Academic and business styled conversations
January 30, 2010 3:50 PM   Subscribe

Looking to balance differences between academics and business world communication styles?

For the past few years, I've been deeply into books and developing critical thinking skills. I do really great talking to academics and we can talk about fascinating stuff and discuss fascinating things with a good degree of deep thought and articulation.
When we do converse, it's normal to look away to gather your thoughts to process things in your head and then renew eye contact.

However, I am now heading towards business instead of academia and it's awkward not engaging in eye contact constantly when talking to a person, at least that's what it seems like.

How do I maintain eye contact and manage to have a good conversation?

Also, I tend to evaluate things quite a bit maybe due to the fact that I like to think deeper than everyday conversationalists?
I also tend to engage in deeper conversations with folks right off the bat often which tends to warm some up, while leaving a different taste in other peoples' memories. Any advice?
posted by pmononoke1 to Human Relations (17 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Two things:

Try to talk in small groups. It breaks up the direct, eye to eye thing.

Use a wipeboard. Once someone writes on a wipeboard, all eye fix on that and the discussion continues.

Good luck.
posted by Argyle at 4:24 PM on January 30, 2010

Usually business-related conversations are transactional in nature: information is being offered, received, and/or shared. Usually I'll try to keep business conversations as brief and relevant as possible, unless I know the other party/situation well enough to feel they would be receptive to a critical thinking discussion.

Everyday conversation may seem bland or not as functional as a "deep" discussion, but it does have a purpose - it lets people feel each other out in a relatively quick and painless way. I recommend holding off on engaging in a deeper conversation until you've gotten to know them a bit.
posted by macska at 4:29 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

A lot of academics are under the impression that "it depends" is an acceptable form of communication.

It may be in an academic context.

Most businesspeople do not want to hear "it depends": they want to hear an answer to the point at hand and move on. This is also why many businesspeople do not like lawyers and why many lawyers, especially corporate litigators, feel put upon by their clients (who are, of course, businesspeople).

The description above of business communication as transactional is an apt one.

Where business communication is transactional a lot of academic communication appears (to this non-academic's eye) to be discursive and long-winded. Blowhards do not last long in business.
posted by dfriedman at 4:39 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm an academic-minded person currently working in business.

One of the biggest disconnects for me has been that in business, it doesn't really matter how well you can explain something, but how quickly. That's why people in business love those stereotypical catchphrases that sound pretty empty to people on the outside, like "synergy" or "performance" or whatever. Discussion in the academic sense isn't really valued; people in business tend to prefer participants in a conversation to have already planned out what they want to say. Giving your points in clusters of three is looked upon very well. If you're in situations where you're presenting something to a group, PowerPoint does wonders, as does creating a script for yourself.
posted by oinopaponton at 5:45 PM on January 30, 2010

Similar to oinopaponton's point, I would say that in academia, accuracy and correctness tend to be most important, whereas in business, clarity and timeliness (or speed\conciseness) are most important. I think the degree to which discussion is valued depends on the nature of your work. I'm a programmer, and discussion is definitely very important to figure out the correct way to handle things. On the other hand, if I was involved in marketing, or sales, it might be more important to impress someone or make an emotional connection to convince them to use my services.
posted by !Jim at 6:46 PM on January 30, 2010

I think the degree to which discussion is valued depends on the nature of your work.

This is definitely true.
posted by dfriedman at 6:56 PM on January 30, 2010

Response by poster: dfriedman - how do i go about getting to the point at all times? Any tips?

oinopaponton - time is money i suppose. your input is very much appreciated.
posted by pmononoke1 at 6:58 PM on January 30, 2010

Another Mefite sent me a private email asking me to explain in more detail. Let me offer my response to him:

You may find this article interesting. It discusses college students' attitudes about their education:

A friend of mine, who has a PhD in philosophy, seized upon comments in the article made by some McKinsey consultants about companies' need for employers who can think critically and write well. My friend concluded from this comment, wrongly in my opinion, that such comments are proof that a degree such as philosophy has utility for a person looking to work in business.

I explained to him that this is wrong; or, more precisely, it is a form of confirmation bias. The people who McKinsey employs have more in common with academic communities than they do with business communities, even if McKinsey is nominally in the business of advising businesses on their operations. That is to say, it attracts, and is attracted to, people of an academic bent. Of course its consultants will say that businesses want employees who can think critically and write well. And of course an academic will conclude from that that such constitutes proof of the utility of a liberal arts education for a business-aspirant.

But this isn't really true. And comments like these just demonstrate the dubious nature of business consultants. While it is true that, for example, majoring in philosophy trains you to write well and think critically, it does not follow that being able to parse a syllogism or know your Kant from your Heidegger has any practical benefit to the world of business. No boss in the business world is going to ask you to engage in a colloquy or whether you are a materialist or idealist or Marxist or Hegelian. Etc.

