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Michael Sullivan – Retirement Communications Expert

Michael Sullivan – Retirement Communications Expert

By Michael Sullivan, Retirement Communications Expert

Editor’s note:
This presentation was delivered in live webinar format in 2015. Michael’s comments have been edited for clarity and length.

You can view a YouTube brief of the original presentation here.

You may also choose to take the full length course and earn 1 CRC®, CFP®, and/or PACE CE credit.



Peter Drucker, management consultant, said, “If you want to know what the future is going to be like, look at the demographics.” Look at the trend in aging that we have in this country. Are you old?  Do you consider yourself old? No, not really. Old is for that little old lady sitting in the back room of the healthcare center.  It’s not me.

Nobody wants to be old. Aging is not popular. Youthfulness is. The messages that come to us in all sorts of advertising don’t say to have fun as you get older.  They say to think young. Betty Davis, the actress, had a phrase, “Aging is not for sissies.”  Some of us are learning that may be the issue.  We’ll be talking about aging and the five senses, and how to use right brain communications from the right hemisphere of the brain with a series of communications techniques that you ought to be using, if you’re not already.

First, Some Stats

1.  What percentage of those over age 60 have some form of arthritis?  It’s about 48 percent.   Not all of it is chronic, but two-thirds of women have chronic arthritis.  You need to be careful when you’re dealing with people of age, starting with the handshake. You can’t use a gorilla grip with people of age. I’d suggest you use a two-handed handshake. I know, that’s for politicians. Well, why do you think they use it?   They use it because it’s really helpful in terms of sending a message that you care about the person.

2.  What percentage of your clients over 60 are grandparents?  I’ll bet you it’s about 80 percent plus.  The national average is 82 percent.  You need to understand that grandparenting is a powerful, motivational tool for you when you’re dealing with people of age. Ask for a picture of the grandkids. Then ask for their age. This gives you a  lot of information that you, as a retirement financial planner, can use in your work in dealing with them.

3.  What percentage of women over age 65 are widows?  It’s 50 percent, and a really important number is that widows outnumber widowers 5 to 1.  You will learn how to be more effective explaining and communicating things with widows and widowers and others.

4.  Four out of five boomers 55 and over, about 70 percent, have at least one living parent.   You may need to show people how to make decisions about the caregiving issue.

5.  What percentage of boomers work in retirement? It’s about a third.  Boomers have admitted that the biggest regret they have is not working longer.

6.  Have you looked at the assets that are held by the boomer generation?  About 40 percent have nothing; they didn’t take the time to save, but you’re not going to be dealing with that group.  You will be dealing with those with some substance, where you can help them with their retirement planning.  Two of ten wealthy baby boomers plan to work in retirement, some because they have their own businesses, and some are just because they want to get on with it. Working in retirement doesn’t mean necessarily working. It may also mean volunteering, something that you need to consider.

Defining Generational Characteristics

I’ve seen recently that somebody has proposed that we’re going to spend more time in retirement than any generation ever.  We’ve got the longevity bonus. That means that we have extended lives.  Over the last 100 years, we’ve extended life by 25 years.  It’s not your grandparents’ retirement, especially with boomers. I saw a boomer quote that says, “We don’t expect to die. We expect to be cured.” You have to communicate in a different way with them. And don’t forget –  your staff, your associates, have to communicate. The younger people, the people who are working on so many of the various things in your organization, they too have to communicate differently.

Let’s look at how and why each generation is different: matures (ages 69 and older), and baby boomers (ages 51 to 68) at this point in time.  A generation is usually about 18 years long.  Boomers are the largest generation that we’ve experienced to date at the older levels.  You and I are linked to the shared life experiences of our formative years, late teens and early 20’s.  You may think that’s not affecting you today, but it really is.  History makes older people different than younger people. While the boomer generation may not have experienced World War II and the Depression, but they still have a sense of the family passing on the stories about how it was in World War II, life with no jobs, and how to figure out ways to create money for the family.  Boomers had the Vietnam War, prosperity, the assassination of President Kennedy, and being able to experience the bull market and think that it’s always going to be better.

Let’s look at each generation more closely. The Greatest Generation is the title of the book by Tom Brokow, the television newscaster.  It highlights all the good this generation did and the kinds of things that have happened to them.  If you’re looking at the Greatest Generation, what’s important to them? They have, undeniably, a respect for authority. Whether that’s you, whether that’s their priest, whether that’s this rabbi or whomever, they respect authority more than others.  They’re also very frugal. Frugality is important to them, and they show it in different kinds of ways. They’re cautious and conservative.

