Listen To Your Customers. They Will Tell You All About Why Excellent Customer Service is a Lost Art.

Growing up, I worked in a family restaurant in Lexington, KY, because I am a Greek American, and that is what most of my family did for a living. However, my father took another approach, and he owned a liquor store. In both cases, providing excellent customer service was the standard because that is the formula to success in business. They didn’t use words like – the customer experience because that is a synonym for excellent customer service.

Then what the hell happened to excellent customer service because it seems like that is harder to find than the Loch Ness monster, bigfoot, and a roll of toilet paper all put together. That is a scavenger hunt for the adventurous.

For example, I am a recent customer of AT&T TV, which provides a streaming TV service through their recent purchase of Directv. When I contacted them to begin my new service, it was in the middle of the month. As we were finalizing the purchase, I asked, will you be prorating the service for this month. The customer service person responded, ‘We don’t prorate our service anymore. We thought it was silly to do so.” WHAT?! Silly? When I think of silly, I think of the MTV show Ridiculous or YouTube Cat Videos or The Office Memes.

I needed to look up the definition of silly to see what I was missing. According to the Oxford Language Dictionary, the definition of silly is “having or showing a lack of common sense or judgment; absurd and foolish.” I am beside myself why any organization would think it would be silly to charge the customer the exact amount of money for the service rendered. Or are they thinking that providing excellent customer service by overcharging the customer serves that purpose? In business improv, this is a genuine lack of respect for the customers they are serving.

Let’s take a different turn and put the focus on those professions that tend to be very technical in nature – accounting, medical and health care, engineers, scientists, etc… Being very technical, in essence, means they speak a very different language than plain English. But, unfortunately, these professionals tend to forget that their audience does not speak their technical language.

For example, a few years ago, I had some tests done, and I received a phone call from my doctor on a Friday afternoon. That’s right, my doctor, not the nurse. I didn’t think she was calling to offer me Ohio State Football tickets for the next day. Instead, she said that the test results came back, and I may have – gibberish sounding words. Lots of gibberish-sounding words, along with more gibberish-sounding terms. I interrupted her and said, could you please explain this to me in plain English. She paused for a moment and said that “I may have cancer.” How hard was that? Was there an attorney sitting across from her desk making sure she was speaking in medial gibberish? Who knows.

Let’s bring this example into the world of accounting, particularly public accounting. I hear story after story after story about CPAs clients leaving a meeting and having no clue what the CPA was trying to communicate because the CPA was communicating in ACCOUNTING Gibberish. Similar sounding words that my doctor spoke to me. The language of business – accounting – is a foreign language to those who do not have the same depth of knowledge and speak. Have you ever traveled to a foreign country and, before arriving, not invested anytime in trying to learn the basics of the language like – “where is the bathroom, how much for a beer, why is everyone taking an afternoon nap?” Instead, we get frustrated because they don’t speak English in their own country. Arrogant.

To top it all off, when CPAs are trying to explain something to a client using an excel spreadsheet, they should be arrested for exceeding the speed limit and abusive behavior. They are going a mile a minute AND bouncing around the spreadsheet-like a super ball. If they continue to do this either in person or on Zoom, they need to issue air sickness bags before they begin.

There is a communication problem that exists, and it is a prominent blind spot for the CPA. You know why because they continue to act this way even though you “the client” did instruct them that you don’t speak ACCOUNTING or TAX, and you don’t need to see all the detail. This type of behavior is affecting the overall customer service they are providing to their clients. However, when I have asked those frustrated clients why don’t they change CPA firms, their response is usually, “this is my second or third firm, and they all have the same issues. Therefore, I will keep my current firm because I trust them even though I don’t understand what they are trying to communicate to me.” That to me sounds like a loveless marriage, and we are staying there because it is easier.

Earlier this year, a colleague contacted me asking for a referral to a CPA firm. A family member had been doing the books for several years, and the business outgrew the capabilities of the family member. On a side note, the family member suffered from excessive Accounting Gibberish and using excessive speeds while operating a spreadsheet. I suggested two regional firms and one small local firm.

