Deliberate Practice, Not Natural Talent, Makes the Difference

Not long ago, after finishing a presentation, someone said I was a natural when it came to public speaking. I took it as a compliment because that’s how it was intended. However, after thanking her I said, “It’s not natural talent. I work really hard at this.” It’s often the case that the better you get at something the easier it looks to others.

In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell took Dr. Anders Ericsson work and popularized the idea that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice can make almost anyone an expert. Ericsson would dispute the 10,000 hours as some sort of magic number but does believe in deliberate practice as a way to expertise. Deliberate practice would be foreign to most people. It’s not simply playing a lot of golf or piano. It’s not giving a lot of presentations or even having performed a lot of surgeries. Each of those will help you improve up to a point but could lead to diminished performance thereafter.

According to Ericsson, deliberate practice entails the following:

  1. Your practice must have purpose.
  2. Your practice needs to be focused.
  3. You need timely feedback.
  4. You’ll have to get out of your comfort zone.

You may not want to become an expert or maybe you cannot devote 10,000 hours to an activity. That’s okay because you can still become really, really good by following Ericsson’s system of deliberate practice.

I’ve seen this play out in my career. I’ve been studying and teaching the science influence for more than 15 years. Over that time, I’ve taught essentially the same concepts for thousands of hours. You might think that could get boring and you’d be right if I did it exactly the same way every time. But I don’t.

I work really hard on perfecting my skill as a presenter/teacher. That work entails continuing to expand my knowledge base. I read, watch and listen to keep learning and I engage in deliberate practice as outlined by Ericsson.


Any time I have a big presentation coming up I practice. It’s not uncommon to put 30-40 hours of prep time in for a one hour keynote even though I’ve given a variation of the talk hundreds of times before. If people are going to give me an hour of their time and if an event coordinator is staking his or her reputation on hiring me in then I feel obligated to give everyone an experience they won’t forget.

Not simply focusing on what I want to say, but consciously thinking about the attendees and event coordinator has made a noticeable difference. Simon Sinek would say it’s the “why” makes all the difference.


Each time I get ready to present I pick at least one thing to do a little differently. That keeps things fresh for me and leads to a better experience for those in the audience.

I have my talks “chunked” so I can specifically work on sections and subsections. I don’t memorize anything but I know exactly what I want to convey and then work on doing that most effectively. That may be incorporating a different slide that drives home a point, creating a new takeaway item, changing colors or working on some other aspect of the overall presentation.


This summer I gave a short presentation in Columbus, my hometown, and invited several people who knew me. These were people who had seen me present many times over the years. I asked each for specific feedback on certain aspects of the presentation.

Afterwards I followed up with each person to discuss their feedback. When I saw themes (same feedback from multiple people) or got some interesting ideas to try I made sure to incorporate them into my next presentations. I also let each person know what I did with their feedback. Knowing I actually used their input will make them more likely to help me in the future. A win for each of us!

Comfort zone

I used to be very uncomfortable moving into a crowd. But I knew it would make for a better experience after watching my friend Anthony Tormey, President/CEO of Leader Development Institute, and other great speakers naturally do that.

To stretch myself, many years ago I started doing improv comedy with Jane. That removed any and all inhibitions! Now I visualize myself playfully interacting with audiences as I practice. When I present I make it a point to move into an audience as much as possible and take note of how people respond.


What do you want to get better at? How much time and effort are you willing to invest? Begin to engage deliberate practice and you will be amazed at the difference can make. Pick up a copy of Ericsson’s book Peak and remember, it’s about:

  1. Purpose
  2. Focus
  3. Feedback
  4. Comfort zone

Brian Ahearn

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An international speaker, author, coach and consultant, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., the most cited living social psychologist on the planet on the science of ethical influence.

Brian’s book – Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical – has been one of the top 10 selling Amazon books in several insurance categories and cracked the top 50 in sales & selling.

His LinkedIn Learning courses have been viewed by more than 75,000 people around the world! His latest course – Advanced Persuasive Selling: Persuading Different Personalities – is now online.

There Were Three Frogs on a Log

There were three frogs on a log and one decided to jump off. How many were left? If you’re like most people you thought to yourself, “Two,” but you’d be wrong. You see, there’s a difference between deciding and doing.

That riddle was first posed to me by John Petrucci. John was a coworker at State Auto for 22 years and led the department I was in for 18 years. When John joined State Auto I learned more about sales in one year with him than I had in my first 10 years in the business. After a long career with Allstate and State Auto John is retiring at the end of this month. Not coincidentally he also just celebrated his 60thbirthday. You can consider this post a tribute to John.

