Three good reasons to depart from the script

ONE of the biggest reasons we complain about meetings is the people running them are prisoners to their agenda.

You cannot fault people for preparing for a meeting or sales call and having an itemised agenda of all the points they want to cover.

But it is dangerous to ignore the circumstances of the meeting - the people, the mood, the timing - in an effort to stick to that agenda.

Before you abandon your carefully prepared agenda, you have to recognise the circumstances working against it.

Whenever I walk into a meeting, I am always looking for clues that tell me whether my set plays will work - and whether I need to alter my plans.

I usually have a good idea of how many people should be in a meeting and when that number is too large to be productive. In a sales meeting, my ideal number is two (the customer and I), because I can sell best one on one.

If the size of the meeting gets unwieldy, I will not plow through my agenda. Instead, I will call a new play reducing the number.

I learned this years ago when I arranged what I thought was a private meeting with the head of a television network. But when I walked into the meeting I was greeted by him and six subordinates.

I did not think it would be a problem, but it was obvious after a few minutes that the subordinates were so busy trying to impress the boss with self-serving comments and interruptions, that nothing substantive was going to happen.

I abandoned my sales pitch and made a quick but graceful retreat.

The next day I called the network chief back and suggested we meet alone. He laughed, apologised for his unruly staffers, and agreed to see me. He was an expert at meeting dynamics and knew exactly what I was after.

If your meeting is crowded, do not fool yourself into thinking you can tame the crowd. You are better off waiting for another day, when the crowd has vanished and your voice can be more clearly heard.

I remember a college professor who simply dismissed the class when he realised no one had read that day's assignment. He did not chide or lecture us. But in his own mild way he shamed us for not being prepared.

The message was clear: He was not going to deliver his prepared lecture to people who were not prepared to appreciate it. I doubt if any of us ever came to his class again with the assignment unprepared.

The same tactic applies in a business meeting. If the people have not done their homework, you will not accomplish much by forcing through your agenda. You may make a more lasting impression by ending the meeting and telling the attendees to use the remaining time to get prepared.

This dramatic gesture is a little harder to pull off with customers. Like most people, I have made sales calls on prospects who had no idea who I was and certainly had not read any of the carefully prepared materials I had sent before the meeting.

It would be nice to be able to walk out on such rude behaviour. But where some people see an insult, I see an opportunity.

The prospect's ignorance is an opening to educate him. Instead of taking umbrage at the rude treatment, I turn very conciliatory.

I take them to Page One and tell them all about myself and what our company can do. Customers tend to be so surprised by this tactic they often let me stay longer than scheduled - and many end up buying from us.

One of our executives was recently competing with three other firms for a huge assignment with a major packaged goods company.

The decision would be made after a one-day marathon review process in which each firm made a two-hour presentation to the company's top marketing executives. We were scheduled last.

By the time our executive's turn came, the review was running an hour behind schedule.

Our executive was well prepared. He had sprinkled his presentation with comments that showed he knew everything about the company and its top management.

But it only took a few minutes to see that the top decision-maker in the room was in a hurry. That was obvious when he cut off the usual small talk that opens these sessions and said: ''Let's get on with it.'' So our executive adopted a different tack.

He abandoned the prepared script and said: ''Look, I was ready to talk for an hour about our credentials. But you know who we are and what we can do. So why don't I save all of us some time and give you our best idea. If you want to know more after that,I'll be happy to stay.'' It was a gutsy call. But boring an impatient prospect with the prepared two-hour script was probably riskier. (Fortunately, they liked our best idea and threw the business our way.) If you need more time to present your case than the prospect is prepared to give, you will not impress him/her by sticking to the routine; you will be overstaying your welcome.

It is more impressive if you can refit your remarks to the time allotted. It is even more impressive if you can make your case in less time than the prospect has given.

If you give people the gift of time (and let them know why you are doing so), they will never resent you for it.