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Your First Year of Work - Shelagh Foster

Chapter 1

Introduction: The power of communication
Sending a message that’s neither heard nor understood is miscommunication.

No matter how qualified you may be, or what industry you are entering, it can all amount to nothing if you are unable to express yourself appropriately in your workplace. If you don’t speak the ‘language’ of your colleagues or clients, you won’t be heard.

That’s quite a thought. You might have been top of your class at school, shone brightly at varsity or college, or have the best contacts in town … but if you don’t know how to communicate appropriately, accurately and with conviction – and with your emotions under control – your career path could lead straight into a brick wall before you have even started.

On the other hand, you might not have done so well academically, but you have some pretty impressive skills and achievements under your belt. However, who’s to know this if you don’t know how to go out there and sell yourself?

Here are just two examples from real life to illustrate the impact of communication.

The talent that almost got deleted
Jen was a top achiever: head girl of her school and distinctions at university, with parents who both appear in Who’s Who. She was also confident of her abilities, but one would never know that from the way she initially presented herself. When she first contacted me for an internship, her email read thus:

From: Jennys@email.com
Date: 26 May 2012
To: Shelagh Foster <sfoster@email.com>
Subject: none


I’m looking for a two month internship with your magazine. Please get back to me as soon as possibl [sic] if you have a place for me.


The email had been copied to three other companies, with no curriculum vitae (CV) attached. She had no idea what my name was; nor was there any reference to the magazines we published.
Until that moment, I used to delete the dozens of similar emails, without taking it on myself to find out more. After all, if students and jobseekers can’t even bother to address me properly, use the spellchecker or attach a CV, then why should I bother talking to them? To make matters worse, the human resources (HR) manager of one of the other companies Jen had emailed copied her response to all the recipients, encouraging us to delete Jen’s enquiry, because ‘If she’s always this slapdash and unprofessional, I can’t imagine that anyone would want to employ her’.
Suddenly I started feeling a little sorry for Jen. What if she was really talented but didn’t have a clue how to approach a company? What if no one had ever taught her? So I emailed her:

From: Shelagh Foster <sfoster@email.com>
Date: 27 May 2012
To: Jenny Smith <jennys@email.com>
Subject: Shelagh Foster: reply to your mail

Dear Jen

I was about to delete your email but for some reason decided to give you another chance. If you really want an internship with this publishing company, I suggest you do the following:

• Address me in person. My name is not ‘Hi’.
• Know what titles we publish.
• Use your spellchecker and reread your email before sending it.
• Don’t copy your application to other companies. That’s just rude.
• Attach a brief and up-to-date CV.
• Tell me why you want to work here and when you’re available to start.
• Sign off your email properly. I’m not your mate from Wits.


Was that a bit harsh? I thought so at the time, yet it miraculously paid off. The next day Jen’s reworded email popped up in my inbox, along with an apology. I read her impressive CV and called her in for an interview. She arrived in jeans and slops, smelled of cigarette smoke and was as nervous as a cat, but I decided to give her a chance. The rest is history: she spent two happy months with us and, after completing her Honours degree, came back to work as an editorial assistant.
Jen was lucky that I was feeling generous that day. If she had approached me the previous week, her enquiry would have gone straight to the Deleted Items folder.

The Jen affair wasn’t only her wake-up call; it was also mine. I wrote up a short standard reply for all such enquiries and used it every time I needed to, which was often. Occasionally I had no response, but I often received a ‘thank you’.

Somehow, however, that wasn’t enough. As the months went by, it dawned on me that thousands of young jobseekers and internship applicants must be falling through the cracks, simply because no one had told them how to communicate in a professional environment.

This aha! moment was my motivation for writing this book. Back to the examples.

From assistant to studio owner
Thando was a 31-year-old who had worked as a props assistant and driver for seven years. He was chatty, sociable and a self-proclaimed ‘babe magnet’. He was also bored and would spend much of his time bemoaning this to anyone who would listen. He wasn’t bad at his job but was often late and frequently forgot things.
Eventually his manager called him in and gave him a verbal warning. At that meeting Thando told his manager that he didn’t want to be a humble props guy any more. He wanted to be a photographer. His manager was sceptical but asked Thando to bring examples of his work, along with a written motivation of why he wanted this position.
When the manager saw the photographs and read the motivation he nearly wept. This young man was both a talented photographer and a concise writer, but he hadn’t shared this valuable information until he found himself facing disciplinary action. When asked why, he said, ‘I was too shy to say anything. I would have just sounded stupid’.
Too shy? This chatterbox?
Over four short years, Thando progressed from being a photographer’s assistant to opening his own studio. He also attended an assertiveness training course, wrote a photography manual for a local college and married a beautiful model. His words to his manager when he left the magazine were, ‘I just wish I hadn’t been such a late starter’.

