Monday, October 16, 2017

Five Guidelines for Responding Effectively to Audience Questions After Your Presentation

You’ve worked diligently to prepare a great presentation. Your purpose is crystal clear. You’ve know who will be in your audience. You’ve incorporated content that addresses their interests. You’ve crafted an engaging introduction. You’ve included a statement that previews the contents of your presentation. You’re identified main points, and closed powerfully. You’ve ensured your presentation flows smoothly from point to point. You’ve solicited feedback from your supervisor and colleagues. You’ve promptly incorporated this feedback into your talk. You’re ready. It’s show time. 

You’re not quite ready to present, however. You’ll also be asked to respond to audience questions after you conclude your formal remarks. This component deserves no less preparation than the presentation itself. You need to and will want to prepare. Even the best presenters undermine their effectiveness by failing to plan for questions. Hence, I urge you to spend time in advance thought and preparation in this arena. 

To this end, I encourage you to incorporate these five guidelines. They’ll help you to make the most of questions you’ll encounter.
  1. Identify what you consider as logical or obvious questions you’re likely to be asked based on your topic. These questions seek clarification on any or all of your main points; raise possible objections to your arguments; inquire about details regarding implementation; and/or probe next steps based on your argument.
  2. Craft and practice your responses to the questions you’ve identified above. Don’t simply write out and read your responses silently, however. Instead, speak them out loud—just like you’ve done when you’ve practiced your formal presentation. Reading and speaking aloud are two fundamentally different experiences. You might believe you’re prepared if you’ve written and memorized your responses, but it’s not the same thing.
  3. Aim for succinct responses that begin with your response to the question. If possible, add a sentence or two that reinforces your main message. That’s it. There’s no need to add more detail. You want to ensure you can address all potential questions. Responding at length to anyone or two can undermine this intent. Besides, your goal is not to show how much you know but to speak to the audience’s curiosity about your topic. That means answering as many questions as time allows. 
  4. Identify difficult or out of the ordinary questions you might encounter. These might invite you to comment on a hypothetical situation or rumor related to your topic. These questions may also seek your opinion on subjects unrelated to the purpose of your talk. In short, prepare for the unexpected, undesirable, and perhaps even inappropriate question. 
  5. Capitalize on these difficult questions to reinforce the main points in your presentation. Consider them as opportunities, not nuisances. You want to respond to even the most unusual question, yet move quickly on from it to make your point. Consider using statements to redirect attention towards the focus of your presentation. For example, 
    • When the question is unclear, unusual, or not relevant to the subject of your talk, use “What I think you’re asking is. . .”
    • When the question asks you to speculate or guess, use “I would prefer not to discuss that, but what I can tell you is . . .” 
    • When the question points to an issue or argument with which you disagree, use “That’s not the issue. The real issue is . . .”  
Answering audience questions well reflects skill as a presenter and leader. Take the time to prepare for these questions in the ways I’ve outlined here. The effort can help you demonstrate such prowess. 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

What It Means to Live in the Solution: Not Blaming Those Who Came Before You

When I live in the solution, I don't cast aspersions about or blame those who worked on a particular project before I did. Let me explain the meaning of this commitment with a hypothetical example. Over the years my wife and I have undertaken various home improvement projects. We interview contractors before choosing one best equipped to handle the job. More often than not, these conversations proceed as follows. 

Hello John (the contractor), I’m Mitchell. This is my wife, Joan (not her real name). 

Hi, Mitchell. I’m John.

John, we’re looking at replacing the set of stairs on the back of our house (that lead from the back door to the patio).

John proceeds out the back door of our house and down the stairs. He pauses to study them. He gets to the patio, turns his head up towards the sky as he ponders what’s he sees. After a few seconds he shares his assessment. 

“Well, we need to replace the stairs. The guardrails and the related foundation work must go too. You can see that foundation is crumbling. The last guy who worked on these stairs did them all wrong.”

In short, John based his assessment on another contractor’s perceived incompetence. If only that guy had done the job correctly! Then you wouldn’t be looking at the big bill you’ll be receiving from him to fix it. 

Was there anything wrong with the way the first contractor completed the job? Did it need to be redone as the current contractor was suggesting? That’s besides the point. What's more interesting is the technique used here to persuade us to hire this contractor. That is, present yourself as the solution, one who has come to fix what ails you as a result of the misdeeds of prior vendors. 

