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KF #7. Communicates Effectively Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

899: How to Speak Smarter When Put on the Spot with Matt Abrahams

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Matt Abrahams outlines six steps to improve your spontaneous speaking skills.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to feel more comfortable speaking on the spot
  2. Four tactics to keep speaking anxiety in check
  3. The easy formula for great self-introductions

About Matt

Matt Abrahams is a leading expert in communication with decades of experience as an educator, author, podcast host, and coach. As a Lecturer in Organizational Behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, he teaches popular classes in strategic communication and effective virtual presenting. He received Stanford GSB’s Alumni Teaching Award in recognition of his teaching students around the world.

When he isn’t teaching, Matt is a sought-after keynote speaker and communication consultant. He has helped countless presenters improve and hone their communication, including some who have delivered IPO roadshows as well as TED, World Economic Forum, and Nobel Prize presentations. His online talks garner millions of views and he hosts the popular, award-winning podcast Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast. He is the author of Think Faster, Talk Smarter: How to Speak Successfully When You’re Put on the Spot. His previous book Speaking Up without Freaking Out: 50 Techniques for Confident and Compelling Presenting has helped thousands of people manage speaking anxiety and present more confidently and authentically.

Resources Mentioned

Matt Abrahams Interview Transcript

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

Matt Abrahams
Thank you so much for having me back. I’m excited to chat with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited, too. It’s been five and a half years.

Matt Abrahams
You can tell by the lack of hair and the more gray I have that it’s been a while.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. Well, way back in episode 253 when the show was but a pop was when we covered that. I’m curious, in your world of research and communication, have you discovered anything new that was surprising and striking to you?

Matt Abrahams
Yeah, so I’ve spent a lot of time since we last spoke thinking about several concepts: how to be more engaging, how to be more concise, and with the new book I have coming out, really, an amalgamation of those, combining those, and the notion of how to speak more effectively in the moment. A lot of our communication happens spontaneously. Yet, if we ever receive any kind of training or spend time thinking about it, it’s always for planned communication – pitches, presentations, meetings with agendas. And, yet, most of what we do in our personal and professional lives happens in the moment and on the spot.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And that’s just a great title here for your book Think Faster, Talk Smarter. And you’re bringing back some fond memories for me when I was in a high school speech team. Impromptu was my jam, although you still got, I think we had to divide eight minutes of prep and talking, and, ideally, it’d be about less than two minutes of prep with your notecard, so it’s still not quite on the spot. That’s more time than, “Hey, Pete, what do you think about this?” than you get in most circumstances.

Matt Abrahams
I love that you did impromptu speaking in high school. There was a time when I left High Tech before I started what I do today where I taught high school, and I actually coached some kids in impromptu speaking. And it’s a great way to learn how to be better on your feet, for sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then, tell us, when it comes to Think Faster, Talk Smarter, overall, what’s the big idea here?

Matt Abrahams
Well, first and foremost, I think the most counterintuitive idea is that you can prepare to be spontaneous. That’s the big thing. And then the second thing is that many of us feel that there are people who are just born with the gift of gab, and they can communicate effectively regardless if it’s planned or not. And I’m here to tell you that you can actually learn to get better at it.

And most people can improve dramatically by taking some time, putting in some practice, and adjusting their mindset to do this in a way that they might not have thought to do it. So, really, you can practice to get better. Everybody can do it. And the book and the process that I teach has six steps to it. The first four are really around mindset, and the last two are around what I call messaging.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I’m excited to dig into these six steps. Maybe before we do that, can you share with us a cool story of someone who felt pretty flustered when they were called upon to speak, and what they did, and the transformation they saw?

Matt Abrahams
Yes. So, I have worked with a great number of people from seasoned executives down to just everyday people, students, for sure, and there are numerous examples of people who have been put on the spot. So, one that comes to mind is an individual who was attending a meeting, he was just an engineer in the company. He was going to learn about the future releases of the product and different people around the table were sharing their pieces.

His boss, who was supposed to share his work, you can see where this is going, didn’t show up. It turned out that his boss’ wife went into labor, and he was obviously doing what was most important for him, but that left the person who was working with me in a moment of utter panic. He had to now represent his whole team’s work without having prepared to do so.

He did okay. It wasn’t the end of the world but he was definitely stressed out about it and a little bit traumatized, and that’s what brought him to do some work with me. And when I walked him through the methodology I introduced just a few moments ago, he later had a subsequent situation, not the same situation, but another situation where he had to step up and speak.

His team was doing a tribute to that part of the project he represented several months prior. They were celebrating what they did, and he was put on the spot by his boss to stand up and say something as a way of congratulating the team for their success, and he was able to do it with much more confidence and it came out much better.

So, just in a few short months, he developed the ability to speak better on his feet. He felt really, really good about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. All right. Well, let’s hear what are these six steps?

Matt Abrahams
So, when we start, we first have to start with mindset. And the very first step in mindset has to do with managing anxiety. Regardless if it’s planned or spontaneous, anxiety looms large in communication so we have to first take steps to manage our anxiety. The second step has to do with the way we strive for perfection. Many of us want to get it right when we communicate. I make the argument that there is no one right way to communicate. Certainly, better ways and worse ways but no one right way.

Step three has you reframing the circumstances you find yourself in. Many of us see these situations as threatening, we’re put on the spot, we have to defend our position, and that can actually make it very difficult for us. Step four in the mindset category has to do with listening. It sounds ironic but some of the things that help us best communicate in the moment is to listen more deeply and better.

And then we switch from mindset into this notion of messaging. So, I am a huge proponent of structure. I think frameworks help us in all communication but, especially, in the moment when we have to speak on the spot. And, in fact, the whole second part of the book is dedicated to different frameworks and structures you can use for different situations, like introducing yourself, making small talk, answering questions.

And then the final step, step six, also has to do with messaging, how to be clear and concise. One of the big problems when we speak spontaneously is we ramble because we’re discovering our content as we are speaking, and we tend to say more than we need to. So, being focused, clear, and concise is critical in all communication but, especially, spontaneous communication.

So, those are the six steps: mindset and messaging.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, maybe let’s tick through each one of these. For the step one, what are the top do’s and don’ts for managing anxiety?

Matt Abrahams
So, when it comes to managing anxiety, we have to take a two-pronged approach. We have to manage both symptoms and sources. So, symptoms are what we physiologically experience. Some people feel their heart really pounding, others sweat and blush, some shake, and there are some things we can do to manage those symptoms. I’ll give you examples in a moment. But we also have to think about sources. Those are the things that initiate and exacerbate our anxiety.

So, when it comes to sources, let me give you three quick things we can all do. Number one, take deep belly breaths, the kind you would ever do if you’ve ever done yoga, or tai chi, or qigong, where you really fill your lower abdomen. And, interestingly, what’s most important is the exhale not the inhale. So, you want your exhale to be twice as long as your inhalation.

Second, and this is a mental thing, remind yourself that you are speaking in service of your audience. Often, when we are asked to communicate, it is because we have something of value to provide to those that we are speaking to. If we really listen in to our self-talk right before we speak, we say lots of negative things to ourselves, like, “You better not screw up,” or, “You should’ve prepared more,” or, “That person who just went is far better than you are.” So, if we can remind ourselves that we actually have value to bring that the audience can benefit, that can cancel out some of that negative self-talk.

And then, finally, what we need to be thinking about is our body and how our body is reacting. So, if you blush and perspire, you need to cool yourself down. If you shake, you need to do some purposeful movements, like stepping in if you’re standing up. To cool yourself down, holding something cold in the palm of your hands will reduce your core body temperature. The palms of your hands are thermoregulators for your body. So, those are some just quick tips of what we can do for symptoms, and there are many others.

The second side of the equation is sources, and there are many sources of anxiety. One source is that we’re very nervous about not achieving the goal that we’re trying to accomplish. So, if you’re an entrepreneur, maybe you’re trying to get funding. If you’re one of my students, maybe you’re trying to get a good grade. If you’re working in an organization, maybe you’re trying to get support for your cause.

What makes us nervous is we start thinking about what will happen if we don’t achieve that goal, and that can make us very nervous. So, what do we do? We have to get present-oriented because worrying about a goal is worrying about something in the future. So, becoming present-oriented can short-circuit that. For example, you can do something physical. Actors and actresses will shake their body out. You can walk around the building. If you get in your body, you’re not in your mind.

Second, you can listen to a song or a playlist, it helps you get very present-oriented. A very simple way to get present-oriented sounds silly is to say a tongue twister. You can’t say a tongue twister right without being in the present moment, and it warms up your voice. So, lots of things we can do to manage symptoms and sources to help us with the first step of the spontaneous speaking methodology.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Manage anxiety, understood. We got the symptoms, we got the sources, and that’s handy. In terms of getting present, I’m intrigued, are there some additional ways that you recommend folks get into their body as opposed to their mind?

Matt Abrahams
Yeah. So, a great way, if you have an opportunity, is to connect with people, have conversations. So, if I’m ever in a physical space with other people where I’m presenting, maybe I’m running a meeting, or I’m giving a presentation where I know I’m going to get Q&A, and it’s appropriate, I’m out talking to the people, just getting to know them. It’s very hard to have a conversation with somebody and not be in the present moment. So, I’m listening, I’m connecting, that helps.

Another simple kind of fun way is to start at some hard number and count backwards by an even harder number. So, start at 100 and count backwards by, let’s say, 17s. That can be very challenging. So, there’s a lot that we can do to get ourselves present-oriented.

Pete Mockaitis
Seventeens.

Matt Abrahams
Yeah, try it. you can do the first one, that’s 73. Oh, I’m sorry, 83, and the rest are really hard.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And now let’s hear about the second step when we’re thinking about striving for perfection.

Matt Abrahams
Yes. So, when many of us speak, our goal, we feel, is to do it right, to say the right thing, to be perfect. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. Society doesn’t help. If you ask people, “Who’s a really good speaker?” they will typically pick people who are professional communicators. They’ll say some TED speaker from doing a TED Talk, some politician, actor, actress, and that sets an incredibly high bar for the quality of what communication should be like.

Now, we seem to forget that these folks have been trained, and coached, and practiced a lot. In the case of TED Talks, sometimes they’re even edited. So, we need to be thinking about the criteria we use to judge and evaluate our communication because we set the bar really high. That said, we try to achieve it and we want to be perfect and right. And we can disabuse ourselves of that.

I start my Stanford MBA course every quarter I teach with this saying, I say, “Try to maximize your mediocrity in your communication.” And let me tell you, Pete, these folks’ jaws drop. They’ve never been told in their lives to be mediocre. But the value of this is when you strive just to get it done, you put less pressure on yourself, which actually boils down to cognitive load.

Your brain is like a computer. It’s not a perfect analogy but it works. And you know on your laptops and or phones when you have lots of apps or windows open, your system performs a little less well. It’s not performing at its top speed because it’s doing too much at once. The same thing is true with you when you communicate. If I’m evaluating and judging everything I say, that means when I communicate, I have less cognitive focus and effort in what I’m actually saying.

So, you can reduce that by just telling yourself, “Hey, dial down that judgment and evaluation.” I’m not saying never judge and evaluate. You should. But if you dial that down a little bit, you can just focus on getting it done. And when I explain this to my students, I end the class by saying, “Maximize mediocrity so you can achieve greatness,” and they get it. They understand that the pressure they’re putting on themselves actually works against them.

So, that’s step number two. Just get the communication done. And, in so doing, you’re likely to do it very well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. And how about the third one, service as an opportunity?

Matt Abrahams
Yes. So, many of us, when we think about our speaking situations, and we think about, “Oh, you’ve got to answer questions on the spot,” for example, or, somebody asks you for feedback, or to introduce somebody in the moment. Many of us don’t say, “Oh, this is a great opportunity.” We think, “Oh, my goodness, I’m going to screw up. I can’t believe I’m in this situation. I have to defend myself or my position.” So, we get very defensive.

And that affects not just how we hold our bodies. We get tight and tense. Our tone gets more curt. Our answers get really short and brief. We can adjust that by reframing the circumstance even in the most difficult spontaneous speaking. Let’s imagine a Q&A session where somebody is just coming at us, fast, furious, spicy. We can still see that as an opportunity to learn, an opportunity to connect, an opportunity to potentially find areas to collaborate, and, in so doing, it will change our approach.

We become more open in our body posture. Our answers become more detailed. Our tone becomes more collaborative. All of that will help us do better in the interaction. So, reframing these situations not as hostile and challenging but as opportunities can fundamentally change how we approach this.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Let’s hear about listening.

Matt Abrahams
Well, so I host a podcast called Think Fast, Talk Smart. I’ve not done nearly as many episodes as you’ve done. We’ve just come up on our hundredth, and it’s all about communication. And across these hundred episodes, what has been very clear to me is that listening is critical. We absolutely have to listen better. Most of us do not listen well. We listen just enough to understand what the person is saying so we can then respond, rehearse, evaluate, and judge. We need to listen deeply.

I once heard a video where somebody was talking about jazz and jazz music, and he talked about a teacher he had. And the teacher told him that when he’s listening to jazz music, to really understand it, he has to listen until he sweats. And I love that. When you listen to really connect and in the moment with somebody, you have to listen intently. Listen until you sweat.

So, when it comes to listening, I have a framework that I borrowed from a colleague of mine at the business school, his name is Collins Dobbs. And he talks about, in crucial conversations, three things. And these three things apply to listening beautifully, so I borrowed it – space, pace, grace. To listen truly well, you have to give yourself pace, space, and grace. By pace, I mean slow down.

All of us move so quickly and we have so much going on, we distract ourselves, so we need to slow down so we can really listen. We need to give ourselves space, not just physical space. Move into an environment where you can listen well, but also mental space. We have to give ourselves space in our minds to really focus, be present, and pay attention.

And then grace, we have to give ourselves permission, not only give ourselves pace and space, but to listen internally to our intuition. So, when somebody says something, if you said to me, “Hey, Matt, I’m doing great,” well, the words might say one thing but my sense is the way you said them might mean something else, and I need to give that some credence, and then act upon that as well.

So, the ability to listen minimizes the likelihood that you will respond poorly in a spontaneous speaking situation. For example, you come out of a meeting and you look at me, and you say, “Hey, Matt, how did you think that went?” And, all of a sudden, I hear, “Feedback. Pete wants feedback. Well, Pete, you did this poorly. You could’ve done this better. This should be different next time.”

But if I would’ve really listened, I might’ve noticed that you came out the back door, not the front door, that when you asked me, you were looking down, your tone of voice was very different. What you really wanted in that moment was support. You didn’t want feedback, and I missed it, and I made it actually worse not better. That’s why we have to listen really well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then when it comes to some of your frameworks, what is the framework for introducing yourself?

Matt Abrahams
Well, let me give you an all-purpose framework first, and then I can give you a specific one when you do an introduction toast or tribute. So, my favorite structure in the whole world is three simple questions: what, so what, now what. The what is your idea, it’s your product, your service. It could be the person you’re introducing, including yourself. The so what is why is it important to the people you’re talking to. And then the now what becomes what comes next.

So, if I were introducing you, Pete, I might say, “I’m really excited to introduce you to Pete. He’s a very talented person. He does many things, including host a podcast. In talking to Pete, you’re going to learn so much from his vast experience. Now, I’m going to turn the floor over to Pete.” Did you see I just did what, so what, now what as a way of introducing you?

Now, if you’re doing a toast or a tribute, where you’re introducing an idea, a product, maybe a group of people, another structure can work really well, and that is what I call WHAT. What is, “Why are we here? What is the event?” The H is, “How are you, the person doing the introduction, connected to the event?” The A is an anecdote or story you might tell that’s relevant and appropriate for the group. And then the T is some kind of thanks or gratitude.

So, imagine you are the MC, the master of ceremonies at a wedding. You would start, you wouldn’t have to necessarily say why you’re all here. People can figure that out as they see everybody all fancy dressed and probably came from a ceremony. But you might want to explain how you’re connected. You might say, “I’ve known the bride and groom for 10 years. In fact, I introduced them.” And then you would give an anecdote or story that’s relevant and appropriate, and then you would thank everybody, and then maybe bring up the next speaker.

So, the WHAT, why are we here, how are you connected, anecdote or two, and then thank you can be a helpful way of introducing people or an event.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, could you show us that in action? Let’s just say there’s a project kickoff, everyone’s getting together, and they’re going around introducing themselves. Matt, could you show us the introduction of self in action?

Matt Abrahams
Yeah. So, I hate the, “Let’s all go around the table and introduce ourselves.” I think there are so many better ways to get to know each other and names. But if you have to do that, so what I like to do, I do a slight variation of what, so what, now what, in that I start with something provocative. Rather than saying, “Hi, my name is…” That’s boring. Everybody sort of tunes out.

So, I’ll start by saying, “I’m somebody who’s passionate about communication. My name is Matt, and I am a podcast host, an author, and a teacher. And I look forward to sharing with you what I’ve learned about communication and, more importantly, learning from you what you know about communication.” That’s how I would introduce myself. It’s a little more engaging. It allows me to animate and demonstrate my passion. And it really sets up the next step of the interaction.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And now let’s talk about being clear and concise.

Matt Abrahams
Many of us, when we speak spontaneously, we discover what we’re saying as we say it. So, we say more than we need to. My mother has this wonderful saying that really helps get to the crux of this. And I know she didn’t create it but I certainly attribute it to her. And her saying is, “Tell me the time, don’t build me the clock.”

Many of us are clock builders. We say way too much either because we want to demonstrate how much work we’ve done, or how smart we are, or just so into whatever it is we’re talking about, we give way more information than people need. And, in so doing, we can bore them, we can cause them to get confused, we can lose our place and where we’re trying to head. So, really being concise is critical, and there are lots of ways to be more concise.

The two that I like to start with is, one, you have to know your audience. You have to understand what’s important to them. The more relevant you can make your content, the more likely you can focus it on the needs of your audience. That’s number one. And number two, you really have to think about your goal. Whenever you communicate, you have a goal, and you have to think about that goal such that it will help you focus.

And, to me, a goal has three parts: information, emotion, and action. In other words, what do you want your audience to know? How do you want them to feel? And what do you want them to do? And even in the moment, when I’m walking into a situation where I have to speak spontaneously, I can quickly say what I want them to know, feel, and do, and that helps me focus what I say.

I bet, when you were doing impromptu speeches in high school, at some point, before you started speaking, you would think to yourself, “What is it I’m trying to accomplish here?” And whatever that answer was helped you focus your communication so you were clearer and more concise.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Matt, this is quite a lovely rundown here. So, those are our six steps. And so, I’m curious then, maybe we’ve done all that prep, and yet, still, someone puts us on the spot, we’re drawing a blank, what do we do?

Matt Abrahams
Yeah. So, the number one fear people report to me is, “What do I do when I blank out?” And we can reduce the likelihood of blanking out by having a clear goal, thinking about our audience, and leveraging a structure. Because, if you think about it, a structure gives you a map, and if you have a map, it’s hard to get lost.

So, I might know, not remember, or know exactly what I want to say next, but if I’m using a structure like what, so what, now what, and I know that I’ve just covered the what, I know that so what has to come next. So, it helps give me directionality. So, we can avoid blanking out by, first, really leveraging a structure and knowing our audience.

Now, let’s say the worst happens. Even though you’ve got a structure, even though you’re feeling good about your communication, for whatever reason, you blank out. In that moment, there are two things I recommend you do. One, go back to go forward. Repeat yourself. When you repeat yourself, often you will get yourself back on track.

It’s like when you lose your keys or your phone, what do you do? You retrace your steps so you can find your way. Same thing works. Second, if that doesn’t work, distract your audience. You just need a few seconds to get yourself back. Here’s how I do it.

Pete Mockaitis
“Look over there.”

Matt Abrahams
Not so much that way. Not the smoke and mirrors distraction. But here’s what I do. When I teach, I teach the same strategic communication course multiple times a year at the Stanford Business School, and sometimes I’ll forget, “Did I say that in this class? Have we covered this already?” And I just need a moment to collect my thoughts.

