I met Kevin while conducting an in-house workshop with a local client. He was a bright, competent engineer, but he was mostly overlooked during all group discussions. He wasn’t shy; in fact, he often spoke up and added some comments during group exercises and discussions. The problem was that they were seldom on point and were not perceived by others to be of value. During a break, I asked him how he was doing. He just looked at me and sighed, “I always think of the right thing to say when it is 20 minutes too late.”
I’ve thought about Kevin a lot over the years, especially whenever I see other qualified tech professionals fail to meet their potential or reach a career plateau because of delayed verbal responses or an inability to express themselves clearly.
Whether a person does not respond at all, or responds too late for the input to be appropriate, or responds in a way that is generally sub-par, I lump all of these together and think of them as people with a Slow Response.
The cost of slow response
There is a persistent myth that TechComm professionals are quiet introverts who sit alone in their cubicles and write or edit. Whether you identify with this stereotype or not, the reality is that if we can’t respond quickly, be proactive, and interact with many different people, we will fail. Successful introverted TechComm professionals are those who have honed their verbal communication skills.
Perhaps more than practitioners in any other tech field, the TechComm professional must excel at communication. Our ability to listen, ask the right questions, and contribute to discussions is essential if we are to deliver top-quality product documentation for our clients.
Slow Response can lead us to being overlooked and underestimated. When that happens, Tech Pubs can be relegated to a secondary priority, and our rich insights into better UX go unheard. Our clients and their users all lose, while we face a stagnating career.
There are many causes for Slow Response. While I am not a psychologist, I can offer these examples based on my observations over 40 years of training and coaching:
The Perfectionist: This person doesn’t want to commit to saying anything that is not flawlessly crafted and carefully edited. They may eventually come up with the perfect bon mot, but if it is delivered four minutes after the comment that triggered it, it becomes embarrassingly inappropriate. Rather than appearing witty, the speaker ends up being perceived as clueless and socially awkward.
A case in point is Joan: Joan is a brilliant writer who has been posting inspiring posts on social media for years. She is sharp, witty, expressive, and writes beautifully. But if you were to meet her face-to-face, you would notice that she is totally unable to join in the conversation or contribute anything useful to a group discussion. As you get to know her better, you realize that she is one of the many tech professionals who can communicate flawlessly in writing, only because they have enough time to gather their thoughts and edit their text.
Because many TechComm professionals build successful careers based on their ability to communicate clearly in writing, it is no surprise that verbal acuity and quick thinking become neglected.
The Socially Anxious: Shyness or an introverted personality may be a factor, but Social Anxiety Disorder causes more people to freeze up and not speak in meetings, or to agonize over what they said. Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder place disproportionate importance on what others think. Their concern for others’ opinion can hold them back from achieving their full potential. This disorder has become far more common in recent years, and the pandemic has only exacerbated it. 
A case in point is Jerry: A fact-checker and researcher for a local media outlet, Jerry is the poster child for Social Anxiety Disorder. He radiates anxiety and his presence at a social gathering can upset the natural give-and-take of the conversation. His intelligence is ignored because of his inability to contribute in a meaningful way in any group situation.
The Poor Listener: Sometimes, gregarious extroverts fail to respond appropriately because they are not fully engaged and actively listening. They are excitedly waiting for the moment to interject.
Robert is the classic hi-tech CEO. He is smart, quick, and has enormous confidence. But he usually ends up saying the wrong thing because he is not in tune with the overall discussion. His off-point comments are politely tolerated within his organization (he is, after all, the CEO), but have caused problems when he interacts with managers from other companies.
The Out-of-Practice: Do you feel that your brain has slowed down, your verbal skills have deteriorated, and that you have forgotten how to interact with others? If so, you are not alone. Many of us have been forced to work in almost total isolation during the pandemic. As such, our social and work interactions have diminished significantly enough to impact our skills.
There are days when I don’t actually speak until a late-afternoon call from a client. When the phone rings and I answer, I end up sounding hoarse and strained. And it isn’t only the lack of speaking: I am not having meals surrounded by people in a client’s cafeteria. I am not sitting in in-person meetings. I am not commuting and making small-talk with people on the train. I have, in fact, become semi-feral! I am starting to doubt my ability to wear shoes all day, sit up straight at a table, or interact with others in a normal manner. Worst of all, I feel my brain congealing like a bowl of oatmeal. All joking aside, psychologists agree that the pandemic may be causing us to lose our natural ability to make and maintain social connections. 
Here are some tips to solve a Slow Response problem:
To the Perfectionist: Let it go! Your comment or contribution does not have to be perfect; it simply needs to be on-topic and useful. Sometimes even authentically agreeing with someone can shift the direction of a meeting and change the outcome. If you disagree, say why in a short, clear manner. Don’t wait for the exact words. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
You can play games to overcome the fear of imperfection. Timed activities where quantity wins out over quality, for example, can reinforce those skills. In her article in the July issue of tcworld magazine, Maryland Sara wrote about using improv exercises to improve communication soft skills, and specifically, learning “to be comfortable with failure and mistakes.” 
To the Socially Anxious: Tackle your fear! A friend of mine, also a senior TechComm professional, recently posted about new directives from the college where she teaches writing for engineers. Apparently, 30 percent of her students have never attended in-person college classes before. The ramifications of this are profound. We have a generation of people who have not had the same socialization support and may be missing some basic skills that we take for granted.
If you are a manager or team leader, you can have a positive effect on employees with Social Anxiety Syndrome by providing them with the support and soft-skill training that they have missed in their lives. 
To the Poor Listener: Learn to listen! Listening is essential for good communication, and good communication is valued in most professions. You can improve your listening skills and increase your focus. By being able to stay attentive to the discussion, you can reduce the risk of off-topic comments or responses. The Indeed Career Guide offers some tips for becoming a better listener. 
To the Out-of-Practice: Get back in training! For those of us who have become hermits, the good news is that it is easy to reawaken these skills and get back into quick-witted verbal shape! Practicing impromptu speaking, playing performance games, and joining team verbal games can all help you respond more quickly. They can improve your lateral thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills, too. For a taste of these games, join my workshop at the tcworld conference, “Impressively Impromptu: Fast, Fearless, and Fabulous”, this November. 
Our profession is all about communication. And if we allow our verbal communication skills to deteriorate, we miss out on many professional opportunities, and our clients miss out on potential ideas and contributions.
Do you have a Slow Response story to share? Let us know!
 Cuncic, Arlin. “Managing Social Anxiety Disorder at Work”, verywellmind.com, September 2020
 Karlis, Nicole. “Is the pandemic making our social skills decay? Psychologists think so”, Salon Magazine, February 2021
 Sara, Maryland. “Improv[e] your soft skills”, tcworld magazine, July 2021
 Taormina, Robert J. “Helping Shy Employees with Career Success: The Impact of Organizational Socialization”, Psychological Thought, April 2019
 “How to Improve Your Listening Skills”, indeed.com, March 2021