Over the course of my life I’ve seen the wisdom behind John’s riddle. Far too often I’ve seen people “decide” to do things – change careers, get in shape, repair a relationship, get out of a bad relationship, etc. – but failed to act. It’s as if they fooled themselves by deciding and talking.

Goal Setting

If you Google goal setting you’ll find lots of articles that talk about the need for goals if you want to succeed. I’m sure that’s no surprise. What might surprise you is the number of articles that try to dissuade you from setting goals because they see them as limiting.

Personal Goals

I’m all for goals because I’ve seen how valuable they’ve been in my personal and professional life. My best personal example would be running. I took up running because Jud, a friend and fitness trainer, convinced a number of friends that we could run the Columbus Marathon. I took up the challenge and failed miserably in my first race, the Cincinnati Marathon.

After figuring out what went wrong I went back to the drawing board. I had some success so I decided to make qualifying for the Boston Marathon my goal. That meant cutting more than an hour off of that first marathon time! Three years later I ran the Boston Marathon. That never would have happened without a goal to pursue.

Professional Goals

On a professional level it’s been my goal to turn Influence PEOPLE into a full-time career. I took that step last month but it didn’t just happen because I decided. I’ve had an eye on the prize for 10 years. My goal has been to nurture the business while I worked at State Auto Insurance. I knew doing so would give me the opportunity to step into it when the time was right. The nurturing was working on my speaking, landing outside opportunities and blogging during that time. There was a master plan in place because I had a goal then acted.

The Challenge

The challenge about deciding and doing is this – once someone decides, and even puts together a plan – then the real work begins. For marathoning I had to get out the door every day at 5 AM and run. For Influence PEOPLE it was writing every week for years on end, countless hours practicing and actively seeking opportunities.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that deciding, or even planning, are actually doing. Both are important but they are only the starting point. After that the work begins.


Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. His Learning course, Persuasive Selling, has been viewed 150,000 times! The course teaches you how to ethically engage the psychology of persuasion throughout the sales process. Not watched it yet? Click here to see what you’ve been missing.


Choices, Books and People Define Who You Become

Last week I was reminded that the choices I make, the books I read and the people I associate with have a huge impact on who I’ve become. And those same things impact who you are and who you will become.

I was reminded of this when hosted a podcast for the first time. At State Auto Insurance we decided to start our own sales podcast we’re calling “Everybody Sells State Auto” or “ESSA” for short. It will be a learning opportunity for our field sales people during their drive time.

For the initial podcast I had the privilege of interviewing a longtime friend, coworker and boss, John Petrucci. John is the Senior Vice President of Customer Service at State Auto and came up with the ESSA slogan many years ago. Because of that, and his impending retirement at the end of the year, I thought it fitting to have him as our first guest.

During our hour-long conversation he shared this nugget of wisdom: You’re who you are because of the choices you’ve made over the course of your life. He went on to say the two choices that probably define you more than anything else are the people you associate with and the books you read. That’s sound advice worth exploring a little further.


When it comes to choices it’s tempting to think they don’t really define you because so many things happen that are outside of your control. It’s certainly true that you may have no control over some events but you do control how you respond to those events.

If you only focus on the fact that events are outside your control you’ll probably feel helpless, like a victim. Or, you can make thoughtful responses to the events of life in hopes of achieving the outcomes you desire. Does the death of a loved one, loss of a job, cancer or some other tragic event define you or will you make choices to define yourself? Viktor Frankl learned this lesson during his incarceration in Nazi concentration camps. He came to realize that people always retain the freedom to choose and therefore each of us can define our purpose and life.


You may have heard your parents warn you against associating with the wrong crowd growing up. They might have said, “You’ll be known by the company you keep.” They understood if you hung out with the wrong crowd you were likely to be lumped in with that group no matter how you behaved. It’s called guilt by association and right or wrong it happens.

As an adult are you spending time with people who will make you better? That doesn’t mean only associating with people who are better off than you are. It could be helping someone not as fortunate as yourself. Serving others might increase your appreciation for what you have and help you grow as a person.

On the other hand, it’s always a good idea to seek out people who are succeeding in life personally and professionally. By observing people who are doing well you’ll get ideas you can apply in your life to increase your odds of success. Experience may be the best teacher but you don’t need to fail if you can learn from others experienes. This approach will speed up your learning process while avoiding some costly mistakes.


Last year I wrote about 5 Books that Radically Influence My Life. The article struck a chord with people because it was the most read blog post I’ve ever written. Beyond that handful of books, nearly every other book I’ve read has had some impact on me just as each meal or workout adds to my health and wellness.

Food feeds the body and reading feeds the mind! What are you feeding your mind with on a regular basis? There are so many benefits to learning through reading but I’d like to point out just one – developing your uniqueness.