So, I’ll just stop wherever I’m at, and I’ll say to my students, I’ll say, “I want to pause for a moment. I’d like for you to think about how what we’ve just covered can be applied in your life.” And when I say that, my students don’t think, “Oh, Matt forgot.” My students think, like, “Oh, how could I apply this. It’s important. We should apply it. It’s nice that he’s giving us time to do that.”

I think all of us can come up with a question that we could ask pretty much anywhere in our communication that would give us just a few seconds. So, imagine you’re in an update meeting, a product meeting, you could pause, and say, “What’s the impact of what we’ve just discussed on our timeline or on the product we’re coming up with?” People will think about it, and in that moment, you can collect your thoughts.

So, if the worst happens, repeat yourself. If that doesn’t get you back on track, ask some kind of question, assert something that gets people thinking in a different way, and that gives you time to rethink what you’ve got to do.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really cool. And then I’m thinking of the project management or project kickoffs setting, it might be any number of great things to prompt people to think about it. Now, I guess in some ways, if the question is too far afield from what you were talking about, they’re like, “Huh? Why were you asking us to do this now?” Like, “I’d like for you to anticipate some of the sticking points as you imagine this playing out in process.” Like, “Really, you’re telling us about the financial projections? I don’t know why we’d do that now.”

Matt Abrahams
Yeah. Well, of course. So, of course, there are certain constraints but you could certainly say in the midst, you can say, “Now I want everybody to think back to the previous project. What were some of the sticking points that got in the way? Or, what are some of the financial issues?” Depending on whatever it was, people will start thinking.

And you could even say, “We’ve got some new people on the team. They don’t remember what it was like last time. I’d like each of you to just turn to somebody and share what a big issue it was for our last release, and then we can start talking more about where we’re going.” I don’t think a single person would question that at all, and it will help you be more effective.

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

Matt Abrahams
Yeah. So, I would just like to re-emphasize the fact that everybody can get better in their communication. The process I’ve delineated might sound intimidating, might sound like hard work. It’s not. You can do it in bite-size pieces. You can practice. The reality is this: the only way you get better at communication is the way you get better at everything else in life – repetition, reflection, and feedback.

If you’ve ever played a sport, a musical instrument, you had to practice. And then you had to reflect, “What’s working? What’s not working?” And then, finally, seek advice, guidance, and support from others so you can get better. I’ve seen it in my own life, I’ve seen it in the people I teach and I coach. You just have to take the time. You take small steps forward and it makes a huge, huge difference.

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

Matt Abrahams
So, a quote that I love, Pete, and thank you for asking this, is a quote by Mark Twain, and it’s got a little tongue in cheek here but it proves a point that I just made about how we can work to get better at spontaneous speaking. And Mark Twain said, “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”

And the point behind this is you have to put in work. You have to practice to get better at spontaneous speaking. Mark Twain knew it a long time ago. It still holds true today. And it puts a smile on my face every time I think about it, and I think it helps others understand what’s possible when it comes to spontaneous speaking.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And now could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Matt Abrahams
I have lots of favorite research points but I’ll share some research from a friend and colleague, her name is Alison Wood Brooks. She teaches at Harvard Business School. And a while back, she did some research that looked at how we can reframe our anxiety around speaking not as something that makes us anxious but as something that excites us.

It turns out that our physiological response to excitement and anxiety are exactly the same. Our bodies have one arousal response and we can reframe that and relabel it. So, instead of saying, “Oh, I’m so nervous,” we could say, “Hey, I’m really excited to do this.” And we can attribute those symptoms we’re feeling to excitement. And it actually ends up with us performing better, that is we feel better about how we did. And the audience sees us as doing better. So, I love that research.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Matt Abrahams
So, one of my favorite books of all time is a book called Improv Wisdom. It’s a book by Patricia Ryan Madson. I know Patricia, I’ve gotten to know her over the years. A very skinny book but it’s got lots of life changing advice that comes from the world of improvisation.

There are very few books that I have read where, upon closing the book, I have fundamentally changed my life based on what I’ve read. And this is one of those books, and it’s a book I return to often. So, it’s called Improv Wisdom Patricia Ryan Madson.

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

Matt Abrahams
So, I’ve already alluded to a few, there are two. Actually, you know what, there are several that I use. Let me share the most useful tool I think I use, and that is paraphrasing. I think paraphrasing is the Swiss Army knife of communication. You can use it for so many things. As a podcast host, I use it to really clarify what I heard my audience members say, my guests say.

I also use it as a tool to distribute airtime in a meeting. So, if somebody’s talking too much, I’ll paraphrase and throw it over to somebody else to talk some more. And I also use paraphrasing to clarify in my own life what it is I just heard somebody say. So, if one of my teenage kids, or somebody else in my life says something, and I want to validate that I heard it, and make sure that I got it right, I’ll use paraphrasing. So, that is the single most useful tool I use to be awesome at what I do.

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

Matt Abrahams
Well, first and foremost, I invite people to listen into Think Fast, Talk Smart, that’s a podcast I host. It’s short episodes all about communication. Definitely consider checking out the book Think Faster, Talk Smarter. I’m not that creative with my naming. It’s all about spontaneous speaking. And then if you go to MattAbrahams.com, you’ll find a whole bunch of resources I’ve put up there for all things communication. And if you’re a big LinkedIn user, feel free to link in with me as well.

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

Matt Abrahams
I challenge everyone to think about the impact communication has on the work that you do, and on the others that you work with, and I encourage you and challenge you to work on your communication so that you can be a better version of yourself, a better colleague, a better partner, a better parent. Communication will help you do that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Matt, this has been a treat. I wish you many fast thoughts and talks.

Matt Abrahams
Awesome. Pete, it’s been great to be back with you. Keep doing the good work that you do. Keep thinking fast and talking smart. Thank you.

862: How to Create and Choose Better Solutions with Sheena Iyengar

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Sheena Iyengar reveals the secret to how the world’s best thinkers come up with their biggest ideas–and how you can do it too.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How the world’s best ideas come to be
  2. How to identify what the actual problem is
  3. Where emotions fit into the creative process

About Sheena

Sheena S. Iyengar is the S.T. Lee Professor of Business at the Columbia Business School. She is one of the world’s experts on choice and innovation.

In 2010, her book, The Art of Choosing, was ranked by the Financial Times, McKinsey, and Amazon as one of the Best Business Books of the Year. Her recorded TED Talks have received a collective 7 million views and she regularly appears in top tier media such as The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The New Yorker, The Economist, Bloomberg Businessweek, CNBC, CNN, BBC, and NPR.

She regularly appears on the Thinkers50 list of the Most Influential Business Thinkers. In 2012, she was recognized by Poets and Quants as one of the Best Business School Professors for her work merging academia with practice.

Iyengar holds a dual degree from the University of Pennsylvania, with a BS in Economics from the Wharton School and a BA in psychology from the College of Arts and Sciences. She received her PhD from Stanford University.

In her personal life, as a blind woman, Iyengar intuitively used Think Bigger to find her calling and strives to inspire others to do the same.

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, Sponsors!

Sheena Iyengar Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis

Sheena, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Sheena Iyengar

Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, I’m excited to dig into your book Think Bigger: How to Innovate but, first, I want to get your take. So, you’re regarded as one of the leading experts on choosing. I’d love to hear about one of the trickiest decisions you’ve ever made and how you thought through it.

Sheena Iyengar

Wow, the trickiest decision I ever made. Well, I would say there were two really big choices I made in my life. The first was what was going to be my career. And I would say the best choice I ever made was to study choice. It wasn’t an easy choice, and it was a long path and, in many ways, I used…at that time, I didn’t know I was doing it, but I, essentially, created Think Bigger as I created that choice for myself. The second tricky choice I made was that I ended up getting divorced after 18 years of marriage, and that was not an easy choice to make.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, I bet. Wow. And thank you for sharing. And to the extent that you feel comfortable digging into that, how does one make such a choice?

Sheena Iyengar

Well, I, actually, in many ways, used my learnings in my own research to help me make that choice. I kept asking myself the question in lots of different ways. I kept looking at my own data, as in “What would be the worst-case scenario for me if I did X versus Y? What would be the best-case scenario? How would I handle it?” And I looked at what had happened to other people. And so, what did the science show about the consequences for other people?

And then I would ask myself, “If those consequences were to happen to me, what would I do about it?” And I found that no matter how I asked the question and how I framed it, I kept coming back to the same desire. And so, then I realized that I didn’t really know how it was all going to work out but that was enough to tell me, after about two years of going back and forth on it, I realized that I had made the choice.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, thank you for sharing that, and that’s certainly thought-provoking.

Sheena Iyengar

But you don’t want to make a decision like what career are you going to do for the rest of your life, or whether you’re going to get a divorce in a second.

Pete Mockaitis

Certainly. Well, so now let’s hear about your book Think Bigger. Any particularly striking discoveries here that have really stuck with you?

Sheena Iyengar

I would say that the most important thing about Think Bigger for people to understand is that, up until now, everything we’ve been taught about how to innovate, how to come up with your best ideas, is old, it’s outdated. What Think Bigger does is takes advantage of recent research in neuroscience for the last 20 years that, literally, tells us how the mind works when it forms thoughts that we haven’t been leveraging it to help us actually become better ideators.

And Think Bigger is the first book that does this. It brings together neuroscience and cognitive science to give you a new way of ideating. And so, for most people, the go-to method, when they need to solve a problem, or when they want an idea, is they engage in some form of mind wandering, or they say, “Look, I’m stuck. Let’s get a bunch of people together, and let’s do a brainstorm.” And Think Bigger says, “You know what, you can do better.”

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, so I’m intrigued. Fundamentally, is there a key factor, or factors, that distinguish those who come up with amazing ideas from those who don’t? Is it just about the practices they’re engaged in?

Sheena Iyengar

You mean what distinguishes the people like the Einsteins and the Bezos and the Bill Gates, so to speak?

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah.

Sheena Iyengar

I would say, yes, we tend to think that the great innovators were special people that happened to be in special places or in special moments. And while you can often tell a lot of people’s stories that way because those are really good narratives to tell, I think, in truth, when you look at all the great innovations throughout history, there is actually a common denominator as to what the method is.

Until now, the great innovators did it subconsciously but we actually know how they did it, and having that knowledge enables anybody to do it. And that’s, essentially, what Think Bigger is. It shows you the framework and it gives you the toolkit so that whatever problem you have, you can actually just, in a very disciplined way, go about and come up with an idea. So, think of Think Bigger is offering the alternative to brainstorming, or sort of uninhibited or uncensored mind wandering.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, so I’m eager to go into each of the six steps here for a bit of time. First, maybe could you kick us off with a cool story of someone who did just that, they walked through the process and saw some great stuff at the other end?

Sheena Iyengar

So, one of my favorite examples is Nancy Johnson mainly because we don’t really talk about her very much and, yet, she actually produced one of those rare products that is universally liked. It’s very hard to find somebody who doesn’t like what she put together. It’s accessible whether you’re rich or poor. And it’s hard to find anybody that hates it.

So, Nancy Johnson was the one who made it possible for every single person, no matter where you are in the world, to have ice cream. In the early 1800s, ice cream was very expensive. In fact, George Washington paid $200 for ice cream. That’s expensive today. Just think how expensive it was back then.

Pete Mockaitis

And it rotted his teeth so he had to have wood ones.

Sheena Iyengar

Exactly. And so, Nancy Johnson lived in Philadelphia. She was a woman in her 50s. She was the wife of a chemistry professor. She was also an abolitionist, so she was part of the underground railroad. And so, she’s noticing how ice cream is being made, and why it’s so expensive. And so, back then, they would have a big bowl, they would fill it with ice, and then they would put a smaller bowl in there, fill it with cream, and they would stir, stir, stir, stir, stir.

And while they were stirring, the ice cream would start to melt, and it would also form lumps, and it was also backbreaking labor. And so, here’s what she did. And, in fact, I’ll describe to you the story in a way that also essentially gives you the method. So, she said, “Okay, how do I make the process of making ice cream easier and, essentially, cheaper? Well, what’s getting in my way?”

“First, it’s backbreaking labor. Second, how do I keep it cold as we’re stirring it? And third, how do I prevent lumps?” So, those are the subparts of her problem that she needs to solve for in order to solve for the bigger problem. Well, how do we keep it cold? You take a large water pail that had already been around for 400 years, you fill that up with ice, and then you find something that you put in it that knows how to keep things cold.

Well, what was something that people regularly used to keep liquid cold? In the taverns where she was, as a woman, not really allowed to go, they would serve beer in pewter mugs. Well, what about putting the cream in pewter? So, now you have a pail filled with ice, and the inner bowl made of pewter. You put the cream in there.

Now, how do I make the labor of stirring it not as arduous? What if we take a grinder, a hand grinder that was used for making coffee, for grinding coffee or spices? Now, how do we prevent the lumps? I’m going to attach to that grinder spatulas that have holes in them. So, one of the things that she learned from the runaway slaves that often came from the sugar plantations was that when making molasses, they would have to stir really hot liquid that could easily form crystals.

And what they found was that if you put holes in the spatula, the liquid would go through and it would be less likely to form crystals. Why not do the same thing with a cold cream? You put these elements together – the pail, the pewter, bowl, the hand grinder, the spatula with the holes – and you have a new technology that was deemed a disruptive technology in 1843 by the Library of Congress.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. There you have it.

Sheena Iyengar

I happen to love ice cream and I love the example of Nancy Johnson.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, that’s a cool one, for sure. And so, I did see that outline, we got six steps. Step one, choose the problem. Step two, break down the problem. Step three, compare wants. Step four, search in and out of the box. Step five, choice map. And step six, the third eye. So, I’d love for you to elaborate on each of these a bit. But, first, I’m just going to say, I noticed none of the steps, nor in the story, is there a, “Oh, have a eureka moment in which a thunderbolt of insight arrives out of nowhere.” Where does that fall into the things?

Sheena Iyengar

We love eureka moments, and I certainly want you to continue to have eureka moments because they’re powerful in terms of helping us keep motivated. But when you actually look at people and you follow them over the course of weeks, whether they’re a scientist or an artist, it turns out that about 20% of your ideas happen as eurekas, about 80% happen not as eurekas, they’re just happening during your work.

We tend to initially love those eureka ideas because they feel special somehow and it happens in your dream or when you’re doing a jog. Over time though, most of those eureka moments are less likely to actually be adapted. So, we do tend to overweigh the aha moments. That doesn’t mean that they’re irrelevant because those aha moments can help us in reframing the question, and they just remind us why we care.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah. Okay. Well, so if it’s not a eureka moment, then is the moment in which the new idea appears more like, “Oh, let me try this. That didn’t quite work out. Maybe if it were a little bit longer or maybe if it had holes in it”? Is it more like that, “So, let’s make a modest adjustment to this thing I just tried”?

Sheena Iyengar

So, that’s when you’re talking about being purely experimental. You can actually be more strategic and more deliberative about that. A great idea is “I’m having a problem with X.” So, let’s say in my case, I am blind. I remember when I first started to teach, nobody knew how you could have a blind person get up and start teaching. Nobody had the answer to that, like, “Well, I don’t know, you can’t engage in eye contact,” or, “You’re not going to see people raise their hands,” or a gazillion things came up as to what a blind person could or could not do.

And so, the way you frame the problem is you say, “Okay, how would one engage an audience if you can’t see them? What would you do?” Well, what does an audience want? And what other kinds of people can help you with that? So, for example, you couldn’t give them eye contact, but what are other things, that other kinds of entertainers, different from teachers, use? And so, I actually learned quite a few tactics from actresses, from personal trainers, from comedians, and that’s how I pull together a teaching style.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, now I want to know. What do they do? And what do you do?

Sheena Iyengar

What do I do?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Sheena Iyengar

Oh, well, lots of things. For example, I had an actress that taught me things like body language and hand gestures. Rather than having people raise their hands, I’ll often have them clap their hands, “If you agree with me, clap your hands. If you disagree, now clap your hands.” And then I’ll let them tell me which side was louder. It’s actually, in some ways, better than having them raise their hands.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, cool.

Sheena Iyengar

Those are just two examples.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, so, yeah, let’s hear about each of these steps here. Step one, choose the problem. That sounds pretty direct and straightforward. But is there some nuance here, Sheena?

Sheena Iyengar

So, most companies end up, about 72% of companies end up failing in their solution because they end up discovering, after they’ve created the solution, that it’s actually the solution to the wrong problem. We’re terrible at actually defining our problem right. As Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to save the planet, I would spend the first 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about the solution.”

And there’s a lot of wisdom in that statement because a lot of your solution really depends on defining that problem well. We either define our problem as too vague, or too big such that it’s unsolvable, or so trivial or irrelevant that nobody cares. It’s really defining it in a way that’s both concrete and meaningful. And you want to define it in a way that’s a question rather than embedding a solution in it because it’s only when you define it as a question that you’re going to be open-minded.

Pete Mockaitis

Can you give us some examples of well-defined problems versus their poorly defined counterparts?

Sheena Iyengar

Oh, that’s a great question. Okay. Well, “How do I solve the problem of climate change?” Terrible question.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay.

Sheena Iyengar

“How do I create a car that’s affordable?” That’s a doable question.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. So, the first one is just so huge.

Sheena Iyengar
It’s just too big.

Pete Mockaitis

It’s not getting us anywhere helpful from an innovation perspective.

Sheena Iyengar
“How do I know if somebody is passionate?” Not a good question. Too vague.

Pete Mockaitis

And then what would be the better version of that?

Sheena Iyengar

“How do I find something that I want to spend many hours doing?”

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And can you give us some better versions that are climate-adjacent to sharpen the contrast?

Sheena Iyengar

Sure. “How do I create a substitute for meat that people want to eat?” And we already see companies doing that.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, let me get your take on this one. “How do I create market incentives for automakers to reduce their emissions?” How’s that feel? Pros, cons.

Sheena Iyengar

So, for that one, you have to first know, “Is the problem emanating from the car companies or from the buyers?”

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, got you. Yes, so there’s a solution or assumption embedded in it.

Sheena Iyengar
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. So, it sounds like choosing the problem, we’ve got to do some homework before we can even hope to make a statement that is a good choice. Is that fair to say?

Sheena Iyengar

You’re going to do a lot of work, and you’re going to probably keep tweaking and tweaking and tweaking the problem you’re trying to solve till the very end.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay.

Sheena Iyengar

It’s just like writing a paper. You often write your first sentence at the very end.

Pete Mockaitis

Understood.

Sheena Iyengar

Although you knew what it was, generally speaking, at the very beginning, and you keep writing towards it, but you’re still tweaking.

Pete Mockaitis

Okey-dokey.

Sheena Iyengar

So, then just like Nancy Johnson, after you’ve defined the problem, you then break it down into its most important subparts. Now, every problem has many, many layers, so you’ve got to be able to identify the most important ones. And I say somewhere between three and five, sometimes I let you go up to six, but beyond that it’s cognitively paralyzing so you’re not going to do a good job. You’ve got to make this doable.

Actually, the way to think about Think Bigger is that there are, essentially, two tools. The first is a choice map, and the second is what we call the big picture, it’s where you compare wants. And so, the choice map is where you define your problem, you break it down. And then for every subproblem that you have, you then go search. You search first in industry, and then you search across to many other industries that have nothing to do with your industry, but you’re searching for the way in which they have solved for an analogous problem.

“What other objects do people use to keep liquid cold?” for example. “What other sorts of backbreaking labor is there that has the problem of things getting lumpy?” Another example. So, you look in totally different industries that have to deal with an analogous problem, and you see what they’re doing, and then you obviously have to, in some ways, adapt or edit their tactic but you’re importing it in.

