Stay in Your Lane
I don’t think of work as work and play as play. It’s all living.
—SIR RICHARD BRANSON
IN DECEMBER 2010, FACEBOOK CHIEF operating officer Sheryl Sandberg was waiting offstage to address a TED audience. “The day before, I had dropped my daughter off at preschool and told her I was flying off to the East Coast so I wouldn’t see her that night. She clung to my leg and begged me not to leave. I couldn’t shake that image and, at the last minute, asked Pat [Paley Center CEO] if I should add it to my speech. ‘Absolutely tell that story,’ said Pat.”1
Sandberg realized that she could help other women only by being honest about her own challenges and feelings. “I took a deep breath and stepped onstage. I tried to be authentic and shared my truth. I announced to the room—and basically everyone on the Internet—that I fall very short of doing it all. It felt really good not just to admit this to myself, but to share it with others.”2
Secret #9: Stay in Your Lane
Be authentic, open, and transparent.
Why it works: Most people can spot a phony. If you try to be something or someone you’re not, you’ll fail to gain the trust of your audience.
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PUBLIC SPEAKING IS CONSIDERED AN art form. I hope this book has demonstrated that the artful element of persuasion is backed by credible science. Now I’d like you to set aside the techniques and the science and speak from the heart. That’s right, everything we’ve discussed will be meaningless if you are putting on an act.
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YOU CAN LEARN FROM OTHERS and how they achieved success in public speaking, but you’ll never make a lasting impression on people unless you leave your own mark. I remember listening to Oprah Winfrey respond to a young woman who had said that she wanted to be the next Oprah. “No, you don’t,” Oprah said. Ms. Winfrey explained that people should identify what lane they should be in, and to stay in their lane. She said that successful people identify their life’s core purpose and relentlessly follow that purpose to become the best representation of themselves that they can become.
It takes courage to stay in your lane. As Dr. Jill was crafting her now famous “My Stroke of Insight” presentation, she had a decision to make. Although the first 12 minutes of her presentation were engrossing, there was nothing “vulnerable” or “personal” about it. Dr. Jill told me she needed a conclusion that would “bust it out to the universe.”
One week before her TED talk, Dr. Jill’s best friend told her that the presentation didn’t work. “Jill, you take us to this incredibly vulnerable space and you take us on this journey. We go with you, we are wide open, we are all yours, and then you’re going to teach us [about stroke]? You should hold the space.”3 Holding the space meant being vulnerable, expressing the raw emotion of the stroke and what it had taught her.
Dr. Jill got the message and changed her conclusion one week before the TED conference. Here is how she ended the presentation: “My spirit soared free, like a great whale gliding through the sea of silent euphoria. Nirvana. I found Nirvana … and if I have found Nirvana and I’m still alive, then everyone who is alive can find Nirvana. And I pictured a world filled with beautiful, peaceful, compassionate, loving people who knew that they could come to this space at any time … then I realized what a tremendous gift this experience could be, what a stroke of insight this could be to how we live our lives.”
Most scientists wouldn’t dare go to the place where Dr. Jill took her audience. Even if their “spirit soared free like a gliding whale,” they wouldn’t tell anyone about it. Dr. Jill realized that the story of her spiritual transformation had a lot more meaning than the story of a stroke. When her left hemisphere shut down, the ego part of her brain, she experienced a spiritual enlightenment. She no longer felt separate from the universe but a part of it. She informed the audience and educated them about stroke. If she had ended there, it would have made a good presentation. Dr. Jill took it one step further. She inspired and enlightened. The presentation went from good to remarkable. It took courage for Dr. Jill to stay in her lane, but it made all the difference.
On an episode of ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, the character Dr. Callie Torres was preparing to give a TED talk. Torres, an orthopedic surgeon, wasn’t happy with the presentation she had prepared because it seemed boring compared to what she’d seen on the TED stage. “Who wants to hear about cartilage?” she said. Due to the mayhem in the hospital, Callie missed her flight to TED and she thought she was off the hook. But at the last minute her colleagues set up a remote satellite feed so that Callie could still deliver her presentation to a live audience (you can do that on a hit TV show).
Callie sat down nervously with a stack of note cards. “Just talk,” said another doctor. “Just be who you are.” The doctor was instructing Callie to stay in her lane. Callie set the notes aside, took a deep breath, and said, “Hi. I’m Dr. Callie Torres and I’ve had a pretty bad year. I was almost killed in a car wreck … an accident claimed the life of my best friend and father of my child. I’m an orthopedic surgeon by trade and I work with cartilage so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what holds us together when things fall apart…”
Although Grey’s Anatomy is a fictional medical drama, it strikes me that when the writers of the show wanted to build a story line around TED, they realized that the real magic of a memorable TED presentation relies on the speaker setting aside her notes and speaking from the heart, letting her audience get a peek of her soul. Screenwriters are storytellers and they intuitively understand that the magic of TED lies deeper than the topic of a presentation. An inspiring speaker should move his or her listeners to think differently about their lives, careers, or businesses. A great speaker makes you want to be a better person.
I chose the Richard Branson quote that opens this chapter because I think many speakers separate their true selves from the persona they show to others. Branson, whom I’ve met and interviewed more than once, doesn’t put on an act. He’s real. He’s the same person on and off camera. Work is not separate from play and play is not separate from work. “It’s all living,” Branson feels.
Many executives whom I meet act and speak one way in the privacy of our conversation, only to sound completely different when they deliver a presentation. They act, look, and sound like two different people. They’re not comfortable in their lane. They want to be in somebody else’s lane.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met leaders who are passionate, humorous, enthusiastic, and inspiring, only to discover that the minute they get onstage they become soulless, stiff, boring, and humorless. When I ask why, some respond, “Because I’m giving a presentation.”
