Here's my latest contribution to the Carolina Communiqué:
We understand the value of becoming aware of our strengths. We know it’s important to develop and use them in an increasingly competitive job market. We comprehend that we need to market our strengths, skills, and accomplishments in a variety of venues and on social networks such as LinkedIn and Facebook. Yet if you’re like me, you were brought up not to boast. So when does talking about your strengths and accomplishments bleed into unseemly self-aggrandizement? At what point does marketing your skills turn you into a blowhard?
Well, it depends on who’s receiving your message and under what circumstances they’re receiving it. It depends on how much time you give the receiver to contribute to the conversation. Do you spend as much or more time listening as speaking? Do you use your listening skills to get others to open up?
Just as we should be scholars of new tools and technologies, we should be students of our colleagues’ interests and accomplishments. We should cultivate a reporter’s skill in getting others to talk about themselves. A two-way exchange is more satisfying and beneficial to both parties than a monologue. Let us remember that the verb “communicate,” comes from the Latin communicare, which means “to share.”
And by colleagues, I don’t mean just old friends. Perhaps you remember this verse from childhood: “make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold.” When was the last time you initiated a conversation with someone you didn’t know? Irrespective of how hard opening up to a stranger may be, mastering that skill can be one of the best things you can do for your personal and professional growth.
It helps if your strengths, as defined by Marcus Buckingham, author of Now, Discover Your Strengths and Go Put Your Strengths to Work, include “Individualization,” which means that you naturally focus on what makes someone unique, or “Woo,” which means that you are energized by winning over others. But even if you don’t naturally have these strengths, it is not difficult to develop effective skills in light conversation.
Some easy, open-ended questions are sure-fire ways to start a conversation:
“Where do you work?”
“What sorts of projects do you work on?”
“How did you get started in technical communication?”
If you know something good about the company where the other person works, say it and then let the other person follow up. If you and the other share a friend or co-worker, bring that up, but don’t center your conversation on the third person lest you inadvertently drift into gossip. Find something in common with the projects mentioned. Share war stories about tools. There may be something in the other person’s “getting started” story that has a common thread with yours. The key is to listen keenly to the other. Rather than think about what to say next, absorb what the other is saying. Before you know it, the conversation will flow with its own momentum.
Why is developing conversational skills important? First, to be a well-rounded technical communicator, we should develop oral as well as written skills. Skills such as light conversation and giving presentations supplement and reinforce our writing skills. Having facility with the rhythms of speech contribute to fluid writing and conversational prose.
Second, conversational skill is the foundation of successful networking, which has been referred to as “the art of building alliances.” As Ed Fletcher pointed out at a recent chapter meeting, networking is not a cold, self-interested accumulation of contacts. Instead, it is a thoughtful development of a web of connections based on shared interest. Networking works when you engage another person with personal integrity and sincere concern.
Buckingham said "I believe that every single person can do at least one thing better than 10,000 other people.” Think of the opportunity this presents us! As we get to know others, we have a chance to uncover that one thing that the other can do better than 10,000 others. And the other gets a chance to find out what we do better than 10,000 others.
It’s not that every person with whom we network is going to become our friend. Some of our new connections can develop into friendships, but friendships require time and work to blossom. Reaching out professionally, with integrity, means that you’re not just in it for you — you’re in it for both of us. How can we help each other? If the answer is “we cannot help each other at this time,” there’s always another time.
Our chapter’s recent awards banquet was a perfect place to test drive conversation skills. During the banquet, our colleagues were recognized for excellent work, and it was easy to start conversations about awards and achievements. This summer’s upcoming cluster progression program, on which our chapter is working with the NC State student chapter, will present another good opportunity. Come see the variety of fields that technical communication supports and get acquainted with the next generation of technical communicators.
The network that you grow needs ongoing care and maintenance. As Lisa Pappas pointed out in a previous issue of the Carolina Communiqué, “…I have learned that (networking is) far more than schmoozing. … (The) connections — contacts, referrals, and friendships — that we form through networking are the strands of our network. And like any net, those bonds need maintenance — keep in touch with your contacts.”
Reinvention isn’t easy and it never stops. Even if you are uncomfortable opening up to strangers, the more you do it, the less stressful it becomes. The more you practice it, the better you become.
Share what you have and give others a chance to shine. It is the right thing to do, and it will reflect well on you. Build your network, grow your professional community, and you will reinvent your work world.