And so, you do that for every subproblem. You’re searching. So, we often think that the part of ideation is just sitting there and reflecting. I’m not doing that. I’m saying the actual ideation process itself is its own exercise, a mental exercise. And so, you create a choice map where you have your problem, you break it down, and for each subproblem, you find ways of solving it that has worked in the past. And now you combine those tactics, just like Nancy Johnson did to create a machine. That’s how you have your greatest innovations.

That’s true whether you’re looking at Nancy Johnson’s ice cream machine, or Henry Ford’s car, or Netflix, or Amazon, or Paul McCartney’s great song “Yesterday.”

Pete Mockaitis

That’s intriguing. So, songwriting, you follow the same process.

Sheena Iyengar

It’s the same thing, yes. Most innovators though are not being as deliberative as I’m saying. Most innovators are doing what I’m talking about subconsciously. What Think Bigger is about is making you more conscious so that you can do it whenever you want. You can do it on command, and you can practice it and get better and better and better at it.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, I’m really intrigued with the example of a song. Can you walk us through how those steps apply when the innovation doesn’t feel so much like a patent or invention but a work of words put together?

Sheena Iyengar

Let’s take something that’s a little more visual that might be easier to explain. So, let’s take, say you want an example from, say, Picasso or Lady Liberty, let’s take Lady Liberty since that’s a piece of art that everybody, no matter where in the globe, would have seen. So, everybody knows the Statue of Liberty.

And we love the Statue of Liberty for all that she stands for and what she means, etc. Now, we assume that the person who made her was a genius, and certainly what he did and what he created, ultimately, is a masterpiece. But how did Frederic Bartholdi get the idea? So, I’m going to strip away, I’m not going to tell his life story, I’m not going to tell you all the hardships and struggles he had. I’m just going to answer the question, “How did he get his idea?”

So, he loved the massive sculptures that were guarding the Egyptian tombs so much so that we have seen earlier drawings of a big lady dressed in robes, carrying a light that he wanted to be made for the Suez Canal entrance. So, Lady Liberty kind of has that feeling to her. There was, at the time, when he was building Lady Liberty, a very famous painting in Paris by a painter by the name of Lefebvre called “La Verite,” “The Lady of Truth.”

There was also Libertas, the Roman goddess who was on every five Franc coin at the time when Frederic Bartholdi was making Lady Liberty. And so, you now have Lady Liberty, the posture which we get from “La Verite,” Libertas, which was how he get the crown. Now what about the face? The face of Lady Liberty, there’s many poems written about those eyes that are inscrutable yet kind. That face was that of his mother.

So, what does every person do when they generate a solution, whether they’re an artist, whether they’re a scientist, whether they’re someone who’s making a new patent or product, whether they’re just trying to come up with an idea? They are combining elements that they have come to become aware of, and they’re combining them in a new way, and that’s what makes them creative and unique.

Now, of course, it’s not mere combination because many combinations are clunky. And so, there is an artfulness to the combination where the whole has to feel greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, that’s cool. Understood. So, combination, that’s what makes it creative. And then the steps are means by which that unfolds.

Sheena Iyengar

That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, yeah, could we keep cruising here about step three, compare wants.

Sheena Iyengar

So, compare wants is where you get away from the choice map or you get away from the gathering of information that’s both in your industry and out of your industry. Compare wants says, “You know what, let me also ask, what is it that I want the feeling to be like if I were to come up with a solution? What do I, the creator, want? What would my customers, or whatever, my target audience want? And who might be my gatekeepers and allies? And what would they want?”

And so, think of these as those emotions. So, emotions don’t go into your choice map, which is where you’ve got your problem, your subproblems, and your strategies. The big picture, the compare wants, is where you are really highlighting, “Okay, I, as the ideator, I want to be famous. I want it to be used by everybody. My customers, well, they want it to be affordable. They want it to make their life feel more luxurious. Gatekeepers, might be, ‘Well, how do you deal with competitors that might try to thwart you?’ Allies. Well, who else would care about this and want to help me make this happen? So, what do they want.”

And so, once you collect up the desires of all these different entities, what you do is you now look at your various solutions that you’ve created, and you ask yourself, “Which one fits the most number of these desires?” and that’s how you pick.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And then, I’m curious, within the choice map, do we have a specific picture, diagram, document that that looks like?

Sheena Iyengar

Yes. So, I know we’re doing a chat here on audio but, yes, we do have. I think of the prototypic choice map as a five by five where you have, let’s say, on average, five subproblems, and, let’s say, on average, per subproblem, I really try to get people to at least get five different ways to solve that subproblem because you need choice, and only one or two of them can be within an industry. The bulk of them should be out of industry because that’s how you get out-of-the-box ideas.

And so, what you then do is you now, let’s say, have a five-by-five matrix filled out, and now what you do is you take one tactic per row, and you line them up in your head, and you ask yourself, “What could I imagine doing? How would I combine these?” That’s how choice mapping works. I have different strategies by which I teach people how to imagine and how to take strategies that you wouldn’t ordinarily combine together.

So, there’s also like a random component to really get you to come up with some really unusual solutions. But in a five by five, you can generate about 3,125 unique solutions. That’s actually far more than your typical brainstorming session.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. So, could you give us an example there in terms of what might be five columns and then five rows, and then a couple combinations?

Sheena Iyengar

Okay. Well, that’s going to be quite a bit to keep track of. So, let’s imagine Netflix. So, when Reed Hastings, so what was the problem he was trying to solve when he initially got started, “How do I make movie-watching more pleasant at home?” That was his irritation. And so, he had the first was, “Well, how do I make it so that I don’t have to lift my butt and go down the block to return a movie every day, otherwise I get a late fee?”

“How do I reduce the cost of, say, the inventory of actually having a store at every block, that actually cost money in terms of rent? And I also want to, while I’m at it, increase the number of options that people have.” So, let’s just take those two. So, let’s say the first, like, “How do I reduce the inconvenience of having to raise my butt, move my butt?” Well, he could have it in every building, maybe have it as a soda pop machine, but now you’re going to give people movies. That could be one solution.

Or, he could do what Bezos was starting to do, which was, well, he was sending books to people, vis-à-vis, online. So, any one of those tactics could be used. In fact, there is a company that sells videos, or you can go rent videos using a soda pop machine. “How do I create a fee structure that isn’t annoying because I really find it annoying to have late fees?” Well, there are other options that you could use other than late fees to make sure you get enough revenue.

“Well, it could be that I use the gym membership model where you can use it as much as you want, and you just have a flat monthly fee. Or, I could say, ‘Look, I’m only going to give you a certain number of movies per week.’” The list goes on in terms of how many different ways in which you could create your fee structure but you had to go out of industry. At that time, it was unheard of to do anything other than what Blockbuster was doing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, I’ve got some specific tactics that can meet the no travel or no late fees.

Sheena Iyengar
Yeah. And so, ultimately, what did Reed Hastings do? He takes the fee structure of gym membership, plus the no inventory cost, and yet a lot of movie selections, or not no inventory, less inventory costs and yet a lot of variety through going online. And then he takes advantage of a brand-new technology that had just come into the market called the DVD, and that creates your first mail-order movie. People often forget that it actually started with mail-order movies.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. So, the Netflix as a whole is the combination of several tactics that each are solving a key subproblem.

Sheena Iyengar

Yes. And so, Netflix, when it first got started was just a combination of Planet Fitness plus Amazon, plus the DVD.

Pete Mockaitis

And I’ve heard that, is it called the high-level pitch or the concept pitch, which is often how a lot of things are explained? Like, “It’s like Airbnb, but for your car.” It’s like, “Oh, okay. I understand what you’re saying.” And then, in a way, that concept of pitching or summarizing an idea is just sharing the combinations that are popping for the choice map.

Sheena Iyengar
Yeah, you’re extracting the most relevant tactic but you’re not, like, stealing all of Amazon, you’re not stealing all of Planet Fitness, but you’re extracting the most relevant tactic that applies to your subproblem. And so, yes, analogical thinking is relevant. You’re absolutely right.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And then step six, the third eye. What’s this about?

Sheena Iyengar

So, the third eye, a lot of times people spend a lot of money once they have an idea, and they decide they’re going to either pretotype or prototype, and they end up prototyping a lot of mediocre ideas. And I don’t think you need to rush to do that. There’s actually very inexpensive and fun way to actually learn how your idea will be perceived because we all have that feeling where you’ve got an idea, and you think it’s great, and yet you go describe it to your spouse, and they’re like, “Huh?”

And so, what the third eye is it’s a unique way of learning how others will perceive your idea. I call it the good way of getting feedback but it’s not getting feedback by asking people, “Hey, I’m going to describe this to you. Tell me what you think.” No, I never ask you what you think because that’s actually not helpful to me to know if you like or hate it. How is that useful to me?

What I really need to know is, when I describe my idea to you, what questions do you ask me? If I were to ask you how you would describe my idea back to me, how would you describe it? Because that’s how I learn what you heard and what you’re seeing, and what stuck out at you and what didn’t, and what were the gaps. And that then helps me to further flesh it out.

And so, to give you an example, if that would be helpful here, let’s take Paul McCartney’s legendary song “Yesterday.” If you read the folk stories about it, it’ll say that he just woke up one morning with the tune in his head, and the rest is history. It’s true that he woke up with some tune in his head, and he immediately got up and he wrote it down, but he didn’t actually know whether it was a good tune or not.

He had that insight to understand that he just had no idea if he had just reinvented the wheel or what. By the way, most of the times when we have a new idea, it is often redundant with whatever is already out there. So, that was actually a very useful insight on his part and a useful worry on his part. But what he did was he created some nonsensical phrases to just hold the tune in his head. And he started to just hum the tune to different people, and say, “Hey, have you heard this before?” He didn’t ask them, “Do you like this?” “Have you heard this before?”

“No, no, it sounds familiar but, no, I don’t think I’ve actually heard it.” And every time he plays it and he hums it, he starts fleshing it out a little more, “Hey, have you heard this before?” “No, no.” Eventually, after he’s built it out enough, he realizes, “Hmm, let me start putting some real words to this.” And he put some words, and then he takes a guitar.

And he was lefthanded but he was given a righthanded guitar, and he just played it with the wrong hand because, in part, he just wanted to hear how it was sounding, and let other people hear so that he could see whether they were hearing what he was hearing. Was it a song? And so, that’s how, little by little, he’s forming the song.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Well, Sheena, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention about innovation, key steps, best practices before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Sheena Iyengar

I think, too often, we think that creativity is like magic, and that it’ll just happen. Like, when you least expect it, it’ll happen in this flash of a second, and that it’s kind of out of your control, it happens to special people or in special moments. And I guess what I most want people to take away is the idea that it actually is not magic. You can train yourself to do it, and you actually do get better and better with practice, and it is something you can practice doing.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Sheena Iyengar

Well, my favorite quote is by Bob Dylan, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. It’s not about finding anything. It’s about creating yourself.”

Pete Mockaitis

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

Sheena Iyengar

I still really am surprised at how good the jam study was that I did so many years ago. I didn’t realize how important a study it was even when I did it. But if you show people six jams versus 24 jams, when they see 24, they’re more likely to get curious and stop and sample it than when they see six, but they were 10 times more likely to buy a jar of jam when they encountered six than when they encountered 24.

And that, I did in the year 2000, and I didn’t know that it was actually a moment, it was a tipping point that we were actually entering a world where we really were having exited the amount of choice we had in the ‘90s was high but that it was really going to get even higher. And so, yeah, I think that ever since, if anything our world has become more complex, more information, more choices, and that understanding that we do have cognitive limitations, so that the best way for any of us to get the most from choice, to get the most from life, is to actually be very mindful about what kind of choices we want and for what.

In fact, the choice map that I was describing to you, it’s a tool you can use for ideation but it’s, ultimately, a decision-making tool. You can use the choice map to help you discern which choices are better and worse, to help you figure out what are the most important criteria you need for any choice that you’re looking at to fulfill. So, it’s not just a choice-creation tool, it’s also a picking tool, choice-selection tool.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Sheena Iyengar

I suppose whenever I need inspiration, and I’m feeling down or anything, I always love, one of my go-to books is The Prophet. I also really love Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Sheena Iyengar

My favorite tool then probably is my Apple Watch. It keeps me on time. It has actually made my life a lot easier. And actually, this might surprise you, it’s now old fashion to use paper and pen. The equivalent of that for a blind person is Braille paper and a stylus, like slate and stylus. It’s like handwriting Braille, almost no blind people will handwrite Braille anymore because your Braille, just like give a laptop for normal typewriter, you have that for Braille. But I still find being able to hand-Braille to be really, really useful. It just helps me think better.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And a favorite habit, something you do that helps you be awesome at your job?

Sheena Iyengar

Every single day, the first thing I do when I wake up is I ask myself, “What are the three most important things I need to do today?” And that helps me reduce the clutter because there’s so much coming at you every single day.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Sheena Iyengar

To get the most from choice, you have to be choosy about choosing.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Sheena Iyengar

Well, you can find me on LinkedIn. You can come find me at the Columbia Business School where I’m a faculty member. You can email me.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Sheena Iyengar

Never feel that you can’t make your life better. There’s a lot of times we have dreams, and not all our dreams get fulfilled, but the great thing about dreams is they come in in endless supply pack. And if you’re able to pick other dreams and figure out which dreams you can make come real, do it.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Sheena, this has been a treat. I wish you much fun and many big thoughts.

Sheena Iyengar

Thank you.

861: Helping Others Feel Heard, Valued, and Understood through Active Listening with Heather Younger

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Heather Younger shares the simple steps anyone can take to help others feel heard and valued.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why others feel like we aren’t listening—even when we are
  2. The wrong and right way to paraphrase what you heard 
  3. How to keep your patience when things get heated 

About Heather

Heather R. Younger is the founder and CEO of Employee Fanatix. She is an international keynote speaker, host of the “Leadership with Heart” podcast, and a workplace culture, employee engagement and diversity, equity and inclusion consultant. Heather has a law degree from the University of Colorado Boulder. She is the best-selling author of The 7 Intuitive Laws of Employee Loyalty and The Art of Caring Leadership.

Resources Mentioned

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Heather Younger Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis

Heather, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Heather Younger

Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom of your book The Art of Active Listening: How People at Work Feel Heard, Valued, and Understood. That sure sounds handy.

Heather Younger
It is very much handy, yes.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah. Well, I’m intrigued. I love that you’ve really done your homework here. I saw that you had done surveys of over 30,000 people here in your research putting this bad boy together. I’d love to hear, when you have this rich treasure trove of data, any particularly striking, surprising, counterintuitive discoveries popped out at you there?

Heather Younger

I’ve got to say that this is an evolution, and of the 30,000 surveys were surveys I did on behalf of clients where we reviewed every single comment inside those employee surveys, and hundreds of focus groups I did personally facilitate. And so, in that, I have to just say that it came down to listening, like it was the lack of feeling heard that was a huge determining factor as it related to internal employees and external customers.

And I’ve known it for a while. I started off doing kind of customer experience and listening to customers, and doing that in a variety of ways but also with surveys. I would just remember one particular gentleman, he was a lab tech at a hospital, and this has been, like, probably 14 years ago. And I remember him giving some feedback, and then he asked us to adjust some things related to this conference we were doing, and then we went back and we made the changes and requests based upon the tweaks he was requesting in the conference, and how we had things set up changed.

We told him that they’re going to change, and he came to the conversation, he saw that the flow changed. And he came to me after, and he said, “I’m going to be honest. We’ve been working with this company for years but this is the very first time I’ve ever felt heard.” And it was because we took in the feedback, we sat as a group to figure out what we were going to do about the feedback, we acted, and decided we were going to act, we let him know we were going to act, acted, told him we acted, he saw we acted, and then we followed back of each other to determine if that action was good enough or not, that we followed a process.

And I noticed ever since then when I was working with internal customers and external customers, that using that process for active listening is what, in the end, make people go, “Aha, I’ve actually been heard.” It made all the difference.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, Heather, it’s funny, that doesn’t that revolutionary, no offense, and yet I have a hunch that this sensical approach may not be so much common practice if that client said, “This is the first time I felt heard.” Is that your vibe? Like, what proportion of folks do feel heard versus unheard?

Heather Younger

Well, I think there’s many of us that don’t. If you think about, particularly in the workplace, customers often are left feeling like they’re just a means to an end of us arriving at a number on our end goal, of our revenues, so they’re often not feeling heard. Then you have employees who feel like they’re victims inside the workplace, like things are happening to them all the time and they have no say with how that’s all going to happen, how it’s going to roll out for them.

What I would say about the five, the cycle of active listening is that most of the steps are super intuitive and most people do about 60% of them, 60% of the framework, and 40% they don’t. And the 40% that don’t is where they drop the ball and why most people don’t feel heard. As we walk through the process, I would say decoding and closing the loop are the two that seem to be the most foreign for most when I was speak from stages about it.

Decoding is this idea that, after we receive feedback from someone, after we listen to someone, we lean in to hear what someone is saying to us, and we think we got it, we think we know what’s going on. Most of us jump straight to the fourth step, which is action. We want to go act upon what they just asked us to do. We want to go act on what we heard to solve an issue.

And what I’m telling people is not to go act immediately, unless it’s a life-or-death situation. You need to pause. And the pause could be two days, two weeks, normally it’s two months, but it’s some time to process what it is we heard, to reflect by ourselves or with other people, to research maybe what our response should be based upon what the people are telling us, and then act, or then go back to the client and tell him you want to act, or then go back and tell him you can’t act.

And after you’ve acted, go back to the person and say, “Well, I listened to you, I heard what you said. You wanted this thing and we went and did that thing. And I don’t know about you, but it seemed like the results are great. What do you think? Okay, because we did this based upon your feedback. Thank you for giving us that feedback because it helps us get better, and you helped us get better by using your voice.”

That is a complete foreign concept, Pete. Most people are not doing that. Most people, most organizations do not do that process. They don’t close the loop. They don’t go back after they’ve taken action on behalf of another person, and tell the other person that they’ve taken the action because of them.

They don’t go back and thank them for that feedback. They don’t go back and tell them about the tweaks they’re making in the process as they’re making them. And that is where we drop the ball and there’s the gap between when we think we’re listening and when people feel heard on the other side.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, that’s really powerful. And I’ve been guilty of that myself. I’m thinking about one of my producers, Ria, who’s great, and she did a really great job of proactively highlighting how my vocal processing sounded a little different under certain circumstances on the podcast, and I was completely unaware. And so, I dug deep and did all the stuff and through quite a process of sort of thinking through what are all the steps associated with how the audio gets mixed and mastered and whatnot.

And then it’s sort of like, “Oh, yeah, by the way, thanks for mentioning that because we did this whole thing and changed it up, and now I think it’s a lot more natural.” And she’s like, “Oh, well, thank you for letting me know. I had no idea.” I was like, “Yeah, I guess you wouldn’t unless I would say it, and I didn’t say it.” It’s funny, I don’t know what the holdup is. Maybe it’s just the time gap there in terms of it’s like, “Oh, we had that conversation months ago,” and then I’m off to another thing.

Heather Younger

Yes, that’s exactly right. That’s exactly what happens with most people, too. Time goes by, they think, “Oh, do we really need to give them that? Do they really need to know about that? I don’t think I have time for that. It’s not that important to that person that I do that,” and that is the wrong way to think about it.

We actually give people a gift by doing this whole process. When they see that we’ve taken the time to reflect on their feedback, that we’ve processed it, that we’ve done our research, that we’ve decided how we’re going to act, and we go talk to them about it, we do that action and we tell them that we’ve done it, and they see the direct correlation between their voices, they’re actively using their voices, and our response to them.

