Everybody’s Talking at Me, I Don’t Hear a Word They’re Saying – Ten Steps to Better Concentration
Harry Nilsson’s classic, “Everybody’s Talkin” was released in 1968. That same year I started work at Valley View Farms Country Store and Produce Market in Cockeysville, MD (you can’t make this stuff up).
On Saturdays, I worked at Valley View from 6:00 AM to 10:00 PM (at $1.10 per hour). The boss’ expectation was that “you treat each and every customer as though they were your best and the only customer of the day.” That was tiring after twelve hours…
So, when I had time for a break I wanted to get away from everyone and relax.
To take advantage of short rest periods I learned self-hypnosis. A fifteen-minute session of self-hypnosis was like an hour or more of sleep. Following my short breaks, I came back to the job rested and refreshed. Self-hypnosis can be as simple as looking at a point not too far from you, taking deep breathes and allowing your eyes to close while clearing your mind of any thoughts. It is not “weird” and you don’t lose control in any way. It’s simple and it works.
The first verse of “Everybody’s Talkin’” ended with “only the echoes of my mind.” I can relate, then and now. There is so much going on each and every day that it is literally hard to hear yourself think. And concentrate.
Most work days concentrating is hard. When I went looking for content about the importance of teaching your sales force how to concentrate I found surprisingly little of it. I did find a great blog on the Psychology Today site written in 2013 by Neel Burton M.D. entitled “How to Improve Your Concentration and Memory”. His objective was to provide strategies that anyone could use to improve the amount of information that they take in and remember. I have taken the liberty to convert his simple strategies for a generic audience to an audience of sales executives specifically. Here we go:
#1: Pay attention
Dr. Burton states, “You cannot take in information unless you are paying attention, and you cannot memorize information unless you are taking it in.” My own recommendation on this point comes from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” In his book Covey talks about five types of listening (or pretending to listen):
- Ignoring: Not really listening at all.
- Pretending: Humming along while not really following.
- Selective listening: Hearing what you want to hear.
- Attentive listening: Paying attention to the words.
- Empathic listening: Intending to understand what the other is trying to communicate.
Many, if not most, sales executives are so anxious to get to their presentation that they do not listen empathetically.
I must point out that Dr. Coveys fifth habit actually came from the “Prayer of St. Francis” which includes:
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand…
#2: Involve as many senses as possible
Dr. Burton states that “if you are sitting in a lecture, you will remember more of what is being said if you listen and scribble down a few notes. Or if you are reading a letter or an article, you will remember more of what is written if you read it aloud to yourself.” I would add that in a situation such as a lunch meeting or a meeting in a crowded office you must learn to control the part of your brain that helps you block out extraneous stimuli.
“The term ‘reticular activator’ comes from the name given to the part of the brain primarily responsible for arousal and motivation in animals (including humans). It’s called the ‘reticular formation’ and it’s located at the core of the brain stem between the medulla oblongata and midbrain.
“You can’t be aware of everything all the time. The reticular activator is your first line of defense against overwhelming stimuli. The reticular activator decides what will get into your awareness (what you will become conscious of), and its decisions are based on survival instincts plus anything else you deem as really important.”
Try practicing this. Next time you are in a crowded restaurant with family and friends, consciously tune in and tune out the “din” coming from the crowd around you. You will be amazed that it is harder to turn the reticular activator off than it is to turn it on. Staying focused on your audience helps keep the reticular activator on so that you can concentrate and listen in meetings.
#3: Relate new information to what you already know
As an example, we once supported a sales force that was responsible for selling a $1,000,000 piece of equipment that did genotyping. Our COO was worried that we could not get this project done without hiring Ph.D. scientists. I spent a couple of hours researching the space as it is my belief that if you spend a couple of hours researching any topic you will know more than 99% of the population does about that topic. In two hours I felt I had “broken the back” of the problem and was able to communicate to our team that the most important business issues this solution solved were testing speed, lowering cost, and more positive outcomes. If you picture a scientist with a test tube (information you know) and then picture how a machine could work like a million scientists with a million test tubes the challenge does not seem so great.
#4: Understand information
Per Dr. Burton: “Try to understand more complex material before you try to remember it. If possible, summarize the material in your own words and write or type out your summary.” We have all been in meetings where we expected our memory to get us through when it was clear to our audience that we really did not understand their solution and/or market. Go back through your data (on the web, in books…) and make sure that the light bulb comes on in your head (you understand the concepts) prior to trying to plan for and then engage the prospect.
#5: Structure your assessment of information
I recommend that sales executives structure how they look at prospects around the following: Pain, Priority, Process, and Environment. Is there a pain or need? Is there a priority to fix the pain or need? What is the process to make a decision about how to fix the pain or need? What is the current environment (technical or business process as examples) and how does that current environment match-up with the need, priority, and process to fix the problem. A caveat: prospects don’t put up with a lot of discovery anymore so a lot of the discovery needs to take place before you ask your prospect to spend time with you.
#6: Rehearse information
Most calls (or presentations) become unstructured, but the opening statement in calls (or the introduction to a presentation) is critically important to the success of that call. For our team, I recommend that they walk around in the building or parking lot until they have memorized and internalized the opening statement for their project. It needs to be second nature AND sound informal though it is the only part of a call that is tightly scripted.
#7: Exercise your mind
Per Dr. Burton: “Mental challenge can help to create new wire connections in the brain, which makes it more effective and more resistant to memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.” One way to accomplish this is to study the LinkedIn pages of your prospect(s); if they have written any content, study it; if they have a hobby or passion, understand it.
#8: Develop a healthy lifestyle
Per Dr. Burton: “A healthy lifestyle increases the amount of blood and oxygen that is delivered to the brain, and reduces the risk of medical conditions that can lead to memory loss such as Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and diabetes. Exercise also increases your ‘feel-good’ endorphins, which improves your mood and prevents depression.” Rejection is a way of life for salespeople. Even a small amount of exercise will help you put rejection into perspective and allow you to focus on the next positive outcome rather than the last negative one.
#9: Get sufficient sleep
Per Dr. Burton: “Sleep is necessary for memory consolidation, and feeling alert and refreshed improves your attention and concentration.”
#10: See a doctor
Per Dr. Burton: “Certain prescribed and over-the-counter drugs can impair your attention and concentration, and hence your memory. If you suspect that this is the case for you, see your family doctor.”
Sales training usually assumes you know how to concentrate. Many of us don’t. I hope that these ten tips will help you in preparation for, and execution of, the many jobs sales executives are required to do.