- Growing your network
- Professional Kung Fu
- Taming social media
- Prepping for media engagements
- Performing in public
- Taking the floor
- Moderating a panel
- Illustration credits
* * *
All these items are drawn from Synaps’ mentoring platform on management and methodology. Synaps doesn’t aim solely at incubating ideas: it ambitions to help build a brain trust of individuals who think creatively about the challenges we all face. This is why we invest heavily in human capital, through intensive mentoring and, we hope, effective management. This platform captures, unpacks and feeds back into that effort. For updates (typically less than once a month), sign up here.
© Copyright 2018 Synaps. All rights reserved. All use subject to Terms and Conditions of Use set forth here.
Growing your network
ONE OF THE GREATEST NETWORKERS EVER, George Soros, is famously said to have declared that “networking is not working.” This possibly apocryphal quote papers over a fundamental truth regarding our professional interactions: very little comes from just meeting people and chatting with them, unless the effort is constructed as an investment. We’ve all been to conferences that bring together the same crowd well beyond the point where we still have meaningful differences to debate. We’ve all exchanged business cards to politely manage an encounter that quite obviously is a dead-end, only to relegate them to that bottom drawer of our dresser seemingly reserved to no-business cards. LinkedIn, in some ways, is that bottom drawer hugely enlarged by making it digital.
For all these superfluous interactions, however, our interface with the world is ultimately made of real people, with whom we must build genuine relationships. The most useful information, the best business hints, the likeliest job opportunities nearly always come from known individuals if not face-to-face conversations. As we strive to operationalize such leads, the outcomes are even more contingent on the quality of interpersonal relations: we check information with contacts we trust, do business with people we appreciate, and land a new position on the basis of chemistry as much as competence. Indeed, if remote relationships sufficed, why would high-powered business- and states-people spend such an enormous amount of their time physically going places?
The point is that “networking” can be inescapable and productive, or wasteful and gimmicky, depending on conscious decisions you must make about it. To help think through your own answers, here are some lessons-learned as a potential source of inspiration:
- Invest time discerningly. Networking can be excessively time-consuming: a meeting on the other side of town can easily eat up two to three hours in your schedule, and a conference implying travel can disrupt a whole week. It’s all the more important, therefore, to move with purpose and make opportunities worthwhile. If the principal reason you give yourself for attending an event is “networking,” you might as well be true to your word: review the list of participants, approach people of interest proactively, collect and collate contact details, and follow up appropriately. Incidentally, large gatherings happen to be the professional equivalent of speed-dating: they provide you with a unique chance to have five minute conversations with people you may not want to spend all evening with.
- Leverage your network. The single most effective introduction to anyone is a recommendation by someone they like, trust, respect, or are indebted to. Never hesitate to request such introductions from people who value your work: as a rule, they are delighted to help, and connecting you is generally cost-free. If they feel uncomfortable at the idea, they simply won’t see it through.
- Don’t let yourself get boxed in. Various forms of “networking” are more akin to club membership. There are different circuits of public or private events attendees are keen to be involved in mostly because it sets them as part of a desirable group—of senior officials, wealthy businessmen, recognized academics, or qualified nerds. Some expatriates similarly spend an inordinate amount of time socializing among peers, at the risk of cutting themselves off from their broader environment. Granted, many successful careers will hinge on such cliquishness more than nomadic mingling. Still, your goal in growing your network should be to connect with people who open up new horizons and increase your professional, social and intellectual agility. No need to snub like-minded groups, who rarely take outliers kindly; just don’t overinvest in them, making sure you balance them out with less obvious encounters.
- It costs nothing to try. As a matter of principle, it is useful to look beyond obvious hurdles and assume any connection is possible, with literally anyone. It’s up to you to creatively gain access to the highest levels of power, adjust to social mores that restrict your mobility, or acquire the language needed to engage with whole new segments of the population. Any space of human interaction is structured by numerous explicit and untold rules, which should be mastered, used and overcome, if your work is to gain depth through the process of engaging otherness. Even within our comfort zones there is a pecking order that begs to be subverted: paying due respect to hierarchy on the face of it is no reason not to build egalitarian ties to those supposedly “above” and “below” you.
