We don’t have to be Superman or Superwoman to have something important to say.
I recently had the privilege of moderating the 9th WAVE (Women’s Added Value in the Economy) Conference in Geneva, Switzerland. It’s an annual event organized and run by the dynamic women of the Career Women’s Forum.
The theme for the conference was “Reinvent yourself. Innovate your career!” It was a privilege to moderate the event. The organizing committee was superb, the panelists were engaging and insightful, and the audience of almost 300 was enthusiastic. You can find the entire program here.
We’re all bad speakers at first
During the dinner / cocktail party that followed, I spoke with several people, one of whom was a young woman who was just embarking on her career. At some point, the conversation turned to public speaking.
She said that she would like to be able to give speeches, but that she wasn’t a good speaker. I reminded her of the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All the great speakers were bad speakers at first.” If you look at the top right of this page, you will see that Emerson’s quote is the tagline for this blog.
That’s because I believe that public speaking is a skill that anyone can learn if they are willing to make an effort.
The young woman agreed that she should work at improving her speaking. But then she raised another issue.
You don’t have to be Superman or Superwoman
“I’m not Superwoman. I don’t have anything dramatic to say. I haven’t had any amazing accomplishments that people would be interested in hearing about.”
In response, I told her that she almost certainly did have things of interest to share; she just didn’t see them as such. I also told her that one does not have to have experienced profound, life-altering events in order to be able to make an impact with an audience. A lot of wisdom can come from the most common events.
Indeed, at the very end of the panel discussion at the WAVE Conference, Sofia de Meyer, one of my panelists, told a simple story that made a big impact. Sofia is the inspiring co-founder of Opaline, a producer of fine Swiss juices that has been recognized for its ethical and environmentally friendly approach to business.
A lesson in a parking lot
Sofia talked about a time when she was running late to catch a train. She could not find an empty parking space at the station and so backed her car into a tight corner, prepared to take the risk of a ticket. But she just had to be on that train. A woman who was passing by commented on her skill at parking. Sofia responded with a smile and explained her situation. The other woman, who had private parking, then said that she would move her car so that Sofia could take her spot and not worry about a fine.
The message of the story had to do with going through life being open to, supportive of and grateful for other people. And the audience absolutely loved it. It’s the perfect example of how something so simple can make such a difference to others.
Yesterday, this idea was reinforced in my mind. I was at the gym when Something Just Like This, the song by The Chainsmokers and Coldplay came on the radio. I like the tune and as I listened to the lyrics, this idea of not having to be Superman or Superwoman in order to make an impact came back to me.
I’ve been reading books of old
The legends and the myths
Achilles and his gold
Hercules and his gifts
And Batman with his fists
And clearly I don’t see myself upon that list
She said, where’d you wanna go?
How much you wanna risk?
I’m not looking for somebody
With some superhuman gifts
Some fairytale bliss
Just something I can turn to
Somebody I can miss
I want something just like this
I want something just like this
If you are Superman or Superwoman, that’s great. But it’s not necessary. What we want is someone whom we can turn to, someone who will be there for us, someone who will share a little something of himself or herself. If you’re prepared to do that, if you’re prepared to take that risk and be that person, we are more than willing to listen.
We are thought machines
As Steve Martin, one of my comedy heroes, says in the introduction to his Masterclass on stand-up comedy (and his words are 100% relevant for public speakers):
Remember, you are a thought machine. Everything you see, hear, experience is usable. Whatever makes you unique as a performer, do it. And know that there’s room for you.
Great advice, and the everyday example about parking is spot on.
Another great source of material is failures you’ve had. After all, everyone’s failed at some point, so every speaker can share a failure they’ve had, and audiences can strongly relate. (Naturally, having failures is just about the opposite of the Superman ideal, too!)
I like Craig Valentine’s advice to keep a “failure file”, where you write down your “failures, flaws and frustrations” to use in future talks. (There’s a link to his post about that, plus related advice from other speaker-coaches, here.)
Thanks, Craig. Yes, failures are great sources of material for speeches and presentations. I tell my corporate clients not to be afraid to talk about a time when they failed at something. Audiences will be able to relate. Of course, the best case is when you learned something valuable from your failure and can share that insight with the audience. I tell people that your audience will always be willing to listen to one of your big F’s in life: firsts; fears; frustrations; failures; and fiascoes (or fuck-ups, if you prefer saltier language and it works with the audience!).