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Four Ways To Deal With an Intimidating Audience

April 15, 2011

A friend of mine, Mark, was recently telling me of his harrowing experiences with his Board of Directors each month. I wouldn’t have expected him to be the type that gets flustered or easily intimidated, since he is pretty powerful in his own right. As a serial entrepreneur in the telecommunications industry, he had already built and sold a company or two, not to mention the boatload of bucks I knew he had scored along the way.

But Mark’s latest business venture had brought in some high-powered private equity suits to the Board, of which he was now firmly accountable (since it was their money that was funding his new business launch). One board member in particular had proven to be somewhat challenging, as he was a – what’s a nice way to put it? – um, a little full of himself. 

“My Boss Makes Me Feel Like an Idiot!”

Mark began to dread his monthly parade before the board, because no matter how prepared he was to present the company’s strategy and performance, this one pompous gentleman would drill him into the ground with trick questions that couldn’t be answered. It was as if this board member was trying to find every opportunity to make my friend fall into the idiot hole, just to prove to everyone else who was the smartest guy in the room.

My friend’s natural response was to get increasingly intimidated and flustered, to the point of losing confidence in his leadership abilities with each successive board meeting.

But then he did something that is not taught in most MBA courses: he prayed about it. And guess what? He received a little divine business inspiration in Cantankerous Board relations – which quickly squelched the problem and turned things around altogether. Better yet, Mark told me that this formula completely changed the tone of that nasty interrogator.

Four Tips For Dealing with Intimidation

 1. Do your homework beforehand.

I’m sure you already know this, and you’re thinking, “Well, duh, Bradley. That doesn’t really have much to do with my spiritual life.” But preparation is the obvious first step before you go into any presentation, whether it’s the Board or just Barbara in HR. Trust me, God wants you to have the best possible chance at success, so spend the time it takes to prepare.

2. Don’t try to make up answers to hard questions if you really don’t know

Faking it may seem like the thing to do in the heat of the moment, but the sad truth is that if your audience is smart, they will see right through it. You will then lose whatever credibility you have built up to that point, and end up looking just plain goofy. Admit that you don’t know the answer, and that you will get back to them as soon as possible. Your interrogator will respect your honesty. Just be sure to follow through.

 3. Don’t get defensive

The worst thing you can do is act like you are all entitled, angry and hostile for being questioned. Keep your cool, remain calm and pretend you are in complete control. When in doubt, go to step 4.

4. Compliment the intimidating questioner on their brilliance.

Here  is the clincher, floks, and it delivered bigtime results for Mark. At the next meeting, when the arrogant board member started sharpening his horns and threw out the first un-answerable question, Mark responded in all humility, sincerity and respect with a lob right back at him: “Wow! You are obviously much smarter than me and have had a great deal more experience in this area. That is one heck of a good question!” Instead of defensive bantering, it opened the door to a deeper discussion of what was behind the question, what knowledge the Board member wanted to press in on, and why it was important to the business.  Plus it totally sucked up to his ego. Which pretty much worked like a charm.

If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Romans 12:20-21

8 Comments leave one →
  1. April 15, 2011 5:51 am

    As an entrepreneur who has attended many board meetings (occasionally with similar dynamics) I can relate to your friend Mark. From a business standpoint, it is always interesting how things change when VC money is injected into a company. Often times the ‘creator’ of the business is beholden to the ‘money’ behind the business. The goal of the money people is often to ‘drive’ the company as fast as possible. This can cause great frustration to the creator, especially if forced to go in a direction or at a speed that might cause the business to lose its original focus. (Keep in mind, the VC guys are playing this same ‘drive the car as fast as possible game’ with 10-15 other businesses, and they only need one or two of their cars to work at the end. Thus it is a numbers game to them, and not necessarily all about the founders vision or initial intent with the business.) Bradley, I like all four tips on dealing with intimidation. I was wondering if you could add a fifth? Burning coals and dumping them on someone’s head seems a little too harsh, but perhaps some kind of mind-numbing sedative in the bullies coffee to keep him quiet for a couple of hours? Okay, bad idea, let’s just stick with prayer!

  2. April 15, 2011 7:15 am

    Reading this really makes me glad my days at board meetings are over. It is pretty much exactly as you say, but with a full cast of characters on the company side. It was usually myself and other senior managers. We never knew who would be on the hot seat. I usually did well with 1, 2, and 3. I probably could have used a bit more of 4, but don’t know if I could pull it off. My heart wasn’t thinking how smart they were.

    The hardest part sometimes was watching some of my colleagues. They would try to fake it and I would try not to cringe and give them away…although I thought it was obvious. And occasionally someone would get really defensive. Secretly we may have been glad someone got mad and shot something back, but we knew it wouldn’t be good for them, so you hope everyone keeps their cool.

    Glad it is someone else on the hot seat these days!

  3. April 15, 2011 8:54 am

    I remember making a presentation to the VP, who was a rather rotound man. He leaned on his open palm, which pushed his flesh up around his eyes and nose in a most unflattering way. I was certain he was terribly bored and yes, I was intimidated. But, I pressed on.

    He was listening all along.

  4. April 15, 2011 1:13 pm

    And it’s not just board meetings where this applies: virtually any kind of presentation can fall victim to “let’s put the whippersnapper in his place.” One thing I’ve done, especially when questions can turn hostile, is to re-ask the question, taking all the hostile words out of it. You hear “we’ve tried that stupid approach before, and it failed then, too.” So you say, “You’re asking if there’s anything different than what was previously tried, and what the outlook for success really is.”

    Good post, Brad.

  5. Phil permalink
    April 15, 2011 1:35 pm

    I’m glad that I am not rolled out in front of the board each month. I’m afraid that I’d roll my eyes at the offending questioner, breath out quickly, and say “Next question!”

  6. April 15, 2011 5:51 pm

    beholden to money people. it is interesting how the business of money tends to change things.
    that is just a little of what has been going on in my thoughts and reading lately.

    one of the posts was “the church owns your pastor” which not only applies to pastors, but to anyone. he made some good points.

    i like how your suggestions here help to take the emotion out of the situation and redirect the attention back to the subject at hand.

  7. April 20, 2011 5:24 pm

    Hee. I love the last bit of advice. (Now, you wouldn’t do that to ME would you? 😉

  8. April 20, 2011 7:09 pm

    I was just in this situation recently and my first reaction was to sit up and take the guy on head on. But I took a step back, and decided to listen to what he was saying, and like you suggested, restate his issues and offer potential future solutions.

    Unfortunately, I don’t know if my ego is secure enough to offer compliments. I always feel insincere when I do that anyway.

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