Sorry to be, well, discursive, about this, but it drives me batty when I hear academics trying to pass judgment on a world about which they know little.
posted by dfriedman at 7:00 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

As to tips to communicate more effectively in a business environment: it depends, in part on what you will be doing and who you will be interacting with.

But if you're able to converse with academics, presumably you're smart enough to notice the speech patterns of others. Find business colleagues whose poise and communication skills seem particularly effective and try to emulate them.

If you need to give a presentation to a group of people try to discern the most pertinent points and summarize those, either via a PowerPoint or a bulleted list that you hand out.

If you need to send someone an email, keep it short and to the point. The problem with this rule is that you will find some people in business who are comfortable reading extensive emails if they are well-written. But assume at first that people will want short and snappy emails.

And, if you need to speak with someone about a point of confusion, order your preferences in this manner: face to face is best, by phone is second best, email third best, and IM last.
posted by dfriedman at 7:05 PM on January 30, 2010

Just to clarify, since on second read it sounds like I'm saying that discussion has no point in business-- academics and businessmen both value discussion, just in very different and not very compatible ways. To way oversimplify it into a business-y maxim, academics like asking questions while businessmen like solving them.

And yeah, time is definitely money-- academics (the lucky ones, at least) are paid to discuss things thoroughly. People working in business are paid to do all sorts of things, but discussion for the sake of discussion isn't one of them.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:08 PM on January 30, 2010

Response by poster: dfriedman - I appreciate the tips. About the article and the confirmation bias - very much true. What I did like about the article is the experience and toolbox you come out of college with to articulate that to offer that to employers - that's key i suppose.

oinopaponton - thank you for the clarification, that does help.

Argyle - excellent point in it's context. I would like to work a lot with wipeboards but I won't be carrying one and the work I'll be doing eventually won't be using that at the moment.

macska - i like the idea of thinking ahead what is relevant and not flying by the seat of your pants. Know your people - something for me to keep in mind.

!Jim - yup, the business context differs.
posted by pmononoke1 at 7:21 PM on January 30, 2010

Response by poster: oinopaponton - spoken like a true academic. Excuse the stereotype
posted by pmononoke1 at 7:27 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Make a commitment to empiricism; particularly to learning as much as you can about human nature through direct observation.

Then, remember: What matter most in business is (assuming safety and legality are not an issue) maximizing revenue vs. costs. Always frame your arguments in money terms, then be ready to back them up with empirical facts.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:32 PM on January 30, 2010

The main difference I notice when comparing my current business communications with those I had as a student doing my masters is time. As student I had my classes, my reading and any socilalising I may have wanted to do but mostly my schedule was my own to fill.

Now my diary is full as is everybody elses. So much as I'd like to sit and listen to you reason your way to the answer of a question and much as I might enjoy that from an intellectual point of view I haven't got time to sit there with you for two hours. You can have 30 mins to an hour and at the end of that we need to have some actions to take away and implement.

So it is very much a question of being well prepared, working out what you want out of the communication and what the people you're dealing with may want out of the communication and then being ready to deliver that but also being flexible if you find the communication takes unexpected turns.

If you are presenting a topic bear in mind who your audience are. Keep it concise and to the point. They'll ask you follow up questions if they want to and you'd better be prepared to answer them or at least point them in the right direction.

As a rule the higher up in the business the other person/audience is the less time they are likely to have and the more they will need you to focus on the big picture and key points.
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:18 AM on January 31, 2010

Another thought on time - be respectful of the other parties' other commitments and be prepared to finish in your timeslot. If you overrun they will be late for their next meeting/call/scheduled activity and it has a knock on effect on their day.
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:23 AM on January 31, 2010

While it is true that, for example, majoring in philosophy trains you to write well and think critically, it does not follow that being able to parse a syllogism or know your Kant from your Heidegger has any practical benefit to the world of business.
The alternative explanation is that business has very little real use for people who value clear writing and thinking, but is in fact more interested merely in the appearance of a little linguistic savoir-faire. It doesn't demand as high a salary, and is sufficient for Powerpoint.

In all seriousness, many "business" environments are openly hostile to the idea that academic accomplishment has any bearing on their world. Use your critical thinking skills, sure; your new challenge is to "code switch" in the business context. Plenty of good advice above. Clear thinking is clear thinking: leverage your training to help you succeed in this new context.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 7:02 AM on January 31, 2010

Response by poster: Wow, all of you have been extremely helpful! Thank you all for your viewpoints! Literally all answers provide an umbrella's perspective on this. Happy to hear more!
posted by pmononoke1 at 2:57 PM on January 31, 2010

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