- Be generous, regardless of low returns. Some networks are essentially designed to pool resources and generate kickbacks: freemasonry comes to mind, but elitist establishments often produce alumni who collectively, albeit instinctively, work to promote their corporatist interests, displaying equally high levels of solidarity. Other networks, in business for instance, make it natural to call in a favor in exchange for doling one out. In open networks, however, automatic loyalty is not to be expected; instead, you must first define your relevance and value-added to the individual or the group, to earn the trust, respect and assistance you can hope for in return. Generally speaking, whenever you think of requesting a service from someone, do ask yourself: did I ever try to support this person in any, even humble, way?
- Review your networking practices from time to time, against a check-list like this one: have I reached out to all people concerned by my area of research or expertise? Did I find ways of making myself useful to them? Have I effectively stored their details? Did I send out my work to those it is most relevant to? And did I follow up with meetings wherever pertinent?
Networks that work are hard work themselves and always revolve around interests. This fact of life does not in any way preclude the birth, in their midst, of friendships both solid and sincere; the initial, transactional nature of the exchange therefore should not inhibit you. Quite the contrary: growing your base of interactions makes for diversified and enriching comradeships. Behind the understandable need to carry out your work and manage your career, that is the best of motivations.
PROFESSIONAL RELATIONS are a martial art. They involve a sequence of well-rehearsed, standardized moves, in which action and reaction appear logically, predictably related. As in old-style Kung Fu movies, they follow each other in a quick but iron-clad choreography, seemingly designed to go on endlessly. Professional encounters won’t knock you out cold, but they often have that element of competition and assertiveness, if not aggression, that requires swift countermoves to keep your composure. Below is a list of real-life classics, along with suggested rejoinders.
Bouncing you around. Many professionals view intense busyness as a symbol of status, and make a point of demonstrating just how full their agendas are. Purported big shots may concede a meeting weeks (sometimes months) down the road, while reserving the right to postpone at the last moment. This may happen several times in a row. They may also change the time and place (even country!) in apparently random ways. If they are truly as important to you as they think they are, you have no choice but to go along with it. But remind yourself that people who don’t take you seriously rarely prove to be of any meaningful help. Most likely, they’re not worth your time either. At least until you gain rank, or secure a better introduction.
Evasion tactics. All kinds of people we reach out to ignore us outright. They won’t answer your email. They don’t pick up their phone. Or they respond once, and disappear. A few principles apply to avoid banging your head against closed doors. First, go straight to the point; highly specific, succinct requests and follow-ups have higher odds of prompting a reaction. Second, never let paranoia grab you. People travel, get overwhelmed, flag for later, forget. An apparent snub maybe isn’t one, so don’t get easily offended, but rather assume goodwill. Third, learn the art of “gentle reminders.” An email left unanswered warrants, given a reasonable delay (a day, a week, a month, depending on how urgent things are), a quick note, e.g. “I’m not sure you received this, and am resending just in case.” Likewise, unreturned phone calls justify a text message such as “I’ve tried your phone to discuss so-and-so, let’s have a chat as soon as your schedule frees up.” Fourth, know when to give up. One reminder is routine. Two is tedious. Three is harassment. Once you’ve established someone is evading you, let them be, or find more effective ways to connect with them.
Abusing your time. At the opposite end of the spectrum are people that you are tempted to ignore. Some would happily have you do their work for them, sending plethoric questions by email with no clear quid pro quo. Decline politely, stating your workload, or suggest they make two pointed queries you can briefly address. Others may seek to sit with you essentially to check a box: visiting delegations, for instance, often require talking heads to pad out their itinerary. Unless you are clear about the purpose of the encounter, come up with a solid (and hopefully genuine) reason to pass—a deadline, another commitment, a trip abroad and so on. Another archetype is the person who requests a meeting, but sets a place most convenient to them, thus contravening a tacit convention. Asking people to come to you is a good way of testing their level of motivation, often revealing the absence of a worthwhile rationale.
Abusing you. Downright aggression unfortunately is common. It may take various shapes and forms: accusing you of pursuing a devious agenda; blaming you for things you had no part in; dismissing your colleagues or your organization; berating your views; cutting you off repeatedly; or ending a meeting abruptly. It’s important to grow a thick skin, because people often do have reasons to be suspicious, angry, impatient… within limits, though. Bear with them enough to discern what exactly is at stake, take significant criticism into consideration, and give everyone a chance to wind it down. But you must also draw a line, as soon as it feels like bullying. Bullies are generally insecure, and will back off when you stand up to them. Pick your fight, choose your moment, and be firm. That doesn’t guarantee you will succeed. But lying low in the face of gratuitous assaults does guarantee more of them.