I have five problems with this approach:

  1. There’s rarely an objective standard. One contractor (or consultant) can claim one solution. A second contractor can offer a different one. Who’s to say who is (or was) right or wrong?
  2. When you blame an unknown contractor, you indirectly criticize the decision maker. The person(s) who hired the first contractor (in this case, that means my wife and I) screwed up. 
  3. You’re casting aspersions about the work of an anonymous individual. That means you don’t need to feel an iota of guilt about criticizing a fellow professional. That person may be someone you've worked with on other jobs. 
  4. You choose to promote your services by denigrating someone else. The comparison trumps an affirmative pitch, in my opinion. 
  5. Another contractor will come along and make the same claims about your work. 

The cycle never ends. 

When I live in the solution, I don’t need to find someone to blame. I don’t need to invent a reason things were done the way they were before I entered the picture. I don’t need to pick at the alleged shortcomings of those who came before me. I accept things as they are. I’m focused on improving the situation faced by the individual or organization. I'm not wallowing in the past. 

In short, when I am in the solution I am not blaming those who came before me. 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

What It Means to Live in the Solution: No Piling On

By choosing to live my life in the solution, I don't pile on. No, I'm not talking about jumping on the ball carrier in tackle football after he is down. I'm referring to "piling on" individuals or organizations who've committed some transgression, long after the initial revelation has passed. I'm talking about the seemingly endless jokes, parodies, sarcasm, and other material created to mock the faux pas. I'm referring to tweets, posts, videos, and other social media concoctions. I'm thinking of the mélange of rumor and innuendo that follows guilty parties for some time (if they're lucky).  I'm not talking about serious, intense scrutiny into issues that have widespread significance. We must continue to direct our critical energies towards acts that threaten our collective well-being.  I'm talking about piling on to individuals or organizations already down because of their behaviors. I'm talking about ridiculing those who have already paid dearly for their sin in the eye of the public. There's no need to add to their misery. They're suffering for what they did or didn't do, and likely will continue to do so. Subjecting them to our continued daggers serves no good. We might be fueled by anger, a need to make ourselves look good at someone's expense, or some other purpose. It doesn't matter, as our darts add nothing to the public discourse. Consider United Airline's decision to drag a passenger off an overbooked flight. Or Justine Sacco's unfortunate tweet. Or Anthony Weiner's sexual indiscretions. No doubt the key players in these circumstances have paid a steep price for their behaviors. They should have. That we had to perpetuate these and other melees makes us no better than them, those we aimed to ridicule.  In short, being in the solution means I don't pile on. 

Friday, September 1, 2017

Answer Three Questions to Kick Off Your Crisis Management Efforts

I've come across many crisis management "check lists" throughout my career as a public relations practitioner and educator. While they offer useful guidance in a pinch, they typically fall short in terms of helping an organization to launching a comprehensive crisis management effort. 

Instead, I've observed that this effort benefits enormously from the outset when key crisis management participants agree on responses to three key questions.   

Question 1
What is a crisis? 

Crises are not simply problems; in fact, they negatively affect the normal flow of business in all kinds of organizations. Seeger, Sellnow, and Ulmer (2015) define crises as a "specific, unexpected, and non-routine event or series of events that create high levels of uncertainty and simultaneously present an organization with both opportunities for and threats to its high priority goals." (p. 8). Coombs (2015) considers crises as perceptual, highlighting the point that defining what is or is not a crisis—not to mention if and how to respond—often results from the perceptions of stakeholders as well as the organizations involved. 

Taking these two points together, organization representatives must reach consensus on what specific criteria make a situation a crisis. Short of such agreement, there's little likelihood of progress towards any kind of crisis management plan, much less specific crisis prevention, preparation, response, and recovery activities. 

Question 2
When does a situation, event, or issue become a crisis?

It's one thing for organizational representatives to agree on the meaning of crisis, and another to label a specific situation, event, or issue as a crisis. To this end, Coombs (2015) illuminates the challenges faced in organizations where a case must be made for the existence of a crisis in the face of resistance to their very existence. Efforts to influence the dominant coalition play a role here, which typically demand an immersion in organizational politics. In general, the greater the relevance, potential impact, and urgency of a specific situation, event, or issue, the more likely an organization's leadership will buy into designating it as a crisis and thus trigger the need to enact response strategies. 

Question 2
What are the stages of crisis management?