Please keep this in mind. When you deliver a presentation, your goal should not be to “deliver a presentation.” It should be to inspire your audience, to move them, and to encourage them to dream bigger. You cannot move people if they don’t think you’re real. You’ll never convince your audience of anything if they don’t trust, admire, and genuinely like you.
PRESENT YOUR CONTENT TO A DIFFERENT AUDIENCE. One way I help clients to be more authentic when they are “on” is to have them present their content to a friend or spouse before they have to present it to the intended audience. They are more likely to let some of their “real” self come out when delivering the information to someone they have a relationship with than to a group of listeners they don’t necessarily have a close connection with.
In Sheryl Sandberg’s talk, “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” she says that women often underestimate their abilities in the workplace. I would argue that the same lack of confidence affects many people—men and women—when it comes to their ability to give inspiring presentations. I’ve heard all the excuses: I’m shy; I’m not good at public speaking; I get nervous; kids made fun of me in elementary school; my content is complicated; etc. These reasons—or a variation of them—may very well explain why you’re not confident about giving a presentation, but in no way do they define your potential as a public speaker.
I can assure you that many people, even great communicators, are insecure about their public speaking ability. The internationally famous pastor Joel Osteen said he was “scared to death” before his first sermon in October 1999. Ten years later he hit a home run, preaching to a sold-out crowd at the new Yankee Stadium. It took him ten years and hundreds of sermons to master the craft of public speaking, but today Osteen is considered one of the most inspirational spiritual leaders in the world.
Richard Branson said he nearly got sick when he was asked to speak early in his career. “My mind went blank when I took the microphone. I mumbled incoherently for a bit before leaving the podium. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, and my face glowed red as the Virgin logo,”4 he said.
Branson committed himself to becoming a better speaker. He practiced relentlessly. “Good speakers aren’t just lucky or talented—they work hard.” Branson also learned to be himself, to be authentic. “To be an impressive public speaker, you have to believe in what you are saying. And if you speak with conviction and you’re passionate about your subject, your audience will be far more forgiving of your mistakes because they’ll have faith that you are telling the truth. Prepare, then take your time and relax. Speak from the heart.”
Billionaire investor Warren Buffett was “terrified” of public speaking. He was so nervous, in fact, that he would arrange and choose his college classes to avoid having to get up in front of people. He even enrolled in a public speaking course but dropped out before it even started. “I lost my nerve,” he said. At the age of 21, Buffett started his career in the securities business in Omaha and decided that to reach his full potential he had to overcome his fear of public speaking.
Buffett enrolled in a Dale Carnegie course with 30 other people who, like him, were “terrified of getting up and saying our names.” Buffett revealed his early insecurity in an interview for a Web site aimed at helping young women find career success. The host asked Buffett, “What habits did you cultivate in your 20s and 30s that you see as the foundation of success?”5 Buffett answered, “You’ve got to be able to communicate in life and it’s enormously important. Schools, to some extent, underemphasize that. If you can’t communicate and talk to other people and get across your ideas, you’re giving up your potential.” Very prestigious business schools fall short when it comes to making communication skills a vital part of their programs. I’ve lost count of how many brilliant MBAs I’ve coached at large corporations who tell me, “We don’t get this stuff in school but it’s so important for what I do.”
PUT IN TIME. Do you remember locking your car door when you left it this morning? You many not remember it but of course you did. You need to practice communicating your content every day at every opportunity so that the mechanics of giving your presentation don’t monopolize your attention and focus. You don’t want to be the dancer counting the steps out loud. Repetition frees your mind to tell your “story” in a way that is interesting, dynamic, and, more important—authentic.
I’ve worked with corporate leaders who are worth millions of dollars and run some of the world’s largest brands, representing products and services that touch your life every day. Many have privately admitted to me that they are not confident about public speaking. My job is to bring out their confidence so that they can captivate their audiences. I do so by helping them to identify their “lane” and why they’re passionate about that lane. Then, once we craft, visualize, and rehearse the presentation, it’s time to let go and, as Branson suggested, speak from the heart. This approach has never failed.
Secret #9: Stay in Your Lane
The next time you deliver a presentation, you’ll be compared to TED speakers. Your audience will be aware that there’s a fresh, bold style of delivering information; a style that lifts their spirits, fills their souls, and inspires them to think differently about the world and their roles in it.
Today, people around the globe have viewed TED presentations more than one billion times online via the TED site, YouTube, or embedded in countless blogs. Even the TED presenters themselves are getting better and better every year, an observation that TED curator Chris Anderson made at TED 2013.
The TED style permeates much of our popular culture. When former president Bill Clinton appeared on Stephen Colbert’s show on Comedy Central, Colbert suggested that Clinton combine his conference, the Clinton Global Initiative, with TED and call it “Bill and Ted’s excellent initiative!” It got the biggest laugh of the interview, but the joke would have bombed had the audience not known about TED or the type of presentations it’s known for.
While the TED style is infusing our culture—and, as we’ve discussed in the eight previous chapters, TED speakers do share techniques in common—each person must find his or her own passion about the topic to make an authentic connection with the audience. Above all, do not try to be Tony Robbins, Dr. Jill, Bono, Sheryl Sandberg, Richard Branson, or any of the other people you’ve read about in this book. They carved out a lane for themselves and drove in it exceptionally well. Stay in your lane. Hold the space. Be true to your authentic self—the best representation of yourself that you can possibly be.