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A manner of speaking

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Have you ever been invited to an important business meeting at a restaurant of your choice (and you’re not picking up the bill, so you make sure it’s a great restaurant!)? But there’s a problem – an etiquette problem. Not just how do you talk business, but how do you talk business with food in your mouth?

“It’s very tricky,” says Patsy Rowe, who has made it her business to teach Australians how to have better manners. “I had lunch with a man recently who was eating cottage cheese and it was all over his teeth — it was vile. It was not a good look,” she says. Needless to say I was checking my teeth at this stage!

But being serious, doing business requires an understanding of how to look and behave.

Patsy Rowe has had years of experience in marketing, promotion and business etiquette. She is an author and her recent titles are Public Speaking and Business Etiquette in which she demonstrates not only how to nurture existing business relationships, but also how to increase them through knowing what to do, when to do it and, most importantly, how to do it.

So how did this business start?

Well, like many a good operation, it began as an idea to help people – while Rowe was working full time.

“When I was teaching English to students doing the Higher School Certificate, they’d say to me through the week ‘oh, look, we’ve got a school dance coming up and we’ve never used a knife and fork’. I’d think, ‘that’s incredible, that can’t be real’. A lot of them were Asian students certainly, but many said ‘we eat a lot in front of the television and my mother’s not there. We eat things out of the crock pot with just a fork’.”

Rowe showed these socially awkward students how to eat at the table and the manners lessons began. “By Thursday, somebody said ‘can I bring my cousin?’ and Friday morning somebody said ‘can I bring my aunty and my sister?’ and on Saturday afternoon, I had about fourteen people in my dinning room and we were doing dining etiquette. So there I was on Friday doing Shakespeare, Chaucer and TS Elliot, and on Saturday afternoon I’m doing how to hold a knife and fork.”

So at what stage did she realise that there could be a business in this.

“We moved to Queensland in the late ‘90s and used to commute to Sydney every week so I could teach. My husband is a forensic psychiatrist so he would see patients. He got sick of it — he’s a bit older than me — and said ‘I’ve had enough of this travelling, I don’t want to do this every week’. I was doing quite a lot of regular Saturdays and not charging, and I thought I’ll see how I go with doing this full time.”

Rowe confesses to going through the hard yards in the early years.

“About ten years ago there wasn’t much of a market. I had to convince people that they needed it. Children knew they needed it, but adults weren’t so sure. I used to run — and still do — these boot camps for blokes. These are half days of etiquette tailored especially for the fellas, where I give them a bit of spit ‘n polish. I had to beg my friends to send their husbands, their partners, their sons, their next-door neighbours — any male under 80. I had to fill the seats. Now we have a waiting list of months.”

But how do you market a business like this? Clearly, Rowe was chasing the business market.

“Companies contact me. I get a lot of work with legal companies, banks, accounting companies, IT, and I go in and train their staff. We do networking skills, for example. How to go to a function, how to break into a group, include yourself in the conversation, exit if it’s boring.”

What Rowe is referring to here is a skill that many people are deficient in – the art of chit chat.

“And it’s very important in business, particularly if you’re dealing with the Far East where chit-chat can go for a couple of days — they don’t like to move into talking business very quickly. But the art of small talk is very important. It’s interesting that the reason it has died is because of watching television instead of eating at the meal table.

“Because if you think about it, you don’t just work on table manners at the table, this is where children learn to listen to adult conversation and to participate. So we’re losing all that.”

But chit chat is a part of a much bigger art that business is based on and that’s the art of etiquette.

“It’s introductions — people don’t introduce people properly. You need to use surnames, you need to introduce the junior to the senior person, you need to know delicate introductions if couples have different surnames, but they’re a couple or they’re married — all sorts of things. And when you know what to do and you can do it, this is what gives people confidence.“

But do people lose valuable business associations, connections and networks because they actually perform badly in public?

“Sometimes they come across as being distant and aloof. For example, I always say when you’re introduced to someone, smile when you shake hands, look at them and a give nice firm handshake for about three seconds.

“If you tend to look away, not only do you look a bit furtive, but you look as though you’re not interested in the person that you’re meeting.”

What Rowe is stressing is that it’s the little things that count — and people notice. So what are the big mistakes guys make? “Men have a lot of trouble with the small talk that doesn’t involve sex or sport. Funny that, isn’t it?”

Being the first to put myself in that class, I kept the questions flowing.

“When we do the boot camps with the blokes, we do our 30 minutes of networking before the meal and we break into the groups and enter and exit, and I say ‘no talking about sex and sport’. A cloud of silence descends upon the room and for about six minutes none of the blokes are talking.

