There is a stumbling block to getting started as a speaker that is rooted in the impostor syndrome. It sounds like this: “But I’m not a real expert so why would they want to hear from me?”
The question then is, what is a real expert?
I believe you can credibly present yourself as a real expert on a given topic if you meet the following conditions:
- You have lived the subject matter. You have started the initiative, tackled the problem, and attempted the solution.
- You have a story to tell about #1 that includes a compelling historical narrative (what happened, why it happened, your lessons learned) as well as all of the ways it has made you more curious about what might happen next (your new questions, your hopes and plans for the future).
- You care about helping people. You want to share something with others to make their life easier, to save them a little time and smooth their road just a little bit more.
- You have the ability to present yourself confidently, you can speak clearly, and you are willing to say, “I don’t know” when someone asks you a question the answer to which you do not know.
Finally, speaking is about storytelling. Stories are how we connect and how we learn. Images, quotes, everything that went wrong, how you got out of a jam, moments of truth, these are the things your listeners are hungry for.
A real expert is someone who commits themselves to being the expert of their own experience and who trusts that there’s always an audience for someone who is willing to share it.
My writing this past week began with a reflection on my path – my long and uncertain path – to vocation.
With that groundwork laid on Labor Day, I moved into a variety of explorations of the inner life: the leader’s commitment to continuous learning; the freedom that that kind of deep personal awareness creates to liberate others to their full potential; the painful truth that we too easily and too often hide the very best of ourselves from the vulnerability of exposure; and the deep and very challenging necessity to confront our pain and transform it into possibility.
With the benefit of hindsight and reflection, I see now that this week has been an exploration of my most important value: freedom.
And by freedom I mean, the earned right to be my own authority, to be released from the tyranny of the unexamined life, one that operates reactively instead of purposefully. Freedom is the transformation of pain into possibility. Freedom is equanimity under stress, where the old triggers – though always present – will not be squeezed.
As I enter into a period of profound change in my professional life, while continuing to navigate the sacred responsibilities of marriage, fatherhood and friendship, it is no wonder that this theme is surfacing so strongly. It is a time for reflection because it is a time of change.
Writing is good therapy, a form of self-coaching, that helps me to understand where I am, while casting a faint but persistent light on the path ahead.
Thank you for reading.
Do you know the story of the Buddhist monks who, in an effort to preserve a revered clay Buddha statue, accidentally broke it open and discovered it was made of gold?
Do you know that the clay was meant to discourage an invading army from stealing the statue but that centuries later this information was lost and, upon rediscovery it was assumed that it was always and only made of clay?
Do you know that most people, most of the time do an excellent impression of that clay Buddha, keeping the best of themselves protected against being seen and being known?
If you’re not ok with this, and I hope that you are not, then I encourage you to remember that everyone’s clay facade has a crack somewhere. If you are truly curious and determined you will find it and, peering within, see that there is gold inside.
This discovery must, of course, start with you.
Go ahead. Have a look.
I’ve been performing or presenting in some form or fashion since I was 14 years old. In choirs, as a soloist, a trainer, facilitator, or speaker, I’ve been getting “on stage” for 35 years now. Once I while I’m asked, “Do you still get nervous?”
My answer is always “Yes” and that answer is often met with a look of confusion. Like, how can you have been doing this kind of thing for as long as you have and still feel nervous about it?
What I found myself explaining most recently is what I think of as the difference between functional and dysfunctional nervousness.
My functional nervousness is a result of an energy surge that comes from having an opportunity to do something I care deeply about – be it speaking or singing – and my desire to do the very best job I can possibly do. That nervous energy reminds me that I care and I would be very concerned not to feel it in the moments leading up to the experience.
Dysfunctional nervousness on the other hand, comes from a lack of passion (I’m doing this even though I don’t want to and I hope they don’t notice), a lack of preparation or a lack of experience, and possibly a combination of all three.
Dysfunctional nervousness is the type that induces fear and the very real desire to run away as fast and as far as possible.
My recommendation for moving from dysfunctional or debilitating nervousness to functional or energizing nervousness is to do the following:
- Whatever it is, don’t go through the motions. Find your personal passion in the material and deliver it from there. If you can’t find that, what are you even doing there?
