over the course of a day, I have a dozen important conversations, could be with customers, internally other leaders in the organization, my wife here at home. And as I reflect on my day before I go to bed, I think to myself, “Ten of those conversations really felt like my counterparts were engaged and had a pretty good idea of where I was coming from, what I was saying, two of them didn’t, that was probably a them issue.”

But if I reflect on my day, and I think, “Well, I had 12 important conversations today, and in 10 of them, the people I was talking to just couldn’t grasp what I was saying, where I was coming from, the importance of my message. They weren’t getting it.” Well, I’m the lowest common denominator in those 10 conversations. So, the likelihood that this is a me problem is now really high.

So, if we find ourselves in any type of repetitive situation, or we feel like we’re not achieving our outcomes, or we’re running into more resistance in our conversations, one of the questions we like to coach to ask ourselves is, “Am I the lowest common denominator? And if it appears that I am,” to your point, “what behaviors do I need to change? How do I need to update my approach?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s some internal monologue pieces. You also talked about observing nuances. Like, what are the kinds of things that you recommend we keep our eyes open for?

Michael Reddington
Thank you for asking. I’m going to start with a don’t and then get to more do’s. Don’t try to catch people lying. There’s no point. Essentially, everything we’ve ever been told that people do when they lie, scientifically has been proven is not an indication that they’re lying, and realistically is an indication that they’ve become uncomfortable.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Joe Navarro, we had on the show, talked about this. Like, there’s no telltale sign, “Oh, you touched your nose or your ears or your eyes went in this direction, or you covered your suprasternal notch,” that all these things likely mean there is some discomfort for who knows why. It’s cold. They’re kind of bored. They are tired of going through this again. They don’t want you to find out about something else they’re hiding, which is completely unrelated to the matter at hand. Okay, so right on. It sounds like you got a checkmark there, like forget the deception there.

Michael Reddington
Yes, and he’s a perfect resource for that. So, as we move away from trying to catch people lying, what we really want to focus on is just that, I’m looking for changes in somebody’s comfort level throughout the conversation. And then with a heightened level of situational awareness, looking to tie their change in comfort to the most likely trigger, “Was it something that I just said? Was it something they were saying?” To your point, “Is the room cold?” “Did somebody just walk in that they’re trying to avoid?” That contextual or situational awareness really is the missing ingredient to accurately identifying somebody’s emotional shift.

But, by and large, without even getting into that level of nuance, if we’re just looking for, to oversimplify it, to somebody who looks happy, sad, frustrated, what does their emotional shift look like? For me, just some basics, and Joe might have mentioned some of these, if I’m having a conversation with somebody and we’re standing up, talking to each other, are their feet pointed towards me and are their shoulders parallel with mine? If the answer to both questions is yes, they’re probably relatively engaged. If their feet are pointing away, or if their shoulders are turning away, or they keep looking away, this isn’t rocket science, they’re probably not so much engaged with me.

For me, another myth, if somebody crosses their arms, it doesn’t mean that they’re closed off or defensive. It means they’re likely either the physical discomfort, could be cold, or their back hurts, or emotionally vulnerable at the moment, and their face might be a better place to look to figure out what the specific emotional vulnerability is at that point in time.

But, for me, especially with the nonverbals, what behavior changes isn’t nearly as important as when the behavior changes. So, if I know that I’m saying something to somebody that might cause a stress or a reaction, that’s where I’m looking for that shift in their behavior that potentially indicates they’re more stressful.

On the verbal communication side, I’ll cut straight to my favorite. My absolute favorite thing to observe for when somebody is communicating to me is if they start saying a word, cut themselves off in the middle of the word, and replace it with a different word in the same sentence. So, as an example, if I’m having a conversation, let’s say, I’m talking to…or I have one of my employees talking to me, another manager is talking to me, and she comes up to me and says, “At this point, I’m really just af– well, I believe that my team is concerned at this point that their ability to be successful is limited with the resources they don’t currently have, or limited by the resources they don’t currently have.”

So, the word she stopped herself from saying is afraid. So, now when I hear her cut that word off, talking about intelligence, I can now be reasonably confident that she is afraid, that she doesn’t want me to know that she’s afraid, that she is now using how her team feels in this situation as a way to likely save face and communicate how she feels in this situation, and she’s going through an impression management exercise, which tells me that my presence in this conversation is generating some stress for her based on some potential consequences that could be real and perceived.

So, I can gather all of that intelligence just by catching somebody replace a word or stop a word midstream, change the word, and keep talking. There are other examples, I’d be happy to give you different things I listen for as well, but, for me, that is, from a verbal communication standpoint, often the single biggest thing that gives me the most intelligence right away.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, that’s lovely. I’ve never thought to pay a lot of attention to that, and now I do. So, transformation accomplished. Thank you, Michael.

Michael Reddington
You’re welcome.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, lay some more on us. What else are you looking for?

Michael Reddington
From a general standpoint, I’m looking for changes in their speed of delivery, how loud or soft they talk, any pauses. Does the pause fit the question? That’s another big one. I’m not so worried about if somebody has a long pause or a short pause. I care, “Does the pause fit the question?” If I ask somebody a question they really should have to think about and they give me a quick answer, they either prepared in advance, they’re blowing me off, or they don’t have the answer.

If, on the other hand, I ask somebody a question that they should have a really quick answer to, and, instead, they take a long time to think about it, “Well, why are they taking so long to think about this answer when it’s something that they should have off the top of their head?” So, it’s not so much “Is it a short pause or a long pause?” It’s, “Does the pause fit the question?”

And the same thing is true with tone of voice. Does the tone match the message? If somebody is portraying a confident message but it has a questioning tone, they’re probably not as confident as they’re portraying. So, I’m sure there are international listeners to this program, so what I’m about to say is going to be geared a little bit towards American English.

If I hear a question mark where a period should be at the end of a sentence, instead of saying, “Yes, I can do it,” it’s, “Yeah, I can do it?” they have that spike at the end of that question mark, I would never go as far as to say they’re lying. I would go as far as to say one of two other alternatives or more likely. One, they’re not as confident as they’re trying to portray that they can do it, or, two, they’re testing us to see if we believe that they can do it. So, that would be another one I listen for there.

Pronoun usage is another big one. Often, if people are trying to distance themselves from responsibility, the pronouns will change in their statements. So, if I get a lot of us-es and we’s in the beginning, and then a lot of them and they’s when the unfortunate part of the situation happened, that could be an indication that they’re distancing themselves. The reverse could be true as well. They could start with a lot of they’s and them’s and then later on, start slipping in some we’s and us-es, which could be an indication that they’re more involved than they were letting on.

Same thing is true with tense changes. If the tense changes in somebody’s story, past tense, present tense, if they go back and forth, that can be an indication. Really, as I pick up on these things and more, what I’m consistently listening for is something that you mentioned earlier, which is the opportunity to help somebody save face. And when Joe talked about not trying to catch people lying, there’s little to no benefit in that, really, what we should be listening to is “How or why is somebody trying to help themselves save face?” and then how do we go about that.

So, literally, earlier today, I was part of a conversation where one of my clients is working on a negotiation where we know for a fact that they’ve been lied to. And the message that I received today was, first, we need them to tell us the truth. And the conversation after that was, actually, we don’t. What we need to do is find an opportunity to allow them to save face and continue the conversation so we get the outcome we’re looking for. If we prioritize, essentially, getting them to confess to previously lying to us, and we don’t have a good way to help them save face with the process, we run the risk of torpedoing what we’re trying to achieve with this partnership.

So, instead of being focused on righting this moral wrong – we’ve been lied to – let’s just accept that we know that it’s happened. It’s unfortunate, we wished we didn’t. It doesn’t say a lot about the other side. But what’s the intelligence within that lie and how do we now help them save face moving forward to get what we want? So, those face-saving opportunities are really what we’re often observing for.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now, when we are doing the influential communication, any key tips you’d recommend there?

Michael Reddington
For sure, and it all lies in with the concept of helping people save face. We should be going out of our way, literally, regardless of a specific technique, if we start by just thinking, “At the end of this conversation, I don’t want…” well, I’ll just say Pete for our purposes of this, “I don’t want Pete to feel embarrassed or judged. If I just start there, I’ll be in great shape. I don’t want you to feel embarrassed or judged.”

So, we like to say illustrate before you investigate. So, what I want to do is I want to show some illustration of my understanding of your situation, which often, and quite surprisingly, will give people an excuse to answer the question and save face. So, a common example, especially in the workplace, is somebody committed to getting something done and they’re not going to have it done on time.

Well, if I was to approach you, and say, “Pete, where are you on this? Are you going to have it done on time?” you have two choices. One, you can lie to me and say, “Yes,” to save face and hope for the best. Or, two, you can come up with some excuse as to why it’s not done yet, as you try to save face and maybe get some extra help. So, I’m literally going to start there. Instead of just coming up and saying, “Hey, Pete, where are you on this project? Are you going to be done by Friday?”

Now, I want to approach you and say, “Hey, Pete, how’s it going? I know we’ve had a lot of things added to our plate that we didn’t plan on, trying to help the marketing team, the customer change their expectations, even our family has been crazy. We’ve tried to balance remote work and coming into the office. So, with all of these things that we’ve been dealing with, considering how important this project is, Pete, let me ask you. If I had to reallocate resources in order to help make sure this gets done on time, what would be the most valuable thing I could do for you to make sure this project gets done on time by Friday?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, you’re right. I’ve got so many openings there, and if it’s really, really under control, it’s like, “Yeah, I don’t really need anything but I really appreciate you asking.” It’s like, “Okay, we can feel very confident that that’s pretty darn truthful because you gave me every opening.”

Michael Reddington
A hundred percent. And you’re not offended by it, so you’re like, “No, man, appreciate it. I’m good.” But if you really do need help, now there are any number of ways to save face, “Thank you for asking. If this help was available, or that help was available.” And, now, if any listeners are thinking, “Well, what if I don’t want to give him help?” You’re not obligated to at this point. But we’ve given him an excuse to talk about where he is.

Now, if in this situation, you and I can have a conversation, figure out how far behind you are, if there’s a way that you can get it back on track yourself – great. If not, well, depending on how important this project is, I might be reallocating some assets and changing some schedules to make sure it gets done on time. So, that would be another example of really focusing on the goal, successful completion of the project, when I think about asking the question.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Anything else in terms of questions you love asking or any phrases, scripts, verbiage, that’s just so helpful again and again?

Michael Reddington
Yeah, I’ll give you a couple. My favorite way to phrase a question is, “Please walk me through.” When we say to somebody “Please walk me through,” I’m suggesting that my expectation is both chronological order and detail. So, generally, that makes it easier for me to determine when a story is either out of chronological order and/or missing detail. Because of the way that I suggested the question is answered, it makes it easier for me to figure out where potential opportunities for follow-up are within the story.

