Work life is filled with chatter. You walk in from the parking lot with a coworker, bump into your friend in the elevator, or get together with your team for a meeting. Or maybe you’re just casually trading notes with your boss on Slack.
For the most part, it’s easy to launch into these conversations without much forethought, and they generally go well. But some informal situations take a little advance prep work–winging it is a risky move. Here’s what to avoid in a few of the more common workplace scenarios, and what it takes to stay on script without being inauthentic.
Job interviews are highly scripted rituals, and they put lots of people on edge for precisely that reason. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Your nerves aside, having a message sketched out in your head–and sticking to it–is really the only way to do well. Like it or not, every word you say in an interview is going to be weighed, so while spontaneity may feel more “you,” it’s probably a bad strategy.
How do you stick to your script? For starters, study the job description to see what they’re looking for. Then grab your resume and a notepad–or just open a Google doc–and actually write out a script, in full sentences. (Relax, it’s just an exercise.)
Begin by thanking the interviewer for the meeting, then move to your key message (“I think I’m really well suited to the position because . . .”). Express your excitement about the opportunity and show how much you know about the company. Then elaborate on a few of the main reasons you feel equipped to do the job. Close by asking about next steps.
Then read over what you’ve written–and don’t worry, the point isn’t to memorize this and repeat it like a robot. Having a script sketched out in your head won’t make you sound fake once you open your mouth. You’ll internalize the main points. You’ll have worked out ahead of time a few of the best ways to frame your experience and phrase your questions.
And because this forces you to practice talking about yourself, you’ll be able to get across all your points during the interview–even if you’re feeling on edge. You won’t leave thinking, “Crap, I wish I had mentioned that other thing!”
Under the surface, sharing project updates on what you’re working on is always a little more than just that. What you’re really doing is selling them on your work and why you think it matters–and why you believe they should, too. To do that well, you need to have your message worked out in advance.
People usually think of project updates as information dumps, so they say “this happened, that happened, here’s where we are, blah blah blah.” That’s mind numbing, and a terrible way of presenting your case, since you’re basically just giving a selection of good news and bad news all jumbled together. No one will be buying if that’s how you’re selling it.
Instead, start by delivering a positive message for your project, no matter what stage it’s in—one key idea that will inspire your listeners or your boss. For example: “Project A is on track to deliver higher revenue for our sales people.” Or even something as simple as, “We’re on a roll with Project B.” (Same goes as for a job interview, by the way: Write it down or type it out.)
Then jot down three or four reasons why you believe that. On your way to work, run through that messaging in your head. You don’t need to memorize it word for word (in fact, don’t), but you do need a mental outline and a few key phrases on standby.
Networking often feels like an “OMG just kill me” experience. And few things sound less fun than actually sitting down and preparing for a networking event. But it’s not so scary if you do exactly that. If you just get ready for spontaneous chitchat, that’s the last thing you’re likely to have.
To avoid the stilted conversations, you first need to figure out why you’re going. What do you want to get out of it? And no, “some new contacts” isn’t a good answer. What do you want those relationships to lead to? Think selfishly! And specifically. To help you answer those questions, find out who will be there. Anybody whose title or employer catches your eye as something you’d like to hear more about?
Commit 30 minutes or so to doing your standard-fare career research: Study their profiles on LinkedIn or their other social media accounts. Then write down the message you want to get across to one or more of those key people, along with some bullet points. Maybe you want to ask an exec for some career advice. Your message might be: “I’d really love to hear your take on where I should go next.” From there, your bullets might be:
- “You know the PR field really well.”
- “I’d be happy to tell you more about my goals.”
- “I’m at the point where I need expert input like yours.”
Then end by asking to exchange contact info so you can grab a coffee later.
You may not have a chance to talk with the exact VIP you’d set your sights on, but your script should be transferrable to someone else at their level. To adapt it, just listen well, ask questions, and (yes) try to have fun. Then start your pitch when you have an opening. Maybe after a pause, say, “There’s actually something I’d like to ask you,” or “You know, I’d love to hear your take on this.”
What, prepare for elevator conversations!?
Actually, yes–if you want them to be productive! In one sense, the elevator is the most democratic space in your entire office: Everybody rides it. Think about the key people you might encounter there–mentors, execs, clients, team members, your boss, your boss’s boss, etc. It helps to have a message cued up in your head that you can draw on when you need to.
One of my clients, a chief information officer at a big tech company, told me he prepares for impromptu chats by lining up one question or comment for each exec he might find himself stuck with once those shiny doors slide closed. Maybe you’d say to an HR colleague, “I’d like to talk to you about a new hire” or to a colleague in sales, “I have this idea I’ve been turning over about picking up some new customers.”
These chance encounters can actually be great opportunities to position yourself as a go-getter, not just somebody who’s constantly bringing up the weather. Just be careful to explore those topics when there’s some privacy, and the VIP in question seems receptive to chatting.
Knowing what you’re going to say doesn’t kill your authenticity. It just spares you from the worst havoc that your unplanned utterances can wreak on your career–and maybe even moves it forward. Worth it, wouldn’t you say?