The executive vice president of a large oil company called the director of HR with this request: “We’re opening up a new call center this year, and we’re going to need you to help get it staffed. But I’ve already got the person in mind for the director’s job.”
“Okay. Great. Who’s that?”
“Donna _______? Why, she’s just an admin! I don’t see her as qualified at all. The director’s position would be at a middle management grade, at least.”
“That’s for you to determine. But that’s who I want in there.”
To the astonishment of the HR director, the executive continued his explanation of seeing Donna’s competence in her ability to articulate ideas in a couple of meetings when her boss was out of town and she’d been sent as his representative.
She got the promotion.
To present your own ideas with equal impact, consider these tips:
Try the direct-mail approach. Start with a provocative or intriguing statement to get people’s attention and whet their appetites for the main course. “So maybe we should hire only those with no experience in this industry.” “I’ve got an idea—let’s beat them at their own game.” When the point’s “not all there,” you’ll grab people’s attention for your elaboration to follow.
Start With What’s on Their Mind—Not Yours.
If you want to grab attention for your ideas, you have to start where people are and lead them to where you stand, not expect them to meet you halfway. What policy is bothering them? What do they fear might happen tomorrow? What frustrates them today? Start there and tie your idea into that concern or hope.
Stand if You Want to Convey Authority and/or Underscore the Importance of an Issue.
When someone “rises to the occasion,” others generally settle back and give him or her the floor. The group dynamics change from an informal team discussion to a formal presentation. A formal presentation says three things: “I already have an opinion on this issue,” “I am well prepared with supporting details,” and “The issue is bigger and more important than the routine ones we deal with.” From your physically elevated position, your words take on more authority; the group is likely to grant you control of the meeting, even if only temporarily.
One word of caution: As a result of all these dynamics, you probably will get less feedback on your idea. Those who support it will withhold their comments, thinking that you obviously sound authoritative and need no help in garnering others’ opinions. Those who disagree with you may hate to buck authority before an audience; they often save their negative comments for the hallways. You can sometimes have it both ways by presenting your proposal standing up and then taking a seat for the follow-up discussion and turning over the facilitation to someone else.
Present Your Proposal Only One Way, and Be Specific.
When you’re courting several people with differing viewpoints, it’s natural to think that the more general you can make your idea, the more “hooks” you’re creating for people to latch onto. In that effort, you tend to explain your idea first one way and then another. You use this analogy and that. You think maybe this and maybe that would be part of the final product. Often, the intention of the elaboration is to offer something that will appeal to everybody.
A broad, generally expressed idea, however, usually has the opposite effect: everybody hears something that they disagree with. And you wind up spending more time dealing with the minor details and “what you didn’t mean to imply” than you do with the gist of the idea. The group has the sense that your proposal has been thrashed to death, when in reality only the chaff around it has been discarded. Prefer, instead, to propose the idea succinctly, in only one specific way. Let it stand there in all its glory until people force you to add details by their questions.
Make Abstractions “Hit the Gut.”
Accept the fact that we don’t make all our decisions based on logic. When people get emotional about an issue, accept that emotion, show that you understand it, and then, when they regain their composure, ask if they can share the reasons for those feelings. When it’s in your interest to do so, play to others’ emotions. Abstractions are difficult for people to rally around. Tie them to specifics so that people “feel” an issue. For example, if you want your team to provide input into designing your corporate policy concerning charitable contributions, don’t deal with nameless agencies and noble causes. Talk about specific people who benefit from these contributions and specific agencies that will be receiving the money allocated by the policy your team helps draft. If you generate appropriate emotion, “dull” tasks can take on new life and importance.
Don’t Withdraw Your Proposal Simply for the Sake of Harmony.
Encourage others to express either support or disagreement, but don’t let people turn down an idea simply because “someone doesn’t like it.” Ask for supporting explanations. If you’re going to toss out an idea, support it until someone changes your mind.
If You Can’t Manage a Touchdown, Try for a First Down.
If you can see that your idea will not be accepted in total, settle for measured success. Suggest that the team give you the go-ahead in a limited way. Ask for a “test run” at some phase of the project “before too much money is spent.” All you may need is a little running room to prove that your idea or plan has merit. Don’t give up simply because you don’t make a touchdown with the first play.
Above all, be flexible on the issues. We’re not talking about flip-flopping like the politicians do—whatever the polls support today, they “believe” tomorrow. Instead, be open to the facts and flexible in your feedback. The purpose of meetings—most staff meetings, anyway—is to exchange ideas. If someone presents facts and sways your opinion, don’t hesitate to change your position. That’s not weakness; it’s democracy.
Dianna Booher, an expert in executive communications, is the author of 45 books, published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Her latest books include Creating Personal Presence: Look, Talk, Think, and Act Like a Leader and Communicate with Confidence, Revised Edition. As CEO of Booher Consultants and as a high-caliber keynote speaker, Dianna and her staff travel worldwide to deliver focused speeches and training programs to address specific communication challenges and increase effectiveness in oral, written, interpersonal, and organizational communication. www.booher.com
- Communication Skills: Series on Contributing Valuable Ideas in Meetings – Part 1: 9 Tips to Keep Your Ideas from Being Ignored, Discredited, or Stolen in Meetings (booher.com)
- Communication Skills: Contributing Your Valuable Ideas in Meetings – Series Part 2: 7 Don’ts to Keep Colleagues from Hating You in Meetings (booher.com)
- Communicate With Confidence®: A Long List of Career Payoffs