Along the same lines, please don’t ever ask somebody, “Can you remember?” or “Do you recall?” We can’t prove it that they know that, so they’re going to give us the yes or no, whichever is face-saving for them, and we could get stuck cold in the bag if it’s not true later on, so it’s not a perfect replacement. But I like to replace that with “Please take me back to…” At least, now I’m forcing their brain to kick off a little bit. It’s given me more of a behavioral read as they think of their answer. They might still say, “I can’t remember,” but at least I’ve given myself a fighting chance.

And then, for me, if I am giving an illustration and I’m trying to learn information from somebody, and I’m trying to help them feel more comfortable sharing additional information with me, the closest thing I have to a silver bullet is the phrase “Please correct me where I’m wrong,” which is significantly different from “Please correct me if I’m wrong.”

If I was to say, “Please correct me if I’m wrong,” that comes across arrogant, assumptive, and you probably just checked out. But especially if I’m talking to somebody who, emotionally, morally, based on position or rank or expertise, feels like they’re superior to me in a conversation, there’s a reasonable chance that they would love an opportunity to correct me.

So, if I preface an illustration by saying, “Pete, I’d like to take a second just to make sure that I’m tracking in the right direction, so please correct me where I go wrong. I’d appreciate that.” Now, I almost certainly have a higher level of your attention because I’ve asked you to do the one thing you want to do, so you’re probably more focused.

Now, as I go through my illustration, when I’m done, I’m literally going to stop, and now I‘m going to give you the opportunity to respond. If my observation is on track, you’re more likely going to…more than likely to say either, “You’re right,” or, “You’re not wrong.” In either situation, I have just increased the perception of my credibility, level-set this conversation, and now earn the opportunity to continue asking questions, which I might not need to because you may be so inspired by hearing that illustration and affirming that I’m correct, that you start filling in the blanks.

That also works when we miss. Now, I would never coach somebody to miss intentionally. Any time we risk coming across inauthentic or lying or insincere, there’s ripple effects there we don’t even want to deal with. But if I give this a legitimate shot and I just missed, and instead of saying “You’re right,” you come back with, “Close.” My job is to be patient because I’m willing to bet, after you say, “Close,” you are going to explain to me what I missed because I asked you to correct me.

So, in your explanation of what I missed, or how I didn’t quite get it, or what I don’t know or wasn’t thinking, I am now gathering a significant amount of intelligence without ever having to ask for it. So, I don’t risk creating question fatigue because I’m asking too many questions, and you’re happier to share the information with me because you feel like it was your idea, and it wasn’t forced upon you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Beautiful. Thank you. Well, now let’s hear about a few of your favorite things. Could you start us off with a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Michael Reddington
My favorite quote, actually, I believe ties into a lot of what we talked about today. It’s an old Sun Tzu quote, other people probably use it as well. I believe it goes, “Submitting the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” That’s the quote, “Submitting the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” And not that in any way I’m suggesting everybody we talk to is our enemy, but I am certainly suggesting that getting through conversations without creating unnecessary conflict is, metaphorically, the acme of skill.

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

Michael Reddington
I’ll quote three, and it comes down to first impressions, and it really level-sets how I interact with people So, there were three studies from three independent universities, I’m assuming I’m going to get them correct. The first one came out of Princeton, was that we are capable of judging somebody’s intellect, character, and trustworthiness, if I have that correct, within 100 milliseconds after looking at their face.

A similar study out of the University of Glasgow showed that we’re capable of determining the same factors within 500 milliseconds of hearing somebody say the word hello. The third study came out of the University of Colorado, where they found that we’re capable of categorizing somebody, essentially fitting them within one of our previously conceived mental models, as fast as 100-150 milliseconds. So, really keeping in mind that we’re judging people that fast, and we need to be careful, but also that people are judging us that fast. And the literal instant of introduction is so important to set the tone for our conversations.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Now, when you say we’re capable of, I imagine, is it fair to say, it doesn’t mean we’re capable of doing it well or correctly, it’s just that we can make snap judgments and they may or may not be correct?

Michael Reddington
Roger that, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Michael Reddington
I would start by saying I highly recommend people read every word Robert Cialdini ever wrote.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. We’ve had him on the show. He’s amazing.

Michael Reddington
Yes. So, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Pre-Suasion, anything that he wrote. I’m a fan of Malcolm Gladwell, and I’m not breaking any new ground there. For me, the best leadership book I’ve ever read, and it’s hands down, no competition, is a book called Care to Dare by George Kohlrieser, so I’ll throw that one on the list as well. I think that’s probably a pretty good list to start. I also like the Freakonomics crab. I’m forgetting their…both the authors are named Steve, but Think Like a Freak and those books. I’m a huge fan of those books as well.

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

Michael Reddington
Patience. Give other people the space they need to talk. The more they talk, the more they learn. The more they talk, the more they feel respected, the more they feel that we care about them, the more they feel that we’re invested in them. I know, especially with leaders in a time-compressed world, patience is a four-letter word, but I honestly believe if I had to rank conversational tools that lead to success, if I understand your question correctly, patience is right at the top of the list.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a key nugget you share that really connects and resonates with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Michael Reddington
That time is the enemy of empathy comes back to me a lot. I’ll give you two more. People react the strongest to what they observe first. Go back to those statistics about how quickly we’re judging people. We tend to carry expectations into every interaction. We tend to commit the level of energy and a focus that we believe is appropriate based on the expectations we carry in. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, people react the strongest to what they observe first. Whatever we say or do first, how that either lines up or violates their expectation, often kicks off their initial reaction process. And with that people will perceive how we communicate with them as proof of how much we respect them.

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

Michael Reddington
Appreciate you asking. They can learn more about the book at DisciplinedListening.com. they can learn more about what we do at InQuasive at InQuasive.com. And if they want to learn more about me, the two best places to look would be MichaelReddington.com or on LinkedIn at Michael Reddington, CFI.

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

Michael Reddington
Go into as many conversations as you can and allow yourself to be surprised. Go into every conversation, thinking to yourself, “How can this person surprise me?” Our brains are wired to look for information that confirms what we already think and believe, we’re wired to disregard information that conflicts with what we already think and believe.

So, if we can go into our important conversations, and think, “Okay, let’s see how Pete surprises me today,” and not from a point of arrogance, “Let’s see if Pete can surprise me today,” but from like a literal point of curiosity, “Let’s see how Pete surprises me today.” We’ll be surprised, we’ll be able to learn, and then how we’ll be able to use what we learn to impact our relationships.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Michael, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you the best and many great conversations.

Michael Reddington
I appreciate the time, sir. Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it as well.

776: How to Pushback Effectively and Stand Up For What You Want with Selena Rezvani

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Selena Rezvani reveals why self-advocacy is critical for success–and how to do it effectively.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to turn a “vague no” into something you can use 
  2. The LARA framework for when you’re faced with a no
  3. How to know when it’s time to stop pushing 

About Selena

Selena Rezvani’s mission is to help professionals stand up for themselves at work and advocate for their needs. She’s the author of 2 leadership books, the bestseller Pushback and The Next Generation of Women Leaders. 

Selena addresses thousands of professionals each year and has been featured in TEDx, Oprah.com, Inc., Todayshow.com, and NPR. Today she’s a columnist for NBC News Know Your Value. Selena is based in Philadelphia where she lives with her husband Geoff and 9 year old boy-girl twins.  

Resources Mentioned

Selena Rezvani Interview Transcript

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

Selena Rezvani
Thank you so much, Pete. I love this podcast.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Well, I’m excited to get into your wisdom and I also want to hear about your experience. Recently, you’ve become an enthusiast for weightlifting, as am I. What’s your story here?

Selena Rezvani
Yes, I’m a runner and I dealt with some runner’s knee that made it difficult to do that at the same rate I had been doing it, and so I was really bummed. And then the world of weightlifting opened up, and I kind of created my own home pandemic gym.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, great.

Selena Rezvani
And it’s been so cool and, like, really empowering, may I add.

Pete Mockaitis
You may, indeed. I feel the same way. What is it you love most about it?

Selena Rezvani
Well, I think it’s being able to watch yourself getting stronger and see some proof of that, you know, with bigger weights and bigger barbells and dumbbells and stuff, and doing things you didn’t think you could. It’s kind of nice to prove yourself wrong. How about you?

Pete Mockaitis
I feel the same way. And what I really like is I’m a believer in the notion of doing your best, but what’s funny, in my brain, I get all wrapped up in opportunity costs, “Well, my best, conceivably, I could spend 20 hours doing this thing to be my best.” But in the gym, it’s just very clear, it’s like, “It would be impossible for me to do a single additional repetition at this weight, and that is my best. That is just indisputable.” And then to watch that indisputable best go up and up and up, it’s like, “Huh, I have incontrovertible evidence that I am stronger now than I was one week ago, and that feels good.”

Selena Rezvani
Yes, that’s right. In a world where there’s not always a lot of concrete progress, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Totally. Absolutely. And it just feels good in terms of energy boost for the day and it just comes in handy, and I’m 38 years old now and, in not too many years, muscle begins going away from me, which will be a sad day but better to be ahead of the curve such that you’re able to rock and roll when you’re 90, hopefully.

Selena Rezvani
I think so. I think it keeps you young. I really do in a different way than other exercise.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now I want to talk about some of the wisdom in your book Pushback: How Smart Women Ask–and Stand Up–for What They Want. Now, our listeners are mostly women but I am presuming, Selena, that these insights are, many of them, applicable to men as well. Is that fair to say?

Selena Rezvani
Yeah, it is actually, and to introverted folks, no matter how they identify their gender. Some of the same characteristics actually come up with folks who might struggle to speak up and speak their mind. So, I think very universal tactics here.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, could you kick us off with a particularly surprising discovery you’ve made as you were researching and putting this together?

Selena Rezvani
Yeah, one of them came from my professor, actually kind of nudging me and giving me the kick and the push I needed to be a better advocate. And when I was in business school, I had this exciting opportunity to lead some research and choose what the topic of the research was and direct it, and you’d have to write a proposal, and I knew just what I wanted to do. I wanted to interview women about how they had negotiated their success, C-level women.

There’s only one problem, Pete, which is I didn’t know a single one, had zero connections to connections to them either, and my one female professor in my MBA program said, Lindsey Thomson is her name, she said, “Selena, I will approve your request to go interview women execs on one condition.” She said, “You have to go after the whales.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Selena Rezvani
“You have to go after the women you think won’t even entertain an email from you, let alone an hour of their time.” And, thank goodness, she did that because so many of those women said yes, and those interviews changed my life, how I see leadership, and I knew this could help other people. So, it became a book, a business, a mission.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, even before we get into the particulars of the book, I want to know what are your pro tips for getting powerful, busy, influential people to say yes to you and take the time?