You and I can read the same books but based on your prior experiences, current job and unique viewpoints you’re likely to draw different conclusions and come up with different ideas from just about anyone else. In other words, what you take in will help stimulate your thinking and growth which will make you uniquely you.


This week I encourage you to take time to reflect on who you’ve become. Give thought to the decisions that have led you to where you are today. As you contemplate the future think about who you want to become. What people and books can help you achieve the future you? If you do that and take the necessary actions you’ll become the person you aspire to be.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at InfluencePEOPLE and Learning Director at State Auto Insurance. His course, Persuasive Selling, has been viewed more than 120,000 times! Have you seen it yet? Watch it and you’ll learn how to ethically engage the psychology of persuasion throughout the sales process.

3 Things are Extremely Hard…

Ben Franklin famously said, “Three things are extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.” Now you might be thinking you know yourself well because you can describe your likes, dislikes, hobbies, career, family roles, etc. What Ben Franklin was talking about was understanding at a deeper level. Understanding why you do what you do gives insight into who you really are.

Why is it so hard to know yourself? Below are five psychological reasons that stand out to me. As you read, think about yourself in relation to each one.


If you’ve ever walked on a naturally worn path in the woods that’s a good example of habits. The more people walk on the dirt path the more other people will walk on that path even though there might be hundreds of ways to zig zag through the woods and get to the same end point. A well-worn path is easy to follow.

Habits are like paths that are often formed before you realize it. They make life easier because they save you time and energy. And that’s also what makes habits hard to change. Habits usually serve a purpose and therefore have to be replaced with new, better habits.

If you were in the woods it wouldn’t be enough to tell yourself you’re not going to walk on the path (an attempt to break the habit) you’d have to navigate a new path and that’s never easy.

Cognitive Dissonance 

Cognitive dissonance is the human tendency to rationalize what we believe or do so we can avoid feeling hypocritical. For example, you might acknowledge you could eat better BUT you’ll self-generate reasons to confirm why what you’re currently do is acceptable. Your rationalization might include the following: healthy food is over-priced, you’re on the go all the time, or your job has you eating out several nights a week.

There’s a saying in sales – people buy based on emotion and justify with logic. That justification is how people rationalize buying things they don’t need and can’t afford (The deal was too good!) so they don’t feel bad about themselves. Likewise, with many things in life people simply create reasons – true or not – to explain their behavior in ways that allow them to feel better about themselves.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias happens when you only seek or respond to information that confirms your current beliefs. Confirming what you already believe is easier and less time consuming than challenging your beliefs and ways of doing things. This is one more reason it’s hard for you to change.

We seldom state what we believe, acknowledge we could be wrong, then seek to honestly challenge our beliefs by looking at opposing data. Instead we take the easy road without realizing we’re doing it because it helps us avoid feeling hypocritical. This is why most people lock into one media source (MSNBC, Fox, CNN) for their news.

Confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance together create a powerful one-two punch to keep you mindlessly doing what you’ve always done.

Impact of Influence

Over the past 15 years I’ve immersed myself to learn about influence. Something I’ve seen consistently with people is a resistance to the idea that attempts at influence impact them. They’ll readily admit influence techniques impact others, but not them because they’re too smart.

I’ll let you in on a secret…even though I teach influence sometimes I’m persuaded by things I’m unaware of. I pretty much view the world through the lens of influence and if it can impact me at times without notice then how much more with untrained people? Most influence operates at the subconscious level and that’s why you’re unaware when it’s impacting you. And that leads me to my last area of impact…

Our Subconscious

Most neuroscientists estimate 85%-95% of what we do in a given day is driven by our subconscious. In other words, the vast majority of the time we act without consciously thinking about what we’re doing or saying!

Imagine your subconscious is an umbrella over your habits, cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias and influence. Each of those primarily operates without your awareness because they impact you at the subconscious level.

This unconscious behavior is a huge reason why it’s so hard for us to know ourselves and understand why we do what we do. If you’re not aware of what’s going on in your mind how can you really know why you do what you?

Think about the Wizard of Oz for a moment. At the end of the movie the curtain was pulled back to reveal the great and mighty Oz was actually just a little old man with a megaphone pulling some strings. Pull the curtain back in your life and you’ll begin to see the reasons for why you do what you do. But beware, doing so will take time, energy and courage and that’s why Ben Franklin was so right when he said, “Three things are hard: steel, a diamond and to know one’s self.”

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at InfluencePEOPLE. His course, Persuasive Selling, has been viewed more than 110,000 times! Have you seen it yet? Watch it to learn how to ethically engage the psychology of persuasion throughout the sales process.


