How to speak to ‘important’ people

As I go to conferences, visit other schools, write to authors of scientific literature or even just communicating with professors in my department, I find it necessary to develop skills in articulating and speaking with ‘distinguished individuals.’

It isn’t necessary to treat people like monarchs or gods, but there is a certain amount of social class a graduate student must show his academic superiors. Whether associate professor, just beginning a career, or the distinguished emeritus chair of a well known university, ‘higher-ups’ like to be talked with in a different tone than say, your stoner friend or your mom.

Over the years, I have attempted to develop my ability to communicate with professors and have attempted a summary here to provide a kind of checklist to prepare for a meeting or email with someone you consider ‘important.’

1)   Be punctual! If it is an email, this may not apply (or it may), but if it is a meeting previously set, DO NOT BE LATE! I consider myself an easygoing guy, and I hope this translates into a future easygoing professor someday, but I am not easy going about punctuality. To me, coming in late to a scheduled meeting with someone expresses a certain presumptuousness that says, ‘my time is more important than yours.’  By coming late, you begin the meeting with low expectations from said important figure. So make sure (leave considerably early, know the office location ahead, be prepared) that you arrive on time (early doesn’t hurt).

2)   Dress well. This isn’t high school (college?), your outfit still makes a statement, except this time it isn’t goth, emo, punk, skank, rich or nerd. It is professional or not professional. So dress the part. If you want to be taken seriously, dress well.

3)   Have an idea about what you want to say. Don’t rush into these things just to realize you haven’t thought a single moment about what to say. Plan something, have questions or requests laid out in your mind. Also, do not ask them silly or pointless questions. Going to an ‘important’ person such as a professor or chair should be for essential problems, requests or knowledge only they could help you with, not something you could easily Google.

4)   Be courteous and respectful. Call them sir or ma’am (monsieur or madam). When referring to their name, call them their title if they have one (Dr. so-and-so). Often professors break the barrier a little and ask you to call them by their first name. This is fine when asked, but do not leap there before asked.

5)   Be respectful of their time. Let them know you appreciate them taking time from their schedule to meet with you and be concise, don’t waste time or bombard them with too many questions.

6)   Speak properly. This is obviously interpretable, but I think most of us have an understanding of proper diction. Do not use slang, or pop culture references. Do NOT curse. This is a problem for me personally because, well, I tend to let my diction slide when among friends. However, among professionals, you never know whom you may offend, so avoid any foul language.

7)   Avoid humor. This is difficult for me as well. I prefer to inject a laugh into anything, because I feel it provides an easier, more relaxed atmosphere. However, failed jokes make you look unprofessional and silly. Best to be avoided altogether.

8)   Smile! Seems easy enough, but often people look so timid or in pain when talking with superiors. This is not the Mayan days where a slip of the tongue in the presence of the aristocrats might cost you your life, it is more than okay to smile and even laugh when appropriate.

9)   Be confident! This is very important. It’s easy to say ‘be confident’ but difficult in practice. You should stand and sit upright. Hold yourself straight and keep your eyes and head up. Look at their eyes when they speak and keep your gestures to a minimum. Personally when I am attempting to look strong and confident, I imagine I am an international drug cartel leader, sitting among workers. Silly, but it tends to provide you with a template for holding yourself with dignity and honor.

10)  Lastly, leave with grace. Close up with an anecdote such as, ‘Well I think that is what I wanted’ or ‘That is perfect, I think I know how to proceed’ or something to that effect. Thank them again for their time and leave. Do not linger or make annoying chatter. Concise and politely direct.

 

Keeping these things in mind, the meeting should go well. It is important to remember that they are just people like everyone else. They could be nice, could not, but approaching them as professional as possible often prevents any unpleasant speech. Good luck!

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