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Keeping the “BS” in HBS

“BS” (“Business Speaking”, of course) is a critical component of the HBS experience. After all, it was BS that allowed you to rise through the ranks of your private equity firm or investment bank, BS that made your b-school application stand out from the pack, BS that allowed you to cozy up to your interviewer by cogently delineating the many reasons for your dedication to the case method of classroom instruction, and BS that has sustained you through one or three semesters of 8:40 a.m. cold calls. As an EC student, former consultant, and section-mate of both Max Anderson and Aduke Thelwell, I consider myself a grizzled veteran of BS battles here at HBS.

So, for all of you who thought the keys to case method success were diligent preparation and careful study, here are a few tips on effective BS:

Buy your own BS
There’s nothing more dispiriting than watching a student clearly skeptical of his own BS. Sure, it’s easy to get uncomfortable speaking off the cuff about chicken contact lenses, injection molding, and the shower-head preferences of British plumbers – particularly if you haven’t read the case or you’ve spent the first 40 minutes of the discussion surfing your iPhone. But a real BS’er never doubts. Believe yourself! Once you’ve started pontificating on the artistry of chocolate mixing, get passionate. Pound the desk in front of you, and, if possible “completely disagree” with the answer of a fellow classmate, thereby shifting the burden of response to her. No one will believe you unless you believe yourself. And passion is almost always a substitute for content if you can make people too bewildered or uncomfortable to follow-up.

Change the subject
Never answer the question someone asks. Answer the question you wanted them to ask. If your professor suddenly asks you about the proper accounting for Chemailte R&D, say, “You know, I’ll get to that, but I just wanted to say that I’ve been really disappointed that no one’s talking about the fact that the chemicals in Chemalite sticks cause global warming.” And follow-up with a story about your personal experience with seals in the melting Arctic Circle. This kind of thing may be obvious, but if you can squeeze a tear, no one will doubt your sincerity.

Don’t answer, interpret
Life is almost always lived too literally. And if changing the subject would be too obvious, answer any direct question by reinterpreting it. Your professor thinks she asked a question about Cranberry assembly lines? You think cranberry assembly lines are a metaphor for the cold, faceless, cog-in-the-wheel approach many companies take towards employee treatment. Your interviewer asks you for a recounting of your previous management experience? Give him a straight answer about the ways in which the modern business community uses an overly narrow definition of management, drawing on your experiences gardening – managing the tender process of plant cultivation.

Use lots of generic terms
A core competency of team players in the complex economic ecosystem of the global community is the mission-critical ability to drill-down into your professional experience and leverage a common, best-practice vocabulary. Facilitate a heightened dialogue with game-changing, best-of-breed communications that fast-track the conversation to out-of-the-box solutions while integrating a paradigm-shifting disintermediation of distracting, specific language. Synergies materialize when all players buy-in, bringing their A-games to the table to hit homeruns and cherry-pick the low-hanging fruit. You can’t “business speak”, after all, without speaking business.

Tell a story
When I was a kid growing up in Georgia, I used to mow lawns for an elderly gentleman named Mr. Shatterly. Far from wealthy, Mr. Shatterly lived in a quaint one-story blue house only a mile from my favorite diner – Pemberton’s. He was pushing 80 years old, and while he never had the money to pay me, he gave me something far richer: stories. In his raspy old voice, Mr. Shatterly would recount his youth in Wisconsin, WWII experience in the Pacific, and years caring for his chocolate lab, Bruno. Ah, those were the days – summer-time, wisdom, and the smell of fresh cut grass. See my point?

John Coleman was the fall 2008 champion of the Public Speaking Club’s “BS Competition”.

January 20, 2009
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