The decision was made to go with the smaller CPA firm, thinking they would communicate better with them. My colleague did share early on that they are not fluent in accounting and keep the conversation at a high level and put it in language that they understood – let’s call that plain ENGLISH! Since signing on as a client, there have been some struggles until recently, when it escalated to a full-blown meltdown.

My colleague called one afternoon in TEARS after a Zoom meeting with the CPA firm because they didn’t understand what the CPA was trying to explain to them, AND they were trying to explain this via an excel spreadsheet with 50 columns and 500 rows. The spreadsheet was not that big, except it felt that big as the CPA was trying to explain it at Mach 4 speed while Tigger was bouncing around the rows, columns, and cells. They just wanted it to be over and did not want to ask any questions because they felt stupid enough and didn’t want to feel worse.

No client or customer should ever have to go through this same type of treatment even though the CPA had no clue the negative impact they were having on their client. On a selfish plug, that is why I wrote the book Taking the Numb Out of Numbers: Explaining and Presenting Financial Information with Confidence and Clarity so CPAs can better connect, communicate, and collaborate with all of their clients.

Once a firm realizes that explaining the financial information in plain English and using stories to help understand, they will have a substantial competitive advantage in the marketplace. So be that firm whose clients rave about excellent client service because you are a translator of financial information so that your client’s business bottom line will improve way beyond their wildest dreams. BTW – you know that referrals are the best and cheapest form of marketing.

Let me help you become better translators of your complex financial information so that you can gain the competitive advantage over your competition. Please contact me at peter@petermargaritis.com.

Power Skills are Hard to Master!

On August 10th, I delivered the keynote address welcoming the Master of Science in Accounting students at Oklahoma State University to the Fall 2021 semester.  The title of my keynote was Improv Is No Joke.  Not something you would expect to be a keynote title to a group of accounting students.  

Prior to the students attendance, I had a conversation with the department head of the school of accounting, Dr. Audrey Gramling.  Dr. Gramling is a huge proponent of developing accounting students’ power skills.  You know, those skills that we commonly refer to as soft skills.  I like to say, ‘we may call them soft skills, but they are very hard to master’.  I assured her that my presentation would focus on these Power Skills.  

Before my keynote began, there was a video message to the students from the dean of the Spears School of Business, Dr. Ken Eastman.  In his welcome to the students, he referenced the Korn Ferry five skills that need to be developed right now: Agility, Creativity, The Service Mindset, Communication, and Leadership.  In other words, the improviser’s mindset.  

Let’s dig deeper into the Korn Ferry blog posting, ‘Five Skills That Need to be Developed Right Now’. Agility, Creativity, The Service Mindset, Communication, and Leadership.

Agility means “being able to adapt quickly to uncertainty and constant change.” That, in and of itself, is improvisation.  The ability to adapt or be agile means focusing on the things that we have control over and letting go of things that we have no control over.  This is accomplished through the philosophy of Yes! And. Accept the premise that is handed to you, and positively add to it.  

Creativity “can be as simple as staying curious and not falling into the trap of “this is how it has always been done.” It also requires two separate and distinct types of thinking, divergent and convergent thinking.  Divergent thinking is the process of coming up with lots of ideas without censoring yourself or others, or saying the dreaded creativity killer, “we can’t do that.” In improv we say, you can’t create and criticize in the same space. Criticism is essential in creativity only after all of the ideas have been vetted. Convergent thinking is the process of analyzing those divergent ideas to determine which ideas can solve the problem at hand. 

The Service Mindset is “having the awareness to adjust the goods and services we provide to customers, in the way they need them, when they need them – this is a critical skill for talent.” To do this effectively, you need to park your ego and listen to what the customer wants, not what you think the customer needs. In improv, it is all about the team, and the customer, and less about ourselves.

