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808: How to Become a Great Listener with Oscar Trimboli

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Oscar

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

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

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

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

Resources Mentioned

Oscar Trimboli Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Bug catcher.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
It is? Vertically speaking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Impossible, Oscar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Take, take, take.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
What kind of movie would it be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar Trimboli
Yeah.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar Trimboli
Thanks for listening.

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

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Gret 

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

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Thank you, sponsors!

Gret Glyer Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gret Glyer
Yeah, my COO.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gret Glyer
Yeah, absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Bold claim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gret Glyer
Yeah, exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gret Glyer
Yeah, I bet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gret Glyer
Thank you, Pete.

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Laura

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

Resources Mentioned

Laura Sicola Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura Sicola
Exactly.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, the shoes, yeah.

Laura Sicola
Exactly.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
So, not like James Bond?

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

Pete Mockaitis
Pete Mockaitis.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true. Lithuanian.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

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

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Pete Mockaitis.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Pete Mockaitis.

Laura Sicola
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
With my name?

Laura Sicola
Yours or mine, whichever makes you happy.

Pete Mockaitis
Laura Sicola.

Laura Sicola
Great. And yours?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Pete Mockaitis.

Laura Sicola
Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura Sicola
Exactly. Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a new verb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura Sicola
It does. It does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

764: Enhancing Your Communications by Mastering Your Own Style with Maryanne O’Brien

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Maryanne O’Brien unpacks how understanding communication styles improves your ability to be heard.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The keys to better conversations 
  2. The four communication styles–and how to master yours
  3. How to bridge the gap between your style and others’ 

About Maryanne

Maryanne has spent her career helping leaders and teams learn how to consciously communicate, cultivate empathy, and deepen trust. She is the author of The Elevated Communicator: How to Master Your Style and Strengthen Well-Being at Work, which was born out of more than a decade of original research. Her proprietary self-assessment helps you identify your communication style––Expressive, Reserved, Direct, or Harmonious­­––raise your self-awareness and build the communication skills needed to create a positive impact at work.

Resources Mentioned

Maryanne O'Brien Interview Transcript

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

Maryanne O’Brien
Thank you for having me. I’m excited to talk with you today.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about communication and, specifically, your book The Elevated Communicator: How to Master Your Style and Strengthen Well-Being at Work. So, I’m going to start you off with an easy one. What’s the most surprising and fascinating discovery you’ve made about humans and communicating over your career?

Maryanne O’Brien
Well, I’ve been in communications in some form my entire career, starting out in advertising and then moving into kind of growth and development. And I think the thing that struck me the most, as I’ve really gotten into this subject, is that if we want to become better communicators, we have to become better people. There’s just no way around it because, as we’re developing skills and really developing our own self-awareness and our ability to listen, have empathy and really understand ourselves and others, we, naturally, become better people over that kind of arc and journey to developing new skills.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fascinating. And when you say better people, you mean like virtue, like our goodness, and then like an Aristotle or sense of the word?

Maryanne O’Brien
I do. I mean, like our character strengthens.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Maryanne O’Brien
So, if you think about listening is one of the most important skills whenever you’re learning to become a better communicator, and it’s impossible to become a better listener if you’re not patient. If you don’t have some level of empathy and connection with people so that they can really know that you’re listening and connected with them if you aren’t willing to kind of keep an open mind. Like, it’s hard to listen without judgment if you’re not open to new people, you’re not open to new perspectives and new ideas.

And so, as we develop skills and become more aware of our own style and self-awareness and self-understanding, we naturally start to see ways to improve and grow. And so, one of the pieces and one of the philosophies that the work is kind of grounded around is this idea of the micro-evolution of self, the day by day, bit by bit we get better over time. And we do that through understanding kind of, you know, deepening our understanding, what we know. So, there’s some building skills. There’s usually some knowledge you have to have.

Then there’s what you do, the practices that support our ability to become better communicators, and, ultimately, it’s who we are. Success is a natural outcome of who we are, and we all want to be successful in our careers. That’s why we listen to things like How to be Awesome at Your Job is that we want what we do to matter. We want to have purpose. We want to have success.

And the reality is that success isn’t something that we do or something that we have. It’s a natural outcome of how we treat people, how well we interact, how able we are to build trust with all kinds of people. And so, as we learn and grow and evolve and make small changes, we naturally become better people over time. And as we become better people, we become better communicators.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very good. And I buy that, as I think about many of the skills associated with, well, just as you’ve said, with listening is sort of like, “Well, do I really care about you? Or, am I more interested in me and my fun interesting thoughts than your interesting thoughts? And am I more about being heard than hearing?” And there you go, that is like generosity or humility. These are character things. So, that totally resonates with me. Thank you.

Maryanne O’Brien
Well, some of the styles are more naturally they’re better listeners. Other styles are more interested in talking, and so understanding all of the four different styles. The first one is expressive. They’re the largest at 37%. The second is reserved, they’re 25%. The third is direct, they’re 22% of the population. And then the fourth is harmonious, and they’re 16%.

And the percentages are interesting to kind of know because they represent different sizes in the workplace but each of them is really important and plays a different role in creating high-functioning, high-performing teams. And really learning to understand all of them and understand what are the benefits that they bring, what is the role that they play, what are their needs, what do they value, what are they motivated by, how do they make decisions.

There are all these different complexities around each style that, first of all, you need to understand yourself but then you also want to understand others because what happens, oftentimes, is whenever we run into style tensions, we end up falling into judgment. We’re human, we judge. It’s kind of a natural thing, especially when someone is different than us.

So, sometimes we might find that we hire people that are like us and our teams become really homogenous, and there are two styles, the expressives and the directs, that tend to dominate in work. And if we don’t make room for people who are reserved and people who have harmonious as their natural style, as their primary, we miss opportunities to really create more balanced teams and a wider perspective on nearly every situation and, specifically, when it comes to problem solving.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I was just about to ask what’s the big idea behind The Elevated Communicator. It sounds like maybe you just shared it with me. Or, is there any other core message about the book you want to make sure to put out there?

Maryanne O’Brien
So, the idea is that the better we know ourselves and the better we know others, it’s easier for us to bring out the best in ourselves and the best in others. But it really also comes to a level of as we raise our communication skills, we also need to raise our level of wellbeing and really look at how to manage our stress because every style has a spectrum that goes from healthy, when we’re at our best, to our style under stress, and it’s easy to slip into stress.

Like, we are in a pretty stressful environment in the world. Stress does not bring out the best in any style, so there’s a really deep level of self-awareness that happens as you start to really get to know your style and then the other pieces. Ultimately, how do you build those connections and build trust with people, because trust is always the Holy Grail, right? It’s always about psychological safety and “How do we build high-trust teams?”