Do you see what I’m getting at? Poor communication skills can – and will – hold you back. Good communication skills can – and will – propel you onwards and upwards. (You can read more about how to market your talents and achievements in Chapter 3.)

Communication is a two-way interaction between one person and another person or people. Read that sentence again. A two-way interaction. This means that saying, writing or suggesting something to someone means nothing unless you know that they have received your message and understand its meaning. Sending a message that’s neither heard nor understood is miscommunication; something to be avoided at all costs. (If you choose to remember only one thing from this book, let it be this.)

Communication can be verbal (spoken), written, or via body language.

The spoken word
Verbal communication is extremely powerful. Not only do you use words, but you also use tone of voice, pitch, pace, volume and inflection:

•Tone: The ‘light and shade’ quality or mood of your voice
•Pitch: The distinctive quality of your voice based on sound frequency (high, low or moderate)
•Volume: How loud your voice is
•Pace: The varying speeds at which you speak
•Inflection: The alteration in pitch and/or tone.

For example, your natural speaking voice may be high pitched, with a light tone and with very little inflection, moderate volume and a fast pace (think Disney’s Minnie Mouse). Or your voice may be low pitched with a dark tone, varied inflection, moderate-to-high volume and moderate-to-slow pace (think James Earl Jones, the actor who played Darth Vader in Star Wars). To find the ideal balance, try listening to your favourite radio talk show host, or television newsreader. How would you rate them according to their tone, pitch, volume, pace and inflection? How would you rate yourself?

To be able to speak and express yourself clearly, you also need to avoid the pitfalls of mumbling, gabbling and muttering! (There will be more about this in Chapter 2.)

The written word
Written communication often fills people with dread, particularly if the language in which they are writing isn’t their home language. You may wonder how you can write properly if you’ve mastered only 60 per cent of the language. What if you’re not sure of the right words to use? And why can’t you just write to business people the way that you write to your friends and family?

These are all good questions. Let’s address the last one first.

A great deal has been said about electronic communication: email, text messaging, and comments on news sites. All of these media can be wonderful, instant and effective, but they take on a whole new set of responsibilities when used at work (see Chapters 8 and 9).

From the moment you leave your place of education and enter the work environment, you need to establish a new, professional way of writing, and separate this from your more informal way of writing. The reasons for this are threefold: you need to appear to be professional; you need to respect your new environment and the people in it; and you need to be understood.

Initially, until it becomes second nature, appearing to be professional is like taking on a role in a play. You are saying and doing all these things because that’s what the script dictates. You’re not doing it because it comes naturally; you are doing it because this is what your new role requires.

As you read more of this book and wrap your mind around the changes that you’re making, you will feel your professional persona emerging. Until then, be an actor and wear the professional hat until it’s the only one you wear in the workplace. Practice does make perfect!

This does not mean taking on airs and graces, and trying to write like Zakes Mda and talk like the Queen of England. However, you should be constantly conscious of the words you use and the way you use them. (Don’t panic. All will be revealed in the following chapters.)

Writing in a language other than your mother tongue is tricky but not impossible. Here’s a story for you.

A tale of two languages
When I immigrated to South Africa as a rosy-cheeked 10-year-old, I attended a school that didn’t pay much attention to Afrikaans. It was a subject that needed to be passed and that was all. In fact, I was told that, as a recent immigrant, I didn’t have to learn Afrikaans and could get into high school without it. To everyone’s consternation this proved not to be the case and, with one month to go before the Grade 7 exams, I was given a crash course and an Afrikaans-English dictionary and told to do my best. By some miracle I passed and scraped into Grade 8 (Standard 6 back then), but I didn’t have a clue about Afrikaans. To make matters harder, I ended up in a school that was bilingual, so I floundered about, not knowing what was going on from one day to the next. But there was light on the horizon.
I was fortunate to have the most adept Afrikaans teacher, a Meneer Tolkien (yes, a relative of the late JRR Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings). Mnr. Tolkien shared the most valuable of linguistic secrets, namely that it doesn’t matter how basic your knowledge of a language may be, as long as you think in it before using it. That’s what he taught me to do and, as I read the most basic of Afrikaans children’s stories and thought away in my baby Afrikaans for 40 minutes, five days a week, I later found that I could express myself in writing as well. It was very basic and I was too painfully shy to actually speak the language, but I managed to get 76 per cent in matric.