It’s powerful, because, otherwise, again, we’re just kind of sitting around like this, like in the world wondering, like you did wondering, “What? I didn’t know that.” We think we see something change, we think it’s based upon our feedback, but we have no clue it’s directly tied to us until the person or the people who did the thing tell us it was because of us.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah. And that feels so great because I think all of us like to contribute, feel like we matter, made a difference. And if you can feel like you are a part of having made a real difference or contribution, by merely having maybe a quick conversation, it’s like, “Hey, remember we chatted about 15 minutes about that thing one time? Well, now, look how the world is completely different for thousands of people based on that conversation.” Like, “Oh, awesome. That’s the coolest thing, huge impact, low effort. Can I get some more of this, please?”

Heather Younger

Oh, I love it. Yes, exactly. So, I think that’s exactly right. You feed the need for people. And when we think about that baby who’s in the crib, you think about us when we’re babies, we’re in a crib, and we start making noises, and we go, “Ooh, ahh,” we make all kinds of noises, and our parents come, and go, “Oh, how are you, sweetheart, dah, dah, dah.” And, all of a sudden, we’re just like, “Ahh,” we’re just like, “Oh, they heard me.”

I’m thinking about I have four children, so I don’t know who’s listening, who has any kids, but I have four children, and as I think about each of them, and a couple of them are more rambunctious than others, as they would make those same sounds and I would not respond to them, they would start to throw things out of the crib. They would kick the crib. They would make all kinds of noises because they were like, “Wait a second. You usually come. You’re not coming now. Are you hearing this thing I’m using? It’s called a voice. Are you hearing me?”

That is innate in us. Our voice is a significant part of what makes us, us. So, the more we use that and people respond to it in kind, it makes us feel powerful. It makes us feel important. That’s a gift we give to people.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, now, we talked about the five-step framework a bit. Could you share with us each of the five steps and maybe a demonstration or a case of it unfolding in action?

Heather Younger

So, the first step is recognize the unsaid. And it kind of speaks for itself but it’s kind of like those unspoken cues, the signs within a culture, the signs within our office that something is just not right, and we don’t recognize those signs if we’re running around with our heads chopped off, if we don’t take time to pause, but those signs could be blind spots in a really big way into relationship failures, conflicts that are brewing, customers that aren’t happy. There’s a lot of things that we are missing if we don’t take time to pause and recognize those things.

So, recognize the unsaid is the first step because we need to get there for our awareness to expand so we can then go to the next step, which is seeking to understand. Once we see the signs, now we have to go deeper, have the courage to go deeper, and start asking and leaning in and asking questions, and going back and forth, and trying, with curiosity, figure out what’s happening, what the person needs from us, what took place, whatever. But we can’t do that until we recognize the unsaid. And so, the seeking is that whole reflective listening, it’s the empathetic listening, it’s the leaning in, it’s trying to understand what the other person needs from us.

That third step is the decoding phase, which is what I talked about earlier, which really is the time we take to go reflect. We pause and reflect on what the person told us in the seeking to understand phase. We go reflect. We research. We do it by ourselves. We do it with our management team. We do it with our team, our colleagues, whoever we need to, that’s what we do in that phase.

And the decoding says to the person on the other end, “I think you are so important that I’m not going to rush to a decision. I’m going to pause. I’m going to take some time with what you said. It’s important what you said.” And then action is the next step. So, okay, you’re going to take action, or you can’t action but maybe you can come to a compromise. Or, what kind of action are you going to take? So, you’ve got to take some kind of action because people will say, “Oh, the dots really start to be connected then. Oh, they actually changed something. They did something different based upon what my voice said to them, what I said to them. Oh, okay.”

And then the closing loop is that last step, which is to come back full circle to say what you’ve done, what you plan to do, or what you can’t do but how you might be able to come to a compromise so that they know, “Okay, Pete took time. He sat with me. He took the view that he told me I was going to take a few days before he could research and come back to me.”

“But he came back to me when he promised he’d come back to me. And then when he came back to me, they had a solution. And the solution was better than what I thought it was. And they told me they’re going to go about kind of putting the solution in place, and they did it. And Pete told me when they did it, and I looked, and I saw, and it was great, and it was because of me.”

That’s the five-step process. That’s kind of how that comes together, and that is kind of a real-life working because there’s stuff that’s happening all day to us. How we respond in a moment that makes all the difference.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, could you give us a demonstration?

Heather Younger

Well, I think part of it is just, like, you come to us, you say something to me. Let’s just say, a customer is complaining about a process. So, let’s say you’re a customer who complains to me about there’s a process that’s happened and I’m leaning in, “So, tell me more, Pete. Tell me more what’s happening?” and I’m asking all the questions.

And I get to the point where I’m like, “I think I understand. So, Pete, I just want to make sure I understand. This part of the process was really frustrating you and your team. It’s making the whole relationship kind of go downhill. You’re frustrated and you’re at your wit’s end at this point. And you’re coming to me because you feel like I’m the last person that you can listen to you, that can maybe do something about what’s happening to you, right? Is that what I’m getting to? Is that what’s happening, Pete?”

Then you say, Pete, “Yeah, that’s exactly right.” “Okay, Pete, thank you so much for that feedback. I need to go and talk to a few different departments and maybe even, like, my manager, to see what we can do, and, actually, just to look into this more fully. Is that okay if I come back to you within the next 72 hours with what we found, and maybe a solution?” And Pete says, “That’s great. Thanks, Heather. Thanks for at least trying.”

Okay. So, I go about and I’m talking to the shipping department, and this department, and I go talk to the manager, and I go, “Here’s what’s happening to the customer. They’re not happy. Here’s what they’re really wanting. Here’s part of the process that’s really broken. And I talk to these different people, and I look at this process, and I think the client is onto something. There is a part that’s broken but I don’t think you can give the person exactly what they wanted but we can maybe give them this. What do you think about this?” And this is what the person’s talking to the manager about.

And the manager goes, “Yeah, I think that’s possible. Research a little bit more here. Go over here. Go over there. And if you think you can come up with this, then go back to the customer and let him know we can do it. We can do this thing, this more narrow part of the thing they want me to do.” “Okay, great.”

So, I go back do the thing, come back to the manager, “Yup, manager, it’s good. I think I’m going to go ahead and tell the customer we can’t do the entire big thing but we can change this back.” So, now, I go back to the customer, and I go, “Customer, thank you so much for that feedback. I told you I’d be back in three days. I’m here. I’m here with you. I did a lot of research, talked to all different people, and here’s what we think we can do.”

“We can’t quite do all of this thing, but, as we looked at it, you’re right. There was a part of the process that is really a problem. So, here’s what we’re thinking we can do, and I wanted to come back with you to see if you thought this would work.” Then I tell the person what it is, and they go, “Yeah, I think it’s possible. Or, can you go a little further?”

Okay, I don’t know if you can see how it can go, but it’s going to require us to go more back and forth. It’s a tennis match of requests and meeting a request, and communicating back to them. And, at the end, let’s say you get to the point, and you boil it down to what it is they really, in the end, that you’ve met their need, and now they’re happy. Now they’re like, “Great. Thank you for being one of the very first people ever to hear me.”

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And during the course of those actual conversations, are there any particular words, phrases, questions, that you just love and seem to really go a long way?

Heather Younger

one tip I would give you as it relates to the seeking part of that cycle is when you’re listening to someone and you want to go try to paraphrase what you heard, paraphrase, do not parrot. So, don’t go back to them with exactly what they just said.

Instead, take in all of the emotions that are going on as they say it. So, you sense their frustration, you see their hesitation, you can sense their anxiety. What you do is when you go back to them, you make sure that you reflect back kind of the gist of what you heard them say and how that makes them feel, or how it made them feel, or what you sensed they felt.

This is going to take more effort for some people than it will for others, but if you pay close to attention, you’re going to see, like, there could be shifting in their body language, you’re going to hear the tone of their voice, you’re going to see the grimace in their face, knowing that there’s anger, frustration, whatever the feelings are.

Because when they see that you recognize this, like part of what they said, you recognize the thing that you’re seeing kind of what you’re experiencing and what they’re saying, now it starts to add up for them, they’re like, “Okay, what I’m saying, they’re actually hearing. They’re not hearing something different. They’re hearing what I’m saying and they’re sensing what I’m feeling about what I’m saying.” It’s powerful.

So, I would say that’s kind of a big one. Do not parrot. Don’t parrot back because that’s super frustrating. What I mean by that is this, “So, Pete, what I heard you say is…” dah, dah, dah. And then they say, “Yeah, because this…” And then you go, “Okay, so what I heard you say just now is…” dah, dah, dah, and they say some more. And you go, “And what I heard you say just now is…” that’s the parroting. That’s actually super frustrating, very irritating, it feels very robotic.

So, just calm yourself in the interaction, don’t feel the need to respond to every single sentence, calm yourself, take it all in, what you see and what you hear, and then start to ask thoughtful questions, and then wrap in the emotions of the thing that you’re doing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s good. That’s good. Anything else we should avoid?

Heather Younger

I would say that’s probably the biggest thing. There’s probably a lot of other little things that you should avoid as you’re in them. For example, you’re really not going to be in conflict for long. Don’t go into something with your desire to be right or your desire to respond. Go into listening with your desire to find a connection, your desire to find a midway, your desire to land on solution, not to be right. I would say that to be the other thing.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And if we do have conflict, disagreement, tension, any pro tips on how we can listen effectively there?

Heather Younger

Sometimes you have to just agree to talk about it later, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to be in a superheated situation and handle it right in the moment necessarily, unless, again, it’s life or death, or something. For example, even if it’s a client, a customer at a counter, I’ve done this before where it gets a little heated, and they’re, like, yelling, and I go, “Excuse me, I just need to take one moment. Is that okay? Just one moment.”

And then I go in the back, and just kind of go, “Ahh, ahh,” because I really want to strangle the person. I just go, “Ahh,” process it, and then come back out, and go, “Okay. Sorry about that. I just needed to kind of gather my thoughts or whatever it was. Okay, so now I want to make sure I hear you,” and then you can kind of go into it.

I would say the biggest thing is seeking and going in with curiosity because, in conflict, in most cases, we want to be right. We’re seeking to win our side. So, in conflict, if you feel yourself like in it, remove yourself from it for the moment, or totally table that discussion for later if you can.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Heather Younger

No, I would say that’s it. As we think about it, active listening is a gift, and our presence and undivided attention for people is the biggest gift we can give them. So, we just have to remember that, as we ask ourselves, “Well, I don’t have time,” or we say to ourselves, “I don’t have time to listen like this,” or, “Listening is not that important,” or, “I think I’m a pretty decent listener. That’s all I need to be.” Think about what kind of gift you want to deliver.

Do you want to deliver one that’s frayed in a box that’s been, like, banged up? Or, do you want to deliver the gift that’s, like, it is beautifully wrapped box with a bow, where someone goes, “This person really thought a lot of me.” And that would be for you to answer.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Heather Younger

So, it’s by Marianne Williamson. It’s the deepest fear quote. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Pete Mockaitis

Yup.

Heather Younger

Here’s part of it. It’s not the full thing. “We ask ourselves ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are we not to be?” And it’s actually a much longer quote so I would definitely invite everybody to go look at it, but it really is this idea of not minimizing ourselves for the benefit of others, not making ourselves smaller so that others can feel bigger, that’s really up to them to do, that’s not up for you to do.

I absolutely love that quote so much because, often, depending on your personality, if you have kind of a personality that’s bigger than life, or you have goals that are really big, oftentimes, we want to minimize because we can see other people aren’t in a good place, or they may not take in whatever it is you’re going through and they may be negative about it. And I say, well, that’s their issue, not yours.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And a favorite book?

Heather Younger

I love pretty much anything John Maxwell, so The Leader Within, all those leader books by John Maxwell are the best. They’re thin so you can get through them really quick on an airplane ride or while you’re at home. Anything by John Maxwell is, what I would say, books I love.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Heather Younger

This is a love-hate relationship but I’d have to say my iPhone. I probably do 90% of my things from there, like emailing, texting, social, just everything. So, when people are like, “Oh, when you do this on the desktop,” and I’m like, “I don’t do much from the desktop so I don’t know what you mean.” So, iPhone would probably be my best tool.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And a favorite habit?

Heather Younger

I like to eat the same breakfast every day.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, what is this breakfast?

Heather Younger

See, now you’re intrigued, right? Two eggs with spinach with a little bit of parmesan cheese and, like, a Pico de Gallo on top, and a piece of sprouted grain toast and natural peanut butter, and some blackberries. That’s my breakfast.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate, folks quote it back to you often?

Heather Younger

I think the idea that listening is…being present is, in fact, a gift to others.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Heather Younger

I’d say go ahead and go to LinkedIn, just look for Heather Younger, and, boom, I’ll be there. That’s probably the biggest way for them to kind of follow me, contact me is LinkedIn.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Heather Younger

I would say that we all have the ability to own the listening that we do and how well we do it. And be really reluctant to give away your power. Don’t point the finger or blame your manager or somebody else in the organization. Instead, stand in your own shoes and own your own presence when it comes to people around you.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Heather, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun and gifts of active listening.

Heather Younger

Thank you so much for having me.

860: The Science of Compelling Body Language with Richard Newman

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Richard Newman says: "Nobody is ever going to be more excited about your ideas than you look and you sound."

Richard Newman reveals insights on the small–but impactful–shifts anyone can make to become a more powerful communicator.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to maximize your impact with two hand gestures
  2. The key to looking like a charismatic leader
  3. The most important question to ask before any presentation

About Richard

Richard is the Founder of Body Talk. Over the past 22 years his team have trained over 120,000 business leaders around the world, to improve their communication and impact, including one client who gained over $1 Billion in new business in just one year, using the strategies that Richard teaches.

Resources Mentioned

Richard Newman Interview Transcript

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

Richard Newman
Thanks, Pete. Good to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m so excited to talk to you about your book and wisdom and insights associated with body talk and You Were Born to Speak, but, first, I think we got to start with tell us the tale, you, Tibetan monks, six months, nonverbal communication. What is the story here?

Richard Newman
So, what happened was that when I was at school, high school, I was planning on going straight to university just like all of my friends, and I knew though while I was there that I was not great at communication, and I didn’t know why. I just really struggled with it. I’d grown up being called shy. I didn’t realize I was an introvert at the time, but I’ve since come to understand that term more. And I’ve only very recently been diagnosed as autistic.

And so, anyway, when I was back at school, I was struggling in communication, thinking, “I really want to do something about this, and I want to do something good for the world as well.” And I was starting to read books around communication, and I read this book all about body language that I was fascinated by, and I thought, “Wow, I want to do something with this and explore where this can take me.”

So, just before I was about to leave high school, I had my university places organized, and this guy who’d been at our school a few years prior, he came back and he did a speech to all of us, saying, “Look, if you’re thinking about maybe taking a year off before university, here’s something you could do.” And he had been on an adventure to go to Katmandu or somewhere near there to work in an orphanage. He gave his story, and I thought, “That’s the kind of thing I want to go and do.”

And so, I put myself forward to different organizations who arrange this sort of thing, and one of them told me about this monastery where they never had a teacher before but they really wanted help with connecting with the outside world. So, it’s a group of Tibetan monks who were in exile, living in the foothills of the Himalayas in India, and they needed a teacher. So, I said, “Yup, that’s the one for me.”

And so, I ventured across India, I’d never been on a holiday without my parents at this point, so I’d never been overseas without them, and it took me days to find this monastery. And, eventually, when I got there, I then realized that the monks couldn’t speak any English, and I thought I was there to improve their English, but it turns out they didn’t speak any English, so I had to use body language and tone of voice just to connect with them to understand “Where am I going to speak? Where are we going to do a lesson together?” that sort of thing.

And then I was teaching them for six months, so I spent six months with them learning how to use nonverbal communication in a way of being able to explain myself and help them to learn my language. And so, by the end of that time, they could then have a good conversation in English with me, and I’d learned how to speak Nepali, which is the main language of the area we were living in, and it was also the easiest language to learn because Tibetan is quite challenging in comparison.

And so, I came back to the UK with this sort of profound feeling about nonverbal communication, wanting to do something with that, which then started me on the journey of building up my communication training business.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, wow, Richard, there’s so much I want to dig into there. That’s cool. So, one, congratulations, mission accomplished. I don’t know if I’d spent six months living with folks who didn’t know any English whatsoever, where we’d be at the end of that. So, that’s cool that you pulled it off. So, I’m curious about that right there in terms of how did those breakthroughs occur exactly? I guess you could maybe pick up stuff, “Bowl, this is bowl.” Or, how is that even done?

Richard Newman
I started to realize that I could explain myself better if I was being really congruent, meaning that if my body language and my tone of voice and my words were all headed in one direction, they understood me. And if they weren’t, they had no idea what I was saying.

So, for example, if I wanted to teach these words, teach the monks how to say the word excited, I needed to look excited, sound excited, and say the word excited. Whereas, if I wasn’t doing those three things in unison, going in one direction, I could’ve been saying pineapple and they wouldn’t have any idea about the difference. So, it really taught me that sense of congruency.

And so, there were elements that I taught. One of the most fun lessons that I did actually was where I was teaching them about texture, and I thought, “How am I going to teach them? I wanted to teach them about smooth, and wet, and rough, and hard, and so on.” And so, what I did was I got a big bucket, and I got a blindfold. So, I blindfolded them and I put their hand into this bucket, and then they would touch something that was hard, something that was wet and so on, so they would understand when I’d say the word, and so they’d suddenly learn those pieces.

But other pieces were much more visual, which people won’t be able to see listening to the audio recording. But I would do this where I would point or gesture as I was talking to them about prepositions. So, where I would say up, down, into, onto, over, under, out, in front, behind, next to, opposite, round, and roundabout, and I would mimic those pieces to give them those sort of physical senses of things.

And so, it was a gradual buildup of a sense of using props, using very specific directive gestures, and then, primarily, using congruency in communication that was enabling them to build that up. And that’s what I then gone on to teach people in my career is particularly that congruency piece, which is really missing in day-to-day communication in business and people’s careers, where I find people might really think carefully about their words, but they don’t necessarily think, “Well, what tone of voice do I put with those words? What body would I put with those words?”

And so, this is where you’ll have people attending conference, and the CFO gets up on stage, and says, “Hi, everyone. Really excited to be here today. We’ve had some really good financial results.” And what people are seeing and hearing is they’re thinking, “Are we about to go out of business? Are we about to go bankrupt, because he doesn’t look very excited? Like, what is he not telling me here?”

And so, that congruency piece has been one of the major pieces I’ve focused on for clients over the last two decades to make sure that everything is matching up so that people really believe everything that you’re saying, and get the right message in the end.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now, at the same time, you mentioned you’re recently diagnosed as autistic, and so my knowledge of autism and the spectrum is somewhat limited to a few things I’ve read on the internet. But isn’t that not often associated with missing these very things that you are speaking to? Tell us how that fits into all this.

Richard Newman
Yes. So, my diagnosis has been a long time coming, actually. So, when I was a teenager, friends noticed that I was having challenges with communication. So, one of the big challenges for me would be, as you mentioned, around sort of figuring out the nonverbal side of communication. So, an example of that is banter. So, banter, being when, from my perspective, what I see is I’d see two neurotypical people engaged in banter, looks like they are insulting each other, and then laughing at each other’s faces.

Pete Mockaitis
“Oh, you old sandbagging SOB, how are you doing? Uh-oh, look what the cat dragged in, this guy.” Yeah, I love old people is my favorite, watching them banter.

Richard Newman
Right, yeah. So, I’ll watch this sort of thing, and I think, “Oh, that seems to improve their relationship.” And whenever I try it, people get really insulted. And, just like you said, what I hear is…

Pete Mockaitis
Could you give us an example, Richard, of how you blew it? That sounds like an interesting scenario.

Richard Newman
So, I think back to about sort of ten years ago, I was at an event with a couple of colleagues of mine, and I can’t remember exactly what they said to each other but it was along the lines, from my memory, of one of them said, “You’re just so ugly that blah, blah, blah, ha, ha, ha, ha,” and the other one said, “No, no, no, you’re so ugly that blah, blah, blah, ha, ha, ha, ha.”

