Nick Morgan: An interview by Bob Morris


Nick Morgan is one of America’s top communication theorists and coaches. A passionate teacher, he is committed to helping people find clarity in their thinking and ideas – and then delivering them with panache. He has been commissioned by Fortune 50 companies to write for many CEOs and presidents. He has coached people to give TED talks, to appear on the Today Show, and to take on the investment community. He has worked widely with political and educational leaders. And he has himself spoken, led conferences, and moderated panels at venues around the world.

Nick’s methods, which are well known for challenging conventional thinking, have been published worldwide. His acclaimed book on public speaking, Working the Room: How to Move People to Action through Audience-Centered Speaking, was published by Harvard Business Review Press in 2003 and reprinted in paperback in 2005 as Give Your Speech, Change the World: How to Move Your Audience to Action. His book on authentic communications, Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma, was published by Jossey-Bass in January 2008. His new book on communications and brain science, Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact, was published by Harvard Business Review Press in 2014.

* * *

Morris: Before discussing Power Cues, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Morgan: The Dalai Lama is my personal (and the world’s) hero and has been for me since I was 17 and I first learned about him. His openness and acceptance of the world and his focus on others are constant inspirations for me.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Morgan: My two years as a speechwriter for Governor Robb of Virginia. I had a PhD, but the practical application of my theoretical knowledge taught me most of what I know.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Morgan: I fractured my skull, and went into a coma, at age 17. When I awoke, I could no longer understand body language. Re-learning the meaning of body language (how you read what other people are feeling and intending) led to a lifelong interest in the subject.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Morgan: A PhD in Rhetoric, Theory, and Literature from the University of Virginia was invaluable to me — it gave me the theoretical understanding of what I do everyday.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Morgan: It’s all about relationships. My academic career floundered because I didn’t understand that, and it led me into the business world.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Morgan: The Tao Te Ching — because it teaches us about accepting life and going with the flow.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. Speaking of Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Morgan: Brilliant! Leaders can only lead willing, preferably zealous followers so don’t get too far out in front of your team.

Morris: From Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Morgan: So true! Something I’ve told my clients for years.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Morgan: It’s the anomaly that signals the insight.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Morgan: Great point from the always-wise Drucker — first ask why, and decide whether something is worth doing. Only after that should you set about doing it as well as you can.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Morgan: I agree — we have a Marlboro Man Theory of leadership and change, especially in America, but in fact anything great that’s accomplished is accomplished by many hands.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Morgan: Indeed, we learn far more from our mistakes than our successes.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Morgan: It’s what my new book is about — storytelling sticks in the mind because it attaches emotions to events, and that’s the way we remember things. If you don’t tell stories, no one will remember what you say. Period.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any Advice?

Morgan: I think what Alvin Toffler brilliantly called “Future Shock” so many years ago is upon us: CEOs will struggle to keep themselves and their companies current, relevant, and ahead of the curve.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Power Cues. When and why did you decide to write it?

Morgan: Two reasons to write the book, beginning a couple of years ago. First, I decided it was time to open up about some personal life experiences, such as my head injury, that lead me to the study of body language. Second, some extraordinary developments in neuroscience had implications for communications that no one else was writing about.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Morgan: See Chapter Four on the voice! It turns out that we determine who our leaders are by unconscious undertones we all project with our voices — and of which we’re completely unaware.

Morris: You recommend that your reader pose a series of seven questions and answer each candidly to gain a better understanding of how they come across to others. For example, “How do you show up when you enter a room?” and “What unconscious ‘messages’ are you receiving from others? Is any one of these answers of greatest importance or are all answers of relatively equal importance? Please explain.

Morgan: They’re all important, but the whole reason to study (and learn to control) body language is to have that support (rather than undercut) your message. So the 7th question, about storytelling, is in that sense the point of the whole book.

Morris: I have been eager to ask you this question since the first time I read the book. Some power cues suggest menace, a threat, danger, potential harm, etc. Other power cues offer reassurance, encourage trust and respect, suggest that we are safe, etc. How to “read” cues in order to recognize which are positive and which are negative?

Morgan: You have to learn to trust — and listen to — your unconscious mind. If you pose the question to your unconscious “is this person a friend or a foe” — safe or a threat — your unconscious mind is hard-wired to assess that brilliantly for you. It’s just that we’re not very good at paying attention to what our unconscious minds are telling us. That’s what the book seeks to remedy.

Morris: In history and in literature, there have been villains who were masters of power cues. That was certainly true of Adolph Hitler in the 1930’s and also of Iago in Shakespeare’s play, Othello. In your opinion, what are the most valuable lessons to be learned from villains such as these?

Morgan: We all need to be astute in sending and reading power cues, so that we can prevent ourselves — and the world — from being manipulated by evil geniuses like Hitler.

Morris: You note that our conscious minds can handle (i.e. process) about 40 bits of information per second whereas our unconscious mind can handle about eleven million (11,000,000) bits of information per second. In your opinion, what are the most significant implications of those statistics?

Morgan: The conscious mind is easily overwhelmed. The unconscious mind is vast and far more powerful, but by definition we’re not aware of it.

Morris: What are the most common misconceptions about the unconscious mind? What in fact is true?

Morgan: People often think of the unconscious mind as “the gut” or perhaps the Freudian “sink” of repressed sexual desires. It’s neither one of those things. It’s the repository of memory, and it’s the seat of decision making.