The charm offensive. Equally tricky are professional relationships premised on personal attraction: people can be enthralled by your work only to the extent they are interested in pursuing some sort of romantic involvement. Contrary to conventional wisdom, this is not particularly outrageous: the work environment, of course, is not insulation from seduction. Nor is it a plight unique to women, although gender inequality puts them more often at the receiving end of power-based, predatory behaviors. Handling ambiguity is made easier by bearing three things in mind. First, such dynamics give early signs—notably in the form of invitations to transport the relationship outside the work environment—which we are remiss to ignore. Second, there is no reason to respond positively, any more than there is cause to feel offended—unless it does take an aggressive bend. Finally, a romantic twist usually spoils whatever business you intended, especially when material issues are at stake. That’s a fact-of-life, however frustrating it may be. If someone approached you, say, with a proposal for formal collaboration, but for the wrong reasons, things simply cannot pan out.
We must be aware of such patterns of conduct not simply for the sake of self-defense, but because—sadly—we are all susceptible to indulging in them. Particularly as you climb up the food chain, your sense of status changes, your time-constraints evolve, and your tolerance for people who need you more than you need them will inevitably erode. Remind yourself, however, how it felt when you started off. You can’t bend over backwards to be kind to everyone. But there is no justification for being inconsiderate, either. So do check from time to time that you haven’t turned into one of the bossy bosses that once bruised you.
Taming social media
FRANKLY, if you’re totally comfortable with social media, no need to read this: you’re probably a lost cause already. Social media, however subtle you may be about it, revolves around promoting yourself. If you have no qualms about that, if you’re a natural, you’re beyond salvation.
The various business models behind social media platforms all involve some form of addiction – to news in the form of stimuli, to groupthink, to venting, to emotional reinforcement, or to metrics tallying your “following”. A massive public built on this basis, which both produces and reverberates content, can then be farmed out to advertisers as well as mainstream media, who buy access to their audience by paying Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and others to highlight their products.
The reason we must play by such rules is that there is no other game in town. Your intellectual output will reach its target audience, whether you like it or not, via social media. If you snub the sport, you’re just piggybacking other people who don’t. They’re your teammates, allies and supporters: don’t let them feel it’s all beneath you.
For good reading, people used to rely on reputable periodicals. These are under stress, as they compete with a growing array of lower caliber competitors. They would go to libraries, LOL. In the early stages of domestic internet, they would check reference blogs, sign up to distribution letters or send personal messages to each other. That was before we spent hours every day trudging through a slough of emails. Now we’re in (let’s hope) a transitional phase, full of inefficiencies: unable to cope with the profusion of publication platforms and published content, we’re cutting back on old-fashioned subscriptions and correspondence, and instead joining multiple social media platforms where we follow far more people than we can keep track of.
This situation makes for a very difficult public to deal with: if truth be told, we’ve all become overwhelmed, impatient, impulsive, demanding and disloyal. Most of us would snigger at the suggestion that you must sit down and read books, or substantive articles, for as much as two contiguous hours on any given day. How could we ever find time? Why, we already spend two good hours sifting through social media just to assess what on earth we should be reading.
The positive view is that, in this era of cacophony and confusion, everyone is in constant search of guidance; of hubs, aggregators and authorities who provide cues amidst the noise. We are all trying to figure out what to believe, what to block out, and whom to trust in doing so. When you think of it, social media therefore function like a massive, crowdsourced, muddled and endlessly updated compendium of critical reviews. Content is voted up into a niche market, or voted out into oblivion.
Our rapport with information and analysis will no doubt continue to evolve, probably dramatically, but for now this is the quagmire we must swim or drown in. To stay afloat, it’s smart not to jump in at the deep end. Watch others while you test the waters. You’ll have no trouble identifying who is doing a slick crawl, making waves extravagantly, or just foundering. There are many different styles, techniques and objectives, which also tend to differ on distinct platforms, and getting acquainted with them takes time. Which is why you should start engaging professionally with social media early on.
Once you’re in the water, there’s no need to get ahead of yourself and do fancy things—but you can’t stay still either. Keep moving, cautiously. It’s about finding out what works best for you, what suits both your professional needs and your personal inclinations. Perhaps the best advice you can use regarding social media is to find a style that suits your outlook, personality and occupation, and from their adapt to see what value that style and substance may add to the broader ecosystem.
