At a recent workshop I was conducting, I was discussing with a group of executives an important factor in attracting customers; removing stress factors from doing business with you. As a point of discussion, I asked them what caused them stress when they were in the consumer’s role themselves. Jerry in the back of the room piped up and said, “I hate going to big shopping malls.” When I asked why, he replied, “Because there are always crowds of people there.” I suppressed the urge to ask, “And when did you expect a mall to provide a private shopping experience?” Instead I asked him exactly what about crowds of people bothered him.
Ever since America started losing jobs to any country that could assemble, sew, or program for less than $50 per hour, we have turned our focus to the one thing we pride ourselves on the most; creativity. Since it was America that invented power tools, refrigeration, and the corn dog, we must certainly have the wherewithal to drive our economy with a steady stream of “what’s next.” This being the century of the brain, science has been feverishly mapping ways to increase the output of that three pound organ sitting on our shoulders. Websites like Lumosity.com tout simple games that are serious brain training. All these people are right and wrong at the same time.
Rewiring your brain is indeed possible throughout your lifetime, allowing you to expand your intellect in any direction you like, provided you have the perseverance to retrain your cranium. Simple games, if they contain the right qualities, can greatly enhance your quick-thinking and cognitive abilities. The implications of these techniques for front-line employees is the ability to handle daily interactions with ease, for managers it is the ability to solve problems quickly, and for high-level executives it is being able to create visions for the company never before dreamed. The problem lies not in how we train our brain and create new neural pathways, it lies in how we handle our day-to-day lives. For it is how we conduct our daily lives that determines whether all that brain work will actually work.
The Mayo Clinic considers 7.5% of the entire population of school-aged children to be afflicted with some type Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD. I believe almost the entire adult working population is afflicted with OAD, or Over Attention Disorder. And OAD is killing creativity. In order for the brain to produce new and crazy ideas, it must be in a state of relaxation. The brain, although quite complex, reacts in very simple ways. Since the brain’s chief function is to keep the host body safe, it will shift between high-level thinking and low-level reacting in an instant. Danger is rarely addressed with high-level thinking. Danger causes the amygdala, the reactive center of the brain, to take over. When stress causes the amygdala to react, high-level thinking is pushed aside in favor of a quick, life-saving reaction. This is why emergency services professionals must repeatedly role-play high-stress situations. The only way for them to allow high-level problem solving to occur during an emergency is to take a typically high-stress, unfamiliar situation and make it familiar.
Creative problem solving requires complete relaxation. That means focusing on nothing. The brain must shut down from analyzing, comparing, organizing, and communicating. When this happens, alpha waves burst into the brain, and creativity follows. Alpha waves are the building blocks for creative thought. When alpha waves are present, cool new ideas pop up and we feel good. The brain loves to put two different things together to create a connection. This connection, this new thought, surprises us. When this happens, dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, is released. We feel good and want more. Remember the last really good brainstorm session you had? The one where everyone jumped in to add onto each other’s ideas? One idea led to another until you were so far from where you started you didn’t even remember the original question.
That brainstorm session happened because you weren’t asking your brain to analyze, compare, or sort. You just let it go. Completely letting go of critical thinking is sometimes the best path to free and creative thought. However, letting our brains just go is a rarity these days. We wake up to the morning news, listen to the radio on the way to work, text during lunch, jump from one project to another during the day, take the kids to soccer (where we text during the game or coach the team ourselves), then it’s home to eat with the TV on in the background, then to bed with a book or more TV. If we take a walk we need music playing in ear buds or more texting. This is the essence of OAD.
Alpha waves, and creative thought, thrive on an atmosphere devoid of distraction. This is why the most alpha waves are created when you take a nice warm shower. A shower’s soothing atmosphere, warm environment, and lack of critical thinking create the perfect environment for random connections and cool new ideas. That is, unless you installed one of those water-proof TVs in your shower. If you did, get a life.
When was the last time you weren’t focused on something? Our culture doesn’t necessarily support, and often frowns upon, any activity that isn’t outcome based. This attitude could eventually lead to us dropping behind in the world of creativity. As much as our egos would like to believe, it is not possible to force mental productivity. You can either create the right environment or the brain will revert to reactive thinking, and no amount of conscious effort can change this fact. If you don’t allow periods of non-distraction, you will simply end up with ideas that have been done before, with maybe a minor twist. Stress forces us to revert, not to new thinking, but to memory. Memory isn’t about new thought, it is about what pulled us out of a sling before.