Communication is essential ​​in both “written and verbal skills and presenting well in-person and on videoconference, [these] are growing in strategic importance.” The ability to articulate your thoughts and deliver that message in a way that your audience can understand has always been important, even more so when delivering it virtually.  This communication also extends to your body language, both in-person and on Zoom and other virtual platforms. Always present positive body language when speaking or attending any meeting or presentation.  This means no slouched posture, no using your smartphone, and always have your camera on when in a virtual environment, just to name a few.  

Leadership is developing “talent with the ability to reach out and take the initiative, build relationships across the organization, and foster trust and inclusion through behavior and actions – [these are skills] in demand at every level.” Leadership is also about being vulnerable around your team and letting them know when you are wrong.  In improv, it is all about the team and less about you. Our job is to make the individuals on our team look good, support them, and treat them with the highest respect. It is not our job to disrespect them or tear them down. That is just your ego getting in the way. Let your ego sit on the bench for a while and focus on what is best for the team.

The two-hour keynote on improv contained the essence of this Korn Ferry blog, along with helping these accounting students understand that they speak a foreign language called accounting.  Those in the corporate world who are not well versed in the foreign language of accounting have no idea what you are saying.  The sixth critical skill that every accountant, engineer, or financial person needs to develop is a translation of technical language into plain English.  When you master all six of these skills, you have become a well-versed and highly impactful leader within your organization. 

If you would like to discuss this article, please email me at peter@petermargaritis.com

Financial Leadership

The CFO contacted me last night and wanted to get about 5 min this morning at our annual sales meeting.  

The meeting begins – she steps to take her 5 minutes. All 10 salespeople in the meeting roll their eyes.  She starts by saying, “I would like to commend all of you for growing our top line revenue this year by 15%. However, our net profit margin decreased by 16%, and we ended the year at a loss.  I would like you to be more vigilant in the pricing of your deals to strengthen our margins and return to a profitable business.  Any questions?”  Dead silence.  “Hearing none, thank you for your time,” and she leaves.  All eyes are on the SVP of Sales. Then one brave person raises their hand and says, “what the hell was that? I have no idea what she was talking about other than the compliment she gave us.”  The SVP of sales responds, “let’s get back to our agenda and look at ways of finding new customers.”  

Does this sound familiar?  Why? There are a couple of reasons.  First, the CFO is speaking in the foreign language of accounting – not plain English – and she cannot translate accounting speak into English.  Second, accounting has an image problem for non-accountants. It’s an image (or better yet, memory) of pages of mind-numbing numbers that make no sense, leading to ‘listener shut-down; creating a phenomenon that, in turn, leads to a lack of financial acumen within your organization.

So, what is the antidote to this mind-numbing issue?  Leadership.  When searching the internet looking for keywords as it relates to the topic of leadership, you will find the following: confidence, charismatic, motivation, success, inspiring, trust, vision, influence, people, accountability, courage, humor, respectable, and making good decisions, to name a few.  I agree with all of these, except that there is one missing – financially responsible in every list I researched. 

The best and most effective leaders have a good working knowledge of the company’s financial health, and their decision-making process is established in the organization’s financial truths. Armed with this financial acumen, the effective leader can influence decision-making by conveying the tactical connection between the mission statement and the financial statements. 
Let me pause for a moment and stress that this financial acumen is not the CFO’s sole responsibility.  It is the responsibility of everyone who is in a leadership role within the company. Financial acumen should be the basis of understanding in every business conversation and decision made within an organization.  

Think about it this way, who are the people in your organization that is making decisions?  How many decisions are made every single day in an organization? What percentage of those decisions have a financial impact on the organization? 75%? 80% 100%?  There are leaders within organizations that don’t understand accounting and finance fundamentals—for example, the lending department within a bank. Lenders are the salespeople of the bank. They’re responsible for generating deals for customers so that they can lend money to them and grow the bank’s business.  We all know that – right.

However, these lenders can earn a bonus on the cumulative dollar amount that they lend.  Do you see what is missing here?  You are incentivizing the lenders on revenue generation and not profitability.  This is and has been a recipe for loss in profitability.  What is missing is taking into consideration the loan costs. 

