And that anxiety extends into many facets of our careers. No one wants to be left struggling for an answer in front of a client or a boss, or stuck stammering in a job interview or networking event. The solution, of course, is to go into all conversations and presentations feeling eminently prepared.
Easier said than done, we know. But Kellogg faculty have advice on how to be prepared for several common career situations (and perhaps even that calculus test in your dreams).
Depending on how often you do them, business presentations can feel anxiety-inducing or routine. But no matter which end of the spectrum you are at, you need to make sure you’re preparing for presentations correctly.
And that doesn’t just mean focusing on your delivery or how you’ll move around the room, explains Tim Calkins, a clinical professor of marketing who was previously an executive at Kraft Foods. You need to make sure you’ve honed your main point, gathered the right data to back it up, and left time to incorporate feedback from key stakeholders.
“You should really spend your time ahead of the meeting thinking about your audience, developing a clear recommendation, and finding a clear and logical story,” Calkins says.
It’s imperative to first figure out the story you want to tell. Everything should flow from the objective, or recommendation, you’re trying to convey. Once you’ve determined that, then use data to back up the important points that lead to that recommendation, making sure that each point logically leads into the next one, laddering up to the final recommendation.
“What you’re trying to find is a story that you tell page by page, one point to the next point,” Calkins says.
Preparing your story ahead of time is crucial in another arena, too: networking.
Whether at a formal networking event or casual social gathering, you’re almost guaranteed to be asked one of life’s most common questions: “What do you do?” So you might as well be prepared with an answer that will catch people’s attention and make the most of the opportunity.
Craig Wortmann, a clinical professor of innovation and entrepreneurship, says to think of it as your “movie trailer.” It should go beyond the simple answer—“I’m an engineer”—and be honed and compelling enough to draw people in to want to learn more.
When Wortmann launched his most recent company, his movie trailer became, “I run a firm called Sales Engine. We help companies build and tune their sales engine.” In two sentences, he was able to give the name of the company, his position, and the purpose of the business.
And just like a real movie trailer that gets edited depending on whether it’s appearing before an action movie or a comedy, you should have a few versions of your story ready, depending on your audience. You’ll want to have a more technical version for someone in your industry versus a more general one you use in social contexts, for example.
Advocating for yourself as you advance through your career undoubtedly means needing to negotiate—over a promotion, a salary offer, a professional-development opportunity. And negotiating requires preparation.
This is even more true for women, explains Victoria Medvec, a professor of management and organizations. Women often have to fend off their “inner critic” who is saying they aren’t ready or worthy of a specific opportunity. Preparing ahead of time builds confidence to keep that critic at bay.
Preparing for a negotiation means making sure you can articulate why you are uniquely able to help your company (or future employer) with pressing business needs. Even if you don’t end up getting what you want in that particular negotiation, Medvec points out that presenting a strong case for the value you can contribute can pay off in other ways. Perhaps your boss will decide to provide mentoring or keep you in mind for an opportunity down the road.
And, because preparation is so key to negotiations, Medvec advises that you ask for more time if you’re caught off guard by a conversation. If, say, your boss stops you in the hallway to discuss a new role in the company—one you’ve never considered before—ask for the opportunity to regroup before diving into the negotiation.
Still, impromptu hallway conversations with senior leaders do have their place—and if you can capitalize on them, you can show yourself, and your team, in a good light.
Given that time with a CEO is always at a premium, Rob Apatoff advises that you should be prepared to make the most of a spontaneous opportunity for conversation. Apatoff is a clinical professor and executive director of the Kellogg Executive Leadership Institute, who spent eight years leading FTD Companies before retiring as president and CEO.
“Every time you’re in front of the CEO or C-suite, you are being judged—consciously or not,” Apatoff says. “Executive interactions you’ve had over the years will speak volumes about how buttoned up you are, your perceived maturity, how clear you are in your communications, how much command you have of your business, and ultimately, whether you are promoted.”
So how do you prepare for a chance encounter? Apatoff recommends keeping a list of bullet points in your head that you can rattle off quickly. These should include an overview of your department, key data to support that overview, and an insight into how that relates to the company as a whole. Having a few of your own creative ideas in reserve to show how you can be counted on to drive business helps, too.
Once you have your list of bullet points, practice repeating them so that, when the opportunity arises, you can recite them fluidly and confidently.
Many people have a clear plan for what they want their career to look like and, with careful preparation, can make that plan a reality.
But as interests and personal circumstances change, so can someone’s career goals. Perhaps they’re ready for a more forgiving schedule, or their kids are grown so they no longer need to worry about feeding college savings accounts and would rather tend to a different kind of legacy.
“More and more executives hit a point in their lives where they realize they still have lots of time—maybe ten or twenty more working years—and decide to create the next chapter,” says Ellen Taaffe, a clinical assistant professor of leadership and director of women’s leadership programs. “They want to have a bigger impact, and they want to be aligned with something they’re passionate about and find meaningful.”
Indeed, Taaffe herself went through such a transition. After twenty-five years in brand marketing at major corporations, her job, at Whirlpool, was eliminated. Instead of simply rushing to apply for more jobs like the one she had just lost, Taaffe took time to reflect and prepare for her second act. She considered what she had truly enjoyed most in her past jobs, what was most important to her at this point in her life, and where she felt like she could add the most value.
With that new direction in mind, she decided to explore her entrepreneurial streak by leading a startup. She also joined corporate boards, then eventually found her way back to Kellogg, her alma mater, to focus on women’s leadership.
This sort of preparation via self-reflection is key, Taaffe says. “It’s about recognizing your skills, strengths, values, and passions, and finding a match for them in this phase of your life. The clearer you are about being ready for this move, the more successful you’ll be.”