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Chapter 8: How to Speak on the Spot

Overview

Picture the scene: You are a senior manager of Acme Bank. Your name is Barbara, and you have been asked to attend a meeting on the subject of a new customer satisfaction survey. You are one of fourteen people around a conference table. The senior vice president of human resources, Marie, is running the meeting. She opens the meeting with a statement of purpose:

“The purpose of this meeting is to show you the research results from the latest customer satisfaction survey, get your perspective on the severity of the problem we face, and generate thoughts on what kind of action our bank should take.”

A Laptop Presentation

She follows with a laptop presentation showing the following:

 

Acme

Competition

Overall satisfaction

76%

87%

Satisfaction with employees

72%

84%

Total customers (this year vs. last)

??3%

??6%

Percentage of existing customers

selecting a new service

22%

63%

Teller satisfaction

76%

88%

ATM satisfaction

90%

92%

Marie solicits input from a few of the attendees. Then she turns to you and asks, “What do you make of this, Barbara?”

You Are Surprised

Your first response is a somewhat startled look. That’s a pretty normal reaction. This situation is always a shock to some extent, but it is a fairly frequent scenario for all of us as we rise in stature within our companies. Maybe it’s a staff meeting, maybe a marketing meeting, an operations meeting, or a weekly status report meeting.

The title of the meeting may differ, but one thing is constant: The environment is high visibility. Your boss is there; so are department heads, senior VPs, and even the president, occasionally. From a career perspective, this is center stage. Your day-to-day performance on the job is below the radar screen to many of these people. Your performance in this meeting and meetings like it is what they see. It will shape their sense of you. It will color their judgment.

The Impression You Make

If a future raise or promotion for you has to be approved by one of these attendees, their perspective will be influenced by the impression they get of you in this meeting. Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, said it all in his statement:

“Whenever I see a young man making a good presentation, I never forget that young man.” Then he paused for a moment and added, “Unfortunately, the opposite is also true.”

So, for you, the meeting is an opportunity. If you handle yourself well and contribute in a positive way, the impact will stretch far beyond the moment in that room.

It is possible that you, dear reader, would handle this situation flawlessly. But for purposes of this chapter we will explore first the wrong way, then the right way, to respond. Let’s repeat Marie’s query, “What do you make of this, Barbara?”

Wrong Way: Playing It Cool

You, Barbara, are sitting comfortably around the conference table, a little slouched, your hands in your lap. Naturally, you are startled by Marie’s query. But you like to convey the impression that you are comfortable and not awed by the stature of some of the senior people attending the meeting.

You look down and begin to respond with your eyes on your notes. You want to appear cool and unfazed, perhaps even detached. No way do you want to appear emotional. Your volume is low, no emphasis.

Your response sounds something like this:

“Something must be done when we see numbers like that. If we keep losing on these competitive indicators we’ll slowly slide below the top three. Nobody keeps coming back to a bank that begins to get a bad reputation. We need to do something fast.”

Not bad. But, not good either. And it has to be good to make an impact. There was no structure to what was said. Furthermore, Barbara showed no positive physical presence, which would demonstrate confidence and add value to the statement. We can’t argue with the content, but it doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t do anything for Barbara as far as her career is concerned. The impression she made was mostly a neutral one.

Now here is a challenge for you. Look away from the page and see if you can remember what was just said by Barbara. Yes, you remember she expressed a feeling that was consistent with the research report. She bemoaned the current state of affairs. She said, “We need to do something.” But she said nothing of substance, nothing specific—nothing impressive or memorable.

That’s what tends to happen if we speak on the spot without having thought it through ahead of time, without using some simple principles to increase our impact. Yet these are the moments when the spotlight is on us. These are the moments when we are most visible within the company.


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