soft skills

Professional Presentations: Key Ingredient for Career Mobility (Part 1)

I’ve been teaching Professional Presentations for many years, in two-day workshops in large organizations, one-on-one coaching, as well as one-hour versions in graduate school classrooms. Initially, the purpose of the programs, from the vantage of the sponsoring organizations, was to help participants improve their public speaking skills in meetings and larger gatherings. This coaching and teaching also was intended to assist in getting past the profound fears of public speaking that most people experience.  

Very slowly, I’ve come to the conclusion that not only is this fear-inducing skill important in many work activities – but it’s an important political skill. The political angle is simple. If your co-workers and management don’t know you’re doing a great job and possess critical skills, it’s almost like that tree in the forest. If they don’t hear or know about your accomplishments, then maybe you’re not so successful after all.  

The perception is key.  

The ability to present can mean as little as an important conversation with your boss or a job interview. How well prepared are you? How articulate are you and how effective is the manner in which you present? Are you getting your point across well?  

I certainly don’t mean to indicate that everything you say has to be prepared as though you were giving speeches all day.  In many circumstances, though, it’s important to be prepared. The most devout introverts need to be heard at staff meetings. Not everyone can speak easily without preparation, although the ability to speak extemporaneously is a talent that can go a long way in advancing a career. 

Whenever I prepare to discuss this subject, I’ll start with a conversation about fear. It’s important to identify the level of the fear. I like to ask people how they’d rank that fear from 1 (abject terror) to 5 (willingness to speak with minimal preparation to a group of 500). Usually, the results average somewhere in the 2-3 range.  (Of course, some of the groups are self-selecting and included many terrified public speakers.)  

If you’re fearful of public speaking, even in very small groups, you’re not alone.  I like to research, at least once a year, recent surveys of common fears. One of the most recent lists of most common fears, in order:

1)                 Snakes
2)                 Public speaking
3)                 Heights
4)                 Being stuck in a small space
5)                 Spiders and insects
6)                 Injections
7)                 Death 
8)                 Dogs
9)                 Crowds
10)               Going to the doctor

Tough not to notice that “death” is #7, and “public speaking” is #2.

It’s probable you’re in the majority when it comes to fear of public speaking – but in order to move your career along, it would help to improve. I never suggest that everyone must become a brilliant orator; what I do encourage is to try to become at least competent, or somewhat more comfortable when addressing groups or individuals in important situations.  

Just in case I haven’t made the point that presentations skills are important political attributes, I’m going to refer to yet another list. There have been many of these lists compiled where senior executives of large organizations are asked what the qualities are for predicting individual success in an organization. As you’ll see in a current list below, I’ve used this to prove my point.

Criteria for success (in order):

1)                 Clear articulation
2)                 General communication skills
3)                 Presentation skills
4)                 Listening skills
5)                 Simple etiquette
6)                 Appropriate business attire
7)                 Organizational skills
8)                 Telephone courtesy
9)                 Post-secondary school education level
10)               Previous experience

See something unusual in there? Aside from presentations skills being #3 as a critical component for success in an organization, also notice that the only “hard” skill listed is #10, “previous experience.” I search for these lists yearly; sometimes there are no “hard” skills listed at all, and sometimes as many as two.  

In other words, it’s not what you know or have done that counts most; it’s how you package it. Those so-called “soft” skills may mean more than the skill set. At least according to these lists.  Clearly, the same goes for an ordinary job interview, as well.  

Which is what brings us back to the issue of presentation skill. Not only is it important in career mobility, but it also frequently involves overcoming a significant level of fear.

In the next blog, I’ll tackle key elements in getting past the fear by thorough preparation, and improving your overall presentations style.  

Unintentional Behaviors Can Damage Your Personal Branding

Personal branding
When I teach classes in what we call “social intelligence” at Columbia Business School, we stress that a personal brand is not only what you present in networking or interviewing situations--it has an impact on many of your professional and personal interactions.  

We show a PowerPoint slide in several of those social intelligence classes that has a picture of Big Brother (is Watching YOU), from the novel 1984, with the flashing graphic, “Networking is Everywhere.” It’s not intended to create paranoia. 

Creating perceptions
The point of that slide is: Even if a student is trying to make an appointment for advising, the email request will immediately create a perception. While it’s not especially important for a student--or a client in my private practice--to make a good impression on an advisor, it certainly does create an initial framework for the interaction. The positive perception helps. The negative one sets the wrong tone. Here’s an example:

Ellis, I need an appointment tomorrow. I’m freaking out, because I’m about to graduate from the program, have never engaged with anyone in Career Management, and have no idea what I want to do. I’m available at noon.

There are so many things wrong with that brief communication. The tone is off-putting.  It has a demanding feel to it, especially the part about scheduling. It conveys that the writer hasn’t exactly been proactive in her career planning while in graduate school and is probably going to be complicated to work with. There is no opening courtesy or closing to the note--a necessary minimal courtesy, especially in a first communication.  There’s a sense of urgency, but the problem is a self-inflicted one--the student has waited until the last possible second to ask for assistance. The foundation for the interaction has been created, and while the perception can easily be changed, the start is not good.  