Regardless of the quasi-spontaneity that pervades social media, it is nonetheless important to formulate a basic editorial policy and self-impose it ruthlessly. It can and should evolve, but it must be there in the first place, for two essential reasons. On one hand, you must do like Ulysses, who had himself tied up to his ship’s mast to listen to the mermaids without succumbing to their deadly charm. Don’t presume that you are built to resist social media: nobody is, because social media are built to be irresistible.
On the other, you are expected, by people who choose to connect their feelers to your social media avatars, to fulfill a certain role. That can be any number of things: you’re part of the gang; you help relatives keep up with family issues; you’re a recognized expert on some issue of interest; you’re a star and every smallest thing about you is simply fascinating; you’re a politician and you’re made of words; you’re a handy purveyor of feel-good, fake information; or you can be trusted to trigger predictably satisfying emotions of some other kind. For sure, it’s reductive to be pinned down in such fashion. Look at it otherwise: you just have to clarify, for the benefit of others, what you’re contributing to the pandemonium.
A solid editorial policy is one where you 1) define your value-added, i.e. what exactly you are giving others (beyond the kick you get out of speaking your mind), 2) set boundaries you’re not willing to cross (e.g. telling yourself not to share something you haven’t read, to sleep on your emotional outrage, and not to indulge in pointless squabbling), and 3) leave a little margin of error, experimentation and fun.
Meanwhile, make sure you’re clear about your endgame. If you want a massive following, lots of clicks and likes and shares and stuff, you’ll find better advice for that elsewhere. You even have robots who go get followers for you, and therefore robots who follow robots and end up bound together in timeless conversation in some forlorn burrow of the Internet warren. As you are on this page, however, it is safe to assume that you are after a more humane and pointed discussion. You face, moreover, the following conundrum: how to push substantive content through the noise while not adding to it.
The trick is to consider social media “friends” as friends, rather than poor sods innocent enough to follow you. Their time deserves to be taken seriously; their comments to be responded to graciously; their gestures of support to be returned. More importantly, however, is the sense of “community,” which tends to be taken for granted. Your output, typically, will circulate through a hard core of people who genuinely follow your work and career, truly believe in you, and know you quite intimately, even from afar. The people who spread your word are people in a real, not virtual, relationship with you. This “first circle” is critical to reaching the broader public you may crave. Regardless of its size, it is your true audience; treat it accordingly well.
Building diversity into that core is more than desirable: by maintaining ties to people who aren’t likeminded, you’ll move beyond an echo chamber. Scrolling down your social media feeds must, to some extent, make you cringe; that’s a sign that you’re still in touch with diverse constituencies. It also calls for some moderation of your own input. If you can only be read by people who already share your views, what’s the point of sharing them in the first place? Ideally, you’re better off being the lynchpin connecting several small groupings than the beating heart of a large, uniform crowd.
That means accepting that the name of the game is a good conversation, not a monologue that will transfix the masses. Your profile may scale up at some stage, if what you have to offer meets a strongly felt demand—which generally occurs haphazardly, when unforeseen circumstances suddenly place you in the midst of things. Until then, enjoy the luxury of controlled public exposure.
Diving into social media takes guts and a guide. Luckily, you’re full of the former, and for the latter just ask around.
Prepping for media engagements
THERE IS ONE CORE RULE to giving interviews to journalists: the interaction is fundamentally transactional. Correspondents, columnists and broadcasters want something from you; you must want something in return, and make sure it’s a win-win deal.
What exactly may journalists seek? That varies as much as personality and professionalism among them. At one end of the spectrum, you will encounter individuals prepared to put words in your mouth: many just need a quote that will corroborate conclusions at which they, their editor or their audience have already arrived. Others may ask a long series of basic questions they could easily have looked up themselves, but you happen to be a more quotable version of Google.
You may be graced, at the higher end of the spectrum, with the occasional influential journalist reaching out to carefully discuss what angle to take on a story, harness your understanding of it, and find ways of giving you credit. He or she may even have come to think that your particular perspective deserved to be amplified via their platform.
More often, you’ll be solicited for run-of-the-mill “soundbites” that liven up a news item. Media requests tend to come in salvos: when a theme is in (and on) the air, reporters must scramble to find people with something to say about it. You may disagree, at any point in time, that a particular subject is relevant at all, but rest assured: your qualms will fall on deaf ears, because journalists are compelled to cover, somewhat paradoxically, what is already in the news. No point in resisting: you surf a wave or dive under.