But the only way we can do that is if we can have genuine conversations and feel safe enough with people to challenge ideas, to share something that is a different perspective, and to get our voice into the conversation whenever there is a really dominant perspective being held.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very good. And so, these four styles, tell me, where do they come from? I don’t imagine you just made them up. Can you give us a bit of the story about the research, the validation? Like, how do we know there’s four, Maryanne, and not six?

Maryanne O’Brien
Well, so I’ve done consulting for several years, and one of the things I’ve always liked to do is to use assessments to help people better see themselves and better able to see other people, and so I was looking for a really great communication assessment. And I have a strong background in quantitative and qualitative research, and I could tell some of them just weren’t as robust as I was used to.

And so, I decided I was going to go create one because I know how important this tool is in organizations, and I’ve been working with organizations on this level for a long time. And so, I went out and I did a giant quantitative study, and my hope was that most style assessments you see, whether it’s a personality, whatever, that we come back in these four tidy little quadrants, and that it would be…

Pete Mockaitis
High this, low that. Low this, low that.

Maryanne O’Brien
Exactly. And so, what I found was, really, there were three primary dimensions that we communicate on. One of them is assertiveness. How forcefully do you share your opinion? Do you speak up? Are you expressive with your emotions and your opinions? The second is collaboration. How well do you work with people? Do you like to work alone? Do you like to work with others? How do you interact? Are you critical or are you supportive? And then the third is really about how you behave whenever you engage with people, so there’s a spectrum.

And it turned out that, rather than kind of falling into these nice little boxes, it’s easy to put a person in a box, but when it comes to communication, if there’s anything more complex than communication, it’s people. And these three dimensions actually formed more of a constellation, so every style has five really primary kind of shining stars that make it distinct, and that falls into this cluster analysis. And then there are some shared traits between some styles.

So, some styles will get along better than others, and that’s usually where you have some overlap. So, when I started to kind of step back and then I did probably a year and a half of qualitative research, going out to really add dimension and understanding of “What does it mean if somebody is expressive? How does that show up in the workplace?” And how we communicate at work is often different than the way we communicate at home. So, there’s parts.

If you read through all the styles, you’ll start to see, like, “Gosh, I feel like I’m a little bit of that aspect in me,” because we do share some of those qualities, and that’s kind of that constellation approach, but also because somebody who is really direct at work can be harmonious at home. And it seems counterintuitive but sometimes they’re like, “You know what, I don’t want to lead everywhere in my life.” And, conversely, I’ve seen people who are harmonious be really direct at home. Those two are kind of the most different of the four styles.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so how do I learn our own style and that of others so that we can make use of this?

Maryanne O’Brien
Well, so I would recommend you go and you take the communication style assessment, which is free, at TheElevatedCommunicator.com. I wanted the assessment to be accessible for everyone because, for a long time, I had led StrengthsFinders and other programs where people would get the code and they’d throw away the book. And I was like, “You know, let’s not do that.” If you really are going to read the book and get into your style, which I would also recommend, but I’d love to give you a flavor for all of them today, but I would, first, start by taking the style assessment.

And on the site, you’re going to see a couple of brief descriptions that will help you to understand yourself kind of at a glance, and that will give you a good look into things. And if I could just take you kind of briefly through what the four are and how they show up, you’ll start to see…we start to recognize it in ourselves and in others.

The other piece I would ask you to kind of keep an ear toward as we’re going through this is how you can start to see, like, “Oh, I can see how those styles would get along and how those styles might have some kind of tension points,” because it’s, often, those style tensions that create the people problems in our job.

So, if I start with the expressives, because they’re the largest and most dominant group in an organization, so they are super collaborative. They build high-trust collaborative teams, that’s what they really care about. They’re open, they’re assertive, they ask lots of questions. They really have a strong need to make a personal connection. So, they won’t feel connected to you if they don’t know you on some level. So, they will often ask you personal questions about your family, about your interests, “Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school?” They really want to know you.

They also bring the most energy. They want work to feel like it’s fun. They’re perceptive, curious. They ask the most questions. And when they’re at their best, they bring out the best in other people. They are comfortable bringing groups together. They’re really good at defusing conflict because they want the team to get back into a healthy place.

And whenever they’re under that stress side of their style, then they end up being a little bit more sarcastic. They’ll start to dominate a conversation. When you were talking earlier, they’re the ones who would get distracted easily and start a side conversation because they would rather be talking than listening. And so, you can kind of get a picture that gets painted of what that style is like.

Reserved is really interesting. They are the quintessential team player. They really care about having influence. They’re confident. They form their opinions quickly. What is distinctive about them as well is that they’re more private and guarded at work. They like to kind of keep things in a professional realm but they’re extremely great networkers and they’re very personable.

They’re the type of person who really wants to help see other people be at their best. So, they will give them input on like, “Hey, I think you can bring up your game over here. Here’s what the team really needs,” because they care that the team operates at its best, and they’re really thoughtful and deliberate.

When they get under stress, what happens is they don’t love to make decisions. They like to have a lot of influence on them but they don’t want to be the one, ultimately, responsible for it, and so they will wait for others to take the lead. They might withdraw. If they get under stress, they put their head down and they start doing the work, and relationships become more transactional and a little bit more serious. So, you can start to see how there’s a little bit of a spectrum in each one.

When you look at direct, they’re probably one of the easier ones to identify, too, because they get straight into work. They are so responsible, focused, thorough, candid, really independent. They don’t need to work with anybody. They love to work alone. The best conversations are brief, focused, meaningful. They like every meeting to start and stop on time. No small talk. No need to get into anything personal. And they’re the ones who will rein a conversation in if it starts to wander too far.

So, their strength is really to help teams operate at a higher level. They’re really clear and focused. And they inspire the level of accountability that they bring to others. If people kind of don’t meet their expectations, when they’re under stress, they will steamroll, they’ll damage relationships pretty quickly, they’ll tell others what to do and how to do it so that they can get it done as quickly as possible, and they’re super intolerant about any tangents at all. So, that will start to kind of set them off.

And then harmonious, which is the fourth style, they are the glue that kind of keeps teams together. They have the most people-focused approach to the way they think about things. So, whenever decisions are being made, they put it through like, “How is it going to affect other people? How is it going to affect relationships?” They are the best listeners, cooperative, really supportive, and caring. So, they bring the human quality to teams that the other styles don’t consider to the same depth.

