Here you are in the store, and you run across a friend. She’s with another person, and makes the connection that perhaps the two of you might be able to help each other. So with no notice, you’re asked to talk for 30 seconds about what you do – and relate it to this other person. Terror sets in.
In this case, you’d hope that you’ve developed your “elevator speech” – the little synopsis of who you are, what you do, and what kind of help you might be looking for. Actually, you’d better have several, for different contexts. Perhaps what you’d mention to someone at church is different than when you’re at work. Or you have a number of ideas for the kind of information you’re looking for to help you with some projects you have going.
The point is that preparing these in advance is useful. Not necessarily every last word, but at least key points you’d like to make. And also how you want to come across to people – as friendly, informal, knowledgeable, well-connected, whatever.
I went to a class awhile ago, in support of my friend who was presenting that day. It turns out that weather delayed his arrival, so we had a whole classroom of people who were just waiting around for him to arrive.
Someone had the bright idea that perhaps I could get the discussion started because I was also knowledgeable on the subject. Eyes turned to me expectantly, and the pressure mounted. I didn’t have his materials or lesson plan, so what should I do?
First I spent a few moments introducing the speaker, and then asked people to go around and introduce themselves too. It’s a normal sort of start to a presentation, and it helped put people at ease. But honestly, the real reason was to give me time to think about how to get started: What question would I ask that would get people to start to think about the subject material and what they wanted to learn?
The question to kick things off was something like: What do we know about this particular area, and what do we hope the presenter will answer for us when he arrives? These points were captured on a flip chart, so when my friend arrived he could spend a minute understanding the context while HE was trying to get himself un-flustered. It worked out pretty well.
When you’re asked to jump in and talk with no preparation, here’s what helps:
- Stay calm. Even though it feels like you’re under attack, that’s just a mental response to pressure.
- Remember that the others KNOW that you’re unprepared, so they’ll tend to understand if you stumble and use minor stalling tactics.
- Have confidence. If this is something you know something about, chances are you’ll do pretty well.
- Focus. At this instant, you’re going to need all the mental energy you can muster, and it’s OK that other thoughts will get pushed aside.
- Forgive yourself. You probably won’t do as great a job as if you had time to think and plan, so you’ll make mistakes. But that’s OK, and can be a powerful learning experience for next time.
Many years ago I was called in to provide “factory support” for a sales presentation being given to a car company in Detroit. Three minutes before I left for the airport, I found out that the ink had run out in my printer and all my transparencies (THAT dates this story!) were totally blank. So all my materials were on my laptop, and this was before PC projectors.
When I showed up in Detroit for a pre-meeting breakfast, I found out that I was the primary speaker, and the sales team just thought they were introducing me to these executives.
Obviously I survived the day, but let’s just say that my blood pressure was probably in quadruple digits. With a pen and a whiteboard, I was able to have a reasonable presentation and discussion with the customer, although there was quite a bit more BS involved than I’m comfortable with.
Let’s hope that you never get pushed to that extreme. But I learned that it’s NOT the end of the world, and I have more resources available in my head than I give myself credit for.
So when you’re asked, stay calm. Have confidence. Focus. And forgive your mistakes.
by Carl Dierschow