Wednesday, October 24, 2007

'Unconferencing' in Tampa

IABC’s Southern regional Conference in Tampa was my fifth (international conference) for the year. For the past twelve months, I journeyed to Toronto (three times) San Diego, New Orleans, and New York. In between, I attended several workshops at home. By the time I reached Tampa, I was all ‘conferenced’ out.

It’s not that I hadn’t learned a lot, met great people and got booster shots of self esteem. (next year, I will speak at the Leadership Institute in San Antonio) I simply felt something was missing from these conference as I dashed from room to room, map in hand trying not to be late at my sesions (I learnt that my regular 5 inch heels don’t work well on the conference circuit)

I had no clue about what I didn’t quite like until another Heather Gem Ible, my friend and fellow communications entrepreneur from Trinidad commented that while she felt the learning was great in Tampa, the networking was lousy (her words were not quite as strong though) That was my aha moment. Gem was right if only because from the time you get your conference bag at the registration table, a real marathon begins. You check your schedule, keep looking at your watch, race around to find your right room and pace yourself so you’re not entirely exhausted juts trying to keep up. In al of that though conversations with fellow delegates are superficial at best, real networking is zero and coffee breaks allows you to cluster will people you already know.

With Gem’s comments swirling in my head I decided to ‘unconference’. On Friday, I checked my schedule felt I had a good grasp on the topics and invited a well known Bajan communicator, to the hotel lobby for a chat. We spent the entire 3 hours talking about our personal and professional lives. We were later joined by the immediate past president of IABC Jamaica, Cloreth Greene as well as a Stacy Wilson, President of Eloquor Consulting in Denver.

As we munched on free pretzels and olives in the lobby of the Rennaisance, , I couldn’t help but think how some of the best networking can happen unexpectedly and how sometimes the side show, is equally as important as what goes on centre stage. By early evening, I had gotten exactly what I had come for.

Those first sixty seconds. You first impression can have powerful implications for your career

Can you judge a book by its cover? Apparently you can, or so says body language communications expert Tonya Reiman. At a recent IABC southern regional board meeting in Tampa Florida, Reiman had us, a group of communications professionals, describe how we perceived each other within one hour of our meeting. For the most part, all of us were strangers but Reiman did an extraordinary activity that had me convinced that body language is perhaps the most influential way to communicate and navigate successfully toward a desired outcome.

Here’s what Reiman did. She asked the fifty or so board and chapter leaders gathered in the room to pin a white sheet of paper on our backs so that others could write their first impressions. So there we were, all 50 strangers scribbling adjectives on each others backs. Like Curious George, I was anxious to see what impressions I had created and dragged my paper off the second the exercise was over. Whew. What relief! My peers and I were on par. Many wrote that I was creative, innovative, ideas driven, fun. Yet no one got that I was also focused, persistent and business savvy.

What was the bottom line? I learned that the first few seconds you meet someone counts. And we are judged on everything including what we wear, how we speak, the way we fold our legs and even how we sit. It is imperative therefore to get those first impressions right. According to Reiman: “Each time we meet someone we take a small slice of their personality, a tiny sample of their entire life, and form interpretations. In essence, we assume it is a 100% portrayal of their personality. Once we form an attitude or belief about someone, it takes a lot to change it. In fact, it is almost impossible to reverse a first impression.”
The research bears her out. Studies show that if you make the wrong first impression just once you can counteract it, but it will take heaps of positive interactions to change those initial perceptions. The pain may be worth the gain. Positive first impressions will get Jane the job, Joe a deal on a car and Jasper a home away from the dog shelter. Reiman advises that upon walking into a room full of strangers you should think about if you are smiling the right way, walking the right way, standing in a confident position, shaking hands the right way, sitting in the right position, making enough eye contact, nodding your head at the appropriate times.

Sounds confusing? It really is not upon if you think about it more closely. We’ve all had those moments where we judged someone subconsciously and taken actions based on those first impressions. I fell in love with my husband the minute I met him. I judged my dear friend Nadine Johnson to be wise the minute she opened her mouth and I thought my new neighbour obnoxious the second he pulled into driveway in an SUV blaring loud music even though he knew we were having a family thanksgiving. Those first impressions have remained the same even today.

When I came back from Tampa, it’s not that I was self conscious but I figured if first impressions count so much I was going to be in control of shaping my own. One week later I clipped back one side of my Afro that I would normally allow to go free and wore a black business suit; I left “my work will always speaks for itself” attitude at the door and went after a big account; I was determined to look a particular part. I didn’t win, but I obviously scored some good points because my firm was called back to work on another great project.

All of this of course raises some important questions: What image are you projecting? Do you send a professional image to the business world? Your first impression is a statement of who you are. Become self aware. Self perception is a big part of communication. It's how we see ourselves and how we allow others to see us.