How to train people to listen to you

When I was a freshman in college at my first official fraternity meeting, one of the older guys (who’s now a pediatrician), said to me:

“Kevin, I want you to notice something.  There are some guys here who always have to say something about every issue we talk about.  Watch what happens whenever they talk.”

The lesson became obvious pretty fast.  Whenever the talkers spoke, everyone just tuned out.  The talkers had trained the group not to listen to them. 

The guys people paid attention to were those who listened more than they talked, who weren’t afraid to contribute but did it when they really had something to say that was different from what had already been said.  Whenever they talked, everyone tuned in and the room got quiet fast.  And almost without exception, what they had to say was more insightful. 

It's fine to answer a question in class and be wrong.  It's fine to suggest something in a meeting that gets shot down.  Never be afraid to contribute.

But don't become one of those people who talks so much that you train people not to listen to you.  The more you listen, the more they'll listen back.  I still forget that sometimes, and it’s one of the best lessons I took from college. (Thank you, Dr. Mike).

Don’t hide

It’s scary to risk suffering the pain and embarrassment that can come with failing.    You might:

…try your best in AP chemistry and not do well.
…run for junior class president and lose.
…suggest an idea for a French Club fundraiser that raises almost no money.
…try out for varsity basketball and not get picked.
…apply for a part-time job and not get hired.
…put your hand up and give the wrong answer in your math class.
…fail the AP Euro test even though you studied really hard.
…share an idea with your club that the president shoots down.
…not quite hit the high note in your sax solo.

All pretty rough, I admit it.  So you have two choices. Take the risk, or hide and play it safe.  But before you decide, remember:

1. Nobody ever died from failures like these (motorcycle daredevlis and bullfighters are a different story and beyond the scope of this blog).

2. You’ll never stand out by hiding.

Colleges will always be more impressed with kids who have the guts to try and the maturity to learn from it when they fail.  Don’t hide.  Put yourself out there and go for it.  You’ll either be successful or you’ll learn and move on.  Either way, you’ll be smarter and braver.

Change your college planning mantra

Too many students (and by extension, their parents) plan for college with the mantra,

“If I get into my dream school, everything I’m doing will be worth it.” 

That’s a terrible mantra.  You’re putting all the power in the hands of the colleges and totally ignoring all the long-term benefits of pretty much everything you’re doing. 

Here’s the mantra I’d repeat over and over again:

“If I work like I want to go to my dream school, it will be worth it no matter who admits me.”

That mantra lets you care a lot about what you’re doing without letting prestigious colleges alone decide whether your time, work, energy, passion and personality are impressive enough to be admitted.  It lets you be pleased with your effort when you study like crazy for a trig midterm even if you get a “B-.”  It lets parents praise and appreciate their kid for being a good kid who works hard and is nice to other people, whether or not he has high SAT scores. 

And most importantly, it keeps you focused on developing your work ethic, curiosity, interest in learning, and character, all of which will play much bigger roles in your future success than whether or not the college you attend is a famous one.   

You can’t have fans without critics

Every time I write a blog post about parents stepping back and letting their kids take charge, I get at least one email from a parent somewhere who argues that it’s her right to be as involved as she wants to be.  They’re entitled to their opinions, but we’re never going to see the college admissions world the same way.

What we do and how we do it turns off some people.  The irreverent tone of our website, the fact that our kids bang a gong when they submit applications, our steadfast belief that you don’t have to go to a famous college to be successful—everything we do will inevitably make a lot of people look for college counseling someplace else.  But isn’t that better for them and for us? 

Being open and direct about what we stand for makes it easy for the right people to appreciate us and for the wrong people to disqualify us.  When we’re not trying to please everybody, we can spend our time trying to delight our customers who appreciated us enough to join the family.  If we let them down and they complain, we’d better listen.  But most other people, we can ignore. 

Whether you’re a business or a kid in high school who loves programming computers and playing the cello, you can’t have fans without a few critics (even Apple and The Beatles aren’t universally loved).  Listen to the people who appreciate and understand you.  And don’t worry so much about the rest.

When I’m happy to be the dumbest

Being the dumbest person in a room full of smart people is actually a great place to be.

