I had a big meeting last week and I blew it. It was so embarrassing, and particularly painful because it was such a “rookie mistake”. Here’s what happened.

This was a first time meeting on a topic I know a lot about – leadership development, creating a coaching culture, being strategic about your career. Plus, I really enjoy meeting people and getting to know them. So, this should have been a walk in the park. My “happy space”.

Not quite.

Here’s how it went down…

My embarrassing mistake

We got started on the wrong foot because of a mix-up at reception – I was kept waiting in the downstairs lobby, and they were waiting for me in the upstairs conference area. So I was late. Unfortunate, but it was no one’s “fault”.

Then I walked in expecting to meet with one person only to find that it was a two-on-one situation and much more formal than I thought.

Since we were late, we plowed right into the meeting and the first question they asked me was what I thought about the recent company announcement.

I’m thinking, “What company announcement?!”

Then they told me, and that’s when I slammed into the brick wall. It turned out to be a major announcement that was sure to be in the industry press.

How embarrassing.

I started explaining that I had just gotten back from vacation abroad but quickly realized how lame that sounded. It was no excuse that I had been away and then gone straight into a 2-day offsite, plus was working on writing a book and so forth.

The truth is that I had failed at meeting preparation 101 – I didn’t Google the company. The thing is, I’m KNOWN for my preparation – even over-preparation. So I’m thinking, “Really? An ‘own goal’ at this stage when I should have known better?”

I spent the rest of the meeting scrambling to recover.

Now, I’m sharing this painfully embarrassing tale with you in the hope that you won’t make the same silly mistake. I don’t want you to face 45 minutes of sheer embarrassment and dent your reputation and ego in the process.

My 3 takeaways from this painful learning experience

1. There’s no such thing as a “no-prep meeting”

A colleague told me this when I was a junior Associate, but somehow I needed a reminder. Boy did I get one!

Even when you know your subject, it’s important to learn the context and do your homework so you can relate what you know to their situation. In this case, I had actually done some preparation by organizing my thoughts on my end of the topic, but forgot to do the Google check. Which brings me to the next learning point…

2. Create a checklist

Even seasoned professionals can make silly mistakes. It reminds me of the checklist protocol for surgeons that Atul Gawande wrote about in the book “The Checklist Manifesto”. Sometimes the most brilliant surgeons forget to wash their hands. And the same goes for pilots and cockpit checklists.

To protect me from myself, and so I don’t make this mistake again, I’ve started a checklist of the things I need to prepare before I head into a big meeting:

  • Agree the agenda and find out who I will be meeting with.
  • Decide what constitutes success for this meeting.
  • Organize my thoughts into “3 key points” to get across, key questions / information I want to find out.
  • Do a background check on the company, and the people I’m meeting with, which can be as simple as a Google search or reaching out to my network.

I’m curious what you’d put on your checklist?

3. When you make a mistake, own up to it

Don’t think that no one notices the “elephant” in the room! In this case, as we closed the meeting I said, “I’d like to apologize for not doing my homework before our meeting – it’s totally out of character, and I can assure you I won’t be making that mistake again. Thank you for this learning experience.”

It turns out that that was a saving grace because their reaction was, “we’re glad you said that”.

When everyone in the room knows what’s happened, it can add a drop of redemption to just “fess up” and admit your error. After all, it’s human to make mistakes.

Do you have stories of when you’ve “blown it” in a meeting? What did you learn and how did you recover?

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