It’s a compliment to be fast on your feet. Right? In the athletic sense, definitely, but it refers to mental fleet-footedness too. Like when your boss fires a question at you in a meeting, and you respond quickly, knowingly, definitively, with maybe just a dash of worldly wise irony thrown in for good measure. You stick your answer, poised, on point. You’re quick. Afterward, colleagues say – wow, you really know how to think on your feet.
But thinking can be overrated. In a meeting, no one’s going to take a fragment of what you say and present it to the world as the only thing you said. A journalist will.
When I counsel executives, one of the first things I suggest is that having all the answers is not a qualification to talk about what you know in public. Shooting from the hip is a good way to shoot yourself in the foot.
You have to be selective about what you say to journalists. A reporter usually has neither the space nor the inclination to display your forthrightness, cleverness – quickness. He or she wants a quote. Eight or ten words that usually amount to just a few pixels of the big picture.
In the office, hard questions demand and deserve straight answers. Journalists demand straight answers too, but they don’t necessarily deserve them. That may sound harsh, but the fact is reporters tend to deal their questions from a crooked deck. They play by rules that don’t necessarily show your full hand, or theirs. They take things out of context. They’re in the business of storytelling. Drama, edge, conflict. Point, counter-point. They’ll do what they have to do, more often than not, to get there.
Anyone being interviewed should be every bit as concerned about telling a good story. Capturing the big picture by advancing a few key ideas, not a few cute quips. That requires thinking through what you want to say, your themes, your narrative, before an interview starts.
Then, when the interview begins – don’t think.
Thought is a jolting process. It flings from point to point, instant to instant, question to question. It’s a haphazard process before it coheres into a narrative. A bullet point, after all, is just a bullet point. Cold, lifeless, a fragment that taken out of context can distort the larger truth of what you and your company are all about. Don’t ever respond to a journalist’s question with a bullet point. Embed your bullet points in a story, themes that harmonize into a narrative.
And there’s another thing. Another reason to get your thinking done before you speak. Thinking removes you from the proceedings. You’re not all there. You’re in your head. Your eyes slide back as you – think. That breaks the connection that communication is all about. And that in turn lowers your credibility.
You’d never just wander into a room full of people to give a speech without preparing. The same should apply when speaking to a reporter. Or most any other audience these days, for that matter. Let’s remind ourselves that everybody these days is a reporter. That hand you just shook at a conference or even at a dinner party? There’s a good chance it’s composed of fingers itching to tweet, blog and bloviate your off-the-cuff takedown of a competitor (or colleague…?) into the wilds of cyberspace.
It should be part and parcel of every businessperson’s professional life to work on their story. Continuously. Just part of the job. Think ahead – what’s your story today?
Being fast on your feet is overrated. It can in fact be an excellent way to fall flat on your face.
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