Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can’t,
and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it.
Let’s assume you’re in the half that has something to say. You’re used to just saying it, but you’ve experienced a fairly forgiving audience—your peers, professors, and parents. (You are already used to competing with the electronics in the audience’s hands–that’s a good skill.) Out here in the real world it’s a whole new game. Everyone is strapped for time, so you’ve got to be concise. Everyone is juggling a lot of different roles and responsibilities: You’ve got to hit the audience at the right time. There can be a lot of different audiences so the words and venues you use may well be different for peers, upper management, and outside audiences. You need to practice to be good at these things. Work with similar groups on campus and get experience with a less safe audience or start asking a friendly group for feedback. (Ask your parents a serious question where they get to help with your future—they’ll be thrilled. Unless you have recovering helicopter parents—more on that in a future post.) In the interest of cutting to the chase: I’ve created a short list of the things you need to consider in communicating with other people and I’ve added context with the kinds of opportunities I think you can find on your campus.
It’s got to be clear, concise, and leave the audience knowing what the action items are for them and for you. No one is born knowing how to do this, so get out there and take on a leadership role at school. I’m naturally going to love a page that says Get Involved. Here’s University of Puget Sound’s, but I think most schools have a page like this. I know they all have student boards. Those boards have sub-boards/branches and representatives. Those student councils usually handle the budget requests for clubs. There are hundreds of ways to be involved on campus. And once you go to a meeting, you’ll find there are things you want to say. If you’re shy, practice standing up and saying them. Ask a question about a budget item. Ask it one-on-one if the meeting is too intimidating. Ask how you can help (but be prepared to tell them what skills you have or what you’d like to develop.) Ask Career Services if they can help you build a LinkedIn profile. Meet with your advisor and ask him/her what got them interested in the field. (Don’t ask if something is on the test. This is the academic equivalent to “what’s your favorite color?” in a social setting. It’s boring and you look shallow and immature at best.) Ask where they think the field is going in 10 years. What’s the one book they’d recommend as outside reading?
Do you need permission, political buy-in, a team approach, a budget approved? Be sure you’re telling the right people in the right order, so the outcome is on track for success. Amherst College’s student government budget committee has very clear rules. Don’t see the club you want on campus? Ursinus College has clear rules on what they need from you and what the timing looks like. Need to create your area of emphasis at Evergreen College? No problem, here’s how you do it. Every college has heard these questions asked again and again. And every school will have a web page telling you how to do it, that links to forms and emails and phone numbers you’ll need. You’ll never see a business this well set up or this open to new ideas. If nothing else the world changes so fast, it’s probably easier to keep it informal to make the most of new opportunities. (And they are trusting that staff has the skill to tackle these things without the same level of spoon-feeding colleges provide.) Take advantage of these challenges as they present themselves, or help a friend who has a new idea, and you’ll have a chance to perfect your skills before you need them.
Are you the right person to present? Does your audience need anything in advance? Do they need background on the issue or you or can you just cut to the chase? PowerPoint may need to be part of your academic and professional life, but try to present without using it as often as you can. The most compelling presenters are the ones who can tell you the story and keep you interested. I’m a huge fan of Sheryl Sandberg’s TED Talk, which has no graphics. She believes enough in her message to trust it. (Note that the best speakers in the world with amazing new ideas get 20 minutes or less to give their TED talk.) Harvard Business Review has a June 2013 story on how to give killer presentations. Keep in mind that perhaps the idea is best presented by someone else or with someone else. Think about the audience and the power structures in play and consider the best way to accomplish your goals. Don’t have a goal? Even as simple as expressing your opinion on the short story the class read? Maybe you’re in Mr. Frost’s second half (see quote at the start of this post). It’s okay to start small and support those who do present, just by saying after class, “Hey, I loved that you defended that idea.”
Listen to what people are saying. They may see the same problem, but have other ideas on how to solve the problem. In fact, by posing a series of questions, you may be able to elicit feedback that really improves the plan. Open with a question. “Would anyone else like to see us beat last year’s strong fundraising efforts?” or “Would anyone else like to see the winter formal moved into October to miss the November snow storms?” If no one else wants these things, perhaps you should spend your energy elsewhere. (Silence is feedback, too.) If a few people want to engage, you’ll have a good discussion and have gained some teammates. If there’s no time to discuss, suggest those interested stay later, meet at another time and report back to the larger group. Cycle through as often as you have to. Maybe the fundraiser is great, maybe it’s tired and needs to be swapped out. Maybe that’s no longer the most pressing need after 20 years of tradition or the one your current members are excited about supporting. Maybe the formal is still in November, but there’s another one in April. And, since I sent you to Sheryl Sandberg’s talk, it’s only right to point out you should consider a Lean In Circle. (Men can create and join these, too.) That’s a great way to develop a strong feedback circle. (Hey, I have one, and they encouraged me with this idea and it’s pretty real now.)