Crowd pleasing

One of the barriers to effective management is lack of confidence in getting your point across. Our resident management coach offers some advice.

Confidence is as much a management skill as the ability to deliver a budget on time, manage a production critical path or appoint the right sales team. All too often, it is assumed that being good at confident communication in the meeting room or while making a presentation is an innate skill. Well, maybe you have the makings of a good communicator, but there's more to making your point than simply hoping for the best, as the following two genuine cases from the 'On the Coaching Couch' mailbag make clear…

Case 1: Chairing meetings is a real pain

Q: I keep being asked to chair meetings where no one listens to me and I don't know anything about the subject matter. I'm an engineer but don't work at management level. My boss doesn't come to these meetings but he keeps asking me to chair them, so I write an agenda, send it to the relevant people and set up the meeting. When the meetings happen, everyone completely ignores my agenda, telling me that I don't know what's been happening recently (I work in a different project area). My boss says I need to take control and be assertive, but I find this hard. These meetings are making my life hell.

A: Many people chair meetings without having detailed knowledge of the subject matter. In fact, on many occasions this can be a definite advantage, allowing the chairperson to keep everyone focused on the purpose and agenda of the meeting to ensure everything is covered in the time allocated.

You say your boss keeps asking you to chair these meetings. It sounds as if you've tried a number of times, unsuccessfully, to get out of this. Why is your boss so keen to have you chair these meetings? There could be a number of reasons, but you won't know unless you ask him. Whatever the reason, it cannot justify "making your life hell".

He says that you need to take control and be more assertive. What does he mean by this? I'm betting he means act like he would in that situation. I think you need to remind him that you're not him (and probably don't want to be, either).

The important thing is to understand you have choices and that you can choose what you want. There are three possible options:

  1. refuse to chair any more meetings;
  2. ask for help in chairing these meetings until you have gained the skills your boss says you need;
  3. continue to chair these meetings and work hard to improve the situation.

If you refuse to chair these meetings, what would happen? Run through the possible outcomes. You will need to explain to your boss exactly how you are feeling. Get him to see things through your eyes. Perhaps you could ask him to remember what it was like for him when he chaired his first meeting. Try to understand things from his perspective, too. You can use this to empathise with him without giving in.

Perhaps an outright refusal isn't the best way to enhance your career prospects. However, you may be able to improve the situation by seeking training and development on running meetings and assertiveness skills. If your company doesn't run internal courses then look externally. Agree a training plan with your boss and ask for more experienced support.

If you want to stick it out and take some actions to try and improve the situation, then I have a few suggestions. You say the participants ignore your agenda, so let them define their own. Allow some time at the beginning of your next meeting to agree what they would like to cover and how much time to assign to each item. Note it down on a flip chart and start the meeting. You are then perfectly within your remit to point out every time they stray from their agenda. This doesn't mean that you should stick rigidly to the agreed agenda, merely point out that they may want to readjust time allocations so that they can finish on time. This might mean postponing items until the next meeting. Use words like "you" and "yours" and avoid using "I" and "my".

Are you clear on what your boss wants out of these meetings? Do you know if this is the same as what the meeting participants want? If it isn't, or you're not sure, then flag this up to your boss and call a review with all parties. Don't allow the review to finish until you have a common agreement on what is required from these meetings and what behaviour is acceptable.

You mention agendas and meeting requests but you do not refer to minutes or actions. I imagine you must produce minutes in order to keep your boss informed. If you just brief him verbally, then I would recommend you start producing minutes. Keep them short or no one will read them.

What about actions? I'm sure you note these during the meeting (even if the participants seem to ignore you) - good practice is to recap on key points and actions taken before the meeting is concluded. Do you do this? Does each action have a clear deliverable, an owner and due-by date? Make sure that the owner of the deliverable and the person receiving it agree on the due-by date. Track all actions and do not remove them from the minutes until they are cleared. Outstanding actions should be reviewed with your boss and he must decide on an appropriate escalation procedure. It would be nonsense for him to delegate this back to you so ensure you don't allow him to do so.

If there are no actions arising then I would question why these meetings are being held at all. I would recommend that you revisit this with your boss and get him to review the situation.

Case 2: I'm no good at public speaking

Q: I am afraid of giving talks. I frequently over-think what I need to say and fill it with too much detail and then I go completely blank and start talking rubbish. On some occasions, usually if I'm annoyed over something, this hasn't happened and I've given a good talk. How do I harness this angry energy every time I give a talk?

A: I think your predicament demonstrates that it is not only trained actors who suffer from performance anxiety. Everyone wants to do their best, however, sometimes the strategies that we employ to help us don't work very effectively.

You say you are "afraid of giving talks" and want to know how you can harness your "angry energy" to combat this. I'd suggest you start by exploring where your fear and angry energy come from. 

Does your fear of giving talks grow with each talk you give, or does it vary? If it varies then what makes it vary? Do you control this fear? Perhaps you "frequently think over" the talks you have given and relive all the times you "went blank" and "talked rubbish"? I'd suggest it would be more helpful to frequently think over and relive the things you did and do well.

What would be a good talk for you? I guess it would have something to do with speaking fluidly and knowledgeably about the subject. I don't think your issue is about what you know but more about being able to access it and communicate it effectively. What's stopping you?

Maybe there is a clue in your question. You say: "I frequently over-think what I need to say and fill it with too much detail." What is it you need to say? It sounds as if you are trying to pre-guess what the audience wants. Unless you are a mind reader, or have access to the audience prior to the event, knowing what they want can only be your judgement of what you think they want. This might explain why you are over-thinking what you need to say and I can see how it would logically lead to you fill it with too much detail. I'm sure you're intention is to be prepared to cover all angles, but the trouble is the number of 'angles' will exponentially increase with the size of your audience. It is an infinite and hence impossible task to complete, and not a productive use of your energy.

How do you prepare for a talk? Assuming you have the content, do you spend as much time thinking about how it will end as you do about how it will start? Do you imagine how the audience is leaving the venue? Are they smiling and thanking you? Have they been stimulated by what you have said (that doesn't necessarily mean that they agree with you!) and are now engaged in debate? Imagining how you want your talk to end is just as important as imagining how you want it to start.

Perhaps your strategy for getting started means you never have time to think about the end.

Now, what about harnessing this "angry energy"? It is interesting that you have noticed that when you are annoyed over something you give a good talk. I'm assuming that this is not directly related to the talk. It would appear to me that being annoyed over something else is a distraction and this is helping you to divert your energy; it's preventing you from over-thinking what you need to say and fill it with too much detail. This being the case, it would be more helpful to focus on a strategy of distraction rather than getting someone to make you angry just before every talk you do. Think about what activity or thought process you could employ as a distraction for future talks, and when would be the best time to use it?

By the way, what is too much detail? If you recognise what this is, then you must know what the right amount of detail would be? What sort of aide memoir do you use in your talks? Slides, notes, memory cards? Why would you go blank?

Presentation skills training teaches us the theory of using props during a talk, but the trouble is we often go through the motions and then forget to use the props when we're in the moment. Could you catch yourself before you start talking rubbish and consult your notes to get you back on track?

Lastly, how are you with silence? One of the more challenging aspects of giving a talk is to avoid the temptation to fill in the gaps. Remember, it's OK to breath. In fact, I'd say it is essential to your wellbeing.


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