Three things to control when negativity "kidnaps" our brain

Dr. Mario Alonso Puig

I just heard Mario Alonso Puig speak at the Entrepreneur’s Organisation University at the Hotel Arts in Barcelona.  Mario Alonso Puig is a brain surgeon who has spent 30 years looking at the changes in the brain caused by stress, negativity, depression and the role of the “little voice”.

Our 3 Inner Critics

There are 3 “little voices” that are highly dis-empowering when we are confronted with difficulties, mistakes or failure:

  1. Hopelessness
  2. Worthlessness
  3. Helplessness

It was amazing to see the rapid chain reaction of one negative thought of the hopelessness, worthlessness or helplessness variety (begins in the right prefrontal cortex, just above and behind your right eye) to triggering the Amygdala and Hypothalamus to release ACTH (signalling “in immediate danger”) to the brain and leading to release of AD, NAD and steroids (“enter survival mode”).  The immediate effect of the release of steroids is to divert blood flow from the cortex, or human thinking brain, to the brain stem or animal brain.  One negative thought can change the whole chemistry of the brain.

How to Regain Control

Mario Alonso’s advice for when this negativity “kidnaps” us (a normal response when cancer tumor is diagnosed, we confront loss of job, reduction in value of assets) – Get control of three things:

  1. Body – Don’t allow depressive body posture, stand up straight.  Get moving, do exercise.  Breath deeply and fill the lungs with air.
  2. Attention – We need to shift our attention to regaining control.  The initial question when we confront a negative situation is “Why me?”  This is a useless and meaningless question that will only waste resources.  Ask “What can I do? What can I learn?”
  3. Sharing – We need to talk about how we feel with others.  He suggests that this is particularly difficult for men who tend to react to negative feelings by closing down and definitely not sharing the way they feel.  Chemical studies of the brain show the powerful positive effect of just speaking about how you feel to another person.

So, when we are overwhelmed, the ACTH and steroid drug cocktail hits the brain and we feel helpless and hopeless we can stand up straight, ask “What can I do?” and share the way we feel…

The 3 keys to powerful body language while speaking

There is no simple rules for how you should stand, have your hands, look, or dress when you give a speech. However you must achieve three things in order to powerfully support the verbal message of your speech.

Sandy Linver in her book “Speak and Get Results” outlines the three areas: you must transmit authority, energy and audience awareness.  Authority is that you look and sound like you have something to say about the subject.  Energy is that you look like the subject is important to you.  Audience awareness is that you have an interaction with the audience members so that they feel part of the experience of your speech.

How do you transmit authority? There are three ways that your body language or non-verbal language can signal authority to the audience:

  1. Visual image – The clothes you chose to wear at 7 this morning will have a big impact on how your audience judge you.  Do you look like they would expect an “expert” on this topic to look?  If you are speaking to a business audience about business, you should look the part.  If you are speaking about social media and web 2.0 perhaps you can look somewhat different.  If you are speaking to greenpeace or a local labour movement, a suit might create the wrong first impression.
  2. Body image – feet shoulder width apart, body balanced, gestures supporting the key moments of the speech, any walking during pauses – key being that there is nothing that is distracting the audience from being able to engage with your message (don’t look like you are about to fall over, like you have an intense interest in the keys in your pocket)
  3. Voice – There are five characteristics of a powerful voice
  1. Breathing – relaxed deep breaths give you projection and power
  2. Articulation – open your mouth and clearly pronounce the words, no mumbling and no “filler words” (um, ah, em, like)
  3. Downward inflection – In all human languages we signal answers by terminating the statement with downward inflection – we signal questions by finishing the phrase with a raised tone.  Many times nerves will drive you to say “IESE is the best business school in the world” with a upward tilt in tone on the “world” turning it into “IESE is the best business school in the world?”.
  4. Pauses – Include 3-8 second pauses at key moments – just before key statements or just after a story – this really brings the audience into the speech.
  5. Projection and resonance – make sure you are using your whole diaphram – the chest and lungs as well as mouth and nose – can you feel the vibrations coming from your chest and your sternum vibrating?  A voice that comes from the chest rather than a voice that vibrates in the nose reaches the back of the room and transmits powerfully.