I hear stories from CFO’s about how the sales team needs to grow their business by 25%, and yet in the process, they lose 15% in profits.  In my interview with Ken “Mr. Biz” Wentworth, he calls this phenonium ‘the silent killer’ to all businesses.  He shares a story of one of his construction clients wanting him to review a bid on a new piece of business.  After reviewing, he advised the client not to bid on the work at that price and raise the price by 25%.  The pushback from the owner was that they needed to bid low so they could get the job. Ken, knowing the cost structure of his client’s business, responded, “You can bid the job at the lower price, AND you will lose $40,000 on this job.” The owner replied, “I am bidding it low to get my foot in the door for future work.” Let’s stop right here. We all know that is a falsehood because when the owner asks for a bid on another project and we give our full-pricing structure, what do you think the owner will do? That’s right. Find someone cheaper. I have used that strategy in the past, and it hurt my business.  

The silent killer of a business is not understanding the fundamentals of accounting and finance. We need this understanding and knowledge to make more informed, smarter, and more profitable decisions. If you understand accounting, you can understand finance. If you understand finance, you can understand your business.

When your leaders are in meetings and the conversation shifts from operations to finance, are your leaders participating in the conversation or just witnessing the conversation?

The solution is leadership.  Financial leadership.  The next time you have your leadership team participate in a leadership development program, add a day of accounting and finance fundamentals.  Oh, I know…. I can see all of your bitter Grinch faces.  You are thinking, an accounting course.  Oh, hell no!  I’d rather have a root canal without any novocaine than sit through a full day of an accounting and finance course.  This goes back to the image problem accounting has – and it’s a big image problem!  And it exists because of the traditional way of teaching accounting to non-accountants in the same way we teach accounting to accountants.  That’s like teaching any subject in a foreign language that the students do not understand – it’s impossible to learn!

We need to teach accounting and finance to non-financial leaders in a different way.  We are not trying to turn them into accountants but rather into leaders with financial acumen.  We want to help them gain access to critical knowledge in a manner that removes the complexity of accounting/financial jargon and teaches in plain English.

The solution to this puzzle is a product that is offered by the company Wealthvox.  The product is accounting and finance fundamentals powered by Color Accounting.  Color Accounting is a learning approach that makes accounting simple. The courses deliver real financial literacy quickly and effectively. Accounting and finance often feel confusing because people can’t see how the numbers work or understand the language. Color accounting fixes both issues by approaching the subject visually.
 
This unique, visual framework enables us to use simple concepts to explain the mechanics of accounting and the structure of financial information. The language of accounting is then brought to life with logical and intuitive examples.
 
All of this is achieved interactively and engagingly, enabling you to build a holistic understanding of how financial information tells a business story.
 
The really cool aspect of color accounting is that it is delivered without the use of PowerPoint.  That’s right, no PowerPoint numbing slides.  It is delivered visually using flip charts or whiteboards and hands-on materials that include a manual and a pop-up board.
 
After a six-hour workshop, you will be empowered to:

  • Analyze and interpret financial information with more confidence
  • Understand the story of a business using key financial metrics
  • Understand the relevance of key profit measures such as EBITDA
  • Engage confidently in internal financial conversations
  • Improve communications with clients, customers, and colleagues
  • Understand the financial process in your business
  • Improve financial decision-making in your business
  • Manage profits and cash flow more efficiently.
  • Price your products and services more profitability
  • And more. 

 
The results are remarkable. Westinghouse is a client of Color Accounting, and before the pandemic, Color Accounting delivered over 30 workshops to their leaders, project managers, and engineers.  I had the privilege of leading one of these workshops in January 2020 to a group of 24 project managers and engineers. By the end of the full six-hour workshop, this group had a greater understanding of their role within this large organization and the financial impact on the wealth and bottom line of the organization.  As this group left, they were all thanking me for the engaging and thought-provoking workshop and that their mindset towards accounting had become completely different.  
 