Someone who is trying to remain physically healthy will take the stairs instead of the elevator. It is a conscious choice in order to achieve a positive outcome. We also need to be conscious of OAD, and make the decision to tune out. Repetitive, rhythmic movement sparks brain activity, so a calm walk (not a power stride!) is a perfect time to engage alpha waves, but it won’t work if you bring your ear buds. How about keeping the radio off on the next long drive? Or try keeping the TV off when you’re folding laundry? Sit on a porch swing with no conversation. Meditation has been shown to spark alpha waves, but you don’t need to sit in the lotus position for an hour every day. You can create daily moments for the brain to un-focus. Get rid of OAD, solutions may come more easily than you think.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This column marks a milestone for me. This is my 250th column for the family of Business Journals under the American City Business Journals banner. My first column was published in the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal on April 18, 1997; sixteen years ago. If any of you have a copy of the original column, please keep the accompanying photo of me to yourself, I get enough grief from my nine-year old stepdaughter as it is. It is typical for an anniversary like this to hold greater importance for the person experiencing it than for those reading about it. Garrison Keillor, author and creator of the radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, said it best when he noted that longevity is less about quality than it is about length.
My wife Kanitta and I are typical American consumers. We shop at our standard stores for food, clothing, and such. Every now and then we venture into the unknown, usually at the urging of a coupon or a friend who says, “You gotta try this place!” We invariably return to our stand-bys. We were talking recently about why we chose the stores to which we remain most loyal. It was no surprise that location was high on the list. Sadly, the pace of life these days has people opting for poorer quality in exchange for close proximity. The problem for the stores that rely on location as their chief advantage is they are the most at risk of losing customers as soon as a more convenient option becomes available. Look at what happened to book stores when Amazon.com became a bookmark on everyone’s web browser; or the auto shop where no one knows your name no matter how many repairs you paid for now having to compete with a brand new—and friendlier—shop that opened five blocks away.
In 2004, Dan Buettner teamed up with National Geographic to discover what helps human beings be happier, live longer, and work better. The process involved identifying the areas around the world where people lived the longest. They then compared the lifestyles of these various areas to determine their commonalities. Buettner labeled these happy, long-lived areas Blue Zones, which became the title of his best-selling book. Places like Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; and Loma Linda, California routinely see populations reach age 100 while most of the rest of the world feels like they’re 100 when they hit 60.
“If you take care of the small things, the big things will take care of themselves.” Our parents drove that point home so often as we were growing up, most of us think they invented the phrase. It is actually a quote by the 19th century poet, Emily Dickinson. I wish I could tattoo that phrase on every C.E.O.’s forehead so they could see it in the morning when they shaved or applied make-up. I think of the phrase often because I have to pay attention to customer service, either to write this column or to improve my own company’s performance. Luckily, doing what I do for a living affords me daily reminders about the little things.
If you are reading this, then you made it through the end of the world—predicted by the Mayan calendar for December 21, 2012. Congratulations. If you are like me, you played it safe and held off on a bunch of work for the few days leading up to the 21st. Who wants to be the schmuck that spent his last days on Earth returning e-mails and updating spreadsheets? Now that we’re all still here, I suppose it is time to get back to work. After all, we don’t want to survive Armageddon just to drive over a fiscal cliff.
Recently I entertained at a holiday party for a law firm. I provided entertainment for a number of law firms over the holidays so if you think I’m talking about yours; maybe, maybe not. We got into a discussion about image. Public perception being as important as it is, a company’s image is top-of-mind for smart executives. I commented on the photos of the lawyers on the firm’s website. I noticed that most of the headshots made the attorneys seem angry. Everyone was posed looking directly at the camera, eyes fixed, with a grimace that said, “You want me on your side, not your competitors.” A lot of them were holding big law books as if to say, “I read this whole thing.”
I mentioned this to one of the staff members at the event. She said that clients looking for a litigator want someone who looks like a bulldog because that is how they want the lawyer to behave on their behalf in court. I got to wondering about how true that might, or might not, be. I am sure there are plenty of arguments to be made on both sides, however, my assumption is that the claim about the client’s preference is an assumption, not a verifiable fact. If you read my last column (and if you didn’t, shame), I wrote about the practice of successful organizations—namely, they rid themselves of assumptions and behave based solely on facts. The facts are determined by asking clients what they want and putting your ego aside to fulfill those wants.
What if the clients of a law firm were surveyed and asked about the image of the firm? To be fair, I would assume most clients would rather see a photo of a lawyer standing next to a stack of legal texts than of a guy in sports gear hitting a tennis ball. But I wonder how willing the lawyers would be to change their photo if they did discover the client was attracted to a different image. What if an engaging smile and casual posture worked better at attracting new clients? What if such a photo put the potential client more at ease? I’m not saying this is the case, I’m just wondering how willing the lawyers would be to change their image if they discovered that is what the client wanted.
That’s the hard part about getting client feedback—you have to use it. You have to put your assumptions and ego aside and do what your customers want you to do. You have to act in accordance with what you sell. A long time ago I answered the phone at our company (I answer all our calls. I don’t want someone else speaking for me). I don’t like long, drawn out greetings such as, “Stevie Ray’s Improv Company, this is Stevie Ray speaking, how can I help you today?” (I also don’t like calling a company and hearing, “We’re having a fantastic day here at Bob’s Body Shop! How can we make your day a great one too?”) By the time I get through listening to some greetings, it takes so long I forgot who I was calling in the first place. And here is a tip, if you have twelve people’s names in your company, only use the first two in your greeting. This would let me know it is not a one-person shop without having to hear everyone’s name who ever clocked in. When I hear the greeter run through every person’s name, I think two things. One, that I pity the poor person has to repeat that a hundred times a day whenever the phone rings. Two, those twelve people must have huge egos.
