Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Anticipate what might go right... or wrong

Many leaders and certainly Thought Leaders who present, are often loathed to prepare for unlikely events. World class presenters head off disaster before it happens. They anticipate what might go right or wrong and build in key concepts or frames to manage the possible fall out.

A word of caution goes with this idea. Often in anticipating a situation, we actually create the situation. If you are coming from a lack of confidence or even some flawed assumptions about your audience, you can make things worse using this idea. If I could repeat this paragraph several times through this idea I would. So every few paragraphs, read this one again.

I have stumbled onto a recurring problem in my Inspired Leader series. The keynotes, workshops and full day programs unpack what it takes to be inspired and be inspiring. I had not anticipated (perhaps naively) that there would be a few people who want to throw a wet blanket on anything at all, either up or hopeful. It was not every program, but I started to notice that certain people might white ant the message of hope and self-accountability in the breaks between sessions. I had to fix it and fast! So I started to build a key message about the difference between a Cynic and a Sceptic. I encouraged scepticism and communicated a zero tolerance for cynicism. I defined a cynic as someone who had hope and now ‘polutes the attitude pond we all drink from'. A sceptic on the other hand is someone who suspends good or bad judgement until they're convinced. This frame is very powerful as it makes thinking OK and negative whiney judgement as not. It doesn't fix the problem completely, but it does set the tone.

Start with writing a list of what might go wrong when you speak. It's not negative thinking to prepare for all eventualities. This is the intellectual challenge that scenario planning has an idea. People who are particularly superstitious don't like discussing the downside of any idea. It's as if for them, the considering of the idea makes it more likely to happen. It is something you have to think through as a speaker.

So what might go wrong?

Not logistically wrong, but conceptually or culturally wrong? Here are some examples…

  • There may be cynicism to your key ideas. A negative undercurrent might be running through the audience that you have seemingly no control of.
  • A major disaster happens just before you go on stage. 9/11 is a good example for this for many of us who were working that day.
  • The Speaker before you may deliver some bad news that leaves a lot of unanswered questions in the minds of the audience members.
  • You might have an accent that the audience stereotypes to mean a certain mindset. E.g. Australians in New Zealand. Americans in Canada.
So, what would you do in each situation?

Here are four approaches that help deal with situations like those listed above.

1. Name the elephant.
One of the quickest ways to shut down a problem is to name it plainly and accurately. You state what's on peoples minds and you have better chance of getting onto something productive or possibly managing the issue. "I know what I might be thinking in your position, another Australian telling Kiwis how to do it better..." "I just want to say from the outset, I have learned so much at this conference seeing the innovative ideas many of your local awards winners have used to increase sales. My notebook is full and I can't wait to get back and try some of them in my office."

2. Give up control to gain it.
In tough situations I like to list the 7 points I planned to speak about and ask the audience if we only had time for 3, which 3 would they choose? Then go around the room asking them to vote. You then mix up your sequence so it serves the request of the room. Of course you need to know your presentation in idea chunks or modules to do this. The audience feels like they designed their own speech, you of course are delivering what you planned to but doing so in a flexible way. I heard it said once that a person's degree of happiness is directly proportional to their degree of control. In this case you can turn tough crowds around as they get to exert a little more influence on the agenda. This is particularly useful when something has just been taken away from the audience or they are used to making decisions.

3. Respond with a story.
Developing a bank of stories you can draw on at a moments notice is definitely a skill of world class presenters. A perfectly placed story that responds artfully to what has just happened or the prevailing mood of the room is an antidote to negative situations.

4. Plan to be spontaneous.
Anticipate what might go wrong and prepare in advance for these situations with off the cuff one-liners. A waiter walks in front of you while your speaking and you might say ‘don't worry it's just a stage your going through' (direct and yet satisfying), you fall off the stage onto the floor you might say ‘OK I will now take questions from the floor', a mobile phone goes off you might say ‘If that's my mum tell her I am working damn it.' You may of course find better humour than these seemingly lame ‘o' punch lines. It's not the size of the laugh that counts it's the sense of cool you bring to a potentially tricky situation.

There is nothing wrong with focusing on the potentially hazardous stuff that could come up. Some people seem to be superstitious about even considering what might go wrong, it's as if by doing so they make it possible. So, grab your rabbits foot, cross your fingers and start to hope for the best while you prepare for the worst. You may never need it...but if you do, you'll be glad you spent some time building in a plan.



  1. Matt - as a believer in the battery theory of life, I love the planning and scope of this planning process. I also like the distinction you use for cynics and skeptics. Skeptics are not negative people, they just have not yet bought into your point of view yet. And I always learn more from Skeptics because it makes me think

  2. A wonderful reminder of a concept I learned in your excellent World Class Presenter program. Very useful techniques. Thanks Matt.