How to Decline a Meeting Invitation

Meetings Suck

How to Decline a Meeting InvitationIt’s not without reason that everybody gripes about meetings. Meetings distract people from meaningful work.

However, when purposefully conceived and efficiently run, meetings are not wasteful. Meetings are important instruments of organizational endeavor—they provide a chance to pull resources together for communication and decision-making. There are, therefore, only two serviceable objectives of a meeting:

  1. To inform and update
  2. To seek input and make collective decisions

Participating Effectively in Meetings

Participate in a meeting only if the agenda includes something important, timely, and worthwhile for you.

Ask the following questions to decide if you need to participate in a meeting:

  1. Has the meeting been well-defined? Do you have all the information you need to decide if you need to attend this meeting? Are the purpose and agenda of the meeting clear? Do you have the relevant background material? Are all the relevant participants invited?
  2. How will you benefit from this meeting?
  3. Is the decision being made at this meeting important to the success or failure of your team / organization?
  4. Does the meeting really need you? In other words, will your presence influence the discussions and the expected outcomes?

How to Politely Decline a Meeting Invitation

How to Politely Decline a Meeting InvitationIf you’re been invited to attend a meeting that you think is avoidable, try to persuade the meeting’s leader that your productive time may be better used elsewhere. Share your rationale so that the meeting’s leader has some context for why you’re not participating. Here’s how to decline the meeting:

  • “May I send somebody else to fill in for me?” Find a delegate who could represent your interests.
  • “May I suggest somebody else?” Propose other participants if the items on the meeting’s agenda are not within the purview of your role, or if you don’t have the expertise and authority to impact the conversation and the decision-making.
  • “May I provide my inputs in advance?” Take some time to review the agenda items, do your homework, organize your remarks or inputs, and brief the meeting leader or other participants beforehand.
  • “May I participate in the most relevant segment of the meeting?” If one or more items on the meeting agenda aren’t relevant to your goals, attend just those parts of the meeting that are applicable. Consider asking, “Could you please move my agenda item to the top of the meeting? I can’t stay for the whole meeting.”
  • “Could you please postpone this meeting?” Or, “May I skip this week’s update … I am still working on my task. Therefore, I am not yet ready for a productive conversation yet or give you a status-update.”
  • “I am sorry, given my department’s goals for this year, I don’t find this meeting helpful.” Request a summary of the meeting and follow-up as needed.

The key to saying “no” to a meeting is to say it decisively without appearing to be dodging your responsibilities. Make a deliberate effort to meet the needs of all the meeting’s participants.

Idea for Impact: Don’t Become Hostage to Meetings

Being in too many meetings can wreak havoc on your schedule and pinch your ability to focus on larger, more-worthwhile goals. Just go to all the ones you absolutely need to, and delegate or curtail your participation in the rest.

How to Deal with Upset Customers

Servicing Angry Customers

From an angry customer’s perspective, the impressions left by customer-service providers are long-lasting and can heighten the impact of a service experience, for better or worse.

A failure to recognize and quickly respond to the needs of angry customers can make them feel ignored, frustrated, and powerless. Here are nine guidelines that can result in a constructive interaction with an angry customer and restore his perception of satisfaction and loyalty.