They have self sacrificed for their families.  That’s critical.  They’re seeking guarantees  – a key word.  You can look at the kinds of investments they’ve made, the banking services they’ve had. A guarantee has been pretty darn significant to them.  So how do you serve the greatest generation? You establish trust first.  Authenticity is particularly critical to the Greatest Generation.

You need to show the Greatest Generation that your value system matches their value system.  Don’t call them senior citizens.  The research I’ve seen says that about one-third of them don’t like the term.  You might say this when you’re trying to refer to their age, “People like yourself….” They understand you’re talking about their generation. It’s really helpful to display pictures of your children or grandchildren. This is all part of the connectivity.

Allow your clients to come in and bring with them a photo of their grandchildren, which you can put in the entrance of your the lobby. That sends out a signal to other people who come into your office that you really treasure grandparenting and great grandparenting. Displaying patriotic symbols is also a very powerful means of dealing with people of age.  And so that’s important in terms of showing things that are really symbolic to you.

Let’s explore some things about the boomers.  First of all, there’s Neil Armstrong’s walking on the moon.  What was the signal to boomers who might have been at a younger age at that point in time? The signal was we can do anything.  Nobody ever has walked on the moon, but our generation has.  And the youthfulness and the liveliness of people of age and all the characters that have come forward in their lifetime who many people have been compared to the Woodstock generation, the gathering of thousands of people for a week or two weeks, whatever it was, and all the major music groups playing for them, and the counterculture, the Woodstock generation as some have called it.  But they had problems, too.

The Vietnam War was something where many boomers were forced to be in a war that wasn’t very popular, and divided our countries in many ways.  Another icon for that period of time is Richard Nixon who, while president for quite a number of years, ended up with him leaving the White House with his famous saying was, “I am not a crook.”

There are some boomerisms, which I think you might find interesting.  “Forever young” – we  don’t want to be old.   Boomers think they’re going to die before they get old.  They want to control things.  In fact, that has affected our politics.  It has affected our current presidential campaigns. And they want to save the world.  They really have a penchant for doing good works relative to if you think of all of the situations with all the nonprofit organizations that have come out that are helpful for the involvement, for so many different kinds of things.

Boomers focus on themselves.  They distrust authority.  “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” “Make love not war.” “Turn on, tune in, and drop out.” And, “hell no, we won’t go.”  These sayings summarize  the boomer difference, a focus on themselves, with a distrust of authority while  dealing with stressful lives that have begged for simplification. That’s something that you are part of when you are dealing with people of age.  We’re going to look at the physical changes, the psychological changes, and the emotional changes that have occurred with aging.

What Happens to Our Five Senses with Age?

Touch, taste, and smell are what are considered the proximate senses, or “close in” senses.  Vision and hearing are the remote senses. We need to look at the changes that occur with aging.  Take a look at this diagram.

Vision Decline at Age 60

75 percent of our vision decline occurs by age 60 to 70. It’s one of the things that we have to deal with and have to understand. As we get into our 60’s and 70’s and 80’s we need more light. A 50-year-old needs twice as much lighting as a 25-year-old, and an 80-year-old needs three times as much lighting.  So you need to think about your office situation.

In your outer office, do you have all the varnish and all the dark kinds of things because it exudes a sense of affluence? Maybe you need to think that through and do an audit of your premises to see what kinds of things you’re doing.  Do you need more lighting, more lamps, various kinds of things to make them feel at ease?  Seeing near objects is a problem with depth perception.  Why does an older person, when he or she goes to sit down in a chair, puts their hand on the chair often times? Because they want to know how far they’ve got to sit down into.

Glare is a big issue. What are some of the issues around visual decline in person face to face?  Sit facing them if you can.  And don’t use the desk. Get over on the other side of the desk and face up to them. Some of that is related to their ability to hear you better. But they want to observe you. It’s sort of like you’re on a television screen like the people being interviewed.  They’re really looking at you the same way. They’re looking at you, your face, and your gestures.

You need to use hand gestures to emphasize points at times and shorter sentences.  You need to drop off prepositional phrases, which are so heavy in your business.  They lose track of what you’re referring to using in this and that prepositional phrase.  Break them up.  Speak slower, more slowly, when you’re dealing with them.  Don’t be patronizing, but slow down your speaking to them.  Avoid distracting movements because it is distracting to them when you jump up, or you move around, or you run from one thing to another.

