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.
Today I had to let go of an old story.
I took my daughter to the DMV to test for her learner’s permit and received not just good or helpful service from the staff there but an exceptional level of attentiveness and care.
You can imagine that this is not the story I told my daughter about what our experience would be like.
From the first encounter we had my story was proven false.
Yes, it’s still slow. Yes, it’s still a bureaucracy. And, our experience reminds me that even an entrenched organization like the DMV can acknowledge and act on the truth that they are in the business of helping human beings and then act accordingly.
I approached one of the helpful workers there and told her that she and her colleagues were destroying their old reputation, forcing me to rewrite my story.
She smiled and said, “Thank you for saying so. We’re really trying.”
They really are.
I’ve been watching stars
rely on the darkness they
resist. And fish struggle with
and against the current. And
hawks glide faster when their
wings don’t move.
Still I keep retelling what
happens till it comes out
the way I want.
We try so hard to be the
main character when it is
our point of view that
keeps us from the truth.
The sun has its story
that no curtain can stop.
It’s true. The only way beyond
the self is through it. The only
way to listen to what can never
be said is to quiet our need
to steer the plot.
When jarred by life, we might
unravel the story we tell ourselves
and discover the story we are in,
the one that keeps telling us.
Phantom Ship – Crater Lake National Park
A week ago I had the privilege of introducing “Storytelling for Career Success” to a group of young professionals who were generous enough to say “yes” to an invitation to test drive my new workshop. By their energetic participation they taught me what worked, what needed help and, most importantly, that what I shared with them is both practical and valuable.
This past Saturday was Round 2 and again I was inspired by a group of open and dynamic participants, each one willing to step into the unknown and share their story. It was an outstanding day, one I am smarter and better equipped for having led.
What I know beyond a doubt is that when we connect through story we break into a new world of possibility. It’s a world where we become known for more than the 12 point font of a resume, where we live into David Whyte’s affirmation that, “we shape ourselves to fit this world and by the world are shaped again.” (Working Together)
One participant put it this way: “The highlight for me was figuring out how to tell an emotional, vibrant story with structure and organization. I was amazed to find that past experiences I never thought applicable in an interview can be used in an amazing, powerful way.”
Another said this: “Before this experience, I was pretty confident in my story. What I realized throughout the experience is that I haven’t been telling it in the most effective, powerful way. This experience took my story from a little, shaky tale, to an intense, powerful testimony. Not only do I feel more confident about going into an interview, I feel more confident in myself.”
With humility and gratitude – and a powerful sense of purpose – I am committed to author, and be authored by, the unfolding of this new story.
“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
I’m always tempted to make it more complicated than it is.
There is only one reason that I am teaching storytelling to young professionals. I want them to understand – to physically experience and then embody – the truth that stories create “limbic resonance.”
More simply, that stories create connection.
How? The limbic system processes sensory information and compares it to past experience. Since all human beings share a common emotional database, stories that express emotion resonate with our past experience as “true” and therefore trustworthy.
And if the story is trustworthy, the person telling it must be trustworthy, also.
We can explain our qualifications – our competence – ad nauseam and get nothing more than a knowing nod of the head in response. But tell a story about that competence in action, how it made you or others feel, what was hard or joyful about learning it, how you failed and succeeded in applying it, and that will get someone to sit at the edge of their emotional seat.
Limbic resonance = connection.
Connection = trust.
Trust = opportunity.
Soon after I published my book, A More Daring Life, in early 2016 I was invited to take a daring new step of my own, teaching in the business school at Cal State University San Marcos. I had no idea what I was in for, no idea of the energy, enthusiasm and kindness of the students it would be my privilege to teach.
A few months ago, I started noodling on an idea built on the foundations of my book but specifically geared to soon-to-be graduates and young professionals. The outlines of a storytelling workshop, one that would teach participants to transcend the quantitative constraints of their resume by learning how to tell a more personal and selectively vulnerable story about their experience and qualifications, began to take shape in May. This weekend, planning and thinking became doing and I led the first one.
For the generous “yes” of those willing to be first I offer my deepest gratitude for trusting me, for being all in and for teaching me how to make it better. (Session 2 is next Saturday!)
To them and to you I offer a toast: “To a more daring life!”
“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.
One of the most glaring mistakes of modern corporate leadership is the use of metrics to motivate performance.
“Our vision for the coming year? To make a gajillion dollars!!”
Do everyone a favor. Tell a story instead.
Of course, we all want the gajillion dollars (and for it to be equitably and appropriately shared) and all of the opportunity it creates, but that will never replace the boring, predictable and completely fundamental human need to be a part of something larger than ourselves; to be part of a story that is worth the telling.
Leaders, be boring. Learn to tell a story.
I was here, and you were here,
and together we made a world.
If you tell me your story, I will tell you mine.
From that small, open place we will take steps that help us to know one another. Through our disclosure we will build trust, and from that trust we will experience the reinforcement of connection.
I will only learn about myself, which means that I will only learn how to walk in this world, through my relationship with you.
When I resist I do so because I don’t want to be reminded of what I don’t yet know. When I resist I am bound by the seduction of the status quo, refusing to yield to the certainty of change.
When I engage I do so because you help me to remember that my initial discomfort holds the seeds of my future wisdom.
Tell me your story, and I will tell you mine.
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.