Tag

Speaking & Presentations Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

930: These Charting Mistakes Undermine Your Communication with Nick Desbarats

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Nick Desbarats breaks down the surprisingly common mistakes we make when visualizing data–and shares basic principles for communicating data more effectively.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why most charts are confusing or ineffective
  2. The top three mistakes people make with charts
  3. Why a “neutral” chart is an ineffective chart 

About Nick

As an independent educator and author, Nick Desbarats has taught data visualization and dashboard design to thousands of professionals in over a dozen countries at organizations like NASA, Visa, Bloomberg, Shopify, and the United Nations. He delivers main-stage talks at major data conferences and is a guest lecturer at Yale University, and his new book, Practical Charts, is an Amazon #1 Top New Release. 

Resources Mentioned

Nick Desbarats Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis

Nick, welcome.

Nick Desbarats

Thanks. I’m really delighted to be here. To be honest, I’ve been listening to the show, and it’s kind of an honor to be here. It’s a fantastic show. I’ve really been enjoying it.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, thank you. Well, I’m honored to be chatting with you. I’ve been loving your book, Practical Charts. First, I just want to ask, you’re a very sharp guy, and I want to know. Of all the places you could be investing your energies to enrich the world, why have you decided to go deep on charts?

Nick Desbarats

That’s a good question. My career path, can be summarized as circuitous, as in very indirect. I started out in software, and as a software developer, I got kind of bored of that, and then kind of moved around software organizations for a bit, doing some sales, marketing, that kind of thing, product management, product design.

And in my 30s, I kind of stumbled on to a lot of research around from the field of psychology, Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, cognitive biases, psychology perception. I was just smitten. I just inhaled that information, which I figured was kind of a sideline interest to my kind of real job. But then I went to a workshop, a data visualization workshop from Stephen Few, who’s one of the big gurus in this field in 2013, and it’s just mind-blowing. It really just opened up a whole new kind of field for me that I really wasn’t aware of, and that combined my two major interests, which were basically psychology and data.

Because, as I think it will come out probably in our discussion, there’s a lot of psychology when it comes to designing charts. And so, I just went whole hog into that and I, actually, started teaching these workshops in 2014, and it was a huge privilege, and I did that for a number of years. Steve then retired in 2019, and then I used that as kind of an excuse to start developing my own courses and workshops. And I’m still extremely interested. I have not gotten bored yet, that’s for sure.

Pete Mockaitis

All right, Nick. So, I get the memo that you absolutely love this stuff deeply and dork out over it, as do I. Tell us, what’s really at stake for the professional in terms of whether they become Master Jedi-level with their charts versus can fumble their way through PowerPoint just fine like the rest of us?

Nick Desbarats

Well, I’m not sure I would agree with that last part of your sentence, fumble through PowerPoint and sort of be okay just like the rest of us. I think, to be honest, if you haven’t had some formal training, basically, in this kind of thing, then you’re probably hitting a lot of problems and a lot of which you might not even be aware of. You might be leaving your audience, for example, with an incorrect understanding of the data, or they’re confused but they won’t say anything because they don’t want to look stupid.

Or the problems could be more obvious. They might actually be complaining about your charts, and saying, “This is just unnecessarily complicated,” or, “I don’t get it,” or, “What’s the point of this chart?” I like to compare it to sex and sales because these are two other things that people think you are kind of born knowing how to do, it’s like, “Well, what’s the big deal? Creating charts, how hard can it be? Select the data in Excel, and hit Make a chart, and Bob’s your uncle. There’s your chart.”

But like both of those other things, if you haven’t actually kind of learned the basics of how to do it, you’re probably not doing it very well. We’ve all had bad experiences with bad salespeople, for example, and it’s just because they just didn’t know how to sell very well. And it’s kind of the same thing with charts. There’s more to it than I think most people realize.

In fact, I kind of think of data visualization, i.e., kind of the process, or the expertise of making charts, as kind of almost like its own language, and until you’ve learned the basic kind of spelling and vocabulary of that language, you’re probably not communicating very well, whether you realize it or not. And so, many of the charts that I see are full of these kinds of basic, what I call, kind of spelling and vocabulary problems with charts, which are things like poor chart type choices, scales that are too wide or too narrow, poor color choices, and just a whole host of other problems.

And so, reading a chart like that from the audiences’ perspective is kind of like reading a poorly written document, a document that’s full of spelling errors, and grammatical mistakes, and weird word choices. And so, it’s going to be really hard for them to read it, which means they, oftentimes, are just going to skip it, they’re not going to read it. Or, if they do, they could be very confused by it, or, worse of all, come away with an incorrect understanding of the data.

And this is something that happens a lot more often than people tend to realize. And we’ve all seen charts that deliberately misrepresent data, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that this also happens accidentally way more often than people realize. And so, if you had some training in the sort of spelling and vocabulary of data visualization, you’re going to avoid all these problems, and then you’re going to create charts that are just way easier and quicker to read and understand, and, ultimately, way more likely to sort of accomplish whatever purpose prompted you to create a chart in the first place.

We don’t create charts for no reason. There’s always a reason. We’re trying to explain something to somebody, we’re trying to persuade them to do something, or make them aware of something, and all of those things are much more likely when the basic kind of spelling and vocabulary of your chart is competent, is done well, just like a document that’s written well.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, well said, Nick. Okay. So, if you don’t have some formal training in charts, and you think you’re doing fine, you may very well be accidentally misleading people, and they could be murmuring behind your back about how bad your charts suck. Or, even then, maybe if the people you’re presenting…

Nick Desbarats

Or, to your face.

Pete Mockaitis

Or, to your face. I guess, even if the people you’re presenting your charts to are not as sophisticated and able to discern what’s jacked up about your charts, I think I like that analogy to writing is it’s sort of like they might just meet your data with a shrug, like, “Yeah, okay.” Sort of like a piece of writing can be riveting like a page-turning novel, like, “Oh, my gosh, what’s going to happen next?”

Or, just like, “Okay, I guess,” and you’re just sort of tuned out, so it’s like folks aren’t even able to receive what can really be, and I guess I’m a bit of a dork here, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say, if you understand the story some chart sequences are telling you, they can be heart-thumpingly thrilling. I mean that in all sincerity.

Nick Desbarats

Hey, man, yeah. You’re in my tribe.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And so, if you’re thinking, “Yeah, Pete, I’ve never seen one like that,” I’m thinking about some of the folks who I think do it amazingly well that are available for view might be Andreessen Horowitz at A16Z. They’ve got a number of slide presentations that were on SlideShare and still, I believe, publicly available, which really do, they take you through a story, and you’re like, “Oh, wow, so that’s what’s going on with whatever tech sector, or investment, or whatever. And I really feel like I’ve read a novel, except in the artform that is a sequence of charts.”

Nick Desbarats

Yeah. Well, I mean, data storytelling is a big buzz term right now. Like, over the last few years, it’s just really taken off. And I think it deservedly so. I think, though, what has gotten maybe less attention but is still really important is, like I said, that sort of basic spelling and vocabulary, because a lot of what I see is sort of data stories are kind of torpedoed because of really basic chart design problems.

Because, oftentimes, a data story essentially consists of a series of charts, just like you were describing, but the chart types are wrong, the scales are too wide, the colors are weird, the labeling isn’t precise enough, and so users don’t actually even understand what the numbers in the chart represent correctly. They’re just having to think too hard, having to read a 45-degree or a vertical text, and so the way I sort of look at it is, yeah, storytelling is great, and it is a skill that I think a lot of people should be developing but before you do that, learn the basic language first.

You can’t tell great stories, you can’t write great essays or great novels if you can’t spell. And I think that there’s a lot more awareness of that now than there was, like there is a spelling and vocabulary to this. And if you haven’t really mastered that, then your stories are going to flop. You’ve got to kind of walk before you can run, essentially.

And, unfortunately, a lot of people, well, a lot of people do realize that, but lots of people don’t. And so, they’ll jump straight into courses or books about storytelling and data storytelling without having really mastered the basics first, and then they wonder why their data stories aren’t working.

Pete Mockaitis

Beautiful. I want to hear, and so we talked about these basic fundamentals, and I think you did such a fine job of coming up with the nuanced distinctions in your book, Practical Charts. And starting from the very beginning, I think you say we even start with the wrong question, which is, “Okay, I got a bunch of data,” and you think, “Okay, what’s the best chart type.” And you say, “Hold up. That is not the ideal first question.” Set us straight, Nick, what should we be asking ourselves?

Nick Desbarats

Well, you’re right, of course. Typically, when we sit down to create a new chart, we ask ourselves, “What is the best way to visualize this data?” And I think when you’re sort of maybe starting out, that is the question that people often have, but I think once you start to develop more experience, more expertise, you start to realize that, “Actually, the question I should be asking is, ‘Do I know why I’m creating this chart? Is there a problem that I’m trying to make the audience aware of? Am I trying to persuade them to do something? And if so, what is that thing? Am I just trying to explain something to them? And if so, what is that?’”

Because, until you’ve figured that out, you can’t really make any design choices. You can’t really choose chart types. It’s even hard to know even what data you should even be showing? Should you be showing the last six months of data or the last 12 months of data? All of these things depend on what I call the job – the job of the chart.

And so, really, I think that’s one of the things that I try to accomplish in the book, and also in the Practical Charts Course that I teach, is by the end of the book, you should be thinking of charts as graphics for doing a job, and not visual representations of data. Because if you think of charts just as visual representations of data, well, then even really bad charts would be fine because they are visual representations of data, but only good charts do their job. And so, you want to aim for a chart that does its job.

And so, at the end of the day, ultimately, that’s all that matters. People tend to get hung up on this sort of secondary characteristics, like how precisely people can estimate the values in a chart, or how fast they can read it, or how much information they can recall when the chart is hidden from view. I mean, they’re important but they’re not the thing that, ultimately, matters. What, ultimately, matters is, “Did the chart actually do whatever thing you wanted it to do? Did it do the job that prompted you to create that chart in the first place?”

And it might sound a little obvious but it requires a huge mental shift, and I can see it happening during my course just by the way that I’m teaching it in person. It lasts two full days, and it takes about that long to really fully make that leap to that sort of new way of thinking.

Pete Mockaitis

So, charts are graphics for doing a job and not mere visualizations of data. And so, I think when it comes to jobs, maybe you could lay out the menu for us. Because I think, sometimes, I find that the job is, “Okay, we’re being persuasive. We are trying to make a sales pitch, and the goal is that, whatever graphics we’re including will make the point that we are really awesome,” or, “This market opportunity is a big deal, so okay.”

But I think other times, in the course of day in, day out working with colleagues, they might say something like, “Hey, Nick, how about you put together a presentation to give us an update on where we stand?” So, it feels kind of vague or generic or broad or general, just like, “Show us what’s the state of things right now, or over the last month.” And so then, how do you think about choosing charts for that kind of a job?

Nick Desbarats

Yeah, you’re right. There tends to be a lot of focus when you look at different books and courses on data visualization, articles. They tend to kind of assume that we’re always trying to persuade people or something. But you’re right, you’re absolutely right. That’s not always the case. In fact, very often. We’re just trying to explain something to somebody, make them aware of some interesting trend, for example.

And so, yeah, and I try and sort of address that in the book and in the course as well to say it’s important to understand that these charts can have a very wide variety of different kinds of jobs. And, in fact, sometimes we’re creating charts just for ourselves, like charts that no one is ever going to see. We’re just using the chart for analysis. We’re using it to discover new insights and patterns in the data. And that is just a completely different use case than something where you’re abusing storytelling, for example.

And so, one of the things that I find is a little bit sort of, maybe even a little frustrating, is that people think that, “Oh, every chart has to tell a story. Everything is a data story.” It’s like, “No, some things are data stories but not everything.” We’re not always trying to persuade people to do something. Sometimes we are but sometimes we’re not.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay.

Nick Desbarats

And, by the way, sometimes when we get those kinds of requests that you were talking about in terms of, like, oftentimes, we’re just not even asked for an update; we’re just asked for data, where, “I need to see a breakdown of expenses by department for the last 12 months.” And those are actually very tough situations because the obvious next question that I think you should be asking is, “Well, why? Like, are you worried that there are certain departments that are spending too much? Or, do you want to see how they compare to their budgets?” There could be all sorts of ways to respond to that request.

And, unfortunately, a fair amount of the time, if we try and get that information, we can’t, it’s like, “Well, it was the CEO who asked, and they’re really busy, and so just give me a chart.” And it’s like, “Oh, crap, now I’m in a position where I have to try and create a chart, and I don’t know why I’m creating it.” And so, I have a whole section in the book about how to deal with this, and I have a technique that I call  spray and pray, where you, essentially, create multiple views of the data, and you make some guesses about what question they might have in mind, or what they might be wanting to know, and you build different visuals for those three, sometimes even four, different potentials reasons why they’ve might asked you for that information. And you hope that one of them is going to hit.

