Robin Roberts is the founder of Rehearse It!, a coaching agency that combines science and performance to improve your chances of success in a pitch meeting or interview. He shares his top tips for how to get a yes in a meeting…
I previously worked at Egon Zehnder, one of the world’s leading headhunters for people either working at or reporting to board level.
During my time there I witnessed a lot of people in senior roles who made a mess of their interviews. It often seemed as if their ability to handle important meetings did not correlate with their age, seniority or responsibility.
Some people charm their way through life. They find important meetings easy to deal with. Others find those meetings to be stressful and difficult. What I’ve found is that if I’ve met somebody who is over 50 they screw up these meetings for the same reasons they screwed them up when they were 25. There is so much at stake.
However, there is a lot of research people might be unaware of based around behavioural science and what you can do to nudge opinion in your favour, thus significantly improving the probability of getting a yes in a critical meeting. We define a critical meeting as one where getting a no would mean a professional downside. That could be a job interview, a pitch or trying to secure funding.
Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Memorial Prize for his work around heuristics and cognitive bias. He identified that somebody may be consciously biased because of age, gender or who someone has previously worked for.
Another interesting piece of research was carried out by the neurology department at Oxford University. They determined that wherever you are in the world, people use the same six social criteria to determine whether they want you as a friend or a colleague.
Those criteria cover place, language, worldview, interests, sense of humour and institutions.
You don’t have to tick every box but the research shows that if you fail to tick any of them there is a zero per cent chance you will be hired, unless the role is very specialised, or such that they would never have to talk to you again after the interview.
And this all starts from the very first moment you encounter the person who will conduct that meeting.
How to get a yes in a meeting
1 First impressions
Your mother might have told you to always make a good first impression, but she might not know how quickly that happens in an interview.
The person conducting the interview will start forming an opinion of you within milliseconds. It can be anything from how you sit in reception to how you hold your bag.
That person will spend the rest of that meeting gathering data to confirm that initial impression. This is known as confirmation bias – and this is why first impressions really do matter.
2 Body talk
Body language is crucially important. Executives may spend all night worrying about whether the numbers are right, but the audience will tend to judge them on their performance.
For humans, their hands are the most important tool or appendage. They allow us to manipulate the world around us. So if we can see those hands, we make a huge extrapolation towards the positive. If you can’t see somebody’s hands when you’re having a conversation, you are likely to be less engaged.
All humans are wired to know how to enjoy a good story. You use your hands to give your story emphasis. If you use your hands judiciously, that registers the point to your listener. Use them too frequently and you confuse your audience.
3 Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
When we meet somebody for the first time, it makes a lot of sense to quickly see if we have something in common that is highlighted within the six social criteria.
It pays to do some research on the person that you are meeting. It could be that you went to the same university or that you previously both worked for the same company.
4 The art of conversation
One of the six universal criteria is worldview. It’s always a bad idea to disagree with a person’s worldview if you want them to judge in your favour, but that’s quite tricky if you fundamentally disagree with that view. Very rarely does somebody state a view that absolutely cuts against your moral code. Should that arise, you should consider if you want to work for this person.
On the whole, people don’t say outrageous things in critical meetings. But, for example, the person interviewing you could say: “The downside of Brexit has been overblown.” You may not share that opinion but the answer is not to fundamentally disagree, but to try to add something to the conversation. In this instance, you could highlight an area within Brexit where you think we could do better. A good conversationalist is liked because they are not challenging somebody’s worldview and they are being agreeable.
5 Pause for thought
Many people are afraid of silence and blurt out all sorts of nonsense. But the thing about silence is when you think about an answer, it gives you added authority and gravitas. If you look away and pause for a moment, it makes it easier to think and whatever you say next has more impact. It will land with added weight and make it seem more profound.
Robin Roberts CV
Current role: Founder of Rehearse It!. The team includes a casting director, a film director, board-level consultants and several actors including Felicity Montagu, best known as Lynn Benfield from I’m Alan Partridge.
Previous roles: Senior partner at Egon Zehnder; co-founder of IT consultancy Oasis