Selena Rezvani
That’s such a good question and one I haven’t thought about in a little while. I would say operate on a no-surprise basis, like, this is a group that doesn’t want to be surprised. They want to know, “Why me? Why this topic? And, like, why you?” Selena, the interviewer, in this case. And so, I think I needed to make that clear in my email pitch. It was an email pitch.

It wasn’t calling them on the phone or harassing but just a really open out-on-the-table, “Here’s why I think you’d be excellent. Here’s why I think this topic really overlaps and aligns with what you’re about. And here’s where I’m coming from and what I hope to do with it.” And so many of them either right away said yes, or those that had 57 questions tended not to, and I think that’s an interesting datapoint. It either hit and resonated or just it didn’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that makes sense in terms of if a person has 57 follow-up questions, they’re not completely uninterested or else they would just sort of say no or ignore you, but they’re not fired up in terms of, “Oh, yeah, I’m so in. This is inspiring.” Like, “Well, this may be worth my time. What’s your projected reach and dah, dah, dah?”

Selena Rezvani
Exactly. And you have to remember, at that level, individuals have a lot of handlers and people weighing in, and communication departments, PR departments vetting things like this. Sometimes other departments are involved as well. So, sometimes my interviews had those individuals in the room with us as a kind of support to the executive or making sure they didn’t say the wrong thing. So, I think some of the questions may have been coming from the teams that’s surrounding these execs.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. All right. Well, so onto the meat of things. What’s the big idea behind Pushback?

Selena Rezvani
Well, the big idea is that there are some gender differences that are really important when it comes to negotiating for what we want and for what we need. Women tend to report more apprehension asking for what they need, and yet they are excellent advocates, very effective advocates for others, saying, “This person deserves recognition,” or, “This person really ought to be promoted and advanced in the organization.”

And one more datapoint that really screamed out at me, women are less likely to negotiate when conditions are ambiguous. And if that doesn’t describe the workplace, I don’t know what does. It can be a very ambiguous place, a lot of gray area, and I wanted to do something about that. And so, that really led me to seek out 20 C-level women executives to understand, “How did you negotiate success at work?” And the culmination of those interviews, those best tips, those hardest-won lessons, is really what Pushback is all about.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, please lay it on us, what are some of the highest impact tips in terms of, there’s a lot of ways we could frame this, but I’ll say if I could be choosy, those that take relatively little effort and provide a huge return on that effort, and are relatively rarely practiced?

Selena Rezvani
Yeah. Well, there’s one that stands out to me. Something lots of professionals have brought up is, “I got a vague no. I mustered up the courage to pitch or propose or ask for something, and I got this vague dismissal of a no.” And one of the pieces of feedback I have for people is to really insist on objective criteria.

That may require you to peel the onion back. But a quick example of this comes from one of the women I interviewed, DeeDee Wilson, a CFO at Nike, and she said, “I was told, at one point in my career, ‘DeeDee, you’re just not CFO material.’” And she said, “You know, not only was that crushing psychologically but it’s like the least actionable input ever.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. And I’m also thinking fixed mindset much? Come on now.

Selena Rezvani
Right. This has been decided by the heavens, it seems like. And her advice was, first of all, she got to CFO, she got there. And her advice was, “Insist on that objective criteria, aka, a real reason.” She said, “In my case, I asked, ‘Is it my financial acumen? Is it my visibility in the organization? Is it my people management skills? What exactly do I need to improve to be eligible?’”

And guess what? She got some of those answers, and she project-managed her way to that promotion, really taking her manager by the hand, not waiting for somebody else to, like, anoint her. And I thought it was really helpful advice when you’re dealing with that ambiguous no.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, boy, that really resonates and there are so many different flavors of a vague no, like, “Oh, maybe next quarter or so when we have a little bit more budget.” Okay, like that’s unclear timeline, unclear how much budget.

Selena Rezvani
Yes. Or, one of my favorites is also, like, “Well, I’m supportive of you, Pete, getting the raise. It’s just the backdrop right now or my higher-ups may not be.” This kind of like little bit breadcrumb support that’s thrown to you, and yet it’s not the same as someone giving you the greenlight or advocating for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, absolutely. And so, then in those situations, and that scenario, for example, is it to ask very specifically, “Which higher-ups and what are their concerns?” Or how would you play that?

Selena Rezvani
Yeah, I would and I’d even go so far as to ask something like, “Would you be comfortable with me talking directly with Ted or Susan?” Maybe that’s a skip-level person, but sometimes the person is burdened who you’re asking, and they are supportive of your ask but it would be a relief for you to handle it directly with HR or with that skip-level manager, so I would absolutely do that.

I’d be persistent, “I hear you telling me it’s not a good time right now. I’m going to put time on our calendar four weeks from today, so please expect that invite in your inbox.” Unfortunately, you can’t always operate from a place of trust, like, “I’ll trust you to take care of me. I’ll trust you to remember.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And not distrust as in that they’re all snakes and liars out to get you, but rather that you can fall by the wayside in the cacophony of competing priorities that are out there.

Selena Rezvani
That’s right. Right. And maybe an even better frame is ownership, to think about it as an ownership, that in a perfect world, you’re co-owning your development and advancement with your boss or your organization. You and your organization co-own that. In this case, you need to operate much like you fully own it and that you’re going to move the ball up the field. You’re going to advance it, because what’s the old saying, “Managers have short memories.” They have so much going on that we can’t always assume they’re thinking about our development and where we need to go next.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Well, we zoomed out a little bit. Could you share just a few of the key principles that we should bear in mind when it comes to self-advocacy? Any kind of top do’s and don’ts that make all the difference?

Selena Rezvani
Yeah, one of them that I really like that could be counterintuitive to folks is to bring options to the table. So, if, for example, you’re not feeling the love with your project assignments. You’re doing a lot of the same and you’re not really growing. When you go to that one-to-one to talk to your manager, don’t just bring one preferred outcome, like, “Hey, I’d really like to come off project Déjà vu.” Maybe that’s your first choice and you can bring that up. But in your back pocket, you want to have some other options that allow you to extend the conversation and elongate the dialogue that’s going to serve you.

So, in your back pocket, you might have a second option, like, “Hey, next time, Dan, a director I admire, has an opening on his team, I’d really like to be considered.” And maybe you have yet a third option, “Hey, I’m very interested in getting exposure to XYZ client of ours. Is that something that we could look at together, me getting involved with that client?”

Why do I say this? Well, we all know some yeses are easier to grant than others but we’ll never know unless we ask and we present some different options. Sometimes there’s money in the professional development budget, not the salary budget right now. And so, you get to learn about some of that when you bring options to the table.

And a lot of people shy away from it because they think it’ll make them look entitled or like, “I’m asking for the world.” But it’s really not that way. If anything, it gives you maneuverability to say, “I hear you telling me no, Pete, on coming off project Déjà vu. Would you consider? What do you think about?” And that can be very powerful. It signals your self-confidence.

Pete Mockaitis
And that you’re flexible, you’re reasonable, you’re willing to work with them, as opposed to just adamant, “My way or the highway. This is my thing and I’m not backing down no matter what.” Cool. And then when we think about sort of the emotional dimension of this, I think that’s huge in terms of, “Oh, I’m scared. I don’t want to look demanding,” or any number of undesirable things. Are there any sort of mindsets or mantras or ways you recommend folks deal with that internal mental game?

Selena Rezvani
Yes, and I struggled with this myself for so long. I grew up in a household where I was taught to defer to authorities, to authority figures, to take just enough, don’t be greedy, be humble, don’t be too bold and brash in what you ask for. So, there’s a lot of undoing, and maybe some of the people listening can relate to that. That can be stuff you bring with you as an adult into the workplace.

And so, one of the things I would encourage you to do is stoke a sense of belonging in that conversation. I tell myself, as a mantra, “I four-hundred percent belong in this job interview,” in this podcast conversation, in this negotiation, in this high-stakes board meeting. Fill in the blank. But, oftentimes, when we tell ourselves, “Ugh, I don’t belong. I’m this foreign visitor coming to this place. I don’t think I should be here.” It creates all kinds of uncertainty.

And, oftentimes, when we get resistance in a situation like that, we can kind of slink away at the first sign of no. And so, it is so important to stoke that sense that, “I belong. In fact, I four-hundred percent belong.”

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. And that’s a good mantra. And I find in my own experience, I really do well when…I’m thinking about sort of, in my entrepreneurial journey, like pricing, it’s like, “Ooh, I don’t know if I should really ask for that big number. That seems outrageous.” But then once I really do the research, like, “Oh, okay. If I take a look at the cost per learning hour benchmarks associated with dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, well, shucks, like this is a bargain.”

And so, I have some evidence that’s like, “It’s not just my opinion that this is a good deal or a worthwhile price but, in fact, relative to the alternative options, this is absolutely a smart investment that folks should be making.”

Selena Rezvani
Right. Absolutely. And you are smartly kind of stopping to do research and not looking for all the validation in your pitch or your proposal externally from other people, but you yourself are validating your own pitch, and that matters. That makes us sit up a little straighter. It makes us speak with more conviction when we’re asking for something. It empowers us to go a few more rounds in the conversation. So, I tell people, like, “The power phase is not when you’re in the room. It’s the getting ready. It’s the research. It’s the preparation,” like you did.

Pete Mockaitis
And I also want to get your take on particular words, phrases, magical sentences, scripts, that just really come in handy in a lot of circumstances, whether it’s the key questions. Or, what are some of your faves?

Selena Rezvani
Yes. So, one of them comes from Stanford, and it’s called LARA. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, L-A-R-A, but it’s a simple doable thing. So, let’s say you’re getting some resistance in one of these conversations. You just made an amazing proposal, let’s say, for a new role that doesn’t exist but could add lots of value, and someone’s kind of, “Ahh, I don’t know. I don’t think we could do that.” The L stands for listen, so listening.

Pete Mockaitis
“I’m hearing you say you’re not sure if we can.”

Selena Rezvani
Yeah. And even maybe quieter than that, in the sense that I have nine-year-old twins, and one of the things they teach them is whole-body listening, like really making somebody feel heard with your whole body generously listening. Your torso, your eyes, everything is focused on that person. The next one, affirm. A is for affirm. And that might be what you just said. It might be mirroring back what you heard or it might be validating a concern, “I hear you telling me this is really shockingly new and different. And I hear you on that.”

R is for respond, “But I want to tell you that this role is actually not so new and different. In fact, it’s a lot like a role that exists in the next division over that’s been really successful.” And then the A is for ask questions. So, you might end something like that by saying, “You know, what would need to be true for you to get behind this role? Or, what else would you like to know about that role I referenced over there, the best practice kind of role? What could I share with you? Or, what would be helpful for you to know about that position?” So, I love that framework. I think it comes from a place of empathy and wanting to take other’s perspectives, and that’s what important conversations are all about.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. Any other key phrases?