Pete Mockaitis

Nick, I think that’s so great, is that often it’s just a clarifying question away in terms of, “I want a status update of how things went over last month.” And if you ask a couple follow-up questions for clarification, it can be quite illuminating, it’s like, “Yes, I’m looking for cost savings opportunities within our operation.” “Oh, okay. Well, then I’m going to think about things differently,” versus “I want to see what looks weird, or different, or off, or broken so that I can allocate my energies to preventing a problem before it gets worse.”

Or, “I want to see what might be some of the most compelling opportunities that we need to go after in the subsequent months.” Any of those very different directions could spring forth from a, “Hey, just give me an update.”

Nick Desbarats

Yeah, exactly. And so, we’re lucky in those situations where we can actually ask those follow-up questions and get that follow-up information. And the first step, of course, realizing that you need that information in order to design your charts in the first place. But there are times when we ask and we don’t get answers, it’s like, “No, just give me an update,” or, “Give me expenses for the departments, and don’t ask me any more questions.”

And so, I think it’s important to know how to address both of those, but, really, the key thing that I think is, the step that people miss, is that step of figuring out, “Okay, why am I creating this chart in first place?” And that’s a crucial step. Because if you don’t know, if you don’t have some kind of insight that you’re trying to communicate, or some kind of question that you’re trying to answer, most of your chart design choices will be random, and your chart will end up communicating random insights, which is not helpful.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, I’m going to get into some very particulars, but before I do that, I’d love to get some general principles in terms of what are perhaps your top tips, or principles, or mistakes you observed as folks are trying to do this kind of thing?

Nick Desbarats

One misconception that I see a lot, especially amongst people who have more experience, who have more expertise, is that they believe that creating a chart or getting good at data visualization is just something that sort of requires experience, and trial and error, and intuition that’s developed over a long kind of period of time. And that’s what I believed for a long time as well.

But what I realized through teaching Steve’s courses, and now my own courses, is that it’s actually possible to distill a lot of these guidelines into surprisingly precise guidelines that don’t necessarily rely on having years of experience. And so, that was sort of the impetus, really, for me creating my course, and then the book that went along with it, is I was a little bit frustrated by the fact that people said, “Well, if you’re showing the breakdown of a total, sometimes it makes sense to use a pie chart, and other times a bar chart, and other times a stacked bar chart. Use your judgment. Do what feels right.”

And I was like, “Hold on a second. No, actually, these chart types are not interchangeable. There are specific circumstances under which it makes sense to use one or the other.” And so, really, that’s kind of, I think, a bit of a different approach that I brought to the field, and it is kind of, in some cases, it’s a bit controversial to say, “I think that we can actually sort of codify or formulate a lot of these guidelines in ways that can be applied by people who have even very little chart design experience.”

And they can follow steps and have a number of decision trees, in the course, and in the book as well, and you can just follow through the decision tree, and it will point you to the right chart for the right situation, the right design choice, or an expert-level design choice, anyways.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, Nick, I love that so much, and that really conveys that same analogy I’m reminded of, of like writing, in that some folks are just like, “Well, it takes a lifetime to really refine your writing style and to make it excellent.” And then you got Strunk & White, The Elements of Style who just dropped, “Remove unnecessary words.” And, like, that’s really a pretty good rule almost all the time. And it’s like, “Oh, okay, just by doing that, my writing is better.

Nick Desbarats

Yeah, exactly. And that’s actually, coming back to that language analogy, sometimes the way I describe sort of at least a lot of the books and courses that I’ve seen about data visualization is that imagine English as a second language, or you don’t speak English, and you’re trying to learn the difference between “they’re,” “their” and “there” the three ways to spell “there.” And your textbook says something like, “Well, this is actually kind of a nuance. It’s sort of ca omplex question. And over time, you’ll develop intuition which will sort of help you figure out what is the best spelling.”

And so, it makes it really hard and slow to learn the language, but as native English speakers, we know, it’s like, “No, actually, I can give you very simple guidelines which you can learn in, like, 60 seconds, which will point you to the correct choice every time.” But I think the difference with data visualization is that formulating those sorts of simple-looking guidelines and decision trees was actually really hard. It’s like the hardest thing I have ever done. And so, it’s not surprising, I think, that it’s taken a long time for those kinds of simple-looking guidelines to emerge about data visualization.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, Nick, could you maybe give us top three guidelines in terms of this makes a huge difference, and mistakes happen all the time?

Nick Desbarats

Yeah, probably number one is chart type choice. The most common problem I see in charts is something that was a line chart when it should’ve been a bar chart, or it was a stacked bar chart when it should’ve been a pie chart, for example. And I forgive people for making these kinds of, what I consider to be, mistakes, anyways, because there are a number of considerations that go into those kinds of choices.

But because it is so tricky, and there are so many factors to take into consideration, like, for example, if you’re just trying to figure out how to show the breakdown of a total, there are at least eight things you need to take into account in order to decide between sort of the five major chart types for doing that: your pie charts, bar charts, stacked bar charts, etc. And so, yeah, that’s probably the most common mistake that I see, and the solution is, well, you’ve just got to get a bit of training to know how to do this.

Probably the second most common type of problem that I see are problems with quantitative scales. So, these are the scales of numbers that you see in charts, like the number of employees, or dollars, or whatever. And I have a whole section in my book about that, and it kind of surprises people, because they’re like, “Isn’t that pretty straightforward? Like, why not just go with the default scales that come out of Excel, or Tableau, or whatever?”

And I’d say probably, maybe a third of the problems that I see with charts are related to quantitative scales, scales that are too wide, too narrow, start at zero when they shouldn’t, don’t start at zero when they should, have too many stops on them, for example, or not enough. And so, there’s a lot to learn about quantitative scales. And so, again, if you haven’t had that training, then this is a very common way that charts, essentially, misrepresent the underlying data.

So I guess the third most common would be labeling problems, usually insufficient labeling, or insufficiently precise labeling. And so, these are situations where you see a chart, it’s maybe a line chart, that says the quantitative scale is just labeled with transactions, and maybe it’s for over 12 months or something like that. Okay, is that like successful transactions, or successful and failed transactions? Is it accumulative total of transactions running throughout the year? There could be all sorts of ways of interpreting that.

And so, with inadequate labeling then, once again, the audience might assume that they’re looking at numbers that aren’t the actual numbers in the chart. And I would also kind of put in that labeling of key insights. This is sometimes controversial when I say I’m a big proponent of actually putting messages right in the chart, “We have a problem because transactions have been declining since July,” and actually putting that, like write it as a collar, or maybe even as the title of the chart. People tend to shy away from that but I think that there are good reasons to actually be really explicit about, “If I had a reason for showing you this chart, I might as well tell you what it’s for.”

Pete Mockaitis

Nick, I totally resonate with that. And it’s intriguing when I trained on this sort of thing, I’ve been accused of having sensational slide titles or headlines, I was like, “Wow, if these are sensational then you are accustomed to very, very boring…” I’m not swearing, I’m not using extreme language. I’m just saying things like, “Sales of this segment have dropped radically since this quarter.” It’s like, “Huh?”

And I guess that is sensational but I guess what’s really driving it, and my observation, is fear. And so, like, “You’re basically saying that the guy in charge of that thing over there is a screwup and a failure.” I was like, “No, I didn’t say. I’m just commenting on the most noteworthy thing that is to be gleaned from these data.” But it seems that folks are often, in many cultures, quite shy about calling a spade a spade because it has all sorts of emotional implications under the surface.

Nick Desbarats
Yeah, I think that there’s really kind of two ways that that problem surfaces. The one is what you just described, where you’re basically saying something that’s kind of maybe politically sensitive. And that happens, unfortunately, a lot. As the people who handle the data, we’re often the first to see the bad news. We’re the canary in the coal mine. We’re the deliverer of bad news.

But I think that there’s another kind of knee jerk or inherent objection that people have to putting any kind of interpretation in the chart at all. 

A lot of people think that that’s actually kind of unethical, that we’re biasing people’s interpretations of the data, and that charts should be these kinds of neutral interpretation-free, just the numbers kinds of representations of the data. And this all sounds great. It sounds perfectly noble. I don’t think it’s even theoretically possible though because this kind of relates to what we’re talking about before. When you create a chart, you have to have a reason for creating it in mind, a question you’re trying to answer, an insight you’re trying to communicate, an action that you want somebody to take. It’s baked into the chart.

Because if you don’t have that in your mind, you don’t have some specific job or thing that you’re trying to accomplish with the chart in mind, then you don’t get a neutral or unbiased chart. You get a chart that produces random insights, essentially. And so, because our interpretation of the data, and why the audience needs to see that data is baked into the chart, anyway, it’s in all of our decisions, it’s what we based the chart type choice on, it’s what we based our color choices on, it’s what we based our scale ranges on, and a whole slew of other choices, we might as well just tell them, “This is why I think you needed to see this data.”

They may disagree with it. They may have a different interpretation of the data, and that’s fine. Then you sit down and talk about it, and say, “Okay, we seem to have different views of reality in this situation. Let’s figure it out together then.” But the solution is not to try and produce these sorts of very generic “interpretation-free” charts because, like I said, that’s not even theoretically possible.

Your charts will always have your interpretation of the data built into them anyways, so you might as well kind of save the audience a bit of brain cells and just tell them, “This is why I think you needed to see this data.” And, like I said, if they disagree with it, that’s fine. Then you talk about it and try and get on the same page.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, Nick, I want to challenge you if we could have the rapid version of thinking about chart type and axis scale matters. Could I have the two-minute version of when is the absolute best and absolute worst conditions for using a pie chart?

Nick Desbarats

Yes. So, if you’re not very familiar with the data visualization field, you might be surprised to learn that pie charts, they are very controversial. The community is split. You have people who are violently opposed to pie charts, and those who think that they are just fine. And I’ve been in both camps. I used to be an anti-pie charter but then I sat down a couple of years, I had a long hard look at my reasons, and realized, “You know, there are valid use cases for pie charts.”

Pie charts have a couple of unique properties. The first is that they allow us to perceive fractions of the total much more quickly and precisely than any other chart type. Compared to a regular bar chart or stacked bar chart, I can immediately see, “This is about a quarter of the total,” “This is about two-thirds of the quarter,” “These two parts together represent about three-quarters of the total.” This discussion can get a lot more nuanced though, and, in fact, I just wrote a 3500-word article in the journal of the Data Visualization Society last month about this, and it went pretty viral because it is a big question.

But ultimately, that’s what I think is a major point that people miss around pie charts, and people who don’t like pie charts, is that they allow people to perceive fractions of the total much more quickly and precisely than any other chart type. Plus, the fact that it’s a pie chart immediately tells the audience that they’re looking at the breakdown of a total before they would’ve read anything. They don’t have to read the chart title or the labels or anything. They immediately know they’re looking at the breakdown of a total.

Whereas, with a regular bar chart, for example, they actually have to read the chart title, and the labels, and figure out, “Oh, these parts of a total. They’re not, for example, values over time” Whereas, the pie chart, it’s like, “Bang!” It’s instantaneous. So, they do have some unique properties that make them, I think, the best choice in specific situations. But knowing what those specific situations are requires a bit of training.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. All right. So, that’s the thing. It’s like if what we are all about is quickly and intuitively conveying the proportion of one segment relative to the whole, the pie chart can do that pretty intuitively. But if we’re venturing into other territories, like, “Let’s see how these proportions have shifted over time,” then maybe the pie chart is not going to be our friend.

Nick Desbarats

Yeah, or if, for example, you want to compare the parts very precisely, say, “Okay, here’s a breakdown of our sales by region.” But the main point of the chart is to show that we sold more in the West than we did in the South. Well, especially if those values are very close to one another, you should use a bar chart because one of the weaknesses of pie charts is that they don’t allow the parts to be compared very precisely to one another. But if your main insight is that, for example, the West plus the East accounted for more than a third of our sales, well, that’s going to be a lot more obvious in a pie chart than it will in a bar chart.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And what’s the top thing we should never do with our axis scale?

Nick Desbarats

That’s a tricky question because, as I mentioned earlier on, there are a lot of mistakes that people make all the time with quantitative scales. If I had to pick just one, I’d probably say that it’s starting the scale at zero when it shouldn’t be started at zero, or vice versa, not starting at zero when it should’ve been started at zero.

And this, again, is one of those questions that people tend to think has a really simple answer but it doesn’t. Like, I have a whole section in the book on how to make that decision. It’s not as straightforward as a lot of people think. And, by the way, that’s kind of the case with a lot of these design choices. People tend to think that they can be made very simply. Like, for example, when it comes to choosing chart types, a lot of people think, “Oh, well, if you’re showing data over time, always use a line chart. Or, if you’re showing the breakdown of a total, always use a pie chart.” But unfortunately, those are simple, yeah, but you’ll often make bad design choices.

