Time to Move Beyond “Winging It”? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am a senior business leader for a global manufacturing company. I recently was on a panel with an officer of our company—not my boss, but a peer of my boss. He was very impactful with his remarks; I was okay but not nearly as sharp. Later, when I complimented him on his presence and remarks, he graciously thanked me and asked if he could give me some advice.

Of course I said yes.

“You need to prepare,” he said. “You have no idea how much I prepare when I need to speak—in any venue, including executive team meetings. It makes all the difference.”

It got me to thinking, and I realized that I have been basically winging it. All the time. I talk way too much. I start talking and keep talking until I figure out what my point is. I am smart enough to have gotten away with it so far—but now that it has been called out, I really want to improve. I am not sure where to begin. Thoughts?

Winging It


Dear Winging It,

The first step is self-awareness, so congratulations for realizing that you can improve. It is my experience that the less people talk, the more others tend to pay attention when they do. There is tremendous power in silence, and in taking the moment to think before you speak.

The next step is clarifying your own motivation for improving, because it will require sustained attention and effort. Since you have gotten away with winging it till now, it would be easy to slide back into old habits. So remembering the point of the exercise will help to keep you on track. Ask yourself:

  • Why bother improving?
  • What are my long-term career goals, and will my improving impact those goals significantly?
  • How will I deal with it when I get disillusioned with how much time and effort preparation takes?

Once you have given this a little thought, you will be ready for the next step. This may be the hardest part: deciding what meetings/events you want to be more prepared for and blocking time off on your calendar to prepare.

The key to preparation is taking the time to do it—and you’ll find that it really doesn’t take that long. Once you have your system down you might very well be able to do it on your commute, or your morning walk, or even in the shower. Personally, I prepare by creating mind maps using pen and paper. Many people need to think out loud and take note of what comes out of their mouths that is useful and what can be consolidated or edited out. You will have to experiment.

Taking the time to prepare also means reviewing the supporting documents that are shared before a meeting. Most people who are used to winging it figure they can do a quick scan once the meeting starts, which is probably what you do now. But reviewing early will allow you the time to develop an opinion with supporting arguments that will be three steps ahead of what you can get to in real time.

Once you have blocked a little time out, run some tests: What method is going to serve you best? Are you a writer? Do you need markers and flip chart so you can think big? Do you need to think out loud with a peer or team member? Perhaps the recording feature on your phone would help you?

To organize your preparation, regardless of your method, consider:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What is their agenda? Why are they there?
  • What is the main topic or decision that needs to be made?
  • Do you have one or two key messages you want people to remember?
  • Are there related side topics that may be missing, and can you explain why it is critical to address those at this time?
  • What are the most important points people need to hear to grasp your opinion?
  • Do you want/need research or statistics to support your point(s)? It’s much better to Google beforehand and be ready with links.
  • Is there a personal story or example you might share to support a point?
  • Can you tell that story succinctly and make sure it circles back to the point? Stories are very effective but all the more when they are short, sweet, and relevant.
  • If your audience remembers only one thing about what you say, what do you want it to be?
  • Is there a call to action and is it clear?
  • What questions do you anticipate being asked, and how will you answer them?

If you start with just these, you will be way ahead of the game. Even if you focus yourself on the way to a meeting (or in our current Zoom world, take five minutes before the meeting) with some thinking about who the audience is and what you need them to know, you will be on the road to being prepared. Success breeds success, so start small and build.

If at all possible, consider asking the gentleman who gave you advice how he prepares—he may have some brilliant tips for you. And almost everyone likes being asked for advice.

Finally, you can practice keeping your hand over your mouth until you figure out exactly what needs to be said. I spend a great deal of time with my hand over my mouth—as a former “winger,” it serves me well. It is much easier to circle back to share something you didn’t get a chance to say than to take back something (or worse, a lot of stuff) you wish you hadn’t.

Love, Madeleine

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is the co-founder of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Coaching Services team.  Since 2000, Blanchard’s 150 coaches have worked with over 16,000 individuals in more than 250 companies throughout the world. Learn more at Blanchard Coaching Services.

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