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Chapter 8: How to Speak on the Spot


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:




Overall satisfaction



Satisfaction with employees



Total customers (this year vs. last)



Percentage of existing customers

selecting a new service



Teller satisfaction



ATM satisfaction



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.

The Right Way

There are four physical presence principles governing participation at a meeting.

First - Sit forward on the chair, back straight.

Why do we say this? Because your job is to be interested and committed to both the subject-at-hand and the audience in the room. And you should look the part. You may think you should appear unfazed and comfortable. But comfort is not the point here.

You can look comfortable for the entire rest of the day - after the meeting is over. On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the highest, looking comfortable registers a value of one in this setting. Looking interested registers a ten. Being involved registers a ten. Your job is to look, and to be, interested and involved.

Assume the president was asked for his or her impression of you after the meeting was over. Here are two comments the president could make. You pick the one that feels better: "Barbara looked comfortable in her chair, didn't she?" Or, "Barbara was eager to contribute, wasn't she?"

Second - Keep your hands above the table.

The only gestures the listeners can see are the ones when your hands are in sight. Gestures are important. They are as natural to the speaking process as words are. Whenever we speak one to one on a casual basis, we gesture without being aware of it.

Gestures will happen no matter where your hands are. They help make the speaker more interesting, more real. They show that you care. So be easy on yourself and good to your audience; let the hands do what they want to do, but don't hide them from view.

Another point: When our hands are folded in our laps, we tend to slouch our shoulders and hunch our backs. Weak impression.

Third - Focus your eyes on one person.

Focus your eyes on one person at a time when you speak. When you come to a natural break in your comment, pause and take a breath while moving to another person. That way you look much more confident and you will be able to read your audience as you share your thinking with them. If you have to consult your notes, do so in silence, then look up. Focus once more on a pair of eyes and begin speaking again.

Many people get in the habit of constantly looking down at their notes. They don't really read them. But it becomes a way to avoid eye contact. Not good. You look unsure, less credible. There is an old saying about how to handle yourself when speaking at a meeting, "Don't talk to your notes or the tabletop. Neither will respond."

Fourth - Speak up!

Forget being conversational. Conversations take place in bars or diners or at the luncheon table. You are speaking to a group. Your volume must be strong. On a scale of one to ten, ten being bell-ringing loud, you should be at a six. Strong voice, strong gestures, strong message, strong performance.

We sometimes think that a soft voice will convey intelligence or confidence. We think back to a time when we saw a senior person, perhaps the president or the chairman, remain silent for most of a meeting. Then the senior person gave his or her opinion in a soft voice, and everyone leaned forward to hear. We were impressed. The natural conclusion to draw is that a soft voice makes an impact. And it does, as long as you are the most important person in the room. The reason is that title and power create highly motivated listeners. The audience strains to hear, because of the importance of the speaker. But, if you don't have the big title, forget it. A soft voice works against you.

Think of yourself as giving a stand-up talk, sitting down. As a matter of fact, if you can stand, without violating the setting, you should opt to do so. In either case you need to speak with energy if you are to capture and hold your listeners' attention.

Organize Ahead of Time

You may be thinking, "How can I get organized when this is such an impromptu environment?" It may be impromptu, but the subject is seldom a surprise. At least it shouldn't be. You should know the subject of any meeting you are asked to attend. If you don't, you should take steps to find out. How do you find out? Simply by asking the person who called the meeting. Why are you asking? So that you can be better prepared to contribute.

Will you always be smiled upon for asking? Yes, unless it's an announcement meeting where the information is intended to be a surprise, with no interaction expected.

But you'll know when that kind of meeting is in the offing. The scuttlebutt and rumors will probably run up and down the halls, days in advance, making the ultimate announcement somewhat anticlimactic.

With Knowledge Comes Responsibility

We have a responsibility to ourselves (probably to our company as well) to consider the information, decide where we come out on the subject, why we feel that way, and what should be done about it. And that simple little format is what "Speak on the spot" is all about. So let's explore the format and see how well it works.

On-the-Spot Format

  1. Issue (subject)

  2. Point of view

  3. Evidence

  4. Suggested action

1. Issue. Identify the issue that is at the core of the subject being discussed. There are probably fifteen possible issues contained in the customer satisfaction report. Marie hasn't told you which one to speak to. You can't speak to the general subject of the survey and have an impact. Your message should focus on one core issue, and it can't do that unless you take ownership of the subject by rephrasing it so that it is focused for you. By doing so, you focus the audience's attention on the issue you will speak to. You also position the audience for your viewpoint, which will follow.

You might think that you should start with your point of view because that's what Marie is asking you for. Don't do it. Own the subject first by reframing it in terms of the core issue. That way everyone knows what you are talking about. You will feel much more in control, and your listeners will be much better able to follow your line of thinking.