And so, whenever I see very simplistic rules, like, “Always start the scale at zero,” or, “Never start the scale at zero,” unfortunately, they’re just too simple. You’re going to end up making bad design choices all the time if you rely on those very, very simple rules of thumb. It doesn’t have to be really complicated but it can’t be that simple. It needs to be a little bit more complicated.

Pete Mockaitis

All right, tell us, what would be a horrible context situation for us to start an axis at zero?

Nick Desbarats

So, I guess the classic example here would be body temperature. Let’s say we’re in a hospital and we’re tracking the temperature of a patient over time, and whether you’re working in Celsius or Fahrenheit, if you start the scale at zero, well, first of all, it’s going to be hard to see small shifts that could be very meaningful. If you’re going from, I don’t know…

Pete Mockaitis

Ninety-eight point six Fahrenheit to 102.

Nick Desbarats

Okay, yes. Or, 37° Celsius, choose your methods there. But if it just goes up two or three degrees, of course, that’s often very meaningful from a medical perspective, but you’re not going to see it very well if the chart starts at zero. And there’s another wrinkle in that situation as well, which is when you’re talking about something like temperature, at least on the Fahrenheit or Celsius scale, zero is kind of a meaningless number.

Zero degrees, Fahrenheit, for example, is not the absence of heat energy. That would be zero degrees Kelvin, which is something that’s totally different. And so, I would say that, yeah, in a situation like that, starting the scales at zero would be a huge mistake.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Thank you. Well, now you mentioned earlier, before we’re recording, that you have a bit of a reputation as a chart type killer, which feels like that needs to be a lyric in a rap song or something.

Nick Desbarats

The nerdiest rap song ever. I would listen to it.

Pete Mockaitis

And so, I noticed in your book that there was nothing, there was no mention of the Marimekko, or Mekko, and when I was in consulting, we were utterly infatuated with the Marimekko or Mekko. And we’ll link to this in the show notes if you all never heard of it. Sometimes it’s used as, for example, a market map. So, we might have on the X-axis, maybe we’re talking about different kinds of computing processors.

And so, on the X-axis, we might have phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, servers, and so we see, “Okay, so that’s the relative proportion of different segments of different devices that use processors.” On the Y-axis, we might see how much penetration percentage a given player in that field has, like, Apple versus AMD versus Nvidia.

So, we like to use that in consulting to show, “Hey, Nvidia, look how you’re doing nothing in tablets,” for example, “But all your competitors are. Maybe you should, too.” That’s often how that goes on but you’ve got a different point of view. Let’s hear it.

Nick Desbarats

Well, yeah, so I don’t discuss Marimekko Charts in the book because I tend to find that…well, maybe sort of coming back to one of the basic principles that I have. I’m a big advocate, of course, of showing the data in the simplest way possible that still communicates whatever it is that the chart needs to communicate.

And in my experience, it’s very, very rare that the simplest way to say what you need to say about the data is with a Marimekko Chart, which is kind of a complicated chart type. There’s a good chance you’re going to be needing to explain it to people, and there’s a lot of kind of moving parts to it. You have the heights of the bar segments, as well as the widths of the bar segments, and so it tends to be kind of hard on our working memory, the part of our minds where we do all of our thinking, which is actually very small. We can only think of a very small number of things simultaneously.

And so, if I’m thinking of using a chart like that, I always look for “Are there simpler chart types?” It might even be a combination of charts. I might have two or three charts but that are going to be sort of simpler to consume, and yet that say the same thing about the data. And so, I’m not saying never. It is possible where the simplest way to say what you need to say is a Marimekko Chart. It’s just in my experience it’s usually not. Usually, there are simpler alternatives.

I do mention chart types, though, like box plots, for example, and connected scatterplots, which I think are virtually never the simplest way to say what you need to say about the data. And this has generated a certain amount of sort of response when I’ve published articles about why I don’t use box plots anymore, for example.

But I’ve just found that things like strip plots, jittered strip plots, stacked histograms are virtually always much easier for audiences to understand because box plots are pretty abstract, if you even know what it is. A lot of your audience probably won’t even know what a box plot is, and they require lots of time to explain, and there are virtually always simpler ways of saying what you need to say about the data.

And so, I wouldn’t necessarily put Marimekko Charts in that category in terms of, like, they’re never the simplest way, but there often are simpler ways of communicating the information. 

So, yeah, there are a couple of chart types that I think fall into that category of never the simplest way. Like I said, box plots, connected scatterplots, and bullet graphs, for those who know what those chart types are. There are virtually always simpler alternatives. And I have articles about all of these. Maybe we can link to those in the show notes as well.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, that’s really resonating on a couple dimensions when it comes to box plots. I think the first time I encountered the concept of a box plot, I had to think about it for, like, 20 minutes and look at the box plot and then the percentiles. But then once I did, I was like, “Oh, okay. Cool.” It’s sort of like I had to do that hard work of understanding the concept of a box plot. And then when I saw them later, I appreciated them. But if you haven’t done that, then it’s going to not resonate. It’s, like, you’re in a different language.

And, likewise, with the Marimekko’s, I remember I was on a consulting project, and we were sort of showing a number of employees by country on the X-axis, and by function on the Y-axis, so we were using these Marimekko’s. And we had a client who hated the charts so much, he forbade us to make another one. And then I had a colleague who made one, nonetheless, and shared it with the manager, who said, “Didn’t you hear the guy? He said no more Marimekko’s.” And the consultant passionately pleaded, “It’s the best way to show it.” And so, he was shot down because the client tends to win these sorts of debates.

So, yeah, point taken. We can fall in love with a thing, and in so doing, lose connection to the audience and where they’re at.

Nick Desbarats

Yeah, that’s a great point, too. I wrote a blogpost with a very clickbait-y title called “My favorite chart type.” It was I guess about two years ago, where I basically argued that “This is actually something we should try to move away from, like having favorite chart types,” because, really, that can only make our chart type choices worse. We’re going to be biased towards using certain charts, even when they’re not necessarily the best choice.

It’s kind of like people who have their favorite words, and they tend to use those words all the time even in situations where it’s really not the right word. And so, I think one of the marks of somebody who’s gotten really good at this is that they don’t have favorites. They just use whatever chart type is most appropriate for the situation.

The catch is that it just takes some time to learn when to choose from these various chart types. In my course, I cover 50 chart types because I think that all of those are needed in kind of everyday, when you’re making everyday charts for reports and presentations. And it takes a while to learn when to use them all.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, tell me, Nick, anything else you want to make sure before we hear about your favorite things?

Nick Desbarats

I think, really, the point that I was hoping that was going to come out in the discussion, and I think it really did, is to encourage people to really start thinking about charts as graphics for doing a job rather than visual representations of data.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Nick Desbarats

There’s one that I really like from an American journalist called HL Mencken, who’s active in the 1920s. And he said that, “For every complex problem, there’s an answer that’s clear, simple, and wrong.”

Pete Mockaitis

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

Nick Desbarats

I think pretty much anything by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the sort of godfathers of the study of cognitive biases. That has just informed my thinking in innumerable ways since I first came across it. It’s well-summarized in Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And maybe that is a favorite book. Any other favorite books you want to highlight?

Nick Desbarats

Yeah, actually, but I’m going to cheat. I’m going to give you two. One work-related, which is How to Measure Anything by Doug Hubbard. It’s an absolutely brilliant book.

And then in terms of kind of general kind of books about living a good life, there’s The Comfort Crisis by Michael Easter.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Nick Desbarats

My website is PracticalReporting.com, all one word. And if you go on the top nav to the Contact/Follow page, then there’s my email form and where to follow me on LinkedIn. And I invite people to do that.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Nick Desbarats

I think it’s really important to develop this basic skill, like the spelling and vocabulary of data visualization. There’s a very rapidly growing awareness that this is something that a lot of people probably need to learn because, of course, so many of us are now handling data as part of our job. And, really, to me, that’s kind of the starting point. Before you start learning about data storytelling, or anything like that, learn the basics of the language first.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Nick, thank you. This is fun. I wish you many fun charts.

Nick Desbarats

Thank you. Yeah, I really appreciate it. Fantastic discussion.

913: Upping your Influence with the Five Principles of Captivating Stories with Karen Eber

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

Karen Eber shares neuroscience insights to help you maximize attention and impact in your communications.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why storytelling dramatically increases your influence
  2. The five factory settings of the brain
  3. The key to creating memorable stories

About Karen

Karen Eber is an author, leadership consultant, and keynote speaker. She has a TED Talk on storytelling and recently published, The Perfect Story: How to Tell Stories That Inform, Influence, and Inspire, with HarperCollins.

As the CEO and Chief Storyteller of Eber Leadership Group, Karen helps Fortune 500 companies build leaders, teams, and culture, one story at a time. She’s a former Head of Culture, Learning, and Leadership Development at GE and Deloitte.

Resources Mentioned

Karen Eber Interview Transcript

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

Karen Eber
Thank you. I’m so happy to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m pumped up to hear about some of the gems you got for us in your book The Perfect Story: How to Tell Stories That Inform, Influence, and Inspire. And I’d love it if you could start us off with an example of a perfect story or a super memorable gripping story that exemplifies a perfect story in action.

Karen Eber
I’ll tell you the opening story in my book, which is about my eyes. I was born with blue eyes, like most babies, and at about the age of four months, they start to change to different colors, so I have a brown eye and a green eye. And I’ve always loved this. Why have one eye color when you can have two? And it’s a special thing but, as much as I loved it, I would come to recognize the exact moment when people would notice it for the first time.

And their words would slow in the middle of a dialogue and I could see them moving back and forth, almost like their brain was in a negotiation, trying to think like, “Which one do I look at?” And they would eventually stop mid-sentence, and say, “Do you know you have two different color eyes?” to which I would usually go, “No,” because what do you say to that?

And then I would brace myself because the following script happen just about every time, of, “I know a dog that has two different colored eyes.” I’m like, “Okay, thank you.” “David Bowie, he had two different color eyes,” which he didn’t. He had an accident and dilated pupil. And then it would turn into, “Well, do you see the same colors out of both eyes? And what color are your parents’ eyes? And do your eyes give you special powers?”

And this thing that I love suddenly became this burden because I was now this weird thing where they would call other people over and there would be 10 faces trying to get a viewpoint of my eyes, and I hated it. I didn’t love the way I was treated for the thing that I really enjoyed about myself. And one day I decided that I was done with it.

And so, once I got the “How did that happen?” I told them how I was born with brown eyes, and, “One night, when I was about four years old, I was in my room coloring, and you know that big box of crayons that everybody has where you’ve got the broken ones, and peeled ones, and the perfect ones? Well, I reached into that box and I pulled out a green crayon and I sniffed it, and it didn’t really smell like anything but I took a nibble and kind of liked the texture and so I ate the green crayon, and I like it so much I ate all the green crayons in the box. And the next day I woke up, and my eye was green.”

And then I would be quiet, and you could see whomever I told this to, there would be this internal negotiation going on of, “Is she for real? Like, there’s no way this story is real but she said it so straight, I can’t really tell. Like, what do I say? What do I do?” And I would let them off the hook. But what happened was this shift in energy, where I went from this thing and this weird person and weird, weird thing on display to a moment of connection.

And most of the time, people recognize they had been asking me all these silly questions, and they kind of made me not human, and that this was something that actually made me more relatable and more human. And it created a shift that not only was memorable because I’ve had people tell me decades later that they remember this. But that it created a connection that we probably wouldn’t have had had this not happened.

And so, for me, this was the perfect story to start with because it shows stories aren’t just about giving a presentation. They can be a moment of connection, or shifting energy, or shifting circumstances so you can get into a different type of conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool, yes. And what’s nifty there is you have a lot of reps in terms of, okay, this happens to you repeatedly so you can sort of experiment and see how things go and what works. And, sure enough, you’ve transformed an experience which is sort of annoying and a burden to deal with into something fun that you can laugh with and roll with.

And that is cool. There you have it. Stories transforming what’s going on with our brain experiences. And in your TED Talk, you mentioned just that, is that our brains kind of mirror each other, the storyteller and the story receiver. What is this science fiction, Karen?

Karen Eber
Yeah, it sounds almost too fake to be true. There’s a neuroscientist out of Princeton, Uri Hasson, who put people in MRI machines, and the first person, first group, goes in, and they are listening to an episode, or watching an episode of a show on the BBC, and they are measuring their brain activity. And when they take them out, put them in a second time, and this time, those people are told to recount the episode that they had just watched.

They then record the brain activity during that. And then a new group of people are brought in. They go into the MRI and they listen to the recounted episode of the people that were in the MRI machine. So, you have three different instances of watching, recounting, and listening to the recounting. And what they found is the activity was the same.