And I thought, “Okay, I think I can engage in this conversation. I’m going to try this.” And I said something like, “No, no, but you’re so ugly that blah, blah, blah,” and they both looked at me, like, “That is so offensive. I can’t believe you said that.” And I was thinking, “But I just did what you did, didn’t I? I didn’t mean it. Obviously, I didn’t mean it. You didn’t mean what you said.” So, I thought, “Okay, banter is not for me.”

And so, yeah, from teenage years, I realized that I wasn’t very good at that but I started studying books on body language, and I was originally reading books by people like Allen Pease and Desmond Morris, were sort of the forefathers of the areas that people look at now with body language, and also people like Joe Navarro, other people that I was reading up about.

And it got to the point where I’d realized, “Well, hang on a second, I’ve studied so much on body language, I now understand more than the average person about what these things mean, what nonverbal signals we’re giving off, and how to improve our nonverbal impact.” And when I started leading then my company, one of my first clients that I worked with was a Formula One racing team.

And for them, they gave me a script that I needed to deliver in meetings for their clients who would come in from all over the world. And, essentially, what happened was that I memorized this script that I needed to deliver word for word, it was a legally approved script, and I delivered that script about one thousand times to one thousand different audiences over the course of five years.

And because I couldn’t change the information, each time I delivered it, I thought, “Well, what if I changed a bit about my nonverbal communication, just see if it gives me a better reaction than it did yesterday and the day before?” And I would note down, I’d look through all the books I could find on body language, all the research I could find, and I would note down, “Okay, let me try this technique tomorrow.” And sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, and sometimes it worked for maybe a European audience but it didn’t work for people who came in from Asia.

And so, I’d note this down, and it got to the point where I thought, “Okay, these are the things that definitely work universally.” And then I put together a research project in 2016 to get all these verified, and we had this breakthrough research paper that was published in the Journal of Psychology that was peer reviewed. And the people who were working with me on this, the experts in this field from the University College London from the psychology department, they said that they’d never seen statistics like we had achieved on this project.

So, to come back to the question around autism, I think that what this has given me, in my particular case, is a unique lens to be able to look at communication with, where neurotypical people, which is most people, sort of just look at information from other people, body language, they’re not really aware of what they’re looking at. Whereas, I’m laser-focused looking at, “Well, what’s happening right now? What does that mean? What can I do in response to that that will lead to a positive outcome?”

And I was able to put all those building blocks together for people, and then teach my clients. If you imagine like a wall, and they’re saying, “I don’t seem to be having presence at the moment. I haven’t got the gravitas I need.” I look at the wall that they’re putting together and their body language, and think, “Okay, these three bricks are missing on your wall. We need to put these three bricks into place, and now you have presence.”

And that’s what the research project showed. So, from my perspective, it’s actually been an advantage to me in many ways that I’ve been able to have this other way of looking at communication that would be different to most people, that’s allowed me to analyze it in a way that I can then be useful to my clients, and then to build up those techniques for myself to the point where I can be effective as an onstage speaker, knowing what techniques to apply to get the right reaction.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fascinating. And so, to recap, whereas neurotypical folks just sort of intuit, like, “Oh, okay, this is what’s going on, and this is why this banter is okay,” you are kind of dissecting the components and the ingredients that build that up. And is it because you did not have that natural intuition about things and you just happen to be fascinated by the subject matter that you went ahead and determined, “Well, what are those ingredients?” Is that fair to say?

Richard Newman
Yeah, exactly, because sometimes I get people saying to me, “Oh, well, you can’t really demystify this communication stuff. You either know how to do it or you don’t.” And that, for me, is a very neurotypical response to things, where I can see why people are saying that because they can’t see beyond what’s happening.

Whereas, for me, it’s a little bit like looking at a goldfish in a bowl and being outside of the bowl, and being able to see how the interactions are happening, what’s happening there from a perspective, almost like, if you think about a nature documentary presenter who’s watching how another species interact, and is then able to observe it, build up research around it, and think about how to apply that in different situations.

So, that’s what it’s been like for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful stuff. All right, let’s talk about this 2016 study here. Tell us, what are these eye popping statistically mind-blowing discoveries, and can you share some of the numbers associated with them and the key takeaways that all of us should use if we want to have more presence, and be more compelling and persuasive?

Richard Newman
Yeah, sure. So, this study we put together, first of all, we looked back over sort of 30 to 40 years’ worth of research in the area of nonverbal communication and influence to see what had already been proved and what sort of protocols have been used by people that we could build upon. We then spent 18 months building up the research project that we did to really refine it down to certain pieces we wanted to measure.

And so, the essence of what we’re aiming for is to see is, “Is there certain body language choices that every person can make no matter what your gender is, no matter what country you live in, no matter what your skin color is? Is there something that every human can do that improves their impact?”
So, we put this all together, and the way that we did this, we created over a hundred videos of people speaking to a camera where they would be saying the same words in every video, they would wear the same clothes as well, but in each video, they just slightly change their communication style.

We also used, in the videos, there’s four different actors. So, two female, two male, and they had two with lighter skin, two with darker skin, and they also, all four of them, went through an aging process with prosthetics because we wanted to see if they did exactly the same thing but they looked 30 years older, “Did that change how people rated them as a leader or for confidence and so on?”

And to our complete surprise, it didn’t matter what their gender was, it didn’t matter what their skin color was, it didn’t matter how old people thought they looked, and it also didn’t matter if we did the test for people who were watching it in Mumbai versus people watching it somewhere in California. And the people who watched these videos, we had more than 2,000 people take part, people age from 18 to 65, men and women who were looking at this, that didn’t matter either.

The only thing that really changed our results is that if people went from the most common forms of body language that you see in day-to-day life, and they shifted away from those most common elements across to what we thought would be a more effective, this is where we got these eye popping results, where we found that with a couple of simple shifts anybody can make, you can then increase how confident people think you are by 25%, you could increase how many people you convince with whatever you’re saying by 42%, you can increase how many people think you’re a good leader by 44%, and you can increase how many people would vote for you in an election by 58%.

And that is while you’re saying the same words, you are the same person, you’re wearing the same clothes, and you just change a couple of things nonverbally, and that’s the reaction you get, and it was working universally for people. So, we’re really excited by that.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I want to ask, of course, what are the things? But, first, just so that we can fully link and, for all of the enthusiasts out there, what is the full journal article name so that we can link to it and read it, the full text in all its glory?

Richard Newman
So, I believe if you Google nonverbal presence, and then you put in my name Richard Newman, you should be able to find it. It’s been downloaded and used and commented on many times over the years, and it’s from the research journal Psychology. So, if you put those into search engines, you should be able to find it. You can download the full reports. I think it’s like a 16-page in a PDF that people can get on this.

And so, for me to go through a couple of pieces…

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Oh, sorry. And co-authors?

Richard Newman
Oh, co-authors, yeah, Adrian Furnham. So, Adrian Furnham is known to be one of the top five psychologists in the world. I believe that he has authored or co-authored roughly a thousand research projects over the last 30 to 40 years, and he gets to go and speak and do keynotes all over the world, the head of psychology at UCL. And also, I mentioned there should be Alistair McClelland and Roxana Cardos. So, people can go and check that out.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Now, I feel like I need a drumroll or something. Richard, lay it on us, what are the body language choices any person, anywhere, can do to see a 25% to 58% lift in key things we’d like lifted?

Richard Newman
Sure. Okay. So, let me start with something really simple. So, one of the big questions I’ve been asked by people over the years is “What do I do with my hands when I’m speaking to people? If I’m in an interview, I’m doing a presentation, that sort of thing, what do I do with my hands?” And it’s quite a funny question because if you think about it, when you go out to a bar with your friends, and you’re just talking about telling people what you did on the weekend, you just move your hands and you don’t really think about it. You just gesture, and you create stories, you don’t worry.

But when people are in situations where they get self-conscious, like a job interview, sales pitch, presentation, they suddenly think, “I don’t know what to do with my hands. I don’t know what I normally do,” and they freeze. And so, something that’s very common is that people stop gesturing altogether. In fact, I’ve trained many people over the years who’ve said, “I was told by my boss early in my career, ‘Stop gesturing, sit on your hands. You look unprofessional. You’re flapping your arms around.’” And this is really detrimental.

Now, what we already know from other research by Dr. Susan Goldin-Meadow from the University of Chicago is that the more that you gesture, the more you stimulate your mind, you can speed up your thought processes. So, it makes sense to gesture while you’re speaking because it allows you to think and process information well.

There’s really interesting studies that she put together. One of which shows you that, and I believe I’m quoting this right, they took a group of mathematicians, and they took the mathematicians who were scoring the highest results, highest grades in the class, and they put them through an exam, an oral exam, where they got them to sit on their hands and answer math questions. Then they took the people from the group who were previously getting the lowest grades in their class, and they got them to frequently gesture while they had an oral exam.

I’m sort of simplifying the results, but those who used to get the lowest results, when they gestured, got much higher grades from the test, and those who used to be the highest-scoring in the class were then getting much lower grades, and it’s based on the amount and frequency they were gesturing. So, anyway, we wanted to do our own version of this test around gestures to see, “Well, how does an audience react to gestures?” So, importantly, if you do no gestures, you get terrible ratings. So, to be very clear on this, like if you’re keeping your hands held in one position, or you’re having them down by your side, very poor.

Secondly, if you do low-limp gestures, you get the worst possible ratings. And low-limp gestures is, effectively, if you imagine your arms sort of loosely by your sides, and you just sort of occasionally flapping them slightly away from your body because you think, “Maybe I probably should gesture but I don’t really feel like it. I feel a bit self-conscious,” then you look very low status by doing so. And that’s gesturing below the waist or if people are in a meeting or a virtual meeting. Gesturing out of the camera’s view or gesturing under the table, very low ratings.

However, if you gesture where people can see it, above the waist, the key area to do it is between the waist and the shoulder height. So, if you go above shoulder height, it looks too dramatic. If you go below waist height, it’s then suddenly, it looks low limp and disengaged. So, between shoulder and waist height, you need to be slightly away from the body.

So, if you go towards the body, then you look like you are being timid. If you go too wide, you look like you’re overreaching. But you want to go slightly away from the body, getting your elbow away from the body, and there’s two positions to think about which work universally. It doesn’t matter where you are around the world.

So, importantly, with gestures, if you do like a thumbs up or an okay symbol, that means different things in different parts of the world. But there are two gestures that mean the same thing everywhere, which is palms up and palms down. Now, palms up, it indicates an open message, it could be a question, it’s a warm gesture, it’s inviting for people. Palms down means the opposite. It is a closed statement. So, as if to say, “There’s no arguments, no questions, that’s just the way it is,” doing it palms down.

And so, if you use them back and forth, those two gestures, congruently with your message, we talked about congruency earlier, if you use them congruently with your message, so palms up for open statements, and palms down for strong closed statements, then suddenly you’re being utterly congruent with your message, and your measure for how charismatic you are suddenly shifts completely because people see you as totally congruently connected with your message, verbally and nonverbally, so make sure palms up and palms down.

So, I talk about those, like if people think about tennis, you got a forehand and backhand. These are your forehand and backhand that you can go to over and over again. You can do it with one hand, you can do it with both hands, and you can use them no matter where you are. So, that one suddenly gave people a massive leap upwards.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, could we do a quick timeout there, Richard? That’s so powerful

So, we want to talk about the up with I’m thinking, all right, let me just see. Tell me if this feels right. So, if I say palms down, “We are 100% committed to investing in the metaverse over the next three years,” and then palms up, “But we’re going to have to learn a lot of new things in which we’re not sure of a few key points, and so we’re going to have to do a lot of listening to figure out what’s going on.”

So, palms up, we’re listening, and then palms down, “But make no mistake, we will be spending $300 million, or whatever, in order to be the leader in this space,” palms up, “And we want all of you to come with us on this exciting journey.” So, is that kind of what we’re talking about here?

Richard Newman
Yeah, exactly. And what you’ll notice as well, for people listening to that, is that your tone of voice changed each time you did palms up versus palms down. And we find that people do this without us even sort of saying to them, people who aren’t as much expert as you would be in front of a microphone. But when we change someone’s gestures, their tone of voice naturally changes. And if you change the pace at which you gesture, the pace and the fluidity of your voice changes as well.

So, sometimes if I’ve got a leader who’s being very choppy in the way they’re being, and being a little bit aggressive, I say, “Look, move your gestures like you’re stroking a large dog. Just imagine you’re doing that,” and suddenly their tone of voice changes with it as well. But the way that you did that palms up and palms down, that’s exactly the right sort of idea behind things. And it makes sure that people really believe you, because seeing is believing.

We’ve got so much data that we take in through the optic nerve, we want to make sure that what’s going through the optic nerve and cranial nerve, while we’re listening to things, they go in and they seem to all fit together perfectly, where you think, “Well, everything I’m seeing and hearing matches. Wow, that’s charisma. That’s a great leader. I believe them. I want to follow them. I want to vote for them.” So, yeah, that works really nicely. So, that’s the piece on gestures.

Pete Mockaitis
And, Richard, may I ask, we got palms up, we got palms down. What happens when I’ve got my palms, I guess, parallel to the ground? It’s like neither up nor down. I’m sorry, perpendicular, excuse me. Perpendicular to the ground.

Richard Newman
So, you can call these palms even, palms equal, or palms neutral, if you want to. And this is good for time gestures or for showing people the size of things. And this is a really important one that we teach people. So, for those listening to this, if you just imagine that I gesture, I make a large gesture, and I say, “If you give us $100,000 investment,” I’m doing a big large gesture, palms even, and then I make a small gesture, and say, “I will give you a 10% return.” So, I’m going from a big gesture, “If you give us $100,000 investment,” down to a small gesture, “I will give you a 10% return.” It seems like it’s a bad deal.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it’s terrible.

Richard Newman
I’m going from something big to something small.

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t even know the terms but I was like, “I don’t think I like that, Richard.”

Richard Newman
Exactly. So, watch, if I do the opposite, I make a small gesture with palms facing each other, and I say, “If you give me $100,000 investment, I will give you a 10% return,” with a big gesture on the end, you suddenly think, “That’s amazing. Of course, I’m going to do this. That’s really exciting.” So, it’s really good for showing people the size of numbers.

I always say to people, “Look, 27% doesn’t actually mean anything, 4.7% doesn’t mean anything. It might mean something to you but it doesn’t mean anything to me.” People only understand what a percentage means or a block of time means if you show them with the scale of your gestures. So, you need to show people “Is a month or three seconds, is that a long time?”

Three seconds in Formula One racing, or doing the 100-meter race at the Olympics, that’s massive. Three seconds is huge. Whereas, if you’re talking about something along the long arc of history between us and the time of the dinosaurs, three seconds or three months or three years is nothing. It’s tiny. So, it’s very useful for scaling, that’s if you’re doing palms facing each other.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we got our palms. What’s next?

Richard Newman
Okay. So, another piece to talk about, and this one is utterly fascinating, too, is all about your feet position. So, imagine that you are standing talking to people, what we often see, the most common one, we tested this one out, is that if someone is standing talking either to one person or talking to a group of people, which could be a small group in a meeting room or a large group on a stage, what you often see people doing is that they lean their weight from one hip to the other hip, and then going back again, in this sort of rocking direction.

And what they’re always doing is always having their weight on one foot rather than on both. And by being in that position, what you’re doing is you’re physically placing yourself so that gravity is working against you. So, you physically look like a pushover, meaning that if someone came up and pushed you on one of your shoulders, you’d fall over because your weight is off-balanced, off-center, and you’re in a position called anti-gravitas, so you’re going to be easily pushed over.

Whereas, if you do the opposite to that and you do what so few people ever tend to do, so if you place your weight so that your feet are shoulder-width apart and your weight is equally balanced between left foot, right foot, toes, and heels, so you’re physically centered, again, if someone came to you and pushed you on the shoulder, you’d be much less likely to fall down. This is the position that people stand in.

If you look at sports, if you look at someone playing golf about to putt on the final tee, if you watch someone playing basketball, they’re doing a free-throw shot, if you watch someone playing tennis and they’re about to receive serve, what are they doing? They are shoulder-width apart with their feet, maybe just slightly bent potentially, weight equally balanced between left foot, right foot, toes and heels. They’re in a very strong ready position about to perform at their best.

Now, if you do that when you’re standing and speaking to one person or a large audience, then your ratings go very significantly up, but the distance between your feet is key. So, we tested this, we said, “Let’s get the person balanced but let’s try three different widths that they could have their feet.” So, we tried having their feet completely touching each other, so together, they’re still standing balanced on each foot but their feet are together, then we tried feet shoulder-width apart, then we tried going beyond shoulder-width apart, so beyond shoulder-width apart.

And we said, “Okay, let’s just try, keep everything the same and test that worldwide, and see what reactions we get.” And what we found is that when people have their feet together, feet touching, it got the lowest possible results. So, that person was not inspiring, they’re not confident, they’re not a good leader. And the reason being, even though they’re standing centered, their weight on both feet, because their feet is so close together, again, if you give them a nudge, they’d fall over. They look weak. They look like a pushover.

If you put their feet wider than shoulder-width apart, then the person looks more commanding but it also looks a bit strange. It looks like they’re trying to be some sort of superhero rockstar sort of thing. It doesn’t look natural. It’s just like, “Why are you splaying your legs so far apart?” It looks better than the subservient feet together feet position but it doesn’t do the best.

And then, finally, and this was the really strong one, if you just go from feet together to feet shoulder-width apart, and this worked for men and women, you get an increase of 32% increase just by doing that one piece, 32% increase in how convincing people think you are, saying the same words, wearing the same clothes, using the same tone of voice. You just change that one thing because, physically, you are going from being a pushover to having gravitas, gravity working with you.

When people recognize that, they see you as a pack leader or a tribe leader, somebody who has strength and gravitas behind their words. It’s that physical instant reaction that people can do. And it works for men and women, it worked no matter who we tested this on around the world for different cultures because it has that sense of the laws of physics working with what we are seeing.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so, Richard, I love the precision that we’re looking at here. And as I’m thinking about shoulder width, are we thinking that the feet are aligned to the center of the shoulders, or the outer part of the shoulders, or the inner part of the shoulders? Or, if a tailor were to measure straight across the back, shoulder to shoulder, that’s the distance of space that should be between my shoes? Or, how are we defining shoulder width?

Richard Newman
So, the way that we did it in the study, if I’m getting this right, is that we used a tape measure to measure the width from one side of the shoulder to the side of the other shoulder, and then we measured their feet, and we made sure that from one side of their foot to the other side of their foot was the same distance. And then we went from that.

But if people want to check this out, the reason that we know this works, it’s so universal, if you look at a child who’s around about one year old, then they’re usually at that point where they’re trying to stand up and trying to get their balance and maybe start to walk, and it’s the position that children, effectively, stand up in.

So, if children try to stand up, and they put their feet too close together, they fall down. If they stand up and they’ve got too much weight on one leg and not enough on the other, they fall down. If they stand up and their feet are too wide, they fall down. But, eventually, they work out, “Wait a second, if I get my feet shoulder-width apart and there’s no tension in the knees, I can stand and I don’t need to hold onto the furniture. That’s amazing.”

We’re bringing people, essentially, back to the way they are born to stand, the way that gravity naturally works on their body. And that’s why it works so universally.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, the outer point of the shoulders aligns to the outer point of the feet. Got it. All right. We got our palms, we got our feet, keep going, Richard, this is awesome.

Richard Newman
So, there’s been a multitude of these pieces that we put together for people, but the key extra element that I want people to keep in mind is the congruency aspect. So, you can have those aspects if you’re, like, working for you, but if your message is not congruent with them, then suddenly it starts not to work.

