I was first introduced to this idea by Ramit Sethi in this blog post: That behind every every impressive feat lies a HUGE amount of preparation. You only see the results, but you almost never hear about the hours and hours of grunt work:
Situation: Your friend lost 10kg in 3 months and looks amazing
He says: “Oh I just watched my diet and exercised more”
Reality: He ate chicken breast and steamed broccoli every day, hired a personal trainer, and worked out 5X a week
Situation: Your colleague gave a game-changing idea during a meeting that impressed your boss
She says: “It was just something that popped into my head!”
Reality: She spent 2 hours of pre-reading through the background material, and the last 3 days interviewing stakeholders and researching potential vendors
The same thing applies to presenting and pitching as well.
I was once amazed at how CEOs could go on Channel NewsAsia or CNN and give impressive, off-the-cuff answers to tough questions from seasoned interviewers.
Then one day, I saw my own CEO spend two hours rehearsing answers with his Public Relations manager. He had 10 pages of scripted, well-crafted answers and he was scribbling notes all over them. And it got me thinking: If a CEO could spend that much time preparing, what about me?
I have to do quite a bit of pitching and presenting for my full-time job and for cheerfulegg. So today, I wanted to share a little bit more about how I prepare for it.
(By the way, don’t automatically assume that this doesn’t apply to you just because you’re in a “non-customer facing role”. Have you ever needed to convince your colleague to do something? Ask your boss for a raise? Get your spouse to stop leaving his socks everywhere? We ALL have to pitch in our daily lives, as Daniel Pink describes in To Sell Is Human. Top performers know how to take one skill set and apply it across multiple domains.)
Script Everything Out: It’s Weird, But It Works
I’ll type out the questions I want to ask, the possible answers they’ll give, and my responses to those answers. I even write down the exact words to say in my introduction:
Hi Mr XYZ, Is this a bad time to talk? Oh good! Yes, thank you for emailing me earlier. I thought it would be good to drop you a quick call so we can discuss the details. Did you say that you’re based in Australia?
Some people will think this is weird. Also, it takes an incredibly long time. In fact, I once spent an entire afternoon drafting out my script for a particularly high-stakes call. But I’d rather spend 2 hours being “weird” preparing for one important call that succeeds, than to “wing it” for 10 calls that don’t.
The good thing about this is that it gets easier. Once I get familiar with a topic, I no longer have to script everything out word-for-word. But even for topics that I’ve pitched before, I still type out the key arguments or questions in bullet points.
The truth is, I may go completely off-script during the presentation or the call. But the mere act of dumping my brain onto a piece of paper helps me to solidify my thoughts, strengthen my arguments, and prepare for possible objections.
But writing it out isn’t enough. I also have to…
Practice, Practice, Practice: The Secret Weapon That Nobody Does
Once I have my script, I’ll go into a meeting room and talk it out to myself. This is always, always, painful experience the first time I do it. (Also, people walking past will give me weird looks when they see me pacing up and down the meeting room and talking to myself).
As painful as it is, it’s necessary. The script always sounds less convincing when I hear it. So I’ll read the script out loud, as if I’m delivering the actual pitch, and then go back and edit it again. This usually takes another 1-2 hours.
If it’s a REALLY important meeting or presentation, I’ll practice on someone. Most of the time, it’s my wife. I turn to her the most because she isn’t afraid to tell me that my argument sucks. After dinner, I’ll whip out my laptop, load the slides, and deliver the full pitch to her right there in our dining room.
If asking your spouse is weird, you can also approach your colleagues. I once practiced for a tech conference presentation with one of my Senior Directors who is really good at public speaking. He told me which arguments sounded weird, which parts needed polishing, and which slides I could cut down on.
This has two advantages: 1) You get honest feedback, and 2) You calm your nerves in speaking in front of an audience. Also, it gets you outside yourself – very often, I’ll discover that my own (convoluted) thinking makes absolutely no sense to someone else.
Once you’ve practiced at least twice (at a minimum), you’re good to go. But that’s not the end. After you’re done with the call, meeting or presentation, it’s a good idea to…
Review And Optimise: How To Get Better Every Time
This doesn’t have to take a long time. Personally, I try to write down 3 things I did well and 3 things I could improve on. I store this in an easy-to-access place like Evernote.
Admittedly, I haven’t been the most disciplined and I usually only do this if something went really badly. But it’s something I need to work on.
Imagine if you did this every time you presented. Imagine if, before every meeting, you went back and reviewed those notes to remind yourself on how to improve. If you could optimise your performance by just 1% every time you had a conversation, how much better could you be by the end of the year?
Hard Work Is Often Disguised As “Natural Talent”
We all know that one person who’s amazing at speaking or selling. We look at them deliver a kickass presentation, and we assume that it’s because they were “gifted” with the natural ability to speak.
I now know that’s not true. We all see the results, but nobody sees the preparation.
Even those who are seemingly good at “winging it” have spent years and years in deliberate preparation: Scripting, practising, revising, and practising some more. Those few minutes of “off-the-cuff” speaking are a result of a ten thousand hours of preparation which made it natural for them.
Preparation never goes away. The next time you have an important conversation, a high-stakes pitch, or a make-or-break presentation, don’t be afraid to be “weird” and intensely prepare for it.
Because in this crazy competitive world, it’s usually the weirdos who succeed.