It didn’t matter if they had experienced it, if they were the ones recounting it, or they were actually listening to the recounting of it, that neural activity was very similar, which means that stories almost gives you this artificial reality because, as you’re listening to it, your brain is imagining and seeing and placing you in the story, and it then lights up as though you were in it, which is why we go to the movies, and our heart is racing because James Bond is running across the rooftops but we’re not moving because our brain is saying, “You’re in this movie,” or it’s imagining what it would feel like, and you can feel that amped feeling.

Or it’s also why this time of year is where there’s often a lot of horror films and things that people pay attention to. That’s why you get so amped and surprised, it’s because your brain is, like, “You are here about to have someone jumped out at you.”

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, that’s wild. And now that gets me thinking in terms of the emerging proliferation of fMRI type devices with kernel or neuro link or others in terms of if all of our brains are doing the same things in response to the story being told or heard, it seems that it may not be so fanciful to think of a world in which technology can decode what’s happening in our brains to relay that story.

Karen Eber
Let’s give an asterisk next to it because I’m not trying to suggest that it’s like propaganda and we can brainwash everyone into it, but what does happen is that your brain, your senses are starting to engage as though you are the character there and you’re having some of the experiences. And so, it is a more dynamic way to interact with stuff.

It’s not quite propaganda at scale though but part of the reason why this is increasing in interest and popularity is that in the past 15 years, our understanding of the brain has just become so much more. There are just so many more discoveries and understanding and experiments have been done to help us be more savvy, but what is really happening from how we are communicating, consuming, deciding, all of these things are just we learn so much every day.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, with that said, can you share with us, what’s sort of the big idea or main message behind the book The Perfect Story?

Karen Eber
It builds on the science of storytelling but in a relatable way. So, this won’t have you be putting on a lab coat and breaking out test tubes and beakers. The idea is that it’s not enough to tell a story the way you tell a story is going to make a difference in the experience with the listener. So, there are certain ways that our brain is going to respond to information but it’s the way we put together that information to put in the unexpected events to engage the senses to build tension in the story.

It’s the orchestration and the choices that we make that cause the brain to pay attention and be immersed in it or not. If you think of a movie that you tried to watch and didn’t get very far in, it’s because your brain just said, “This is not worth the time or the calorie spend.” And so, the book gets into, “How do you understand what’s happening in the brain when you tell stories?”

But, more importantly, what do you then think about when you are putting your stories together so that you can create an immersive story? And then it takes you through the full process of developing and telling stories, telling stories with data, and making sure that they don’t manipulate while you navigate the vulnerability.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very cool. And before we get into the particulars of how that’s done, could you share with us a little bit of the why in terms of what’s ultimately at stake for professionals if they do this well or not so well? What kind of career trajectory impact do you think that makes between folks who tell okay stories from time to time when they remember, to those who consistently take the time to craft the perfect stories where they can?

Karen Eber
I think it comes down to attention, and the greatest gift any audience they can give you is their attention. It is a precious commodity. And we have choices to make of “Are we going to talk at people?” If we’re in a business setting, are we going to pull out the PowerPoint quilts of slides then just pick and choose, and just dump things at people and put up the 10-point font, and say, “I’m not going to read this,” and then proceed to talk at people where no one remembers it ten minutes later? Or are we going to be thoughtful about how we’re using that attention and really trying to connect people to information that’s going to inform their world and help them think differently, or maybe reach a different decision?

If you take the time to really build these muscles and then you become faster at it, you are always going to be winning the hearts and minds, you’re going to be connecting with people and being relatable, you are going to see how to motivate individuals on an individual level. The more that AI and automation comes in, the more we need to be able to leverage individualization at scale. And so, storytelling and really communicating are just a really dynamic way to do this and maximize the attention that we get.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so that end, let’s dig into how it’s done. You’ve got a fun turn-of-a-phrase, you say we’ve got five factory settings of the brain. Tell us, what do you mean by that? What are these settings? And how do they impact how we tell stories?

Karen Eber
If you think of a phone that you unbox, it comes with a factory setting. There are certain apps and programs, and anytime you restore the phone, it’s going to go back to those basic settings. It’s like, “Here’s the core things that run it.” There’s something similar in the brain when you communicate. There are basic ways that we’re going to respond to information and communication. And so, I call them the five factory settings of the brain.

And they get into different things, like the first one is that your brain is lazy. It is meant to be the broker of calories in your body. The number one job of the brain is to keep the body alive. And part of that is making sure you’re safe. Part of that is also regulating how you breathe, move, digest, all of those things but it’s also, “How do I need to set my foot down if I’m going to be walking downstairs?”

And so, the brain is using 20% of the body’s calories for these things, and the majority of these calories are going to these predictions for like, “How do I move around?” And that means it always wants to have a surplus of calories because it never wants to go bankrupt. The goal of the brain is to respond to stimulus to be able to be ahead and anticipate and make predictions versus to react because by predicting, you’re making a guess and you’re doing something, and sometimes you’ll get it right and sometimes you’ll get it wrong.

But if you’re reacting every time, it’s a much bigger energy drain. So, what this means in terms of stories is that because the brain is lazy, it’s not meant to be deeply immersed in everything all the time, and it looks for moments for when it’s going to be able to step back and conserve calories. These are the nights that you binge your favorite show on TV that you’ve seen several times, or maybe you put in a movie that you could recite the dialogue because you have that moment of, like, “I just don’t want to think.” That’s your brain saying, “Let’s conserve some calories.”

The same thing happens in meetings and stories when you notice you’re drifting off. That’s the brain taking a natural pause and conserving calories. The way to overcome this in a story, though, is to put things in that make people have to spend calories, put in the unexpected events, be building the tension, be engaging the senses so that the brain is there, interested, ready to go.

So, that’s one. There’s five more but these are starting to help you understand, “Okay, I get it.” There are certain things that the brain is going to be doing, and that then gives me different choices as the storyteller to then play with and see how immersed I can make the brain.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. I’m reminded, there’s a marketing book called Don’t Make Me Think, and I feel that when I’m interacting with webpages or any number of things, like, “Okay, oh, this isn’t going to be quick and easy. Ah, never mind, maybe later.”

Karen Eber
Right, and that’s fair. I even joke, like it’s our attention span, and some of it is. Our attention spans have definitely changed, especially through COVID, but it’s also there is, at the bottom of this, a whole internal wager, like, “Is this worth the attention and the calorie spend?” and sometimes it’s not. Or, if we’re tired or hungry, that it gets diverted and it makes it even harder.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Let’s hear the other four factory settings.

Karen Eber
The second is that we make assumptions. So, the brain hates for things to be incomplete. It’s always going to be making predictions and trying to anticipate because it wants to respond and not react. So, the faster it makes an assumption or a prediction, the faster it can say, “All right, we’ve done this. Now, we can conserve.” Maybe we have to course-correct every now and then but we know.

And what this means is this is why you try to guess the ending of the movie, or the book, or you’re in a meeting and you’re trying to anticipate what the person is going to say, or the show starts, and you’re like, “Yeah, I know where this is going to go. Forget it. I don’t need to be paying attention to this.” And what you want to do when you’re telling stories is either slow down these assumptions or you want to lean into them.

So, if you lean into, if I said to you, “He gave her the passcode to his phone,” what does that bring to mind for you?

Pete Mockaitis
I recently saw an Ashley Madison documentary so I’m thinking about infidelity. You’re right. I filled in a lot of gaps there.

Karen Eber
You did. That’s really fine, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Apparently, during the romantic relationship and there’s trouble in paradise.

Karen Eber
Yes, completely, right? And then there’s someone else that’s going to be making an assumption, they’ll might say, “Well, he trusts her.” So, there’s many different things. But just by that one sentence, your brain is already trying to make assumptions and fill in the gaps because this is what we naturally do. So, sometimes in a story, you want to lean into what those assumptions might be and let the brain finish a thought. And sometimes you want to disrupt them, you want to put in an unexpected event or detail that makes them pause because you want to have their brain hit the proverbial speed bump, and say, “Wait a minute. What? That’s not what I expected.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. Sometimes you go with the flow with what they expect, and sometimes you don’t. I’m thinking about how in casinos and video games, they very deliberately finetune the percentage of time you receive your variable rewards. Do we know, Karen, is there a range of percentages in which we want to give them what they’re expecting versus something totally different?

Karen Eber
No, it’s all choices and experimentation. While I’m giving you steps, it’s really not formulaic. It’s really more like here are a whole bunch of ingredients, and you can make a Mediterranean dish, you can make a Thai dish, you can make an Italian dish. It’s up to you on the combinations that you put it together with, depending on what you want for that audience.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, it’s also making me think about comedy in terms of, I guess that’s what makes jokes, jokes, is that, “Oh, you’re expecting one thing then, surprise, we get you with the other thing.” And I guess I’m thinking about the comedy I love the most is a little weird, like, I don’t know, Key & Peele or Nathan for You, and it’s because, for me or my taste, it’s like they crank it up even more, like, “Whoa.”

Karen Eber
Comedy is such great storytelling because what they’re doing is they’re forcing your brain to spend calories. They’re building the tension because you think you know where it’s going to go, and your brain is guessing what this joke is, and then, zing, you get the punchline and it went in a different direction. And then you’re like, “I did not see that. That is so clever,” and you remember that joke, and it’s because it challenged your assumptions and it helped your brain spend some calories. And so, now it’s become a part of your experience and your long-term memory. Same thing can happen in stories, too.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Let’s hear more of these factory settings and implications.

Karen Eber
Third one is that we have this library of files in our brain. So, if you take a photo on your phone, and you swipe up on it, you’ll see the F-stop, the date, the location, the megabytes, like everything that was used to take the photo is stamped on it. And something similar happens to our senses that is a metaphor. So, as you’re taking in information through your senses, and you’re having these experiences, they get stamped with emotions and stored in your long-term memory the same way that this photo has.

So, when your brain is going to make these predictions and these assumptions, it’s going through this library of files of things that you know, or things that are related to what you know, or maybe sometimes it’s like, “Yeah, we’ve got to open a brand-new file for this one. We’ve never experienced this before.” And these are all going to be different because we all have different experiences. But when you’re telling a story, you want to connect to what people know because you get a very different imprint.

So, if I say to you, “The incision was small,” how big do you think that is using centimeters or inches or some type of measurement that is helpful to you?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s funny, when I’m imagining a small incision, it’s between half an inch to two inches is a small incision.

Karen Eber
Yeah, right.

Pete Mockaitis
Not that I know anything about surgery but I’m just going to declare that for a small incision.

Karen Eber
Right, exactly. Your brain is going, “What is small?” and you’re not even thinking. This is all happening subconsciously. But if I say to you, “The incision is the size of a paperclip,” you immediately see it, you immediately know how big it is, and I’m now taking up free real estate in your brain because that just gave you, and often I can build on it, and you are not even having to think about it.

And so, when you’re telling a story, you want to put in some of these things that are going to immediately connect to what people know and give that visualization so that the person isn’t even having to connect the dots. You are taking over their brain and putting this fully-formed idea or image in there, and you’re getting instant cognition from it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And what’s the fourth one?

Karen Eber
The fourth one is that we…actually let me ask you. If you walk into a networking event and you didn’t know anybody there, what would be your thought process for who you want to go talk to?

Pete Mockaitis
It’s funny, it varies a whole lot based on my overall mood and objectives but, generally speaking, I find the safest move, this is what it feels safest, is to go to the one who is adrift, lonely, isolated, looking at their phone, as oppose to those who are like huddled up and like deeply engaged, leaning in in a conversation, like, “Okay, I’ll let them lie but that person looks like they might appreciate having me into their world.”

Karen Eber
Totally. And what your brain is doing, is they’re going, “Who is that person or that group that I can walk up to that feels safe?” Exactly what you just described. So, that is like, “This is going to be my person for the next five minutes or maybe for the whole event. Who knows?” and it’s the in group. This is the group that we share something in common, maybe it’s values, or beliefs, or experiences, or even aspirations, and say, “We feel a sense of kinship with this group.”

It also categorizes things into outgroups, so that group that’s huddled together really tightly that looks like it’s too hard to break into, it’s like, “Yeah, I’m not a part of that group. I could go over to that group, I could try, but I don’t really feel a part of it.” And outgroups are where we notice differences. And so, when you’re telling a story, you want to be thoughtful of, “Are you trying to have the audience feel like a member of the in group, feel like some group that they feel a part of, or that feels safe to be around, or are you trying to have them notice or feel the experience of being a member of an outgroup, which charities do this?”

A natural disaster happens, and you see a charity spotlighting an individual that lost their home, has no electricity, is struggling to get clothing, food. Meanwhile, you’re sitting in electricity and have food and running water right next to you, and you recognize how different your circumstances are. So, some of what you want to think about is, “What is the experience you want the audience to come away with? Do you want them to feel a part of something or a connection to the idea in your story? Or do you want them to notice how different they are?”