Because they are so cooperative, when they’re under stress, they become more of that. So, they can become…they can comply too much. They can water down their opinions. They can become too cooperative and really become quiet. So, all of these styles, each of them plays a role in creating really healthy teams, and we need to make room for some of those voices that aren’t naturally going to jump into the conversation, and invite them in.

Pete Mockaitis
And with that, I guess all sorts of implications could pop up with regard to, “Oh, if I prefer this and someone else might prefer something else, we might consider this particular intervention or approach or adaptation.” I guess I’m curious to hear, since that’d be quite the matrix and difficult to maybe fully elucidate in the time we have, are there any sort of universal best practices and worst practices here when it comes to bridging gaps with others?

Maryanne O’Brien
Well, listening is the first thing I would recommend every style puts at its focus. When we make it a point to listen and really be present and not thinking about our response, or waiting for the person to stop talking, that is always a great idea.

So, this idea of kind of flexing your style a little bit, if you can start to recognize what other styles need, and so if you understand, “If I’m direct and if I have no need for small talk, but someone is expressive and they do,” so expressive and harmonious both have a need from having some sort of connection to be made, is to find a way to start every meeting with some sort of connection so that people feel like that need is met but don’t linger on it for too long.

You don’t want to waste 10 minutes of every meeting trying to foster connections. There should definitely be time where you’re building that into your teambuilding, and building those social connections. But find a way to give everybody a little bit of what they need because if our needs go unmet for too long, we’re going to go into some sort of stress response, so fight, flight, or freeze.

We either want to push and steamroll over or we go into flight and we leave, and this is also in organization. I‘ve seen a lot of people who haven’t felt seen and heard or valued because their needs aren’t being met, and that big part of it is what is prompting them to leave. And then we go into freeze, which is we shut down, we disengage. So, we’re physically there but we’re not really there.

So, I would start with listening and it’s not that difficult, actually. I know it sounds, whenever you’re trying to mentally hold it in your head, but whenever you start to look at what each person needs. So, the expressives, they need some sort of personal engagement. Reserved, they need to have some level of influence. Direct, they need every conversation to have meaning. And harmonious needs to have it to be really respectful.

And those pieces, getting to know the different styles is so important because each of us has a different way that we build trust, so we have biases when it comes to building trust. And if that’s, ultimately, our goal is to find ways to work well together, to be more effective in our roles, to build trust and relationships that allow us to navigate the challenges that seem to come out daily, we’ve got to invest a little bit in getting to know other people and understanding what their needs are.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say the direct folks need meaning, I am interpreting that to mean meaning as in the exchange we’re having results in output, results, activity, stuff in the world being different, as opposed to it’s meaningful, Maryanne, that you and I are feeling connected to each other. Is that a fair interpretation of what you mean by meaning for the direct?

Maryanne O’Brien
It is. It has to drive to some sort of actionable outcome.

Pete Mockaitis
Gotcha.

Maryanne O’Brien
And so, it can’t just be like, “Oh, it felt really good to connect.” It’s like, “What’s the outcome coming here?” because they really have a high level of responsibility and they keep the trains running on time, so they’re the ones that want to know that the conversation is leading to something that’s going to make a decision. It’s going to inform something. It’s going to help me see a new perspective.

Pete Mockaitis
Gotcha. Okay. Well, so listening, that’s huge, certainly, and having a sense for what the other party really needs, their desire and how you can meet that. Are there any best practices when it comes to listening in terms of this makes a world of difference in terms of really gaining that understanding? I don’t know if there’s any attention tricks or particular power questions that yield lots of insight. Or, how do we listen optimally, Maryanne?

Maryanne O’Brien
Well, there are a couple things I’d recommend. First is eliminate as many distractions. Like, eliminate the distractions you can. Turn off your notifications. Put your phone away. Studies have shown that if our phone is just even visible, 20% of our attention goes to our phone because it might ring and we don’t even realize that part of our attention is being drained.

I would make it a practice to set an intention before you have a conversation. We tend to listen best when we think the conversations are important, instead of we’re kind of in that autopilot, like, “Oh, I’m just going to float into a conversation, float into a meeting,” that we’re half present, is to really make it a point to be present.

And then, for certain styles, because harmonious, they’re good listeners, every other style, especially for expressives, I would recommend that you mute yourself in every conversation and speak one time for every three times that you have the impulse because people who are expressive just have a natural desire to share their ideas and they get excited that they don’t even recognize that they’re contributing far more than anyone else and they’re not making room for other people in the conversation.

So, I would dial up your intentionality around conversations and how well you listen, and I would work to really strengthen your self-awareness so that you can become aware of how you’re coming across to people.

Pete Mockaitis
I like what you had to say about when you think a conversation is important, you have some intentionality there, you naturally do more listening as opposed to, “Oh, there’s just this meeting. I got to show up at that meeting.” So, could you give us some examples? Do you recommend like setting a very precise articulation of that intention, like, “In this conversation, I am going to try to understand why Bob is so worried about this thing”?

Like, that’s my goal, my intention. Or, “What I hope to achieve in this conversation is getting a sense of what would be truly most motivating and exciting to the team about this project.” Are those fair approaches? Or how do you think about intentionality?

Maryanne O’Brien
Yes, I think both of those are great examples. The more intentional you are, the more effectively you will show up, and the easier it will be to kind of follow through on that intention. So, I would look at, if you’re going into a meeting, what is it that you need to be able to listen to somebody who has a different perspective, perhaps?

So, if there’s somebody that you know, because we all start to kind of categorize people. It’s like, “Oh, this person always has great ideas and I listen whenever they’re talking, and I want to build upon those.” “This person always shoots everything down.” “This person has the most whacked-out ideas that never make any sense.”

So, if you can set an intention that, no matter who’s talking, “I want to stay open to what they’re saying. I’m going to try to at least understand where they’re coming from.” You don’t have to agree with everyone but if you can at least try to figure out “What is it about that idea that they like?” People want to feel seen and heard. That makes you feel valued.

So, if you at least can demonstrate to them that you’re present, that you’re really listening, that you hear them, that will go a long way into building trust. And then you can say, “You know what, I understood what you said. I see things differently.” We don’t have to agree with everything but the idea is staying open and having that willingness to listen.

So, I think if I was guiding someone toward this, I’d say, “What do you think you need going into this? Is it that you need to be more open? Is it that you need to watch for interrupting? Is it that you’re not going to shut down whenever somebody shares something that you disagree with? Can you watch for your biases? Can you watch for what triggers you?” because all of those kinds of communication influences affect how well we listen.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, Maryanne, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about a few of your favorite things?

