The Poster Child for the Importance of Q&A Preparation

November 25th, 2014
Prepare as if the whole world is listening

Prepare as if the whole world is listening

I harped last week about the critical importance of careful preparation and anticipation for the Question and Answer period after your presentation. In case that did not convince you, I’d like to introduce you to Gunter Schabowski, who made one of the most consequential gaffes in the history of Q&A.

Gunter was a member of the East German politburo who became its principal spokesperson in 1989, as Gorbachev’s reforms began inspiring eastern Europeans to test the bonds that held them in the Soviet orbit. East Germans in particular were chafing to open the borders between themselves and West Germany.

In response, the politburo had decided to open the borders under special conditions and proper permissions, in a meeting which Schabowski did not attend. He was handed a note to that effect just before his press conference on November 9, 1989. What the note did not say was that the rules would not apply to the West Berlin crossings, and that they would not take effect until the following day, to allow time to communicate the rules to the border guards.

In the press conference, Schabowski read the note out loud when he was asked (probably by Tom Brokaw) when the rules would take effect, Schabowski said: “As far as I know, effective immediately—without delay.”

Schabowski’s answer aired on West German television at 7:17pm, and thousands of East Germans rushed to the gates. As the news covered the growing crowds, more and more East Germans flocked to the border crossings. Border guards became increasingly concerned as the crowds swelled, but no one would take the responsibility to order them to fire on the crowds. Finally, at about 11:30pm, the guards simply opened the gates—and the East German regime effectively died at that moment.

What does this incident teach us about fielding questions after a presentation? The obvious lesson is that you should prepare carefully and do your best to anticipate how the audience will react to your message and what their legitimate concerns and questions might be—especially when so much is at stake.

But, (and here I’m trying to anticipate your question), the pace of events precludes careful preparation; real life does not always afford the leisure to ponder all the possible questions and objections. Sometimes you have no choice but to speak before you’re ready. That’s true, which is why sometimes your best answer is also the most honest one: “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get back to you.”

Chances are that you will never face a Q&A where you could lose your reputation, your job and your country because of one careless answer—but are you willing to take that chance?


More Lessons from StartUp Pitch Competition

November 20th, 2014

My previous post covered one big lesson from watching a pitch competition; today I cover three additional observations. Watching eleven pitches in a row can be fascinating and a bit excruciating, but being able to compare them side by side in real time can also offer some valuable lessons. Here are a few that I gleaned from watching the Workforce One StartUp Quest competition on Monday.

Make it a conversation and not a commercial. The pitches that sounded canned fell flat. The pitch that I had rated the lowest sounded like it was written by a first-year marketing student being graded based on number of platitudes and buzzwords. The presenter I had rated the highest, as did the judges, spoke directly to the judges, had tons of personality in his voice and face, and sounded like a friend explaining a great business idea.

Don’t overcook the soufflé. Go easy on the emotion. We’re told that people make decisions emotionally and not rationally, and that’s generally true. But we also like to see ourselves as rational decision makers, so when someone makes it too obvious we feel forced into a corner and we react badly to it. For example, one of the pitches played on the love and concern that one has for elderly parents who live alone. The first tug at the heartstrings worked fine, but the second felt a little forced and the third went over the top, to the point that one of the judges commented on it during the Q&A.

Prepare for Q&A as much as for the presentation itself. This is the real main course, because your listeners want to see how well you know your stuff when you’re off-script. First rule: answer the damn question. Second rule, keep your answers short and to the point. One question about the team’s marketing plan turned into an excruciatingly long dissertation on general marketing principles that had the audience looking for a hook. In fairness to the person answering, he was put on the spot by the main presenter, who fielded the question and passed it right to him without warning—which points out the third through fifth rules: anticipate, anticipate, anticipate!

Pushing Only the Right Buttons

November 18th, 2014


elevator keypadHave you ever entered an elevator, in a hurry to get to one of the higher floors, only to find that some prankster has pushed every button? How did it make you feel?

Now, imagine that the roles are reversed: you are that prankster, and your audience is the frustrated person in a hurry to get to their intended destination. That’s what happens in a lot of presentations that I observe.

For example, yesterday I attended the StartUp Quest Pitch Day at the Broward County Performing Arts Center. Eleven teams competed to present their business plans to a panel of judges made up of venture capitalists and other investors. While it’s true that the situation is artificial (there are no actual dollars riding on the outcome—at least not immediately), it was still obvious that most of the speakers were pushing far more buttons than they needed to get to their destinations.

For example, it’s a good idea to begin with a grabber story that engages attention and interest, and personal stories that bring a problem to life are perfect for that. But the problem with personal stories is that you’re tempted to go into much more detail than the audience needs to get the picture, and going on too long can ruin the effect you’re trying to create. Create the effect and move on.

Next, it’s a good idea to show the huge market potential of your product, but we don’t need two minutes of detailed statistics to prove that there’s a lot of money being invested in alternative energy sources or that our population is aging rapidly—everyone gets that. Make the point and move on. If you have a half dozen competitive advantages, don’t spend equal time on each; hit the one or two strongest and move on.

The problem with pushing too many buttons is not just that you take more time than you need, or that you can frustrate listeners, it’s that every time the door opens at the wrong floor you run the risk that riders will get off.

In real situations, such as in a strategic sales presentation, there is even less excuse for pushing too many buttons, because if you’ve researched, prepared and shaped the conditions for success, you should know precisely which button to push for each of the decision makers and important influencers in the room. Anything more than what you need is wasted or worse.

In military tactics it’s a truism that if you try to attack everywhere you won’t be strong anywhere. You need to find the decisive point and concentrate overwhelming force at just that point of attack. So, when you do get to the main point, go for broke. As Churchill said:

“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.”

It’s the same way in persuasive communication, beyond just presentations.

My old swimming coach Jack Nelson was a master of motivation. Read this article in the New York Times to see how he applied his talent to engineer one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history. What made him so good was that he knew each of his swimmers intimately; he knew what they would respond to and how they would respond; he knew just which buttons to push and how and when.



Persuasion at its Worst

November 4th, 2014

Not coming soon to a television channel near you

Not coming soon to a television channel near you

I’m going to the polls today holding my nose. After enduring months of attack ads on television and dozens of daily calls to my home phone (thank God for caller ID), it’s impossible to muster any enthusiasm or respect for either candidate for governor, or for anyone else.

Is this the best that today’s persuasive communication can do? Billions of dollars and presumably some of the brightest minds in the business fail to produce a spark of intelligence or positivity. Our political process has devolved: through a process of survival of the nastiest, we’ve gone from the Federalist Papers and the Lincoln Douglas debates to name-calling on TV.

The scary thing is that they tell us they do this because it works. That’s scary because of what it says about us, the voters, more than what it says about them. Are we so shallow that we are susceptible to such superficial arguments? Are we so selfish that we will sell our vote for one narrow interest? Are we so distracted that we can only pay attention for thirty seconds at a time? Have we lost the skills to listen to carefully considered arguments, weigh the evidence, and form reasonable conclusions?

We complain about politicians all the time, but maybe we’re getting exactly what we deserve.