We all want to be remembered. Every presenter wants you to remember her message—and wants you to remember her. Yet how often do we go about our day rehashing details of a Powerpoint presentation or a spreadsheet we saw at a meeting? Not so often, right?… Well, why not? And why is the mind more captivated with Game of Thrones or Harry Potter, or something that happened on the news, than with a work-related topic far more relevant to our life?
To answer these questions and discover the key to being remembered, we have to look inside the brain and trace the 500 million years of our evolution from lizard to spreadsheet. Here the three-paragraph version:
In a simplified way, our human brains of today are a concert of three different brain structures that have evolved in order over time. First, when we were slimy little lizards just crawling out of the seas, our brain was only what is now our brain stem or “reptilian brain,” devoted to subconsciously meeting survival needs like warmth, food, water, and species reproduction.
Fast forward a few hundred million years to the post-dino world, and our furry human ancestors developed an emotional processing and memory complex called the limbic system, which we share with all other mammals. The key function of the limbic system is to create memory of dangerous moments like lion attacks or car accidents, and to advantageous events like finding yummy food or falling in love. Ever notice how you can remember the smell of past flame’s perfume even years after the fact, or about how a car accident seems to play out again and again in slow motion, while hours of a regular day are almost entirely forgotten? That’s the mind’s emotional significance meter — called the Amygdala — at work, selectively storing memory based on its perceived survival relevance. In allowing us to learn from the past by codifying events by emotional significance, these limbic system memory traces proved to be especially survival-promoting, as we could now act very quickly to avoid what harms and to pursue what helps.
Finally, starting about 2 million years ago, our grunting forefathers in the Rift Valley of Africa developed the third brain structure called the neo-cortex. This structure allows for abstraction, organization, and the development of language and number systems. This is the brain structure associated with being human, with being rational, with blog posts, and with managing a spreadsheet.
How does this crash course in evolutionary biology help us be remembered? In a nutshell, we have to recognize that we are still mammals, as well as being humans. The key message here is that our memory is tied to emotional significance. That has not changed in the last few million years. Knowing this, the key question becomes: How can I make my presentations emotionally significant for my audience?
The answer is not to go for shock value over content. Pulling the fire alarm or yelling at the next meeting will certainly leave a strong memory trace, but it will probably be associated with avoiding you, rather than with remembering your message.
A more productive answer is almost as old as language itself: storytelling. Story has the unique ability to combine a key message or moral with an emotional experience, and has the advantage that we do not have to experience an emotionally charged event ourselves in order to get the memory trace benefit—we can live the experience vicariously through a character and his or her adventure.
All of the world’s religious traditions, folk traditions, and pedagogical traditions have recognized that for a message to create culture, it first has to be remembered! All use story for this. Hollywood and the world’s best writers create cultural sensations and inspire tremendous loyalty and identification through their stories. Advertising has been savvy at this since its inception, but the rest of the business world is just now catching on. Steve Jobs used only a few image-heavy slides to support narratives carrying his revolutionary ideas. P&G, Nike, and a host of other fortune 500 corporations now employ corporate storytellers to create messages that “stick” and help create or transform culture.
So, next time you present, ask yourself: “How can I tell a story to give emotional significance to my message?” If not, you may be figuring out just how soon you will be forgotten…
For most of us, having a problem is not pleasant. It would seem to me that the word’s very definitions make it clear why: a solution is doubtful, it’s difficult and it can cause unpleasantness and worry.
Late Middle English (originally denoting a riddle or a question for academic discussion): from Old French probleme, via Latin from Greek problēma.
1. A matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome
2. A thing that is difficult to achieve or accomplish
3. A source of perplexity, distress, or vexation
No one wants to have a problem, and we avoid it at all costs, but when we can’t avoid it, we don’t actually recognize that we have one. We postpone the necessary conversations, the meeting with the logistics team is delayed, the email we need to send to ask for a change in response times never leaves the inbox…or we do have the conversation but don’t actually say what needs to be said. Who knows what the logistics team understood? The email that CC’d the whole office wasn’t clear and now, to make matters worse, there are complaints. Sound familiar?