Maryanne O’Brien
The piece I would just remind people to start looking for is what is it that they need whenever they’re communicating with people? And how do they help people understand what it is they need? So, we’ll do team-sharing, that’s one great way to start building connections with people. And whenever we all share our styles, so share your styles with the people you work with, and share, like, “Hey, you know what I realize about myself that I hadn’t really understood was I really need some time whenever we first start talking to have some sort of connection.”

And ask them what they need because then that’s an easy way for people to say, “You know what, that’s exactly what I don’t need. I need to get straight into the work.” And so, how do we find that kind of common ground? And the more that we can let people understand us, understand what our needs are, and give them an opportunity to help us meet those needs, and be willing to give them an opportunity to have their needs met, I think that those are some of kind of just basic pieces of making a great connection with someone is to be open, to be a little bit more vulnerable, let people get to know you a little bit, and kind of respect what they need as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Maryanne O’Brien
Sure. One of the ones that I love, I like Stephen Covey’s work. It’s just been influential in my life, and I love the one that he has about trust, which is around, “When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.” And if we thought about the idea that every conversation that we have has an opportunity to either build trust or erode trust, and if we cared about them and stepped into them with that intentionality, it would be a much easier world to live in and to recognize that everybody sees the world differently.

So, how can we be able to accept people who have different views, stay open to them so we can see diverse perspectives, and build trust with people who aren’t like us? It’s easy to build trust with people that operate the way that you do. And just to stay open to all kinds of people and different styles.

Pete Mockaitis
And could you share a favorite book?

Maryanne O’Brien
I really love the The Four Agreements. That is one of my favorites. And so, I think that that idea of having that kind of code of conduct and really getting to know yourself well, because that whole idea of the first one being be impeccable with your word. When you take responsibility for what you say and do, and you choose your words carefully, there’s far less room for the tensions and the people problems that we run into at work.

The second one around, don’t take anything personally. We recognize that what other people are going through and what they say and do doesn’t have to be about you. It’s usually what they’re going through, and just let it go, and not personalize things. The third one around not making assumptions. Like, I love the idea that people have the courage to ask questions and clarify things, and have the willingness to kind of step in and clarify conversations so that you can stay away from misunderstandings.

And then the idea, the fourth one about always doing your best. Every day is different, and people have been going through a lot, and we’re always trying to do our best and it looks different on different days. But if that’s our intention is that every day, “I’m going to do the best that I can and show up in the best way that I can,” I think there’s a lot of value in those four agreements, and they sound simple.

Living them is a practice and it comes back to that idea that if you live these, you will become a better person. And there’s nothing more powerful than self-awareness and the ability to see things and make those course corrections. There’s this old idea, like, “You can’t change what you don’t see.”

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

Maryanne O’Brien
If you go to TheElevatedCommunicator.com, you will find the assessment so you can take the style assessment. You can take it for free. You can share it with your colleagues, share it with your friends and family. Start that conversation. There’s also a monthly blog that I do called “Ideas to Elevate,” that help people to put practices into play because that’s how we get better. We have to kind of continue to build those skills through practice.

And then on LinkedIn, I’m doing some online trainings and some different things every so often that are free for people so that we can get into these skills and really help people develop those practices that change the way they communicate.

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

Maryanne O’Brien
Well, I’m going to encourage you to really get to know your style and become aware of how you’re communicating from either that healthy side of your expression when you’re at your best, and how well you know you can communicate when you’re really intentional, to when you’re slipping into stress and what that looks and feels like in your body because we’ll always be able to feel stressed in our body, and that’ll start to tell us how we’re communicating.

And to build in some sort of wellbeing practices that help you raise that level of resilience that you have because we communicate from that level of self-awareness and wellbeing, that combination. And when stress starts to become too much, we’re going to slip into those lower expressions, and that’s when we really damage our relationships.

So, I would encourage you to get to know your style, start to recognize that style spectrum, and develop some sort of simple practices that keep you really intentional about how you want to build relationships, how you want to show up, how you want to become a better communicator.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Maryanne, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck with your elevated communications.

Maryanne O’Brien
Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

748: How to Decrease Ambiguity and Increase Clarity with Karen Martin

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Karen Martin shares her top tips for clearly communicating what you mean and getting others to do the same.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to speak your mind without coming off as harsh 
  2. The one question to ask when someone’s being unclear
  3. Fuzzy words you should stop using immediately 

About Karen

Karen Martin, president of the global consulting firm TKMG, Inc., is a leading authority on business performance and Lean management. Known for her keen diagnostic skills and rapid-results approach, Karen and her team have worked with clients such as AT&T, Chevron, Epson, GlaxoSmithKline, International Monetary Fund, Lenovo, Mayo Clinic, Prudential Insurance, Qualcomm, and the United States Department of Homeland Security to develop more efficient work systems, grow market share, solve business problems, and accelerate performance. 

Resources Mentioned

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Karen Martin Interview Transcript

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

Karen Martin
It’s great to be back, Pete. Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you just said something funny before I pushed record, which was, it’s been a little over three years since you were on the show, and you commented that it feels like a lot more than three years, would you say?

Karen Martin
In COVID times, that’s a decade.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it really is.

Karen Martin
My gosh, it’s so weird how warped time is, isn’t it?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it really is.

Karen Martin
It’s just weird.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s wild. And the last time, we talked about clarity. And if listeners haven’t checked out that episode, I recommend it. It’s a good one, number 382. So, I’d love to hit a little bit of some of those bits on clarity and, specifically, the questions, and questions about questions. And, maybe for starters, can you tell us, in these three years, or decade, depending on your perspective, have you discovered anything new about clarity, or refined any of your thinking in a way that’s super handy?

Karen Martin
Oh, my goodness. Well, let’s stick on the COVID thing for just a moment. So, talk about a lesson in the lack of clarity. Oh, my gosh, it has been three years of the most incredible ambiguity I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, and it’s everything from the debate about science and non-science. And I think the most incredible one, to me, is how unclear the media and the agencies have been on, “When do you turn positive for a rapid antigen test? When do you turn positive for PCR? What does turning negative mean?” There’s just no clear answer.

And then there is a clear answer. I’m a microbiologist from way back when, and there’s a very clear answer on when you turn positive and negative on these tests, but they’re just not communicating it well at all. So, I think if you pay really close attention to any information you receive, you can feel when it’s clear, not maybe clear and false, but you can at least feel when it’s clear and when it’s not. You get a visceral reaction when you’re in the presence of ambiguity.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, you know, that’s a great point. And I guess I’m thinking about masks with regard to in the early stages because I had that feeling. In the early days, the guidance was, “Hey, yeah, go ahead and wear masks but not N95 masks because the healthcare workers need those.” And I was like, “Well, it sounds like the N95 masks are better if that’s who needs them, and so that’s actually not clear. So, what I think you need to say to me is, ‘Use the inferior masks and make a sacrifice for the sake of public health because the healthcare workers need them.’”

