Alternative CYA phrases

“CYA” (cover your ass) is a great phrase for office life, but sometimes it has connotations of selfishness, like you’re saying someone just wants to protect himself, he doesn’t really care about the group or the company.

Example: “That email was mostly CYA. He just wants to make sure that if the project fails, no one will blame him.”

Sometimes you want an alternative way to say “we need to be thorough, and make sure we’re protected if it fails” without that connotation of selfishness. Here are some alternatives you can use:

to manage the potential risks (example: “We need to manage the potential risks.”)
to take protective measures (example: “We need to take protective measures here.”)
to minimize potential negative repercussions (example: “We need to minimize potential negative repercussions.”)
to cover all the angles (example: “We need to cover all the angles.”)
to protect against downside risk (example: “We need to protect against downside risk.”)
to make sure all the bases are covered (example: “We need to make sure all the bases are covered.”)
to prepare for potential negative outcomes (example: “We need to prepare for potential negative outcomes.”)
to cover the bases (example: “We need to cover the bases.”)

Probably the best way to make sure no one thinks you’re trying to say “He was just covering his own ass” is just to be specific about who is being protected, like “He is just concerned about downside risk for the company” or “He was just trying to minimize potential negative repercussions for the company.”

Key flagging phrases

Flagging is a way for you to call attention to the main point of your message. There are some key words and phrases that wake people up and tell them to listen carefully. Here are some of them:

If you take just one thing away from this, it should be…
The most important thing to remember is…
What it all boils down to is…
The bottom line is…
The most critical issue is…
At the end of the day…
That’s a really good question. The answer is…

You can also use:

The best part is…
The focus of the debate should be…
First and foremost,…
The key thing we’re focusing on right now is…

Three tips for videoconferencing

I know a lot of you are working from home this week. It probably involves a lot of videoconferencing, which might feel a little strange, since it’s probably a bit unfamiliar. I do a lot of videoconferencing, so here are three tips that might help. 

1. Humans like movement. So move towards and away from the camera, and left and right. Not a lot, of course, or you will look like you are having muscle spasms, but a little movement never hurt anyone.
2. Humans want to feel like the other person is listening. So make eye contact. Staring at the little green light on your webcam might feel a little strange, so in the video is a tip that’ll help with that.
3. Ask simple questions to keep the audience awake and involved, and away from checking Facebook or email.

And most of all, keep it short. No one ever complained about getting out early.

Kill your darlings

Before all the other important stuff you might want to know about presenting, the single most important step is a brutal one:

“Kill your darlings.”

This phrase, often attributed to author William Faulkner, means get rid of the things that mean a lot to you, but that are harming the greater good of your presentation.

Your presentation probably describes a key part of your work, your blood, sweat, and tears. It’s tempting to get up there and talk about all the little details that you think are important.

And those details are important, but they’re important to you, not to the mission of your presentation. They are not important to the second of The First Three Questions (what do I want my audience to do), and so they need to be cut out of your presentation.

Not having the discipline to kill your darlings leads to weak presentations and bored audiences. A good rule of thumb is that if your presentation is taking up more than 66% of the time allotted to you, you haven’t killed enough of your darlings.

Killing your darlings will be difficult for you, but your audience will appreciate it.

It’s not that faces are good or bad

It’s not that faces are good or bad, it’s just that they’re very distracting.

One thing that we see often in almost every corporate presentation is there’s an introduction of the company. In that introduction, there will usually be a couple of slides with pictures of human faces.

We call these slides “happy workers slides.” A “happy workers slide” often shows an ethnically-diverse assortment of smiling people holding clipboards or gathering around a conference call speakerphone.

While this slide is up on the screen, the speaker will be introducing himself (“Hello, my name is XYZ. I work for company ABC. Blah blah blah.”).

The thing to keep in mind is that the human eye is naturally drawn to faces. It’s a human instinct with millions of years of evolution behind it.

And remember that you’re competing for attention with your slides.

So if your slides include faces of people, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll lose in that competition.

No amount of presentation brilliance is going to allow you to overcome the pull of that instinct to look at other faces.

It’s not that human faces on a slide are always good or always bad, and it’s not that eye contact with your audience is always good and things that interfere with it are always bad.

Just keep in mind that if there is a slide showing a human face looking at the audience, it is almost guaranteed, as long as that face is up there, that the audience will look at that face, not at you, and, for a few seconds at least, will not listen to what you are saying.

Yes, X, but the bigger picture is Y

When you want to persuade somebody to choose your argument over another, one of the things that you can do is tie your argument to a bigger picture.

For example, we had a client recently who worked for a European bank, and there was an internal debate within the bank about whether to close the branches in Pakistan, since those branches were unprofitable.

However, our client wanted to argue, we should keep the branches open, because customers in the surrounding countries say that one of the things they like about the bank is that it has branches in the region, and so they know the bank is committed to the region.

Our client wanted to point out that if the bank closed the Pakistan branches, it would save X, but it would endanger another business line worth 10X, since the customers would question the bank’s commitment to the region.

Our client ended up winning the argument, and one of the reasons he won the argument was he tied his perspective to the bigger picture. “Yes, the Pakistan branches are losing money, but the bigger picture is that having them protects business that is 10x larger, and if we close them we risk losing that larger business.”

The key phrase to use in this argument is “but the bigger picture is.” You have to use that phrase. Don’t just think it, actually say it.


Very few people would say that they are small picture people. In fact, I have never in my life met a person who said, “Yeah, the big picture is nice, but I’m a small picture kind of guy.” So when you use this phrase, especially when there are multiple people in the room, it causes people to begin to favor your argument, because if they don’t, they might look like small picture kind of people.

The argument is basically, “Yes, X, but the bigger picture is Y.”

Fielding challenges from an angry audience member

Sometimes when an emotionally-stated challenge comes from an audience member, as much as 50% of the emotion behind the challenge might be the audience member feeling unheard. They don’t feel like their opinion is understood or being listened to, even if you think it is.

You, the speaker, start to feel under attack now too, because not only is someone asking you a challenging question, they’re doing it in an angry way.

Often, you can calm their anger by structuring your response like this:

1. I hear you. / I understand you. / That’s a good point.
2. Repeat their concern in your own words.
3. But we also have to… / But in order to… / But at the same time we…

The first two parts, the opening sentences, defuse the situation. They tell the angry person you understand their opinion, you know they disagree, and in fact you understand their opinion well enough that you can put it in your own words, you are not just saying an empty “I understand you.”

Then the third part, the “meat” of your response, shows the other side of the argument and tells them your position.

Sure, you will still have to deal with the substance of the challenge. But the explosive emotional part will be defused. You might even find you have a new friend in the audience, someone who just seconds ago was an angry protester.