Trying to Channel Bill Clinton
by Jerry Weissman
Scenario #1: Silicon Valley, an Executive Briefing Center at a major IT company. One of the company’s product managers finishes a presentation about a product upgrade to a group of existing customers and then opens the floor to questions.
The first question comes from the CIO of a large financial institution: “We’ve spent millions of dollars on the first version of your solution and it gave us nothing but problems—crashes, down time, glitches, and endless repairs—and now you want us to upgrade to a new version. We’re still having problems with the earlier version. What are you folks going to do about it?”
The product manager responds, “Quality is important to us…”
Scenario #2: New York City, a hotel meeting room during a financial conference. A CEO of a public company finishes the company’s management presentation to a group of investors and then opens the floor to questions.
The first question comes from an analyst at a leading mutual fund: “Your revenues are flat, your stock is down, and your outlook for the next quarter is guarded. When are you going to turn this sucker around?”
The CEO responds, “Performance is important to us…”
Scenario #3: Chicago, a conference room at the headquarters of a national retail chain. An account executive of a manufacturing company finishes a presentation about the status of a current product and then opens the floor to questions.
The first question comes from the vice president of sales: “Your last product was late and the one before that was late. Now you tell us that this one will be late. You know that our sales are seasonal and if we miss that narrow window we lose revenues and market share. When are you guys going to get your act together?”
The account executive responds, “Promptness is important to us…”
Sound familiar? No doubt you’ve probably heard the “_______ is important to us” phrase countless times. It has become boilerplate in the Q&A trade.
The problem with the phrase is that is the blinding flash of the obvious. Of course quality, performance, and promptness are important—each of the questioners just got finished saying that! Therefore, when a presenter states the obvious in a paraphrase, it sounds patronizing to the audience.
Why would any presenter do that to any audience? It is probably a misguided attempt to echo Bill Clinton’s famous words, “I feel your pain.” Mr. Clinton coined the phrase during his run for the presidency in 1992, in response to a question from an AIDS victim. The phrase was to become a campaign slogan that sent a broader message that Mr. Clinton hears and understands every voter.
As presenter, it is vitally important that you send the message that you hear and understand every questioner, but do so without saying that you feel your audience’s pain—especially when, by the challenging nature of the question, you or your company caused the pain in the first place. Instead, paraphrase the key issue neutrally, with no emotional value.
The correct paraphrase for each of the three tough questions above is:
- “What we’re doing to assure quality is…”
- “What we’re doing to improve performance is…”
- “What we’re doing about on time delivery is…”
If you want to channel Bill Clinton’s undoubtedly effective presentation style, follow the advice of his campaign slogan, “Put People First.”