Whether it’s a class, a club, a parent meeting or a counselor gathering, if the rest of the group seems smarter than you, don’t be ashamed.  Instead, enjoy the opportunity.  Learn as much as you can.  The more often you put yourself in those situations, the smarter you’re going to be.

What would happen this semester if…

…you didn’t answer your phone, open emails, or check Facebook while you studied?

…you raised your hand at least once a day in your favorite class?

…you took on a big project nobody else in your club was willing to do?

…you only talked about people as if they were there in the room with you (no bad-mouthing)?

…you quit an activity you were no longer enjoying and replaced it with something you really wanted to do?

…you made an extra effort to appreciate your parents?

…you congratulated other students who did well on a test, or had a great performance in the school play, or scored the winning basket?

…you studied for the SAT and accepted whatever score you got as long as you knew you’d tried your best?

…you let your parents do less for you and took on more responsibility for your college planning?

…you were nice to the kid who nobody else is nice to?

…you worried less about getting into a prestigious college and more about finding the right one?

Seems like it could only lead to good things.

Amplify what already worked

Here’s an idea for a New Year’s resolution—amplify something that worked last year.

If English was your best class last year, what could you do to make that class even better this year?  What if you made an effort to contribute more to the class discussion, or talk to your teacher after class about the books, or turn in a draft of your essays before they’re due to get feedback before the final draft?

If you're the editor of the school paper and your sports editor is doing a particularly great job, how can you give her even more opportunities to do what she's doing?  What could you and the rest of the staff learn from her example?

If you’re a parent and you were especially supportive of your student when she was struggling in trig, how could you give that kind of support even more often this year?

If you're a private counselor and your business grew last year, what did your clients seem to appreciate most about you and your work?  Did your students finish applications early?  Did you make "C" students excited about their college prospects?  Did you schedule your meetings at even more convenient hours?  How could you find ways to do even more of those things this year?

If you’re a high school counselor and you had kids who would never have applied to college successfully without your help last year, how could you get to those kids even earlier this year?  How much more could you do with them?

If you’re a college and two of your admissions reps increased application numbers from students in geographic areas where you don’t normally get a lot of interest, how could you give those reps a chance to do more of their best work?  What could they teach the rest of the team about finding the right applicants for your college?

If you run a school and your enrollment of new freshmen increased last year, what did you do differently?  How could you do even more of it this year?

Instead of just trying to fix flaws, you might have more success if you amplify what already worked.

Have fun and be safe tonight.  Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year!

If colleges were like McDonald’s

What if every college in the United States was part of a franchise like McDonald's is?  Suppose you knew that all colleges were exactly the same—same classes, same quality teachers, same majors and clubs and support services.  And every student graduated with exactly the same degree from McDonald's University.  What would you do to stand out and show potential employers that you weren’t just another student version of a Big Mac?

You’d probably go out of your way to stand out before you ever graduated.  You’d go to every class and get to know your professors.  You’d take on big projects in your clubs, look for valuable internships or programs to do over the summer, and learn as much as you possibly could.  From the first day of college, you’d be doing whatever it took to show people four years later that you got a lot more out of your college experience than the average student did.

Given that colleges aren't like McDonald’s at all, what if you did those things at the school that was a great fit for you?  You’d be unstoppable when you graduated no matter what the name of your school was.

Ten New Year’s resolutions for private counselors

1. Start a blog and share your advice freely.

2. Do free workshops at local libraries for kids who need the help

3. Start an email newsletter offering advice and send it only to people who specifically register for it (anything else is spam).

4. Get rid of any “contact us” forms on your website and instead just offer a phone number and an email address.

5. Take your five best customers (who love what you do and refer you business) out to lunch.

6. Change any references to “we” on your website to “me.”  Unless you really are a “we,” in which case, use your website to introduce your team.

7. Imagine what you would do differently for your customers if you doubled your price.  Then find a way to do those things at your current price.

8. Resolve to fire (nicely) any families who aren’t a good fit for you and your offering.  Help them find another counselor who’s closer to what they’re looking for.

9. Attend a local NACAC affiliate conference.  If you already attend, propose to do a session and give away as much useful advice as you can.

10. Be so good they can’t ignore you. 

Marketing by sharing

If you'd like to get more attention for your business, school, club or organization, I can't think of a better way to do it than to share your expertise with anyone who might be interested.  Jason Fried of 37signals explains why here.