What Is Professionalism?

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Skip the act. Focus instead on making good use of your listeners’ time.

Participants in our presentation skills workshops often cite professionalism as a primary objective. That’s a reasonable goal, but what does it mean?

Too often, people think professionalism involves adopting a formal or tightly controlled persona. Such an approach can result in stilted language, constrained physical and vocal expression, and a veneer that keeps others from having a genuine sense of the speaker.

What, then, does define a professional interaction? In large part, it has to do with time.

In our personal lives, we like to spend time with people we care about. When we are with friends or family (if you get along with your family), it feels good to spend time – just spend it – without any particular return in mind, other than the positive experience of being together.

In our professional lives, however, time is currency. If you are speaking to me in the workplace, you are using my time. Make sure the value of our interaction compensates me for that cost.

Think about what your listeners need, care about, don’t care about, understand, misunderstand, are sensitive to, etc. Make good use of their time. If you can communicate an idea in fewer words, in less time, do so.

When you demonstrate that you are a responsible steward of your listeners’ time, they will be more likely to want to give you more of it. They will be more likely to want to give it to you the next time they see you. They will appreciate your taking good care of what may well be their most precious and limited resource.

As you show respect for your listeners’ time, you show respect for your listeners. And when you do that while also speaking naturally and giving a genuine sense of who you are, the result is a powerful, compelling communication.

That is professional.