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Lessons from Duke’s People Skills Pros

Advice from some outgoing employees on presenting and more

Employees in Duke Alumni Affairs.
Employees in Duke Alumni Affairs.

For many of the people she encounters, Victoria Bright is the face of Duke.

Since joining Duke’s staff in 2015, Bright has spent about a quarter of her time at work traveling to around 20 different cities, helping volunteers plan events and inspiring potential volunteers to bring their energy and insight into the growing global network of Duke graduates.

From one-on-one meetings to speeches in front of large crowds – such as the inauguration of Duke President Vincent E. Price, where she gave remarks on behalf of Duke’s employees – Bright’s ability to be warm and engaging is a skill she’s leaned on heavily as assistant director of alumnae engagement with the Duke Alumni Association.

“I think sometimes people glamorize people skills, but if you work on them, there’s no reason you can’t do what everyone else is doing,” Bright says.

Bright is a member of the Duke Alumni Association’s Regional Engagement team. Part organizers, part ambassadors, team members spread out across the country and globe to create and energize networks of Duke alumni. Their jobs require them to have among the most refined set of people skills in the Duke workforce.

Your job may not put you in front of as many people, but the habits of these Duke staff members will likely help you become more effective in your role.

Check out some habits Duke’s people skills experts swear by.

Put in the WorkVictoria Bright said she does get nervous before speaking engagements, such as the inauguration of Duke President Vincent E. Price, but her preparation means she never lacks confidence. Photo courtesy of Duke Alumni Association.

Lisa Weistart’s job puts her in front of Duke alums across the country, speaking to groups that occasionally number in the hundreds. So, it may come as a surprise that the Duke Alumni Association’s senior director for regional engagement said she used to be pretty shy.

But her ability to be at ease as the center of attention in groups large and small came from working at it.

While in law school, she took part in mock trials, where she had to memorize complicated information and discuss it in front of her peers. She also honed her interpersonal communication skills in jobs in sports marketing and public relations early in her career.

“It’s all about practice,” Weistart said. “Sometimes it can be painful, but getting experience talking in front of people is the best way to get good at it. If you keep doing it, you’ll get there.”

Before a presentation, Weistart jots down key points on notecards that she carries with her in order to keep her thoughts organized.

Meanwhile, Bright finds a quiet place to run through a presentation beforehand to ensure it comes together like she wants it to.

“I get nervous just like anyone else, but where I build a lot of confidence is in practice,” Bright said.

Listen and LearnLisa Weistart speaks to a group of Duke alumni at one of the many events she helps organize. Photo courtesy of Duke Alumni Association.

Bright, Weistart and their colleagues meet Duke alumni around the country with post-college careers that span the breadth of the institution’s wide academic scope. So, it’s not uncommon to meet people doing interesting work.

And asking the Duke alums about their work is a reliable way to forge a connection.

“It’s good to be curious,” Bright said. “That way, you can find what you have in common.”

Being adept at asking questions and listening serves a functional purpose, too.

While much of the Regional Engagement team’s work is geared toward nourishing Duke alums’ connection to the school, there’s a large customer service element to what the team does.

If an event isn’t a total success, it becomes the job of the team member to figure out how to resolve any problems.

“As the face of Duke in these situations, we’re the ones who need to listen and make sure their concerns are heard and addressed,” Weistart said.

Hone Your MessageWhether it's a one-on-one chat or a large group event, Lisa Weistart must be ready to spread the message of inspiring Duke alumni to stay connected to their school and each other. Photo courtesy of Duke Alumni Association.

Whether speaking to a large group or in an individual meeting, both Bright and Weistart make sure they never lose sight of the reason they’re there. They know that, being engaging and personable doesn’t do much good if the message they’re trying to get across – in their case, the importance of staying engaged with Duke – doesn’t resonate.

“Develop your pitch,” Bright said. “You should always be able to sum up what you do in a couple of lines.”

To do this, Don Shortslef, a senior practitioner with Learning & Organizational Development, recommends that, before every presentation or meeting, review know what you want your audience to take away from the exchange.

“You’ve got to ask yourself ‘What do I want my audience to think? What do I want my audience to feel? What do I want my audience to do?’” said Shortslef, who teaches courses on subjects such as customer service and personal communication. “And no matter what else you talk about, make sure to keep the most important stuff up front.”

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