  1. Don’t adopt an angry tone. Stay calm and professional. When an upset customer starts shouting or being foul-mouthed, you’ll gain nothing by reacting in a like manner. Actually, responding to anger with anger can easily escalate the hostilities and thwart meaningful communication. Exercise self-control and regulate your feelings. Without remaining calm, you cannot break through emotional barricades or preempt the customer’s frustrations going from bad to worse.
  2. If the customer is yelling, ask him to speak slower. A louder voice often goes with a faster speech. When the customer slows down his speech, the level of his voice will also drop. Repeat this request as many times as necessary to calm him down.
  3. Declare that you intend to understand the customer’s situation and help. Say, “Could you please speak more slowly. When I understand your situation, I can help you better.”
  4. Let your angry customer vent. When a customer is upset, what you tell him matters less than what you enable him to tell you. The first thing an upset customer wants is to vent. Commonly, just the modest act of listening patiently can defuse the customer’s anger. Only after you facilitate getting the customer’s emotions off his chest can you have a constructive discussion.
  5. Recognize that the customer’s problem does exist. Restate the customer’s analysis of what the problem is. “If I understand you appropriately, you have a problem with X and you don’t like Y. This has caused Z.”
  6. How to Handle Upset CustomersDemonstrate sincere empathy for the customer’s feelings. Say, “I can understand why this situation would upset you. I’m sorry you feel that way.” Your best response to the customer’s anger is empathy.
  7. Ask what the customer would like to do to have the problem solved. Ask, “What can we do to make this right for you?” By shifting the customer’s focus from annoyance to problem solving, you can determine ways to negotiate a satisfactory solution. If the customer’s request cannot be met, provide alternative solutions that may alleviate the situation or placate the customer.
  8. Let common sense prevail over standard operating procedure. Much of current customer service initiatives (especially with outsourced call centers) has devolved into standard operating procedures, carefully formulated decision-trees, and scripted answers that customer service agents dispense mechanically. To an upset customer, these automated responses often seem hollow and inacceptable. Deviate from the canned responses and use good judgment. Exercise the autonomy you’re granted over how you can respond to help solve customer complaints. If necessary, involve your manager.
  9. Don’t need to give a “yes” or a “no” answer on the spot. If the customer asks for more than you’re able to accommodate, defer your answer by saying, “Give me a minute to consider all the options I have for you” or “let me talk to my boss and see how I can help you.” After weighing the pros and cons, give your answer and offer a reason if necessary. This way, even if the customer doesn’t get a “yes” from you, he will still appreciate knowing that you’ve seriously considered his appeals.

Idea for Impact: Body language, phrasing, and tone can have a big impact on angry customers who are on the lookout for evidence of compassion and want to be reassured that they have chosen a good provider for their product or service.

Avoid the Lectern in Presentations

Avoid the Lectern in Presentations

Standing behind a lectern while presenting can make you seem stiff, unemotional, and disconnected. A lectern creates a barrier between you and your audience—it not only blocks out two-thirds of your body, but also restricts your natural hand gestures. The lectern may even entice you to lean on or hold it, making you look tense and uneasy.

By walking around the room and getting closer to your audience, you establish a bigger presence in the room and are harder to ignore. You encourage your audience to move their heads and eyes to follow you around the room, so they’re less likely to doze off during your presentation. Your watchful eyes may also prevent them from using their tablets and phones.

Walking about can make your presentation appear like a natural conversation and thus help you overcome any public speaking anxiety. You can also better gauge your audience’s reactions.

  • Always present standing up, even if you’re presenting to an audience of one or two. Standing while presenting not only lets you make better eye contact with your audience, but also helps you breathe and project your voice more clearly. You will appear to have more influence since your audience will be literally “looking up to you.”
  • Move around naturally. Mix it up to avoid looking nervous. Don’t always walk from the front to the back or from side to side.
  • Make your movements look relaxed and confident. Do not tap your foot, rock, sway, swing, or dance on the spot. Don’t try anything over-the-top, dramatic, or flashy.
  • Keep an open posture at all times; avoid crossing your arms or creating a symbolic barrier between you and the audience. Use hand gestures selectively for emphasis—do not gesture so much that your body language poses a distraction.
  • Stop moving and pause briefly after making each important point. As I mentioned in a previous article, pauses can help you emphasize your message and gather your next thoughts. In addition, the audience gets a chance to absorb your point.
  • When responding to a question, move closer to the person who asked the question.

Idea for Impact: When presenting, walk around the room naturally and interact with your audience. Moving around the room not only helps you keep eye contact with the audience, but also emphasizes an air of confidence, openness, and authority. You’ll also look more conversational, interesting, and memorable.

Stop asking, “What do you do for a living?”

How to Start a Good Conversation

I despise being asked “What do you do for a living?” when I first meet someone.

I didn’t like being asked “What does your dad do?” while growing up in India.

Many people routinely use this question as a conversation-starter with strangers. It could be argued that they intend to inoffensively learn of somebody’s area of expertise or interests and then engage them in a meaningful chat.

