Convince Like A Consultant
BY BROOKE NIEMIEC – CHIEF MARKETING OFFICER
Companies typically aren’t seeking out professional consulting firms when their organizations are humming along, nary a problem or issue in sight. It’s when some component of the business has gone sideways or needs improvement that a call comes down from the c-suite requesting the services of outside experts. In the most extreme circumstances, the financial or operational health of an organization may even be at stake. As consultants, we’re often tasked with solving a company’s most complex or difficult problems—and communicating recommendations to senior leadership (experts in their own right) who may reside in a place somewhere between highly receptive and outright skeptical. This ability to present to and persuade a tough audience in a challenging time is crucial.
You don’t have to be a professional consultant to find yourself similarly tested. Nearly everyone at some point in the course of their career will be called upon to advise their bosses, peers, or direct reports. How you convey the information you own might spell the difference between the adoption or dismissal of your ideas. Many of the interpersonal skills I’ve sharpened as a successful advisor to senior executives can help anyone who’s tapped to take the lead. Here are some of my most valuable consulting techniques to help you become a better influencer:
YOUR AUDIENCE CAN ONLY BE AS CONFIDENT IN WHAT YOU’RE SAYING AS YOU ARE
You should define your audience as anybody you’re trying to inform or influence. It doesn’t matter who it is: your boss, your co-worker, or an external partner. It also doesn’t matter how well-known you are within your organization. In every situation, your audience will derive their own sense of confidence in your topic directly from your level of confidence. If you don’t believe what you’re saying, or even if you just don’t seem like you do, they won’t believe it either. Trust in the fact that, as an internal consultant, you are the expert in this situation, and others are expecting you to share an opinion or a recommendation. If you’re nervous, practice!
SACRIFICE THE MANY FOR THE FEW
We’ve all been there—we’ve done a ridiculous amount of work and we want people to know about it. We have pages of reports or statistics or recommendations, and all of them are valid and accurate. The rub is that you can’t and shouldn’t share them all. First, your audience won’t have the patience or the attention span to ingest all the details. Second, and more importantly, sharing everything makes it hard to identify the truly important pieces. Force yourself to pick no more than three key messages that you hope someone will take away from your interaction.
KNOW YOUR TELLS
Most people have some type of nervous habit that can appear in any situation—not just when they’re in “presentation mode.” These can range from common filler sounds (such as “um” and “so” and “anyways”) to physical tics (such as jingling keys in a pocket or chewing on a pen). Mine was slapping my leg whenever I made an important point, a nervous habit that was unfortunately louder than the important point itself. Many of us are not aware of our own behaviors when presenting. The best advice? Record a practice round on video and pay attention to what you see in addition to what you hear.
EXPLAIN WHAT’S IN IT FOR THEM
Approach every conversation as if the people you’re talking to need to be convinced that what you’re saying even matters. Consultants have to prove their worth every day and are relentless about making sure they have support across the board. It’s much easier for someone to care about something they have a personal connection to—it’s your job to figure out what that is. Don’t take for granted that part of your job is to make sure that your colleagues understand that what you’re talking about should matter to them.
ILLUSTRATE WHAT THE HECK YOU DID
Don’t assume that your audience understands anything you’ve done and don’t make them work to connect the dots themselves. Like a consultant, act as if you’re not going to be around forever to answer questions, so make sure everything you do is self-explanatory. Label graphs. Note data sources. Define key terms. Whatever it is you do, make sure that your “client” knows exactly what it means without your involvement.
KNOW WHEN TO SAY “I DON’T KNOW”
While consultants are hired for their expertise and knowledge, it’s also critically important for them to acknowledge when they don’t know something. The best consultants can differentiate between areas where they can respond real-time based on the knowledge they have, and when they need to spend some more time thinking about their response first. Do you have all of the facts? Are you extremely confident in your answer? Are the stakes low? If you answer “no” to any of these questions, it’s best to pause on the real-time response and come back with a solid answer later.
Whether you’re a true consultant or simply advising your boss, I’m convinced that abiding by these influencing techniques can help you get better results and advance your career.