As opposed to, what was unclear was like, “Well, so do the non-N95 masks do good things?” because I generally like to have the best thing if I’m going to get a thing. I’m sort of like all or nothing in a lot of ways.

Karen Martin
Yeah. Well, a lot of that, I give a lot of grace to the agencies and to the media as well in the beginning days, a lot of grace, because we didn’t know. We just didn’t understand how much the virus can penetrate different kinds of masks and all of these different things that took a lot of experience and a lot of research of that experience in order to figure that all out. So, I will give a big pass in the very beginning.

But I also think that we could’ve been a lot more honest about, remember in the very beginning, it was, “You don’t have to wear a mask at all,” and it was because they were worried about healthcare workers having access to enough supply for them to be able to not be in harm’s way. And so, just the whole thing, again, I’ll give a lot of grace because we were all in panic mode, the agencies, probably the most panicked mode of anybody because they were responsible for what happens and what the communication is and everything, but it was really, it continues to be an incredible lesson in clarity versus ambiguity.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, Karen, I love that notion of there’s a feeling there. And I think that I can brush it away too fast in terms of, “That doesn’t quite seem to make sense but that’s what the expert said so…” I don’t know, if I were to kind of put words to the feelings.

Karen Martin
Yeah, don’t brush it away. One of the things I talk about in the book Clarity First is that you have a right to receive clear information and you have an obligation to deliver clear information. And delivering clear information is such a gift because there are so many people that are afraid to deliver a clear message for various reasons, and we could talk about some of those, but kind of being brave and being clear, you don’t have to be harsh and clear. You can be frank and candid and it be very loving, actually. But being the recipient of information? Absolutely you have a right to have clear information and the obligation to ask for clarity when you don’t get it.

Pete Mockaitis
This talk about courage and communicating clearly reminds me of consulting days and the headlines that go on slides because the best practice that has been drilled into my head, I hear from consulting, is that we have a headline on the slide that conveys the key message takeaway, such as, I don’t know, “Sales have fallen dramatically since 2012,” for example, as opposed to simply, “Sales over time.”

And it does take some courage because, and I think the reason, and I’ve been accused by my clients of using sensational headlines. I was like, “Are these sensational? I think it just tells you what’s going on here.”

Karen Martin
The truth.

Pete Mockaitis
They might be more sensational compared to “Sales over time,” which isn’t very instructive, is that, well, the director of sales who started the job in that year is in the room, and he or she could be super offended that you’re putting a bright spot on, “Oh, see, things went bad right around when this guy was there,” even though you didn’t say that. But I think it does take some courage to be clear because people’s feelings can get hurt.

So, help us sort through that a little bit in terms of, in some ways, you don’t want to have like the pure naïve clarity of a child who just says anything, like, “You’re fat, you know.” Like, “Don’t do that.” But help us out, Karen, how do we get clear but not be too offensive and do this dance?

Karen Martin
So, I think the key is to always communicate with love as the intention and not harm. And when you kind of go from a place of love, and I know it’s funny to be talking about jobs and work and love, but it really is, there’s two pure human emotions – love and fear. And when you have love as the intent of conversation, then you can be clear and not harsh or harmful or mean or it’s easier when it’s done with love.

Now, so tough love is a great phrase, and tough love can be a little hard to swallow but if you deliver it in the right way, you know that you care about the person and you’re delivering the information out of concern and caring and loving for that person, and it can be a person at work. This love thing isn’t just outside of work. That helps a lot.

And I also think that when it comes to team-based meetings and activities and proven activities and things like that, you have to kind of go into those with some ground rules about what the expectation is that the conversation should be like. And so, the expectation should be, ideally, that there’s a safe environment to speak the truth, and that the truth is founded and grounded in facts, and that it is what is, and it’s not going to be blame-oriented. I think that’s where we get ourselves into really, really big trouble is this blaming and finger-pointing.

When you’re trying to solve problems, which business is 90% solving problems, you have to not have a fear-based or a culture and an environment that’s going to evoke fear because people are being blamed. So, that helps a lot right there.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and I think maybe the other side of the coin maybe credit, it’s like, “We need the credit.” Like, if you view, wasn’t it Abraham Lincoln who talked about “Victory has a thousand fathers but failure is a lonely orphan”? Something like that.

Karen Martin
Oh, I love that. Yeah, yeah, that’s a really nice quote. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
In terms of everyone wants to claim credit for the things that’s going well, and everyone wants to divest blame or involvement or association with the thing that didn’t go so well. So, I guess I’m just talking with a buddy who mentioned some groups refuse to let someone mention a victory in another group’s newsletter because they’re like, “They’re always getting the credit for the things and we need to get credit for the things.” And I don’t know the whole story but that didn’t sound…

Karen Martin
That’s a toxic culture right there.

Pete Mockaitis
That didn’t sound like the best place to be from that little snippet.

Karen Martin
No, that is a toxic culture. Yeah, I think that the more that we can just get kind of unemotional about performance and projects that either work really well or don’t work so well, I love, actually, going into clients where they’re dealing with some perceived negative situations or something was “a failure” and get them to see it through a learning lens.

The fact that something didn’t work out as well as you would like, that’s the rich fodder for “Well, why not? What happened? And what can we not repeat the next time? Or, what should we do more of to increase our chances of success?” And really reflecting on why something didn’t work out so well is important but, yet, we kind of rush, rush, rush to the next thing, and don’t take time to really learn from our failures. It sounds overwrought to say, “Oh, yeah, yeah, we learned from our failures,” but you really do. It’s not just a saying. You really do. You can, if you listen and reflect, learn a lot from failure.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so, there are some emotional foundational things that kind of need to be present in order for clarity to even have a prayer.

Karen Martin
A fighting chance, exactly, a fighting chance.

Pete Mockaitis
Being around. So, then, let’s say we do have that or at least we have enough of that. Let’s talk about the underpinnings of clarity in terms of I love, in our last chat, we talked about some of those key questions that you can use of others to get clarification, like, “Why?” “What if…?” “Why not?” “How could we…?” “What would have to be true if…” as well as questions we can ask ourselves to determine, “Hey, am I clear? Is what I’m saying going to kind of make sense and feel clear?”

And you also have questions about questions. So, Karen, I just want to talk about questions. Lay it on us, if we’re trying to get clear, what are the fundamental questions we should be asking ourselves and others?

