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Finding soft answers that turn away wrath at annual meetings

Corporate annual meetings are often dull affairs. But insert an inquisitive gadfly, raise the specter of operating in South Africa or issues like ground-water pollution or ``star wars'' -- and suddenly the meeting can take an explosive turn. As chief executive officers and stockholders from 70-odd companies of the Fortune 500 gather at annual meetings in New York in coming weeks, this fiscal forum may be open to a few more sparks than usual.

The Council on Economic Priorities, a nonprofit New York research organization, reports a 65 percent increase in the number of social and political shareholder resolutions at major American it follows.

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Anett D. Grant of Executive Speaking Inc. sees a marketing opportunity here. One of the specialties of this theater arts major-turned-communications coach is how to handle hostile questions.

Mrs. Grant's small but bustling Minneapolis firm has had lots of experience training technical and financial managers in plain speaking. Her client list includes General Motors, International Business Machines, Mobil, General Electric, and Ford.

Grant says executives are as anxious as the next guy when speaking in public -- primarily because most have never had training in public speaking. From 1980 to 1984, her firm surveyed about 1,250 middle- to upper-management people from about a fifth of the Fortune 500 companies. ``We found 52 percent had no training in presentation skills.''

When hit with a hostile question, they respond emotionally, Grant says. ``Instead of identifying the issue or overall concept,'' they get ``tripped by trigger words'' or dally in irrelevant details.

During the last five years, Grant has amassed some 160 videotaped meetings where managers asked hostile questions of one another. Recently, she used the tapes to prepare a preliminary study analyzing the kinds of verbal curves most often thrown. The questions, she found, fell into seven groups. (See related story.)

By understanding the structure of hostile questions, the individual can see the curve coming, figure out the true intent of the question, and not be caught off guard by an inflammatory phrase or queries with negative twists at the end. The speaker can then avoid giving an unproductive, angry, deceptive, or arrogant reply.

``It gets people listening in an analytical mode,'' Grant says. ``Most business people are very good analytically. When they listen for the kind of question, they forget the trigger word that causes them to react. Instead, they focus on the issue.''

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Sometimes a company head who doesn't know the specific answer may try to snow a shareholder. Mrs. Grant suggests a better approach. On an inquiry involving, say, pollution from a company plant, the response might be: ``This is in opposition to our company policy. I appreciate your raising the issue. I will follow up on it.''

But it is unreasonable, Grant says, for shareholders always to expect detailed answers from the chief executive officer of a large corporation.

She maintains that she is facilitating corporate-shareholder communications, not showing executives how to lie and withhold information. But in an ``age of skepticism, how does an executive develop trust in that environment without getting upset?''

She adds that today's audience is very sophisticated and that ``most executives can't lie effectively. To have credible behavior, you have to be honest.'' Queries that trip many executives

There are seven types of hostile questions at corporate annual meetings, according to Executive Speaking Inc:

Questions that ask for agreement with a negative. Example: ``Don't you feel like a traitor, recommending that good Americans be put out of jobs simply to buy a cheaper part?''

Questions that have inflammatory or trigger words: ``How can you be so inhuman as to put productivity ahead of people?''

Questions that have preconditions in terms of information, feelings, or both: ``I thought we heard the same story last year. You said exactly the same thing, but we didn't achieve that last year. How are we going to achieve it this year?''

Questions that seek straight information: ``How much money is in the budget for this?''

Questions that begin neutrally, then twist or add a negative: ``Why do you believe this is going to work? It doesn't make any sense!''

Questions expressed in the form of statements: ``I've never seen such an empire-building suggestion. We only have 10 or 20 customers. You just want to add more people and more systems to create this huge empire so you'll never, never lose your job.''

Questions that are fragments, comments, or dependent on comments: ``You've got that wrong! Baloney!''

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