“Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything” ― George Bernard Shaw
In my last post I gave some extreme examples of unusual personal ‘baggage’ that can develop in life. There are also many lesser, more common forms that can pop up and have an effect, especially in a career. Based upon personal experiences, over the next couple of posts I want to address the effect that ‘baggage’ has on common but critical areas we face in a career: Public Speaking, Decision Making, Conflict Resolution, and Performance Reviews. I’ll start with Public Speaking.
In the course of all my many years, I have discovered that there are Three Universal Questions to consider in life, ones that are intimately tied to the self-awareness that is so necessary for success and happiness:
What do I need?
What does it cost?
Am I willing to pay the price?
Once we’ve done our homework and dug up any missing information, the answers to these questions can be quite helpful in guiding decisions. Provided there’s not too much baggage.
In a career, we recognize or are often asked to deal with skills and issues in order to remain in growth mode and to continue being recognized for the added value we contribute. Here, the questions are just as valuable.
Occasionally, however, the last two questions need to be supplemented to address any resistance we may feel:
What’s holding me back?
Can I tell if I have baggage?
Do I know why I have this baggage?
Do I want to change, to overcome or get rid of it?
Most often when we think of career status and path we think in terms of strengths and weaknesses, which I tend to think of as related to the presence, absence, and/or development of skills and talents.
However, if there is some form of baggage that contributes to the underdevelopment or avoidance of skills in a particular area, the questions above need to be asked.
To be successful in a career you have to be able to communicate, not just the written word or talking one-on-one or with your team, but to groups of people you don’t know. There’s most likely baggage here, until we can overcome it.
The Skill-Set. It’s not that some of us lack the skills to communicate; after all, we learned to talk when we were 1- to 2-years old. It’s most likely these skills are still underdeveloped.
The Baggage. I’ll wager that every one of us had a people-driven negative experience that caused us to be wary of speaking in public or in front of strangers. It was probably in kindergarten during Show-and-Tell when we were so excited about sharing something important to us that we stumbled over words, only to have every one laugh out loud. In our need for affirmation, we concluded that they were laughing AT us, not with us.
I had multiple experiences of this sort. The one I remember most occurred in 7th grade English, when we took turns standing up and reading aloud. In my reading I came across a word that I had never seen in print before, diarrhea, which, to avoid embarrassment, I sounded out phonetically. Mistake; the class erupted into laughter. Now, the fact that any word relating to gastrointestinal waste-management functions will cause hysterical responses at this age, and that I just happened to draw the short straw, never crossed my mind. I felt all of them were laughing at me. What puzzled me, however, as the teacher corrected my pronunciation, was how did all of these other students know how to read that word? Did they spend their free time in the bathroom reading a Kaopectate© box?
My first “adult” experience was in college presenting my senior research thesis before 250+ students and professors from the top research universities in southern California at a mock Chemical Society meeting. This was at a time (Once Upon A Time, Long, Long Ago, …) before there was the cloud, computers, YouTube, or PowerPoint, when visuals in presentations were made with artifacts called 35mm slides. My presentation was well rehearsed, and my advisor had prepared the slides, dutifully numbered and tagged with a visible stick-on dot in the upper right-hand corner to indicate the correct orientation for insertion in the projector (another artifact).
The first issue was that we had to leave at 5:30 am to arrive by 8:00 am for registration and the beginning of sessions. The second issue was that my presentation was not scheduled until 2:00 pm. As a consequence, after 8½ hours of travel and listening to everyone else’s presentations my body was about 80% adrenaline.
Fortunately, the lecture hall was designed for science demonstrations so there was a wide lab bench across the front, below the blackboards (more artifacts). This was a tremendous relief, because when I reached the front of the hall and stood behind the lab bench to speak I became aware that I was so nervous that my knees were shaking so hard that my pant’s cuffs were dancing on my shoes. I propped myself up on the lab bench trying to look calm and in control, looking out at a huge audience with only two faces I recognized. I trusted they were supportive, but under the circumstances I realized I was alone.