Simple – you just need to look like you care about the subject that you are speaking about.  If the speaker doesn’t look like this is a subject of great importance, it will be impossible for the audience to engage the subject with any sort of passion.

Audience Awareness

There is a huge about of communciation coming back to the speaker during the speech.  You can see whether people are engaged or not.  You can hear when there are distractions or areas of the audience that have lost engagement and are having side conversations.  Usually a quick glance in the direction of the distracion, or simply pausing your speech until the audience re-engages can be a very powerful method to show that you are 100% physically there in the room and that the audience matter to you.

Managing cats and dogs

I was recently at a lunch at IESE where Professor José Ramón Pin told a good story about human resources.  If you want innovation and creativity, you need to recruit and collaborate with cats.  If you want dependability and steadiness, but no surprises, you need to recruit and collaborate with dogs.  If you have a cat at home, you are not its master – it will come and go as it pleases, it is self sufficient.  If you have a dog at home, it looks to its owner as its master and provides companionship, but needs to be fed, walked,  and hugged. 

A lot of managers want their people to be cats but wish to manage them as if they were dogs.  It is a challenge to trust people to be cats and accept that results will not necesarily come in steady, planned steps.

12 Tips for Public Speaking

I am currently preparing the next year IESE MBA managerial communications course material and put down some rough notes on some key tips that differentiate powerful speakers from the rest.

  1. Speak with an intent to move people to action. Know what you want your audience to do immediately after hearing your speech. If nobody does anything different than they would have done before you spoke – the value of your speech is zero.
  2. Start strong with a “grabber”. A personal story, a quote from an expert or a shocking statistic – something that takes a hold of your audience and gets them hooked and opens their mind to your message. Give the audience a chance to see your personal connection to the topic.
  3. Structure your material in three sections – grabber, middle, close. Know your material. Get really interested in the topic. Find good stories.
  4. Practice. Practice. Practice. Rehearse out loud with all equipment you plan on using. Work to control filler words; Practice, pause and breathe. Use a clock to check your timings and allow time for the unexpected.
  5. Know the audience. Try to speak to one or two people in the audience as they arrive – they will be your allies in the audience – it is easier to speak to friends than to strangers.
  6. Know the setup. Arrive in good time to check out the speaking area and get practice using the microphone and any visual aids.
  7. Relax. Begin with a well prepared grabber. A personal story is a great start. It connects you to the audience and creates the right emotional atmosphere (and calms your nerves).
  8. Visualize yourself successful. See yourself at the end of the speech surrounded by people asking questions, visualise the applause.
  9. Pauses. Include 3-8 second pauses at key moments – just before key statements or just after a story – this really brings the audience into the speech.
  10. Don’t apologize – the audience probably never noticed it.
  11. Smile. Look like the content matters to you – if the audience don’t feel that it is important to you, it will be really hard for them to feel that it should be important for them.
  12. Get experience. Take every opportunity you can get to speak (and listen to other speakers). Prepare well ahead of time. Experience builds confidence, which is the key to effective speaking.

What’s Your View

Are there any other tips that work for powerful speakers out there?

The role of luck in success

As a business owner, you tend to hear a lot of stories about better business, tips and tricks of the trade, and lessons about management. Out of all of them, though, there’s one story that has stuck with me through the years. It’s a story that taught me to enjoy every aspect of business, and that every day brings new opportunities to learn and excel. Here is the story:

Two men, Bill and Frank, begin working at a hotel the same day. They are both intelligent, educated and with aspirations. The manager of the hotel greets them both and hands them both doormen outfits. They are to begin working on the door of the hotel opening and closing the doors, helping with bags, flagging taxis, etc.

Bill thinks “Doorman? I am worth more than this! I could manage this hotel better than the current guy.” He doesn’t have an alternative offer and he needs the money, so he does the job anyway. He maintains a pained grimace on his face, and deals with customers and other staff in a negative way because he is “better than this.”

Frank, in contrast, thinks “Okay, doorman. It’s not what I had in mind, but hey, I get to spend some time outside, get to meet the customers, and I’ll learn about how this hotel works.” He sets to work with a smile on his face and finds that he quite enjoys the varying small challenges that he faces as a doorman at such a prestigious hotel.