There is a case study that Wealthvox has written, and here is a small portion of that case study:
 
At this point, we delved into a section explaining the differences between the two M’s – gross margin percentages and markup percentages. 
 
A margin is sales minus the cost of goods sold. A markup is an amount by which the cost of a product is increased. I explained that when you apply the markup percentage, that will give you the resulting but lower margin percentage.
 
The MD of Home Chefs, Rupert, turned white. He held his head in his hands and asked us for an example. To clarify, we applied a hypothetical scenario. If a Home Chefs’ dinner for four is £100 minus costs of £25, there is a margin of £75. This is a margin percentage of 75% but a markup of 300%.
 
Rupert sighed and said: “This explains a lot. We haven’t been getting the profitability that we wanted, and this is why!” His company had been trying to achieve a 10% margin when they were, in fact applying a 10% markup. He went on to express that he’d had an uneasy feeling. He knew something wasn’t right but didn’t know what was wrong. The problem with applying the 10% markup is that you actually end up with a margin of 9.1%. To achieve a 10% margin, the markup percentage needs to be 11.1%.
 
Rupert couldn’t believe that he’d mixed up something seemingly so simple, yet in fact, crucial.
 
One final example came about when I explained Color Accounting to a colleague who has a successful speaking and coaching business. The response back to me was, “I don’t understand accounting. I don’t like numbers. Never have. You will never get me to take an accounting course. I have run my business for 15 years, and it is very successful, and I have large to medium size clients.” So, I made this person a deal, take this course, and after six hours, if you are still lost, I will refund your money and add 10% more for wasting your time.  DEAL!
 
We broke the learning into 2-hour chunks over three weeks, and it was delivered live using Zoom.  Before starting the second week’s class, I ask if there were any questions or comments. My client commented, “Every morning this past week, I have woken up thinking about my balance sheet.” By the end of the class, my colleague could read and understand the balance sheet and the income statement AND was not afraid of accounting.” We are continuing this conversation because now my colleague is asking better questions about the business, starting with, are my products and services priced correctly? What are my expenses, and are some of my expenses non-productive and should be eliminated to increase my overall wealth and profitability?
 
When you switch the accounting and financial light bulb on and include it as part of leadership development, your leaders will make better business decisions because their business acumen has been fully achieved.  Business acumen is built on a foundation of accounting acumen, plus financial acumen, and every leader should strive for this excellence.
 
If you would like to learn more about the Color Accounting process, please contact me at peter@petermargaritis.com.

Effective Negotiating in Corporate America

What do you feel when you hear the word, negotiate? Dread, Anxiety, Excitement? Do you believe that negotiation skills can be taught? Do you agree with this statement – “we negotiate all the time”? Have you ever searched Google asking one or more of these questions: 

  • What skill is the most helpful during a negotiation? 
  • How does ego play a role in negotiating? 
  • What role does leverage play during negotiations?  

I will address all of these questions, and how the world of IMPROV can help make you a much better negotiator, and more, in this episode.  Yes!  And this same topic will be continued in at least two, if not three, more upcoming podcast episodes.  Stay tuned!

Let’s get started! Most of us have experienced a negotiation gone bad.  However, have you ever been negotiated up? That’s right negotiated up.  Early in my business, I wanted to work with a specific association because of the painful negotiation their members were experiencing. I knew I had a solution for that pain.  In my conversation with them, they asked what my fee was? I replied, what is your budget for this event?  The person responded with the speaker budget for the entire year and it was $1,000 above my fee for the event.  I wanted the job, so I offered a fee that was 75% less than my normal fee.  Then came the awkward pause.  After about what seemed like 30 min but more like 30 sec, the person replied with a fee that was 50% more than I offered.  I got negotiated UP! I learned a valuable lesson that day.  Learn how to negotiate better!  So from that point forward, I offer my full fee, and if rejected, I work with the other person to find common ground where both parties WIN and walk away with value.  

