Two simple ways to nail that high-stakes discussion

“Champions do not become champions when they win the event, but in the hours, weeks, months, and years they spend preparing for it. The victorious performance itself is merely the demonstration of their championship character.” In this episode, I share my approach to the mindset needed to prepare for any high-stakes discussion. Whether it be a high-level, senior leader decision brief or a one-on-one, personal discussion with your supervisor, these two simple ways will help keep you focused and emerge victoriously.

Be Prepared – One of my recent leaders provided the following guidance when receiving briefings: “You don’t have to explain all of the details to me, but you need to have them ready should I want to ask about them.” Take this mindset as the starting point to prepare for your discussion accordingly. I’m not going to focus on building the presentation product specifically but instead focus on the overarching idea of preparation. Here are some common questions to think about:

  • Who is the intended audience? Understanding this is key to anticipating what questions may be asked during the briefing or shaping the briefing towards their preferences of delivery.
  • What is the purpose, information, or decision? Both can have distinct differences in organization and effectiveness in delivery.
  • What is the optimal method of presentation? A slide deck is not always the answer; sometimes a list of talking points is the right fit to drive the right conversation.
  • How much technical information should be presented, or not presented and kept in back up as reference? The latter directly address the guidance previously mentioned.
  • Are there topics of tension within the briefing? If so, you should actively own and address them so that you make progress and don’t waste everyone’s time with another conversation stalemate. 

These questions may seem basic, but often they are overlooked and shouldn’t be. The fact that they are basic questions should indicate these are foundational to you being prepared. As you start to build the presentation, your level of understanding of the topic must get to 100%. This doesn’t mean you have taken advantage of every opportunity or solved every problem, but rather you have accounted for each opportunity and problem and can still move forward with the discussion. In addition, achieving 100% does not mean you have to shoulder all of the information. Bring together the right teammates for the presentation so that you can defer to a subject matter expert as needed. This technique may not be available all of the time, but most senior leaders will be willing to have a conversation with the right people as necessary.

Preparation is within your control to affect. Overpreparation is probably ok, but only if that means you are rehearsing your delivery (either in your mind or in person) and streamlining the messaging to the core points. Sometimes less is more. Some of this refining will be on you to make the decision on,  which will consistently change over your career based on the audience and the subject. Adjust your preparation actions to the scenario and keep moving forward. All of this time will positively contribute to your confidence prior to delivering your briefing, so use that time wisely.

Be Honest – Eventually, you will run out of preparation time (which can be a good thing) and need to get on with the show. You have double/triple-checked your slides to ensure everything is sharp as possible. You have reviewed your talking points to the point you can recite them confidently, but you have them for reference just in case. You have worked on the timing, tempo, and hand-off with your teammates to deliver a knockout presentation. As soon as you begin your presentation, only one rule remains: be honest

As the briefer, the audience expects you to have the best understanding of the topic at hand. Should you choose to say things that are either untrue or unclear, you are in danger of losing your credibility and the trust of your leadership. Either of those will be damaging to yourself and your team. If you are asked a question about something you aren’t sure about, just say that! There is nothing wrong with saying “Sir/Ma’am, I’ll have to get back to you on that.” That sentence signs you up for follow-up homework, but you also buy yourself some time to do the research and provide an accurate answer instead of a half-baked one. If you prepare properly, you may not have to say that, but don’t be surprised if a question comes out of left field. Take it in stride and follow up with your audience. 

Being honest can be merged with being professional. Leadership may ask for your opinion about something, which may be contradictory to someone else in the audience, and that’s ok. You need to be prepared to defend your honesty and you must stay grounded in emotion and provide objective feedback. You can’t control how others may conduct themselves within the conversation, but you can control yourself. Stay on point and don’t let your emotions cloud your judgment or delivery. Your honest opinion is valuable to the team and your leadership, so don’t let it go to waste.

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