And neither are right or wrong, these are just some different ingredients you could choose, which brings us to the last one, which is that, at our most simple level, we seek pleasure and avoid pain. We’ve got this cocktail of pleasure neural chemicals which are serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin. These are mostly released in moments of connection, so you can’t wield them, you can’t command them. It’s truly when someone feels that bond, that connection, that they are shared.

There’s also a cocktail of adrenaline, or epinephrine, or cortisol, and it’s released when the brain says, “Okay, you need to focus. There’s something here that’s potentially not right. You might be in danger, so we’re going to give you these.” And what happens in a story is that we see increases in some of these neurochemicals as a result of the story.

So, when your heart starts racing because there is something that happens on screen, or someone jumps out and surprises you, and you feel that wave through your body, that’s adrenaline. That’s your brain saying, “Focus. There’s something happening.” And the story that gives you goosebumps or makes you maybe well up with a tear or two, that you’re getting different pleasure neurochemicals.

And so, some of what you want to think about is what is that experience. So, are you intentionally telling an uncomfortable story, or are you telling a feel-good story, or maybe both? And so, now you start to look at these five and you recognize you have choices and where you’re making the brain pay attention and spend calories, and where you are leaning into assumptions, or slowing them down, and how you’re taking advantage of what the person knows by putting fully-formed ideas in their head.

And then thinking about, “Am I trying to have you feel a member of the group or different than a group? And am I having you or both? And am I trying to have you feel like a member or have that feel-good experience or an uncomfortable experience, or both?” So, now you start to see, “Okay, these are all choices, and I might not choose all of them in every story, but I can start to see where these are going to make a difference in the experience that someone has of this story.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, beautiful. Thank you. Well, now could you give us a demonstration perhaps of a lame story that fails to take into account these ingredients, and then that same version hopped up with some goodness? But, yeah, it’d be really fun to see these in action.

Karen Eber
I think what I would love to do is an activity with you, if you’re open.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Karen Eber
Let’s take a basic story and then show how we build it. Are you game?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Karen Eber
Okay. So, I want you to think of a vacation experience that you don’t mind sharing with people.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I went to the Dominican Republic with some friends once. It was an all-inclusive resort.

Karen Eber
Amazing. Give us the 30-second version of it. Don’t worry about the five factory settings or any of that. Just tell us a little bit about this vacation.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure. It’s very lazy. It was warm. There was a beach. It was all inclusive. There was much food and beverage and water. Chilling. Talking. Eating. Yup, just relaxing stuff.

Karen Eber
Amazing. Okay, so now I’m going to have you tell the story again. So, we’ve got a basic story, “We’re in the Dominican Republic, we’re on vacation, all-inclusive.” Your brain is in lazy mode, for sure, on this vacation. So, now I’m going to have you tell this again, and this time I want you to describe the colors as you’re telling the story. Make us feel like we’re there seeing some of the things that you’re seeing.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. There were white sands, palm trees with brown trunks and green leaves, bright blue water, some oranges and pinks in the sky during the sunrise and sunset times.

Karen Eber
Yeah, so now we went from this kind of bland landscape that we can’t necessarily picture to, now we’re picturing this. We can the seascape, we can see a sunrise and a sunset with the colors. So, now, I want you to tell it again, and this time, I want you to bring our senses into it of what are you hearing? What does it smell like? What is, if there any taste involved, what are some of those things? Tell it again and make us feel like we are there experiencing it beside you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, for the sounds, we can hear some seagulls, we can hear some ocean waves, we can hear, I remember, there was this very colorful fellow who ran this sort of water aerobics course twice a day, and he would yell out nice and loud, “Aqua gym!” And I remember there was this repetitive baseline, like, “Dit-rit, dah, dit, dah, dit” whenever the “Aqua gym!” was happening.

Karen Eber
I’m going to pause right there. Dear listeners, I hope you see what just happened. We never would’ve started there but now we can see this moment, and this Aqua gym and the music, like, amazing. So, I hope you’re seeing as well, this is now, we went from this basic story to now we’re there and we’re feeling it, and our brains are, whether we like it or not, our brains are there thinking those things and seeing it. Amazing.

I’m going to ask one more iteration. So, this time I want you to describe your emotions on this. Like, tell us, as you’re hearing Aqua gym and the music and all that, like give us the emotional experience of what did it feel like being there.

Pete Mockaitis
It felt very carefree in the sense of we didn’t have to rush, we didn’t have to worry about what time it was, or what day it was, or what needed to get done. It was just being with friends, like, “Hey,” and just let that sense of carefree timelessness, and it’s very peaceful.

Karen Eber
Amazing. So, if we put it all together, I want you to tell the story one last time of just pulling some different things of you’re on this trip, and it’s carefree, and you’re painting the scene on the beach, and we’re hearing this sights and sounds. Just pull a few of the things in from each of the iterations.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, sure thing. And I imagine, with iterations, with the time available to think right, revise, etc., we’d come across a whole lot smoother, but, I’d say, for a story, I had an amazing time on vacation at the Dominican Republic. I had some of my best friends with me. We’re in an all-inclusive resort situation. Beautiful white beaches and blue skies with some nice oranges and pinks during sunrise and sunset.

Bright blue water, fun sounds of seagulls and the seashore, and this fun fellow who would proclaim twice a day, it was time for “Aqua gym!” and play the “Di-dah, di-dit, dah” tunes as a subset of folks on the beach would run with big goofy smiles to participate in the Aqua gym without a care in the world. And we, too, didn’t have a care in the world in terms of what we had to do, or accomplish, or where to be, or what time it was, and it was just very, very peaceful and relaxing and restorative to bond with those guys on that trip.

Karen Eber
Amazing. Amazing. So, in three-ish minutes, we took the basics of a vacation and now we’ve been there with you, and we can see and we get the sense of what it’s like. That’s the difference of you start to make choices and, first, you’re doing this on the fly and doing it amazingly. And thank you for playing along because I appreciate that’s never quite easy to do on the moment. But it shows that you can make different choices to play with different things to pull people into it.

And now I’m going to have Aqua gym stuck in my head.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. Well, so now I’m curious to know, so those are some general principles that can serve us well. Can you perhaps zoom into any particular do’s and don’ts as we’re trying to pull this off? Like, we’re in a professional setting, we want to be persuasive, we think, “Okay, storytelling is cool above and beyond just charts and graphs and data.” What are some pro tips and things to do and things to not do as we’re trying to integrate some of these principles?

Karen Eber
Well, let me start general, and if you want to dig into story time with data, we can get more specific. The biggest mistake, I think, people make is that they think, “Okay, this is an opportunity to tell a story. What story can I tell?” and they focus on the story. You always start with your audience. Every time you tell a story, even if you know the idea you want to tell, you want to center on who you’re telling it to because the story is in service of the audience, and there’s something that you want them to know, think, feel, or do after.

And if you don’t start there, if you don’t ground yourself in “What do I want the audience to know, think, feel, or do? What is their mindset today? And what might be an obstacle?” you risk the story not landing or connecting with the audience at all. Starting with that, you start to picture who you’re talking to and you can make sure that you’re making it relatable to them.

So, that’s the biggest thing of whether it is storytelling with data, or in a meeting, or presentation, or even a story you’ve told many times, you want to stop and just really be thoughtful of “Who is this group I’m telling it to? And what is it that I’m trying to do after?” because that is what’s most important. When you don’t, it’s like the uncle at the holiday table that’s just telling the same story on a loop, that you don’t even need to be there because he just says the same thing over and over.

He’s not saying it for you. He’s saying it for him. It doesn’t matter who’s there. He’s just telling the story. And those moments are always so grating. Same thing that happens in any setting if you don’t start with your audience.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And anything else?

Karen Eber
The biggest thing from there is to put a structure to your story. It’s tempting to just go and let the story meander and not really worry about how you’re structuring it. But when you put a basic structure in place, it’s not only going to be easier for you to tell. It’s going to be easier for the audience to hear. So, once you figure out the audience, you’ve figured out what you want them to know, think, feel, or do, their mindset, and what might be an obstacle, you then want to come up with the four-part story structure.

First one is the context. What’s the setting? Who’s involved? And, really, why should the audience care? Write one sentence out for that. Not every detail, not every plot point, but write a sentence that summarizes the context. Write a second sentence for the conflict. What is there to be resolved in the story? What is the tension and the fuel for the story? Maybe it’s between two people or a person and themselves but you want to get really clear on that conflict that’s going to be the heart of the story.

The outcome is what is the result of the action? What happens as a result of whatever that conflict is? What’s done? And the last is the takeaway. What is it that you want the audience coming away thinking? Because the takeaway should connect back to what you mapped for the audience. So, if you take five minutes before a story to plan out your audience, and then you take another five minutes to plan out a basic story structure, in 10 minutes before the meeting, you can have a more cohesive story that is going to better land with the audience.

Now, there are still all these other things that we would want to do and add to it with time that get to engaging these senses and emotions and counting for the five factory settings. But if you can ground yourself on these things, you’re going to have a better structured story to tell and it’s going to be easier for the audience to listen.

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

Karen Eber
Is there anything that is a burning question that’s helpful to make sure we touch on?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s take professional settings, stories, data, how do you imagine them working together well? Or, is there a time where you will want to lean more story, more data, right down the middle, story and data? How do you think about that?

Karen Eber
It’s story and data. So, data never speaks for itself. If we go back to the second factory setting that we make assumptions, we are each going to make different assumptions because our assumptions are based on this library of files, all these experiences that we have, and yours are different than mine. So, if I put up a slide that is a simple chart, it seems like there would be no room for a different deciphering, but what really happens is we’re making different assumptions, and we don’t even know. So, then we try to get to a discussion, and we’re not talking about the same thing.

So, recognizing data doesn’t speak for itself, what you want to do is guide people through the story of the data so you can have a common starting point even if people disagree with it. I think there’s this myth or a bias that data are fact and story are not, and that is not true. One is not anymore important than another. Together, I think, they come together to make really helpful understanding and ensure that you can have a discussion and make sure everyone is starting from the same place.

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

Karen Eber
It is by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, who is a neuroscientist. I just heard her say this, and I keep thinking about it. She says that emotions are the recipe for action. And I just keep thinking about what an interesting statement. And we know data doesn’t change behavior; emotions do. But I love thinking of these emotions are the recipe for action, especially I think at work when we’re often encouraged to leave emotions out of it. Like, they’re part of everything that we do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Karen Eber
I just read this book that is a memoir, it’s called The Many Lives of Mama Love. It is by a woman by the name of Lara Love Hardin. So, I just finished writing and publishing a book of my own, and I now am finding I have time to read for fun again. And I met Lara at TEDWomen and was really intrigued by her story of someone that had a really hard life and struggled with drug abuse and built her way back to this really incredible story. So, I really enjoyed that quite a bit.

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

Karen Eber
Google Keep is my external brain. I dump everything into it from story ideas to to-dos, to a running list of where I need to be. I can access it on any device, and it saves me from trying to remember. It’s like if I’m on a walk, it goes into Google Keep, and it works so well to keep me on track.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit, something you do that helps you be awesome at your job?

Karen Eber
Use Google Keep. It really is, actually, part of what works for me is spending time every Friday planning out a couple weeks of where is my time going, and where do I want to free up space for thinking time or writing time. And then I do go into Google Keep and use that to prioritize and make sure, because I have free today what my priorities are and shifting around. I am an introvert and I like to have good chunks of thinking time for working on things but also for resilience after a full day of speaking. And so, I am continually calibrating my calendar to make sure that I have the right balance of what I need.

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

Karen Eber
The statement that data doesn’t change behavior but emotions do, I think, is something I said it in my TED Talk, and people, random strangers will send me messages on social media how that stood out to them. And I think that we are in a data-rich era but, as one of my friends said, but we’re insight-poor. And I think the more that we can connect to things in a different way, the more powerful they can be.

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

Karen Eber
My website is the best place. It is my name KarenEber.com.

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

Karen Eber
Embrace stories. Don’t be afraid. Don’t wait for someone to invite you to tell one. Don’t think that you can’t tell one because you have to present data. Stories have compounding interest and they earn you the ability to tell more of them. And they honor the most precious thing that people can give you, which is their attention.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Karen, thank you. This has been fun. I wish you much luck and many enjoyable stories.

Karen Eber
Thank you.

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

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Matt

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

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

Resources Mentioned

Matt Abrahams Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Seventeens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Let’s hear about listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
“Look over there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

808: How to Become a Great Listener with Oscar Trimboli

By | Podcasts | One Comment

 

 

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.

773: How to Amplify Your Message Through Powerful Framing and Storytelling with Rene Rodriguez

By | Podcasts | 2 Comments

 

 

Rene Rodriguez reveals a powerful three-step formula for amplifying your influence and getting your message heard.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The surprising reason why your audience isn’t listening
  2. The most powerful communication skill in your arsenal
  3. How to craft a narrative and message that sticks 

About Rene

For over two decades, René has been researching and applying behavioral neuroscience as a dynamic keynote speaker, leadership advisor, world-class sales expert, and renowned speaker coach. He has also trained more than 100,000 people in applying behavioral psychology and neurology methodologies to solve some of the toughest challenges in leadership, sales, and change. 

