What I learned at Finishing School

By June 30, 2011Business

Today I am off to the Regatta, and here is my black and red Day 1 Ascot hat. The Season. How frightfully British. Many moons ago, my Aunt sent me to Joanna Lumley’s alma mater as an MBA graduation present – Lucie Clayton College, in Kensington. Upstairs, on the parquet floor, they still had a model of the front half of an old blue sedan car on which we could practise our getting in and out strategies. For the curious: your entry strategy is an imaginary 50p between the knees; your exit strategy is a high chin to minimise cleavage, lest the paparazzi be hovering, and we were only taught about the passenger seat, as Ladies have Drivers. While we did spend a bit of time on this sort of thing, the whole course remains the most useful thing I’ve done. Here is a digest for you, since Lucie Clayton College is no more.

Stance – Build yourself up from your feet to your head, distributing your weight evenly and standing tall. Notice your knees and hips, and how your torso and shoulders are positioned. Relax your elbows, and hold your chin a little higher than you might normally do.

Breathing – Breathe from your diaphragm not your shoulders, and when you are nervous just listen to your breathing, which will calm you down. Smile, exchange eye contact, and breathe out.

“Mirror Management” – Match your dress to your audience, and go ‘one higher’ if you need to assert yourself or identify with their hierarchy. Observe the unwritten rules in the organisation about how dress links to status, and be realistic about the messages your choices will already be sending out.

“People Like Us” – If you are in a situation where you need to make an impact and do not know anyone, for instance at a drinks reception, start with a Mission, which will normally be about finding a drink. This will give you an air of purpose. Pausing on the threshold signals your arrival and allows you to scan the room for ‘people like us’ while you take the long way round to collect your drink. When you have selected a person or group that looks appropriate, introduce yourself into the discussion, either through small talk or by offering a top-up or canape as appropriate. Tow a waiter along with you to break up the circle. Or, if you stand just a little too close, beaming, the circle will naturally ease back to include you. If you are in the ‘wrong’ group, make an excuse about seeing someone you know or refreshing your drink, and move on. When using handshakes ensure that they are firm, brief, and accompanied by eye contact.

FORE – For small talk, it is useful to remember the golf cry of ‘fore!’

  • Family – questions about children, etc.
  • Occupation – questions about job, location, career
  • Recreation – questions about hobbies and holidays
  • Education – questions about schooling – your own or the children’s

The old adage of confining your platitudes to the state of the roads and the weather, but never religion, sex or politics, is probably wise.

Gravitas – In general, ‘wise’ people seem to say less, so what they do say is more valued. Ration yourself in meetings by writing down your interjections rather than saying them. If your points are not made by others during the meeting, you will then be able to offer a useful summary at an appropriate juncture, or to the relevant people after the meeting. For meetings, try to be early to build rapport and coalitions, and to choose your seat strategically: opposite or diagonally to the Chair to influence them, beside the Chair to influence others.

Mehrabian Circle – Albert Mehrabian found that the impact of a communication is delivered in the following proportions: words 7%; tone 38% and body language 55%. The message of this research is that when you are preparing to be impactful, you should spend less time worrying about what you will say, and more time worrying about how you will say it, as any conflicts in tone and body language will be heard far louder than your actual words.

I suppose the most important thing that Lucie Clayton taught me was that manners are the real mark of class. Because etiquette is the simple practice of striving to make the other person feel comfortable, the rules are there to be broken whenever not to do so would be rude. That’s why the Queen put her arm around Michelle Obama.

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