Sleep and influence: a sorely overlooked partnership

Sleep makes you more successful

Every now and again life-changing concepts seem to appear out of nowhere. For me, a scientific book, “Why We Sleep”, written for laypeople, has really opened my eyes to the personal and professional value of sleeping well.

Professionally, I’m fascinated by the very clear links between sleep and influence. These are supported by considerable amounts of peer-reviewed research.

Personally, the risks often related to lack of sleep – including cancer, dementia, heart attacks and stroke (all outlined in the book) – have caused me to change my sleeping habits and adopt a much healthier pattern of rest.

Sleep makes you more charismatic and compelling

The book’s author, neuroscientist and sleep specialist Matthew Walker, points out that CEOs who don’t get enough sleep are less charismatic and less inspiring. It seems that if you want to appear compelling, getting enough quality shut-eye is the order of the day (or night).

However, it’s not just your sleep that affects how others perceive you. How they sleep also has a significant influence on how they feel about you. Professor Walker warns that even if you’re the most well-rested CEO on the planet and you’re truly inspiring and charismatic, your employees won’t realise or appreciate this if they’re suffering from a lack of sleep. They’ll rate you as much less compelling than you really are.

There is also disturbing research available to demonstrate that whenever you sleep poorly, your employees (even those who sleep well) are likely to be less engaged and less productive throughout the day. All because you were tossing and turning all night. Worrying, isn’t it?

Sleep affects your company’s bottom line

“Why We Sleep” underlines the financial impact of sleep (or lack of it). It outlines research into the costs of lost sleep for four big US companies. Every year, employees’ lack of sleep and their resulting loss in productivity sets these companies back a cumulative $54 million USD. This breaks down to around $2,000 USD per employee per year, and escalates to more than $3,500 per person for those with the poorest sleep habits.

Extrapolating this to country level, Matthew Walker highlights an independent report which shows that “insufficient sleep robs most nations of more than 2 percent of their GDP”. It’s almost inconceivable – and very concerning – that such a huge amount of capital is lost purely because of a lack of sleep.

The book reveals that under-slept employees are “not only less productive, less motivated, less creative, less happy and lazier, but they are also more unethical”. They are more likely to commit fraud, blame others for their mistakes and try to claim other people’s successes as their own.

As well as leading to an uncomfortable working environment, this can also have serious financial consequences. When tired employees act against a company’s code of conduct and follow their own dubious ethics, there is a risk of damaging corporate reputation – arguably any company’s most significant asset.

Turning that around, if your business encourages a corporate culture that values sleep, you’re likely to profit. “Ounces of sleep offer pounds of business in return”, promises Professor Walker.

Giving a talk in the mid-afternoon? Think again…

We’ve all felt a yawning tiredness after lunch. You might think it’s related to the food you just ate, but, in fact, it’s an urge linked with your biological need to sleep twice in every 24 hour period.

“Why We Sleep” explains that humans are hardwired to snooze in the afternoon. Our level of alertness drops and, if we don’t fight the impulse, our chin drops to our chest too. It’s difficult to concentrate when all we can think about is a nap. Our circadian rhythms (our repeating cycle of sleep and wake) are dictated by evolution and not by the demands of business.

The lesson from this is that when you need to deliver a presentation that shows you at your best, avoid the mid-afternoon period. Your audience will also be at its least alert and receptive at that time. Sleep and influence are tightly interlinked, but they happen consecutively, not concurrently, and they definitely don’t make good bedfellows.

Presentation nerves and their effects on sleep and influence

I’ve met many CEOs who’ve suffered from sleepless nights in the run-up to an important presentation. Apart from making you feel awful, this lack of sleep damages your memory. Professor Walker points out that it’s important to sleep before you learn something new (in this case, before attempting to practise a presentation) and it’s vital to sleep again after learning, to reinforce those memories and help you avoid forgetting what you’ve learned.

Sleep operates in two distinct phases – one deeper than the other – which alternate throughout the night on an approximately 90-minute timeframe. We dream during periods of relatively light sleep with rapid eye movements (REM) behind our closed eyelids. We strengthen our memories during the deeper, non-rapid eye movement (NREM) part of the sleep cycle.

So if presentation nerves affect you to such an extent that your sleep suffers, you are stymieing your ability to remember your messages. ‘Going blank’ is a widespread fear among senior personnel, particularly when presenting a mission critical speech. I often hear, “What if I forget what I want to say?”

Take heart from the fact that it’s perfectly possible to get rid of those nerves – with the appropriate support. This will help you to restore healthy sleep and influence your audience in the right way.

Sleep makes you more creative

Not only are sleep and influence tightly connected, sleep and creativity are also related. At night, while disparate bits of information float around your sleeping mind, your brain cleverly works out how the information is connected and comes up with brilliant solutions. Sleeping on a problem really does work, thanks to REM sleep.

The chemist Mendeleev, who devised the periodic table – explaining how all the chemical elements relate to one another – is said to have done so in a dream. The Beatles’ songs ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Let it Be’ came to Paul McCartney while he slept, and the author Mary Shelley took inspiration from a dream to pen the (now classic) novel ‘Frankenstein’.

Inventor Thomas Edison, who devised the phonograph and made significant improvements to the lightbulb, was so enamoured of sleep’s creative potential that he often took regular naps sitting in a chair while holding a set of ball bearings. Once he nodded off, the bearings would fall to the floor and the noise immediately woke him up so he could write down the creative thoughts that had suddenly flooded his mind.

Now that I’ve become aware of it, I’ve started to notice the potential of sleep creativity myself. Earlier this week, as part of a dissertation I’m writing for my MSc in Corporate Communications, I’d been turning over some complex concepts – thinking, puzzling and failing to work out the links between them. Overnight, it came to me: a simple, elegant way to slot the ideas together with logical form and structure.

I now sleep with a notepad and pen next to my bed and jot down my creative thoughts on waking, before they escape me. Even this post is creatively sleep-enhanced.

A compelling advert for sleep?

Matthew Walker offers various tips for a good night’s sleep, and I’m following some of his advice to see how well it works. So far, I’m impressed with the results and I admit to feeling much perkier during the day.

I’ve reduced my caffeine consumption: I stop drinking tea and coffee after lunchtime to reduce the stimulant in my system. Time permitting, I have a bath in the evening to warm my hands and feet, cool my core body temperature and aid quality sleep. I no longer look at electronic devices before bed, as their blue LED light affects the release of melatonin – the hormone that promotes sleep. Now my phone and computer are off two hours before bedtime.

These changes have been really tough to get used to, but now I’ve taken the plunge, I can tell you that they’ve been well worthwhile. I’ve noticed a marked difference in the quality of my sleep and I’m now noticing a positive difference in my creative and functional abilities during the day as well as my energy levels. I can definitely recommend this thing they call sleep!

Here’s how Professor Matthew Walker imagines an advert for the miracle remedy of sleep.

“Amazing Breakthrough!”

“Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory and makes you more creative. It makes you look more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and the flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested?”

I don’t know about you, but having read the book, I definitely buy into this marketing ploy. It’s eight hours a night for me from now on.

If you’d like to explore the relationship between sleep and influence or if you’re desperate to banish sleepless nights due to presentation nerves, drop me a line or connect with me on Linkedin, and let’s make your aspirations come true.

Sleep well… zzz…