So, importantly, let’s say, if we go back to the piece around the posture, then if you say to somebody, “Look, I really want to hear what you have to say,” then suddenly you don’t get a useful reaction. If you’re doing palms down and strong and centered, you say, “Tell me what you think about this,” then suddenly your ratings go down. So, what you have to do is to lean your weight onto one side, palms up, “I’d love to hear your thoughts,” and you give the floor to the other person. By that way, you’re being congruent with the message. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. So, the feet shoulder-width apart is saying “I am in charge. I’m authoritative. I am ‘whoa.’ I’m laying down the law,” versus, I guess the feet together, or leaning, is sort of like, “Hey, I kind of…” maybe more deferential, like, “I’m curious as to your take here. I’m not all that. I’m just a humble…I’m your humble servant who’s here.”

Richard Newman
Exactly. Yes, we’re always keen to say to people you have to be able to adapt to what you’re doing here to different situations. So, if you want to be seen as a tribe leader in some way, then it’s critical to understand what a tribe leader looks like, which we talked about with those gesture and posture positions.

So, the extra piece that I added there is you then stop to think, “Well, how do I want the other person  to feel? What is the end feeling I need them to have by the end of this sentence? Let me get everything towards that piece.” So, sometimes you need to look like a commander, sometimes you need to address them like more a facilitator, like we were talking about there with that sense of, “Let me ease off. Let me show you that you now have space to come into the conversation.”

Sometimes I want you to engage with me in a way where you’ll maybe laugh, we can have more of a friendly conversation. So, then you need to go into more of an entertainer position. And what we found on this, again, we looked at this universally with clients we’ve coached over the last 20 years, when you go into an entertainer space, the place you need to go is that your gestures need to be much more floppy.

When I was in the States recently, they described this as loosey-goosey, if you’re familiar with that phrase. That was a new one for me, so loosey-goosey, that the tone of your voice needs to go up and down much more. And the pace of your voice, if you’re going to be the entertainer, would be faster than if you’re going to be more of a commander. So, you need to get them congruently going towards that direction if you’re going to work on that.
So, yeah, I think the key question really, I will say to any leader, is think “How do I want people to feel by the end of this meeting, or by the end of this interview, or by the end of this presentation? What is that feeling? And now I need to get everything I’m doing in my body language and in my tone of voice headed towards that outcome.”

And so, you’ve got to think, “Well, if it’s light-hearted, what is my tone of voice?” So, again, if you think about people who are reading the news, they’re expert at doing this. They can go from a major international crisis to some uplifting good-hearted news.

Pete Mockaitis
“Here’s a puppy.”

Richard Newman
And they do this really well with their tone of voice, and they do it as a transition. So, they’ll say, “And that is the latest update we have on the war in Ukraine. Now, we’re heading over to San Diego Zoo where we’re going to talk about a new baby panda.” And they do that transition in their tone of voice, which very often people don’t do, and people are not doing that these days, particularly on virtual meetings. They just talk to a camera lens and a screen, and they’re saying, “Here’s the good news. Here’s the bad news. Here’s the neutral information,” and it all sounds the same.

And, suddenly, we’re getting this very flat response. And the reason being, we’re not telling people through our tone of voice how they’re supposed to react to this information. So, it’s critical that people focus on that target of, “How do I want people to feel? What can I do, congruently with my body language and tone of voice, that heads us in that direction?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so, Richard, I could talk to you for about six hours about this. So, maybe let’s do a demo. Let’s say I am doing a training, or a bit of persuasion, so it could be sales or training. I think I want a similar emotional response. And what I would love for my audience to feel is a sense of inspiration, excitement, possibility, like, “Whoa, that’s really cool. That thing you’re teaching me is really cool, and I’m excited to go try it,” or, “That thing, that product you’re introducing me to is really cool, and I’m excited to go give that a demo.”

So, that’s what I’m after. I want them to feel excited, inspired, curious, to go forth and take action. Can you give us the alchemy here, Richard, in terms of what do I want with my gestures and my tone, etc. to bring that magic together?

Richard Newman
Yeah, absolutely. So, actually, what you just demonstrated that people would’ve heard in your demo of being that excited audience member, that’s exactly what you need to embody as a speaker. So, if you think about, “What is the end result? How are they going to leave this room?” And the way that you energized that with your voice and with your body was, “Hey, wow, this is amazing. I really want to put this into action,” that’s fantastic.

And so, we say to a leader, “Okay, if that’s how you want them to be, then guess what, nobody is ever going to be more excited about your ideas than you look and you sound. And so, whatever it is you want them to look like and sound like at the end, you have to go to that level and/or more than them in order to achieve this.

And so, we would call this going into the motivator style. And so, if you’re going to go into motivator style, again, I’ve checked this with people, audiences we worked all the way around the world, where we worked in across the Middle East, we’ve been into South Korea, we’ve been to South Africa, all across the Americas, and so we say to people, “Okay, if you think about a motivator style, what does that look like and sound like?”

Well, people repeatedly say, “It’s fast choppy gestures,” so it’s not that sort of stroking the dog piece that I talked about earlier on, it’s not loosey-goosey. It’s high intensity in your arms, and you can be going palms up or palms down but they need to be congruent. Then you need to match that with a faster than usual pace of voice.

So, if you think about this, the average pace of voice, it’s about 140 words per minute. If you slow that down to around about 100 words per minute, then that’s where when somebody is doing their inauguration speech as President of the United States, that’s roughly where they might be.

If you speed it up and you go somewhere around 180 words per minute or higher, then suddenly you’re in that motivator zone. And, in fact, if you go even higher than that, Tony Robbins has the average of around 240 words per minute when he’s being motivational in his talks, and I think that’s the average pace of his TED Talk that he gave. So, you need to be in that higher zone in terms of your pace of words.

Other things that you need to think about doing is to use words that are one syllable. So, you can say things that sound really punchy rather than them having to people having to break it down all the different syllables to figure out, “What on earth did that mean?” So, you want to make it super punchy in your words.

And then, last piece to look out with this, which you can add into the pieces I was talking about before, is to think very simply about a shift in your sternum, and this is where we get a little bit more precise about things. So, the sternum is the center of the chest plate, and this tells us a huge amount about how someone feels about their message and how people are going to react.

So, the sternum is a place where you can, literally, the Latin behind it which is inspirare and expirare. So, inspirare has given a word inspire, or to breathe in, or to feel inspired; expirare, to breath out, or to feel expired. And so, if you just notice this, the next time you see someone, and you think, “Wow, that person looks like they’re really inspired.” What they do is, just before you think that they’re inspired, they breathe in, they lift the sternum, they go, “Hah,” and you think, “This person is inspired. They’ve had some inspiration. I need to listen to what they have to say. That sounds really engaging.”

Equally, if you see your boss in a meeting, and you think, “Why does this person looks like they just mentally left the building?” Well, the reason being, they may have just breathed out and dropped their sternum, and so you see them go, “Ahh,” and suddenly this sternum drops in, they look concave, they look de-energized.

And so, when you’re speaking to people in an interview, in a meeting, in a presentation, it’s important not only to get your feet planted right, to get your gestures working for you, but lift that sternum slight. And you don’t want to go too far, you don’t want to look like you’re sort of trying to be the Hulk or something like that, but just slightly lift it to a point where you think, “Okay, now I’m in a position of inspiration.”

And then you want to be the motivator, you want to get them energized, you have the gestures up, and it’s going to be somewhere near to shoulder height, so slightly lower down is more commanding, slightly higher is more motivational. Fast and choppy and energized voice, changing your pitch up and down as you go through at a pace towards energizing people towards taking some action.

So, as an example of this, just to sum all that up for you. I get people to do this sometimes as an exercise where I say to them something along the lines of, “This will change the results by 3%.” Now, let’s just imagine, what does that mean? It doesn’t mean anything. It could mean something serious. It could be something exciting. It could be we need to act on this, we need to think about it, we need to debate it. What does it actually mean, “This will change the results by 3%”?

If you want to say it in a commanding way, like, this is life and death information, you go back to what I was saying before. You have a strong start, you do palms down, you slow your pace right the way down, and you say, “This will change the results by 3%.” And so, people think, “Oh, that’s just lifechanging information. I need to sit and think about that for a minute.”

If you want to motivate them to actually take some action, like you’re trying to energize some salespeople behind this to get out there and go and get their commission, then you come back and, say, lifting the sternum, fast choppy gestures, around about shoulder height, and make sure that you’re going fast in your pace as well, and you say, “This will change the results by 3%.” And people think, “Wow, that’s amazing. We need to get out there and get our commission.”

And so, suddenly, by energizing the message, what you’re doing is also you’re engaging more with the emotional brain rather than the logical brain, and people are more likely to feel that sense of energy and excitement from you, and, therefore, will go out there and just straight away get into action.

Pete Mockaitis
This is beautiful powerful stuff, Richard. And I think you’re demystifying something that I have wondered since I was a high school student and wanted to become a professional speaker as my career, which I did. And I’ve done many keynotes and it’s been a lot of fun. And I tend to really be fascinated with the words people are saying, such that I put a lot of thought and attention on them, and I’m really wrestling with them, like, “Is that true under all circumstances or just a few circumstances? Under what circumstances is that true? And how would I apply that? How is that useful?”

Now, in so doing, I think I have a little bit less of wowed, razzmatazz, hypnotic entrancement with some speakers because some people say like, “Oh, my gosh, that speaker was amazing,” and I’m like, “Really? I mean, he didn’t really say anything novel or applicable or relevant. His stories were kind of entertaining, I guess.”

And I think what’s happening is they’re doing all of the things you’re describing just right such that folks whose brains are not doing what mine are doing, are just like along for the ride, like, “Wow, that’s amazing.” And I think that’s my leading hypothesis now, decades later, is that, “Oh, that’s what’s going on here.” What do you think?

Richard Newman
Yeah, and actually to pick up on that, I think that you’re right in terms of the way the audiences react to certain elements. But the piece I’m always keen to stress for our clients is to say, “You’ve got to make sure you have substance and style because, eventually, style by itself runs out.” The challenge though is that if you’re to take either/or and say, “Well, which one do you need to make sure that you’ve got?”

And I’ve tried this, I’ve tested people from many different countries, and I ask this question, I said, “Would you rather have a random person dragged in off the street who’s going to read to you from the works of Shakespeare, or would you rather have your favorite actor in the world to read to you from the ingredients from the back of a cereal packet?” And every single time, people choose their favorite actor reading from the back of a cereal packet.

And the reason being, we love that sense of just being emotionally engaged in their delivery. You think, “Whatever they do is going to be interesting.” But what I always say to people is  you’ve got to make sure that you’ve actually got both because, eventually, the logical brain is going to kick in and go, “But how is that valuable to me? I don’t really understand. This is fun but fun runs out. When is this actually going to be worthwhile?”

And I’ve seen too many people who have brilliant and such valid points that they’re making but nobody is actually listening to them. They can’t keep people engaged long enough to get them to understand the value of what they’re saying. So, I’m always telling people, we put both those together and use the power of storytelling and the science that goes behind storytelling, and match that up then with your style. So, then you have both coming together, and people leave, and they think, “I know why that’s important. I know how I’m going to use it. I know how I need to put this into action,” and years later, they can repeat to you what you talked about and why it was important to them.

So, there are certain aspects that I’ve talked with clients. There’s one other client we’re still working with today, that we’ve worked with about 13 years ago, I think, was the first session that we did with them, but they’re still using the techniques that we taught to them back then those early sessions because we’ve designed it in a way that they can put it into action and be using it immediately. So, it’s key for people to make sure that they have made sure they’ve got both of those pieces that are working with them.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely, Richard. And I think Aristotle said something along those lines back in the day with logos, pathos, ethos. Like, straight up, when you’ve got them all, it’s a power pack. Well, Richard, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and quickly hear about a couple of your favorite things?

Richard Newman
Sure. So, I think, actually, I’m going to share with you, because you mentioned how fascinated you are sometimes by watching speakers and how you can do this. I’m going to share one little tip I love to share that people can read more about if they want to go and check out my book and so on, but I love teaching speakers how to do this. If you want to be really utterly compelling on stage, you need to understand timeline. And when you understand this, it changes everything.

So, if you imagine, for anybody listening to this, imagine you’re looking at a graph, and zero is on one side, and a hundred is on the other side, which side of the graph is the zero? Or, if you imagine a graph that’s showing January on one side and December on one side, which side is January? Which side is December?

So, anybody listening to this no matter where they are would say, “Okay, well, the zero is on the left and the hundred is on the right. January is on the left and December is on the right.” And the same goes when somebody watches you on stage. And what do I mean by that? When somebody watched you on stage, they see the past on the left hand side of the stage. As they’re looking at the stage, they see it on their left hand side, that is the past.

Pete Mockaitis
Their left, the speaker’s right?

Richard Newman
Their left, the speaker’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
Audiences’ left.

Richard Newman
The center of the stage is now, and the audience’s right hand side of the stage is the future. And so, if you want to utterly compel people to listen to your stories, then when you’re talking about the past, you move to the audience’s left, when you’re talking about right now, you move to the center of the stage, and when you’re talking about the audience’s future, you move to the right, the audience’s right. And by so doing, you’re helping them to process your information based on a timeline.

So, some people just like wander backwards and forwards, and it just has no correlation to what they’re saying. But if you can use that, you can use it by walking to parts of the stage, or if you’re just in a small meeting where you want to convince and compel clients or your team, you want to gesture to their left to talk about the past, gesture to their right to talk about the future. And, suddenly, they can take on board what you’re saying in a much more persuasive and compelling manner.

So, I wanted to share that with you just to get people’s brains worrying around, thinking, “Okay, I’m going to put that into action.” For me, it was one of the hardest things for me to learn. It took me about 10 days of practice to get really used to doing that so I could do it second nature. But now that I’ve been doing it, it’s so much easier to talk to people about the past, talk to them about the future, and not have to think about it. So, that’s one piece.

But I think the last piece that I would just offer up as a key principle that’s gone into my new book, the title is Lift Your Impact, ways that going all the way back to what we talked about, about me coming back from being shy, introverted, autistic. How did I figure out communication? It simply all came down to one thing, which is the word lift, where I noticed that great communication is about taking people from a negative or a neutral state, and by the time you leave the room, they move to a positive or a more positive state because of their interaction with you. That’s what great communication is all about.

And it’s about generating that feeling of lift. So, great leaders lift the room. When you leave the room, everybody feels lifted. If you do a really good job in a job interview, when you leave the room, the people interviewing you, they feel lifted by your presence. And if you can apply that to all of your communication, thinking, “How can I lift these people by the end of this conflict resolution, this challenging conversation, this sales pitch? How do I make sure they feel lifted?” then you know that you’ve had a great impact as a communicator. Everything needs to head towards that.

And that, for me, it’s come back to what we talked about earlier about banter, that’s where I thought that’s the ingredient I’m missing. Everybody is going into banter, thinking, “How do I lift the other person?” And what you say is not that important but the lift is the key to it. So, for people to have great communication this week in any situation, just remember to focus on lift.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is great in terms of demystifying banter there, because, you’re right, when folks are bantering, and they might be saying words that are quite sharp, like, they’re looking at them, they’re smiling, they got a tone and a chuckle, and it’s like their body language, all the nonverbal stuff is saying, “Hey, you’re here, and we’re going to honor this moment that you have appeared.”

I’m thinking about the guys at the wagon, “We’re going to honor this moment in which you ventured our space by giving you the attention and pointing general good vibes that we have, that we’re pleased that you are here.”

Richard Newman
Yeah, perfect.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. All right. Well, now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Richard Newman
Throughout my life, I’ve always had like vision boards and plans and maps of where I’m going to go with my career and with my life and so on. And I’ve also worked with people on mindset and goal-setting so that they can achieve their goals, too. And something that people have said to me that I’ve thought about is, “Is it okay that you’re sort of struggling towards something where you’ve eventually going to end up being happy?”

And what I’ve always been aiming to quantify for them is to say, “It’s not about you’ll be happy in the end when you’ve achieved something, but to happily achieve it along the way.” So, to come from place of being grateful, come from a place of being centered in where you are, and enjoy the journey. And I saw somebody put this together recently, I can’t remember the person’s name, but it was he talked about “The Pursuit of Happiness,” the movie, and he said, “Actually, what we’re aiming for is not the pursuit of happiness. It’s the happiness of the pursuit.”

And that landed with me so well, where I thought, “That’s exactly what I’d like to work on with people.” Whenever I’m working on mindset and goal-setting is have happiness in the pursuit.

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

Richard Newman
The one that instantly comes to mind for me is one that I was fascinated about to begin with, which would be around, it was two people, really, come to mind. So, firstly, Desmond Morris, whose book Peoplewatching… If people are really deeply interested in body language and nonverbal stuff, which I picked up with you during the course of our conversation, this was one of the original books that I looked at.

It’s about 600 pages long, and it was written a few decades ago so it’s not like an easy read but within there, there were some great research, about certain projects that were done. One of them, I believe, was a group of 25 students from Oxford and Cambridge University were taken around 40 cities within Europe to look at what are the commonalities and what are the differences in how people communicate going from one place to the next.

And what I found fascinating in there, one of the pieces was if you look at people in Germany, they gesture significantly less, as do people in Sweden gesture significantly less, than people in the UK. Whereas, people from Latin cultures, say, Spain and Italy, would gesture significantly more. And so, while we have the palms up and the palms down we talked about earlier is universal, the frequency at which we gesture is going to be different based on our culture. And that was one of my first ways in towards that.

Other studies that I’ve been fascinated by is a Paul Ekman’s piece where this is years ago. If they’ve seen the TV show “Lie to Me,” they may be familiar with his work, which was put into a fictional story there. But he was the first person to prove universality of human expression, where he went off to, if I’m getting this right, Papua New Guinea where he found that there were tribes there that their understanding of human facial expressions from people from different parts of the world were exactly the same as they would be in the US and Europe and elsewhere.

And so, he was the first person to find that facial expressions are understood the same way by everybody. And there was a certain number, I forget what it was, I think it was six, it’s around the region of six different emotions that everybody can identify the same way from different faces from around the world.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Richard Newman
I’ve been enjoying David Goggins’ work. So, if people are okay with lots of expletives, then they should go and check out his work. I really enjoyed his recent one. So, his first book was Can’t Hurt Me, and his recent book was Never Finished. And, essentially, if you’re just feeling like you want a little bit of a jolt of energy, a bit of motivation to get stuck into whatever your mission is in life, then I really encourage people to take a look at his work.

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

Richard Newman
I think, actually, what comes to mind, the last couple of years, previously, in 2019 and previous to that, everything that I did was in person, and I was used to group activities, group interaction, doing lively talks with people. And then when I went online, I thought, “Well, how do I do that in a way that keeps everybody engaged?” And we came across Mentimeter.com, and it’s a brilliant tool for group interactions online, where I hosted up to 3,000 people at a time on interactive live virtual sessions that I’m hosting.

And by using Mentimeter, what it allows me to do is I can get the voice of every single person in the audience, taking part in, like, virtual quiz, sending me what they feel about what I’m saying at all times. And running that session, you don’t have to download anything for an audience to use it. It’s anonymous for them to take part as well and so it’s allowed people to share with me what they’re genuinely honestly feeling in a way that I couldn’t do if I was live with a thousand people in a room. So, I’ve loved using that tool the last couple of years.

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

Richard Newman
I think the most important piece that has resonated with people over the last two decades is simply focusing on how you want people to feel. So, it’s all very well thinking about what you want to know and what you want to do, but everything that I have taught around storytelling, around body language, tone of voice, slide design, handling objections, conflict resolution, always comes back to “How do I want this person to feel at the end of my interaction? And how do I target everything around helping them to feel that way?”

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

Richard Newman
So, my new book Lift Your Impact is out in all good bookshops, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, everywhere else that you’d like to go to. And you can find more information at LiftYourImpact.com. And also my main website, if people are interested in some of the body language stuff we talked about here, UKBodyTalk.com. There’s loads of free videos, free articles, and a bunch of stuff on the website there.