- Don’t wing it. Do your homework and be prepared. That way, you can put your attention on your audience – who very much want you to succeed – and create an environment of generous, reciprocal positive energy.
- Get more at bats. Say “yes” to more opportunities. There is no better teacher than experience and if you really want to feel functional nervousness you’re going to have to go out and find/create the opportunities to do so.
Not only does my being functionally nervous remind me that I care, it reminds that I am alive. That aliveness – that energized and activated presence – is the greatest gift you can give to those who have come to listen.
If you stopped editing yourself, what would you say?
When you are at your worst, what’s the fear behind that behavior?
When you float outside yourself, tethered to nothing but possibility, what gives you that lift?
You are at the edge of your seat, no facade to impress us, what got you there?
You keep going back to that thought, what is it that you cannot forget?
You’re traveling lighter these days, what have you left behind?
You can only take so much, what is your breaking point?
When you are at your best, what thought or trait or relationship makes that so?
The following passage is by Dr. Barbara Holmes from her book, Joy Unspeakable. I read it earlier this week in Richard Rohr’s daily email and its precision brought me to a full stop. I offer a few comments and reflections in bold italics.
“The human task is threefold. First, the human spirit must connect to the eternal by turning toward God’s immanence and ineffability with yearning. (If “God” is too specific for you, think of this as our collective need to connect to and strive for something larger than ourselves. We are made to imagine, to create, to connect and to belong in ways much larger than our ability to understand. To say ‘yes’ to that is to express our yearning.)
Second, each person must explore the inner reality of his or her humanity facing unmet potential and catastrophic failure with unmitigated honesty and grace. (Know yourself, know all of it, and use that knowledge to become a more humble and empathetic student of all that will transpire in your life. When you do that, you are a better person for others.)
Finally, each one of us must face the unlovable neighbor, the enemy outside of our embrace, and the shadow skulking in the recesses of our own hearts. Only then can we declare God’s perplexing and unlikely peace on earth. (This is the call to learning, to an extension beyond the comfort of our place and point of view and out into a world that includes all of those we would rather not, on a given day, have to encounter. This is the only way that any semblance of ‘peace’, within ourselves and in the company of others can become real.)
Earth Wall (detail), Andy Goldsworthy
angle of repose (n): the steepest angle at which a sloping surface formed of a particular loose material is stable.
I couldn’t resist lying down on Andy Goldworthy’s epic work, Wood Line, when we walked along it last Saturday. I am on vacation, a time of rest and relaxation, so I thought I would practice a little.
I wish I had stayed there longer. It was a perfect afternoon.
And since that afternoon I have thought that, had I done so, I might have just slipped away, the angle of my “loose material” overwhelming my repose.
Goldsworthy only creates that which will eventually return to the earth.
I think that’s what was happening to me, lying there even briefly. I felt pulled into myself, a jumble of loose material wanting to settle and be settled, wanting to reconnect to known and knowable things.
And yet, it was not to be. And I was up and walking again before I could slip away.
How necessarily, how painfully human.
Wood Line by Andy Goldsworthy – San Francisco
We often forget that we are nature. Nature is not something separate from us. So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.
Earth Wall, Andy Goldsworthy (2014), San Francisco (Photo: David Berry, 2019)
“In the particular is contained the universal.”
We tell stories to create connection. We create connection because it builds trust. We build trust so that we can rely on one another. We rely on one another because we don’t – even on our most selfish, ego-bound days – want to go it alone.
Most of all, we tell stories because they remind us that our humanity is not only shared, but bound up together, inextricably linked for all time.
The Seven of Pentacles
Under a sky the color of pea soup
she is looking at her work growing away there
actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans
as things grow in the real world, slowly enough.
If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water,
if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food,
if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars,
if the praying mantis comes and the ladybugs and the bees,
then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.
Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening.
More than half the tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.
Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.
Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.
Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden.
Gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar.
Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us
interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.
Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen:
reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,
for every gardener knows that after the digging, after
after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.
With thanks to my dear friend, Alia, for sharing this poem with me.