Several months ago I was talking with a young speaker about how to improve his craft. He is a gifted story teller, an amazing thinker, and he draws his audience to conclusions that help reframe their way of thinking. After listening to him speak several times he asked me for some advice: “How can I improve?”
I really didn’t have any concrete improvements to share so I asked if he was getting feedback from anyone else. He mentioned several people had told him that after 10 or 15 minutes, his mouth was dry and that was distracting to them. They hadn’t offered advice on how to fix this, but just the fact, “You have cotton mouth.”
This feedback was frustrating because it wasn’t offered with a solution on how to fix it. He asked if I had any advice. Not having anything else to share, I was glad to have something to say about this. I told him that the key to not getting cotton mouth when speaking is to drink before you are thirsty.
We’ve all seen the speaker whose mouth has dried up like the Sahara Desert. Everyone in the room inside is begging them to take a sip of water, then they do and nothing happens. You may have seen the classic Marco Rubio blunder. The problem wasn’t that he was thirsty, the problem was he didn’t drink soon enough.
So how does the drink before you are thirsty principle apply to leading strong?
First, when you live a life scheduled full to the borders, you have no margin to think, to react and to prepare. With no margin it is easy to get thirsty quickly.
Second, it is the leader’s job to anticipate. Anticipate the good, the bad, and especially the ugly. The leader forges ahead of her team and clears the way and removes the obstacles so team members can thrive and be productive.
Three simple ways to anticipate and drink before you are thirsty:
1. Solve little problems so big ones don’t arise
Create an environment where the little problems are embraced. If you are constantly seeking ways to learn from little mistakes, they will inform you and your team and help prevent larger ones from arising. Instead of watching problems continue to re-surface, spend time getting the root cause of the problem and eliminate it when possible. Get good at discerning real problems from minor setbacks.
Action: Gather your team together for an hour and ask the following questions:
- What problems keep re-surfacing for our team? Why is this? How can we eliminate them from happening again?
- What are the biggest mistakes or challenges our team has faced in the last 60 days? What did we learn? What should we do differently if the same problem arises?
- Looking to the next 6 months. What are the 2 biggest obstacles standing in the way of us being successful meeting our (yearly goal, objective, quota, etc.)? What can we do now to best navigate these challenges?
2. Know the key activities that produce results and constantly measure them
It is easy to focus on results and outcomes alone. We can measure them and they are accurate. Results tell us where we are but not how we got there. To influence the future, your must measures activities that predict success as well as results. Measures that are predictive do not necessarily guarantee success but they point to activities that do.
Action: Determine 2 activities that if you executed flawlessly would have the greatest impact on your objectives. These likely are lead activities to measure. Ask the same question of your team members. Get good at determining the 1 or 2 key things to measure that best predict success in achieving your goal and that will produce great results.
3. Answer questions now for better relationship later
When our first three boys were 5 and under, we attended a parenting seminar. The teacher had several of his high school and college aged kids with him. Their relationship seemed so rich and open. I asked him for advice on having relationships like this with our teenagers. He told us “Answer their questions now, and they will keep asking them when they are this age.” The same is true for those we lead. Are we conditioning them to ask questions or conditioning them to avoid us at all costs? If you want a great relationship later, invest time now.
Action: Be available to your team for their questions and concerns. Allow them to solve their own problems and also show that you are interested in hearing their thoughts and concerns. Just because your door is open and you say you are available doesn’t mean you actually show it. Take an outside look at how others might perceive your openness.
* Practical speaking tip: Stay hydrated and consume water right up to the point you start speaking. Drink luke-warm water. Drink it from a glass; it’s annoying to watch you fiddle with a water bottle. Pause in your presentation to take a full drink of water (not a hundred annoying sips) and do it when the audience is responding or thinking about your message. Ask a powerful question, take a slow drink, and then continue.