It’s important to understand, also, why you are being asked for your views in the first place. Here, you must dispel any hopes of heartfelt recognition of your deeper self. Analysts (unlike firsthand witnesses or actual players) are interviewed for two reasons and two reasons only. On one hand, they are on the radar screen: they recently produced something eye-catching, or were visible through other interviews. On the other hand, they have some version of legitimacy, conferred either through their own name and body of work or through their institution—regardless of the actual relevance of either, hence the proliferation of instant experts on any number of topics.
By contrast, if you are not in the news cycle and have no identifiable status, you will fall into (the bliss of) oblivion. You may be, at one point, the greatest mind on a hot topic; two years later, if you didn’t play your cards right, you might as well be no one.
This demystification brings us to the crux of the matter: what do you want from the interview? To have your name in the paper, your face on the screen? Certainly not. You have a message to convey. You have come back from the deep, and your work has produced something valuable to others. Given dominant media formats, your input will be just a few sentences, that you should be able to write out or articulate orally without hesitation. If you don’t know what it is exactly that you want to say, lie low.
If you decide to stick your head out, do so purposefully:
- Focus on appropriate platforms that connect you effectively to your target audience. The media landscape is overcrowded and sometimes degenerates into pointless content production, which you want to avoid.
- Stay on message. If during the interview, questions lure you into uncomfortable or unexplored terrain, “bridge” to where you want to take the audience. Bridging is a polite transition, using a variant of “that’s an interesting point, but what I feel is most important is…” If you’ve fallen into a blatant trap, set by a journalist pressing you to say something you don’t want to say, repeat or paraphrase yourself. That will force your interlocutor to change tack. Nothing is ever “off-the-record” unless you know the reporter personally and have good reason to trust him or her. Counterintuitively, live broadcast is where you enjoy most control—as your words cannot be played with—while print is where you have least.
- Perform accordingly: good delivery is essential to getting your message across. If you’re responding by email, turn your answers directly into quotes: each question will be dealt with in two crisp, self-explanatory and impactful sentences, because that’s what the journalist is after anyway. It saves him or her the effort of editing and saves you from being misquoted. For radio and television, rehearse some talking points, and tend to your posture: look up, sit straight, lean slightly forward, and breathe from the belly. Your performance will be enhanced measurably.
- Keep it short. That’s the best way to stay on message, and it fits today’s formats anyway. Moreover, journalists are busy people, as you are. So a phone call will suit everyone better if it stays under 15 minutes. An interview by email should boil down to two or three crucial questions, maximum. That should make it more pointed and interesting to all.
- And cultivate good contacts. Journalists do a difficult and vital job, often in circumstances where the odds are stacked against them. Many are extraordinarily dedicated, great learners and genuine allies. There is no cause for being overly defensive; cautious and courteous will do.
As a rule of thumb, meaningful engagements are those that pay off at both ends, improving the journalist’s output and drawing attention to your own work—a fair tradeoff that unfortunately needs to be made explicit at times. With practice, you’ll even get to drop the armor, and a good interview will likely look more like elegant fencing than a medieval joust.
Performing in public
SOONER OR LATER, if you’re doing work of interest to others, you’ll be asked to get up on the stage and perform for an audience. Whether you’re giving a conference, moderating a panel, pushing your ideas in front of a distinguished assembly of colleagues or board members, fulfilling a mundane obligation by making a toast, or pitching a project to potential funders, it’s all pretty much the same show business. If you hoped that you could read laboriously from a paper, then save everyone the pain: send your input by email and stay home. And if you thought of yourself as someone who shines naturally, with no need for prompts or preparation, well, ask yourself: you wouldn’t want to watch a spectacle that hasn’t been rehearsed, so why impose one upon others?
Performing has a purpose and a structure. Its raison d’etre is the function you are expected to assume, whatever that may be given the context: typically, it’s a mix of informing, entertaining and convincing, packaged in different ways according to the nature of the event. Fundamentally, the stakes are akin to writing: what do you know that the audience doesn’t know and should know? Why do you believe that it is so important that they do? And what’s the best way of leaving, in that respect, a lasting impression on them?
