Speaking Skills in Start-Ups
A career microcosm
A lot of people who are highly skilled in technical fields have spent their time focusing on just the tech and haven’t given priority to spoken communication skills until they find themselves in a position to need them. At that point, they are adept at applying the analytical skills that make them good at the tech issues to their own speech issues.
Good at Analysis
Jack realized his role in the small company he founded was quickly changing. The company now had investors and what had started in a dorm room was now in a high-rise. That meant that all the communication that also used to take place among friends in a dorm room was now taking place with strangers on stages for presentations, panel discussions, and in recorded interviews. Jack found me to work on his speaking skills after he heard how he sounded in an interview and didn’t like it. He immediately took action to do something about it. He liked how I broke down the big abstract picture of “speech” into discrete parts to improve one at a time. He treated it like he probably treated everything else - he found an expert to help identify what needed to be done, learned how to do it, learned how to analyze himself, and then took over the work of practicing and analyzing on his own. He liked the use of the WASP software to analyze his speech and quantify it. He was an extremely quick learner and I could tell he truly enjoyed the whole process of learning how to quantify some speech features and analyzing them to make improvements.
Anxiety UP, Recall DOWN
The speaking situations for people involved in the beginning stages of product development and company formation combine a little of everything from every stage of a career: presentation of research, interviews, competition for promotions, newly created positions, speaking and listening to a variety of accented English speakers, training, hiring, and management. In addition, there is a huge emphasis on networking and talking to new people as much as possible. These all take place with an element of risk that can be felt as excitement but that can also be felt as anxiety. When anxiety goes up, recall goes down. When someone is trying to recall everything about how to say something in a different language (vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, intonation) it becomes much more difficult when anxiety squeezes the ability to remember all of these things while also trying to remember what to say.
This is true for any speaking situation, but for people in start-up companies, they tend to have more at risk that causes even more anxiety. People have invested savings, they have moved across the country or to a different country, they don’t have a job to go back to if this doesn’t work out, they work long and unusual hours, they have a family depending on them, there may be visas to consider - these are some of the many reasons that most people don’t want to be part of a start-up but many of my clients have chosen to pursue. So, it’s amazing to me that in the midst of all that, people will seek me out to improve their speaking skills. It reminds me what a positive, open mindset it takes to put yourself in an uncertain situation like a start-up and that’s the same quality that they apply to every aspect of their lives, including life-long learning and self-improvement.
Start-ups are a microcosm of the entire career spectrum from school to CEO. All the responsibilities are there but shrunken down into a much smaller space of time. Someone can go from graduation to CTO in a very short time period. This forces them to realize right away that they need more than technical skills and they don’t put it off for later, they immediately see a need and start working on it. I have observed many of the same qualities that I did in working with people in C-level positions as I have with people in start-ups. It’s always inspirational for me and I feel grateful that I’m seeing someone at those beginning stages of what will continue to grow. Even if the company doesn’t grow, the people do as individuals and apply their experience and skills in different ways.