Right about now, newspapers and blogs and commencement speakers around the US and probably the world are preparing their words of wisdom to the newly graduating class of 2012. They’ll likely talk about following your dreams, working hard; some will include humor or demonstrate a new perspective, and some will even leave their mark forever.
If you’re looking for paradigms for life after college, this isn’t the entry for you. But, I am graduating from my MBA, have reflected back on my time in undergrad, and now am a TA with the opportunity to observe students. Here is my advice on small things that can make a big impact.
1. Learn How to Tell a Story – In Person, In Writing, & Through PowerPoint
People usually assume that if the idea is good enough, then others will naturally adopt it. That isn’t true. In fact, it often isn’t. (I’m taking Advocacy with Professor John Daly and highly recommend his book to go into details about how to champion your ideas and win influence.)
So next time you’re preparing for an important presentation:
- Think about the storyline: does the flow make sense? Are there parts where the audience will get lost or worse, bored? Do you need to include an agenda? Practice with friends and not-friends. See at what points they start texting instead of paying attention, and figure out why.
- Who’s your audience: are there industry specific words that you need to edit out or are you fine with using an acronym? If you’re presenting to a VP, do you need to go more big pictures instead of more tactics and execution with a direct supervisor?
- Reading deck vs. presentation deck: Are you talking in person, sending the PowerPoint deck to someone, or presenting virtually? How much information are you going to include in the slides, knowing the answer to the previous question? Does it make sense to make a beautiful deck for in-person and another for passing around the office? If you’re going to work for a large office, your deck will likely be passed on, so manage how it’ll look when you’re not around to explain each slide.
- Simpler = better: Grammar and spelling aside, learn how to phrase sentences. Use simple words… if some erudite phrase in your paper or presentation is fungible (exchangeable/replaceable), then replace it with a 5th grade phrase. You got the job because you’re smart. Don’t be intimidated into using some arcane language- I’m much more likely to blow off/disregard your point because it takes too long to decipher. If your noun and your verb is more than about 5 words apart, it’s a shitty sentence. If you have more than 1 dependent phrase, it’s a shitty sentence. If there are more than 3 prepositional phrases, it’s a shitty sentence. If your sentence is more than 3 lines in MSWord, it’s a shitty sentence. Period.
2. Stop It With the Fillers!!
I had a conversation with an undergrad recently, where I started to count the number of “ums,” “likes,” and “actuallys” she said. There were many. I stopped listening to her message because the fillers started to give me a tick. Record yourself and practice not saying them this summer. They’re distracting and automatically make you look less competent. You may think, “everyone my age does it.” Well, everyone your age who doesn’t already has a leg up. Want to compete with them?
3. Dress Appropriately
This isn’t about business casual versus business formal. Nor am I saying you should never wear flip flops (one of the best perks of a start up). What I am saying is that you should understand your body. Mine is certainly nowhere near perfect (fat), but I do know what looks good on me. I know I can’t wear things that are at the hip because it makes my waist look gigantic and emphasizes that I have no hip. If you’re shorter, don’t wear long suit jackets with wide legs pants. You’ll look like you’re wearing your parent’s clothes. If you’re tall, a ultra tiny cardigan may make you look like a giant. There are a lot of image consultants. Better yet, just ask your friends. Figure out what types of clothing looks good on you. Then, whether it’s casual or i-banking formal, you’ll always look your best.
4. Understand the Business
This is specific to business majors, for the most part. I’ve seen so many presentations lately where the immediate urge is to recommend the company does whatever their competitors do. If our competitors are doing something, we should too! That may not be right.
No, IKEA shouldn’t be in the Four Seasons. There is a major difference between spending $2,000 for an office and spending $2,000 on a chair for my office. If Walmart is offering deep discount, Target should not compete head to head. What are Target’s major strengths (yes, major strengths not “core competencies” or “sustainable competitive advantages”)? How will they compete directly with Walmart on price? No, online dating sites should NOT offer wedding planning services. Would you want your fiance to work on invitations, while still browsing the single hotties?
Before you pitch some outlandish idea, really consider if it makes sense for that business.
Congratulations to everyone graduating this year and the best of your luck with your future life, career, love, and experiences. But more than luck, I wish you always consider your strengths (and weaknesses) and figure out the best way to exploit them. I wish you always zoom out to see the big picture effects of your actions. I wish you always choose your morals, values, and the well-being of others over any short term monetary or status gains.