Jun 29, 2016

Am I sabotaging my company during tech-pitches?

How do we know when it’s time to just shut up?

Author: Sorin Vlad

When we prepare for a meeting, it’s all about what we’re going to say. We make elaborate, clever presentations. We fuss back and forth over the meeting agenda. When I was younger, before some of my very first client meetings, I’d even practice what I was going to say out loud, pacing about in my apartment the night before the ‘big day’. We never seem to stop and consider what we shouldn’t say, or when we should just shut up and listen. Everyone appreciates an open attitude towards conversation, but am I ‘over-sharing’? It’s nice to show confidence and be relaxed, but am I making myself look unprofessional? This kind of questions seem to always fall last in our pre-meeting preparations.

Getting carried away – easing your social anxiety, at the expense of your client’s

As I became more experienced and piled many meetings to draw reference from, I begun to realize that oftentimes it’s not talking that’s the problem, it’s knowing when to shut up that’s the trick. We’re all eloquent and smart when we talk about what we’re good at, and that proficiency easily shows, especially with a senior tech-specialist. But it’s also easy to get carried away when you’re talking about a topic you’re passionate about and familiar with. You have a lot to say and, feeling highly comfortable with your field, it’s easy to let the comfort slide into familiarity. Once into familiarity, you’re a slip-of-the-tongue away from over-familiarity – and that’s when you’re making both yourself and the company look bad.

Over-familiarity probably isn’t doing you any favors

While there are sure to be a few qualified people out there who won’t feel like an over-familiar, completely informal tone says anything bad about a person’s professionalism, you can never be sure who you’re talking to. No matter their age or casual outfit, in spite of their background in robotics or of the fact that they’re holding a beer in their LinkedIn profile-picture – you still don’t know enough about them to assume it’s safe to bring-out the f-words in conversation and just generally start dropping all filters and interacting as you would with an old friend. Maybe they won’t mind, and it really will make them feel more relaxed. But, then again, maybe they find comfort in the business etiquette, regardless of what they’re like outside of working hours. Maybe they’ll assume it says something about your level of professionalism and self-scrutiny. Or maybe they won’t think twice about it. My point is, you can’t know – and people have yet to be offended by proper business etiquette. That’s a sure bet for everyone, you just can’t go wrong with that.

I’m by no means one to advocate that stiff, outdated, almost excessive formality. I actually hate it as much as I do over-familiarity. It does nothing but build walls between people, giving all communication a feeling of falsehood. That kind of business etiquette should probably be left to die – in favor of a natural, relaxed professionalism we can all find common ground with.

Over-sharing vs. Honesty

You want to be honest and transparent, and that’s great. Clients love it, and good companies endorse it. But there’s a difference between being transparent, and just plain sharing too much. Information could look completely different when taken out of context, and you could be casting an unfavorable light on your company.

Think of it this way: You’re writing a recommendation for your best friend Jim. Jim and his wife are trying to adopt a baby, and he needs a letter of recommendation as part of the application process. You’ve known Jim since you were both 12 years old. You know a lot about Jim. You have all the inside information there is. You were there when he stole his older brother’s ID and tried to pass as him and purchase beer for a party, as well as when he became valedictorian in college. You know all about that time he ended-up involved in a bar fight and needed six stiches, but you also know about how his start-up made it in spite of everyone saying he was crazy to leave his job and about that time he spent 2000$ on vet bills to save a wounded stray kitten trapped in a fence. You know Jim’s a great, responsible guy, and you’re certain he’ll make an excellent father.

What would you write about Jim in your recommendation letter? More importantly, what wouldn’t you write about Jim? Would you be leaving stuff out of your letter because you’re trying to hide something, or because you know how they might sound if taken out of their complex context?

Listening is not just for people who have nothing to say

Sometimes, what really steps in to make a difference between your company and the next is not ‘an inside-job’: it’s coming from your client to you, and not the other way around. But you need to really listen, or else you’re going to fly right past it.

Maybe, for instance, they come into the meeting sure of their want of a waterfall-based approach to their project, but you catch a hint about delays with a previous collaboration. When you discreetly ask for more information on the subject, you find out they hated being kept in the dark for months on end, only to discover time had been wasted on features they didn’t want or looked nothing like what they had requested. They blame it all on cultural incompatibility, but you can feel there just wasn’t efficient communication involved at all. You talk to them about Agile, and they become curious about trying a new approach witch was first advocated by your company. This gives you a head start, but such opportunities are easy to miss when all you do is focus on what you have to say and what makes you special. Don’t make it all about you. Take the time to just listen and read between the lines.

You’ve listened, now it’s your turn to talk

How do you feel about meeting a potential client? Is it something you feel you’re good at, or rather see it as a necessary evil? Have you witnessed any talks that could have gone better, if someone had only known when it’s time to not say something? Talk to me about your experiences, and let’s all get better at tech-pitches!

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