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

Richard Newman
My suggestion is really very simply write down your dream of who you would love to be, who you would love to become in the next few years, and then work on yourself until you become that version of you.

And remember that the sky is the limit. Back in the day, for anyone to have predicted that somebody who, as a teenager, was very uncomfortable, shy, introverted, and autistic to become a highly paid keynote speaker, who teaches communication, well, the prospects of that are very, very small. But, for me, it was about working on who I wanted to become, and, in the journey of doing that, getting to go on amazing adventures as a result.

Pete Mockaitis
Richard, this has been a huge treat. I wish you much lift and fun in all your adventures.

Richard Newman
Great. Thank you, Pete.

829: How to Write so People will Read with Casey Mank

By | Podcasts | One Comment

 

 

Casey Mank shows how to make your writing more effective by making it simpler.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why writing matters tremendously—even when you’re not a writer
  2. How to make your writing more powerful in three steps
  3. Why people aren’t reading what you write—and how to fix that

About Casey

Casey has taught in writing classrooms for over 10 years, most recently at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and School of Nursing and Health Studies. She has taught writing to professionals at organizations including Kellogg’s, MasterCard, Sephora, the Aspen Institute, Viacom Media, the EPA Office of the Inspector General, the PR Society of America, the National Association of Government Communicators, and many more. Casey serves on the board of directors at the nonprofit Center for Plain Language and is proud to have helped thousands of writers get to the point and reach their audiences with greater impact.

Resources Mentioned

Casey Mank Interview Transcript

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

Casey Mank
Hi, thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to talk about writing well. And I learned that even though you do a lot of great teaching of writing, you don’t actually like writing. Is this true and can you elaborate on this?

Casey Mank
This is true and I also think it’s really important I try to tell people this as much and as often as I possibly can, actually, because I think one of the many misconceptions about being a good writer is that good writers are the people who love writing, that it comes naturally to you, you’re born with it, it’s an art, it’s a gift, it’s an inborn talent.

So, sometimes people will say, “Oh, well, you must just love writing,” or, like, “You’re a writer,” and I’m like, “Who are they talking about? Are you talking about me? I don’t love to do this. Writing is hard. It’s not fun to write or edit.” So, I think it’s important that people know, even though I teach this stuff, I think I’m pretty good at it, I can be effective at it, I don’t enjoy the process of writing stuff. I, too, find it kind of hard and unpleasant.

So, it’s important to us to always teach people that writing is something that can be very quantified and very strategic and just about getting the job done. And, in fact, I think writers who are able to see it that way, are often much more effective. Sometimes when I meet people in the course of my work who say, “Oh, I love writing,” those are the people that want to include a lot of extra flowery language and end up with bad business writing, ironically. So, that’s what that means to me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Casey, I really love that and find that encouraging because there are times in which I have writing that needs to be done but I am not feeling it, and so sometimes I will procrastinate because there are times that I do feel it but noting that, “No, it’s okay for this to be hard and unpleasant. That’s that.”

And I don’t remember who said it, this quote, was it David Allen or someone who says, “I don’t enjoy the process of writing but I very much enjoy having written,” like you’ve accomplished that thing, and you’re beholding the final product, you go, “Oh, nice.” And so, that’s a good feeling.

Casey Mank
Absolutely, yeah. And if people like writing, that’s great, but I want the people that don’t like writing or never feel motivation, to also know that they can just do it in a workhorse way and it can have great results for sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, inspiration landed. Thank you. And can you tell us, in a business context or for professionals, just what’s at stake as to whether one writes fine, okay, versus masterfully, like in the top one, two, three percent of business professionals? How much does it matter?

Casey Mank
Absolutely. So, the important thing to know about writing is that we’re all doing it, and we meet a lot of people that might say, “Oh, I’m not really writer. I’m not in a writing role at work,” but it doesn’t matter what your job is at work, at some point you need to put the things you’ve done and communicate their value in writing.

So, if you are a researcher and you have to write a report, if you’re a salesperson and you have to send sales emails, like, even if that’s not what you think of as your main job, at some point you’re conveying the value of the work you do in a written format. So, actually, when people read the way that you described what you do, if you’re great at what you do, you’re the best, but your writing isn’t very good, they tend to judge your competence if you don’t know you on how you describe what you’ve done.

If you don’t know you, and they’re just reading this like lackluster description of what you’ve done or what you’ve produced, and the way you express yourself isn’t clear, it’s not confident, whatever, they’re thinking, like, “Well, I bet this person isn’t great at their job.” And that might not be true, but actually it’s like fumbling in that last mile when you’re conveying the results of all your great work can be huge.

Pete Mockaitis
That is very well said. I’ve heard it said that there’s research suggesting people judge the effectiveness of a leader or professional who’s leading a meeting based on how well that meeting is going, just because that’s what’s visible, it’s like, “Okay, there you are leading the meeting, this meeting is going poorly, you must not be good at your job,” which is maybe fair or unfair based on any number of dimensions.

Much like with the writing, I find that there’s a number of Amazon products, I’ve had this experience, where I see something, it looks pretty good, it’s like, “Oh, okay, this looks like just what I need. Okay, that’s a good price. Oh, it looks beautiful. Oh, it’s got 14,000 reviews and they’re averaging like 4.7 or something. Okay, this looks great.”

But then when I see that the English is off, it’s like it’s not quite right, and it’s like nobody would say it that way.

This is about a Renpho Cordless Jump Rope. It says, “With a cordless ball, a rope jump can easy to change into a cordless model imitating skipping with a real rope without actually needing to swing a rope. The low-impact equipment offers people who don’t have a large room to work out a way.”

It’s like, okay, there’s a couple moments in there, it’s like, “That’s not right and smooth as…” And so then, I begin to wonder, “Well, if things are fuzzy here when you’re trying to sell me, like where else have they cut corners in terms of like the manufacturing, or the safety, or the quality, or the durability?” When that may be a completely unfair judgment, it’s like, “Hey, this was written by someone in China, maybe his English is not their native language, and they did their best and it wasn’t too bad,” but I’m like, “Hmm, I don’t know about this jump rope anymore based on what I’ve read here.”

Casey Mank
Absolutely. Doesn’t it make you feel like the person who wrote that has never seen a jump rope in their life?

Pete Mockaitis
Maybe.

Casey Mank
And you start to feel suspicious about their expertise about jump ropes.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it does. And so, I guess that can be fair, it can be unfair but, nonetheless, it’s a reality in terms of people are judging us based upon the quality of our writing, whether it’s in an email or a PowerPoint, it’s there, and so, okay, I’m with you. We got to take care of some business.

Casey Mank
That’s absolutely right. Yeah, and whether it’s true or accurate or not, it doesn’t matter. You’ve already created that impression in that person’s mind, and their ideas about you, their expectations, their perception of your personal brand, it’s really in a split second that that stuff can happen when they’re reading what you’ve written about your work.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Okay. Well, so then, you’re on the board of an organization with a really cool name, the Center for Plain Language. Tell us, what is this organization? And what is plain language? And how do we do that?

Casey Mank
That’s right. Well, so our hope as plain language experts, and I will happily tell you more about it, but our hope would be that the name that we give to anything would be completely self-explanatory. So, what do you think the Center for Plain Language does?

Pete Mockaitis
I think they work with people and organizations to facilitate more plain language being used in documents and websites, etc.

Casey Mank
That’s exactly right. That’s what we do, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m really down with that vision. Likewise, Casey, I want to put you on the spot, what do you think the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast is about?

Casey Mank
I think you all genuinely have a really plain language title for your podcast because it instantly tells me that it’s going to be, when I listen to it, it’s going to teach me how to do my job better. And then, if I dig into the details a little bit, I would start to find out how exactly that’s going to happen, but it’s very self-explanatory, which we love in plain language.

Pete Mockaitis
I do, too. I do, too. So, is there a bit of a process in terms of certain steps or best practices by which you arrive at plain language?

Casey Mank
Absolutely, yeah. So, you want to start out when you’re writing anything, and plain language really did start with a lot of government writing, a lot of sort of manuals, legal documents, things like that, but I believe it can be applied to anything. So, start out with whatever document you’re crafting, you’re going to think about not yourself, not your organization, not the information you want to include, actually. You’re going to think about the person who’s going to use this document.

So, yeah, get to know them, we start with them. Think about the person who’s going to use this. Think about exactly what they already know, what their top questions are, and what they need to do. So, whatever you’re writing, I don’t care what it is, what do they need to do once they read it? How are they going to use it? And then, you design your document. There’s a lot of best practices that we get into around how things look, how usable things are, how easy they are, and then, of course, the readability.

So, plain language people tend to think it’s going to be about, like, short sentences and easy words. That’s only half of it. The other half is actually a lot of UX design, so making documents really easy and fast to use. And I’m happy to direct your listeners to where they can learn more of all those best practices but then the key to really close the loop on all of this is you made some assumptions about your audience in the beginning, you tried your best to do great design, very readable writing.

But at the end of the plain language process, you must test your assumptions. So, this is really like the key piece that most people want to ignore, they’re like, “Well, I thought about my audience. I think I know what’s going to work for them, and I think I did it,” and then they kind of like hit send on their document, hit publish on their document, but in plain language content, you have to test before you finalize.

So, you get a couple people, you show the document to them, you say, “Read this,” then you take the document away from them, and you say, “What did you just read?” and they explain it back to you, and you get invaluable information from that. You make changes based on what they missed, what they misunderstood, what they thought was the most important thing but it wasn’t what you actually wanted them to focus on. You make changes and then you actually finalize. So, that’s kind of the plain language process in a nutshell.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot, and I think you’ve absolutely nailed it in terms of the final step. I think it’s taking me a while to get here, Casey, but I’m firmly here now. There’s no substitute for that. It is irreplaceable. It is mission critical when it counts. Like, if you’re writing, the thing that you’re writing matters and you want it to have an impact as opposed to, “Hey, this is a joke,” a joke to some friends. Even then I probably want to have an impact, I want them to laugh, but if they don’t, it’s like, “No big deal.”

But I remember just recently, I was writing an Evite invitation for our son’s baptism, and my wife went in there and she said, “Oh, I think made me think that, and this made me think that,” and then so she changed some things. And I think it takes a bit of humility to understand that that is absolutely necessary. It doesn’t mean that I’m dumb or wrong.

And, at the time, I think I was looking at a lot of other editing things in my life, and I was actually just so grateful, I said, “Thank you, honey. This is exactly what has to happen, and there is no other way.” I kid you not, I said those words to her, and she’s like, “This is kind of dramatic, Pete. Okay, sure, no problem.” So, yeah, it just has to happen.

I think that about when I’m looking at instructions for things, like how to build a piece of furniture or a toy assembly, whatever. I do, sometimes, have that reaction, like, “Did you actually test this with anybody? Because I don’t think I’m the only person who would find that very confusing, and I’m assembling this all wrong and feeling great frustration that I have to then undo it, and then redo it again the opposite way.”

Casey Mank
Absolutely. I can’t emphasize enough, there’s no substitute for that. Whatever you think you know about other people’s reaction, you don’t. They’ll always surprise you. And this doesn’t have to be expensive. There are really expensive and elaborate user-testing focus groups and stuff that you can do with the help of an expert, but you can also just pull in, like, your cousin, your mom, somebody down the hall from you at work.

My business partner has several siblings and we have them test sometimes the worksheets and stuff that we use in workshops, and they’ll say, like, “Oh, I really noticed this,” or, “I really was distracted by this,” and we’re like, “What? That? We weren’t even thinking about that when we made the worksheet.”

And so, it’s like you can’t get around your own bias as the author of all the stuff you know and all the stuff you want to happen, so, yeah, it’s invaluable but it doesn’t have to be hard or expensive. It can be informal. You can just ask a friend.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so you mentioned there are some principles that make all the difference in terms of readable writing and the user experience dimensions. I’m guessing it’s kind of like the visual type stuff.

Casey Mank
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you lay it on us here in terms of what are some of the biggest principles that make all the difference?

Casey Mank
Yeah, absolutely. So, if I had to pick, I’ll do maybe like a big two for each of half of this equation because I think two things is always enough for people to learn and remember, in my opinion.

So two big ones for the information design piece, which, you’re right, that’s all about how things look, how easy they look at a gut reaction. So, when people first interact with a document, they’re not beginning by actually reading the language. They’re looking at it as a whole and they get a really, like, instantaneous impression, just like a gut reaction, “This looks easy,” or, “This looks hard.”

So, one of the fastest things you can do to make any document look a bit easier to your reader, which invites them in and makes them think, like, “Yeah, I can deal with this document. It’s not going to overwhelm me,” is just to put more empty negative space on the page. So, you don’t want to hit people with walls of texts. My own personal, if I’m editing something and I see a paragraph that’s going over about four lines on the page, I start to get nervous because when paragraphs get longer, what people do is they just skip the second half of the paragraph.

They read the first line, they think, “I think I’ve got it. I think I know what’s in here,” and they just skip it. So, unless you’re perfectly comfortable with that information being skipped, which is okay, that’s a choice you could make as an editor, but if you’re sitting there thinking like, “No, they will read this,” I have bad news for you, they won’t. They’re not going to read a super long paragraph in most cases.

So, that’s one of the quickest things you can do, is just break up your chunks of information into smaller pieces so they don’t look so visually overwhelming to the reader. And then the other one I would do at the kind of visual level is bottom line up front. I don’t know if you’ve heard this acronym before, the BLUF, it stands for bottom line up front.

Whatever it is that you came to this document to tell your readers, you need to get it really near the top in almost every type of business writing or utilitarian writing. So, this is really different from the way we learn to write in school, it’s also very different from what we learned about good storytelling, so we’re not leading people on. We’re not raising their anticipation and then leading them on a journey of discovery, and then telling them the takeaway at the end.

In plain language writing, it’s like, “Here’s the takeaway. Here’s what you’re going to find in this document.” There’s no mystery. There’s no unfolding of a piquing the curiosity and then taking them on a journey. You’re just telling them what they’re here in the document. And then, actually, if they want to dive into the details and the background and how you got here, that stuff comes after, and they can read it or not. So, thinking about kind of flipping that on its head.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m curious, do we want to use this in all contexts? Or, if we’re about to say something super unpleasant or controversial or that we anticipate our audience is going to vehemently disagree with us about, do we want to still do the bottom-line up-front approach?

Casey Mank
So, there’s a lot of different scenarios I could imagine for this, but my first instinct in a blanket kind of way would be I would do a BLUF there and say, “I’m about to give you some difficult feedback,” and then maybe you can…like, I’m not saying you would start your communication with just like, “Your presentation was horrible,” not like that.

But I would let them know immediately. Say, they’re opening an email, a message, a memo, whatever, they’re going to see, “I’m about to give you some feedback, and we can talk about it more.” Don’t make them think, like, “Oh, wow, why is Pete emailing me today? Maybe he just wants to say hi,” and then they’re like going into the experience not knowing what’s about to happen. Let them know why you’re here right up front. That’s what I would say for that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so that’s a story on the user experience. And now how about sentence readability?

Casey Mank
Yeah, absolutely. So, there’s a ton of things that you could avoid and cut out of sentences to make them easier. If people want to go down that rabbit hole, you can check out PlainLanguage.gov. It’s the government’s free resource on plain language, and there’s many things you can do at the sentence level. But the biggest two that are going to impact reading difficulty at the sentence level are sentence length and complexity, and then word choice.

And I think the word choice piece is probably the one that people expect, they’re like, “If I’m using these big difficult words, these jargony terms, that’s going to be hard for people,” but they don’t always remember that just the length and complexity of a sentence’s structure is the other half of the readability formula. So, those two things together will impact the most.

And I think that’s especially useful for people to keep in mind if they must use some difficult terminology because a lot of writers that I work with, they’re like, “Oh, I have to use these science terms, or these fintech terms, or whatever it is. I can’t get rid of them so my writing will never be easy.” But you can still make your sentences shorter, more declarative, more simple, and that will offset the impact of having to use some of those big words or specialized jargon.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, what kind of sentence lengths are we talking about? Like, is there a rule of thumb in terms of these many words is getting long?

Casey Mank
Sure. So, after about eight words, sentence comprehension tends to start dropping off. Now, that’s a very short sentence, so we would never recommend that every sentence be eight words but you actually want to think about how much of the meaning of your sentence can people find in those first eight words. That’s one thing we teach people. Is the main noun and the verb of a sentence happening within the first eight words?

And then think about at least varying your sentence length. So, can you throw people a couple of eight- or ten-word sentences in the mix in between long sentences, so it’s not just long sentence after long sentence?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then I’m curious about sometimes it feels like is the word appositives, hmm, that feels fancy, from English class, if there is a phrase that’s hanging out there? So, for example, if I were to say, “Casey Mank, board member of the Center for Plain Language, suggests using sentences around eight words.” Like, that appositive phrase “board member of the Center for Plain Language” in my brain it almost feels bucketed together as one thing. But does that count? How does that count in our word count within sentences?

Casey Mank
Sure, yeah. So, in that example, you are throwing a block in between the subject and the verb.

Pete Mockaitis
I did. Guilty.

Casey Mank
So, yeah, even though it might seem short, your reader’s brain is unconsciously looking for that structure, “Casey Mank recommends…” whatever you said I recommend in that example, and that’s what they’re looking for. And when you put extra words in between the subject and the verb, you do create complexity that readers who have a lower literacy level, maybe English isn’t their first language, they can get a little bit lost there.

So, again, the recommendation in plain language isn’t that you never have a sentence like that with the appositive, as you described it, but rather that you don’t have tons of those, that you vary it up sometimes. So, yes, in answer to your question, you are making it more complex by including that because you’re separating the noun and the verb, so some readers will trip over that a little bit. And you could make it into two sentences, “Casey Mank is a board member at the Center for Plain Language. She recommends…” whatever you said that I recommend.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I love that notion of the two sentences. I remember when I took the GMAT exam, there’s a section called “Sentence correction,” and most of those sentences were long and nasty monsters. And I kept looking for the option, “Split this terribly difficult sentence into two sentences.” There never was an option. It was more like, “Which one is technically correct? Ah, got you.”

And so, yeah, I think that’s often one of the best solutions. Can you share with us any other common fixes that just solve for a whole host of sins?

Casey Mank
Yes, so there’s one other one that we really like. So, breaking things into two sentences is number one. In fact, when we get to the grammar section, that is literally number one. That’s what we start with because it solves a lot of things, like you said. Another one, if you want to get a little deeper into sentence structure, would be try to steer away from starting sentences with caveats or exceptions, which is really common in business writing.

Like, if you start to look for it, you’ll see it a lot where people will say, “Not only is this A but it’s also B.” And that little added structure, things like that, or, “After considering all the factors and…” whatever, like, including all that background information at the start of a sentence, that is really difficult because you’re actually delaying when your reader can get to the main subject and verb of the sentence by a lot.

And we have some great examples of this. I wish I had brought one because if I try to think of one on the spot, it’ll be a train wreck, but it’s like you’re asking people to hold all these relationships in mind when they don’t even know what to apply the relationships to yet. So, in plain language writing, you want to start with the simple statement and then build the exception on after that, because it’s easy to apply an exception to something but it’s harder to keep an exception in mind as you’re waiting to figure what it will apply to. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Very much. Very much. Okay. And so, then we got our principles, the word choices. Tell us, are there ways that we quickly measure this? Is the Microsoft Word Flesch Kincaid readability the thing? Or, how do we assess whether or not, broad scale and automatically, our sentence length and complexity is too much or our word choice is too complicated?

Casey Mank
Absolutely. So, plain language folks in particular have a complex relationship with those readability formulas because none of those formulas are perfect, and they don’t kind of replace your human good judgment. So, some plain language specialists really like them. Others feel like they oversimplify things too much.

Sometimes, like if you’re using a Flesch Kincaid tester, and you take out the period at the end of a sentence, it will change the reading. But for a human reader, it wouldn’t really change the experience of like seeing a bullet point that had a period versus no period, something like that. So, they’re not perfect. We love them as, again, not a be-all-and-end-all of readability, but just as a way to get some kind of objective measurement or feedback.