After six weeks, a position at the front desk opens up, and the hotel manager immediately thinks of Frank. Frank is promoted and immediately brings his positive attitude to the front desk of the hotel. Several years later, Frank is the hotel manager. He leaves late one evening and there, opening the door with a hard-wired grimace, is Bill.

Is it luck, or is it fate? Bill will spend forever in a job that he hates and Frank will love every job that he is given. This story is such an inspiration, because it encourages me to always stay positive about my responsibilities and to find the reward in every remedial task. When hiring staff I spend more time exploring attitude and self motivation than I do exploring capabilities. I spend time looking to direct my employees towards challenges that are motivating for them. When it comes to running a business, I’ve learned it’s not just about the results, but the work you put in. That’s where successful people thrive.

The measure of the life that we live

An old traveller has seen the world. He is restless and keeps moving. One day he is in the distant mountains in an area not known to him.

On this particular day, after a long walk through a mountain valley, he sees a shady tree and what looks like a good place to rest on the horizon.  As he nears, he sees that there is a fence around the area and a small building inside the fenced area.  He enters and shouts out to see if anybody is there. There is no reply.  He sits down next to the large oak tree.
As he sits he notices a white stone with an inscription on it.  “Thomas Benedict – 8 years, 4 months, 16 days”.  He notices other white stones.  He gets up from his resting place and begins to read the inscriptions on the many white stones that he now notices that surround this tree.  “John Williams – 3 years, 6 months, 11 days”.  “William Burrows 16 years, 1 month, 3 days”. 
Each stone has a name, a number of years, a number of months and a number of days.  He sees now that there are hundreds of stones within the fenced off area.  
As he searches and reads he sees that all of the inscriptions indicate periods between 1 year and 18 years.  On no stone does he find any time more than 18 years.  
With an painful surprise he realises that this is a cemetary.  A cemetary where they must all be  children.  He sits again near the tree with a profound sadness.  He feels tired and he feels sad and he asks himself “What must have happened to this people that they all die so young”.
An old man enters the cemetary.  He has white hair and a white beard, and piercing blue eyes.  He approaches the traveller with an open smile on his face.
The traveller looks up and gets to his feet as the old man approaches.  He says “Are you the caretaker of this place?”
The old man nods.
“What has happened? Why have they all died so young?”.
The old man reaches to a cord about his neck from which hangs a small leather-bound book.  He lifts up the old, battered, brown leather book and opens it.  He says “it is the custom in our tribe that all carry with them at all times a book such as this”.  “When we have a happy moment, we stop and note it down in the left column of the book, and we note how long it lasted in the right column.”  
The old man opens to an earlier part of his book and shows the traveller.  “First kiss – 25 days”. “First love – 3 months”.  “First child – 2 months, 6 days”.  “A journey with a friend – 1 day”.
When a member of our tribe reaches the end of their time, the rest of the tribe gather.  We sum up the total of the right hand column and that is the number that we inscribe on their white stone. 
We believe that this is the real measure of the life that each has lived. 

The reward for conformity is that everybody likes you except yourself

A monk and his followers live near a river.  Each morning they go down to the river.  One morning, a scorpion falls into the river.  The monk reaches out and picks up the scorpion placing him on dry land. His hand is stung painfully.

The next day, the monk and his followers go down to the river.  A scorpion falls into the water.  The monk reaches out and saves the scorpion, again receiving a painful sting.  His followers ask if he is ok.

A third day, the monk and his followers go down to the river.  A scorpion falls into the water.  The monk reaches out to save the scorpion but his followers hold him back.  “Have you not seen what will happen?”  The monk asks to be released, reaches out, saves the scorpion and is again stung painfully.

The followers ask the monk “What are you doing?”

The monk replies “It is in the nature of the scorpion to sting.  It is in my nature to help those that I can help. If I do not follow my nature I will not be fulfilled”.

The reward for conformity is that everybody likes you except yourself” Rita Mae Brown

4 simple steps to become a great speaker

Jim Rohn says that there are four simple steps to becoming a great speaker:
  1. Have something to say.
  2. Say it well.
  3. Read your audience.
  4. Intensity (the right words mixed with measured emotion).