Karen Martin
Well, so let’s talk about email communications, phone calls, picking up the phone, and walking to a meeting, or chatting, or texting. One of the most important things to do is say, “What is my intent? Why am I communicating with this person or this team or this organization?” or whoever it is, “What do I want to achieve?”

And I think, also, being very, very precise on what are you asking for. Are you just sharing information just so they know? Are you sharing information because you want a decision? Are you sharing information because you want someone’s opinion? Are you sharing information because you want someone to take action?

If you can just be more precise on what you’re seeking to achieve, it makes it a lot easier to be clear. And I get emails, and, actually, I even have a couple people on our team that I have to work so hard to understand what they’re actually wanting to achieve in the email, and it’s like, “Ahh, ahh, ahh,” and I was like, “Wait, do you want me to make a decision? Do you want me to take action? Do you want me to give you an opinion? What do you want?”

So, I, long ago, actually one of my direct reports actually taught me early in my career how to put my intent at the very first sentence of an email and then give the backstory, and all the facts, and all the details that are needed. Just the essential facts are needed. So, if you just think about, “I’d love to get your opinion on blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” “I would love for you to help me with blah, blah, blah, blah. Do you have time?”

If you just are clear up front on what you want, and then give any of the details that are necessary, people love it because they don’t have to work to understand what it is you’re asking for. And this is true with love relationships, too. This is not just work. This is family, friends, partners. It really is amazing how, when you’re clear about what you’re seeking to achieve, how much easier the communication can go.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I love that. And it’s just like it can be one sentence at the top of the email, “I love your feedback. I love your decision.” It’s so funny, I’m thinking now about the email I get the most of in my life these days is pitches to appear on the podcast, so I think it’s funny. And now I just know what people are going for, but I think it’s funny how sometimes the emails will just sort of go into the details, like, “Karen Martin is the President of Global…” It’s like, “Okay, Karen is so great,” it’s like, “Okay. Well, good for Karen, but what are you offering me?” Well, now, I know sort of by shortcut. But I think that’s sort of funny.

Some marketing guru, I don’t remember who it was, he said that’s one of the cardinal sins whether it’s an About page, or an email, or a piece of marketing. It’s about, “Me, me, me, us, us, us.” And it’s sort of like, “Well, no one cares,” maybe often about sort of maybe like the history or the founding of something so much as the benefit that it provides me and/or what you need or want from me. Because sometimes, I guess that’s my test, is I would say, “If this just feels like a press release, then I almost feel paralyzed,” not to be overdramatic here.

It’s like, “Okay, thanks.” It’s like I’m reading a press release as opposed to, “Oh, did you want to buy our product or service? Did you want to interview this person? Did you want to explore this idea as an initiative for us in the next year?” It’s like I need a little something and I think sometimes we just assume that the person on the receiving end just knows. Like, it seems like if I get forwarded something and there’s nothing at the top of it for me, that’s the trickiest for me. It’s like, “Okay, now what?”

Karen Martin
And, yeah, I think It helps a lot to think about life, in general, as a supplier of customer relationship. It’s not just in business that we should be thinking about these things. So, the supplier is the person who’s communicating, and the customer is the recipient of that information. And I have a rule of thumb, I say, “Know thy customer, and know what your customer’s level of understanding about the topic you’re communicating, know what their motivation is, know what’s going to grab them versus turn them off.” You have to think a little bit.

We are not all cut from the same cloth. We all have different learning needs, learning styles, communication needs, absorption needs, and so you have to not just brush everyone with the same brush. You have to think about, “How do I properly convey to these folks whatever it is I want to share or ask for?”

But you mentioned questions behind questions, so that, we turn it around now. So, that’s when you’re communicating with others. Now, it’s when people are communicating with you, and a lot of times it’s so fascinating if you start really paying attention to this. If someone asks you a question, sometimes it’s very, very easy to understand what they’re asking you. Like, “What time do you have to leave the meeting?” It’s very concrete, tangible, and they’re asking for just a straight answer.

But sometimes people will ask questions that the question actually isn’t what they’re asking, there’s a question behind the question, but out fear, you’re not getting the right question. And so, if you say, if you pause, don’t be so obligated to answer the question, and say, “Hmm, that’s interesting. I’m curious, why are you asking that question?” You have to ask it in a really gentle way. You can’t go, “Why are you asking that question?”

You have to say, “I’m just curious why you’re asking that question.” Then you almost always will get the real question that they’re asking. And it’s fascinating to see how, if you would’ve just started talking and answering the question, the first question, you would not have provided what they were actually asking. And sometimes, people that are communicating, they aren’t even aware that they’re not being as truthful and forthright as they should be so that you can answer more clearly what they’re asking for because it’s habitual.

And so, you can help someone out of that habit of being afraid, or sugarcoating, or just being kind of vague. You can help them by saying, “I don’t understand, or tell me more about that. What’s behind that question?”

Pete Mockaitis
Two examples leap to mind here, and I want to hear some more from you, Karen. One, it might’ve been from Gottman, since we talked about romantic relationships as well here, in terms of if, I think, a wife asks her husband, “Oh, are you cold?” which is really thinking as, “I’d like to have some intimate time in bed and to cozy up and warm that way,” but she’s maybe a little bit timid in terms of she doesn’t want to feel a little bit rejection, so they say, “Oh, are you feeling cold?”

And then the husband, clueless to the intention behind the question is like, “Nope.” It didn’t even occur to him that that was kind of what we were discussing here. And then I had a buddy, I think I was showing him the game Angry Birds, and, this cracked me up, he said to me, “Oh, and people find this engaging?” which I clearly intuited meant he thought, “Wow, that looks dumb. I’m so surprised that there’s a lot of people who do this and for a long time? Wow.” They’re surprised.

So, maybe you can give us some examples, more in a workplace context, what are some times people are asking questions that aren’t really what they’re getting after?

Karen Martin
Well, I work in the space of improvement a lot, and so a lot of times people will ask questions about why the improvement is important, or what’s going to likely be the outcome, when they’re really saying, “I’m very concerned. I’m afraid I’m going to lose my job. I feel like I’m going to lose power.” So, the big threats in business are losing their job, losing power, losing budget, if you’re at a budget level, losing face, having people not respect you. They’re all kind of human but they’re a little more financially tied in business because of the paycheck.

And so, when they’re asking a lot about, “Well, why this and why that?” And when it comes to an improvement or idea, they’re actually, most of the time, they’re asking, “What guarantee can you give me that you’re not going to make my work much more difficult, or I’m going to lose my job?” And so, if you ask what’s behind the question, it starts coming out a little bit more.

The other thing that can happen is.