To Be More Productive Try 23 and 7

I was off the week of Thanksgiving and my wife was working half days so I had some extra time on my hands each morning. Because I love reading I dug into The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance by Friederike Fabritius and‎ Hans W. Hagemann. As I read I came across something I knew to be true but had forgotten to use.

When I was in college I had a special way to study for exams. I would start at 8 AM and study for 50 minutes followed by a 10-minute break. I’d do that till noon, eat lunch then start back up at one o’clock going until 5 PM. I took another hour break for dinner then I was back at it from 6 PM till 9 PM. That allowed for 11 hours of study but it never seemed overwhelming because of all the short breaks and the longer lunch and dinner breaks. The proof was in the pudding – I always did very well on my exams.

I chose this study method because I’d heard somewhere that the brain can’t concentrate for more than 45-50 minutes at a time. Reading The Leading Brain reminded me of this truth and my prior study habit so I decided to give this approach a try again but with a small twist.

If you’re like me too often you think if you can’t dedicate an hour or more to something then perhaps it’s not worth starting. Then what happens is those precious minutes get wasted on social media, watching television or some other mind-numbing activity. As much as I enjoy rest I didn’t want my week to idly go by and not accomplish some of the things I’d been looking forward to doing.

Rather than go 50 and 10, I decided to just go 23 and 7. I started with some reading. I closed my social media and consciously told myself I’d do nothing but read for 23 minutes. I set the alarm on my iPhone to buzz every 23 minutes followed by another buzz after 7 minutes.

It worked wonders! I read a lot and felt like I was retaining more because there were no starts and stops. Every time we allow ourselves to get interrupted and give our attention to the interruption we waste time and energy getting back to where we were. This isn’t so difficult with reading but it becomes very problematic with more complex tasks.

With that success, I decided to try it with my writing because, although I enjoy writing, I fall into the “I don’t have enough time” trap too often. I set my timer and started banging away on my MacBook keyboard. When the buzzer went off I walked away from my laptop and engaged in some other activity entirely. Just as it did with my reading, it worked wonders for my writing!

Any of us can bear down and concentrate for some short period of time. For you maybe it’s 10 and 5 or 20 and 10. Whatever you think will work best, give it a shot. Turn off or tune out anything that may distract you. Set a timer for some focused time followed by relaxing time. I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how quickly the time passes and how much you get accomplished. Two cycles of 23 and 7 were all it took to write this article, proof read it and get it posted!

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at InfluencePEOPLE. His course, Persuasive Selling, has been viewed more than 100,000 times! Have you seen it yet? Watch it to learn how to ethically engage the psychology of persuasion throughout the sales process.

Love the One You’re With

Last week I mentioned I would be writing a series of posts on how you can use the principles of persuasion to influence your own behavior for positive changes.

Crosby, Stills and Nash have a famous song from the early ‘70s called “Love the One You’re With.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that little title and while we might not be able to “love” everyone, we can at least come to like people more than we do today.

In the psychology of influence, we talk about the principle of liking. When we like someone it’s easier to say, “Yes” to him or her. Or to look at it the opposite way, it’s harder to say “No” to people we like.

There are many things we can do to get people to like us. Two simple things are similarities and compliments.

When we learn we have something in common with someone it’s easy for them to connect with us and like us. Have you ever experienced a situation where you learned you had something in common with another person (hobby, hometown, college, pet, etc.) and the conversation just naturally flowed? Sure you have. We all have. You could probably tell that person liked you and responded differently to you than a stranger might.

When it comes to compliments, it’s easy to see the impact they have on others. When you give genuine praise the other person not only appreciates it, they feel better. Feelings are the result of chemical reactions in our bodies as different hormones are activated. When you routinely look for the best in others and let them know about your positive thoughts, they like you more because they like how you make them feel.

So how do you use this with yourself? The principle of liking isn’t just about getting someone to like you so they’ll do what you want them to do. The bigger implication is that you will come to like them! That’s right; as you connect through similarities and offer up genuine compliments you’ll convince yourself that you like them. This is the game changer in relationships because when you like someone you tend to:

  • Want the best for them
  • Offer up your best efforts
  • Care for them
  • Trust them

The list of positives could go on and on but you get the point. When you like someone they sense it and respond accordingly. The whole dynamic changes.

So here’s what I want you to do. Don’t approach new people thinking, “How can I get them to like me?” Instead start focusing on, “How can I come to like that person?” Look for ways to connect on similarities and offer genuine praise in order to persuade yourself. It’s often said the only person we can control or change is ourselves so do whatever you have to so you can come to like other people. I think you’ll find it easier, less frustrating and much more beneficial in the long run.