Knowing the best way to bring adrenaline under control was to do some physical activity, as I introduced my topic I turned to the blackboard behind me and very energetically erased the only writing that was on any of the four blackboards in the hall: Schroedinger’s equation from quantum mechanics, a remnant from a rather condescending presentation from over an hour before. That brought some relief. Unfortunately, short-lived.
While my slides were well prepared, they were primarily slides of spectra, how our molecules responded to our measuring instruments, somewhat like a chart of stock prices over time. Squiggly yellow lines going up and down, like a silhouette of mountains, on a very dark background (for legibility).
When I called for the first spectrum slide, so critical to introducing our thesis, it came out sideways. I paused, spoke to the projectionist (high in the back of the lecture hall in the projection booth) and indicated the slide was in the wrong orientation. I waited while the slide was rotated. It came up wrong in the other direction.
At this point I realized that with a dark hall, a dark projection booth, and dark background slides with small yellow spectral lines, the projectionist was at a disadvantage. So I politely indicated that the correct slide orientation was with the numbers and dots in the upper right-hand corner.
The slide appeared in yet another wrong orientation.
Now, a 35mm slide has only eight possible orientations for insertion in a projector, and we had already hit three of them on the first slide. And I had at least 7 other spectral slides to show. The presentations were timed, 12 minutes to present with 3 minutes for questions, so it was clear that either we were going to be there a long time, or the session chairman was going to use a shepherd’s hook to remove me.
There are times when you realize that you have arrived at an unexpected fork in the road and have to choose: do I continue heading towards the original goal of the job well done (affirmation), or divert to avoid embarrassment? This was that fork.
So, I calmly and spontaneously asked the projectionist to keep trying and I would let him know when the slide orientation was correct, while I went to the illuminated blackboard and sketched out the (reasonably simple) spectrum. As I finished explaining the sketch, the slide finally appeared (after many more attempts) in the correct orientation, and I thankfully indicated to the audience, “and here is the actual spectrum showing the details.”
Once you get going, the adrenaline subsides. Topping that off, I was relieved that we had overcome the hiccup with the slide.
Until the next slide came up, also in a wrong orientation. The audience literally gasped. So I indicated to the projectionist to just keep on rotating and proceeded to give the entire presentation on the blackboard, sketching and explaining all of the spectral slides. This also had the added benefit of being unexpected physical exercise that consumed a lot of adrenaline.
I finished on time. When I returned to my seat next to my advisor, he told me, “Nice job. And I was really happy when you erased that @#$%^ Schroedinger equation.”
A month later I received a letter indicating that I had won one of the three awards for best presentation.
Out of that experience came three lessons that help overcome possible public speaking baggage, two of which no one ever teaches you.
First, Prepare. Know your topic; know where you are going to start, where you are going to finish, and how you will get there. Know the points you are going to make, and make sure they are solidly made. Use visuals appropriately. (By the way, I had no notes for this presentation. My slides were my notes. Each slide had at most three points to be made, and there was a subtle cue that indicated/reminded me what the next slide was going to be.) And rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, whether or not it is in front of a supportive audience, or in your mind at 3:00 am in the morning. But know your topic. You have control over this. When you speak, use a strong almost loud voice. A strong voice is more articulated and this conveys credibility.
Second, Stand Back. You have more information that is pertinent that may not be able to be brought out in your talk. Recognize that. Then take the view of someone in your audience. Anticipate what questions they might ask, based on two valid assumptions: first, they won’t know what the missing information is that you have; and second, you won’t know what information they have that you are missing. You have choice over this, but not full control because you can’t anticipate everything.
And third, Expect the Unexpected. These are the things that may have nothing to do with your topic, but happen. You have no control over this, but you can be prepared by paying attention to your surroundings. The general rule is, if it involves technology (even archaic), it will go wrong at the least convenient point.
As you learn by and build upon experience, you can whittle down that kindergarten baggage.
Next: Decision Making