Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

August 2012

One on One: Deborah Tannen

Susan Sarfati, CAE

you could have this ready by three?” Instead, a woman can say, “I need to have this by three. Will you be able to do that?” 

Women apologize often - more frequently than men. However, what women mean is that they are sorry that something happened, but they are not really apologizing for the situation. Monitor your own style. Pay attention to intonation patterns. For example, women’s voices often go up in tone at the end of a statement. They can remind themselves not to do that and keep intonations level at the end of a sentence. Stop saying disclaimers such as, “I don’t know if this is a very good idea, but....” That’s why it is so important to monitor and get feedback on your own style.

In your book The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words, you say that everywhere we turn, there is evidence that in public discourse, we prize contentiousness and aggression more than cooperation and conciliation. Associations operate based on consensus, and, for the most part, dislike debate and confrontation. So how does the argument culture of today fit into association communication and deliberations?

Compromise has been compromised! There was a time when you could refer to someone as a great compromiser, and now we don’t think it is great to compromise. Associations will need to adapt, or maybe they already are getting more comfortable with the argument culture.

Our society has come to value aggression. We are a 24-hour society - we compete for audience. So you take our Western culture approach to value aggression and combine it with the 24/7 world, and all this makes you believe that aggression is what will get the ears/the attention.

Delegates from many countries, cultures, and generations attend meetings. What is most important for meeting professionals to plan for?

There are so many differences at every turn. Do sessions start on time or not? Does a nine o’clock meeting mean that we start getting seated at nine and we start the meeting at 9:30? You can clarify understandings in your communication. For example, you can say, “Meetings will begin at the stated time, so please be in your seats at nine sharp.” You must over-communicate.  

Also, think about how questions are handled. I was at a meeting in Sweden where the moderator took six questions (in a row) and said, “Now answer all six questions”! Consider how argumentative do you expect the questions to be. In some cultures, extreme opposition and argument is valued, and in other cultures it is extremely unacceptable to say something that is disagreeable. You may disagree subtly but not in an obvious way. These issues are best addressed upfront rather than being swept under the rug and ignored.  

Badges are very American -- we like to know people’s names. The British, for example, think it is ridiculous and don’t understand why we always want to know names. Be responsive to differences.  

Do you have any other thoughts on how to make meetings maximum communication channels?

Attendees value a lot of open space between scheduled events, so allow for that. Once they have heard ideas worth discussing, that’s when they want to have a conversation. Don’t be afraid to schedule downtime between events for relaxation and effective communication.  

As a master of communication, what are some of the things you do when you deliver a speech?

Use words that everyone understands. Provide context and background. Avoid technical language. Refer only to concepts that you explain. Ask something about the audience to encourage them to think about their own lives.  

There is an approach now in the meetings industry to offer short TED-style sessions -- say, 18 minutes in length. Can you effectively communicate ideas in such short time segments?

I certainly see the advantage. If you aren't interested in the topic or approach, you don’t need to invest long periods of time. Short sessions also may be unavoidable because everyone is so rushed and attention spans are getting shorter. That’s a scientific fact.  

You can compensate by banning electronic communication in sessions and try to require people to give their full attention. This may not be practical, but multitasking minimizes effective communication. I do not allow the use of electronics in my classes. Many students are frustrated, because they want to take notes electronically. However, some would be surfing the web, checking their messages, tweeting. It’s a temptation you can’t resist -- I probably would do it myself. As much as possible, if you can make a rule or develop a culture that values total focus, it will enhance the degree of effective dialogue. 

To learn more about Deborah Tannen and her work, visit deborahtannen.com.   

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