Yesterday, I quoted a piece by John Paul Brammer about phrases he’s sick of hearing. One of them was being forced to guess some aspect of a story another person is sharing. I feel the same way because of the unfair burden it puts on the listener.
It’s like when someone starts sharing an anecdote by asking, “Do you remember my friends Debbie and Shawn?” No, I probably don’t, but it shouldn’t matter. Just tell me the story. If it’s a good one, my personal knowledge of the people involved will be irrelevant. By the way, I can barely keep track of people I know, let alone your co-workers, acquaintances, and long-ago college roommates.
That tactic is almost as annoying as opening with, “Want to hear a great joke?” Nope. Not if you’re going to ruin it by raising my expectations to a level you’re unlikely to reach. That’s why you never hear successful comedians inject, “Oh, here’s something really funny!” into their monologues. If the joke can’t stand on its own, or if you’re awful at telling it, don’t bother.
My wife and I have had to endure this guessing-game on tours where the guide insisted on quizzing the group about the history of the place we were visiting, or the brush technique this artist used, or what ingredients created the taste of a food we’ve sampled. Hey, you’re the docent, so you tell us. If we knew this stuff, we wouldn’t be traipsing around with you.
Over the last few years, while mentoring CEOs of start-up companies in how to make their pitches more effective, I banned them from asking the investors questions. You’re there to convince some venture capitalist your company is destined for success, not to make them participate in a pop quiz. I invoked that awkwardness we all felt anytime a teacher suddenly called on us in a classroom where we never expected to have to speak. The result was — and is — too often an uncomfortable moment of silence that puts the listeners on the defensive and ruins the flow of the presentation.
Don’t get me wrong. If your pitch is a good one, there will be plenty of questions — from the investors, at the end. If you’ve made them curious enough to want to know more about your company, that is. In fact, if they have no questions, you’ve failed. On the other hand, I told them not to try anticipating every possible query and answering them in the pitch. You barely have enough time to get across the basics of what you’re hoping to achieve, so capture their attention, keep it, and don’t put them on the spot.
And leave Debbie and Shawn out of it.