Selena Rezvani
It’s a framework, if you will, rather than a phrase but I really love it as well and, again, it starts with empathy. But before you go in that room and you ask for something, as you’re doing preparation, think about your audience, it could be an audience of one or a team, think about their GPS, which stands for their goals, passions, and struggles.

And if you can integrate even if only in a small way something about how this new role you’re proposing will further the goals of your manager or this team or division, or how it’s going to push us and advance us further towards a passion, that’s the P, a really deeply held interest, a meaningful interest or passion that people care about. Or, how is it going to alleviate a struggle? And that’s the S. How is what you’re asking for going to somehow make a pain point less burdensome?

This is actually how one woman I interviewed got more responsibility. Her boss would complain to her in kind of a good-natured way about some of the projections he had to come up with for executives, and she said, “Hey, look, I know this is a burden on your time and yet it’s also a goal you’re on the hook for. What if I assume these projections?” Think about how yes-able she made her request when she framed it that way. So, I think GPS – goals, passions, struggles – can be just be an awesome lens to look through before you present information, ask for something, make a bold new proposal.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And as you’re being persistent and advocating, how do you know when it’s time to stop?

Selena Rezvani
That’s a funny one because it can be so individual. But, honestly, from some of the executives I interviewed, there was a magic number that kind of emerged of three.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. We like magic numbers.

Selena Rezvani
Yeah? If I try it three different ways and I have asked for feedback, I have really tried to make the value of this idea shine through, and I’m still getting a stonewall, it’s time for me to either get on board or shift focus. And so, I think there’s something to be said, especially in corporate environments. Might be different if you’re an entrepreneur. But, particularly for professionals, I think that’s a good compass.

Pete Mockaitis
I appreciate that because I’m sure there’s some variability and yet it’s comforting to have a clear figure. And that sounds about right to me on both sides in terms of if I’m going at it four, five, six times, or I’m hearing it a fourth, fifth, sixth time, it’s like, “Okay, this is just annoying now.”

Selena Rezvani
Right. That’s right. Like, you have to learn to move on.

Pete Mockaitis
“I feel like you’re not even listening to me, so I don’t know what else to say to you about this matter.” Thank you. Well, tell us then, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Selena Rezvani
Yeah, I think there’s a really important one to mention, which is when you do tap your network, and I think it’s really important that you do as part of your preparation to get smart and to do your research, particularly around compensation, this is some un-advice. We all love some don’t do’s. And that un-advice is don’t just talk to your friends.

There is some really interesting research done on physicians, and it showed women are more likely to talk to their friends when asking for compensation data or trying to get a ballpark or a benchmark of where they belong. Men are more likely to seek people out as reference points who are very much related to the role. So, while women are more swayed by rapport, men are going after people who closely aligned with the role.

And I think it’s so important, even though it can be awkward and uncomfortable to have money conversations, to really consult that broader network of individuals, not just people who look like you, or are like you in some ways. We already know you get some of the best opportunities from those weaker ties in your network, not your inner tight little circle. And so, I can’t urge people enough.

I made this mistake myself as a young management consultant at a big firm. I psyched myself up to go ask for a raise and a promotion and I consulted two people a little further along at my firm than me, and I was really proud of myself for doing that because it was scary but they were my two best girlfriends, and it’s like, “Who else should I talk to?” Men. Maybe even some people outside the firm.

And so, I hope people will learn from that mistake to think broadly. You want accurate good data. Take those calls from recruiters. That can also round out the picture of where you should be money-wise. Just by taking those calls and hearing, “Well, here’s I place you,” can be really helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
That certainly is handy as they’re talking to a lot of employers and a lot of employees, so they’ve got their finger on the pulse there. I’m just sort of putting myself in the situation where I’m reaching out to somebody I don’t know that well, and I want benchmark information about their compensation. How on earth does one articulate that request? “Basically, how much money are you making?”

Selena Rezvani
Right. Right. Slipped in between two other questions. No. I think being upfront and honest works for people and giving an out is really powerful, “Hey, Pete, I’m excited to be looking at new roles, and I wondered if you’d be open to talking to me about compensation and your experience with X. If you can’t for any reason, that’s totally okay.” And just allowing people that so it’s just extra not awkward to say, “You know, I can’t,” or, “I’m too busy,” or, “I’m happy to.”

And one other tip with that to make it a little less awkward is if you can bring like a gift. Maybe it feels like you’re asking in this case, but is there something helpful that’s related to the conversation? Maybe there’s a salary study in your industry, and you’ve just equipped yourself with that. Offer to give it to them or share a helpful resource.

Pete Mockaitis
That is handy. I’m thinking about getting first, it’s like, “Hey, I’ve collected a few datapoints and I don’t know if they’re perfectly applicable. I see X, Y, Z, A, B, C,” and then they might feel more comfortable commenting on those, like, “Huh, those seem a little low to me.” Or, if you’re talking about compensation, they might not tell you directly their package but, “Hey, when I was interviewing for different director roles, I tend to be offered between X and Y, but, ultimately, I prioritized this other benefit or piece of the package, and so I was willing to settle for a little bit less provided that they dealt with that.” So, that way they haven’t told you precisely “$268,000, Selena, is my total all-in compensation,” but rather, “Okay, somewhere in this ballpark,” and it’s not as personal, and that’s handy. Thank you.

Selena Rezvani
I love that. I love your suggestion. And some people don’t even ask the outright question. I’ve heard some people say things like, “How did you go about negotiating the budget for your lab?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, that’s a very different question.

Selena Rezvani
Like, “How did you approach it?” And so, that’s also another kind of slightly different angle.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now can we hear a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Selena Rezvani
There’s a great quote I love and it makes me, like, tingle every time I read it or see it. And it’s, “Happiness is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Selena Rezvani
So, one of my favorite studies is The White Lab Coat Study out of Northwestern. And it says so much about mindset. And what, essentially, happened was people were asked to wear white lab coats, something that we generally associate with care and attentiveness and doctors and scientists. And what was fascinating is people who were not scientists or doctors, when they wore these white lab coats, tended to exhibit more of those traits, those qualities.

And, to me, that is fascinating and applies to all kinds of ways that we carry ourselves into important conversations. And this idea that we can ascribe meaning to the way we present, whether it’s our clothing or something else, and we can use it to our advantage.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. We’ve had guests talk about psychological Halloweenism and enclothed cognition were some of the phrases associated with this, and I love it. Sometimes I deliberately put on my blazer before a podcast interview just so that I’d be a little bit more professional and attentive to the matter at hand, as opposed to just chit chatting about whatever.

Selena Rezvani
Yes. Yes. For you it’s a blazer, for me it’s color. Like, there’s something about just really bright colors that makes me feel bolder, more optimistic than something else. So, I love that it’s different for you and me, and probably for people listening, too.

Pete Mockaitis
I will occasionally take out my high school homecoming king crown when I need a boost or I feel sad.

Selena Rezvani
I love that.

Pete Mockaitis
“People still like me.”

Selena Rezvani
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
“I have a crown to prove it.”

Selena Rezvani
I love it. You should do your whole podcast in that.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s getting so beat up because it’s so old now. And, tell us, is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they highlight it in the book, or they quote it back to you often, or re-tweet it?

Selena Rezvani
It’s this idea that don’t give the other person all the power. I tell people, “If you put someone up on a pedestal, don’t be surprised if they start to look down on you.” And sometimes, when we’re negotiating with an authority figure, we put ourselves way down here and we put them up here, and I caution against that. If anything, approach it peer to peer, like, “It’s you and I versus the problem in front of us. You and I simply having a conversation that’s going to end in agreement.” But not the hierarchy. You don’t need to bring that in.

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

Selena Rezvani
Come see me at SelenaRezvani.com. You’ll see a contact form there and on all your socials. I love sharing career advice, so you’ll find me on TikTok and Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook.

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

Selena Rezvani
I would say don’t wait for the conditions to be perfect. They rarely are. So, whether you’re trying to negotiate a better return to office setup, or taking your vacation and totally unplugging and not getting calls from the office, or asking for a job title that actually reflects your job duties, now is a great time to ask for that. Don’t think to yourself, “Oh, because it’s a time of change or flux, I better not.”

No. Actually, “Times have changed” are some of the most lush productive moments to ask for what you need because things aren’t written in stone. So, be emboldened to make those changes right now even if things are a little bit up in the air in your company. It really relies on you being your own vocal champion.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Selena, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck in all the ways you push back.

Selena Rezvani
Thank you, Pete. You are awesome. And thanks for all that you’re doing to help people really thrive at work.

769: How to Command the Room, Connect with Your Audience, and Close the Deal with Laura Sicola

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Laura Sicola breaks down the communication tools and techniques for building a strong presence and delivering maximum impact.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How you’re introducing yourself wrong—and how to do it better
  2. The magic words to capture your audience’s attention
  3. What it really takes to persuade your audience

About Laura

Dr. Laura Sicola is a leadership communication and influence expert, speaker, podcast host, and author of Speaking to Influence: Mastering Your Leadership Voice. Laura’s TEDx talk, “Want to Sound Like a Leader? Start by Saying Your Name Right,” has over 6.6 million views. As founder of Vocal Impact Productions, her mission is to help leaders master the Three Cs of Vocal Executive Presence so they can COMMAND the room, CONNECT with the audience, and CLOSE the deal. 

Resources Mentioned

Laura Sicola Interview Transcript

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

Laura Sicola
Hi, Pete. Thanks so much for having me on the show.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to get into your wisdom, and I love your TEDx Talk is called “Want to sound like a leader? Start by saying your name right,” so I just got to start right here. Are we saying our names wrong? What’s going on here? And how do we say it right?

Laura Sicola
The funny thing is that most people, how often are we frustrated because, number one, we say our name and then people keep us asking to repeat it, or they just keep saying it wrong where we feel like nobody seems to get it right, or we listen to the way other people introduce themselves to us and it goes in one ear and out the other, and then we feel stupid because we don’t really remember what their name was and we’re trying to figure out how to address them without saying, “It’s you, right. Yeah, you over there”?

So, the challenge is that the way that we usually say it, it’s an issue of speed, of rhythm, and of pitch, and that’s like the big trifecta. And when we do those in the way that most people do them, it’s too fast, it’s all in one slur, one giant blur of sound, and we tend to ask it like a question, which is just weird. So, most people, if you’re going a round robin or doing little networking events or whatever it is, people will say things like, “Hi, I’m Laura Sicola, blah, blah, blah,” and people, by the time you…

Pete Mockaitis
And you said, “Hi, I’m Laura Sicola.”