Be that as it may, I simply answer the phone with “Stevie Ray’s.” I get no complaints. Except once, that phone call I answered years ago. My tone that day was a bit curt; I was pretty busy. Luckily, the caller was an acquaintance of mine. He said, “Wow, for a guy who sells fun you sure don’t answer the phone that way. I might as well be calling the DMV.” Fortunately for me, this guy happened to be in marketing, so I got a quick lesson in branding; for free.
He told me that all products and services are marketing must have a brand emotion, which I knew. He also reminded me that every single person in the company must behave in ways that demonstrate that emotion. Nothing gets sold unless an emotion is attached to it. This is because of a principle that guides all marketing and advertising, people buy with emotion and justify with fact, not the other way around. Our brains are wired to react to input in a certain order. The parts of our brain that react emotionally receive the input first. Only after it cycles around for a while does the input make it to the critical thinking part of the brain (the Right Pre-Frontal Cortex). By that time, emotion has taken over. If we feel like, we buy. If we don’t, no amount of information will change dislike to like.
Your product or service must fit one of five main emotions: Trustworthy, Competent, Sophisticated, Exciting, or Rugged. Whether it is a car or a pair of jeans, tech services or roofing, it is either branded with one of those five emotions or it doesn’t sell. The easy part is making the product fit the emotion, the hard part is having the staff live the emotion. I certainly wasn’t living the emotion when I answered with a dull, “Stevie Ray’s.” Our brand has always been fun and excitement and I have to live that every day, not just when I am delivering the service.
I have even had clients push me in that direction. At one event I was the keynote speaker, so I was planning on being competent. The client, however, wanted excitement. Just before taking the stage I asked for a final confirmation from the client about her objectives. I always ask, “What is it you want these people to leave with?” I expected her to say skills related to competency; communication, leadership, teamwork. Had she said any of those, my ego would have been satisfied. I could have been important guy delivering important information. She said, “We just want people to have fun.” Once again, a client reminded me of what I should have remembered all along, the brand is more important than my ego.
Now I answer my phone with my brand in mind. I have fun. My clients love it. Some companies live their brand in every detail. A well-known company, Martin Bastian, produces corporate events (entertainment, speakers, audio/visual needs, etc.). Although this type of service needs to be competent, and sometimes sophisticated, it really hinges on excitement. Excitement equals fun, and people crave fun. People need competence, but nobody really craves it. When you call the offices of Martin Bastian, if you get put on hold you get the most fun hold message I have ever heard.
Over the usual background music, a voice says, “As our 100th caller today you win the grand prize of being able to listen to our wonderful hold music. Please enjoy!” After a short period of music, the voice returns with, “Martin Bastian appreciates your patience. Please refrain from tapping your fingers, humming along with the music, or doodling while on hold.” After another interlude the music changes to the theme from The Twilight Zone while the voice-over says, “You have entered another dimension, a dimension where time seems to stand still. With the push of a button and the flash of a little red light, you have entered The Holding Zone.” People have actually called Martin Bastian and asked to be put on hold. The colleague who told me about the message has played it on speaker phone for his fellow staff members. If you were looking for a company to work with, which one would pop immediately to mind?
Truly living your brand goes beyond slapping a label on the product and calling it a day. It takes paying attention to the client. It takes setting aside your ego and living the brand personally, every day. And not one staff member can opt out. Even employees who never speak to a customer must live the brand. If they don’t, they infect others and the emotion is lost. No company survives without emotion.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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After the ground-breaking book Good to Great made the rounds, folks at the American Society of Association Executives and the Center for Association Leadership decided to apply the Good to Great principles to the non-profit world. After years of research into what makes some non-profits more successful than others, in 2006 they published Seven Measures of Success: What Remarkable Associations Do That Others Don’t. In reading the book I appreciated that they avoided labeling non-profit associations as “different” than for-profit companies. Non-profits may not be founded for the purposes of providing positive returns for investors or owners, but that is their only true difference.
My ego has been taking a hit lately. As I prepare to work with a client I always ask what their main objective is for my session; what one thing they would like the group to leave with. I expect (hope) to hear, “Oh wise sage, please impart what-ever knowledge you have gleaned from your years of experience. Make these people better leaders, employees, and yes…human beings.” When I come out of that fog I hear the client say, “We just really need a good laugh!” This statemnt is usually preceded by “Things have been really tough lately, so…” “We’ve been going through a lot of changes, so…” or “There is a lot of uncertainty, so…”
A long time ago I asked my friend Lee what it was like having to be creative on demand every day. Lee was co-owner of an advertising company and his role was the copy writer. His company was known for clever advertising campaigns; rather than the in-your-face “Buy our stuff” ads, their approach would grab you with something funny and let the underlying message creep up on you later. Given that his copy writing was so imaginative, I wanted to know how he could summon it on cue whenever a client gave him a deadline.