Not every negotiation table has a client on the other end. Sometimes it’s an employee. And when it is, it is often about negotiating to give them a voice their role within the company and in the business’s direction.  These negotiations take success to a whole level. 

So. What makes some negotiations successful and others dead in the water? Conducting a successful negotiation requires the use of six essential skills – and they are ALL foundations of Improvisation.

These six skills will ensure every negotiation has the potential to end with a positive solution.

6 PRINCIPLES OF IMPROVISATION

  1. Take your ego off the table
  2. Have and show respect for the other party
  3. Be in the moment (focus)
  4. Listen to the other party’s needs and wants
  5. Adapt to the situation
  6. Yes, And…

These steps truly help everyone one win in a negotiation. One of biggest impacts the 6 principles have is to  take the emotions off the table. Heated emotions can cause negotiations to shut down. They are more likely to end in a stalemate with wasted efforts. Anthony K. Tjan wrote in a Harvard Business Review blog, “Time and emotion — these are the two things most often wasted during a negotiation.” And he is right. We tend to react emotionally and negatively to any points of negotiation that oppose our own agenda. And that wastes time and energy. When our goals for a negotiation are so firmly anchored that we cannot budge, it becomes hard to see any common goal as a solution. Instead, emotions kick in, and egos inflate—and we cease to listen. All we hear is our own voice in our head trying to find a way back to what we want.

SKILLFUL NEGOTIATION IS ROOTED IN IMPROVISATION

Tom Yorton was once in the corporate ranks before becoming CEO of Second City Communications, the business solutions division of the world- renowned comedy company, The Second City. He had this to say in a recent Business Innovation Factory article, “But my experience – and in fact, my scars – are from bumping up against the same organizational hurdles that improv is so effective at helping companies get over – challenges that include connecting with customers, engaging employees around change, moving into new

markets, innovating new products and services, working without a script.”

All of the aspects of driving positive change inside the company depend on how well leaders in corporate America can negotiate. That equates to how well business professionals can handle ‘blocking’. ‘Blocking’ are those things that are brought to the table that are unexpected – out of the blue – out of nowhere Blocking like this It halts forward momentum and does not neatly fit inside the box of your agenda.  And it happens every day.

Daena Giardella teaches an improvisational leadership class at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. She spends an entire lesson on teaching how to avoid using the most common block, the “yes, but.” In an NPR article, she points out, “Even though you say, ‘Yes,’ the but says, Yeah, but that’s not really valid because here is the better point.“

Negotiations can quickly come to a grinding halt when “yes, but” comes to the table. It is when emotions get heated and time gets wasted.  Michael Wheeler, Harvard Business School Professor and Program on Negotiation (PON) faculty member wrote the book The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World. Michael states in a PON Q&A interview that, “real-world interactions between parties by looking at the uncertainty of negotiations and how to develop flexible strategy when you have incomplete information. Negotiation cannot be scripted. Your goals may change during the course of negotiation, a little or a lot. Unexpected opportunities and obstacles may pop up. Your across-the-table counterpart may be more or less cooperative than you expected.” 

Too many times we practice a rigid strategy – a script – a plan – prior to going into a negotiation.  By doing so, we quit listening to the other party because we are following the linear thought process we created and practiced.  We miss out on key opportunities or threats by not being fully present. Michael states in this Q&A, “There’s a misperception that military strategy is very rigid. Yes, there’s a chain of command, but there’s also a military saying: “Plans go out the window with first contact with the enemy.” In an uncertain situation, you have to think through your best- and worst-case scenarios.” This military strategy can be witnessed back in 2011 when the U.S. Navy SEALs executed the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.  “The mission had been meticulously planned; the SEALs trained for it over months and several contingency plans were developed and put into place. When one of the navy’s Black hawk helicopters crashed within the compound, a very specific kind of improvisation was required if the mission was to succeed.” This is adapting to the change in the strategy in order to achieve a positive outcome. 

Improvising is not winging it or making things up.  Improvising is all about over-preparing and developing alternative plans and when you enter the room, you throw the script away, you listen and stay present in the negotiation and adapt in order to achieve success.   

