The Art of Preparation

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Ronald M. Shapiro

Preparation can be tough to define. In another context involving a famous Supreme Court case, Justice Potter Stewart had similar difficulty defining the word that was central to the issue he and his fellow justices were faced with: pornography. His definition was more intuitive than legalistic: you certainly know it when you see it.

You might feel the same way about defining preparation. So it could help a bit to think back to your grammar school teachers who probably taught you that the best way to define a word is to go back to the Latin. Pre means “before.” Pare, according to Cassell’s Latin Dictionary, can mean “to supply or furnish.” So, in essence, prepare means to make it before you give it. You set up everything—you get your ducks in a row—before you execute your task, sale, throw, shot, incision, or legal argument. You make your pitch or your case in your head. You visualize it. You assemble its parts. You piece it together before you do it, show it, or speak it.

Methodical preparation is a part of American lore: Benjamin Franklin’s pithy advice (“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”); Washington’s preparation of a ragtag colonial army to fight the world’s greatest military power; the planning that went into the D-Day assault; the preparation of NASA to meet John F. Kennedy’s charge to put a man on the moon. We’ve all grown up hearing stories of heroic preparation.

I recently read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals. Frequent passages such as the following emphasize the importance to Lincoln of methodical preparation:

"Before speaking against the Nebraska Act, Lincoln spent many hours in the State Library, studying present and past Congressional Debates so that he could reach back into the stream of American history and tell a clear, reasoned, and compelling tale. He would express no opinion on anything, Herndon [Lincoln’s law partner] observed, until he knew his subject “inside and outside, upside and downside.”

My history professor at Haverford College, Roger Lane, looks to the first Europeans to arrive here for insight into a definition of preparation.

“The founding settlers, mainly Calvinists, believed that preparation in the world of business was important in earning God’s favor toward you,” Professor Lane said to me. “You had to earn it, and you earned it by preparing. There was a real theological dimension to the Protestant utilitarian work ethic. The religious aspect slowly faded, but even Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard maxims were really the Puritan ethic with the Calvinist theology drained out of it. There was a second wave of this preparation ethic with the Western European and Jewish immigrations, but those were really self-selecting groups of people who came here prepared with a purpose like the founding settlers did.”

A complete definition of preparation for me is based on eight principles of preparation that I have developed after nearly forty years as a businessman, attorney, and strategic consultant. I follow these principles for the important business and personal undertakings in my life and use them as well when I guide others. While the principles don’t have to be followed in rigid lockstep, there is a sequential logic to them. They take the form of a checklist in the appendix to this book. Their biggest benefit, I’ve found over the years, is that they simply give you a greater sense of control and competence. In brief they are:

1. Understanding Your Objectives is defining your endgame. What—simply and clearly—do you want to accomplish? How often have you said to yourself “I’ve got to get this done” without first defining what the endgame should be? All too often I see people put the cart before the horse. It is important to think clearly through what you want to accomplish rather than just following your gut. The long view and clear vision that come with well-defined objectives give you calmness and clarity.

2. Planning with Precedents provides examples of time-tested solutions to guide you and to help persuade other parties. Prior transactions, your experiences, or examples of others can influence your outcome or serve as a model. Precedents are found through reading, recording notes on previous experiences, discussing a task with a colleague or partner, or mulling through your mental catalogue of comparables.

3. Knowing Your Alternatives means laying out the various results you might attain, as well as the outcomes your client or counterpart might expect. You make certain you are forecasting what you might be getting into.

4. Defining the Interests of the other party gets you focused on knowing the objectives or motives of the other side. You look beyond their stated positions. What needs do they have that you might be able to address?

5. In Setting Your Strategy, you establish a plan of action after analyzing the information you have gathered from the first four principles. With this information in hand, you determine the steps you will take and what you will ask or say to your counterpart. With this principle, you also determine the manner, format, or tone with which you will convey your ideas or requests.

6. Doing a Timeline is synonymous with drudgery for some people. But a timeline is nothing more than an outline of projected dates aligned with key milestones. Timelines aren’t taskmasters; they are tools to organize and lay out in front of you the steps that form your strategy.

7. Picking Your Team focuses on whom you will work with and what their roles and responsibilities will be. The key is matching people with their talents and interests. In addition, you look for a good devil’s advocate.

8 Writing Your Script is jotting down the message or proposal you want to make as well as preparing the technique you will use to make it. By sketching the presentation of your message or proposal, practicing it, and sharing it with a team member, you check its effectiveness and gain confidence.

I have had the good fortune in my career to witness the preparation habits of people from all types of fields. Early on I served as Securities Commissioner for the State of Maryland. I founded a law firm and a publishing company. I became an accidental sports agent and built a sports management firm that has represented more major league baseball Hall of Famers than any other. All of these endeavors led to my cofounding the Shapiro Negotiations Institute.

From these experiences it has become my personal conviction that cross-training—studying other fields for lessons—is as productive in business as it is in athletics. Advising surgeons, shortstops, violinists, and actors as well as CEOs and managers on preparation and negotiation has made me a better preparer in my other fields of work.

Whether you are a physician or an engineer, a real estate developer or a small business owner, a fund manager or a salesperson, a designer or a teacher, or engage in any professional endeavor or personal vocation, you will benefit from seeing how people from different, and perhaps unique, disciplines set their ducks in a row. Cross-training—analyzing the preparation of a leading investor, a world-class psychiatrist, a firefighter, a hostage negotiator, a college president, or a major league baseball general manager—will make you a better preparer and a more successful professional in your own line of work.

Reprinted from Dare to Prepare: How to Win Before You Begin by Ron Shapiro. Copyright 2008. Published by Crown Business, a division of Random House, Inc.

About the Author(s)

Ronald M. Shapiro, cofounder of the Shapiro Negotiations Institute, was called "one of baseball's most respected agent attorneys" by USA Today and has represented a record five major league baseball Hall of Famers. He has been recognized by Smart CEO as one of its "Twenty Most Admired Leaders" and The Sporting News also named him "one of the 100 most powerful people in sports."  Shapiro is the coauthor of The Power of Nice and Bullies, Tyrants and Impossible People.