Taking the floor

WHEN ATTENDING A MEETING or a roundtable, you generally don’t have the luxury to stay mute – unless you want to establish yourself as a note-taker no one should pay any further attention to. Taking the floor is almost always awkward and intimidating. If it’s not, that probably means you’ve become one of these people who just can’t wait for a chance to stand up and listen to themselves. Dosage is key.

Here are a few pieces of advice that can help strike the right balance:

  • Listen hard. A pertinent interjection or contribution is one that fits into the flow of the conversation, builds on (or even references) what has already been said, and adds something new. It can also challenge or redirect the conversation, but that calls for taking what you want to distance yourself from even more seriously.
  • Choose a distinctive angle. People take the floor for a variety of reasons: with a sense of entitlement and status; because they are expected to; to gain recognition; to vent and ramble; and to deliver a thoughtful message that benefits the conversation. Make sure you fall in the latter category. In what is a defining social interaction, you must assert yourself through your capacity to provide substance. Typically, you’ll gain from bringing into the conversation something that is relevant to its flow, analytical but grounded in your real-life experience, and removed from any conventional wisdom reverberating around the room. As long as you remain modest, age and status will become largely secondary.
  • Less is better. When you speak for too long, you subvert the pecking order; you bore your audience; and you may lose your own train of thought and end up faltering. Brevity is the side-kick of pertinence. Keep your intervention to 1 or 2 points that will stick with your audience.
  • Structure. Even a 30 second intervention should be somewhat structured. Ideally, it has a hook (to transition from what is being said; bridge to another angle; or simply to grab the audience’s attention), a twist (something new and clever that gets people talking at the coffee break) and a punch line (the climax that brings your intervention to a clear-cut end).
  • Rehearse. To make your points articulate and catchy, there is no secret: repeat them to yourself and role-play before you take the floor. If possible, scribble your points down, distilling them into keywords. In other words, use your advantage: by contrast with a live interview or a one-on-one conversation, you do have time to think.
  • Be strategic. You may want to stay clear of certain topics you know are a lost cause. Likewise, you don’t want to wade into issues on which you are clearly out of your depth, however strongly you may feel about them. Also, pick your timing: early on in the conversation to help frame it, or nearing the end to leave your audience on a lasting impression. One impressive orator on the circuit of international conferences systematically aims to speak just before the breaks, and invariably shapes the coffee-table conversations that are more important, in his world, than the main event.
  • Anticipate. Your turn will sometimes come at a moment that is not of your choosing. The conversation will veer toward your recognized field of expertise. Someone—a colleague, another participant, a moderator—will decide to pull you in. Such turning points are generally predictable, but you may miss them because you’re too concentrated on hoping it won’t happen. So don’t dive for cover: prepare.
  • Speak or hold your peace. There are no second chances. As a roundtable wraps up, it’s too late to rattle off all the great thoughts you had wanted to share for the past 6 hours.
  • Posture counts. Sitting up and looking up make a difference, not just in how you look, but in how you speak. Do like Pippin as Mordor prepares to savage Middle-Earth: take “the deep breath before the plunge.” And then perhaps remind yourself that it’s not quite so epic. There are no Orcs in the room.
  • When frustrated, hold off. It doesn’t mean backing down, on the contrary. You will be more effective at countering what annoys you by sitting on it until you’ve collected yourself and checked the boxes above.
  • No shouting match. A group conversation cannot be monopolized by a two-way altercation. It is usually as embarrassing as it is pointless. If somebody confronts you in ways that absolutely call for an immediate rejoinder, make sure you do so calmly, concisely and compellingly, and rest your case. If that person comes back at you, publicly suggest addressing such issues during the break.
  • It’s not about you. On one side, it’s a social event with norms and rules, where we simply want to fit in and do our bit. On the other, it’s about moving a substantive conversation forward. You’ll do well by mixing social skills (which are self-effacing) and pertinence (which makes you stand out). The better your performance, the more humble you must be. As a rule, any sign of triumph on your part will only raise animosity.

If you do all this, you’re a star shining in the firmament. But public speaking in any form is a performance, and there is no such thing as a performer who hasn’t had rough moments. They hurt, but they’re part of the trade, and they’re part of the learning process. And then we get too confident and life teaches us another painful lesson. The best bet is to seek some inspiration in the advice above, forget about it, and remember to be ourselves. So just put on your red shoes and dance!

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Illustration credit: William Orpen The signing of peace in the hall of mirrors by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.

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