Resources Mentioned

Rene Rodriguez Interview Transcript

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

Rene Rodriguez
Thanks for having me, Pete. I appreciate it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. And I’d love to kick us off right at the beginning with hearing one of the most surprising and fascinating discoveries you’ve made about humans and influence over the course of your career, researching and teaching about this stuff.

Rene Rodriguez
One of the most surprising and fascinating discoveries, I love that question. I would say that one thing that everybody here has in common is that we all are trying to create change. Influence, leadership, selling, parenting, being a police officer, it’s all about trying to somehow create change. If you’re selling something, you want people to change what they’re purchasing, to buy you. If you’re parenting, don’t change, change this behavior to better behave, brush your teeth if you weren’t brushing your teeth. And leadership is about, most often, and management, is about changing behavior.

And a lot of times behavior change will most often is resisted. And a lot of times, if you’re getting people to want to change, the one thing that is probably the biggest is to help people save face in the process. That is probably the oddest discovery.

Pete Mockaitis
Save face. So, like they don’t need to be humiliated and beaten down, say, “I am so wrong.” It’s like, “Oh, okay, I guess this makes sense and it’s kind of like something else I’ve done before. All right. Cool.”

Rene Rodriguez
Well, if they don’t have to admit they’re wrong, you are much more likely to get massive change, and it’s kind of a deeper topic on how to get there but it’s really…I mean, think of what it requires though to get a leader to be okay with that, that they don’t have to get the people to admit they’re wrong. It’s a big requirement. It shows a lot of self-assurance and it shows a bigger view of a bigger picture that doesn’t matter who is right or who’s wrong. It’s a search for truth. And as long as we’re on that path, it’s okay.

And people, if you create a safe space for people to do that, most people will opt into it but very few will say, “Hey, I was wrong.” And what’s ironic is if you create a safe space for people to save face, later on they’ll say, “You know, before I used to look at it this way.” They’ll come to you. So, that’s my answer to the random question. I love it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, can you give us an example of how someone can make a change and not admit that they’re wrong, just like in practice? Like, what’s the example of how that unfolds?

Rene Rodriguez
I think it applies to kids, I think it applies in relationships, I think it applies in management leadership. So, I’d say an example would be a lot of times if, let’s say somebody just had a poor attitude, and they came to work. Trying to get somebody to admit, “Hey, you really have a poor attitude,” is a big sell. It’s a big sell. But if you both, let’s say, watched a movie, or a TED Talk, we had a couple of concepts that we share. One of them called the courage scale. But let’s just say to accomplish the same thing, a movie that really pinpointed in a third-party view that the effects of a negative attitude, and everybody watched it equally together.

And watching that creates sort of a self-diagnosis or self-assessment, and it’s much easier to get somebody to opt in the new behavior if they don’t have to admit they’re wrong. Like, most people will say, “Wow, that’s kind of how I’ve been. And nobody told me that but I watched a third-party kind of talk about it,” and they can safely do it. And it comes down to psychological safety. It’s really what it comes down to.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then they can just sort of watch that and say, “Oh, okay, that’s cool. These people are sort of smiling and asking about each other’s day, or whatever those particular behaviors are associated with better attitude.” It’s like, “No, that seems to be working well for them, and my colleagues want to do that, and it seems worthwhile, I guess I’ll go ahead and do that too. Cool.”

Rene Rodriguez
Well, it’s moreover, if you watched the negative impact, like, “Wow, what a jerk that guy was, and look at the impact it had on the team,” and if it was presented in a way that goes, “Well, who am I?” If it caused self-reflection in a safe way, so usually the positive, unfortunately, I wish it was more persuasive, but if we looked at the negative impact of it from…so, we have this thing called the courage scale and it’s a really simple way of defining where you are from an attitude influence sort of energy perspective. Below the line would be, the bottom would be zero, that you got zero’s death, then you got guilt, shame, fear, apathy, anger, and then courage.

And so, all those things are sort of below this line that we call the taking side of life. And so, if you were to say if you met somebody below the line that usually lives their life in fear, anger, guilt, apathy, all those things, do they give you energy or do they take it away? And what most people would say, “Well, they take it away.” Well, how long does it take them to take it away? It’s seconds. You can be having a great day, and that person, you see their name on a caller ID, and instantly you’re like, “Oh, God.” Like, we all know that person.

And so, it becomes humorous, like we all know that person, we could see it in someone else. And then we see above the line, things like openness, willingness, reason, logic, joy, peace, enlightenment, which we all want to get to. But just those other things, can you think of somebody who lives the majority of their life above that line? And they go, “Yeah.” And so, when that person calls, how are you feeling? Immediately great. You can be having a horrible day, but that person calls and it puts a smile on your face.

And so, we talk about the difference between above the line and below the line as a simple example. In fact, my first TED Talk was on that. And then you watch that, and you watch people who typically are below the line, they self-reflect, they go, “Wow, I’ve really been below the line,” and they see the impact, and they just slowly start acting differently. But if you were to say, “Well, who’s been below the line? So, you were below the line, you were below the line, and now you’re going to change.” Well, now, the whole psychology has changed.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. Okay, that’s good stuff. And then I also want to hear a story perhaps of someone that you’ve seen, maybe a client, or audience member or reader, who’s really had quite a transformation. They didn’t have the influence they wanted, they made some changes, and then they got it and saw some cool results.

Rene Rodriguez
Yes. So, the journey of influence is really, I think, really cool. And people ask, “Why influence?” And so, I always look at the opposite of it. So, look at a life without influence. You tell a joke, no one laughs. You sell a product, no one buys. You set a vision, and no one follows. The feeling that follows that is usually ones of insignificance. Some people might even fall into depression, high anxiety, questioning themselves, “Why am I here?” No purpose.

And the reason is because everything you’re doing seems to have no impact on the world. And so, then I go, “Okay. So, what’s the opposite of that? What does influence feel like?” You tell a joke, people laugh. You sell a product, people are buying. You cast a vision, and people follow. And now you realize that when you put something out into the world, it has an impact of some sort.

Now, we can use that impact in selling, you can use that impact in being a teacher, you can use that in leadership. Influence is that ability to influence an outcome of some sort. And so, when you look at the transformation of those that never knew the skill and never knew the sequence involved, or the science of it, there are a lot of people that sort of naturally picked it up over the years. They realize that you could act a certain way, speak in a certain sequence, and you’d get better results.

There are whole tons of reasons why that’s the case. My mission has always been, “How do you get those skills into the hands of people that are good but maybe have never been taught how to communicate?” Because in business, a lot of times, it’s the louder person that processes, maybe even half-baked ideas, but authoritatively they get listened to.

And then you have sort of the smarter introverted folks that maybe process silently what’s going on and fully bake an idea, but if they never speak up or communicate it in a way that people want to listen to, those ideas go by the wayside. And the benefit of the business isn’t achieved or felt, and the person doesn’t feel any sort of movement in their career, and so everybody loses.

So, I could tell you, we’ve got hundreds of stories. One of my favorites is Julia. So, one of my good friends and clients is a company by the name of PURIS. So, we’ve just named the number one most innovative food company in the world. So, Tesla was the innovative car company; they were food. So, they revolutionized pea protein. And what it’s doing is they make it taste good. The company is amazing. The research behind it was amazing. It’s incredible.

So, the CEO came to me, and said, “One of our content managers has got a TED Talk, and she’s 25 and has never given a talk.” I said, “Okay, so she’s going from never to her first talk, giving a TED Talk.” I said, “That’s great.” “Can you get her ready?” “Yes.” So, she came to our first session with 85 pages of research that she wanted to cover, and she was an amazing incredible nerd, and I loved it.

And I said, “Okay, Julia, you realize you have 13 to 17 minutes and you got 85 pages.” “I know. I don’t know how to get it all in.” I’m like, “Well, you’re not going to get it all in.” And we fought, arm-wrestled, back and forth on how to tell the story, what research to share, what not to share. And I finally found out that she was a basketball player and she got into a really bad accident and had traumatic brain injury. And that story began a whole journey of what it felt like to sort of make the comeback, but it was such an incredible story that it was what immediately captured attention, but she didn’t want to tell the story because it wasn’t about pea protein.

And I said, “Well, you have to understand if you want your audience to listen, because a lot of influence is about ‘What do I say?’ with very few, very little work is done as to ‘How do I prepare the audience to listen?’” And so, I gave the analogy, “Would you ever plant a seed on cement?” And, of course, we’d never do that. You’d till the soil first, get rid of the cement, find good soil. I said, “Well, there’s a sequence there. But most people plant their seeds of ideas in cement, in audiences that aren’t ready to listen.

And so, how do you get them ready? Well, a story like that than you can tell in just a couple minutes, people watching you go through this traumatic brain injury,” and she’s getting ready to play basketball, listening to her favorite song, and then, smack, she pauses, “And I was blinded by a car, traumatic big brain injury,” and she tells her whole story, but instantly you’re captivated by the story and sort of her journey through on her love for not being able to play basketball, but going back in to school and the comeback that the little pea made.

And this made this amazing story. In fact, I have the whole sort of video transformation on my website. And watching her tell that story, she came back, I said, “Okay, you tell the pea story with all the research, or you tell the basketball story to ten people, come back to me, and you tell me which one people liked.” And she came back, and she said, “Nobody wants to hear about peas. They want to hear about my car accident and basketball.”

I said, “Okay, so we’re going to use that as an opening to capture people’s attention, and then we can transition into the story.” And then that transitioned into some amazing stories that she told. And if you watched the two different people, it’s something that’s very, very inspiring to see once people learn how to tell the story.

Pete Mockaitis
And I want to talk to you about storytelling in particular. And so, right now I’m wondering, that does seem like a captivating powerful story, “Whoa, how did you feel? What happened?” So, then how does one then make the connection to pea protein?

Rene Rodriguez
So, with her, it was literally using the journey of saying, “What that got me now back into what were my passions at school.” And those passions at school led her to her passion for health, and what gave her brain health, or what were the things that really led to a search internally for, which transitioned into the benefits of peas.

So, without going through the whole piece, they’re everything that we do comes from the past events that we’ve been through. All of our past events shaped what we’re attracted to and what we’re repelled by. And so, in one of the exercises, if people want to learn how to tell their story, is we’ll ask a very simple question of what makes you unique.

And so, well, we can do it together. So, like, what makes you unique?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure. Well, we here are on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast, it’s like I’m a total dork with the stuff. I was reading books about success, goal-setting, leadership, communication, psychology, influence, whatever, as a teenager, and this was my thing. And I remember other folks had like basketball player posters on their walls, and I was like, “They don’t really make Tony Robbins or Stephen Covey posters, so I don’t know what to put on my wall. I guess I’ll just have more books on the shelf.”

Rene Rodriguez
I love it. So, you were a fan or personal development, leadership, all that stuff. So, what would you round that off as a uniqueness? Is it about learning? Would you say that that’s the value behind it? Where would you put that?

Pete Mockaitis
I do like learning and I’m really into it. And I guess it was happening. I got good grades, and I remember that someone asked me, “Oh, Pete, do you study a lot?” I was like, “Hmm, studying.” And it was funny, it sounds like a straightforward question but I thought, “Well, I guess I don’t even think about it as studying. I guess I know what I know, and I know what I don’t know, and then I feel like an attention, a curiosity, an uneasiness about that, and so I need to go ahead and close that gap.”

And I guess what one does when closing that gap is what you call studying, but it doesn’t really feel like, “Oh, got to crack the books and study.” It was like, “Okay, well, this transcription business is clear but the translation is not. What’s that about? Okay, what’s the page on the translation? Okay, okay.” And so, for biology or whatever. So, yeah, I guess it’s about curiosity and learning and stuff.

Rene Rodriguez
So, curiosity and learning, okay. So, let’s just pretend that those two are the ones we’ll focus on. And so, would you say that those are two personal values, that learning and being curious in life are very important words to you?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Rene Rodriguez
So, then the research says, the neuroscience says that those are personal values, or at least reflect your personal values, they were formed between the ages of nine and 13. And so, then the next logical question is, “So, who’s around during that time period?” And that you’re looking for one of two kinds of stories, either we call a lighthouse story or a foghorn story.

And a lighthouse story is somebody that was there that really was the guiding light. They were always wanting to learn. They were the perfect example, the guiding light of this value. Or, the foghorn story. Maybe it was somebody that you needed and didn’t show up, somebody that didn’t value school, and you watched what happened to them. They weren’t curious. They thought they were a know-it-all. And you watch where that led their life.