Laura Sicola
Right. Exactly. And then you go from there into your company and into whatever else. And by the time people even realized that you spoke, they already missed it. It was just way too fast. So, what we want to do is, number one, slow it down because, even if your name is something like Bob Jones, it may be simple but it’s not predictable so you got to get people’s brains a chance to catch up with their ears, number one. So, we want to slow it down to a pace that may actually feel awkwardly slow, uncomfortably slow to you to say because you’ve said it like a gazillion times. They’ve never heard it.

Pete Mockaitis
I want to pause right there. I think that’s perfect because I catch it even with myself. Maybe listeners have picked up on this after 700 episodes. There are some phrases I’ve said many times, like “Do check out the show notes and transcripts and the links we reference. Drop on by to AwesomeAtYourJob.com/ep.” And so, I have to check myself, it’s like, “Okay, hey, Pete, you’ve said it 700 times but the first-time listeners is like, ‘Wait, where do I go for all that stuff? Wait, what was in there? That’s kind of a lot of stuff.”

Laura Sicola
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s likewise with your name, you said it many times, it’s boring, you don’t have to think, versus we have a natural tendency to slow down when we’re exploring sort of new territory, like, “What novel original sentence am I going to speak now real-time? We don’t know. I’ve got to kind of think about it a little bit versus Pete Mockaitis.” It’s like, “That’s my name. I’ve said that. Yeah, they’re perfect.”

Laura Sicola
Right. Exactly. My five-year-old loves the book “Pete the Cat,” so, as far as I was concerned, that’s what you just said, you introduced yourself as Pete the Cat.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, the shoes, yeah.

Laura Sicola
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
I know that one. Cool. So, speed, slow it down.

Laura Sicola
Slow it down, number one. And, number two, is breaking it up. We tend to blur it altogether as if you’re saying your first name and your last name. It should be clear that there were actually two names articulated, so we need to pause in the middle. And it doesn’t have to be a long break but there just has to be enough…if you were typing, you’re not going put an entire tab or this space, or line breaks in between your name, but there should be a space bar.

Pete Mockaitis
So, not like James Bond?

Laura Sicola
Right. That was a little bit easier because of all the consonants in the middle, but, really, no, actually, it shouldn’t be. James Bond. And he was, “Bond. James Bond.” He really does it slow. That’s a whole different ballgame. If you want to be Roger Moore, or Sean Connery, or somebody, we’ll talk. So, we want to have that little break, “Laura Sicola. Laura Sicola.” Try yours.

Pete Mockaitis
Pete Mockaitis.

Laura Sicola
Yup, and that’s good. So, you did something really important there. You aspirated the T on the end of Pete. You put the “th,” that little pop of air in it. Most people would swallow or do what, I’m a linguist, what we would call not releasing the T, and just say Pete instead of Pete, and then the T kind of slurs in with the M, and it’s like, “Is it Peep, like the Easter Peeps? What’s the last sound there?”

And if it’s a name, Pete is a very common English name, assuming you’re speaking to other English speakers who are comfortable with that name. It may be more intuitive but you never know who does or doesn’t pick up easily what you’re saying. So, we want to make sure that we’re being generous in our articulation and in our clarity so that whoever we’re talking to can easily hear and say, “I got it. Okay, Pete.” So, popping that T was a really great gift that you gave to them, yeah.

And then now your last name is a little bit less common.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true. Lithuanian.

Laura Sicola
So, that one, I would slow it. Lithuanian, you say? Is that what it is?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Laura Sicola
Very cool. So, then I would slow that one down even more because there’s a lot of syllables and there’s a lot of consonants mixed into the syllables that are not predictable or, for most people, intuitive or expected combinations of contrast. So, try that one.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Pete Mockaitis.

Laura Sicola
Mockaitis. So, I’d slow it down even a hair more – Mockaitis.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Laura Sicola
Because it’ll feel weird to you but it won’t sound weird to anybody else.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Pete Mockaitis.

Laura Sicola
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Laura Sicola
And then the last one is the pitch piece. And we tend to go into this up-speak, into this questioning tone at the ends of all of our phrases and sentences, especially when we’re in what I like to call mental-list mode. So, if you’re introducing yourself, people will say, “Hi, I’m Laura Sicola,” question, “and my company is Vocal Impact Productions,” question, “and I’m in Philadelphia and I do executive coaching.” And it’s like, “Nyah, nyah, nyah,” and we just glaze over. When we start hearing that, “I’m just going through rote motions over and over again. I’m not really present to what I’m saying or who I’m talking to or if this really matters.”

So, what we want to do instead is, when we say our first name, assuming we’re going to do both, our first name goes up, which is like saying “And there’s more. I’m not done yet,” and then put that teeny weeny little break in the middle, and then glide down on the last name, like saying, “And now I’m done.” There’s the period at the end of my sentence.

So, instead of asking my name like it’s a question, like, “Hi, I’m Laura Sicola, I think?” we want to go, “I’m Laura Sicola,” up and down. Try it.

Pete Mockaitis
With my name?

Laura Sicola
Yours or mine, whichever makes you happy.

Pete Mockaitis
Laura Sicola.

Laura Sicola
Great. And yours?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Pete Mockaitis.

Laura Sicola
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Maybe a little slower. It’s so funny, Laura, it’s like you’re shaking my world. It’s like, “I think I know how to say my name.” You’re like, “Okay now, you’re almost able to say your name.” It’s like, what is it, the legendary NCAA basketball coach would say, “We’re putting your socks on. Like, that’s what we’re going to work on for the next hour, is putting your socks on because if you do it wrong, you can get a blister and that’ll impact your…” It is like, “Oh, seriously?” Like, “This is a basketball,” like go into the fundamentals, actually, really makes an impact over time. Like, you’re nailing and mastering them so well, it makes an impact.

Laura Sicola
And that’s the hardest thing. My world in leadership communication and influence coaching is so much of it does have to do with the voice and how your message lands with both how you frame it, what you say, and how you say it matter. And, in a way, so many people feel like they never realize what bad vocal habits they’ve just fallen into over the years. They’re totally unaware of it.

And then when they become aware of what those habits are and they can identify them, they can say, “All right, I want this to happen. I want to go from doing this to doing that,” but it’s weird because it’s almost like, “Well, why can’t I make myself do this?”

I did an exercise, and I’ll encourage everybody out there to try this. Listen to the outbound message on your voicemail, the one that you leave for everybody who calls you, the one that says, “Hi, this is Laura Sicola. I’m not available. Leave a message, blah, blah.” Most people use up-speak in leaving that list because they’re in mental-list mode, “Hi, this is Laura Sicola. Sorry, I can’t take your call, but if you leave a message and your number, I’ll be sure to get back to you as soon as I can.” It’s like, “Nye, nye, nye.”

And so I say go back if you did that, re-record and put periods at the ends of your sentences, “Hi, this is Laura Sicola. Sorry I missed your call. Please leave me your name and number and I’ll call you back as soon as I can.” So, there are sentences, there’s periods in there, you sound more declarative, not uncertain or completely disinterested.

And I did this with a room full of people, and they’re re-recording on their phones, right then and there, their new message, and, all of a sudden, I hear this one voice in the back just blurting out, “Oh, my God. I can’t believe I just did it again.” Like, we’re so used to…we don’t realize it’s muscle memory, the voice muscles that we use in our throat. We’ve never thought about how to consciously use them before so we try to retrain them.

It’s like taking a baseball player and trying to teach him how to play golf or play cricket. Same sort of idea, right? Hold the stick with two hands and hit the ball and make it go where you want to go. You may know it but it doesn’t happen the way we’d like it to, automatically. So, that’s a lot of what we’re working with people on, is how to regain control and adjust so that what you’re saying lands with the weight that you want it to have, and leaves the impression that you want it to make.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Well, thank you, Laura. All right. So, I wanted to start with saying our names right and then we went into some key principles associated with how our voice sounds. But I’d like to zoom out a little bit and talk about executive presence. Like, this stuff is one component of that. How do you define executive presence?

Laura Sicola
Well, it’s such a big construct. There was a great report that came out a few years ago by the Center for Talent Innovation on executive presence, and they did a great job of surveying hundreds of senior executives, CXOs, from, I forget, how many different hundreds of companies in the US, to try to operationalize that.

And what they found was that it’s a combination of three things, primarily. The way you show up, the way you look, your appearance is a small component. That’s the least important one but you do have to show up dressed for the part, looking the part, to some extent or other. Communication skills is the second main pillar, and what they referred to broadly as gravitas.

And having gravitas is a combination of everything from “Do you have enough technical expertise to know what you’re talking about? Do your words have teeth? Like, if you say that something is going to happen, are you willing to stick to your guns even if what you say is unpopular, even if there’s pushback? Or, if whatever deadline passes, and you’ve said ‘This is the consequence,’ will you actually execute that or do you sort of let things slide? Do you have that internal strength? Are you willing to speak truth to power, telling people maybe what they don’t want to hear even though you know it’s the right thing to do?”

So, these are a lot of the many components but that internal fortitude is a big piece of it. And, to me, my only complaint, frankly, with that…I understand what they were trying to do but with that report, is that they separated gravitas and communication skills because I don’t understand how you can demonstrate gravitas without communication.

Because if you’re going to sit there and say, “This is what has to happen. And if not, then this is the consequence for it,” but you sound like you’re kind of unsure, or you tend to fry out, or you’re going to back down, or you kind of mumble as you’re talking, then you can levy the, I’ll use the word threat for lack of a better word in the moment, but whatever it is. Who’s going to take you seriously? You sound like a marshmallow, like a doormat, so automatically it’s hard to respect you if you don’t really sound like you respect yourself.

So, okay, but those were the major areas they talked about. The gravitas and the communication skills are really the big buckets.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m curious, could you share with us a cool story of someone who really dramatically upgraded their executive presence and got some cool results? I guess I’m always thinking about the skeptic who has towering skills and, I don’t know, problem-solving or coding or whatever they do, and think that this might be soft or fluffy or whatever. Like, can you share some cool story of what you’ve seen transpire or, if you have it, any cool studies, data, research that shows that this makes a transformative impact on your career?

Laura Sicola
One example is where I was working with the SVP of finance for a big Fortune 500 company, and he was the heir apparent to the CFO role, understanding that it would probably open up in maybe two years, give or take. But the board said to him, in no uncertain terms, “Look, when you talk, frankly, we don’t understand you, so fix it or, when the spot opens up, we’re going to find somebody else.”

Now, that’s pretty darn straightforward, unambiguous. So, we had to look and say, “Well, what is it about the way he shows up because he certainly knows his stuff? There’s no question about his technical capacity.” But we did some digging and we realized it was a number of things. Number one, in his delivery, he talked so fast, he blurred through everything. There was no editorializing when he talked. There were no stories told. He went way too deep in the weeds and the board was glazing over at a certain point. There were so many different elements.