Stop asking 'What do you do for a living?' about indirectly sizing up people However, this question is often about indirectly sizing up the other’s socioeconomic status. People may be assessing, “How valuable are you? How much money do you make? What is your social status? What is your financial status? Are you richer, smarter, and more powerful than I am? Am I above you or below you in the socioeconomic ladder? Are you worth my time?”

Look, we live in a judgmental world where a person’s identity is at first ascertained by what he or she does for a living. Nevertheless, when becoming acquainted with someone in an informal setting, conversations shouldn’t be about inquiring after the other’s livelihood or about scrutinizing the other’s standing in society.

Chatting with somebody in “socializing situations” should be less about discerning the details of the other’s life and more about building a bit of familiarity to initiate stimulating conversations, debates, discussions, and exchange of ideas about topics of mutual interest—prospects that will all be missed if the initial interaction starts with annoying cross-examinations.

So, let’s try to make a conversation without seeking to interrogate one another.

If you’re looking for clues to a person’s passions or areas of interest to engage them in conversation, start with simple questions such as “how do you know Maria and Joe,” “is this your first time in Chicago,” or “what does your name mean?” Wait for personal details to flow into the conversation naturally. Or, wait further into the conversation before popping the “what do you do?” question.

How to Give Project Updates to Top Management and Ask for Help [Two-Minute Mentor #7]

Project Updates to Top Management Top management is continually besieged with information and requests from across the organization. This makes it difficult to get their attention, especially when you need their intervention on a project.

To be effective in providing project updates to top management and seeking their help, it’s important to cut to the chase, simplify your message, and be brief.

  • Tell them where you are now in relation to the goals of your project. Don’t expect the big bosses to ferret up-to-date information about your project. Anticipate their questions and be ready with supporting data.
  • Tell them where you’re headed. Present your plans and tell them where you stand in relation to those plans.
  • Tell them how you’ll know when you’ve arrived at the goal.
  • Tell them how you plan to get where you’re going. Provide enough context to help the big bosses understand the challenges you face.
  • Tell them where you need their help and intervention. “Boss, we have conflicting customer specifications. I need your guidance about setting priorities.” Mention your recommendations and seek agreement. “Here is our recommended approach to the problem. Do you concur?”

How to Speak Persuasively and Influence Others

How to Speak Persuasively The University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research conducted this study on how different speech characteristics influence an audience’s decisions during telephone surveys. The conclusions of this study suggest certain patterns of persuasive speech.

  • Those who talk fast are seen as fast-talkers out to pull the wool over our eyes.
  • Those who talk slow are seen as not too bright or overly pedantic.
  • Those who use pauses in their speech are seen as more persuasive than those who were perfectly fluent. However, those who pause too much are seen as inarticulate.

Idea for Impact: The results of this study suggest that to persuade others, you need to speak moderately quickly, pause often, and not be too animated. In addition, you need to speak slowly and clearly to sound more thoughtful and less nervous.

Lessons from Amazon: ‘Mock Press Release’ Discipline to Sell an Idea

If you have a brilliant idea at work, the modern workplace demands that you distill your ideas into a killer PowerPoint presentation to enlighten, entertain (with animations and special effects,) and convince your audience.

As I mentioned in my previous blog article, presentations may make ineffective communication tools. They tend to promote “a seductive laziness of thought that is anti-rigor, anti-elegance, and—most damaging—anti-audience.”

'The Everything Store' by Brad Stone (ISBN 0316219266) Amazon’s corporate culture agrees. In Brad Stone’s The Everything Store, former Amazon executive Jeff Holden commented that “PowerPoint is a very imprecise communication mechanism. It is fantastically easy to hide between bullet points. You are never forced to express your thoughts completely.”

Instead of PowerPoint presentations, Amazon uses a narrative format called the ‘Mock Press Release.’ According to this disciplined approach, for every new feature, product, or service that employees intend to pitch within their divisions, they must produce a press release-style document wherein a hypothetical Amazon customer would first learn about the feature.

