Career Management Lesson 1: Don’t be a Duffer

When your manager asked you to present an important new project to the corporate budget committee, you suggested that she ask Freddie, your extrovert colleague in the next cubicle. You are hands-down more technically knowledgeable and Freddie isn’t actually even a great presenter but he is still better than you. Freddy probably didn’t even prepare but he delivered what was needed, won approval of the project and fended off the threat of layoffs. Everyone is grateful, and you know it could have been you. A couple of promotions are anticipated next quarter and Freddie now looks like a shoe-in and you don’t. So as you sit in your favorite leather chair at your favorite Starbucks nursing your favorite beverage, a Caramel Macchiato, you recognize decision time when you see it. Your presentations on a good day are “not so bad for an introvert” and that is costing you. So will you remain a “duffer” who improves at a glacial pace, even after company-sponsored training? Will you now initiate decisive action for quantum improvements or continue to cede the limelight and the payoffs to the extroverts? When the pain of watching while the Freddies land your dream job becomes sufficiently unbearable, you just might be willing to leave this career-limiting comfort zone.

I face a similar challenge in my photography. Photography is fun for a duffer, but every day I admire the astonishing work of more accomplished photographers who compete with me on for accolades. Even a quick glance at my photographs with a discriminating eye reveals that I have a long way to go. Consider the photograph on the right, with the Japanese exercise class and the lovely pavilion reflected in the water. Capturing the rich blues of the water, the photo is visually appealing, maybe a little better than the average tourist snapshot with a point-and-shoot camera. But examine the photo closely. A larger version is here on the Flickr website. Did you notice the wires and poles and condo building in the background? A bright yellow department store logo peeks over the shoulder of the man in the center, something even an advanced amateur would never abide. I didn’t totally ignore it. I maneuvered to shoot from a position designed carefully to minimize the background clutter and at home on my computer, I cropped out the surrounding buildings. But in typical duffer modality I chose not to go to use Photoshop software to edit out the distracting material. Instead, I posted it on my Flickr page pretty much as is.

And again that decision! Will I remain a duffer or will I raise my standard to the next level? Am I having a lark, playing a Facebook-like game, making new contacts from all over the world, or am I taking my photography seriously? My photos impact my personal brand. After all, if I am stalled at duffer status in my photography, which occupies a great deal of my time and is showcased on for the world to see, how likely am I to engage other pursuits differently? And that is Lesson#1: Sooner or later, one day, you must decide you aren’t going to remain a duffer.

Presentation and public speaking skills constitute a package of proficiencies that can dramatically alter how you are perceived by peers and superiors in the workplace. Cal Newport has been writing about becoming so good at selected competencies that “they” can’t ignore you. A few weeks ago I wrote that you need to provide evidence to potential employers to support your claim that you have “Advanced Microsoft Office Skills”. A serious career management strategy must include an ongoing commitment to acquire expert-level skills in key areas and accumulating a body of evidence to support your claim of expert status. Today I have used presentation skills as an example and in the remaining 9 posts in this series I will illustrate and relate lessons from photography to recommend an approach for presentation proficiency.

You have been declining opportunities to make presentations, especially before a discriminating audience when the stakes are highest and that sort of makes sense to you. After all you are an introvert that that seems to settle it for you and your colleagues but not your boss. Not really. But suppose you could make a quantum improvement in presentation skills. Suppose you could deliver to your management team a 10 minute presentation that is so amazing that their jaws drop. They will never again meet you in the hall without remembering that astonishing presentation, your well-chosen metaphors, penetrating insight and the incontrovertible evidence that backed it up. Your presentation raised the bar and there are some pretty good presenters in your company. No one who was there will ever forget how they looked around at each other asking “who is this young lady” and how the room burst into applause at the end.

How badly do you really want to become “so good they can’t ignore you”?

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