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.
I had a painful, shameful memory yesterday. I recalled a speaking engagement from some years ago that ended with my being cut-off mid-sentence by the host because I had gone over my time. There were several of us slated to speak that night which meant that our host had to manage a tight schedule. I knew the expectation – I had 12 minutes – and I failed to adhere to it.
The embarrassment I felt that night washed over me again with the memory of it: how I tried so hard to save face (how, exactly?) and make a graceful exit (impossible) in the milliseconds after seeing my host walk down the center aisle and in full voice exclaim that “we have to move on.”
As I autopsied the experience I realized that I had made an obvious and avoidable mistake in the lead-up to the event. I had failed to clarify what it was, precisely, that I was expected to address in my remarks. I had the gist of it, you see, but I also had the nagging feeling that there was another level of specificity required, the absence of which left me in improv mode rather than prepared mode. In improv mode, perhaps needless to say, time is fluid and evaporates quickly.
There is a trap of almost knowing that can get in the way of actually knowing, or so it seems to me. The misplaced confidence of my almost knowing prevented the humility of my desire to actually know from being activated and acted upon.
In other words, I acted from my head and not from my heart. I allowed “enough” information to be a substitute for the complete information, a protective cerebral response (“Of course I know what I’m doing!”) standing in for an open and inquisitive one (“I think I’ve got what you’re looking for, but could we please review it once more?”).
As a practical matter, I have carried this experience forward and am much more exhaustive in my “pre-game” conversations about expectations and outcomes.
As a human matter, I recognize the gift of this memory as a tender and instructive reminder to trust that vulnerability in the pursuit of understanding is the best kind of strength.
I’m very interested in public speaking. I enjoy doing it and I enjoy listening to a great speaker. It’s a wonderful, even essential skill to develop for anyone who wants to have more influence, for those who wish to lead.
To that end, for those aspiring to increase their influence through public speaking, I’d like to suggest that you develop three talks of differing lengths; 10, 25 and 45 minutes.
Your 10-minute talk is one big idea supported by one story.
Your 25-minute talk is one big idea supported by two stories.
Your 45-minute talk is one big idea supported by two stories plus 5-7 minutes of audience conversation about how they feel about what you’ve been saying (because no one wants to sit for 45 minutes without a chance to talk…about themselves) and 5-7 more minutes devoted to their sharing of what they just said.
Two takeaways: first, you deliver one big idea, and only one big idea. Second, your talk isn’t about you, it’s about them. The longer you have to speak the more space you should create for your audience to do so.
DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.
Here’s a little inspiration for your Monday:
Years ago, just starting out in my business as a leadership coach and organizational consultant, I decided to market myself by doing a bunch of pro bono speaking engagements. Organizations like Rotary Club always need speakers and this newly minted “freelancer” needed the practice.
On one occasion I accepted a lunch time engagement at a restaurant about 40 miles from my home. I was assured that there would be “at least 20 to 25” participants which sounded fine to me. Upon arrival, I discovered that the restaurant was more like a diner, and that the meeting was in a backroom that was connected to the kitchen. It was loud and noisy.
And six people showed up.
Between tentative bites of my Cobb salad I began to feel doubt, regret and a healthy dose of self-pity. “What the hell am I doing here?” echoed through my mind along with a few other colorful thoughts.
And then I made a decision. I saw the faces of my mentors, I examined the truth of my own intentions and I simply decided to take the risk of speaking to those six people with the energy I might give to 60…or even 600.
I gave them all I had…my very best. And as a result – would you believe it? – one of those six (1 of 6!) invited me to his organization and offered me a project that turned into a multi-year engagement. It was the most significant financial transaction of my first year in business, by far.
It happened because I took the risk of showing up and because I took the risk of playing big.
I was inspired to share this story after watching this short, sweet and totally compelling talk by Tina Seelig. In the spirit of small risks and big luck, I hope you’ll take 10 minutes to check it out.
DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.