The big decision for me when I prepare to attend a client meeting is…HOW SHOULD I DRESS? This might seem silly but getting it right is not that easy. A suit is too formal, too serious. It says, “I have very important things to add, so you better listen up.” Khakis and a nice sweater run the risk of saying, “This is not that significant…no big deal.” So, I actually spend time, the night before, trying to assemble an outfit that gets it right–that helps me fit in but with a small edge that suggests I have something they will want to hear.
The decision I have never contemplated, until now, is whether to stick with my tried and true method of paper and pen, or go to a laptop in taking notes. Is it possible that all my deliberation about what to wear is “small potatoes” compared to what I say about myself by bringing a notepad?
This question came to the forefront last week when I attended a meeting for a team of 16 engineers that I am to guide through a process that empowers them to make decisions at the ground level. As I entered the room, there were sixteen black, formidable laptops with all their attendant cords positioned around one very long table. I had the dress code right. They were mostly in khakis and polo shirts. I was in crisp slacks with a fun sweater and necklace. BUT I came with pen and paper (in a nice portfolio of course).
Why the pen? I am a consultant who uses a tablet, a Mac and a PC daily so it is not for a lack of comfort with technology. And yet, at a meeting where I am observing a group, I always opt for the pen. Why is that? Is it the woman in me? The 55-year-old middle ager in me? The “really not a technologist” (who just fakes it) in me?
Since last week’s meeting, I have begun polling people (mostly middle aged women) as to their habit. I have learned that most of us (50+ women) prefer the pen. The reasons given are the same ones that guided my decision. We like eye contact. We observe the dynamics a bit better when not tethered to a computer. The line of site is often askew when we have our laptop open and we are looking out onto the room. Sometimes I draw arrows from one place to another on my note pad to tell myself that points are connected. Sometimes I asterisk a point to remind myself that this is really important. True I can do it on the laptop but I do it on paper with a very big asterisk that can’t be missed and it takes one second. On a laptop, I would have to BOLD and change font size to get the same effect. The women I spoke with said that when they were addressing a room full of laptops, and people were busy on their keyboards, they often wondered whether the room of clicks was focused on them and their message, or were they reading email, or even worse playing FreeCell?
I took this question of pen vs. laptop to my kids and their friends. While they mostly use laptops in class, I also heard, “When I really want to understand what the professor is saying, I take notes.” My daughter goes so far as to sometimes write notes based on what was on her laptop because the simple act of writing connected the thoughts much better.
So what is my take-away from preliminary discussions with friends and family? There are many reasons we prefer the pen in meetings. We do run the risk of looking like a dinosaur that no outfit can counter. On the other hand, in a world where performance matters most, we should trust our instincts about how we best observe and integrate the data around us. Those 16 engineers were probably making the right decision for themselves. As was I, pen, portfolio, and all.
Jill Ebstein, Founder of SizedRight Marketing (www.sizedrightmtg.com), Management Consulting Practice