The Elephant in the Room

An Elephant in the Room

This week a story broke that the son of former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky, a convicted uild molester, was arrested on charges of child molestation himself. Needless to say that triggered an avalanche of nasty traffic onto my social media channels just like a few years ago when Jerry Sandusky was arrested.ckle

I put this tweet out on Twitter:

“To all who again invite me to spend eternity in hell, just a friendly reminder, I am Gerry with a G, no relation to former Penn State coach.”

It went viral. MSN.com, SI.Com, Mashable, The New York Daily Post all picked up the story and ran with it.

Why You Should Bring Up the Elephant in the Room

I put out that tweet and I bring up this subject because just like I faced this week, you too will sometimes face the elephant in the room when you get to the front of the room for a presentation or in front of a camera in a media interview.

I often begin a speech or presentation by pointing out the difference between the seventh letter of the alphabet, “G”, and the tenth letter, “J”, to remind people that I am Gerry with a G, not related to Jerry with a J. That usually gets a chuckle, but more importantly it creates a big sigh of relief for people who were wondering. And people always wonder.

How to Recognize an Elephant

The elephant in the room is the uneasy feeling people in the audience have because of either confusion, miscommunication, a bad interaction, or an awkward situation.

Too often presenters and professionals doing interviews try to talk around the elephant in the room. Don’t. Take it head on. And do it early in the presentation or interview.

When I tell an audience “I’m Gerry with a G, no relation,” those six words diffuse any tension caused by confusion, caused by people wondering, caused by people not knowing.

Once that tension leaves the room, the audience can then give me its attention and we can begin a conversation. Until I diffuse that tension, for the people who don’t know, their uncertain will monopolize their attention and energy and they won’t hear anything I have to say.

The same holds for you—even if you don’t have a name that sounds like one of America’s most hated criminals.

Situations that Become Elephants

There are all kinds of elephants in the room. Here are some situations that cause that:

  • A bad customer experience
  • A recent negative headline
  • A perceived slight or offense
  • A contract squabble
  • A member of your organization getting negative media attention
  • A member your industry getting negative media attention
  • Social media slamming you—fairly or unfairly
  • A significant drop in your company’s stock price
  • Public outrage over something an official in your organization is accused of doing
  • An ongoing investigation
  • A shift in the competitive landscape
  • The death or serious injury of family member
  • An inappropriate comment intended for a private conversation that somehow became public

And that’s just a short representation. There are hundreds of situations that can place an elephant in the room. Once it’s there then you have a simple decision to make: address it or ignore it?

Your Lawyer Might Disagree

Legal counsel for many reasons may tell you not to touch it, ignore it completely.

I would disagree.

Sometimes you can’t take questions and you face obvious limitations, but the sooner you address the elephant in the room, the sooner you can try to answer the biggest question on the minds of audience members.

Until you answer that question, you can’t get them to hear anything else you have to say.

Regardless of whether it’s fair or unfair, a lot of people come to my audiences wondering if I am related to the former Penn State coach who is now in jail. And now they may wonder if I am related to his son who was also arrested.

I am not.

That answers the question and clears the air. Now we can move on.

What Happens If You Don’t Address The Elephant in the Room

You can do the most compelling, involved, elaborate presentation with a Wow factor of 100 on a scale of one to 10. But if you don’t address the elephant in the room, the audience will leave saying things like, “That was great, but I wonder if…(fill in obvious question about the elephant of the room).

And that will undermine the impact of your presentation every single time.

So before you get to the front of the room for your next presentation, ask yourself is there an elephant in the room?

Is there a situation, a complication, an interaction, or a perception so strong that it is on the mind of most of the people in the room?

If the answer is yes, address that as soon as possible in your presentation to the best of your ability and the extent your lawyers will let you.

Don’t Ignore the Elephant.

Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.

Ignoring it just makes people talk about it more when you go away.

One day, the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State scandal will diminish and disappear. No one will welcome that day more than me.

But until the elephant disappears, I will do my best to address it, to answer the number one question people have before they have to ask that question.

Getting the Elephant Out of the Room

When you address the elephant in the room, when you answer the question your audience has before anyone has to ask the question, it gives you a chance to not only diffuse tension but also build report because your audience members get that you get them. And that transforms and elephant into an understanding. It also gets the elephant out of the room.

If you have ever smelled an elephant, you will understand why everyone feels so much better when it leaves the room.

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