Slow your movement down.  One of the things that happens when we deal with people of age is it takes more time to deal with them. Using some of these techniques will help you be able to shorten the amount of time it takes to deal with them, to help them recall better what it is that you’ve said, and remember things.  Say, “Since we talked here about face to face, let’s look at written or printed materials or website information.”  Printed material is more credible with people of age because they can reread if they missed something, and  it’s tangible. There’s credibility for people of age to having a piece of paper in their hands.  Use 12 to 14 point type faces. Avoid italics, especially in printed material  Shorten your sentence length and paragraphs. Go to the USA Today and study how they have their front page.  They’ve gone to a larger type face. They know that they’re dealing with older people sometimes, but more importantly, with people on the move who want to get through that publication because they’re travelers. Look at how they use color on the weather page and how they describe the United States in different color tones. When we travel, we look at our part of the country. You can just see it. USA Today is a great model for you to be able to use in terms of your communicating to your clients.

Another important part of all of this is hearing. There’s a difference between male and female at age 55 to 60.  Older males’ hearing tends to decline, and it’s the same level that we have with vision, but it’s greater for males than for females.   Older males didn’t want to show that they had hearing difficulties so they tended to lip read, so it’s important when you’re setting up that you be face to face.  The telephone is really interesting because the normal ear has an ability to hear at 20,000 cycles.  On the telephone, it drops to 600 cycles.  It’s important that you realize, when you’re on the telephone, you need to eliminate background noises or you’re susceptible to having people misunderstanding words. Ask them if they understood what you just said.

With age, we don’t get as much sleep, which causes disorders.  In fact, one of my suggestions is you try to meet with older people in the morning because that’s when they’re at their best.  The 9:00 to 12:00 range is really helpful to them because they’re sharper then.

Look directly at the person, lower your pitch, stay in a logical sequence. Often times, people will miss a word, but they’ll pick it up because of the sequence that they’re hearing. Repeat or paraphrase occasionally.  Say it another way when you say it back to them. Don’t change the topic abruptly. That causes issues. Your model for hearing issues and helping older clients is talk show hosts.  Listen to how they say things, how they respond to questioning, and how they simplify the communications process.

  • Signal visually before speaking.
  • Look directly at the person.
  • Lower your pitch.
  • Stay in a logical sequence.
Changes in Emotional Language and Information Processing

Let’s move on to something that’s pretty important — the emotional language.  Motivational values are the drivers of personal needs, the things we value, and  the values that motivate us.  Understanding motivational values allows us to communicate better.

Here are the five most important adult motivational values, coming from  my guru, David Wolf, and his publication Serving the Ageless Market.

  • Autonomy and independence,
  • Connectivity to family, friends, and society,
  • Altruism or giving back,
  • Personal growth, spiritual and mental, revitalization, rest and relaxation,
  • Change of pace and travel to be able to allow us to go and use those other motivational values to be with family or others.

The most important one of all is autonomy or independence.  Independence tends to be taken away from us with age.  Connectivity to family, friends, and society is a really, really powerful, motivational value.  Altruism or giving back is really a big issue for boomers.  I just saw a study that came out of Age Waves that said that boomers over the next 20 years are going to be contributing $8 trillion to nonprofit organizations, and $8 trillion in the next 20 years.  They’re breaking it down to the $6.6 trillion in cash and $1.4 trillion in volunteer services.  Wow.  Maybe you sit with your clients and help them decide what’s important to them and which nonprofit organizations they should be involved in.

I know you’ve seen the recent study that organized religions are declining in popularity.  But guess what? Spirituality isn’t.  In fact, there have been a lot of boomers who have insisted that their children participate in some form of organized religion so that they can understand spirituality at a young age.  That does not mean that they don’t leave their relationship with the church after some period of the time.

Revitalization, rest and relaxation, change of pace, hobbies and travel.  Very powerful motivators.  Make sure that you indicate your clients’ hobbies in your records.  It’s allowing them to be able to revitalize themselves, to be able to understand that they’re helping themselves by participating in those kinds of things.

Clients 50 and older also process information and make decisions differently.  Gerontologists and psychologists have taught us that today’s communication styles are based on how younger minds work, but older minds work differently.  We’re looking at fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence.  Both of them are in play at the same time.  Fluid intelligence is how we learn the things in school by rote or other practices, by our studying and so forth, at a much younger age.  Fluid intelligence is words and numbers, and  tends to be logical, linear, and analytical. Crystallized intelligence relies on your experience and cultural acquired information.  It’s our life knowledge.  It tends to be impressionistic, intuitive, and experimental. Fluid intelligence peaks at age 25 and declines.  Crystallized intelligence does not decline.  In fact, it strengthens.  And so as we said, it’s the culturally acquired information.  But as we get older, we simply cannot fully comprehend new information with age.

Let’s look at another important way to deal with emotional connection. As people mature, cognition patterns become more right brain oriented where memories and emotions reside.  Memories and emotions are the mind’s access to experience and, therefore, to the evaluation of you.  In the second half of the life, our cognition patterns become less left brain but more right brain oriented.  And the right brain lead is more effective in getting a favorable response.

