If you're at an insurance conference and the moderator onstage asks for questions from the floor, don't waffle on, revealing your imperfect grasp of everything. Instead: shut up.
If you're in an office meeting and the chair asks if anyone has any thoughts, don't put your hand up and shout "Me, me, ooh, me," like an acned teenager, desperate to stand out. Instead: shut up.
And if you're anywhere near me ... you've guessed it ... imitate George Harrison. He was a member of the Beatles, kiddies, a rock group long, long ago in a country far, far away. George was known as the Quiet One.
This isn't exactly revolutionary advice. Clichés on the subject abound: "Silence is golden." "Be the strong, silent type." Better to stay silent and be taken for a fool than to open your mouth and confirm it.
And yet ... here's some depressing news. A psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley had a number of groups of students meet for 45 minutes to discuss a hypothetical business start-up. At the end of the sessions, the students were asked to rate each other, based on their performance during the meetings. Across the board, the intelligence and judgment of those who spoke the most were rated the highest. Those who spoke the least were perceived as less intelligent and not as creative.
Usually, what happens in California can be ignored by people everywhere else. This applies particularly to events at the University of Please Yourself, as an Eric Idle character in "All You Need is Cash," a Beatles' satire, once referred to the Golden State's seat of higher learning. Most of us know that California is out to lunch and isn't coming back any time soon.
But the Berkeley findings are actually not that surprising. They don't say that the squeaky wheel should get the grease, merely that it does. Girls don't notice wallflowers and nor will your boss.
To make an impression, you have to throw your weight around. That's the argument supporting blogging and tweeting (which some actual writers regard as the most distressing development in mankind's history since the discovery of the first squeaky wheel).
So I should change my advice and tell you to enter meetings determined to dominate the conversation and force your views down the throats of all the unfortunates there gathered. I can't do that, however. My advice is to skip meetings altogether. That's what the smart people do. Since Adam met Eve, no meeting has produced anything worthwhile. If you must attend meetings, however, keep your trap shut. It may not help your career but it will help everyone else in the room.
This gives me a chance to spout on about my guiding personal philosophy, just to show you how tedious an open mouth can be. Utilitarianism is the idea espoused by Jeremy Bentham, who founded the school I attended, that the best activity is the one that benefits the greatest number of people. If that's too highbrow for you, consider the dying words of Spock in one of the Star Trek movies: "The good of the many outweighs the good of the few."
Although I'm telling every one of this magazine's readers to shut up--man, that feels good--I've never actually told anyone to their face to shut up, which is how it works with writers. In print, we are brave-hearted and fearless. In person, we rarely leave the house, since it so often involves running into other people.
But I've said too much. Let me sign off and shut up.
ROGER CROMBIE is a Bermuda-based columnist for Risk & Insurance®.
June 1, 2010
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