Even things like he could’ve said, just hypothetically speaking, “Last year, we exceeded revenue projections by 25% or we missed revenue projections by 25%,” and you couldn’t tell the difference. Like, if you blurred out that one word, the verb missed versus exceeded, no one would’ve been able to guess which one it was because his delivery was always identical, and that’s an issue.

Pete Mockaitis
That really resonates. And I’m thinking about that even with slides in terms of like we just got a bunch of data but the headline doesn’t say. I’m thinking about a time where I had a partner, we were starting an online math tutoring company, and we were checking out a conference so we get No Child Left Behind money, like, “Oh, what’s the story here?”

And so, someone was giving a report on all the tutorial providers, like, “Okay, inside scoop. What’s the deal here?” because we were at the early stages. And nothing about the intonation or the headline gave us the main message. It was a bunch of data, like, “Here’s all these providers and here were their scores before and after, and dah, dah, dah.” But I guess it was because they didn’t want to say the unpleasant news to everybody, it’s like, “Almost nobody’s getting meaningful results for these kids. Like, almost nobody. And the one out of 20 might’ve just gotten lucky with statistics.”

And so, it was startling to me in terms of, well, lack of slide headline, lack of intonation, lack of explicitly saying it, words being faster and running together, and, well, it’s unpleasant and it’s frustrating. And it makes me trust that person less. I was like, “Do you not know what that means? Why are you not telling it to us directly and clearly?”

Laura Sicola
Although, I wonder if because that’s such a…it was such negative results that they were trying to blur through it and hope you wouldn’t figure it out for yourself because he didn’t really want…

Pete Mockaitis
“We all might be fired shortly based on what I’m revealing to you today.”

Laura Sicola
Exactly. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
“So, let’s hurry it along.”

Laura Sicola
Right. Right. But that’s important. If you’re looking to…I mean, what is influence? Influence is about having an impact on the way someone thinks, feels, and responds verbally or behaviorally, and changing or helping them to make decisions moving forward, etc. The board of a major company is somebody that you want their buy-in. You need them to be on board with whatever you are talking about and if you want them to get to say yes more often.

Everything that I do is about mastering the three Cs: helping people to learn to command the room, or, more often than not nowadays, command the screen; connect with the audience; and close the deal. And being able to do those, command the room, connect with the audience, and close the deal – closing the deal means just getting to yes, moving the needle, continual forward progress not just sales or something – but you can’t do that if you can’t inspire them, if you can’t get them to feel something and have their brains connect with their hearts, connect with their ears.

And so, even things like editorializing, and when I say editorializing your data, it could be things like you’re looking at market projections and you could say something along the lines of, “We find this encouraging,” or, “We’re pleasantly surprised with this,” or, “We want to bear this in mind,” or, “We’re going to keep an eye on this because…”

Those are implicit editorializing terms because they let the audience know, “Okay, I should be happy about this, optimistic,” versus, “Hmm, this is a cautionary tale. Okay, a note to self. I want to be wary of where this is going.” It plants an emotional positive or negative bent in me, and I use that then as my filter through which I’m going to be interpreting everything else that you say on this topic until you indicate otherwise.

And it’s kind of like leading the witness in a court of law. You want to lead your audience to where you want them to be because people will listen to data and they’ll look for information in data that reinforces what they already feel and want to believe.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Yes. I think about the boardroom situation, “We feel and want to believe that we are unstoppable and we’re growing and taking market share, and innovating and getting into new stuff, and winning, winning, winning. That’s what we want to believe.” And so, it’s interesting, now, sometimes you have to tell them that the opposite is true, “This initiative sure didn’t work out the way we wanted it to.”

So, is it ideal, then, to have your vocal emotional stuff reflect that just straight up, naturally, authentically? “Hey, unfortunately, adoption of this new product has been a lot slower than we had any budget for.”

Laura Sicola
I’m going to give the most unpopular answer ever, which is it depends. And it’s not to say that you shouldn’t be authentic, let’s put that out there for starters. But to take something out of a context, or where there’s nothing else around it, it’s hard to give a definitive yes or no on that. So, my answer would be framed more around, “Well, what other information is necessary to understand why that occurred? Or, what do we learn from it? Or, what do we need to do as a result of it?” There’s too many other pieces.

What is constant though is that when we have to give bad news and something we think there’s going to be blowback on, it’s still really important, and this goes back to the executive presence piece and the gravitas piece, “Can you own that data or are you shrinking away from it? Are you willing to…the buck stops with you,” assuming it does.

And often the way that our voice, when we’re nervous about something, for example, our body, our voice will throw us under the bus and just telegraph those nerves something fierce. But you would never walk into a board meeting or a pitch or whatever else it happens to be, and preface verbally by saying, “Hey, everybody, I just want you to know I’m really intimidated right now because I’m afraid you’re not going to like what I have to say. Okay, thanks. Just wanted to get that off my chest. Okay, let’s proceed.” Like, nobody in their right minds would articulate that thought.

So, similarly, and it’s not that you’re being inauthentic if you don’t confess that upfront. It’s just, no, that’s not a very smart move. So, similarly, when you’re sharing that news, if you are kind of hesitant in your voice or in your body language, or you’re frying it out, or maybe there is that up-speak again, which is like saying, “Is this okay, right? You’re not mad, are you?” as you’re inflecting the various points that you need to do.

And, guys, by the way, I know this sounds like valley girl kind of a thing, and that’s where most people’s brains go as far as the image that that kind of vocal tonality pattern conjures, but a Y chromosome is not a vaccine against up-speak. Guys do it just as much as women do, older and younger, you just don’t realize when you’re doing it so you want to be mindful of it.

Pete Mockaitis
And I thought your listing example was perfect, like, “Yes, we can drift into that up-speak when we’re in a list context and not even notice it because we’re thinking about the next thing on the list.”

Laura Sicola
Exactly. Exactly. Because your brain is one step ahead of your mouth, and that’s a really dangerous place to be because, when you think about it, there’s, more often than not, we do go into list mode. If we were to think of what constitutes a list. Well, maybe you’re going over your PowerPoint slide and there’s five bullets. Well, there’s your list. Maybe you’re giving an explanation for something and there’s two, three, four, five reasons and you’re going to go through those reasons one after another.

Maybe you’re explaining something and you’re giving steps, you’re giving instructions. Well, what are your steps that you’re giving? Maybe you’re just introducing a guest on a podcast or in a conference, or to speak to your group or your organization. Well, you’re going to go through their bio, and there’s this point, and this point, and this point.

And even if it’s just a matter of it’s your turn to talk, you’re in the meeting, and you want to give your idea, and there’s a number of elements that you want to include before somebody else cuts you off. Whatever those elements are that you want to include in your answer, in your brain it’s all one answer but it’s really multiple factors that you’re trying to share. And as you go through each one, there’s a very good chance that you slide into that up-speak without even realizing it because your mind is thinking, “Comma, comma, comma, comma, comma,” instead of “Period. Period. Period.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Thank you. All right. Well, let’s talk about these three Cs. Command the room, I’d love to know how this is done because, Laura, I think in my own life experience, in high school and college, I commanded the room quite frequently, and then I think I got a little spoiled with doing keynote speaking, and coaching, and podcast interviewing in which it’s like we zoomed it down to one person who…or like in the coaching and podcast interviewing space, one person who’s very interested in like the thing that we’re doing here. While in keynoting, it’s like it is very rude for you to be chit chatting while there’s a dude on stage, although people still do it.

So, I don’t know, it’s like somewhere along the lines, I’ve noticed my room-commanding has diminished maybe just in different rooms that I used to be. But what is the alchemy that’s behind the commanding of a room?

Laura Sicola
I think it’s a number of things. Number one is confidence. You have to show up in a way that says, “I’m here,” and not in an arrogant sense, let’s be clear on that. Confidence is a gray scale. We’re not sliding into arrogance but it is about being comfortable in your own skin, being comfortable in your own shoes, being ready to share what it is that you need to share, and ready to listen to what other people need to share, but holding your ground and having the facial expressions, the body language, the voice so that whenever you…

From the minute that you begin, and even before you begin, you look like you intend to be there, and that you’re comfortable and you’re ready and you’re not cowering from it or, otherwise, hesitant to step up and own your space. And I think a lot of people are really not confident doing that, even virtually. So many people, and I know we’re recording this without video, but I would ask everybody else out there. When you see yourself on camera, is there an invisible line drawn across the middle of the screen and your head is on the bottom half and the top half is ceiling or sky? If so, you’re not commanding the screen, you’re not taking up the space. The screen is owning you instead of you owning the screen.

And those little details have a lot of impact in so far as how people perceive you, whether or not you project authority. When you project authority, when you project confidence, before you even open your mouth, it predisposes people to lean in or lean out, to give you the benefit of the doubt or not with regard to what you’re going to say. There’s a whole training that I do, a full half-day intensive on virtual influence, which is all about how to own the screen even when you can’t see anybody else, and they’re going to see you but maybe two weeks later.

You talk about the keynotes and things, and it’s often hard when you’re doing a conference presentation for a virtual conference and they tell you, “We’d like you to speak for us and we want you to pre-record on Zoom and send it to us a couple of weeks in advance, and then we’re going to upload it and launch it live during the actual conference, but it’ll be pre-recorded.” So, my job is to talk as if I was in front of a live audience even though it’s just me and the dot, that little lens.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a new verb.

Laura Sicola
Yes, right because there are rooms a lot bigger than this. But that’s hard to do. Most people are not good at commanding their space, virtually or in person, and that’s really important.

Pete Mockaitis
And it’s interesting, what’s resonating for me now is I’m thinking about the mysteries, like, “I seem to be commanding less in the rooms,” I think part of it is we talk about being comfortable in your own skin. I think that there can be, like literally, any number of little things that make us less comfortable in our own skin that are not even emotional, like, “This shirt is a little too short,” “My skin is literally itchy and needs some lotion,” “I didn’t get quite a good night’s sleep with the kiddos romping around the bed,” “Wow, it’s way hotter here in Tennessee than it is in Chicago,” or whatever.

Or, it’s sort of like, “I’m so used to speaking at sort of a lower volume now because we don’t want to wake up a child. We don’t want to wake up that child.” It was so funny, when we had some guests over, it was like, “Wow, these guys talk loud.” It’s like, “No, I think they probably talk normal but we’ve been doing so much quiet talking in this home that that’s sort of shifted it.”

And then it kind of shows up in terms of, “Folks are not quite giving me…I don’t have as much, I guess, commanding, like market share of eye contact,” if you will. It’s like I have less of that, it’s like, “Oh, they’re looking elsewhere. Or, someone else said almost the same thing that I said and now it’s hilarious or intriguing? But it wasn’t what I said. Huh, usually it’s the other way around. What’s going on here?”

