Breaking the rules

nando_parradoWe are pretty fanatical about stories in business not taking more than 2 minutes to share.  I know, sounds harsh but we have even written another post on how storytelling like everything in life is subject to the law of diminishing returns.  Simply put the law tells us that after a point in time the more you put into something the less you get back.  And I absolutely think the law kicks in at about the 2-minute mark with most stories.

But of course what makes life so interesting is that there are always exceptions to every rule and one must always know when to break or bend a rule.

Just recently a client, Richard Binch from Accenture shared a story of how a long story can work!  Richard  talked about attending a conference where  Nando Parrado was invited to speak.

In October 1972, Nando Parrado was one of 16 survivors when a plane carrying the Uruguayan rugby team crashed in the Andes Mountains.  Parrado lost both his mother and sister in the plane crash.

What follows is not for the faint hearted.  Stranded at over 11,800 ft altitude, the survivors were faced with extreme conditions, little food and no heat source.  Facing the grim prospect of starvation and after hearing on radio that attempts to rescue them had been abandoned, the 16 survived by feeding on dead passengers preserved in the snow.  Parrado says out of respect for him they did not touch the bodies of his mother and sister.

I think the greatest sadness I felt in my life was when I had to eat a dead body,” said Roberto Canessa, one of the other survivors later.  “I would ask myself: is it worth doing this? And it was because it was in order to live and preserve life, which is exactly what I would have liked for myself if it had been my body that lay on the floor,” he said.

Desperate after more than two months in the mountains, Canessa and Parrado set out to seek help. They climbed a 5000 metre mountain, one part of the ascent was diagonally across a sheer wall of snow. They had no picks, no ropes, no climbing equipment and only summer clothing.  In addition to the cold, they had to deal with thin air, blizzards and their physical debilitation.  Nando told the others that from the summit of the mountain they would see the green plains of Chile. When he reached the top there was no green, only white.

After 10 days of trekking, they spotted a livestock herder in the foothills of the Chilean Andes.  They could not reach him because of difficult conditions, but they heard him say one word: “Tomorrow”.  “With that, our suffering ended,” Canessa said.  The herder went into town and returned with a rescue team.

Richard shared that Parrado spoke for an hour and a half and had everyone riveted and Parrado used his story to say ‘Don’t waste your time, lead the life you want to lead’.  Parrado was brought in, to inspire the sales force and within 2 days, about 7 people in the sales team resigned as Parrado’s message struck a chord with them.  Even in Richard’s retelling in Melbourne, so many years later you could see that the audience was visibly moved.

Thanks Richard for reminding us that there are exceptions to every rule and long stories can work.  And as the Dalai Lama said “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”


The Answer is 42

twrjy7pofIn Douglas Adams cult classic ‘The Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy’, an incredibly powerful computer Deep Thought was built to provide the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything.   After the great computer program had run for seven and a half million years, the answer was announced. The Ultimate answer to Life, the Universe and Everything .. Is…42.

Now we know you are not going to take that long to answer questions you are asked after you present and hopefully your answers will be more illuminating than 42.  So how do you answer questions?  In a follow up post to ‘Any questions’ here are our top tips.

The first is to be prepared for the questions.  You should be able to predict about 90% of your questions.  Run your presentation past a peer or trusted advisor and ask them what questions people are likely to have.  If someone else has presented similar material before, pick their brains over coffee and ask what do clients always want to know about this.  If you are going to be making the same presentation over a few times then start putting together a FAQ document.  Preparation really helps nail the Q&A section of your presentation.

When you are asked a question the first step is to acknowledge the person asking it.

Acknowledging a question

This is sometimes called ‘giving status’.  So you could say ‘That is an interesting question’, or ‘A very insightful observation’, or ‘Thanks for asking that I’m sure many people are thinking the same thing’.  Sometimes I ask for the questioner’s name and might simply say ‘Thanks Tom’.  But please this has to be genuine and make sure you do not parrot the same line after each question is asked!  That would defeat the purpose.

Repeat & Ascertain

Please check if the rest of the audience heard the question and if they haven’t repeat it for them.  Sometimes if the question was quite detailed or rambling ascertain by asking if you got the question right but narrow this down to 1 or 2 focus words, that the questioner has used.  For example by saying ‘ Would it be right to say you are asking about how to implement this in your business?’.  The focus word being implement which will then guide your answer.

Answer using PEP

Always acknowledge, repeat and ascertain if necessary and then move on to answering the question and do so using a simple 3 step formula.  Make a point, provide an example, or evidence and repeat the point you are making but use different words.  Think of this as a PEP answer: Point, Example, Point.  This helps keep your answers punchy, short and to the point.  The Q&A session is when energy drains away from the room, especially when the presenter drones on with their answers or gets on their favourite hobby horse.  PEP helps discipline presenters and keeps the energy levels buoyant in the room.

Have a wide lens when answering questions.  Quite often presenters simply focus their answer and eye contact on the person raising the question.  This does two things, it makes the person uncomfortable to be in the spotlight and it disengages the rest of the audience.  As a practical solution, when you acknowledge, and ascertain you would make eye contact with the person who asked.  When you are repeating and using PEP to answer, you would broaden your focus and look at the the rest of your audience and when you end return your focus, and make eye contact again with the person who asked to make sure they are happy with your answer.  If this sounds hard think narrow focus (eye contact with the person who posed the question), wide focus (Make eye contact with the rest of the audience) and finish on narrow focus (eye contact with person who asked the question).

Douglas Adams was asked many times why he chose the number 42 as the answer to everything and many theories from binary representations to Tibetan monks were proposed. He finally answered.  ‘The answer to this is very simple. It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one.  I sat at my desk, stared into the garden and thought ’42 will do’. I typed it out. End of story’.

Perfect answer.