Morris: As I indicate in my review of the book for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye.

For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as the most important point or key take-away in each of these passages.

First, We’re Not Aware of Our Most Important Activities (Pages 6-14)

Morgan: The unconscious mind governs our decision-making, and much of our communications. It’s imperative, if you want to be a successful leader, to become aware of these key human actions.

Morris: What Humans Really Want (18-21)

Morgan: We are communal beings who love to get together in groups and share emotions — like sporting events, rock concerts and political rallies. We crave tribal membership.

Morris: Knowing Your Own Power Cues: Let’s Rethink Our Communications (23-25)

Morgan: The key is to become aware of how you are signaling your presence in meetings, conversations, speeches — everywhere you show up. Then you can take charge of them.

Morris: Why Gesture Matters, and, How Our Minds Really Work: Not So Much (32-33)

Morgan: Gestures come first! Before we’re consciously aware of our thoughts, we start to gesture. Pay attention to your gestures, and others’, and you can become a more powerful communicator.

Morris: Field Notes: The How-You-Show-Up Questionnaire (49-50)

Morgan: The questionnaire is a simple first step toward becoming more self-aware.

Morris: The Difficulty of Paying Attention to Everything (53-55)

Morgan: Our conscious minds are rapidly overwhelmed with the few tasks that they attempt to manage. That’s why our unconscious minds have evolved to handle so much of our thinking.

Morris: Mirror Neurons Make It All Possible (63-64)

Morgan: Mirror neurons make human empathy possible.

Morris: Take Charge of Your Emotions and You’ll Be Able to Take Charge (65-68)

Morgan: Emotions are charismatic. Focused emotions are very charismatic. To lead people with charisma, you need to take charge of and focus your emotions.

Morris: Play the Top Dog to Be the Top Dog, and, Remember Who’s in Charge (72-75)

Morgan: If you adopt the body language of a power player, it will greatly facilitate your ability to be a power player.

Morris: Use Your Unconscious Expertise the Way It Should Be Used (87-89)

Morgan: Use your unconscious mind to read other people’s intents, emotions, and desires.

Morris: How to Spot the Person in Power (95-98)

Morgan: The person in power takes up the most space.

Morris: Learn [How] to Listen to Your Unconscious Mind (109-110)

Morgan: It takes practice, but the results are worth it. You have to begin by posing questions to your unconscious mind, and then listening very carefully for the answers. If you pose the right kinds of questions, and listen well, you can begin to tap into the power of your unconscious mind.

Morris: The Secret Sounds That Run Your Life (121-124)

Morgan: The research shows that every human emits unconscious vocal undertones that determine who the leader is in the room.

Morris: Pitching Your Voice to Project Leadership (131-134)

Morgan: You can strengthen your leadership voice by finding what I call its Maximum Resonance Point and learning to pitch your voice there. That gives you the strongest voice and thus the one that people are most likely to want to follow.

Morris: The Leadership Conversation (138-140)

Morgan: Sometimes, with leaders, the stakes are very high indeed. Churchill, in WWII, for example, could not afford to utter publicly his concerns about England’s ability to survive Hitler’s onslaught. He thought about them, but the leadership conversation sometimes needs to inspire, not voice doubt.

Morris: Influence Has Four Sources (152-154)

Morgan: There are four different kinds of power in a communication: position power (the CEO talking to her direct reports), emotion power (passion sometimes rules the day), expertise (people often listen to the most knowledgeable person in the room), and conversational power (the subtlest, this is the ability to direct the conversation through body language).

Morris: How to Send Honest Signals Through Cyberspace (161-166)

Morgan: In cyberspace, we get many fewer cues about the emotional states and attitudes of the people we’re talking to. That makes it less interesting, easier to mis-communicate, and more likely to destroy trust. So you need to treat cyberspace with care, especially being aware of the fragile nature of trust in the virtual world.

Morris: How to Tell a Great Story (205-221)

Morgan: As I explain in the book, tell one of the basic five stories we all tell each other, and you will connect powerfully with people: the Quest, Stranger in a Strange Land, Revenge, Rags to Riches, and Love Story.

Morris: Of all the great leaders throughout history, with which one would you most want to share an evening of conversation if it were possible? Why?

Morgan: Shakespeare. The greatest genius ever, and there are so many questions (as someone who taught Shakespeare for years) I’d love to ask him!

Morris: If you were asked to speak at an elementary school graduation ceremony and explain why innovative thinking is important to personal growth as well as one’s career (no matter what it turns out to be), that would be your key points?

Morgan: The world is a very big place and there are many wonderful people in with ideas you haven’t thought about. Talk to them, find out what they’re thinking, so that you can be the best person you can be.

Morris: In your opinion, what specifically can new parents do to encourage and nourish a child’s imagination during the pre-K years?

Morgan: Read to them!!!! Don’t let TV be a babysitter!!!!

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Power Cues and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. Where to begin?

Morgan: It begins at the top, with authentic communication. Encourage (good) storytelling at all levels! And get everyone clear on the single story the business is telling to the rest of the world.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Power Cues, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Morgan: If they can learn to tell great stories about their businesses, the world will pay attention and their bottom lines will thrive.

* * *

Nick cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Public Words link

Forbes link

Nick’s Amazon page

Twitter link

LinkedIn link

Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.