Karen Martin
So, you mentioned the questions, let me go here because I think it was tied to this. You said, “What would have to be true if why, why not, what if, all those things?” What I’ve learned, actually since you and I talked, I think this is one learning I had is that the question “Why?” I already knew it could be laced with accusation and blame and harshness, but I’ve learned even more how laced it is.

And so, the thing that’s easier on the ear and on the heart and the soul is a question begins with “What?” because you can turn all questions into “Why?” So, like, “Why is he doing that?” It sounds very accusatory. But the question could be turned around into “What conditions created the need to do that?” or, “What outcome is he trying to achieve doing that?” or something like that. It just has a little softer feel to it, what and how questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, “What made you prefer that option?”

Karen Martin
And you actually get people to think deeply when you ask what and how questions. Why are also good-thinking questions. So, there’s binary questions that are answered with yes/no, and those begin with should, could, do, so they’re all questions that are answered yes or no. The ones that are Socratic in nature, meaning that they require you to answer a little more deeply and think a little more deeply, are the ones what, why, and how are the big ones.

Then the ones that are kind of middle are the who, where. They’re kind of a little more binary because they’re easy to answer and concrete. The what, how, and why questions require thought. But of those three, I always place why as the last, kind of like the last place I go to if I can’t get the question answered better with what and how, I’ll go to why. But I try really hard to stick with what and how. Non-threatening. Much more non-threatening.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, so that’s a great notion associated about what’s behind the question is it’s often something, I don’t mean this in necessarily a bad way, but it’s sort of self-serving, and that’s kind of why they don’t just nakedly say it, like, “So, is this going to reduce my power?” Kind of make you seem like, “Oh, okay. We see what you’re into.” But, nonetheless, you care and you want to know, so you ask.

And so then, I’m curious, as we play out this conversation, how do you answer that well in terms of, one, I guess you ask what’s behind the question, and they may or may not sort of directly say, “I’m worried this will reduce my power”? I’m guessing it likely won’t.

Karen Martin
Well, you’ll get closer to that by asking the question behind the question, what’s the question behind the question. For sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. So, they might say, “Oh, well, we’re just working out this budget so we’re just curious about the budgetary implications.” It’s like, “Okay, budgetary implications is pretty close to ‘Are you going to take away my money?’” and so you can go there. And then, I guess, with reassurances there, I guess maybe you answered that question as I was just concerned that that might seem to, I don’t know, presumptuous or patronizing.

I know you’re not going to say, “Hey, relax, Mike. You’re going to keep your budget.” I know you’re not going to say it quite like that. But any thoughts in terms of, as that conversation progresses, in terms of keeping it productive and feeling good?

Karen Martin
Well, I want to highlight something that you said just about like, I don’t know, maybe 30 seconds, 20 seconds ago that was really, really good. And you started your sentence with, “I’m curious to learn,” or, “I’m curious to…” I think you said, “I’m curious to learn.” That is a wonderful phrase. It actually makes people relax a little when you ask things from a place of curiosity. And the cousin to curiosity, I talk about in Clarity First is humility.

And when you say, “I’m curious to learn,” humility is kind of implied there, and you can’t just say it just to say it when you’re actually being…have no interest in being curious and you have no interest in being humble. But if you are truly asking that question, which sounded to me like you were, truly from a place of curiosity, you’re going to get a lot farther because you’re not going in with assumptions and biases and judgments and blame. Like, you really want to learn. And when you want to learn, people can relax and give you information you might never get.

And, by the way, these are techniques that law enforcement intelligence use all the time, and investigators of all sorts, when they’re trying to get to the truth of a situation. They ask a lot of what and how questions to get people talking and relaxed so that they’re more likely to reveal the truth.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, I’d love it, Karen, can you give us some more phrases, questions, questions about questions, magical phrases, like, “I’m curious to learn”? Let’s hear some specific verbiage that’s awesome often.

Karen Martin
“Data doesn’t lie” unless the data has been fraudulently entered or faked. So, I like, “Data doesn’t lie,” and this is to get us away from the opinions that kind of come in at work, and people say, “It’s this.” And it doesn’t have to be big and complex data analysis. Just getting some basic numbers and quantities and volumes and things like that can really help chip away at the opinions and get to facts. So, “Data doesn’t lie” is another one.

Fuzzy words. I love the phrase fuzzy words, which I talk about, actually, in The Outstanding Organization in that clarity chapter. I talk about fuzzy words or things where they mean different things to you and me. So, it’s things like long, short, heavy, light, soon, it’s a long time. I give this example of Starbucks. When someone says, “The line is long at Starbucks,” how many people is that?

And if you ask a room of 20 people, you’ll get a pretty good split between two to four, another is like the five to seven people, and then there’s like the more than seven people, and it’s so interesting. And so, those are fuzzy words you should avoid at all costs. And if someone uses them with you, you should ask for clarification, “How many? How many do you mean?” I mean, if it’s rough, like I guess a line at Starbucks would be fair.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, “If you care…”

Karen Martin
Yeah, it’s not all that relevant at work, but you should really start tuning in to those words that people use them all the time, these fuzzy words. And it’s not necessarily because they’re afraid to reveal the truth; it’s a habit. It’s just you don’t have to commit when you’re using a word that means different things to different people.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think not having to commit, that’s huge. I’m thinking especially like with soon. It’s like, “Oh, I’ll get that to you soon or shortly.” It’s sort of like, “I don’t want to put myself on the hook.”

Karen Martin
Right. If you’re talking to me, I’m going to ask you what you mean by that.

Pete Mockaitis
“You’ll have this within nine days?” and then it’s like, “Well, now, I’ve given up some flexibility associated with my task management.”

Karen Martin
Yeah, the other thing is people have different expectations. So, I think that most of the conflict in the world is because of misunderstood expectations. So, let’s think about a boss giving an employee a task or a job to do or a project, or whatever. If the boss doesn’t get precise with what the expectation is from not only a date but also the quality of the results, and there’s done, there’s done-done, and there’s done-done-done, and that also is fascinating.

It’s fascinating to see how one person’s definition of what done means, “This project is done,” is not at all what another person’s idea of done is, and so you got to ask for clarity. And on our project plans, we actually have a column that says like, “What is done?” And done to some people is they’ve actually, let’s say they’re making an improvement, they’ve made an improvement. Done to someone else is they’ve made an improvement and people have been trained. Done to someone else is they’ve made an improvement, people have been trained, and is now being managed and monitored, there’s a measurement.