Amazon contends that if something isn’t interesting enough for a customer and can’t be eloquently expressed in a mock press release format, Amazon probably shouldn’t invest in the idea. Brad Stone’s The Everything Store mentions,

Bezos announced that employees could no longer use such corporate crutches and would have to write their presentations in prose, in what he called narratives. … He wanted people thinking deeply and taking the time to express their thoughts cogently.

Bezos refined the formula even further. Every time a new feature or product was proposed, he decreed that the narrative should take the shape of a mock press release. The goal was to get employees to distill a pitch into its purest essence, to start from something the customer might see—the public announcement—and work backward.

Amazon’s famously customer-oriented culture argues that this disciplined innovation forces all ideas to be rationalized from the customers’ perspective. Therefore, Amazon encourages it’s employees to write these mock press releases in what’s internally called “Oprah-speak” (how the idea would be explained plainly on The Oprah Winfrey Show) rather than in “geek speak.”

Jeff Bezos of Amazon

Rather than have employees present their ideas using PowerPoint decks, attendees receive copies of multi-page narratives (as opposed to the one-page format used at Procter & Gamble) and study the ideas before ensuing debate and decision.

On Quora, former Amazon executive Ian McAllister argued the advantages of this narrative form:

We try to work backwards from the customer, rather than starting with an idea for a product and trying to bolt customers onto it. While working backwards can be applied to any specific product decision, using this approach is especially important when developing new products or features.

McAllister also provided a sample outline for the Amazon mock press release,

  • Heading – Name the product in a way the reader (i.e. your target customers) will understand.
  • Sub-Heading – Describe who the market for the product is and what benefit they get. One sentence only underneath the title.
  • Summary – Give a summary of the product and the benefit. Assume the reader will not read anything else so make this paragraph good.
  • Problem – Describe the problem your product solves.
  • Solution – Describe how your product elegantly solves the problem.
  • Quote from You – A quote from a spokesperson in your company.
  • How to Get Started – Describe how easy it is to get started.
  • Customer Quote – Provide a quote from a hypothetical customer that describes how they experienced the benefit.
  • Closing and Call to Action – Wrap it up and give pointers where the reader should go next.

Also see:

Lessons from Procter & Gamble: ‘One-Page Memo’ to Sell an Idea

In effective communication, less is often more. Brevity can communicate ideas more clearly.

Procter & Gamble (P&G) Logo Based on this idea, Procter & Gamble (P&G)’s corporate culture uses a powerful discipline called the ‘One-Page Memo’ for clear and concise communication.

P&G’s corporate culture requires any idea or proposal to fit onto one side of one piece of paper and must follow a predictable format. According to Charles Decker’s excellent book Winning with the P&G 99, the one-page memo consists of the following narrative elements:

  • Statement of Purpose: An introductory sentence that concisely and succinctly states the reason for the recommendation. Provides a context for the memo as a whole.
  • Background: Factual analysis that connects the purpose of the memo to the strategic objectives of the company or the brand. Also provides facts in relation to the problem the recommendation is supposed to address.
  • Recommendation: The specific proposal on how to solve the problem or exploit the opportunity detailed in the background section.
  • Rationale: The reasons for the recommendation, and the logic by which the recommendation was reached.
  • Discussion: Details of the recommendation, anticipated questions or areas of concern, risk assessment, identification of other alternatives, details of the recommendation.
  • Next Steps: Who will be following through on the recommendation, what target dates they would be working towards, what actions they would be taking to execute the recommendation.
  • Supporting Exhibits: Other supplementary information as applicable.

The last item, the supporting exhibits, provides additional data to validate the rest of the one-page memo.

Charles Decker states, “If you can learn to write a P&G memo, you can learn how to think. The memo becomes a knowledge codification tool, a way to present ideas, arguments, and recommendations in a language and style everyone at P&G understands.”

Winning with the P&G 99 also quotes an advertising agency executive: “P&G seems to have figured out that if you structure information certain ways, people will readily understand it, good ideas will emerge, and bad ideas will be exposed. I really think that is what has made them so successful. They make fewer mistakes because they find mistakes before they happen.”