Having a problem requires an ability to recognize that something is not working – with my team or me. It requires clarity in my communication with others so that my position/request/solution is clear. I must be able to listen to another person (and really listen, not just wait for my turn to rebut) so that we can reach an agreement and a solution together.
Most of us have these skills to some degree, but business and team leaders frequently evade problems as often (and as professionally) as possible.
We tend to be non-confrontational because there is an absence of trust in our own environment – we don’t trust that the other person will listen, we don’t trust that they won’t seek revenge, we don’t trust them to be sincere, we don’t trust that we won’t be sidelined or scapegoated, we don’t trust that we won’t be seen as negative, the pessimist, the one with the bad news. This lack of trust costs businesses millions of pesos, hours or rework, jobs, resignations, new hires and a long list of etcetera’s. How much do you trust your team?
Not trusting in another person impedes confrontation, limits exposure of conflict and blocks the search for a solution. It creates false harmony, harbors gossip. We know that there is an elephant in the room, we can all smell it, see it, the elephant mistreats us all and, though no one wants to admit it, we all feed it. We give it food, water and care for it. How big is the elephant in your office?
Hernández, the general director of the Nocommunication Company, is worried about the decline of sales in his organization and has asked his directors and key employees into a meeting to analyze the situation. In this meeting, Hernández speaks, expresses his concerns and asks all those present to do what is necessary to solve the problem and improve sales numbers. At the end of the session, Hernández leaves with a feeling of having done his duty to push his colleagues towards a solution and thinks that everyone will be raring to do so.
A month later nothing has happened. Figures are still declining.
So Hernández now changes his strategy. He doesn’t speak to his directors, he makes decisions. He increases incentives to salespeople, requests changes in client service processes and asks for a loan to reinforce finances that have been pressured by low sales.
Another month later and everything is the same…or worse. There is low morale and dangerous symptoms appear: two very capable employees quit, the rumor mill is spinning around possible layoffs and a feeling of internal inequity, and there is a very real heaviness to the office.
Hernández, now angry and worried, calls for an emergency meeting, literally scolding his executive team for not achieving positive results, and demands that everyone place all their energy and commitment into regaining prior sales levels. At the end of the meeting, it is clear to all the directors that once again, NOTHING will happen.
Does the organization have a problem?
If it does, it is due to:
- Someone saying something wrong, explaining it incorrectly or having it misinterpreted.
- Someone not speaking up, keeping silent, being afraid to talk or ask for something.
- Someone is afraid to let others express themselves and does not allow for it.
Company employees frequently fall into any of these three categories, including in relationships with clients, suppliers or third parties.
In this case, is it possible that (1), he has not explained himself thoroughly, or (2), his people don’t feel comfortable speaking up out of fear? And in the latter case, this would mean that there’s not enough information to find the source of the problem. Or is it (3), where there is no forum for self expression because the leadership is afraid to hear what is really going on or is afraid of losing authority.
And this leads us to a series of good questions for leaders of any team:
- How can you ensure clarity and that your team members do not misinterpret you?
- What do you do so that your team members feel comfortable speaking up, whether it’s to propose something that differs from your point of view or let you know you’re in the wrong?
- Are you afraid you’ll lose authority by letting others express themselves? And if so, what can you do to get over that fear?
This case methodology, used as best practice in the development of leaders and executives at the Harvard Business School and the Instituto Panamericano de Alta Dirección (IPADE) in Mexico, always identifies communication as the common denominator in all organizational problems. Regardless of whether those problems are financial, commercial, production-oriented, caused by error, lack of technical knowledge, bad attitudes, or even natural problems, one or more communication problems are present, like those in this case study.
Do you have problems in your area or business? Check for communication problems.
Is the competition beating you? They probably communicate better.
