When I was growing up, my poor mother busted a gut trying to get me to act properly. She really, really wanted me to:
- Wear “the right” clothes;
- Go to “the right” school;
- Hang out with “the right” people; and generally
- Conduct myself in “the right” way.
As a proud member of the white/Jewish professional class, Mom took all of these concepts very seriously.
But I rebelled against them, and on the day I graduated from high school, threw some clothes in a paper bag and went off to find adventure as a jazz singer.
Have I Gone Over to the Dark (or, Proper) Side?
That’s why it’s hilariously funny that I now teach my public speaking clients the same tips and tricks for being “proper” that I fought against so hard when I was young.
I talk to my clients about everything from their posture, their handshake, and their eye contact to wearing the “right” clothes, adopting the “proper” demeanor, and learning to talk their industry’s talk.
But I don’t think (as my mother did, and some of my clients do) that there’s something wrong with you if you didn’t learn this stuff as a child.
Nor do I believe (as my mother did) that these skills make you a better person.
Instead, I teach this skill set — call it executive presence, or just plain professionalism — because acting and speaking properly can make you better prepared to succeed in the type of work world that we happen to inhabit.
Work Rules Are Arbitrary. Mastering Them Is a Game.
What do I mean by “the type of work world that we happen to inhabit”? This quick thought experiment will explain:
You’ve probably noticed that, in our work world, “good” public speakers are usually:
- Dynamic, making dramatic physical and verbal gestures;
- Self-confident, sometimes to the point of narcissism (but that’s another story);
- Decisive, able to clearly explain what’s “the best” solution, or give “the best” answer to a question; and
- Articulate, able to deploy words and verbal concepts that dazzle their listeners.
But imagine an alternate universe in which “good” public speakers are:
- Understated, putting their ideas forth without theatrics;
- Humble, able to express uncertainty and a big dose of self-doubt;
- Open-minded about the complexity of issues and the value of opposing points of view; and
- Simple talkers, who state their thoughts in basic terms that are understood by all.
Is our culture’s definition of “good” public speaking better than the alternate one?
I don’t think so! It’s just… our culture’s definition.
Grappling with it, even mastering it, doesn’t make you a better person. It just means you’ve learned to play a particular game.
Some Tips for Acting and Speaking Properly
With that caveat in mind, here are some posts that break down the skill sets I’ve been talking about. They’ll show you how to:
- Write a Thank You Note
- Dress Professionally for Public Speaking or Job Interviews
- Use Basic Phone Etiquette
- Leave Voice Mail Messages that Get You Called Back
- Speak So Other (Particularly, Older) People Can Follow You
- Be Careful What You Say on Social Media
These guidelines aren’t fixed. (When I got my first tattoo in 1978, I never thought I’d be flashing it at work.) But they’ll help you act and speak with the cool, calm professionalism that helps people in today’s workplace environment succeed.
Just remember: Acting and speaking “properly” are not of value in and of themselves.
What’s valuable is that you know how to successfully play this game — how to make a “proper” impression — whether or not you choose to do it!