Additionally, P&G’s renowned salesforce uses a Persuasive Selling Format (PSF) narrative that is structured along similar lines.

Presentations are Corrupting per Edward Tufte’s “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint”

Presentations are one of the most frequently used methods of communication in the modern workplace. However, Edward Tufte argues that they reduce the analytical timbre of communication. In other words, presentation slides lack the resolution to effectively convey context, “weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis.”

Tufte, an American statistician and academic, is renowned for his work The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, a bestselling text on data, statistics, graphics, visualization, and information.

'The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint' by Edward Tufte (ISBN 0961392169) In his cranky pamphlet The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, Tufte offers a sharp-tongued criticism of presentations as a communication format. He argues that we treat slides more as a medium for self-expression than as a medium to connect with our audiences. His most revealing examples of how presentations corrupt our elegance of expression are his critique of NASA’s slides from the Columbia shuttle disaster and a parody of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address condensed into a PowerPoint deck.

By forcibly condensing our ideas into bullet point-statements, phrases, and slides, Tufte contends that we break up narrative flow and flatten the information we’re trying to convey. In particular, he claims that presentations’ bullet points can’t signify logical relationships well and thus dilute the audiences’ thought process. The resulting message is watered down, lacks proper emphasis, and doesn’t communicate the context very effectively.

Tufte favors well-structured memos that convey ideas comprehensively, clearly, and meaningfully. In agreement, I’ll offer two articles next week about Procter & Gamble and Amazon’s use of these memos as a communication discipline.

How to Stop Rambling

How to Stop Rambling Poster: Keep Rambling and Annoy All

Some people are natural ramblers. Others are prone to ramble when they feel impassioned about a topic and have a propensity for going off on tangents. Others tend to blather because they feel jumpy and insecure when asked to talk about something they don’t totally understand. Still others feel compelled to talk just to make themselves heard or when they don’t want to lose the floor.

Whatever the reason you may ramble, here are some ideas to help you be short and clearer in your conversations with others.

Follow the “Traffic Light Rule”

Career coach Marty Nemko offers a “Traffic Light” rule of thumb to keep conversations short:

  • During the first 30 seconds of an utterance, your light is green: your listener is probably paying attention.
  • During the second 30 seconds, your light is yellow—your listener may be starting to wish you’d finish.
  • After the one-minute mark, your light is red: Yes, there are rare times you should “run a red light:” when your listener is obviously fully engaged in your missive. But usually, when an utterance exceeds one minute, with each passing second, you increase the risk of boring your listener and having them think of you as a chatterbox, windbag, or blowhard.

How to be Concise and Retain your Audience’s Interest

If you have nothing to say, say nothing at all. Don’t skirt around the topic, “fake the funk,” or seem indecisive. Simply say, “I am not educated about this topic.” If you’re asked something you should know about but don’t, it’s acceptable to say, “I don’t know, let me get back to you.” Do your research and follow-up with the audience.

If you have lots to say about something,

  • First take a few moments to think about what you want to say and structure your answer. Pausing before you give an answer will make you look more thoughtful and intelligent than if you crudely blurt out an unstructured response as soon as a question is posed. If necessary, buy some time: “Give me a moment to gather my thoughts.”
  • Once you’ve thought of your answer, simply state it. Do not add new details as you speak. Stick to your planned details and structure; you will be able to provide a consistent, concise, and well-reasoned answer.
  • Avoid littering your conversation with irrelevant or trivial details. Often, it’s more important to be articulate than accurate. Keep your sentences brief and to the point. Don’t wander from your point.
  • If you have more to say than you can say in a minute or two, realize that even though your audience may be interested in listening to everything you have to say, their attention may quickly dissolve into disinterest. Limit yourself to a minute or two and use that brief time to provide the most important points or a summary. Then ask, “Would you like me to expand?”

Sometimes you can defer a question by saying, “I’d be interested in what others think about this.” However, you will look devious if you use this technique too often.

Prepare and rehearse. Before attending a meeting, event, or gathering, think about the likely topics people may want to converse with you about. Think about the message you want to get across and rehearse your responses.