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Seven Key Fixes: How to talk to adults

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  • More Young Achievers
  • Meet the experts

    Bailey Brooks: Senior at North Mecklenburg High. She was previously featured in Young Achievers when Mecklenburg County officials worked with her to spread her project, NOTICE, which is a campaign to prevent child abuse. Bailey has also worked with several school prinicipals and officials because of her project.

    Staci Kuntzman: Internship director and lecturer for the Department of Communication Studies at UNC Charlotte.

    Janice Pollock: Co-founder of local etiquette school, Traditional Manners.

    Patrick Sahd: Teaches entrepreneurship, multimedia and web page design at Providence High, and teaches a computer class at Central Piedmont Community College.

    Akhil Singh: Senior at Charlotte Country Day. He was previously featured in Young Achievers for his involvement with Light a Billion Lives, which brings solar-powered lanterns to Indian villages without power. To raise money, Akhil has learned how to approach and interact with corporations. Through his efforts, he’s given light to five villages, and is in the process of lighting a sixth.

    Lashaune Tisdale: Director of training at The Academy of Etiquette and Charm, in Charlotte.



In the age of texts, tweets, hashtags and likes, today’s teens know all the tech lingo, but “old-fashioned” communication (emails, voicemails, thank-you notes) gets lost in translation.

And once young achievers begin looking for jobs, applying for programs or approaching businesses for fundraisers, a simple text message won’t cut the mustard. Neither will an email that begins with “Hey.”

Read on to see what advice some experts – including two formerly featured Young Achievers – have about professional communication.

Get rid of those middle school EmAiL aDdReSsEs.

A lot of young people create their first email addresses in middle school.

“It’s OK to have a fun email, but have a professional email,” said Patrick Sahd, who teaches entrepreneurship, multimedia and web page design at Providence High. “They cannot put ‘partygirl1328’ on a resume.”

Akhil Singh, now a senior at Charlotte Country Day, created the email handle “AkhilSinghNo1” in middle school. He said by the time he got to high school, his friends made fun of him for it. “Number 1? Really? Are you still in sixth grade?” he said they’d joke. (He now uses a school email address.)

Bailey Brooks, a senior at North Mecklenburg High, used “baileybugNC.” Like Akhil, she changed hers in high school. “I’m really glad I did, because now that I’m a senior, I have to do college applications and include my email,” she said, adding that she’s emailed college admissions counselors. “If I had the same crazy, strange email address, they might look at me differently and think I’m not ready to attend their college.”

Lashaune Tisdale, director of training at The Academy of Etiquette and Charm, recommended making a name-oriented email address, not only because it’s professional, but because it’s easier for people to track in cluttered inboxes.

Compose a proper email.

Emails are now clunky for Millennials, Sahd said.

“They just want a text message or a tweet, and that’s how they get things done,” he said. “It’s almost a culture shock when they get to the professional world and see email is the way things get done.”

The experts said students should know a few email composition rules.

“Tell what you’re looking for, be polite, to the point and concise. You’re certainly using a formal tone, not, ‘Hey,’” said Staci Kuntzman, internship director and lecturer for the Department of Communications at UNC Charlotte.

Sahd said students should know emails shouldn’t be written the way they write texts.

“At some colleges I’ve taught at, I’ve gotten emails with no salutation, emails with ‘you’ spelled the letter ‘u,’ and it’s not even capitalized, so it’s a double whammy,” he said.

He cautioned against relying on spell-check, which isn’t always foolproof, and said it’s best to ask someone to proofread.

He also said to be aware of tone, and make sure your note couldn’t be perceived as angry. “When you have an email, there’s no body language, or emotion or inflection in your voice. Read the email twice.”

Akhil said he usually starts emails with “Dear,” and never refers to people by their first names.

“A lot of people don’t have time, and if they see a long email, they might not read it. Try to get right to the point,” he said.

Akhil said he thanks the person he’s writing to at the end of his email.

“It’s formal, but I also realize I’m a high-schooler, so I’m not going to use ridiculous vocabulary or try to sound above my age,” he said. “I try to make it natural, but avoid textbook language.”

In closing an email, Tisdale said to sign with “Thank you,” and your name, at the very least. “Don’t get cutesy with ‘Have a wonderful day!’” she said. “They’re not established with you yet. When people know your personality, then you can get cutesy.”

Bailey said she had to train herself how to change tone when writing emails to adults.

“I have to not write the way I talk, so I would have to have good grammar, be precise, have correct spelling, and not be like, ‘Oh, so when do you want to do this?’ with smiley faces and exclamation points,” she said. “Just be short, sweet and to the point.”

‘Thank you’ goes a long way.

The experts recommended following up with a thank-you note to any adult who took time to meet with you.

Some said an email will suffice – Tisdale said within 24 hours of meeting – while others recommended hand-written notes.

“That is just a professional etiquette that any job-seeker should understand,” Kuntzman said. “It shows you really mean business ... That leaves an impression on them; it’s making your mark, setting yourself apart from other people and showing you have an appreciation.”