Crisis management models vary in complexity and relevance to different organizations. Fearn-Banks (2017), for example, posits five stages in crisis management: detection, prevention/preparation, containment, recovery, and learning. Alpaslan, Green, and Mitroff (2009) identify two: the preparation and response phases. 

In other words, crisis management models may provide more or less detail regarding different stages. This detail, the language used to describe each phase, and the very framing of the different stages themselves will vary in their appeal to different organizations. That's why it's critical that the crisis management model--the way an organization's leaders understand how crises develop and evolve--matches its unique culture and dynamics,

Alpaslan, C. M., Green, S. E., & Mitroff, I. I. (2009). Corporate governance in the context of crises: Towards a stakeholder theory of crisis management. Journal of contingencies and crisis management17(1), 38-49.

Coombs, W. Timothy (2015). Ongoing crisis communication (4rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Fearn-Banks, K. (2017). Crisis communications: A Casebook approach (5th ed.). New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.   

Ulmer, R. R., Sellnow, T. L., & Seeger, M. W. (2013). Effective crisis communication: Moving from crisis to opportunity. Sage Publications. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Learning about Crisis Management to Understand Crisis Communication

Tonight I kicked off a semester-long class on crisis communication. It's offered through University of San Francisco's M.A. Program in Professional Communication. To that end, students can expect to encounter the range of skills today's crisis communicators must master to survive (if not thrive) in an increasingly hectic world. Go here to view the course syllabus

I approach crisis communications differently than what I've seen in venues populated primarily by professional communicators. I believe we must broaden our scope of inquiry to encompass crisis management, with communication (i.e., the need to respond to crisis) representing one part (and, I admit, often the sexiest one as it involves media relations, social media, and other tools). That means we'll address prevention, preparation, and post-crisis analysis in addition to the actual communication in response to the crisis itself. The class encompasses several fields--strategic communication, risk management and communication, organizational behavior, leadership, and ethics, among others. 

I thus feel it's a bit of a misnomer to title the class "Crisis Communication." That said, communicators can clearly work more effectively by understanding the broadest possible context within crises may be considered. I see my class as an important step in this education process.

Go here to view my PowerPoint presentation from tonight's class. 

Stay tuned for regular updates on the course here on this blog. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

A Personal Branding Lament (in verse)

They say I need a personal brand
And should be able to concoct one on demand
But doesn't that just mean
What I want the world to glean
Is a polished veneer of what I say I want to manifest?

Maybe I just want to be my best
With alacrity, panache, and zest
Just like all the rest?
How frustrated I am by this thorny request

Perception over reality
Looking good as the finality
I just want to be met where I am
Even less than a radiant gem
Bereft of the jester’s playful attire
From that I can only retire

Leaving to my inner brokenness to inspire
Only then—and only then
Can I tiptoe across the wire
Building what is
And what might be
Something all can see

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

9 Reasons Why I Want to Live My Life “In the Solution”

I’ve generally been critical and sarcastic for much of my life. I’ve seen how these orientations have impeded my personal and professional development. Granted, these energies also have come in handy. I wouldn’t say I’m jettisoning them entirely. It’s that focusing on what’s wrong—the problem—only has helped me to go so far.  I’ve decided to turn my attention to helping make things better by focusing on the solution. I’ve learned that when I’m “in the solution” 

I more readily accept setbacks and mistakes as inevitable and indispensable for growth.

I’m more inclined to challenge myself and those around me to improve. While there may be a specific end in mind, I see it as one step on an ongoing journey of self-improvement. 

I display energy, perseverance, and positivity.

My energy and enthusiasm attracts others to support my effort.

I seek out and use best practices to achieve my goal.

I seek out and listen to feedback from trusted sources.

I gracefully listen to those who focus on the problem, and/or who cast aspersions on me or my methods. I don’t dismiss what they say nor do I take it personally. I see if there’s any merit to their arguments and incorporate what makes sense. I redirect my energies towards the solution. I refuse to get caught up in negativity or dwelling on the problem. 

I can see new, unexpected possibilities and opportunities.

I learn from the past but don’t fixate on it; instead, I strive to live wholly in the present as I work to realize a better future. And by being in the present, I’m able to put aside fears and worries about what may or may not happen. 

Note that the sample size for my being "in the solution" remains small. I’m still a work in progress. I consider being consistently “in the solution” to be an aspirational goal. I know it’s one well worth the time and energy. 

