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prep card

You’re about to ask your boss for a raise.

You’ve got a big pitch meeting with a potential client in five minutes.

It’s time to negotiate your first home purchase.

The adrenaline’s pumping. The stakes are high. You’ve got all the salient points of your argument down pat, your various counter-arguments holstered, and you’re ready to give ’em hell.

Then you open the door, shake some hands, and your body shifts into fight-or-flight mode. Your conscious, analytic mind shuts down.

Like a battle, an intense personal interaction is too demanding to properly think about what you’re doing as you do it. You just act, shoot from the hip, work from your instincts. All your preparation goes out the window.

The Aftermath

Five, twenty, forty-five minutes later, you’re done. Shake hands again and walk out.

It’s not like your mind went blank. You were mentally engaged for the entire encounter. But you only got to some of your most important points.

The meeting may have gone well, but you wonder how much better things might have gone if you’d remembered all those great points when you needed them.

Enter the Prep Card, your indispensable tool for any high-stakes talk.

Don’t Trust Your Brain

That’s not fair, actually. Your brain’s awesome. It’s a powerful machine doing incredibly demanding work: going toe-to-toe with one or more brains with opposing interests.

Some meetings are the equivalent of playing three games of chess at once. You’re making arguments and parrying others as you strive to give the best impression possible, make your strongest case, and, of course, listen to and actually hear what the other people have to say. You can’t expect the brain to do all that and think about what it’s doing at the same time.

That’s why you should never walk leave home without a Prep Card:

Take a 3″ x 5″ index card and write down 3 key points you want to mention in simple clear language, nouns and verbs. At the bottom, give yourself 2 reminders to avoid your bad habits.

  • Bill got a raise in half the time, with an inferior track record.
  • We will match our competitor’s best bid.
  • You’d agreed to a 10% discount over the phone.
  • Sit up straight.
  • Talk slowly and take a full breath after every sentence.
That’s it. In any discussion, you’re almost certainly not going to have time to process and deliver more than 3 important points.

And it always helps to be reminded not to crack your knuckles or speak too quickly when you have a tendency to do those things under stress.

You Wouldn’t Leave Without Your Wallet or Cellphone, Right?

Make writing out a Prep Card an integral part of your preparation for every meeting. It’s a great habit to get into.

In The Elements of Style, E.B. White writes, “The act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.”

Whatever you do, don’t bring more than one card. Less is more, here. You won’t even have the presence of mind to shuffle through a few cards in a truly engaged confrontation. You need your big guns right there in front of you.

A good, clear prep card can be truly reassuring in a fray. No matter how flustered you get, you can always look down at the card and go back to a key point.

Naturally, prep cards are also useful for informal presentations to a crowd. For a formal one, you’re better off outlining your entire speech but for a casual talk having 3 key points to work with is a perfectly acceptable amount of preparation.

Do you have your own method to prep for mental battle? Let us know in the comments.


  • MattR

    gravatarJan 31, 2008
    7:11 am

    o Bill got a raise in half the time, with an inferior track record.

    Is that a good tactic to go asking for a raise? From my experience, it isn’t a good idea to compare yourself with others when asking for a raise, just focus on your own achievements & potential, if those don’t do it – then you probably won’t get the raise.

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarJan 31, 2008
    11:09 am

    Matt–yeah, absolutely, I was being facetious with my examples. No one reading this should consider those example bullet points good suggestions. They were just placeholders.

  • MacTipper

    gravatarJan 31, 2008
    6:39 pm

    Might I suggest that in a real prep card (like the one in the picture) that rather than writing “Prep Card” at the top (which is probably just a placeholder), that one should rather write the name of the meeting (obvious) and also the time of the meeting. If you write the name/time of the meeting when you hear about it, then you could fill in the card with the points when you have the time.

    MacTipper My Mac-Tipping Blog

  • Rahul

    gravatarFeb 1, 2008
    2:48 am

    David, I am an MBA aspirant and am gearing up for Group discussion sessions. These sessions will determine if I get into a B school or not. thanks for the tip, I think it will help me in GD. how can we use it

  • Baljinder

    gravatarFeb 1, 2008
    12:34 pm

    Nice article. Whenever you have a salary/raise/ related meeting with your boss, you always tend to lose focus from the real points. This should make you stay on the path and so not coming out of the meeting empty handed (or at least feeling like it).

  • Andre

    gravatarFeb 4, 2008
    10:18 am

    This is great advice! definitely will try it out

  • Randy Place

    gravatarFeb 4, 2008
    12:40 pm

    Funny you should mention working with index cards. In today’s technical environment of Palms, iPhones, and Blackberry’s the simple index card has been lost in theshuffle (pun intended).

    Dale Carnegie, a grandaddy of the American self-help movement, suggested in the 1940’s that you should avoid leaving speeches to memory. Carnegie recommended jotting down notes of what you wan to say on a 3×5 card and refer to those notes during the talk.

    I think looking in your hand while speaking is disconcerting to the audience. That’s why I memorize material using index cards to prepair.

    Whenever I need to give a talk of more than a minute, I condense the talk I’ve typed out on to index cards. I often have a dozen of them. Then, shortly before the presentation, I condense the material from all of the index cards on to one as recommended in the article. That card is a series of one liners for all of the points I want to make. I rehearse from this card. When I don’t recall certain points, I refer to the typed script.

    This might takes a long time, but guess what? In the process of doing all this work, I’ve memorized the whole bit and it looks as if I’m speaking extemporarily.

    When there’s little lead time to prepair, I do look at notes on one or more of the index card.

    So thanks so much, David, for reminding me, for reminding all of your readers, about the many practical uses of the simple, forgotten index card.

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarFeb 4, 2008
    3:31 pm

    Randy–glad you liked the post!

  • azul

    gravatarFeb 4, 2008
    9:45 pm

    if you’ve read Influence by Cialdini, it also said that by just writing down something you have influenced yourself to actually do it, or, somehow, ‘believed’ in it, even though while you were writing you didn’t actually believed in it.

    so, if you’re a lazy guy (like me) write down what you want/need to do today. This’ll get your a$# in gear. =)

  • Darren

    gravatarFeb 15, 2008
    1:44 pm


    one question-

    surely you mean “you are my destiny” as opposed to “density”, unless you are trying to add ‘weight’ to your raise request!


  • christy

    gravatarFeb 21, 2008
    1:09 pm

    Darren!!! That’s a joke from “Back to the Future”!!! I’m showing my age…

  • Chrissy

    gravatarFeb 22, 2008
    1:27 pm

    I got the “You are my Density” thing immediately and cracked up! That’s awesome. And to Darren I just say, “Hello McFly, anybody home??”

  • Scramblejam

    gravatarFeb 25, 2008
    1:55 am

    Great idea guys!

    I use something a little like this adapted from GTD – I keep all my notes and topics for a particular meeting on a single Index Card. I find that the limitation of a single card means I don’t try to tackle too much in one meeting.

    I may start using the flip side of the card as a “Prep Card” to help me focus… Thanks for all the great ideas!

  • Kara

    gravatarFeb 26, 2008
    7:46 pm

    I’m a therapist in an inpatient psych unit for kids and adolescents and this could definitely help me stay on track when sessions get dramatic and out of control sometimes–nothing like a screaming yelling family (that’s not your own!) to derail your plan. Thanks for the tip!

  • Laura M

    gravatarMay 3, 2010
    6:53 pm

    It would be best to type out the notes and create a prep card from that, for a more professional look if someone (your boss!) happens to catch a glimpse.

    There’s nothing unprofessional about having notes, but there is about having them scribbled on an index card or napkin.

    Cheers :)

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