Thinking beyond yourself
I, of course, saw this student (but not at 12 the next day). We managed to get her going in her career planning. I pointed out to her that her style of communicating by email would not help her in her professional, and possibly her personal, life. It was a good opportunity to get her focused on how she was going to market herself during her next move. 

It was not her natural style to think of the person on “the other side of the desk,” and she understood that she was going to have to think of her interactions as two-way. She had to think about how the other person, in all communications, was going to perceive her. It wasn’t always about how well she presented her credentials; the real issue was thinking about how the other person would hear what she had to say. 

Starting off right
The following email sets a completely different tone. This was also from a student:

I have sat in on various programs that you have conducted and I have enjoyed them. I have made numerous changes to my resume that you have recommended to the group, including moving to two pages.  

I am not sure if you could comment on “at a distance” resume review via email within your department. Is that bad form? Do you review resumes like this? 
Thanks for your help.
Jamie Smith

This one sets up a meeting that starts right away with a positive tone. It actually made me want to meet this student. Trivial example, but a definite signal to me that this student was going to understand well the importance of interpersonal relations to her transition and her career. And it was nice to anticipate that she’d probably be pleasant to work with, too.  Setting the tone is critical.  

Getting it wrong
The two examples above are minor situations. I recently witnessed an example of a client whose general self-awareness in her transition showed poor social intelligence-- and may have ruined her chance of a job possibility.

The client was returning to the workforce after having taken ten years off to raise her two children. She was hoping for a part-time job with flexible hours. I always hate to tell clients that finding part-time jobs in professions like hers (media), and many others, is going to be difficult. Usually, the best way to get part-time jobs is to have a full-time job and then negotiate down after the job is secure. Otherwise, I frequently suggest to clients that they consult, which, while difficult to launch, might create the desired work/life balance.  

We began to work on a methodology for building a consulting practice. She had good skills, had stayed in touch with colleagues while staying home with her children, and had kept current in her industry.  

On the same day I met with her to discuss how she might build a consulting career, I heard from a former client who was looking to hire part-time experienced professionals --in media! Great timing. The work wasn’t exactly what my client was seeking, but it would be a great way for her to get back into the industry, and was close enough in its requirements for her to express interest.  

She hadn’t completed her resume yet, so I suggested she send me a brief bio by the end of the day, and I’d forward it to the former client.  

She didn’t send the bio.

I wrote to her the following day to ask why she hadn’t sent it, whether she was actually interested. She said she had been “too busy.” I was surprised by the response, and asked if she still wanted to pursue the opportunity, so I could tell the person who was hiring for the position. I had already written to him to say I had an excellent candidate.  

Think about the dynamic here. I was going out of my way to help a client, was conscious of maintaining a good relationship with the former client, and . . .  no bio. No follow-up whatsoever.  

When I wrote again, she spent a great deal of time explaining why she hadn’t sent the bio, and then . . .  still didn’t send it.  

It came two days later. I sent it to the contact, who wanted to know why my client hadn’t completed her LinkedIn profile, since she hadn’t yet done a resume. He also asked why the client had responded so slowly after my initial contact; did it mean my client wasn’t really interested?  

The client said she hadn’t had time. Maybe there were other factors about her life that could have interfered with her moving forward, but she wasn’t working and did say she had the time to engage in a job search, and did tell me to go ahead and make the contact.  

The damage had already been done. The job contact now had a negative initial impression because the transaction had taken days, which to him indicated that my client was not that interested.  

Missing opportunities
Fortunately, the hiring manager was interested, and asked that I have my client contact him directly.  

Two days later, my client hadn’t contacted the hiring manager.

The job opportunity disappeared for her because of that lack of response. This then became an issue in my interactions with the client about why she seemed to be fearful of moving ahead. It also introduced a new issue--how she could gain the confidence to launch her search.  

The bad perceptions ruined a perfectly good opportunity, a difficult one to find.

The importance of soft skills
It has become obvious to me over the years that these “soft skills” are more important than the actual professional skills themselves. The self-marketing and the perceptions created are critical--but most important, thinking about the other person is usually the key for a successful professional interaction.  

I used to think that I’m usually aware of the importance of “the other side of the desk.” Or at least sensitive to others’ perceptions.

Turns out there have been times when I wasn't.  

Several years ago, I had an appointment with a doctor in a large medical facility. After I was done with that appointment, I ran into another doctor I had been seeing at that time.  

I said hello and immediately launched into a complicated question about something he had suggested to me a couple of weeks earlier.  

What I didn’t know on the other side of this particular desk was that the guy had no idea who I was. Not only that, he was not in his office, not seeing patients at that moment, and clearly irritated that this guy (me) had walked up to solicit  professional advice. He suggested I make an appointment.  

For about a minute, I was offended that he wouldn’t answer my question right then and there, but I soon realized he (1) did not know who I was, because he probably had hundreds of patients, and (2) it was completely inappropriate to ask those questions in that setting. He was absolutely right in asking me to make an appointment.  

This instance has stuck with me. A great illustration of not paying attention to the situation or the other person--and creating the wrong perception, too.  


For a quick course on networking, pick up my Ebook, Networking: How to Make the Connections You Need

If you're looking for more in-depth advice on your job search, In Search of the Fun-Forever Job: Career Strategies that Work is available in paperback and Ebook.