Friday, April 7, 2017

Management Communication? Yes, MBA Students, We Need To Study It

I teach management communication for MBA programs. I often encounter this reaction from students when I tell them what I do: “I’ve gotten this far in my life. So I must know how to write and speak reasonably well.” These individuals balk at the need for further training and education. They believe they can tackle any strategic communication challenge with their current skills.

This resistance surprises. Employers emphasize strong oral communication skills when selecting candidates. Check out the 2016 GMAC Corporate Recruiters Report and this announcement for more details.  

MBA candidates would never question the need to study finance, contracting, or supply chain management. These arenas are technical. It's impossible to work in them without specialized education (and often experience as well). Most people thus recognize the need for additional knowledge, skill, and experience limits in specialized domains. 

Yet it’s different with management communication. But it shouldn’t be. For one, public speaking and writing are fundamental. An understanding of communication theory and strategies offers an indispensable conceptual framework, moreover. More importantly, you can excel as an engineer—but mediocre communication skills will retard your professional development. 

Second, there’s a lot to know about individual and organizational communication. I’ve studied the subjects for years (and consulted and taught about them as well). I see how much more I need to learn. Third, varied approaches to writing and speaking demand different skills. Business and academic writing, for example, are very different. There's no generic toolkit of communications skills that works across different organizational contexts. Ongoing education and training can help here. 

Finally, routine miscommunication and misunderstandings plague modern workplaces. Both result from poor communication skills. We cultivated them starting with the earliest days in our lives. Dubious practices in different work environments reinforce them. In short, we can’t fall back on mindless, habitual patterns. Nor can ignore the evolving impact of new technologies on our communications activities. We have to unlearn what we've learned. Then we can adopt  current best practices.  

Do excellent communication skills guarantee success in business and life? Not always but successes abound. Writing and speaking skills make the difference. The thoughtful application of relevant theory and practice play a major role as well. In short, MBA students thus should reconsider their perspectives on management communications skill building. They're critical in helping them realize the possibilities inherent when applying the fruits of their education. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

A Strategy for Managing Social Media Profiles

I’ve spent a lot of time on social media sites over the years. That said, I recognized in late 2016 that my efforts lacked discipline. Two things jumped out at me:

  1. The accuracy and comprehensiveness of my profiles varied. Some were current; others were not. Several offered little more than an email address and phone number. I used several different photos. The profiles also lacked details on work projects, articles, and other information I consider important.
  2. I had included information on many more sites than I had realized. The sheer number complicated my efforts to keep them all updated. 
I began 2017 with an inventory of all social media sites where I had registered. In the process, I divided the list of sites into the following categories:

  • Primary: These are sites where I interact a lot with people who are important to me (e.g., LinkedIn, Facebook)
  • Secondary: These professional and academic organization sites (e.g., ResearchGate, International Leadership Association) are important. But I don’t interact with as many people there.
  • Tertiary: I rarely frequent these sites (e.g., Brandeis University Alumni Association, Speakerpedia). Nonetheless, they provide opportunities to connect. 

I'll move sites from category to category as their relative importance changes. 

I completed this process over a period of weeks. I started by updating the primary sites. I provided as much professional information as allowed. I revisit the content on these sites every month to ensure it remains accurate.

Next, I turned to the secondary sites. I updated these sites to make sure the information was current. Participation in these sites overlaps the ones I included in my primary list. I thus spent most of my time providing links to my primary sites and less on providing the same or similar content. My goal here is to be efficient and effective. I revisit content on these sites once a quarter. 

I visit the tertiary sites at most twice a year. I update information and provide links to my primary sites.

I'm now clear on the relative importance of my social media profiles. I also know they're accurate, updated, and comprehensive. And I have a process to ensure they remain so.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Leadership Development and Participation in a 12-Step Addiction Recovery Program

Developing leadership skills demands introspection. My participation in a 12-step addiction program based on the principles and traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was critical. As I engaged the world from an evolving perspective while working to refrain from addictive behaviors, I came to realize that my leadership beliefs and actions were fundamentally different. I consider this process, which commenced in 2001, a leadership formative experience (LFE) as it had the greatest influence on my subsequent leadership development. 

In December 2016, The International Journal for Transformative Research (a peer-reviewed journal) published an article based on this abstract. Go here to download and read it.