And so, you have to get really clear. I learned this actually from construction guys, and they were like, “Oh, this is decades ago.” And they were like, “Well, you know there’s done, there’s done-done, there’s done-done-done in construction.” And then, of course, I learned that that’s true in every aspect of work, all industries, all areas within an organization to have that same fuzziness that, unless you ask for clarification, two people can expect very different things.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And that notion of the multiple dones kind of gets me thinking with regard to let’s just say there’s a meeting, let’s say, I asked you for something, Karen, and we both know that the reason I’m asking you for this is because I’ve got a meeting coming up in February 3rd, whatever, with somebody. And so, you understand that to be a deadline, “Oh, I need to get this to Pete before February 3rd.”

Like, if we haven’t discussed it, most likely I’m expecting you will get this to me well in advance of February 3rd so that I can review it and/or potentially share it with my boss, and boss’ boss, and boss’ boss’ boss, maybe, so that it’s perfectly polished and done-done-done for February 3rd. And so, I think that’s intriguing that I guess there’s deadlines and then there’s dead-dead-deadlines as well.

Karen Martin
Yeah, it is true. There’s a lot of clarification that needs to happen. And even the project itself, I see so many people at lower levels in organizations taking on requests from their bosses that they’re not clear what the request actually is, but they don’t feel comfortable asking for clarification, and I’m like, “No, you have to feel comfortable asking for clarification.

And if your boss is someone who’s not willing to give clarification, you have to have a conversation with that person about why you’re asking for clarification,” because sometimes someone can feel threatened if you’re asking for clarification. You have to help them understand that you actually want to serve them. You actually want to do well. You want to give them what they’re looking for. You want to have them look like a superstar in their boss’ eyes.

Or, whatever it is, you’re not doing it out of malice or threatening, assuming you’re not. So, I think it’s a really important thing for everyone from the frontlines all the way up the ranks to really get good at, is not taking on a project that they go, “I’m not quite sure exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. What’s the outcome? What are we looking for? What does good look like?” That’s another great question, “What does good look like?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I’m loving this. So, what is done? What does good look like? When is soon? Keep them coming, Karen. What are some other favorite questions?

Karen Martin
Well, I say “What do you mean by that?” a lot. What do you mean by that? That’s a good clarification question, and that’s almost like the question behind the question, but, in this case, the person probably has made a statement, and I was thinking, “What do you mean by that?” They’re like, “What do you mean what do I mean?” I’m like, “Don’t tell me. Tell me more.” And that’s another thing. I’ll say, “Tell me more.” And it’s not really a question but “Tell me more” is also a good way to get people to reveal a little more so you become more clear what they’re actually communicating.

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

Karen Martin
I don’t know. I just want everyone to get infected with the zest for clarity and expect it, give it. People say, “Well, sometimes the truth hurts.” Yeah, sometimes the truth does hurt but at least you know what you’re dealing with. I just don’t think that…if you don’t know what’s going on, how do you possibly make a positive step in the right direction. Even if it’s the worst possible news you could ever get, then you know what you’re dealing with, and you can deal with it then, otherwise, you really don’t know which way to go, so go for it. Everyone who’s listening, go for it.

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

Karen Martin
This is going to sound funny. It’s actually in an advertising timeline. I really love the Nike “Just do it.” It’s not really a quote per se, but I just think that we just live in a fear-based bubble too much, and I love “Just do it.”

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

Karen Martin
My favorite research in decades has been the one that uncovered the fact that there’s no such thing as multitasking. And it was a study Professor David Meyer at University of Michigan did. He studied engineers, and he was studying how much time they take during the day task-switching from one kind of work to another kind of work, and how much productivity that robbed them off, and how much stress it added, and how much it risks quality problem because of this juggling.

So, when I see job, not as much anymore, thankfully, but I used to see a lot, job postings that would say, “Must be comfortable with ambiguity and must be able to multitask.” Well, first of all, we don’t want people to be comfortable with ambiguity. No, no, no, no, no, we want people to be truth-tellers and truth-seekers. And we also don’t want people that are able to “multitask” because it’s absolutely impossible to do two cognitive activities at the same time. It’s impossible.

And so, that research was really compelling. And when I work with clients on prioritization, the key is to say, “Not yet” to those things that can wait but to do fewer things at once, and you’ll get so much more done in the same unit of time if you do fewer things at once, complete them, then move on and complete them, then move on. You can get triple the output by doing fewer things at once and not juggling.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Karen Martin
My favorite fiction book is The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, and I did my first book report on that, and I just love that book. There’s so much in that book. My favorite business book, well, besides my own, I would say is Out of the Crisis by Deming. It’s an old book, it’s a thick book, but it’s really powerful about the ways businesses operate and keep themselves in crisis mode, and how to break. There are different principles that you operate. And lean management is actually heavily based on a lot of Deming’s work, so I love that book, Out of the Crisis.

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

Karen Martin
Well, I love value stream mapping, which is not for everyone. It’s a more strategic tool that’d be for directors and above in an organization. For directors and below, I would say I think one of the most important skills is to get really, really good at email management. I’m a big believer in zero inbox. I never get to true zero but I get to Teams, and it’s so much easier to do than to have these hundreds or thousands of emails in your inbox robbing you of, I call that, existential inventory. It robs you of the psychic energy you need to be productive. So, get control of those inboxes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Is there a key nugget you share that connects, resonates with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Karen Martin
It’s not a quote but when I work with companies on clarity, I will often hear people in the hallway, in the cafeterias, wherever I go, “Curse you, Karen Martin.” And I’ll say, “Why?” “Because I can’t handle not having clarity anymore.” And I said, “Mission accomplished.” But it is funny how many people go, “Oh, my gosh, I had no idea how much ambiguity I allowed in my life and I contributed to until I met you,” or read the book, or whatever it might be. So, it’s kind of a “Curse you” thing.

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

Karen Martin
I’ve got two websites. TKMG, so I used to be the Karen Martin Group but we shortened it, so I have a whole team now, so it’s TKMG.com. and then we have an online learning academy, which is new since you and I last talked, and that’s TKMGAcademy.com.

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

Karen Martin
Yeah, I think it’s just, starting tomorrow, listen, listen, listen, and feel what you’re feeling, and start paying attention to when things are clear, when they’re not clear, listen to how you’re communicating, re-read your emails, and just start becoming aware. Like, just take that first step. You don’t have to do anything yet. Just start becoming aware of the degree of ambiguity and/or the degree of clarity that is around you and that you’re contributing to. Just become aware and, that alone, can start moving mountains.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Beautiful. Karen, this has been a treat once again. I wish you much clarity and fun in your adventures.

Karen Martin
Thank you, Pete. It was really nice to talk with you again. I love your questions, so thank you.