Good Conversations Start with Preparation

Talking in every professional situation requires advanced thought.  Even if you’re an old pro at the pitch business, you still need to prepare.  Otherwise you’re not going to be ready for questions or additional veins of conversation that dive into, or build off of, what you say.    

I was reminded of the need to prepare for conversation possibilities recently on a phone call.  Expecting no more than a short, fifteen-minute introduction of my firm and some basic background as a precursor to a future conversation, the call turned into an hour-plus interview.  Although I was able to answer the questions and carry on good dialog, the conversation would have been better served by my pre-planning for possibilities.

Similar to prepping an agenda for a meeting, spend some time looking at the conversation you’ll be having and do the following:

1.  Take Stock of Who Will Be Involved.  Who’s involved in the conversation?  Identify who you’ll be engaging with and do some basic intelligence work.  LinkedIn is a great resource to gain an initial snapshot. So is looking at a firms website, especially if the person is in a leadership position since it’s highly likely you’ll find a short synopsis of who they are on the site’s “About” page.  This isn’t for nefarious purposes – it’s for developing connections.  You may find out that you share a common contact or even a friend, maybe you both went to the same school, or are members of the same interest groups.  Each of these elements can lead to a common connection and connections are what make conversations comfortable and trusting.

2.  Know the Purpose of the Conversation.  Discussions between people occur for a reason, so if you’re going to be engaged in dialog know why and identify some key outcomes.  What’s the purpose of the communications?  Is it merely informative, for introductory pleasantries, seeking a sale, or for friendly purposes? Each type of call, and the desired outcomes, carries with it a different level of energy, different set of questions, and different amount of preparation. Know the purpose of the conversation so you can prepare both the material to be delivered and what type of questions to be ready for.

3.  Build a Conversation Plan.  My unexpected phone call would have gone better from my end if I’d took a few moments to identify both the purpose (and possible alternative purposes) and some key points I wanted to touch on during the course of the dialog.  The conversation plan you develop doesn’t need to be much more than simple notes to remind you of key points or key responses you may need to make during the course of the discussion.

Whenever I’m on tap to talk with people, whether on the phone or in front of a group, I spend at least five minutes thinking about what I’ll say and jotting this information into my notebook or on a notecard.  After twenty years of practicing this, I’m able to rely on simple notes to jog my memory and most importantly, to ensure I don’t miss key points that need to be made.  This skill is something I’ve seen used by many senior leaders.  It works for them and it works for me.  All the more reason that forgetting to prepare for my recent conversation was frustrating.

The written word, unpublished, can be destroyed; but the spoken word can never be recalled.”  Horace

Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP is a leader, civil engineer, and author.  He’s an accomplished professional specializing in A/E/C work internationally and author of The Engineer Leader, a recognized blog on leadership and life success for engineers and professionals. 

Image courtesy of Ambro and