Time to remember the 6 principles of improvisation!

  1. Take your ego off the table
  2. Have and show respect for the other party
  3. Be in the moment (focus)
  4. Listen to the other party’s needs and wants
  5. Adapt to the situation
  6. Yes, And…

Listen to the other party’s needs. What are they really saying when they block your proposal? Be adaptable by taking your ego off the table. Take a deep breath if you need to and then let the next words that come out of your mouth be “Yes, and…”

A successful negotiation is birthed from being able to rebound, to take the blocks and build with them. That is how you connect with other people.

Have you ever watched preschoolers play with blocks? They take turns stacking them on top of each other until it gets so high it just topples over – or they like to watch it fall and knock it over on purpose. But the point is that both of them have an agenda. They each want to pick up a block and put it on the tower and each one probably has an idea about what the tower will look like, but they keep building until they can’t build anymore.

We are more likely to succeed in negotiations when both parties can envision a common goal. Improvisation teaches us to set aside our personal agendas and ego and take whatever the other person gives you and go with it. The glue that ties it all together is the principle of “Yes, and…” Successful people all intuitively do this. They just don’t necessarily realize that they are using improvisation in their daily lives.

To succeed in negotiations, we need to drop our agendas long enough to truly listen—and with respect for all

involved. It is true for formal negotiations around a conference table and is the way to success in the daily negotiations of life and career—during a chat with the boss or with one’s spouse, or with a child. This is the kind of straight talk we can cultivate that truly will make the biggest difference.

If you would like to learn more about negotiating using improv techniques, please contact me at peter@petermargaritis.com

Dealing with The Peanut Gallery That Is Your Inner Critic

Let’s start off this article with a conversation about that voice in your head. You know the one.  The voice that keeps coming back with the warning, “don’t say that idea out loud because people will think you are stupid or crazy.” Or, another favorite, “you have to be kidding me, you know you can’t speak in front of an audience – you will look like a fool.”  You know that voice… and it has a lot more to say on any number things – and none of it is good.  This is the voice of your inner critic.  

So what exactly is an inner critic?  According to the Good Therapy Blog, the inner critic is “an inner voice that judges, criticizes, or demeans a person whether or not the self-criticism is objectively justified”. A highly active inner critic can be paralyzing – it can take a toll on one’s emotional well-being, self-esteem – and in some cases, it can cause individuals to seek help from a therapist or counselor to help balance thought patterns and change their mindset.

Jerry Seinfeld has done a standup routine where he joked that people’s number one fear is public speaking. Their number two fear is death. So, they would rather be in a casket than giving the eulogy.

And it’s true. Chapman University conducted a recent survey that uncovered America’s top fears. Among those were: corrupt government officials, pollution of oceans, rivers, and lakes, and cyber-terrorism. However, at the top of personal anxieties is the fear of public speaking, well above the fear of death, as Seinfeld joked.

THE RELIABLE INNER CRITIC

That inner critic of yours never goes on vacation – it’s there continually giving opinions on anything and everything you do. In speaking, the closer you get to the time you have to present, the louder and more incessant the critic becomes. For many people, they can get sick from the stress that the critic brings their way.  Whether you are in front of an audience or sharing thoughts during a meeting, all you can see or think about are all those eyeballs leveled at you. While at the same time, your inner critic is constantly telling you how you are going to fail. So what can you do? How do you overcome this fear and silence the inner critic?

Improvisation!!!  Yes! And by employing the principles of improvisation, you will overcome the fear, and silence the critic every time! 

Improv will help you change the conversation in your head and start programming your brain to use “yes, and…” instead of “yes, but…”. Why does this matter? Think about the difference between “but” vs. “and”. Using “but” introduces a contrasting thought and stops the other in its tracks. Using “And” instead, connects one idea with the other – allowing both to be considered jointly. So, for instance, you could be saying to yourself, “yes, you have been asked to give this presentation, but you’ll do awful.” Or, you could turn it into the following, “yes, you have been asked to give this presentation, and you can do it.” Just a slight change in words and tone from “but” to “and” has an immediate and positive impact on your confidence, self-esteem and self- worth.