What I’m saying to you is this: don’t worry about your level of English. If you start reading English language magazines, books or newspapers every day and practise thinking in English before you write or speak it, the words will come.

This also applies if you have English as a first language. Don’t try to write in a way that doesn’t make sense to you or others. A friend of mine is an engineer and maths wizard, but his English is all over the place when he emails his friends. (I have the impression he’d rather write in algebraic symbols.) When I asked him how he manages in his work environment, he replied that he keeps it very simple and to the point, uses his spellchecker and always gets his personal assistant (PA) to read everything before he hits the Send button.

You probably don’t have a PA yet, but the rest of his advice is sound. (There will be more on common writing problems and solutions in Chapter 7.)

Body language
Your attitude towards a person or a situation is, more often than not, given away by your body language.

The first dead giveaway is silence. If you respond to a person or situation with silence, it can be read as a variety of things:

•Sullenness: You don’t like the person or situation and you don’t care who knows it.
•Anger: You are obviously annoyed but think it’s better to keep your mouth firmly shut.
•Ignorance: You don’t have a clue what’s going on and hope that no one will know this if you pretend you aren’t there.
•Trouble: You have messed up and think that keeping quiet about it will keep you out of trouble.
•Superiority: You hear what your boss is saying, but think he’s talking garbage.

Silence is a dangerous response because the person in front of you has no idea what you’re thinking and so can only guess. If his or her guess is wrong (or right, for that matter), then you’re on your way to creating an impression that could take a long time to change. Silence is often mistaken for a negative attitude, and it’s extremely difficult to operate productively when your peers and managers believe that you’ve ‘got attitude’.

Next time you’re stuck for words, quickly evaluate why you’re keeping so quiet and make an effort to communicate this in an appropriate manner (see Chapter 2). It takes a great deal of courage to admit that you’re unsure of something, have made a mistake, or think that your employer is talking nonsense. However, there are ways of doing so without everyone thinking you’re either clueless or arrogant (see Chapters 2 and 6).

The second giveaway is your posture. If your new boss (or ‘line manager’ in business speak) is explaining something to you and you’re slumped in a chair picking your nails with a paperclip, you have already closed the doors on communication. Remember the two-way interaction? Your boss needs to know that you’re paying attention and that you understand what she’s saying. If she sees that you’ve switched off she will, understandably, be annoyed and will assume that you’re not interested.

Facial expressions
A word about facial expressions. When you’re in a lecture hall or classroom (hopefully) absorbing the learning material, it doesn’t matter if your face is as blank as a potato. When you’re in a meeting with your colleagues and manager you are no longer just part of the crowd, you are an individual; it is essential that you not only pay attention but also appear to be paying attention.

This is sometimes easier said than done. I still recall to this day my first editorial strategy meeting. My head was filled with the exciting possibilities of my new career and I kept on having to drag myself back to the reality of the actual work that was being discussed. Later a colleague told me that every time she glanced at me, my lips were moving in silent conversation with myself. I felt really silly.

Last but not least, none of the above methods of communication mean much without you understanding the nature of work as such; what is truly expected of you; the culture of the organisation for which you work; and the foundation of best work practice, namely business ethics. (These aspects will be covered in Chapter 10.)

As you see, there is much to discover.

Today, you may think of yourself as a small fish in a big pond – or even as a small fish trying to get into the pond – but you have the potential to become one of the big fish. Learning to communicate in the workplace is one of the most empowering gifts you can give yourself and your employer. You won’t regret this journey.

Bookstorm Media

The Colour of Wine isn’t just another book about picturesque Cape vineyards. Instead, it tells the remarkable story of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy through the personal journeys of black winemakers. Woven through their stories are interviews with wine producers and politicians, chefs and sommeliers, connoisseurs and teachers, drinkers and tasters.
The book, twinned with the documentary film The Colour of Wine (included on DVD), explores the turbulent history of winemaking in South Africa, and the varied careers the industry has to offer. Wine doyen John Platter offers insights into where South African wine is now, and where the industry needs to go. You’ll also discover a rich array of local recipes that complement South African wines.
The Colour of Wine gives a taste of the changing world of South African wine.

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