And so, instead of saying, “Well, the world didn’t give it to me,” you say, “Then I’m going to be that for the world.” So, you became it. And so, it’s one of those two stories. So, what it would be for you? Who was around and what happened, age nine or 13, that really led to learning and curiosity?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think it’s more of a lighthouse story. That’s my dad, and I remember I could always escape the house by asking to go to the library. He would comply just about always with that request. And we were curious about all kinds of things from photography to chess or whatever, and would read books and do stuff together.

Rene Rodriguez
And so, you enjoyed those conversations with dad?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Rene Rodriguez
So, how did it make you feel when you did that? So, what we’re looking for is what we call pathos. What was the feeling associated with that?

Pete Mockaitis
It felt really powerful. I remember it just like, “Holy crap, books make you better. Like, you can become better at anything by learning the stuff.” And there’s vast arrays of books and resources and people that can help you. So, it just felt like, in a way, anything is possible.

Rene Rodriguez
Love it. So, now, give me a little creative freedom. So, if I were to hear that story and I were to craft the message is saying, “So, what is this podcast about?” And so, you’re saying, “Well, here’s what it is. Here’s the ethos. Here’s the research. Here’s all these things,” which are what we call logos, very intellectually driven. You might start with, “Well, as a kid growing up, I was always really curious. My father was one of the most influential people in my life, and he really nurtured that curiosity. If I ever needed to go out of the house, my escape was a library.”

“And if I ever wanted to go to the library, he was always behind it, whether it was me learning about photograph, or learning about astronomy, or whatever it was, I always knew that he could do that. And every time he did that, I was overwhelmed with this feeling of power. I felt powerful. Like, knowledge really did equate to power because I could see the world differently. And now that, as I was growing up, my friends had basketball posters of Michael Jordan and Lebron James, I was looking for posters of Stephen Covey and Tony Robbins, and all of the people that were really sharing more of that knowledge.”

“And so, when I decided to do a podcast, I decided to do it around the theme of giving people the same gift that my father gave me, was finding those same knowledge sources to empower people to be better. And so, now that’s why we created the podcast.” So, now you see how the sequence sort of formed based on understanding those two words, tracing that back to a story, which we would call your origin story, and we did it very quickly, but it hits the brain in a very different way when it’s heard in that sequence.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s well put, hits the brain differently. It’s like I’m trying to articulate how it’s hit my brain because it’s like, I mean, it’s my story, I know it, it’s true. And yet I don’t think I’ve quite articulated it that way. There have been bits and pieces, but it’s got a…the hitting of the brain, it’s like a feeling of openness, or it’s kind of like a, “Oh, okay. So, that’s what this is.” It has a little bit more of emotional resonance, as opposed to…

Rene Rodriguez
Resistance.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Rene Rodriguez
Or cliché, right? Well, I like to help people learn, so we start with a message and it hits the brain differently, hits the part of the brain we call Broca’s area. And Broca’s area is a very tiny little speck in the brain that deciphers language. And we go, “So, yeah, I like to help people learn through my podcast,” and we go, “Okay, cool. So, every podcast does the same thing? Cool. Really unique, bro.”

But then when you start with a story, what it does is it triggers your entire sensory cortex. It triggers your limbic system, which triggers emotions. All those past things light your brain up. If you like a functional MRI scanner or a SPECT span, it lights your brain up like a Christmas tree. But what it also does is it lights up the brain of the listener because storytelling is involved.

And so, because our brains light up in the same way, it begins a process of neuro-coupling. And when neuro-coupling happens, there’s a coherence that happens between the two brains and safety is created, what we call psychological safety, “So, I know I’m not going to be judged. There seems to be an alignment of values. If I agree with the story or I like it, I’m attracted to the story and the values it represents at a deeper level,” and it bypasses the parts of the brain that resists, that don’t feel safe.

And so, that sequence is what we call the beginnings of the amplify formula to be able to begin to till the soil of the audience, meaning prep them to hear the message, which is, “Now I want to hear all about what your podcast is about because I have the backstory to what the frame is.” And so, that’s creating a frame or frame of reference. And that frame of reference, frames act as constructs of reality so I can understand reality in front of me.

Like, you have a podcast. Well, I understand the podcast based on what are the frame of reference I choose. But if you don’t provide a frame of reference, I’ll choose one. In fact, if I have a negative…let’s say I have a negative experience of podcasts, and I go, “Oh, gosh, another podcast.” Maybe that’s my frame of reference.

So, I hear your podcast through that filter. But if you provide the frame first, because that’s how the brain works, it needs a frame, and you provide it, the story with dad and what it did for you and your passions for learning and curiosity, and giving a gift back, I don’t pull from my negative frame. I pull from your origin story as the frame, and I hear the message completely different, totally different narrative.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you. So, you said there’s amplify sequence, and it starts with some story and framing. Can you sort of give us the overview of the whole process sequence?

Rene Rodriguez
Yeah. So, the science behind it is pretty in depth in terms of understanding what I just said, which is part of influence, and it sounds crazy, it’s about understanding how we construct reality. And so, either I construct a reality that your product is valuable or not, or maybe I construct a value that my product and my time is more valuable than yours, so then why would I meet?

And so, how does it do that? It does that by choosing a frame of reference or the narrative around it. The narrative creates meaning, and then I understand it through that. Now, I’m not talking about a physical reality, like my table here is wood, this mic stand is metal. Those are physical realities, proven to physics and science. But the social reality of how I interpret the meaning behind something is created through narratives and frames.

And so, my brain, to understand it, I’ve got to pull a frame first that is a neurological sequence of understanding how I process information. And so, for example, I’m going to say a profession and you tell me what word comes to mind. Used car salesman.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it might not be fair to great professionals in the field.

Rene Rodriguez
Of course not.

Pete Mockaitis
But, you know, sleazy, dishonest.

Rene Rodriguez
Right. So, every time it’s usually something along that. So, what happened is you accessed your frames of reference which are societal frames of reference. That is pretty predictable that we get that because of the stigma that’s been created, that people say sleazy, dishonest, all those such of things. So, that frame of reference comes in front and acts as a filter to really filter out and create meaning around what’s said.

So, if I were to say, “Don’t worry, you can trust me. I’m a used car salesman,” most people will giggle, they’ll say, “Hahaha,” because it’s an incongruent message. And incongruency translates, typically, into lack of trust, when I’m saying one thing but I mean another, or my body is saying one thing and my words are saying something else. Like, “I’m really excited to be here today.” So, my tone is saying not but my words are saying I am. That’s an incongruency.

Sometimes we want to stand with power and authority and influence, but we stand with insecurity and submission. Those are body language cues that are being incongruent. And so, my grandfather was in Cuba, and he was watching the Cuban Revolution just begin, and so he wanted to get his family out of Cuba. So, he wrote a letter to the President of the United States, and said, “If you can get me and my family out of this country, I will come and fight for yours.”

So, somehow that letter made it to the right person and they pulled my grandfather out, along with my mother, her sister, and my grandmother. And so, he went and served in the American Armed Forces for eight years. After his time, he landed at Patrick Airforce Base in southern Florida, in Homestead, Florida, and realized very quickly that his American dream was really limited to how far he could walk because he didn’t have a car.

And so, there was somebody, though, that believed in my grandfather. He saw what he did for this country and got him into an older vehicle. And that older vehicle allowed him to stretch his reach by 25, 50, even 100 miles finding better employment, better pay, changing the trajectory of his life, my mother’s life, and, ultimately, my life. And that person who believed in my grandfather was a used car salesman.

And so, now, if you noticed, the brain didn’t have any of a chance to pull sleazy or dishonest because I did the work for you. I gave you a frame first, and so now you’re hearing that in the context of that frame.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good.

Pete Mockaitis
When you talked about that reframing of the used car salesperson, I’m thinking now about this goofy movie, Cedar Rapids. It’s got Ed Helms and John C. Reilly and Anne Heche. And the idea is Ed Helms is going to the big city of Cedar Rapids because he’s been in a small-town environment for a long time, and it’s all about insurance.

And my frame for an insurance salesperson is, “Oh, geez, what a boring job. Insurance is a boring thing, and selling, not a lot of fun.” But then he tells a story about how his dad passed away, and it was an insurance person who was… I’m actually tearing up a little bit. An insurance person was like the hero for his family because they didn’t know what they were going to do. But when they had that insurance money come in suddenly, their worries associated with, if they could still go to school or whatever, were put to rest.

And so, life insurance salespeople are heroes to him, and doing this is like a dream. And it was a very powerful and a goofy fun movie. And so, there you have it. We have a story and we have a frame, and it totally…you’re right. It doesn’t give me an opportunity to grasp onto, “Yeah, life insurance sales is boring.”t

Rene Rodriguez
And so, if you think about if it changed the frame, frames dictate perception, and perception equals reality. And so, the superpower here is understanding storytelling. So, look at what just happened. You recalled the story and you got emotional.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, a ten-year-old movie that’s a comedy.

Rene Rodriguez
A ten-year-old movie. And so, what’s the science of storytelling? Well, think about it this way. The research says that upwards of 33%, sometimes even 50% of our waking hours, we spend daydreaming. And daydreaming is really scenario-planning. Like, “If I do this, then that. What color shirt shall I wear on the podcast? Well, should I be ready for that? Headphones or not? How do I get ready for this? Did I leave the stove on? Well, I better call this client.” We’re constantly running scenarios. That’s a prefrontal lobe activity. It’s a future simulator.

And a future simulator, for example, it’s powerful. Like, if I were to tell you I’ve got this new ice cream that’s from Ben & Jerry’s. It’s called Liver and Onions. Do you want some?

Pete Mockaitis
Not yet. I want to hear the magic you work on this, Rene.

Rene Rodriguez
Yeah, exactly. Now you’re expecting that. But, no, typically, you’d probably have a visceral response of saying, “Ugh, gross.” Even though you’ve never tried it, your brain went from a past experience, went out into the future, concocted liver and onions as an ice cream, and you taste it hypothetically as a scenario, and sends a signal back, saying, “Nah, we don’t like it.” And it happens in a split second.

And so, we’re constantly running these future simulations, and there’s only two situations that we stop doing that throughout the day. One is life and death situations. Somebody is in trouble, I’m in trouble, somebody’s got a gun on my head. I’ll stop and be very present. The other is through story. When somebody tells a story, the reason we stop daydreaming is because a storyteller is daydreaming for us, and we use daydreams, we use stories to create narratives, which create a simplified model of reality so we can understand what’s going on.

I’m here in my studio, I’m on a podcast. The reason I’m on a podcast is to grow my brand and awareness. And, hopefully, that will translate into access. We run these stories and scenarios. And so, if I’m listening to this as a listener, ask yourself and your business, “What things and stories are you a part of?” And when that story doesn’t match, how difficult it feels.

But think about this. If the stories create the narratives, and the narratives construct reality, and somebody tells me a good story, I’m allowing them into my brain to take a real estate and set whatever narrative they want. And the crazy thing is that we…the brain doesn’t know the difference between my story and reality.

Literally, you just cried recalling a movie that was done based on fake actors. A story bypasses all of that, and we take on the role of the protagonist, our empathy is triggered, sensory cortex is triggered, emotions are triggered, and we experience it as real. And we get into this process where we, over time, we take on even the belief systems and the decision-making process if we hear someone’s story or the thought process over and over and over and over again. We start acting as like, “Okay. Well, what would this person do?” And we forget that that’s their thinking and we take it on as our own.

And so, we can install narratives of love, narratives of hate, of racism, of giving back, of strong value proposition, of buying into a vision, the thoughts of new possibilities, new relationships, dating someone. You name it. It’s all done through story.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Rene, these implications are vast not just for getting someone to follow you or to buy. I’m thinking about just like in terms of just your emotional states and the stories you tell yourself associated with what’s going on around you. It’s like, “Am I a victim to this thing? Am I trapped here forever? Or, am I a hero or whatever.” We can construct it to story and feel completely different about the circumstances we’re presented with.

Rene Rodriguez
You nailed it. And the stories that we tell ourselves are the most powerful. The narratives that we choose, and so many people choose the narrative of victim. And there’s a term that I love to use called amor fati. And so, when we go through our program, we help people identify their story and then tie it to their business value proposition, which becomes a really powerful combination.

But some people go through…you want to help them sell more, or you want to help them be a better leader but they have these inner narratives that are either of a victim, they got a chip on their shoulder. Who knows what it is? It isn’t serving them in a way. Some people, me being Rodriguez, I grew up with a narrative that being Hispanic was people were against me. If it’s maybe a female growing up, that women are trying to be held back by men, or bald men don’t have it as easy as others. Whatever it is, whatever the narrative you’re running.

And what I always tell people, saying, “So, how do we set ourselves up in the best strategic position possible?” Part of that is we have to achieve amor fati. And amor fati is, literal transition is lover of fate. It’s a lover of your story. And I’ll give you one example of this. We had one woman come through our class, and she had a lazy eye. And you could tell right away, at first, she’s not looking at me, she’s bored. Ah, she’s got a lazy eye. So, no big deal. It’s really not that big of a deal, very common.