Let's go back to our example. When Marie asks you,

"What do you make of this, Barbara?"

You begin,

"I see the issue as being customer dissatisfaction with our employees' service whenever they interact with them."

2. Point of View. Your point of view should be concise. It should be simple, easy to understand, and hard to misunderstand. Use simple words. If you can say it in one sentence, that's great. Two sentences are OK. Three is too many.

Use a lead-in such as "My point of view on the subject is ._._." Or, "The way I see it is ._._." The lead-in is a natural segue to the viewpoint. It helps carry the audience to the next step in your thought process.

To continue with our example, Barbara says,

"My point of view is that we should work to improve our satisfaction rating at every point where our employees interact with the customer. We cannot compete in the marketplace with that critical measure lagging."

3. Evidence. Now Barbara needs to support her viewpoint. That's what evidence is all about. It supports or substantiates a viewpoint or a claim or an idea or a recommendation. It adds weight. It increases the credibility of the presenter and significantly increases the impact of the presentation. If we leave evidence out of the mix, our viewpoint is only an opinion. And opinions are a dime a dozen.

As discussed in Chapter 2, there are five forms of evidence you can select from: Personal Experience, Analogy, Judgment of Experts, Example, Statistics/Facts. In a more formal presentation we might use three, four, or even all five of these forms of evidence to support your viewpoint.

But when we speak at a meeting, that would be too much. The audience would be put off by it. We should talk for thirty to sixty seconds. No more. We are not trying to conclude. We are trying to contribute. One piece of evidence is enough.

Barbara uses another segue to lead into her evidence, "The reason I feel this way is . . ." The role of the segue is to make the transition between thoughts natural and conversational.

Barbara speaks:

"The reason I feel this way is that I worked for a small bank in Lima, Ohio, fifteen years ago. We had conducted customer satisfaction surveys regularly over the years. On the subject of satisfaction with our employees, the trend was a declining one. In my last year the number had slipped to 68 percent. A new bank, First National, opened up in town. Within three months we lost 30 percent of our customers. It seemed that they were unhappy and only habit was keeping them with us. When the new bank came in that was the catalyst. Boom! They were gone. Incidentally, First National still exists in Lima. The bank I worked for doesn't."

Barbara has used the personal experience form of evidence. It's a good choice. Most of our viewpoints are based upon our experiences. So why not reach into that personal inventory and use them as evidence?

But Barbara isn't finished with the evidence step. She needs to tie it back to the viewpoint so that it will have maximum impact on the listeners. She adds the "tie back."

The Tie Back

"What this experience tells me is that once a customer satisfaction rating gets really low - and 72 percent is really low - we are in grave danger and must take immediate steps to improve that rating."

Notice that the "tie back" answers the question, "What is the significance of your evidence?" or "How does that apply?" It is a reaffirmation of the viewpoint in light of the evidence. It reinforces the viewpoint and helps the evidence hit home.

4. Suggested action. You can't leave your audience up in the air. You were asked initially, "What do you make of this, Barbara?" In response, you've narrowed the subject to the core issue, stated your viewpoint, shared a personal experience as evidence, and tied that back to your viewpoint. All that's left is for you to suggest a course of action.

The lead-in should be simple and natural, such as, "Here's what I think we should do . . ." or "The action I think we should take is . . ."

Let's follow Barbara through this step:

"What I think we should do is, first, share these research results with every service person in the bank and let them know how serious we think this is. Second, I think we should establish some sort of goal like ‘We must get the rating from 72 percent to 85 percent within three months.' And, third, we should create a new customer service training program and make attendance mandatory for everyone who has contact with the customer. I know this may sound heavy-handed to some of you, but we must reverse this customer satisfaction trend."

How Do the Senior People React to Barbara?

Now put yourself in the shoes of the president or senior VP attending this meeting. They see in Barbara a person who obviously cares about the welfare of the bank. She is a contributor, and management loves contributors. She is not afraid to speak out. Her thinking is organized. She looks impressive. She speaks in an impressive way. She handles herself well in a challenging environment. She has ideas and is willing to put them out there. A pretty solid and positive reaction.

And how do you, Barbara, feel about what you have done? Well, you stepped forward and spoke your mind on a critical issue the company faces. You didn't do it off-the-cuff, though the other attendees will be impressed with the fact that it appears you did. You were able to present a thoughtful perspective because you did some homework before the meeting. You also used a simple format, which enabled you to structure your response to Marie's question in an impressive way. The end result is that you took advantage of an opportunity to contribute to the company and to gain recognition for yourself.

That's how careers are advanced in this world we live in. Nice going, Barbara.

Key Learnings for Speaking on the Spot



Westside Toastmasters on Meetup

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