The means to that end bring the structure into play. Any oral intervention has an opening, a body and a punchline. In the case of a substantial oration, the opening very quickly does three things: it checks some formal box, typically by offering succinct thanks for the opportunity to speak; it creates, whenever appropriate, a more personal and emotional connection to the public—through an anecdote, a joke or some form of confession; and it frames the rest of your intervention, by stating upfront the pertinence of what you have to say.
By contrast, the aimless “throat clearing” of meandering introductions only leaves your audience wondering what on earth this is about and how long they are going to have to put up with it. The endgame must therefore be clear from the outset: your opening is there to tell people why they should hear you out. The public must feel that you’re taking them somewhere that arouses their curiosity. Of course you don’t have to say everything from the start: you’re introducing a form of calculated suspense, which suggests a direction and sparks an expectation that you tacitly pledge will be met.
The body will vary considerably per the format of the exercise. An hour-long lecture will require a lot of “filling”, with ample illustrations, digressions, discussion of nuances, references to other people’s work and so on. A five-minute pitch will be packed only with punch. You’ll organize your intervention based not on how much you have to say, but on how long you can or must retain your audience’s attention. The very distinct challenges posed by an auditorium of students who have no choice but to sit there and a dinner where people will grow impatient within minutes will naturally lead to entirely different deliveries.
That said, the actual structure, the rhythmicity of your performance will always flow from the sequence of your arguments. As in analytic writing, that’s the backbone of your message, and the rest is simply there to give it life. This is why any oral presentation, whether prepared or off-the-cuff, can be brought down to core arguments, quickly memorized or carefully jotted down—a maximum of two or three in a brief and spontaneous interjection, all the way to the interlocking components of a complex theory spelled out in an amphitheater.
Because they organize the flow of your intervention, these arguments must stand out, as if you were speaking in bold. That doesn’t allow you to belabor the point. Make your case as quickly and effectively as possible, with just enough explanations and illustrations to establish your argument, and move on to the next one, in a sequence whose cadence greatly contributes to retaining your public’s attention. People generally get an idea fast or not at all. Dwelling on it doesn’t help; usually it only reveals that you’re not quite sure of what you’re saying in the first place.
Compelling presentations often string together a compilation of thoughts you’ve already conveyed and tried out on other occasions—in interviews or meetings, maybe. These are components you already feel comfortable with, can pick from, narrate more vibrantly and “storify.” Your focus then becomes the transitions from one to another and the general flow of your intervention.
The punchline is something mildly dramatic to end on. You could be circling back to your opening, and nailing in your original message. You could sum up what you’ve said with something witty—a catchphrase that grabs people’s imagination. You could reinject humor. Basically, come up with anything that signals you’re done. The power of your punchline will come from the climax that hopefully occurred just before, as you wrapped up your argumentation to rest your case.
Beyond its purpose and its structure, a good performance can’t do without a personal touch. People will listen keenly to you not just because the substance of your intervention is interesting, but because they feel they are connecting with you as a person. An important rule, therefore, is to accept that you, as a “performer,” must give away something of yourself. A businessman put it starkly, as he coached the guest-of-honor ahead of a fundraising dinner: “you don’t have to sell your body, but you do have to show your legs.”
In truth, there is nothing debasing to it: what the public wants is no striptease, but a form of communication that is reasonably intimate and sincere. Techniques such as deep breathing, posture, eye-contact and so on only help remove what would get in the way of a more controlled expression of your personality. Too much technique turns you into another droid speaking on CNN or giving a TED talk. Admitting your limits, sharing more personal views, experiences and doubts, can all be part of a good delivery.
In sum: make strong, structured points in convivial ways. The easiest way to do that is to remember what a privilege it is to speak publicly about issues we take to heart. If we are grateful to the public and enjoy the moment, we’ll make it enjoyable to (almost) everyone.
Taking the floor
WHEN ATTENDING A MEETING or a roundtable, you generally don’t have the luxury to stay mute – unless you want to establish yourself as a note-taker no one should pay any further attention to. Taking the floor is almost always awkward and intimidating. If it’s not, that probably means you’ve become one of these people who just can’t wait for a chance to stand up and listen to themselves. Dosage is key.
Here are a few pieces of advice that can help strike the right balance:
- Listen hard. A pertinent interjection or contribution is one that fits into the flow of the conversation, builds on (or even references) what has already been said, and adds something new. It can also challenge or redirect the conversation, but that calls for taking what you want to distance yourself from even more seriously.
