Your team is facing a competitive new business presentation. It’s “Project Big,” with high stakes, one decision panel, and a showdown with two other firms.
From the first time your team sits down to talk through a team presentation, you can feel the pressure. And this pressure often gets worse, sometimes cascading to burn out your team and frustrate those whose help you’ve enlisted.
Is your team dynamic helping you or the other team?
You can feel the pressure causing interpersonal challenges. And you know that infighting isn’t going to help you show team chemistry, so how can you avoid becoming your own worst enemy? Let’s talk causes and solutions.
1) Back To The Drawing Board Syndrome: People giving feedback are trying to help you, but they often feel shut down or ignored after giving you what you asked them for. When Presenters react poorly to feedback, it doesn’t necessarily mean they disagree. What’s often behind that is the chess game they’re playing in their mind around what to do with the feedback. I know for me when I run feedback through my mind, I sometimes fear that it may punch a hole in my plan that sends me back to the beginning, when there isn’t time to go back to the beginning. Also, each discussion point can burn time, so people are more open at the beginning and less and less so toward the end.
There’s also a pretty standard human phenomenon that it’s hard to decide anything just once. Usually, decisions get re-explored and re-decided. Unless you’re lucky, you’ll end up rehashing on Thursday what Wednesday decided about Monday’s decision. Ugh!
The mock audience you’ve assembled to practice in front of also gives feedback. Theirs inherently threatens to poke holes in everything you’ve worked out. Their feedback comes late in the game and each item of feedback brings the risk of sending you back to the drawing board, or triggering another discussion that we already had, which can burn up the precious time you have left for course correction.
Solution: Separate critique from discussion, and provide positive affirmation to the people who give input.
Most teams I work with assemble a mock decision-panel too late in the game. If you were a ship captain, you’d rather hear about an iceberg when there’s still time to steer away. Mock interviews done too late can secure your confidence or introduce doubt, fear, and visions of failure if there is no time to rebuild your presentation. Do them early if you’re going to do them at all.
Watching mock interviews and the results they generate, I have noticed a big difference between mock audiences populated by staff versus mock audiences brought in from outside the organization. The team is very respectful to outsiders, warmly thanking their critics even after bad news. The outsiders leave feeling positive about their meaningful contributions.
With internally staffed mock audiences, presenters typically argue, ignore, dismiss, or invalidate the feedback more openly (except for senior leadership). It’s not because they don’t value their staff. It’s because they’re more comfortable, open, and honest with them. Unfortunately, staff can leave thinking their feedback carrying no weight, wondering if they potentially damaged some relationships, and feeling they would have been more productive elsewhere.
I recommend taking the same approach for internal and external mock audiences.
Separate input from discussion. Listen to each person’s input and take notes. Then, limit the discussion with the mock interview audience. You want to ask them questions, kick some ideas around, and see what can be learned from responding to the feedback, however you don’t want to merge your team in with the mock audience and put discussion around all the points they bring.
Too much back and forth with the mock audience is like adding another seven to ten cooks to your kitchen. Discuss the menu, sure, but do the cooking yourself. And always, affirm those giving input:
“Thank you so much for the input. It’s very helpful. I took notes and will process your comments.”
There will definitely be points you want to agree upon, yet you don’t need to reach consensus on everything. On the points you feel you can bake on your own, just affirm them for trying to help you, as you would to an outsider, and then decide on your own. And consider talking through what you expect from your mock audience before you start so there are some guidelines to follow.
2) Human Brains Can Only Track So Much Feedback: Criticism mounts as more and more of your team members give each other feedback. It’s a challenge to process, let alone track, and still end up talking naturally.
Solution: Separate hearing feedback from the idea of promising to incorporate it.
These are two separate things: hearing, and incorporating. So disrupt the implied contract to deliver on all the requests made of you – as if that were even possible. Team leaders should lay down some realistic ground rules:
“I want everyone to freely share their comments, and let’s all recognize that not every suggestion can be incorporated. So please thank people when they give you feedback, and after that it’s each presenter’s call.”
There may be points that are important enough (or strategic enough) that they must be dictated, but in general, especially when it comes to wording and improvisational dialogue, you can’t assimilate three days of feedback and track it all while talking normally and naturally. As team members voice their critiques, you and every other team member should say:
“Thanks. I heard what you said and I’m going to process it.”
Don’t argue every specific, except on points that are strategically paramount, or that require consensus.
3) Wrong Degree of Specificity: It’s hard to know what level of detail one should give when it comes to critiques.
“I can’t remember what you said, but I really liked it. Make sure you do that again.”
“I wouldn’t say it that way.”
“That came across negative. I like your point, but do it with a positive spin.”
“I heard you say the word ‘should.’ Maybe say ‘could’ there instead.”
Nobody knows what degree of specificity will be helpful to you. But you might know.
Solution: Teach your team members what level of specificity you need from them.
First affirm the person who gave you feedback, and then if you want to discuss an item further, steer the level of detail so it’s useful to you.
Non-Specific: “Dan, just give me the concept here. I’ll figure out how to say it.”
Semi-Specific: “I’m not quite sure how to say that. Does anybody have an idea?”
Highly Specific: “Jennifer, what’s the best term to use here? What would the prospect say?”
Comments can range from metaphorical concepts, to phraseology, to wordsmithing. Only you know what would be helpful to hear, so inform your colleagues how they can help you.
SUM: Fight the good fight to keep your team together. Separate input from discussion and set guidelines to move faster. Affirm all input. Recognize hearing the other person isn’t a contract. And help others know how to help you. Together, these can help you avoid the pressure-cooker that pulls teams apart in the final hours
What other aspects of high-stakes interview prep do you want to hear about and what can you share?