We recently held a program in London.  As you might expect, some of the analogies and idioms that come up are a bit different when you’re doing a program in another country.  A particularly rich one arose in this program.

We were helping a group of high-potential leaders to learn some simple, powerful tools for developing and delivering a short, persuasive presentation.  Perhaps inevitably, someone made a reference to what Americans would call soccer and what he called “the real football.”

“I think of presentations as being like set pieces,” he said.  As a former soccer player, I always follow the major international tournaments, such as this year’s World Cup, so his point resonated immediately.

For those who are less familiar with the sport, a “set piece” in soccer refers a specific type of play that is carefully orchestrated. These plays include corner kicks, free kicks, and penalty kicks as well as throw-ins and goal kicks. 

The first three of these set pieces—corner kicks, free kicks, and penalty kicks—can be the most important when it comes to scoring goals and winning games. In one study, a researcher figured that a corner kick leads to an eventual goal about 17% of the time. If a free kick is taken close to the opposing goal, about 5% of them go in… but Lionel Messi, perhaps the best player in the world, scores on about 8% of them.  As for penalty kicks, they have a very high conversion rate—over 70% of those attempted in the history of the World Cup have resulted in goals. 

As a result, teams and players spend a huge amount of time designing and practicing these set pieces.  After all, these are the best opportunities for scoring. Then again, these set pieces take up only a small part of the game. Most of the time is spent in free play. That means that about two-thirds of all goals scored happen during regular play.

What are the implications for leaders in how they communicate?

  • Train for the big plays. Even though presentations are a small part of your total hours at work, they have an outsized impact on business outcomes, and require dedicated focus to deliver on the result
  • Maximize the impact of your shots on goal. Get expert coaching, learn new techniques, and prepare and practice again and again to “score” as often as possible
  • Plan for the rest of the game. Given that most of your time will not be spent doing presentations, shouldn’t you also devote significant time and energy to developing a game plan for “free play”—the everyday communication that you use in meetings and conversations, for example?

From what we see, leaders don’t spend enough time getting ready for “set pieces” or for “free play.”  Most leaders do some sort of preparation when they present, but they often don’t get coaching, and they don’t really practice.  Bear in mind that practice means getting on your feet and doing it, ideally in front of a coach, mentor, or trusted advisor… and getting it recorded on video.

When it comes to meetings, many leaders don’t have a great business impact because they simply “show up and throw up”—responding off-the-cuff to the topic at hand. That approach can lead extroverts to say things that they haven’t thought through, while introverts may find that that the moment passes without them saying anything at all.  To avoid this, devise a meeting “game plan” and arrive with at least three talking points that you’re ready to share on the topic du jour.

Refining your approach to communication by planning for “set pieces” and “free play” will get results and show everyone that you’re on the ball. 

For more on the case for why practice and preparation really does matter, see this post.

Topics: Blog Posts



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