- Choose a distinctive angle. People take the floor for a variety of reasons: with a sense of entitlement and status; because they are expected to; to gain recognition; to vent and ramble; and to deliver a thoughtful message that benefits the conversation. Make sure you fall in the latter category. In what is a defining social interaction, you must assert yourself through your capacity to provide substance. Typically, you’ll gain from bringing into the conversation something that is relevant to its flow, analytical but grounded in your real-life experience, and removed from any conventional wisdom reverberating around the room. As long as you remain modest, age and status will become largely secondary.
- Less is better. When you speak for too long, you subvert the pecking order; you bore your audience; and you may lose your own train of thought and end up faltering. Brevity is the side-kick of pertinence. Keep your intervention to 1 or 2 points that will stick with your audience.
- Structure. Even a 30 second intervention should be somewhat structured. Ideally, it has a hook (to transition from what is being said; bridge to another angle; or simply to grab the audience’s attention), a twist (something new and clever that gets people talking at the coffee break) and a punch line (the climax that brings your intervention to a clear-cut end).
- Rehearse. To make your points articulate and catchy, there is no secret: repeat them to yourself and role-play before you take the floor. If possible, scribble your points down, distilling them into keywords. In other words, use your advantage: by contrast with a live interview or a one-on-one conversation, you do have time to think.
- Be strategic. You may want to stay clear of certain topics you know are a lost cause. Likewise, you don’t want to wade into issues on which you are clearly out of your depth, however strongly you may feel about them. Also, pick your timing: early on in the conversation to help frame it, or nearing the end to leave your audience on a lasting impression. One impressive orator on the circuit of international conferences systematically aims to speak just before the breaks, and invariably shapes the coffee-table conversations that are more important, in his world, than the main event.
- Anticipate. Your turn will sometimes come at a moment that is not of your choosing. The conversation will veer toward your recognized field of expertise. Someone—a colleague, another participant, a moderator—will decide to pull you in. Such turning points are generally predictable, but you may miss them because you’re too concentrated on hoping it won’t happen. So don’t dive for cover: prepare.
- Speak or hold your peace. There are no second chances. As a roundtable wraps up, it’s too late to rattle off all the great thoughts you had wanted to share for the past 6 hours.
- Posture counts. Sitting up and looking up make a difference, not just in how you look, but in how you speak. Do like Pippin as Mordor prepares to savage Middle-Earth: take “the deep breath before the plunge.” And then perhaps remind yourself that it’s not quite so epic. There are no Orcs in the room.
- When frustrated, hold off. It doesn’t mean backing down, on the contrary. You will be more effective at countering what annoys you by sitting on it until you’ve collected yourself and checked the boxes above.
- No shouting match. A group conversation cannot be monopolized by a two-way altercation. It is usually as embarrassing as it is pointless. If somebody confronts you in ways that absolutely call for an immediate rejoinder, make sure you do so calmly, concisely and compellingly, and rest your case. If that person comes back at you, publicly suggest addressing such issues during the break.
- It’s not about you. On one side, it’s a social event with norms and rules, where we simply want to fit in and do our bit. On the other, it’s about moving a substantive conversation forward. You’ll do well by mixing social skills (which are self-effacing) and pertinence (which makes you stand out). The better your performance, the more humble you must be. As a rule, any sign of triumph on your part will only raise animosity.
If you do all this, you’re a star shining in the firmament. But public speaking in any form is a performance, and there is not such thing as a performer who hasn’t had rough moments. They hurt, but they’re part of the trade, and they’re part of the learning process. And then we get too confident and life teaches us another painful lesson. The best bet is to seek some inspiration in the advice above, forget about it, and remember to be ourselves. So just put on your red shoes and dance!
IF WE’RE HONEST with ourselves, we’ll admit that many conferences we attend prove disappointing, if not an utter bore. Most often, the topic is interesting, the speakers qualified, the venue pleasant, and the audience motivated. Moreover, an enormous amount of effort and money go into the logistics of such events. How could it all go so wrong? The primary culprit is lack of what you could call scripting, orchestration or choreography. More than lectured, we want to be engaged and entertained. A conference therefore is a performance that necessitates some stagecraft.
A key figure in that respect is the moderator on a panel, who is expected to introduce speakers to the public and structure the discussion. If you are invited to assume that role, don’t stress about having to put on a good show: your task is to bring the best out of others. Of course, you’ll be operating within a web of constraints: the topic’s appeal, the event’s format and timing, the temperament of panelists, and so on. Regardless, there are tips and tricks that will help improve even the worst configuration.