She said it’s also your final chance to end on a good note and express how much you want a certain position.

Akhil said the follow-up email was one of his best discoveries in approaching major companies for his fundraising project. Even if someone doesn’t give you an offer or the answer you’re hoping for, he said, follow up with an email anyway.

“Never mind if they can’t give you funds; they can give you contacts,” he said. After addressing a board of executives at Duke Energy, he wrote a thank-you note to his main contact, a top Duke executive. “He said, ‘I really like what you’re doing. Here’s a friend of mine, he has resources,’” Akhil said.

Janice Pollock, an instructor at Traditional Manners, said she recommends a hand-written note over an email. “We recommend that the thank-you note be written, ideally, two days after you receive something,” she said. “Never wait more than a week.”

Tisdale said the thank-you note is important because it shows your interest and manners, and it makes you stand out “because most people don’t do it.”

Don’t fear the voicemail.

Bailey said a lot of teens don’t use voicemail because texting usually gets the job done.

“I know a lot of teenagers nowadays aren’t really comfortable conversing with adults,” she said. “You have to do a lot more work when you’re on the phone.”

Akhil said he used to be uncomfortable with voicemail. “I always thought that was a little bit weird,” he said. But he had to get used to it when calling “up-top people,” because they often have secretaries who transfer them to voicemail if their bosses can’t take the call.

Tisdale has four voicemail rules:

1. Speak clearly. “Sometimes the person on the other end has to listen to it four times to dissect things.”

2. Don’t talk too fast.

3. Be concise. “Don’t be so long-winded. ... Be very clear about what you’re going to say when you make that phone call.”

4. Leave your phone number. “They have a thousand people to call. Do you think they’re going to look up your phone number? No! You have to leave it.” She recommended leaving a phone number instead of an email address, but if you must leave an address, spell out each letter.

Clean up your personal voicemail message.

When’s the last time you listened to your voicemail recording?

Those messages are sometimes an adult’s first impression of you, Kuntzman said.

Bailey said it’s common for kids to make funny personal messages, and that she’s contemplating changing her quirky one. “In middle school, I had a song to it, and I was singing,” she recalled. “I thought I was the coolest thing ever.”

Personal messages should sound upbeat, clear and professional, and being upbeat is most important, Tisdale said. “If I call you, and you’ve got this be-bop music going on in the background, or ‘Hey, it’s me, what’s up, leave me a message,’ that’s uninviting. ‘Upbeat’ is no music, just voice, in an upbeat, positive tone.”

She said if you’re applying for jobs or programs, temporarily change your voice message, and get rid of ringback tones. “An employer does not want to hear ‘Shake your body to the ground’ when you’re trying to call,” she said.

It’s important to include your name in the message, she said, so people know they’ve reached the right person.

Like it or not, your online presence communicates for you.

If you’re in professional communication with adults (or applying for school, an internship or program), what you’ve posted online has already given them a first impression.

The experts cautioned young people to take care what they put online, even if they think their privacy is protected.

“I know for a fact colleges, especially selective ones, always check Facebook profiles, and our football coaches always check,” Akhil said. “Anyone who doesn’t even know you is going to look on Facebook to see what you’re about, so it’s a first impression in the online world.”

Kuntzman said family photos are best, and posting anything with bad language or dirty jokes is a no-no. “It may not always be fair, but that’s certainly the way it is.”

And once something is online, it’s out of your control, Sahd said. Students “think if they take it down it’s gone. It’s on someone’s server, whether it’s Instagram or Snapchat – they need to be extremely careful. A lot of that is on the parent to monitor.”

It’s best to remove questionable photos, because even if your Facebook page is private, Tisdale said, you can be tagged in a photo that’s posted on someone’s account that is public. She also warned about what you say on Twitter, because even if you’ve deleted a tweet, it can come up on a Google search.

“By the time (students) reach their senior year, the really should start reassessing their online presence, because this is the time where it’s really going to be counted against them,” she said.

Body language counts.

Kuntzman called nonverbal communication “vital.”

First, she said, appearance matters. “A general rule is dress better than or as good as your boss.”

Then the experts agreed on the top three things to do well: A firm handshake, eye contact and posture.

Students need to practice handshakes, Sahd said. The experts said handshakes should fall between two extremes: limp and bone-crushing.

He said students should go ahead and put out their hands to shake first: “Don’t wait for it. Just extend your hand and say, ‘Hi, my name is Patrick.’”

Then there’s eye contact, but without staring.

“That was really hard for me,” Bailey said, adding that practice interacting with adults helped a lot. She said she thinks people her age have trouble looking adults in the eye because “we’re kind of in the zone now with texting and being behind a screen all the time.”

Tisdale said posture is just as key as the handshake and eye contact. “Standing up straight is really important,” she said.

Kuntzman went further: “Don’t cross your legs or arms, because that means generally you are more closed off. Smile, definitely smile. Sit up straight, don’t slouch. Give the impression you want to be there.”

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