And halfway through day two, or actually at the beginning of day two, she said, I was in front of the room, talking, she goes, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed it but I do have a lazy eye. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed.” I’m like, “Yeah, noticed it right away.” And she like looked at me with a smile, like surprised that I would just say it, I’m like, “Of course, yeah, big deal.” I said, “So, tell me about your lazy eye.” And she’s like, “Well, it’s been an insecurity. I’ve tried to hide it. I don’t like looking at people in the eye because it just makes it obvious.”

And then she said, “But it helps me read 800 words a minute.” I’m like, “What?” She goes, “Yeah. This eye right here reads 800 words a minute.” I’m like, “Somebody Google the average…” somebody Googled it. It was 250 words a minute is the average, and a really good reader is 400. Well, this one reads 800. And so, I looked at her, and I said, “So, you’re saying you have a bionic eye?” And she looks at me and she goes, “What?” I’m like, “I want an eye that reads 800 words a minute.”

We looked at the audience, and they’re like, “I want that eye, too.” And she kind of smiles, I’m like, “You have a bionic eye, don’t you?” And she goes, “I never thought about it that way. I wish my other eye sees this and so I can look at people and read, and it’s kind of cool, and sometimes they don’t cooperate.” We all started laughing. And I said, “So, here’s your new narrative. Now for those of you who had real eyes…”

And she starts all her talks this way, “I was given the gift of a bionic eye. I got an eye over here, this baby right here,” she points to it, “reads 800 word a minute. Average reader reads 250, a really good, 400. I’m twice that. In fact, I read a 500-page book on the plane right over here. It’s fantastic. I’m going to read another one tomorrow, and the next day probably. With my left eye, it’s for distance so I can see all of you. Well, the challenge of the bionic eye is it has a mind of its own. Sometimes it doesn’t cooperate, kind of like my personality and probably a lot of you in this room here.”

“And so, if you’re wondering which eye to look at, just keep your eye on this one. That’s the one that’s looking at you.” And everybody just dies laughing. She’s standing there with this pride, a new narrative, something that used to be a story she told herself of insecurity. Now, she came up to me at this event, literally last week, ran up and hugged me, she goes, “That narrative, that story has changed my career and my life. I tell it at every event, I tell it at every meeting, and I stand differently. I’m just happy.” But to your point, the narratives we tell ourselves.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Rene, this is so powerful. I feel like we could, and could and maybe should, dig into this for hours. You’re invited back, Rene, already.

Rene Rodriguez
I’d love to.

Pete Mockaitis
So, all right, stories are powerful, they establish frame, which impact how we interpret stuff and how others we’re trying to influence interpret stuff. So, then what are the best practices associated with forming these stories? And maybe what are some watchouts? So, you walked through a bit of the process with me moments ago. Is that the primary pathway you recommend? Or, are there a few flavors on the menu to choose from?

Rene Rodriguez
So, there’s a real simple exercise, I can give it to you. I’ll try to do it auditorily. Is that a word?

Pete Mockaitis
I think so.

Rene Rodriguez
That’s a word. We just made it up, if not. And it’s a way to what we’re trying to uncover is what we call a signature story. And a signature story is a story as unique to you as your own signature. And so, what I do is I create a matrix. It’s basically a four by four, so four, one, two, three, four, by four lines. And at the top, on the far-left column, there’s going to be four phrases that we go down.

The first phrase is, “I believe.” The next phrase is, “I remember.” The next phrase is, “I was taught.” And the last one is, “I’m passionate about…” And so, those four phrases are what I call entry ramps into stories. And what I’ve come to learn over, gosh, we’ve trained tens of thousands of people on this, is that people know how to tell stories but sometimes they need the entry ramp.

And the entry ramp is what helps trigger the memory. And so, the first thing we start with is three beliefs, “I believe…” and we’ll just use three. For example, you chose “I believe in curiosity and learning.” And if you had a third, what would it be?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh.

Rene Rodriguez
First one that comes to mind.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, spirituality. God stuff.

Rene Rodriguez
Spirituality. Faith, spirituality, right? So, across the top says, “I believe in…” the first column, second column says “learning,” third column says, “curiosity,” and the last is “faith.” And so, now we go down the matrix to the next question, which says, “I was taught…” and we go to the first belief. And then we want a story, something you were taught as a kid about learning. And in that little box, we read a little story. And you have to remember what you were taught as a kid about learning.

And then you go down one. What do you remember about…? Remember something you remember about learning, a story, and then something you were taught about learning. And the last one, something you’re passionate about when it comes to learning. And then we go back to the question of curiosity, “Something I remember as a kid about learning,” or curiosity, “Something I was taught about curiosity and something I’m passionate about when it comes to curiosity.”

Then the last column would be something “I remember about faith or spirituality, something I was taught about faith or spirituality, and something I’m passionate about.” And now you have nine signature stories to be able to draw from. But here’s the thing. What do you do with them, those stories? They’re nothing without a message to follow, and the third part of what we call the amplify formula, which is a tie-down.

And a tie-down answers the question of what this means to you is. Like, I can give you a story about all three worked together if you’d like.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it.

Rene Rodriguez
So, my second TED Talk actually has this story in it but it’s a story of Janice. Now, Janice was an executive of a very large organization. They wanted me to help her get ready for an interview to take on the CEO position of a billion-dollar organization within the larger conglomerate. And the interview is very intense, seven, eight, nine, ten hours sometimes with ten people in the room, all focused on her, drilling her with questions.

So, we started with a mock interview of three people in front of her, and asked her a question. First second, I sit off to the side, I look at facial expressions, sequencing, timing, storytelling, framing. I look at all the things that I look at. And the first question was, “Tell us something you’re proud of.” And she looks at us and answers very presidential – short, concise, and to the point.

“I got straight A’s my last year in school, one of my proudest moments,” was her answer. So, now, one thing we know about frames is that when we talk, if we don’t provide one, the listener will create one for us. They have to, that’s how they construct reality. So, they look at me, and said, “Rene…”

Pete Mockaitis
You’re right. Right there is like, “Okay, you worked really hard,” or, I mean, “You worked really hard or your parents were smart, or you had a good tutor.” It’s weird, I’m just making stuff up.

Rene Rodriguez
And immediately, right? And the brain can’t handle it. It’s like one of the things that…

Pete Mockaitis
Excuse me. Something fell off the shelf but we’re fine.

Rene Rodriguez
So, now you saw my reaction there, right? And so, I’m looking off, I paused, and so the listeners might say, “Hold on a second. Did we lose something?” I’ll sometimes get up and walk off the camera in the middle of a podcast, and the interviewer is looking at me like, “What happened?” and I’ll do this little training.

Pete Mockaitis
“Is he mad at me?”

Rene Rodriguez
Yeah, is he mad at me? I did it on stage in front of 600 CEOs. I stopped in the middle, I’m like, I looked at them, I turned around and walked off stage. And then from behind stage, I said, “Now, I want you all to pay attention on how you feel and what’s going through your minds.” And I came back out, and I said, “What do you think happened?”

And I got five or six, ten responses, and all of them were different, “I thought you’re having a heart attack,” “I thought you might’ve forgotten your lines,” “It looked like you’re crying.” And they were all assumptions. And I do that to illustrate the point that your brain does not deal in narrative gaps. It has to fill it even if it’s false. And our world is full of narrative gaps right now.

And so, when she says, “I got straight A’s my last year in school,” there’s a huge narrative gap there. And I’m going to fill it based on my own past experience. So, they looked at me, “What do you think?” I said, “Oh, so straight A’s your last year in school? So, you’re a procrastinator? Are you going to procrastinate for us as well?” She looks at me like I’m crazy, and I said, “Oh, I’m sorry. Did mommy and daddy pay for school so you didn’t have to work that hard?”

Or, even yours, “So, your mom and dad must’ve been really smart, rich, probably had good tutors. Lucky you.” So, who knows what these unfair narratives are? But the brain doesn’t have a choice. It has to fill it. And so, now pay attention to this. I said to her, and she’s got a tear in her eye when I said that to her, I said, “Look, I didn’t mean those things but you didn’t fill it for us. You didn’t tell us the frame or the narrative but I know it’s important to you, wasn’t it?”

She just nodded her head. And I said, “Why?” And then when she told them the story behind it, it changed everything. She looks at me and she said, “When you’ve been told you’re stupid your entire life by adults, you tend to believe them. And something happened my last year in school, where I looked myself in the mirror, and I said either I’m going to believe them forever or I’m going to do something about it. And I did something about it.”

So, now that frame completely shifts the message. And the message, now understood differently, changes the reality of the relationship between how I perceive her. And so, now I’m emotionally moved, I’m probably more connected with her. I mean, if you’re listening to this, you probably felt some sort of shift internally, maybe protective of her. Who knows what it is? But this pathos is an emotional connection there.

And so, then the next question is, “So, what do I do with that?” because that’s powerful. There’s a lot of emotion in the air but for what purpose? Most speakers, most leaders that learn how storytelling will stop at that but it doesn’t create influence. It creates emotional connection but influence is about affecting a behavior.
And so, the last part, the tie-down would be adding the step next, which is having a clear influence. Objective, to get the job. A tie-down answers a question of what this means to you is. So, I might share that story instead of saying, “Hey, tell us something you’re proud of,” and starting with, “Oh, I got straight A’s last year in school,” frames and narratives gone wild. Who knows what they’re going to believe?

Or, if I just go with a little contextualization, “Well, I was told I was dumb but then I decided to turn it around, and now I got straight A’s.” Everyone was like, “Wow, that’s great. Who’s next?” No action taken. But if you do all three, it sounds like this. “Tell us something you’re proud of.”

“Well, unfortunately,” start with the frame, “I was surrounded by a lot of adults who told me I wasn’t really smart. And when adults speak to you that way, you tend to act that way, and I didn’t do well in school. But something happened my last year in school, where I looked myself in the mirror, and I said either I’m going to believe them forever, or I’m going to do something about it. So, I went on and get the help that I needed, put my nose to the grindstone, and I’m proud to tell you that I got straight A’s my last year in school.”

Tie-down. “Now, I’m assuming if I do get a chance to work with you and your team, that there’s going to be times where we’re going to be facing some pretty big challenges, and maybe some insurmountable obstacles, or seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But I promise you this, if I get to be on your team, I’ll be out there next to you, if not in front, overcoming those challenges in the same way I overcame them in my own personal life, but this time for you and for your team.” Frame, message, tie-down. That’s the sequencing that creates influence.

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, that’s powerful. There’s so much gravitas, conviction, oomph, power there. It’s hard not to believe such a person as opposed to…and interviews are stomping grounds for BS, and you’re like, “Okay, all right. You believe that and I believe you. Let’s see if you can check the other boxes. Determination, conviction, totally covered. Let’s see. How about financial skill?” I don’t know, whatever is next on the checklist.

Rene Rodriguez
Yeah, all those things sort of come second nature. Once you believe the person, who they are, you start saying, “Okay. Well, let’s just make sure they check all the boxes so we can move forward.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, Rene, tell me, anything important you want to make sure to put out there before I ask about a couple of your favorite things?

Rene Rodriguez
We wrote a book, it just landed number two Wall Street Journal bestseller.

Pete Mockaitis
Amplify Your Influence.

Rene Rodriguez
Yeah, and I think with MeetRene.com, follow me on social media, Instagram @seerenespeak right there.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Perfect. And could you now share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Rene Rodriguez
Probably one of my favorites is from Stanley Kubrick, and he said that, “Our ability to eloquently talk about a subject matter can create the consoling illusion that we’ve mastered it.” To me, that keeps me humble because I can talk about all these things eloquently, and yet I can still struggle with every single one of them.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Rene Rodriguez
One of my favorite books is Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play. It’s from Mahan Khalsa. He’s a Harvard guy that talks about how to really sell difficult complex technology solutions but his mentality behind the concept of let’s get real, let’s have real conversations, let’s deal in the reality here, let’s not just play. And, to me, it was one of my favorite books I’ve ever read.

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

Rene Rodriguez
Yeah, I would say this, that the challenge that we face in growing up, most of us here, was that the things that now are most important, we were told weren’t. They were called soft skills, the things that, like, “Oh,” the interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, all of those things, and we valued all the “hard skills” that school taught us.

Well, we know with the research right now that those hard skills aren’t the determining factor for success. They’re needed. Trust me, they are needed but they aren’t the differentiator. Your ability to deal with people, connect with people, build trust, and that is mostly done through vulnerability, through your story. When you can share your story, where you’ve been through, and where you come from, that creates the ground for trust, empathy, and most importantly, somewhere to move forward together.

Pete Mockaitis
Rene, thank you. This has been powerful and beautiful. I wish you much luck and that your book Amplify Your Influence is a huge success.

Rene Rodriguez
Thank you. Appreciate being on here. Thank you so much.