“I say ‘look, you can talk about books, travel, restaurants’ and there’s these blank expressions. But if you’re dealing with clients who are older than you or you might take to lunch a man and his wife, now you might talk sex and sport to him — he might think it’s great — but she’s sitting there thinking ‘when this meal is over, we will not be using this young man for our investments’.”

So what about men from Gen Y?

“We have to teach younger men not to talk down to women, not to be patronising. Women today have very responsible jobs with six figure salaries, cars, expense accounts. They go into buy a car and they don’t want to be talked down to.

“When I went to buy my car, which has a mid engine, the man went to great lengths to explain to me that that meant it was actually under the seats of the car and the trunk was in the front and the back. I had caught onto that ‘mid engine’ would be somewhere mid of the car — tertiary education does that for you,” she says.

So have any of her male customers ever said “look, Patsy, you say we’re preoccupied with sex and sport. What does a man do when he is in the company of women who spend their entire lives dressing themselves up to look attractive, and therefore the brain goes to that issue?” Does she teach them sensible distraction techniques?

“The first thing I teach them is that they must not focus on that very delectable décolletage. So I say, you know what you have to do, and I know this is difficult, I want you to focus on her eyes. Now, having attracted you over they then want you to admire their mentality, their intellectualism, their articulate dialogue, conversation. So you see, that’s the secret,” she says.

So what if you are stuck at a conference or in networking group and you’re alone and palely loitering? What are some questions you can ask a stranger in order to get talking? Try these:

  • What type of business are you in?
  • How did you get into that?
  • What’s your target market?
  • What do you see as future trends in the business you’re in?
  • What makes you different to your competitors?
  • How long have you been in business?
  • How’s your business changed over that time?
  • So what’s a typical day like in your business?
  • What is the best holiday you’ve ever had – do you get time for holidays?

Talking to people at conferences and seminars can be hard work. You’ve often got to get out of your comfort zone, focus on them and ask questions.

Rowe’s book is Achieving a Competitive Edge in Business and that’s what we’re really trying to do, stay in front of the competition.

And what about making speeches, and particularly for those people who want to make a one-off speech and don’t feel all that secure, what tips does Rowe have in this area?

In a sense Rowe writes and talks about taking control of a situation. And certainly you do need to be in control if you want to rid yourself or your business of troublesome people – whether they be customers or staff.

Rowe’s background as a teacher and in business has helped her become a problem solver. “When you have different jobs in different industries it’s a wonderful background for what I’m doing now which is the business etiquette seminars — going into different companies and talking to them. So when you’ve been in different kinds of areas, you bring a certain degree of experience so you can quickly get the picture of what this company needs.”

When making speeches, lots of people have panic attacks. There’s an old joke that people are more afraid of making a public speech than they are about dying, which means that the person who makes a speech at a funeral is actually having a tougher time than the guy in the box!

“When I began speaking I was very nervous. I was not a natural speaker by any means. I used to get a pain in the chest, and sweat, and heart palpitations, and dry mouth, and nauseous and all of the above, you know.

“I was filled with a dread and I would stand there looking at the audience and I would think, what possessed me to do this?“

Like most of us Rowe was driven by the dollar. “I was driven by the desire to sell these books. I hate failure and the book wasn’t doing very well.

So what’s the common problem at the core of this fear that Rowe’s talking about?

“What frightens people is the feeling of standing exposed and vulnerable in front of a crowd of those people looking at you, listening to you, being bored by you, maybe asking you a question you don’t have the answer for, maybe looking at what you’re wearing, maybe poking fun at you. All this is what goes through people’s minds.”

So here are her tips for getting rid of fear:

  • Practice. There is nothing better than practice
  • Initially practice on your own and then perhaps tape record yourself so that you can play it back and hear when you hesitate, where you um and ah, where you repeat the same word or some words maybe you can’t pronounce
  • Practice in front of a mirror so you can pick up any irritating mannerisms that you have. Do you twist your hair, do you scratch your nose?
  • Practice in front of a small group of people that you know and ask them to be honest with you. Say “don’t tell me I’m wonderful. I know I’m not wonderful yet. Tell me what do you see. What do you hear when I’m speaking?”

And then, Rowe says, go out and do it. “If you’re in business, you could well be asked to stand up and deliver a report, you might have to make a speech to farewell an employee – it’s a very admired skill, the ability to get up in front of people and say a few words.”

To capture an audience and entice them to keep listening, a speaker has to pitch their material at the target audience and, if possible, to be somewhat entertaining. How does one do this?

Here are some tips:

  • Research carefully. If you use statistics and quotes, double check that they’re correct. “That is going to bring you undone if somebody leaps to their feet in the audience and says “oh yes, but that’s last year’s figures, you’re out of date,” says Rowe
  • Use palm cards or A4 sheets, but the secret is the A4 sheet
  • Highlight the key points in the paragraph and “put those words in the margin so when you look back down at your sheet, you can see clearly in the margin in big bold font whatever the heading is and then you should be able to embroider that, build on that,” she says
  • Don’t read your speech
  • Start your speech well. “If you get off the ground with a joke, it must be tasteful and appropriate — an anecdote perhaps, a little story that happened to you on the way to the function that day — it not only loosens you up but it loosens the audience up,” she says
  • End on a strong note.