Laura Sicola
Yup, and it is harder, I think, in the virtual world because, depending on what platform you’re using, if it’s Zoom or Teams or GoToMeeting or Google Meet or something like that, some of them make it much harder to look at or near the camera and still see everybody else’s face at the same time. Some people have multiple screens so your camera’s over here to the left and all the screen with everybody’s faces are on the right, and it’s like, “Well, am I looking at you or do I need you to think I’m looking at you even though I’m technically not.” It makes it a little bit more confusing there.”

So, there’s all sorts of strategies to use and head trash that we need to take out about our own discomfort and being in the virtual world but it can be really confusing. But standing your ground and, if nothing else, not showing, not telegraphing that discomfort, even if internally you are a little awkward feeling, that shouldn’t be the first impression that people get.

You know how they say dogs can smell fear? I think people can “smell” when the presenter or the speaker is feeling awkward or uncomfortable, and they sense it instantly, and they go, “Oh, boy, this person is not even confident in what they’re saying. All right, how can I multitask because this is going to be painful to listen to? I already don’t want to listen to it, so let me check my email while they’re talking.” And I think it’s really important to command that attention.

The difference between command the room and connect with the audience, and not to segue between them, but commanding is really capturing people’s attention and maintaining it. And connecting with the audience is being able to establish a rapport where there’s this mutual sense of “I understand you and you understand me.”

And that creates a fabulous current for us to continue the conversation in a really productive and constructive way that leads to the ability to then close the deal or to get to yes, figure out what our next steps should be, and move on from there. But the commanding the room piece is really critical because that’s step one.

Just by example, I did a training the other day for a client, probably Fortune 100, and there were about 50 people on the call, and I was the second presenter of the day, and they had multiple back-to-back speakers. The team had been having a conversation about whatever topic first. And when I got on, they introduced me, and I started, and, fortunately, they all had their cameras on so I could see their faces.

And within about two or three minutes, one of the guys unmuted and he chimed in, he said, “I’m sorry, Laura. Could I just ask, what are you doing with your voice? And are you going to cover how to do that because all I know is when you started talking, I sat up and I paid attention, and I find myself just focused? So, I need to know how to do that. Are you going to teach us how to do that?”

That was a great example of the effect that, A, using your voice well, and, B, an illustration of commanding the room, or commanding the screen, commanding the space. That’s what can happen when you do it effectively. Someone inherently just sits up and takes notice because there’s something in your presence that compels them to do so.

Pete Mockaitis
Great. That’s just so experiential, real, practical, tactical, right, like you can get your arms around that in that if you’ve been on conference calls, it happens that some folks are just talking “Nrrggh,” and it drones into nothingness. And then there’s a new speaker, and then you’re with them. And so, we’ve covered a couple of the ingredients, but could you lay it out, Laura, like, what are the top variables that are easy to adjust that put us in the “We are listened to” column?

Laura Sicola
Yeah, absolutely. One thing that I think the world must absolutely do when you’re in the virtual space, you need a better microphone. I mean, look, even to be on this podcast with you, you’re like, “If you don’t have a microphone, I’m going to send you one.” I have my good podcaster mic here.

But most people just use whatever is the default microphone that comes embedded into their laptop or other device, or they maybe use the earbuds that come with your phone, or worse, they’ll use the microphone that’s embedded, maybe if you’ve got one of those peripheral Logitech cameras that sits on top of your screen, or AirPods. Look, I’m an Apple girl

When I’m jogging, love my AirPods but Steve Jobs and I, in the afterlife, we’re going to have to have a conversation because it is very clear that the microphone on AirPods was an afterthought. For $179, those devices make music sound great to you. They don’t make you sound good to anybody else. And most people in the virtual world, sound like this.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true.

Laura Sicola
It’s like they’re in a tin can. It’s like they’re in a fog or under water or in a cave. I hear all sorts of different descriptors. And when most people sound like this, and then you talk, and suddenly your voice cuts through the fog, it’s like, wow, all of a sudden, your eyes, your pupils dilate, you find yourself sitting up, you’re suddenly focused. If you were multitasking, you do a quick little pivot, little jolt, and say, “Wait, what was that? What’s going on? I feel like I need to hear this. This feels and sounds important.”

Where you do not want to be is on the other end where someone else is talking, like you and I are, they’ve got a good strong voice, they’re using their microphone, or they’ve got a decent microphone. You don’t have to spend 500 bucks on a microphone but you should spend 100, somewhere in there at least.

And at that point, if everyone else sounds like this, and then you start talking and you sound like this, that’s a very bad place to be because what the immediate response that the listener has, “Ugh, that sounds awful. It’s too much work. I can’t be bothered. Don’t make me work just to understand what the heck your words are, much less what they mean, and whether I like them or agree with them or what my response is going to be. If you’re going to make me put in extra effort just to understand your words, I can’t be bothered, it’s unpleasant, I don’t want to. I think I’ll multitask. Let me know when you’re done.” That’s exactly how people react.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think about just basic likability. Like, there were times, I remember I would do like 10 hours of coaching with folks over Skype, and those who had better microphones, it’s like subconscious or maybe not so subconscious, I liked them more because just the way our emotions get linked up, firing together, wiring together. It’s like when I have a positive experience of any sort, in this case just how sound feels in my ears, I associate pleasantness to you. And when I have the opposite, I associate unpleasantness to you. and that’s the only way anybody ever interacts with you is with your horrible audio quality. It’s bad.

So, Laura, I really appreciate you hitting this because I’ve had some guests who are like, “Well, my microphone was fine for all these other podcasts.” And I don’t want to be like, “Well, I’m better than them, it is not up to my standards.”

Laura Sicola
Can I tell you, Pete? I have had so many both clients who I’ve trained and coached and done all sorts of workshops with on this, and my podcast guests because in my podcast, I interview only senior leaders of larger organizations, for profit, nonprofit, otherwise. And during our prep call in advance, we’ll go through the technical stuff, and I’ll let them know before our podcast, before we do the actual interview, “I need you to get a different microphone.” I’ll give them recommendations or whatever. And they’ll often say to me, “Well, nobody’s ever told me I had a problem with it before.” And I’m going, “I know because you’re the boss. Who’s going to stand up to you and tell you that you sound like…” well, fill in the blank.

Pete Mockaitis
“You’re Mr. New York Times bestseller,” like it took me a couple hundred episodes before I had the cajones to be like, “Yeah, this isn’t good enough for me. Step it up.’”

Laura Sicola
Yes. And so, here’s the thing, and this, we’re going to go right back to that executive presence piece. Some of these podcast guests that I have on, they don’t know me from Eve. They may not have heard of my show previously or whatever, before they’ve agreed to be on it. And so, without me having a very strong reputation with them as of yet, for me to come right on and say, “All due respect, Mr. CEO, CTO, CIO, whatever you are, you need a better microphone.”

And for them to say, “But nobody ever said it before. It’s always been fine,” for me to say to them, “With all due respect, as far as I’m concerned, that microphone doesn’t do you justice, and I won’t launch my episode with you if it’s not going to do you justice because that’s not fair to you and it’s not fair to my listeners, and it’s not good for me. We want to make sure that all of us are really pleased with how this reflects on you and your brand. And if I sound like this, and you sound like this, that harms your brand, and I would never do that to you as my guest.”

For me to be able to stand there and look at them in the face, and definitively state, “Yes, you make a billion times more money than I do. Yes, you run a company that’s a billion times bigger than mine. Yes, blah, blah, blah, but I’m telling you what’s what. And understand that I’m doing this for you in service to you, in your best interest so that we both have a better quality.” They, suddenly, are like, “Okay, I didn’t know who you were but, suddenly, I’m listening and I respect you for having that.”

There was this, I want to say, Pete, an insurance company who was on my show a little while ago, and my proxy, who’s the one who connected us in the first place, he reported back to her afterwards when we’ve had one of these little “Come to Jesus” meetings as far as the equipment is concerned. And it was really funny, he said to her, she reported back to me afterwards, he said, “When we talked, Laura corrected me. Nobody corrects me. I kind of liked it.” And I just burst out laughing because it’s like people have to tell you the truth. Can you speak truth to power? And most don’t.

So, if you can, people are suddenly like, “Okay, you’ve got…” I forget what word you used, cajones or something along those lines, “…but you’ve got them, and I respect that.” And we want that respect. Can you speak truth to power and own it respectfully but own it?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And I didn’t know if I was going to venture into such a delicate territory, Laura, and I wouldn’t want to be judgmental, but that is what that makes me think. And you said it explicitly, it’s like, “Nobody ever corrects me.” It’s like, “That is kind of culturally problematic in terms of you being able to lead with maximum excellence if there are whole channels of information and feedback that you’re not getting.”

And it’s not that it’s necessarily that person’s fault, it’s like, “Oh, you must not be very welcoming or inviting or friendly.” You’re the boss, it’s like, “Hey, not my place to let you know your microphone sucks, dude.” So, it really does take quite a concerted effort to get that stuff to come to the fore. But I think that is telling.

I had a good friend who once said, “It is a shame…” “The people who don’t receive feedback are the ones who embarrass themselves in American Idol auditions. No one let them know, ‘You’re not ready yet, hon. This is going to take some time before the big stage.’” And whether the embarrassment is in front of a TV audience or just a lot of slightly worse than optimal meetings, it happens.

Laura Sicola
It does. It does.

Pete Mockaitis
Commanding the room, microphone, feedback. Cool. Cool. How do we get the connecting with the audience?

Laura Sicola
It definitely depends on who is the audience and what kind of connection are you looking to make. So, there are many different ways that you can do it. Is it a matter of using some humor? Is it about storytelling? Is it about using examples? So, there are certain programs that I do, my virtual influence training or speaking to influence training. Those are, I call them off-the-shelf programs, and I’ll go in, I’ll do those trainings in all different companies but it changes.

For example, if I’m doing the training for the women’s initiative. If it’s a room full of women, I’m going to tell different stories than I would tell, to illustrate the same point, than I would tell in mixed-gender company just because there are certain things that, in a room full of women, you can talk about certain things and not worry about making guys uncomfortable, and we’ll throw ourselves under the bus and we’ll all laugh together because we know it’s a shared chick thing.

Or, I’ve done talks, for example, to Pan-Asian employee resource groups, and I lived in Japan for a number of years, so sharing the experiences of working in that US-Asia connection, or speaking in different languages and whatnot, those are experiences that will connect with them, and they’ll look at me and say, “Oh, okay, so you’ve got a white face but you do kind of get that it is a little bit different.” “Yeah, I do.”