Colleagues won’t listen to you? Perhaps you’re not listening to them or you’re not letting them express themselves.
Your boss doesn’t understand you? It’s possible that there have been may statements on both sides that have never been discussed or that you haven’t expressed.
Open, honest, direct conversations will help you find a solution.
There’s been a recurring theme with clients in the past few days about an apparent incapacity or difficulty in saying ‘no’ to impossible requests, too-tight agendas or differences of opinion. This is not just endemic to Latin America. More and more it strikes people all over the world, focused 24-7 with trying to please everyone. It would seem that the two-letter word is so dreadful that we would rather accept the impossible and have to come up with the most intricate excuses just so we don’t have to actually say ‘no’. Negatives are uncomfortable. We worry about being disliked, seeming stubborn or even losing the business/client/partner/friend (the list goes on).
I confess that a ‘no’ is not only possible, it’s healthy. Limits, even as children, are good for us. They are necessary and beneficial to the individual and the relationship – whether it’s professional, romantic, familial, etc. Limits give us clear parameters and allow us a starting point and some security to move and try new things. Having said that, and understanding that saying ‘no’ is uncomfortable for many of us, I’d like to share with you that it is indeed possible to give a ‘positive no’.
An example of a common occurrence for me as an account director at an advertising agency in Mexico:
“Ale, I need the changes to the TV, radio and print campaign for tomorrow.”
- Answer 1: “Yes, I’ll get right on it.” This answer implies destroying personal and professional limits that you’ll be hard-put to reestablish. The request is impossible to do in 24 hours. You open the possibility of doing shoddy work, making mistakes or simply not delivering in the limited timeframe.
- Answer 2: “No. I can’t do it. I’m sorry.” This option shows stubbornness and a lack of willingness to solve the problem. Feelings of injustice that this kind of request was made at all can push us to want to answer like this, but we should avoid it all costs.
- Answer 3: “I understand your need for a quick turnover with this, but what you’re asking for simply can’t be done in 24 hours. If you agree, what I can deliver are changes for the TV campaign in 24 hours, and in 48 hours we’ll have changes in radio and press pieces. I need to coordinate a lot of people on the team for this and I don’t want to let you down.”
This last option doesn’t just open the door for a richer dialogue in finding solutions; it also shows a transparency and collaboration as key elements of this professional relationship.
Again, I’m not asking you to start shouting “NO” left, right and center and deal with the consequences. Instead, be aware of each situation and explain it as completely as you can. A ‘positive no’ offers an explanation of why you have to say ‘no’ and gives alternatives to get to the best solution.
Believe me, the honesty that a well thought out ‘no’ implies will be appreciated. And you’ll be surprised at the results and the strengthened relationships that this type of dialogue brings.
Google, Amazon, and other data-driven companies have used their their strength – data analysis – to challenge conventional thought in human capital and what makes sense in terms of hiring and retaining new generations.
They have discovered that attracting great people will fail if employees encounter a command-and-control, stifling work environment. They have identified new key factors of high-performance cultures: transparency, autonomy, voice and collaborative decision making.
These factors threaten most traditional work cultures in which secrecy, hierarchy and centralized decision-making are the norm. Most executives are daunted by the change. Making the leap to an organizational culture designed for 21st century work and a workforce made up of Millenials is no easy thing for traditional, hierarchy-heavy organizations. Companies that have failed to make this leap question why they have difficulties retaining young talent. Google, Amazon and other top companies have excelled in these areas and are the “hot” options for young adults entering the workforce. There’s a reason for that.
At Conversari, we’ve discovered that “soft skills” are fundamental management competencies and are a company’s best bet when thinking about how to shift to a modern work culture. These include abilities to:
- Lead with an inspiring vision
- Co-create clear objectives and boundaries
- Provide feedback and internal trainings
- Communicate and negotiate across disciplines
The good news about these skills? They can be learned. And they happen to be just what young talent wants out of leadership.