The art of conversation

While we learn the technical skills necessary to perform a job, often we are not taught the conversational skills that help smooth the career path or build relationships with clients.

Tempting as it may be to relax in front of the home theatre system with the latest DVD in preference to attending that business function, taking the easy option won’t do much to advance your career prospects or build your business.

Mingling at conferences, seminars, meetings and other functions involves serious effort. However, anyone can master the skills that make the meet-greet-and-chat aspect of business life more comfortable.

Become a great conversationalist

The hallmark of a good conversationalist is that they evoke the positive feelings people long to have. People remember conversations in which they feel acknowledged, heard and significant. They seek this with the people who supply them with goods and services as well as from their friends.

Keep this in mind when you’re circulating at some networking event – it’s to your benefit to cultivate friendships, not simply accumulate a stack of business cards. You can instantly improve your conversation skills by employing two tactics.

  1. Be the risk taker. Be the one to start up a conversation with a stranger rather than waiting and hoping someone will approach you. Take the initiative even if you are shy
  2. Assume responsibility for the conversation and for other people’s comfort. Don’t stand around hoping someone else will take on these tasks, because chances are they won’t. Be proactive and take on the role of host, which means coming up with topics to discuss and introducing people to others.

How to work a room

  • These strategies will help you to mingle confidently at any event.
  • Enter the room with confident, open body language. Smile, get your bearings, and look for people you either know, or would like to get to know.
  • Go up to someone and say hello. Make this easier by seeking out shy people who will welcome your interest and conversation.
  • Create a 10-second introduction speech that summarises what you do, who you do it for, and why it makes people’s lives better..
  • Remember names and use them frequently while you are chatting.
  • The easiest way to get a conversation going is to encourage the other person to talk about why they’re attending the event. Pay attention to clues that allow you to dig deeper and keep the conversation going.
  • Nothing makes you more of a magnet to others than having a genuine interest in people. So pay attention to the person you are talking to: make them feel they are the only person in the room.
  • Avoid interrogating the other person as though they’re a suspect in a murder enquiry: “What do you do?” “Where do you work?” “Where did you get your degree?”
  • When someone tries to monopolise a conversation in a group, stop them in their tracks. As soon as they draw breath for a second, break in with a comment about the topic and take it in a different direction.
  • It’s important to keep circulating. Leave a good impression when you exit a conversation by smiling and extending your hand with a comment, “Please excuse me. It was nice meeting you”. Then visibly move to someone else at least one-quarter of the room away.
  • Be sure to move in and join other conversations already in progress.
  • If you meet someone with whom you’d like to further the relationship, the best way to exit is to ask to see them again. Take responsibility for issuing the invitation rather than hoping the other person will suggest it. Say something like ‘I don’t want to monopolise your time today. Can we arrange to meet next month?’
  • When you attend a sit-down dinner and are seated at a table with a group of people you don’t know, take the initiative and suggest going round the table so everyone can introduce themselves. Start the ball rolling by introducing yourself, giving a little bit of information about your background.
  • Be nice to everyone you encounter at any event. Remember, that young wine waitperson may be a future accounting star you’re desperate to recruit, or the son of your most important client!

Be prepared

A skilled conversationalist has a sincere interest in people. They are also well-read, and well-rounded – and understand that good conversation requires preparation.

Here are six ways to equip yourself for business and social conversation.

  1. Read one local newspaper and one national newspaper a day. If you’re pressed for time, just scan the headlines and first paragraphs or summaries. Read the business section thoroughly as this gives you the information to connect with people. And have a fairly close look at the sports section, as talking sport can be a fantastic way to build rapport.
  2. Read newsletters and professional journals.
  3. Pay attention to conversations around you for interesting snippets or funny remarks you can quote.
  4. Use humour, but ensure it is appropriate and in good taste. Practice stories to get the timing and punchline perfect. Avoid telling racist, sexist or homophobic jokes, or those that slur religion, ethnicity or disability. Laugh at yourself, but never put others down. Watch funny movies and sitcoms and make a note of good lines. Stay alert for ironic situations around you.
  5. Listen actively. Use good eye contact, open and receptive body language, and responses such as nodding, smiling or laughing, asking relevant questions to show interest and empathy.
  6. Constantly challenge yourself to try new things, master new skills, and participate in activities beyond your normal level of expertise or interest. The more you do with your life, the more you can contribute to any conversation.    

Published on: Monday, June 29, 2009

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