If you want to have a little fun, go online and take a right brain/left brain test to see which you are and people in your office. It would be a good way for you to introduce, in a training session, the difference between right and left brain and how it’s important to people of age. The left brain is logic, sequence, linear, semantics, words, reading, and analytical.  It’s yes or no, right or wrong, black or white.  It’s order and time orientation. It’s precise.

On the right side of the brain we’re dealing with issues such as problem solving, patterns, fantasy, images, demonstration, faces. Remember, when you see a face, and you go, “I recognize the face, but what’s the name?”  The reason you might not be getting it is partially because the picture is stored in a different part of your brain than the name of the person. You have to understand there is not necessarily a connection that’s tied in. Actually, the right and left side of the brain, the corpus callosum is the connector that sends images flashing back and forth between both sides of the brain.

Experimental psychologist, Roger Sperry, introduced this concept to us. Are wpmen right or left brain dominant?  They tend to be more right brain dominant. I have observed that women do a better job of dealing with older people because of this right brain dominance, which also is balanced by their good ability on the left side of the brain. We need to understand as we explain things that we need to use metaphors and similes that deal with the right side of the brain.

We talked about independence as being so important. For matures, independence means continuing to live like I do now, making my own decisions, not be dependent on government or my children when I get older.  For boomers, it’s about living the way I want to, doing the things I want to do, and independence as an aspiration.

Ten Tips for Dealing with People of Age
  1. It’s about life. With age, the things we care about change. Financial issues are less important. Life issues are more important.  It’s yesterday’s experiences, not today’s. Important experiences occur during their formative years and their teens and early 20’s. That may be 40 or 50 or 60 years older than you or your staff.
  1. Push relationships not products. They want to be treated as people. They want to be able to trust you.
  1. Make them comfortable in your office. Use a couch pillow in plain sight.
  1. Maybe have reader glasses on your conference table or nearby because they forgot their glasses.  A large barrel pen is a lot more helpful to them in signing documents.
  1. Don’t call them senior citizens. Call them, “People like yourself whom I deal with.”
  1. Pictures, not numbers. Numbers are processed on the left side of the brain. Pictures are processed on the right side of the brain.
  1. Places in the heart. Decisions are made on the basis of feelings not intellect.  Intellect is used to understand. Feelings are used to decide to out their thinking about what it is that you had proposed to them in terms of action to be taken.
  1. It’s about the family, grandkids.
  1. Use analogies, not analysis. Use symbols triggering right brain values, icons combined with key words, stories, and fables that mirror their value system.
  1. Treat them as individuals. Avoid hyperbole and exaggeration. Infallibility is okay with people of age.  In fact, they will treasure you more if you’re infallible on certain kinds of things.  Use adult motivational values that we’ve talked about and suggest to them some things that you think they’ll be particularly interested in.

George Burns, who has lived to age 99, said about aging, “It’s mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.”



Michael Sullivan – Retirement Communications Expert

Michael Sullivan – Retirement Communications Expert

About the author:

Michael Sullivan, CEO, 50-Plus Communications Consulting is a foremost expert at training sales staffs how to sell more to Boomers and older clients.

Michael Sullivan has spoken and conducted training for more than one million professionals in investment services and wealth management firms, including a keynote presentation to The Million Dollar Roundtable annual meeting. Mike lists among his specialties:

  • Sales force training and coaching
  • Call center agent training
  • “Seniors-friendly” certification of agents and customer contact personnel
  • Creating sales scripts
  • Producing professional lead-generation seminars
  • Speaking at due diligence and regional meetings and public relations training

Michael Sullivan works with firms using lifestyle issues relating to selling and servicing Boomers and older clients. He is CEO of 50-Plus Communications Consulting, specializing in helping make financial advisors wiser, more compassionate and significantly more effective advisors.
Major clients include the Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, MetLife, The Hartford. Mike served as head of Corporate Communications, First Union National Bank (now Wells Fargo) in Charlotte. Mike’s speaking credentials are listed on the National Speakers Association website www.nsaspeaker.org. Audiences include:

Retirement Speakers Bureau

Retirement Speakers Bureau

  • Financial services
  • Trust department executives
  • Active retirement communities
  • Travel companies
  • Healthcare firms
  • Aging-in-place technology firms
  • Corporate human resource directors

Mike has written seven how-to books, e-manuals and guides for selling to Boomers, including 101 Easy Ways to Increase Business with Boomerplus Clientsand Banking on the Mature Market.  He is a monthly columnist for www.retirementhomes.com where you can find more than 60 of Mike’s columns.   He also serves as a member of GRANDmagazine Advisory Board, the on-line magazine for grandparents.