And so, storytelling, or even things like what we call matching and mirroring. If I’m talking to somebody and I get the sense, if I’m working with a client and they’re really kind of slow and hesitant and they’re clearly uncomfortable, it’s not that they’re uncomfortable sharing something with me maybe, but it’s just a situation that they don’t know what to do with, and they’re really just unhappy and frustrated and kind of sad about this, they’re sharing it with me. I’m not going to share, or I’m not going to respond to them with the energy that I just went through that whole thing about microphones on. That would be overwhelming.

So, I’m going to sit back in my chair also, if I see that they’re sitting back, and I’m going to mirror their tone, their volume, their intensity, their pitch levels, and their speed or how often they pause. I’ll suggest certain things but I want to empathize with them and to make them feel comfortable. And if I match and reflect that energy back to them, they’ll be able to receive it better. If I came right at them, like, “Why are you worrying about that? That’s crazy.” No, that’s going to shut them down because it’s overwhelming. They’re not in that emotional space.

Similarly, on the flipside, if you came on and you were super high energy and looking forward to talking about these kinds of topics, and I said, “Well, okay, so executive presence has a number of factors that are important. Let’s talk about them,” your audience will be like, “Oh, my God, talk faster. Why?” It doesn’t match well. There’s no flow. It’s blocky, your speed, and then my plodding pacing going through it. So, that’s another way to connect with the audience.

And it’s not about imitating, it’s not mimicking, it’s not faking or being somebody else. We all have what I’d like to call a prismatic voice, meaning that if you think about your wardrobe, like if you’ve got your buttoned-down shirts, you’ve got your polos, you’ve got your sweatshirts, you’ve got your tux, you’ve got your all different range of things, but it’s only your wardrobe, but you have the presence of mind to be able to decide, “Today is the tux. Tomorrow for that event is the gym shorts. The day after that is just the business casual kind of khakis and whatever else.” It’s all you but you know when to adjust.

Similarly, the way that we speak, we have our…and this is my coaching voice, my authority, my trainer, my public-speaking kind of voice. But, to your point earlier, it sounds like you’ve got a couple of little guys at home. I do, too. This is not my mommy voice. He’d stop playing with me. It doesn’t make sense but I’m also not going to talk to you in the same voice or the same style, the same manner, that I use when I’m playing with my five-year-old because you would not believe that I was an executive coach at that point. It wouldn’t quite be congruent.

But it’s not that one is the real me and one is the fake me. They’re both real me. Just like you change how you dress your body, you also change how you dress your message through the way that you speak. And that’s why I like to call it the prismatic voice because the same way you’ve seen those little crystals that hang on a window, and when the sun hits it, the rainbow hits the floor on the other side.

You are the white light and you have all those rainbow colors inside of you. Maybe I’ll call this podcaster voice my red, and I’ll call my mommy voice my green, and I can shift because I know it’s better for him if he hears more of my green. He’ll connect with me better. It’s better for your listeners, for my listeners, if we talk more in my red. It’ll just resonate better. It’ll allow them to accept my message more easily. So, having that facility to style-shift in a way that’s appropriate but still authentic, that’s really important. And that’s what allows you to connect with your audience.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And when it comes to closing the deal, how do we do that?

Laura Sicola
It starts with listening and really understanding what they want, what they need. And these three things, the command the room, connect with the audience, and closing the deal, they are mutually reinforcing. It’s not necessarily sequential. But closing the deal simply means getting to yes. And when you understand what someone else’s priorities are, what their pressures are, what they’re up against, what they want, what they like, what they need, and try to help them understand your side as well, but most importantly, letting them know that they have been heard.

And identifying whatever steps need to happen that is in service of both of you, that’s where you’re going to get the first yes. It may not be an ultimate, conclusive, comprehensive, sign-the-contract yes or deal that you’re closing, but it will be a matter of “Do we agree on this point? If so, okay, let’s go on to point number two.” There’s a little mini-deal that should close but it starts with listening and reflecting back, letting others know that you’ve heard them, and being able to share your information in a way that they can then hear you and moving forward from there.

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

Laura Sicola
I think just knowing that authenticity is so important but there’s a huge misnomer, a misunderstanding about authenticity. And that is that authenticity is not a black-and-white, on-or-off construct. As I mentioned with regard to the prismatic voice, we have a range of style. I mean, the learning curve, by nature, means stepping out of your comfort zone.

So, if you’re learning maybe, look, I am a, we’ll call it a recovering academic. I was a professor. I was in the world of academia. Now, I do executive coaching. That’s a big shift industry-wise. The way I talked there, the way I wrote there didn’t translate to the corporate world so I had to learn to change my vocabulary a little bit, change the kind of stories that I told, change the way that I write in order to be able to connect with this new audience that goes back to step two, how do you connect with them.

And at first, it felt awkward because it had beaten into my skull for a decade and longer in the ivory tower about how to write to be taken seriously in that world. And now I was being told, “No, you can’t do that anymore.” That felt very awkward to me initially. And it took a little while for me to let go of as much as I needed to.

So, to be able to accept and strengthen, or stretch, that new style, the learning curve was awkward. It felt uncomfortable but it wasn’t inauthentic because, the fact is, that was a new community. I wanted to be understood by the new community, which means I needed to learn to speak the language of the new community, just like if I wanted to learn to speak Spanish or learn to speak Japanese. It’s going to feel uncomfortable but it’s not inauthentic. It’s just a matter of strengthening the muscles until it becomes second nature.

If my intention and my desire to connect with that group is authentic, then the discomfort of the learning curve is also authentic. Embrace that. That’s different from if you’re trying to act like someone else to make them like you, trying to pretend that you’re someone you’re not in hopes that they like you. That is inauthentic. That is a whole other ball of wax that we’re not getting into today. But accept that learning curve by nature is uncomfortable, and that is also authentic, and it’s okay to accept that as long as there’s forward progress. So, that’s a really important final point, I think.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Laura Sicola
Yes. I think one of the most valuable and important pieces of advice that I received early in my career; it was actually from my father. And I was right out of college, I was sending in, starting out my early career in teaching public schools. My father had taught public schools for, at the time, 25 years or longer, and he always seemed to have it under control. And I said, “Dad, how do I get the kids to respect me?” And he’s the one who said, “Laura, you can’t demand that the students respect you. You have to command it with your presence.”

And I didn’t totally understand it at the time, but over time, it really sunk in, and that became the foundation for everything that I teach and that I coach in my new role now, or more recent role in executive coaching, in leadership communication work. You can’t demand respect. You have to command it with your presence. That’s the key.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Laura Sicola
Okay. So, I’ll give two. A fun one and a serious one. Let’s start with the serious one, Psycho-Cybernetics, there’s a mouthful for you, by Maxwell Maltz. It’s an oldie but a goodie. But, boy, if you really want to dig into what motivates people, what help you change, what makes you do what you do, where do you get stuck mentally, and how is it possible to get out your own way, it’s an amazing resource. It’s not a light read by any stretch of the imagination, but if you’re willing to dig in a little bit, it’s powerful.

On the fun side, there’s a great book called Life is Magic. Life is Magic is by Jon Dorenbos, who, he was recently a finalist on America’s Got Talent. He was also a former Philadelphia Eagle, a long snapper, for a decade or so, for football fans out there. But he’s an amazing magician, and he went through massive crises as a child. Talk about heavy. His father murdered his mother when he was 12. That’ll send you off in a tailspin early in life.

But his whole focus is about not letting adversity define who you are or who you become. And how he wrestled with all of this and how he took that in and used it, and a bunch of other challenges along the way as well but he used it to help him become a pro football star, help him become a star on America’s Got Talent. And he’s funny and he’s inspiring, and he’s smart, and he’s just great life lesson.

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

Laura Sicola
Oh, microphone. I think that goes without saying. And the one that I’ve got is the Shure SM7B. Just know, that anybody out there, if you are going to look into it, it also requires another 500 bucks’ worth of other devices to make your microphone talk to your computer because it’s got an XLR cable not a USB. So, lots of fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is a good one. I also have a Shure. It’s a BETA 87A. The SM7B people love to comment. I almost expected you to say it, “You know, every word of Michael Jackson’s Thriller was recorded on a Shure SM7B?” It’s like, “Yeah, I know. It’s come up about a dozen times.” But I’ve seen the Pope using this one, so I think…as well as American Idol people. I think they like it because it rejects background noise, which is great. No one knows when that train goes by. Thank you, microphone.

Laura Sicola
Right. Well, the SM7B is definitely not a good American Idol…it’s not a good handheld by any stretch. It’s a big clunky thing.

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

Laura Sicola
It’s the name thing. It really is about how to say your name right. It’s amazing. Of all the things that I’ve taught, the TED Talk is about eight years old now, give or take, and for the almost seven million people who’ve watched it, I can’t tell you the number of people who I have met, and I use that little example in a lot of teaching and training and speaking engagements where people will come up to me later on, and say, “I just want you to know, I saw your TED Talk,” and that’s what they’ll quote.

Or, they’ll see me in a conference, and years later, they’ll reintroduce themselves to me, and say, “Wait, wait. I want to say it right. My name is so and so, so and so.” And they always want to get…or they’ll introduce me to somebody else, “Hey, I want you to meet Laura. This is Laura…oh, wait, no. It’s Laura Sicola,” and they’ll all just mock me right back to myself, which is great because you know it sticks, and that’s the key. How do you make it stick? When you speak, you want it to stick in somebody else’s mind. Follow that pattern and your name will stick in the other person’s mind.

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

Laura Sicola
They can certainly go to the website, which is VocalImpactProductions.com. If you’re curious about the podcast or my book, you can go to SpeakingToInfluence.com, and always, of course, connect with me on social media at Instagram, Twitter, whatever, but LinkedIn is really my main one. Please go to LinkedIn. Look me up, Dr. Laura Sicola. And if you reach out to connect, please mention that you heard me here on Pete’s show, and that’s the most important part because I connect with people when I understand why they want to connect.

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

Laura Sicola
Yes. Record yourself. And it can be when you’re on the phone with somebody else, it can be when you’re on a Zoom with somebody else, you’re on with your computer. Take your phone, and just record yourself talking in whatever little nugget that you contribute to the conversation or if you’re presenting, record yourself for a minute or two.

Go back and listen later and ask yourself, “Does this sound like I wanted it to sound? Did it sound in my head the way it sounds on the recorder? And what didn’t?” Because, inevitably, something will stand out to you that will make you say, “You know what, that didn’t land right. That’s not how I wanted to come across.”

The video camera, the recorder doesn’t lie. It does add 10 pounds, but beyond that, it doesn’t lie. It will reflect back to you exactly what everybody else heard, and help you understand why perhaps what you think you said is not what they thought they heard. And that is powerful information in your own professional development.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Laura, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck in your speaking adventures.

Laura Sicola
Thank you so much for having me on, Pete. It’s been a real fun conversation with you.