The fall semester of my junior year in college, I landed what felt like a cushy job: TAing for a history professor teaching a freshman-level introductory Western Civ course. I would sit in on class each Tuesday and Thursday morning (it was an 8 am class, so, yeah, nothing’s perfect), take attendance, hand out any papers from the professor or collect papers from the class, help grade tests, that kind of thing. All in all, it was a pretty good gig.
There was one other responsibility I found out about: I was supposed to run the study sessions before each test during the semester. Well, I had aced my own Western Civ course two years before, and I would have the professor’s notes when I ran the session, so it didn’t sound too bad. In fact, it sounded pretty easy.
So one Tuesday morning after class, I followed Dr. Smith up to her office to get copies of her notes to use during the study session Wednesday night, with the first exam on Thursday morning. I read through it all once or twice, everything seemed to make sense, and I felt like I was ready to go.
On Wednesday, close to half the class showed up, about 30 people, and they began firing questions at me. I quickly realized that I was not as prepared as I thought I was. This was all material I had learned before, and I literally had the answers in front of me as I stood in front of the class—but I didn’t know it at the level I needed to be able to teach it effectively. In that classroom of 30 people, I was facing 30 different levels of understanding, 30 different ways of looking at ideas, 30 different ways of asking questions. I had prepared enough to be able to explain the material to myself, but these students weren’t necessarily asking the questions I would ask, and even when they did they didn’t ask it the way I would. I was working on the fly, trying to figure out how to take the answers I had and make them an answer to their actual questions.
We went for about two hours that evening. I survived, but it was exhausting. And above all, I was disappointed in myself. I hadn’t done a good enough job. I hadn’t done right by these students who were trying their best to prepare for a big exam. I knew that I could do better.
And so for the rest of the semester—and in all the other classes I TAed until I graduated—I made sure I did better. I paid closer attention during those class hours. When I got hold of the notes I needed to run a study session, I poured over them like I was the one taking the test. I made sure that I was the master of the material, not just someone who had a notebook with all the answers in it. And when I was up in front of a classroom of people, I was ready to answer their questions, no matter what they threw at me.
So what does this mean for you? Here are a few key takeaways I think you can apply in your business.
Presenting Requires Greater Understanding
Taking a test is one thing. But being able to answer the questions coming from a room full of real, live people is something else. Once you add other people to the mix, they start bringing different perspectives, different levels of background knowledge, and just different thinking styles. You may have the answers to your own questions, but are you also prepared to answer the questions of others?
Don’t Count on Magic Words
There are no magic words you can say that will instantly make things clear to everyone you’re speaking to. In front of that class, I literally had all the answers. But they were the answers as written from the professor’s way of thinking. What made her the master of the material was that she could teach it the way she put it in her notes, but then also turn around and explain it differently for students who didn’t get it and needed it presented another way. To do my job right, I had to be able to do the same thing. For you, someone else’s script, no matter how brilliant and successful they are, is not a magical combination of words that will cure all your sales problems. A presentation that you’re comfortable with that’s also backed up by deep understanding is the real key.
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
I tried to get by on my own knowledge and a couple read-throughs of the professor’s notes. That wasn’t enough. I learned I needed to dramatically improve my preparation, from paying closer attention during class hours, even on things I thought I already knew, to spending hours pouring over the notes before each study session. Yes, that meant taking a lot more time and effort, but it also meant that I was able to get the job done in front of the class, and could actually help the people I was responsible for helping. You should be ready to do the same for your clients.
There’s a difference between having answers, and really knowing them, internalizing them. If you become the master of your material, you’re well on your way to success.