We often show them to writers, we’re introducing them for the first time, and they’re maybe really shocked to find that their writing at like a postgraduate level in a document that, because they are a specialist in whatever industry or niche they’re in, they think this is just like a normal document, but it’s actually incredibly difficult for someone in the general public to understand.

So, we love them for almost the shock value of writers getting to see what level they are truly writing at because they often don’t know. And then just as, again, to see if the edits that you make are making a difference, it’s nice to see that number go down from, like, grade 12 to grade 10, and say, “Okay, I did make a difference with my edits.” Because sometimes you’re moving things around in your writing, and you’re like, “Is this getting better or worse? I can’t even tell.”

So, we do like them. We use them. There are a ton of other tools I can recommend if you’d like to get into that now.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please do.

Casey Mank
Sure. So, we do love Flesch Kincaid, and, as you mentioned, you can enable that in Word.

WebFx.com is another one that we really like for that. You can test texts based on a lot of different readability formulas. It’s really good. There are two other tools that I’ll recommend. These are all free, by the way. One is the Hemingway app, so it’s a style editor. And important to note, it’s not a proofreading software, so don’t assume that things are correct if they’ve been through the Hemingway app. It’s only showing you style elements but it’s really good at catching lengthy difficult sentences, and it will also give you a grade level as well.

And one other that I really like is called the Difficult & Extraneous Word Finder, that’s the name of it. I know it’s kind of a silly long name. The website looks like it’s still from 1990 but it actually still works. And it actually tags the words in your document based on how rare they are compared to most people’s core vocabulary.

And that part is okay but what I love about that tool is actually the long-word finder because it can just help you notice, like, “Wow, that’s a big word. Is there an easier alternative that I could swap in?” So, those are some automated tools that we like.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, those are handy, beautiful tools. And now I want to ask about tools along the lines of Grammarly and into the future of artificial intelligence, GPT-3, Jasper.ai. Like, what do we think of all that?

Casey Mank
Yes. So, people often ask us, “Is Grammarly putting you guys out of business training writers?” No, we recommend Grammarly to all our clients. We recommend it in all our workshops as like a final polishing step because Grammarly is really sophisticated now. It can catch a ton of typos, misspellings, wordy sentences, stuff like that.

And what that means to us, this is our take, you can spend less time on proofreading, which a machine can do, and you can save your human brain power for the more strategic questions, like, “Who is the audience for this? What is actually the call to action that I want them to take? How am I going to get them to that step? How is this affecting our relationship?” Those are questions that I still think they’re best suited for a human brain.

The AI question is an interesting one, “How much of that stuff those programs will be able to take over in the future?” But, for now, proofreading, I feel 100% confident, outsourcing a lot of the proofing and the nitty-gritty edits to something like Grammarly. And, by the way, the free version is great. You don’t have to pay for the paid version. Hemingway app can tell you a lot of those things, if you want to use that as a workaround for style.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. Well, then talking about the full-blown artificial intelligence stuff for a moment, I’ve played with it and I’m impressed at what it produces, although it’s not accurate, it doesn’t have any concern for truth or facts, yet it can mimic styles pretty well, I found. And so, I’ve just been scratching my head a little bit, like, “What is the place of this in my writing life? Maybe there’s no place at all, or maybe it’s just to get some opening inspiration to get the wheels turning a little bit.” How do you think about it?

Casey Mank
Yeah. So, I think one thing that could be helpful or interesting there is that people get really stuck staring at a blank page sometimes, not if you have to send an email necessarily but I’m talking more about if you’re writing some sort of content, like a blog or something. You might just be sitting there, staring, like, “I can’t get started.” And we try to teach people ways to just get out of their own way and get a terrible first draft because that’s the thing you need. You need a terrible first draft, and then you can edit.

Actually, all of our writing workshops, it’s a little misleading because they’re actually editing workshops. It’s about how to make something better. It’s not about how to get a terrible draft on the page because, really, you kind of just have to do that. So, I like the possibility that it could produce a pretty terrible block of text for you, and then you could come in. And maybe it would help with some of that writer’s block.

But, on the flipside of that, one concern that I would have is, there’s a really terrible temptation, and we see this a lot with ineffective business writing, workplace writing, to if you have an existing document, and you’re writing something new, and you think, “Oh, somebody already wrote some messaging on that. Let me just copy and paste it. Yay, now I’m done.”

But often, because you’re repurposing it for a different audience and context, it’s not good, it’s not going to work, it’s not going to be effective, and the temptation to copy and paste leads to a lot of bad writing. And when we look at it, it’s like, “Well, who’s the audience? What are you trying to get them to do? Okay, why is this here?” And people will say, “Oh, well, it’s there because it was on the original copy that I got, the source material.” “Well, it would’ve been better if you just started over with the current audience and context in mind.”

So, it worries me that it would encourage people to just say, like, “Look, I have something,” and then the temptation to just kind of keep it and not start over as much as they need to.

Pete Mockaitis
Well said. That reminds me of when you ask Siri a question, and she doesn’t really have the capability of giving you an answer, but she’s like, “I found this on the web.” And it’s like, “Oh, yeah, that’s kind of related to what I’m asking, but it isn’t really the answer.” And so, yeah, I do see that a lot in terms of like the lazy business writing, it’s like, “That’s not really an answer, but it’s tangential to an answer.”

Like, I asked someone, “How do I know that you’re actually going to pay a claim, insurance company, if push comes to shove?” And they say, “Well, we’ve got a great financial rating.” It’s like, “Well, that’s good but that’s not really the answer.” And so, I think a lot of business writing seems to fall into that zone of, “It’s kind of relevant to what we’re trying to do here, but it’s not really a bullseye that we’re going for.”

Casey Mank
Absolutely, the temptation. If you’ve got something, the temptation to copy and paste it is so strong but usually does not lead to the outcome that you want.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, tell us a little bit about the audience response tone approach. How does that unfold?

Casey Mank
Absolutely. Yeah, so first I have to give a big shoutout to Prof. David Lipscomb from Georgetown University, who is the inventor of the ART tool, which we use. And the audience response tone tool helps you think about that big strategic piece. We start all our workshops, all our coaching sessions with it, and I can tell you that people always want to jump over it.

I’m asking them a question, it’s like, “Who’s going to read this? Who are they? What are they going to do?” And they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” “Come tell me if I have a comma splice here.” And it’s funny, like people always want to dive into the editing of the actual content, but if they don’t take…it’s like slow down to speed up a tiny bit and actually think about, “Who will read this? What will they do with it?” If you don’t get those things right, it doesn’t matter how polished your text is, it’s not going to create the impact that you want it to.

So, the ART, I mean, going through the pieces, we hope it’s pretty self-explanatory. So, you already said the piece is audience, “Who is this for?” We encourage people to think as in depth as they possibly can about one reader, so not a crowd of a thousand people, but just one person, even if they’re a representative reader.

And, Pete, you actually do this amazingly well on your booking page for podcast guests. I noticed this. I wanted to bring it up. You say, “Imagine our ideal listener,” and you kind of have this profile for like, “She’s this mid-career young woman, and she’s interested in these topics.” And maybe that person exists or maybe she doesn’t, but I could see her reading that description that you put there. So, that’s so much better than just saying, like, “Listeners from Apple podcast.” That doesn’t help you. Yeah, that doesn’t help you tailor the content.

So, doing something like that, really getting in the shoes of the audience, thinking. I like to ask two questions about the audience, “How much do they know your topic?” You can say nothing or you can say everything, but just know how much they know. And then, “How much do they care?” because people who really care are more motivated readers. They’re willing to put in a lot of effort to make their way through a difficult dense document because they deeply care about the information. People who don’t care will not put in any effort. So, if you don’t spoon-feed it to them, they’ll just delete it, not read it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Casey, I love that so much, and you’ve just answered a mystery I’ve been wrestling with for a while, which is, “How are so many top-selling books about chess so poorly written? How is this even possible?” It’s possible because the person who aspires to improve at chess is highly motivated, more so than I am. It’s like, “This is hard. This is a complicated read. I’m doing something else.” And so, I haven’t advanced as much.

But that does explain much. And then you can find that in all kinds of domains, like people really want to get good at options trading, so they’re reading an options trading blog which is very difficult to read. And, yet, if the folks are thinking about all the dollars they could be printing up with their enhanced options trading skills, they’ll put up with it, so I really like that. Thank you.

Casey Mank
I love that example, yeah. So, I love that example of the chess book. I can only imagine how difficult those are. I can only imagine what that’s like to read. But it’s written by someone who loves chess, and it’s read by someone who loves chess, and both of those people are in agreement that they’re going to put in the work to figure that out.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, totally.

Casey Mank
So, that’s great. That’s great. But most of the people we’re communicating with in the workplace are not an aspiring chess master. They’re like, “What do you want right now? Why are you in my inbox? I don’t have time to read this.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, totally.

Casey Mank
So, thinking about how much, yeah, thinking about how motivated your reader really is to put in effort. So, that’s the A piece, the audience. The response, you can think in a couple different ways. What are they going to know once they’re done reading? How are they going to feel? And then what are they going to do?

So, important to note that not everything you write has a do piece. Sometimes you truly are just giving FYI, educating people. You’re maybe trying to change their feelings about something but there’s nothing you want them to do when they finish reading. But if there is something you want them to do, “Click this link,” “Donate money,” “Sign a petition,” “Pick a meeting time,” that’s when it becomes really important to make it as easy as humanly possible for them to do that thing because there’s a great chance that they’re going to give up if it becomes hard or confusing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then the tone?

Casey Mank
Yup, the tone piece is going to be specific to the audience and the response. So, this isn’t just, “What’s my tone in general?” It’s always context-dependent, which is why it comes last. So, for this particular audience that we’re talking to about this particular topic, and the exact response we want them to do, what’s the tone that’s going to move that audience to that response? So, it’s not just like, “What’s a good business tone?” It’s, “Today, right now, in this document, what’s the appropriate tone?”

We usually ask people to pick three or four adjectives to describe the one. At first, it’s hard to get people to be creative and go beyond, like, informative, clear, professional. Okay, I hope everything you write is informative, clear, and professional. That’s the baseline, but what else? What else can we pull out around tone? And that becomes useful later when you’re editing because you can read every sentence you wrote, and ask yourself, “Is this sentence,” whatever you’re doing, “Is it enthusiastic? Is it cordial? Do I sound expert and do I sound warm?”

You can really kind of filter your entire document through that tone if it’s specific. But if it’s just, “This is going to be professional and clear,” like, it becomes harder to actually make editing decisions based on a vague tone. And last thing about that is it makes it easier for other people to edit your work and give you feedback on your work if you can tell them, “Here’s the audience, here’s the response I want from that audience, and here’s the tone I’m trying to hit. Do you think this document will have that impact and meet those three things?” rather than if you just hand someone you work with a document, and you say, “Hey, is this good?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, absolutely.

Casey Mank
Yeah, you’re not going to get helpful specific feedback from them. You’re just going to get them fixing that one semicolon in the bottom paragraph, which isn’t what you really need, so.

Pete Mockaitis
I really love it when…this is, I guess, my sense of humor. I’d like to apply just wildly inappropriate tones to different bits of writing. Like, I saw a cigar catalog once, and it had a lot of things, like, “Winner, winner, chicken dinner. These won’t impress the mucket-y mucks in the boardroom, but under a buck of stick, it’s the perfect yard guard.” It’s like, “Who is this guy talking to?”

And it just cracks me up, and then I just try to imagine taking that tone and putting that on, I don’t know, this podcast, like a podcast episode description for Casey, like, “Wait, what is going on here?” It just feels weird. And, yet, if you’re in the mood to kick back and leisurely select a cigar, it might be perfect.

Casey Mank
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I think that’s good. Well, maybe you can tell me, Casey, I guess the tone that I want is I want folks to feel inspired by a sense of transformative possibility when they read a podcast episode description, like, “Oh, wow, that sounds awesome. I want to know that.” Click play. I guess that’s in the audience we talked about in terms of professionals and such. So, do I just want to use the word inspiring for tone? Or, is there a copywriter word I want to be using for this?

Casey Mank
No, I love that because it doesn’t have to just be a single word, because, crucially, the most important audience for this audience response tone thing is you’re just using it for yourself. This isn’t like a public-facing thing. It’s just the art for you to get on the right page. So, if you want to say to yourself, every time you write the description for an episode, “I want people to feel like, ‘Yeah, I can do this at work,’” that means something to you, and you can use it.

And I imagine you could give that to a colleague, and say, like, “Here’s the vibe I want. Does it come across?” I had one person I work with, one writer, who said, she’s writing an email and people had ignored her instruction several times. And one of the tone things that she told me she was shooting for is, “I’m drawing a line in the sand.”

Now, that is not a single adjective but it meant something to her, it definitely meant something to me, and we kept that in mind, “I’m drawing a line in the sand.” So, if there’s something like that that works for you to think about the tone, I think it’s fantastic.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Certainly. And if it’s just you, the writer that you’re thinking about, then you can say whatever you want. And then, I guess, we do, whoa, it’s like this is so meta, in writing the creative brief itself for your collaborator, you would also be thinking about that audience as copywriter or teammate and their response and tone.

The audience as a copywriter, the response is, I want them to say, “Yes, that sounds like a sweet job I’ll take.” And the tone is, I don’t know, “This should be a lot of fun.” So, cool. Well, Casey, boy, this is exciting stuff. I can dork out forever. Tell me, any other top do’s and don’ts you want to make sure to mention before we hear about your favorite things?

Casey Mank
Sure. One writing problem and writing piece of advice that I see a lot and I would love to give people is, you know, because people know what I do, sometimes people in my personal life, my friends and family will say, like, “Hey, help me wordsmith this. I’m about to send something important.” It could be a text, an email, a job application, whatever. Like, “Help me wordsmith this.” And I’m like, “Okay. Well, what are you trying to say?” And they’ll say something to me verbally, and I’ll say, like, “Why don’t you say that?”

And I think people are often disappointed because when they come me, they’re like, “Wordsmith this with me,” and usually I’m just like, “Well, why don’t you just say that?” And I think when people sit down to write, especially professionally, like workplace writing, especially for things that might be important, they go into this weird zone where they just start reaching for all the big words that they know, and like jamming them into sentences, and you get people sending messages, like, “I would love to actualize an opportunity to network with you.”

Like, if you took someone who was really confident and far along in their career, they would send that to someone as, “Hey, let’s chat.” Like, people who actually really know about a topic and very confident, they’d say, like, “Hey, would love to chat.” But people who are right out of college, are like, “I would love to actualize this opportunity to discuss with you,” and nothing signals that you are not confident more than, like, jamming sentences full of big fancy words.

So, I would love to kind of curve that impulse in people. Something weird happens, like they’ll say it beautifully out loud, and as soon as their fingers touch the keyboard, they just kind of like make it weird with all these big words. So, I would love to flag that for people. And start noticing if you’re doing that, stop it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that sounds…actualize opportunity, that really resonates. I’ve gotten a number of emails that folks wanted to explore the potential of creating a collaborative partnership with me. It’s like, “I don’t even know what you mean.”

I think the default responses is just, “I don’t know what this is,” and then move to the next email. And I think that’s sort of an unfortunate reality in terms of when clarity is missing, often the response you get is just no response whatsoever.

Casey Mank
Absolutely, yeah.

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

Casey Mank
Sure. So, this is attributed to Elmore Leonard, who was a novelist and a screenwriter. He did Westerns. And he said, “I like to leave out all the parts that readers skip,” and I’d like to adjust that a little bit for people, which is like try to leave out more of the parts readers skip. I think leave out the parts readers skip, it might sound kind of daunting, but can you just, like, do a little better. I always try to tell people that. Just kick out a few more of the fluffy pieces. So, leave out the parts readers will skip.

Pete Mockaitis
And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Casey Mank
Yes. So, we draw really heavily on research from the Nielsen Norman Group, and one of my favorite couple things that people could start with there, I mean, you could read everything on the site and you’d probably emerge as an amazing communicator on the other side of that.

Pete Mockaitis
Sounds worth doing.

Casey Mank
It’s great, yeah. Take a deep dive, but if you want a couple things to start with, I would recommend “The Impact of Tone on Readers’ Perception of Brand Voice,” which is just it really shows some interesting research about how tone impacts people’s reactions to what they read. And then the other one would be “How Little Do Users Read?” It should really get you in the mood for that, like, don’t include stuff that people are just going to skip over.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Casey Mank
Sure. We have a bunch on writing that we often recommend, Letting Go of the Words by Janice Redish, who is a plain language educator, Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, Brief by Joe McCormack, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. And then, not a book, but, again, PlainLanguage.gov, free government resource on clear communication. We recommend that almost more than any book.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a favorite tool you use regularly to be awesome at your job?

Casey Mank
So, just the ones that I recommended already would be my go-tos: Hemingway editor, Hemingway app; Grammarly, of course, which we do like and we do co-sign people using people, especially in your emails, it can just fix those typos for you; Difficult and Extraneous Word Finder. Those are pretty much the big writing tools that we like to recommend to people.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Casey Mank
Sure. So, I do productivity habit that I don’t think it came from anywhere else. It’s my own thing. You’ve probably heard of like Pomodoro, which I think is 25 on and five off. But when I have a task that I’m deeply procrastinating on, I like to start out by doing five minutes on and five minutes off, which people have said to me, like, “That’s not enough time on.” But it really helps me get into something at first if I think, like, “I’m going to do this for five minutes,” and then I get to watch Netflix for five minutes, because I feel like you can do anything hard for five minutes.

And, usually, what ends up happening is I get into, like, making my PowerPoint or something, and the alarm goes off, and I just snooze it, and I’m like, “No, I’m rolling now. I want to keep working on it.” But for the first, like, getting into something that feels too big or difficult, five minutes on, five minutes off can kind of like get me moving. So, that’s my method.

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

Casey Mank
Yes. So, one that has come up in workshops is, like, “If you’re saying everything is important, you’re saying nothing is important.” And when it comes to writing, that can manifest in a couple different ways but one is, like, if you’re bolding key information and you’re just, like, bold an entire paragraph, you’re no longer emphasizing something.

Or, if we’re working with someone, and we say, “Okay, you really need to figure out what’s most important, and then delete the other stuff,” and they just say, like, “No, everything is important. I need the reader to read every word.” Well, that’s not going to happen, so if you’re saying everything is important, then nothing is important.

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

Casey Mank
Probably connect with me on LinkedIn, or you can email me casey@boldtype.us, and I love to get bad writing of the internet. So, if you are just, like, going about your day in your life, and you see something really poorly written online that’s public-facing, please send it to me. I can use it as befores and afters in my workshops.

Pete Mockaitis
And, Casey, I suppose we should’ve asked, what is Bold Type? And how can you help us?

Casey Mank
Oh, well, okay. Not the bottom line up front at all, huh? So, my company, Bold Type, as you might’ve guessed from everything we’ve talked about, teaches workplace writing skills. That’s the only type of training we do. We do workshops on plain language writing, obviously, email writing, how to edit your own writing, how to give other writers feedback on the writing that they have produced, how to be better at getting feedback on your writing, presentation, PowerPoint writings, and we do some executive coaching as people are moving into more writing-intensive roles at work and things like that as well.

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

Casey Mank
I do. For the next week or so, could you try to cut every email that you send in half? And I know that might sound hard, but think about if you’ve ever been asked to write a professional bio for whatever you’re doing, and someone says, “I need a 50-word bio,” and you have to, like, cut your bio down. After you’ve done that, it’s actually hard to go back to the longer bio because you realize, like, “I didn’t need all of this.” So, every email you send, can you take out about half the words? You probably can. That’s my challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
Good. Well, Casey, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much fun and good writing.

Casey Mank
Thanks so much, Pete. This was really fun.