The most conventional form of moderation is a useful benchmark. In this set-up, you would spell out the panelists’ profiles, let them deliver their presentations, and then open the floor to the public for comments and queries. A frequent, worst-case scenario entails recounting long, formal biographies; speakers reading directly from dry papers and going overtime; and members of the audience jumping on the opportunity provided by the Q&A to harp on as if they belonged to the panel. That virtually ensures you lose most of the public to email and social media.
Moderating is all about making things at least moderately more exciting for the audience, the panelists and yourself. You may draw on a variety of tools to do so:
- Frame the question. Conference titles and agendas are typically more straightforward than intriguing. Take time to think about why the topic you are involved in is interesting, and turn the answers you come up with into brief introductory remarks, designed to pique the audience’s curiosity. You need not be an expert, and must not talk for long: substance is for panelists to provide.
- Pitch your characters. Your speakers are on the panel for good reason—not because they earned a PhD in 1978. Read up on them, meet them beforehand if possible, and bring your introductions down to what truly makes them part of this particular cast. All the public wants to know is why these people are important to listen to.
- Steer the discussion. The ideal panel is one where a sequence of lively interventions succinctly and compellingly covers all key aspects of the issue under examination. The moderator’s goal is to obtain that outcome, while remaining as self-effacing as possible. This can be done by: engaging the panelists before the event, to narrow down the scope of their contributions, and agree on very specific points they will address; putting pointed questions to the panelists on stage, rather than giving them the floor open-endedly; if the format allows, regularly switching from one speaker to the next to create and maintain some momentum; and constantly bearing in mind the structure of the overall “performance,” in terms of time allocation and boxes you want to tick substantively. That is how, with practice, you will create and sustain a certain “rhythm.”
- Exact discipline. If nothing else, moderators are timekeepers, a responsibility they all too often shy away from. You must set explicit rules of the game: say, panelists can speak for ten minutes, and will take only two precise questions from the public. Those guidelines are then to be enforced. If a speaker gives indications of going overboard, detect them and act early on. Begin making your way through the conventional range of signals at your disposal: draw their gaze to a “two minutes left” note; ostensibly sit up in your seat and start fidgeting; breathe into or tap your microphone; and, if all else fails, politely but firmly interrupt. You can do so, diplomatically, by praising the presentation; reinforcing a couple of its key points; asking a very narrow question leaving no room for elaboration (e.g. “to conclude, if there is one essential idea you want to leave the audience on, what is it?”); or simply making a subtle transition to the next contribution. The same principles apply to interventions from the public, only far more stringently. Your rigor will be respected, on condition that you lead by example with your self-discipline: set the tone by keeping your own contributions crisp and to the point.
- Wrap up. All good things must come to an end, or cease to be good things. So don’t let a panel peter out confusedly: bring it to a climax, preferably with a quick, smart summary both showing deference to the panelists and adding value, or with a joke, a heartfelt thank you and a clap, or any other form of closure that best suits the nature of the event and your personal style.
A good panel follows the classic structure of storytelling, with an opening hook grabbing the audience’s attention, a set of characters, and a narrative sequence culminating in a finale before quickly winding down. That is why some panels are more engaging than others. That is also why you’ll be forgiven for assuming a form of authority: a well-orchestrated conference is a performance panelists will take pride in, and which the public will be grateful for. It doesn’t have to be perfect: we’ve all been subjected to dreary conferences often enough to see your efforts as huge relief already.
- Cover: Liberty’s face awaits installation on Bedloe’s Island by Flickr / licensed by CC.
- Growing your network: Laying tracks on the extreme front of Prescott and Eastern Railroad in Arizona Territory by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- Professional Kung Fu: untitled photo by Max Pixel / licensed by CC.
- Taming social media: Edward Burn-Jones Theseus and the Minotaur in the labyrinth by Wikipedia / licensed by CC; Christian atheist, I know everything and Speakers’ corner cowboy by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- Prepping for media engagements: German armor for fighting on horseback by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- Performing in public: peacock by Pixabay / licensed by CC.
- Taking the floor: William Orpen The signing of peace in the hall of mirrors by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- Moderation a panel: Georg Mühlberg Studentisches Säbelduell um 1900 by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.