For example, consider the classic children’s story, “The Little Engine That Could”.  It teaches this very principle. Each of the different locomotives in the story could be considered inner critics – each pointing out why the little engine couldn’t accomplish the task at hand. Eventually, the little engine, which had been told she wasn’t fast enough, big enough, or powerful enough, was the best locomotive for an important job. Despite the doubts and criticism, the train, as we all know, repeatedly chanted to herself, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” And she did.

“You’re not fast enough,” “You’re not smart enough,” “You’re not interesting enough.”  “You’re NOT ENOUGH”!  The inner critic needs to be reprimanded and corrected for this. And guess what? You have the power to do it. Tell yourself, “I can do this,” and the more times you repeat it, the more you will believe it. This positive programming of the brain is real and can be used to overcome your immediate fears. The more you say it, the more you will silence that droning voice of doom that cycles through all your fears: “You can’t do this, you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re a fraud, you’re going to fail, something will go wrong…” STOP!

THE PERFECT INNER CRITIC

This last part of the inner critic’s diatribe, “something will go wrong…” is very likely to come true, however.  Why? Because we expect ourselves to be perfect.  But there is no such thing as perfection.  Of course you will make a mistake, probably more than one.  Remember however, that most of the time, unless it’s a real blooper, the only person who knows about it is you. Your listeners and audiences won’t see it or hear it – only you and your inner critic.

When you’re overly focused on perfection, you can go into a downhill spiral if you make even a minor mistake, such as forgetting to make one of your less important points. If you maintain your confidence, something like that won’t trip you up. It would be best if you accepted the fact that you will make some slips. Think of them as opportunities to learn to do even better and roll with them… this is what keeps us interesting and interested.

Also, keep in mind, a certain amount of vulnerability goes a long way in winning over your audience. An excellent example of this is a TED talk given by Megan Washington, a premier Australian singer/songwriter. When she opens her speech, you are immediately aware that she has a speech impediment or stutter. She says that, while she has no qualms about singing in front of people, she has a mortal dread of public speaking. Throughout the presentation, the audience watches her struggle from time to time to get certain words out, but it doesn’t matter. Her vulnerability warmed the audience to her, keeping them engaged up until the moment she disclosed a deeply personal fact: you can’t stutter when you sing. At this point, she plays and sings a beautiful song superbly, ending with a roaring applause from the audience.

While we may not have the opportunity to leverage a vulnerability like this, it’s important to remember:  the inner critic will tell you far more than you need to know, and it is not true. You will hear what you cannot do or how you will screw up. And here is what you can tell that naysayer: “Yes, I know I will make mistakes, And they will not hamper me. Yes, I will not be perfect, And that means I can only get better.” Even today, whenever I get up in front of an audience, I get butterflies, AND I can control them now and make them flutter in the direction of my choice.

REASONING WITH INNER CRITIC

With all this bad-mouthing of the inner critic – it does serve a purpose. If I were to consider delivering a speech on nuclear physics, I would hope that my inner critic would start screaming at me long before I stood at the podium. However, the critic doesn’t know when to shut up; that’s where you need to train it. You might know enough about a topic to deliver a decent speech, but the critic keeps nagging: “Your nose hair is showing. Your tie is crooked. What a nitwit.” If you pay too much attention, the prophecies of failure could come true. You get hung up on your shortcomings rather than focusing on your strengths.

Sometimes the key is just to confront it: “Shut up! Shut up!” You can accomplish this through the “yes, and…” approach of improv. “Yes, I hear what you’re saying, And I’m going to do it anyway.” The critic may still try to undermine you but not as loudly. You’ll build up self-esteem. You’ll feel confident. Now go and do it!

If you would like to know more and /or discuss on ways to silence your inner critic and become more confident in your presentations and meetings, please email me at peter@petermargaritis.com.