How do we get something good to say? Live a full live. Meet lots of people. Fail. Succeed. Remember what it felt like and be able to share the emotion as well as the facts of what happened. Write a journal. Keep track of your stories.

How do we say it well? Prepare. Start strong. Breathe. Look up. Pause. Practice (lots).

How can you read the audience? Look at them. Listen to them. Feel the emotion of the room, of your listener – by feeling your own emotion.

Intensity – how do we get the right emotion? Tell personal stories. Share something. Only stories allow us to share emotion with others.

What tracks are you leaving in the sand?

A traveller is lost in the dessert. The sun is beating down. His mouth is parched and dry. He is disoriented. In an effort to survive, he begins walking towards the only sign he can see – some mountains in the far distance.

After an hour of struggling through the sand, he comes across the tracks of a camel. He feels a sense of relief as this means that there is life out here. He begins to follow the camel tracks back.

After another hour walking alongside the camel’s tracks, he begins to see that every fourth footstep has a slight dragging shape – this camel is lame.This camel is lame in its left back leg.

He continues his walk and starts to see also that there are grains of rice that have fallen to the right side of the camel’s tracks. Our traveller thinks “Aha, this camel is carrying a load of rice, and the right side basket of the camel has a small hole in it”.

He continues and soon comes to a small village. In the central square there is a bustling market. In the midst of the market there is an old man who is shouting “has anybody seen my camel? It is my only possession. I am lost. Has anybody seen my camel?”. Nobody can help him – neither the traders in the market, nor the people who live in the village. The bustle of the square dies down a little and our traveller approaches the old man.

Your camel – was it lame in the back right leg?”. The old man looks up and with a face growing in hope says “yes”. “Your camel – was it carrying a load of rice – and the right side basket has a small hole?”. The old man’s eyes are now bright with hope “You have seen my camel – I am saved. You have seen my camel.” Our traveller replies “I have not seen your camel but I know that he went that way”.

We all leave tracks in the sand.The choice we have is what type of tracks we leave.

Laying bricks or building cathedrals

6 months ago I had the privilege of a visit to the Sagrada Familia with the head structural architect of the works and a friend of mine who is the owner of the oldest architectural practice in Spain. I will never see the Sagrada Familia the same way again. Sharing in the passion of these two architects for the grand vision and the minute details of Gaudi left me seeing that this is much more than a building.

During this visit I come across three bricklayers. The three are working on the same area, placing brick on top of brick. Imagine this exchange of words:

I walk up to the first bricklayer and I ask him “What are you doing?”. He turns his head, and with a look of disdain he says “I am laying bricks”.

I move on to the second bricklayer. I ask him “What are you doing?”. He turns his head and with a look of appreciation he says “I am making a wall”.

I approach the third bricklayer and ask him “What are you doing?”. He looks up with a smile, and I see a glint in his eye as he says “I am building a cathedral”.

There is no difference in what these three are doing, but there is a huge difference in what they feel about what they are doing. Who will be here on a cold, wet day when times are tough? What has happened that this third man has connected with a much bigger and profound vision of his work? What can a leader do to connect people to something bigger than the operational activity of their day to day labour?

I believe that a heightened sense of the broader impact of a role has an impact on ethics, on performance, and on the ability to attract more talent that will take the organization on to greater impact on its world. Bankers who view their role as maximizing profit on this deal are just like bricklayers who see their job as no more than ensuring the bricks stay on top of each other just long enough to get paid.

The professions had this in the past. Politicians, doctors, bankers, lawyers, journalists felt they played a privileged role in society improving the quality of life, the quality of the institutions of life.

I read an article on a company called NetApp today on in an article on 100 best companies to work for. NetApp are the number 1 company to work for on this year’s list. NetApp early on ditched a 12 page corporate travel policy and replaced it with “We are a frugal company. But don’t show up dog-tired to save a few bucks. Use your common sense.” I like the fact that the directors made this change – but also trust the values of their people. NetApp are not trying to hire bricklayers – they are hiring and trusting cathedral builders.