Friday, February 10, 2012

Soft Skills

"Hello," we said in unison and wearing our friendliest smiles. Adam complimented her outfit while I cocked my head slightly in order to be adorable. And we politely requested a favor, made some requisite promises and set off 2 minutes later, goal attained. He put his hand behind him, palm up, as he walked back to his desk and I grinned as I tapped it with my fingers.
In truth, we often share gestures of victory within my group - we have little real power so we resort to charm and owed favors and pity when necessary to achieve that moment's aim. And it comes naturally to me much of the time. Few people actively dislike me (and I just avoid them) so I'm often able to finagle.

It wasn't until today - when I saw someone do every single thing wrong - that I made note of some important characteristics of a good meeting. (Note that we've already covered content.)

"Katie," a colleague said when I answered the phone. "I just got your meeting notification - what's this about?"

"Ah," I replied slowly, trying to think. "I've been working with a couple of scientists and they asked if they could show off their work. You know, since you're new and important?"

He laughed and my lips curved as his acceptance notification appeared in my inbox. "I appreciate it," I offered. "They're good guys and it's interesting work and they wanted your thoughts on current status and next steps. Should be painless."

It was not painless.

1. Arrive on time.
I came to their offices 5 minutes before our scheduled time and escorted them to our assigned conference room. Upon our guest's arrival, we had connected laptop to projector and reviewed the goals of the meeting.

Before beginning, we'd done everything right.

2. Be briefly social.
I once was the recipient of a presentation where the speaker - a lovely older man - had notes on a yellow legal pad. The first line - scrawled in pencil - said "thank them for time." I found it adorable.

I was there to perform introductions at today's meeting so that part was easy. I asked about my colleague's week and offered my sympathy that he was stuffy and battling a cold. The scientists, though, immediately jumped into their science without offering the proper introductions and background. In Industry, it's much like I remember my post-doc.

Example: "I'm Katie and I work for Adam, doing my job. I've been in this role over 3 years and have been working on this particular project for the last 3 months. I thought we'd walk through some background information before I get to my specific question/request unless you had another idea?"

3. Make eye contact.
This may be a pet peeve, but it freaks me out when people don't look up. I've learned it sometimes cultural or just a personal habit to not stare at the person across from you. But it engages your audience - especially when it's an audience of 1 person - and gives you insight into their reactions. Both are critically important.

You want 1) your listener to pay attention and 2) to adapt your approach if you're getting negative feedback. So look at the person - it totally helps.

4. Force yourself to listen.
I'll be honest - I like to talk. I'm passionate about many topics. And given a good topic and some time to prepare, I can happily chatter away as if I were a bird in a tree first thing in the morning. I tell you this because I know you're likely prepared and super-smart and you have an outline of all kinds of information you want to offer. And that's lovely.

But other people also like to feel super-smart and offer all kinds of information. It makes them feel useful. And helps them clarify if there are misunderstandings.

So talk briefly about a visual you've created that's mostly self-explanatory. Then wait. If you've done well, your audience will finish reading and look at you. If he's wearing an expectant expression, continue. If he asks a question or makes a comment, consider it and respond appropriately.

Do not (please, please, please) engage in this awful monologue where you're talking and talking and talking about the same image on the same slide for-what-feels-like-ever. If you're caught up in your material, you're not able to adapt to your audience. And - if you want something from that audience - that's bad.

5. Seriously - listen.
The dear, sweet scientists barely allowed time for questions. Between the two of them, there were so many words that I couldn't keep track. I finally stopped them to ask for a reaction.

They interrupted him mid-way through a thought. One raised a hand to quiet him. The other kept raising his voice until he was basically yelling. And I winced.

Because I like and respect them, I continued to force pauses. Asked questions of my colleague. Encouraged him to engage - offer insight, ask questions, suggest alternate paths.

"We've struggled with this..." I would offer. "I suggested a format like that for the output - does that work?" I'd ask.

6. Finish up.
Be respectful of time. If you asked for an hour, take 55 minutes. As you're monitoring how things are going, manage your goals appropriately. And gauge your requests based on how the meeting has gone.

If there are more criticisms than compliments, perhaps schedule another time to talk so you can regroup before asking for money.

If there were suggestions for validation that make sense, go do them and follow up in addition to asking for a recommendation for a particular product program or journal entry.

Know what you want and have back-up plans so you can make progress toward that even if you're not able to get everything. And if you have a Katie-like helper, let her know what your goal is.

She'll try to help - I promise.

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