How To Lead By Being Yourself

One of my favorite things to do, when I’m at a conference or event, is to observe the people who are presenting. Sometimes they are referred to as “thought leaders” or “keynote speakers” or “esteemed guests”. Sometimes they are famous… or infamous. When this person is introduced - they are hyped up by the person who is hosting. There is a long list of credits, accolades, and other intimidating factors. All of this build up raises my expectations to extreme heights and I assume their presentation will knock me to the floor.  This is an expert, they will inspire. Ultimately I’ll leave not only learning something new from them, but learning something new about myself. (#fitspiration, am I right?)

That’s a lot of pressure for the speaker. That's a lot of pressure for any human being. And after all of the hype, so often they disengage and disappoint. Even the big names. 

I’m drawn to stories. (Which is good, because I run a storytelling company.) And I’ve noticed that even though someone might give a 20 minute presentation (long!), I’ll stay completely in it if they tell stories throughout. I stay focused. I’m learning and even hearing the data, the point, the message, but mostly listening to the stories. And when the speaker is able to infuse humor with surprising authenticity, then all the better. If they make me laugh, I feel like they’re my best friend.  

Confession: I’m a little sick of Ted Talks. Not the organization or the TedX spin-offs, per se, but the mold that they’ve (accidentally) created for public speakers. They wear a Britney Spears microphone, they pace back and forth no matter how small the stage, and they GESTICULATE. (Personal note: I hand flail when I tell stories. It’s evident from every screen shot of every storytelling video I’ve ever been in.  But this is a nervous habit, not a trained movement to be a Ted Talker). The point is, I’m not going to engage with this stage-pacing arm-flailing speaker if they are just talking AT me in this cookie cutter way. So often the audience is being barked at, not invited to connect through shared experiences. I want to hear their unique experience, with a beginning, a middle, and an end that reveals something to us. We’ll take that personal story and translate it to the universal. This is the power of storytelling and this is why those who lead, should use story to invite your audience to listen.

Encourage your audience to gather around you, make them come closer with their eyes and ears. They will do that when they can understand that you are human and these are the things you’ve done that make them just like you. We’re in this together. 

In October, I listened to all of the keynote speakers at the PA Conference for Women. And 6 months later, I’m still thinking about Abby Wambach’s speech. She used true stories from her life, that highlighted failures and her resilience in moving forward. Her speech began with a pre-taped video package — but it was also a story from her life. Immediately, we’re drawn in and now we want MORE STORIES! (In my mind, I was chanting “Stories! Stories!”) When the package ended, she came out on stage, she continued to tell stories: “I’m the youngest of seven. And I’ve made some mistakes, especially recently,” she began. “No matter what happens in my life — my successes and my failures — I’m comfortable talking about them, as should we all be comfortable talking about everything that happens.” 

In addition to embracing everything she had to say, it was also how she said it. Abby used words that were clearly her own. She spoke conversationally and made it collaborative. There was a little bit of the Ted Talk pacing, but there was also a stage that spanned three conference halls. Some other presentation highlights: She’s a cool dresser (also her own style) and she’s unapologetic. 

Here is a version of the keynote that she gave a few months prior to the one I saw. It’s 22 minutes, but I encourage you to stick with it. At 3 minutes and 42 seconds she says something that I always say and always want people to believe: “All of us have a story.” What’s this? Superstar soccer player Abby Wambach is inviting us to tell our stories too?! 

Sallie Krawcheck is another example of a woman who leads with humility and humor and is totally herself. She is famous for wearing a leather jacket on Wall Street and even when she’s not wearing a leather jacket, it feels like she is wearing one. You know?

Sallie is the CEO of Ellevest and I recently heard her speak at an event with the Arts and Business Council of Greater Philadelphia. She talked a lot about the gender investment gap and gave a lot of statistics, but it didn’t feel like a lecture, because she shared her own experiences. Here is a 5 minute snippet of the story that she shared with us.

This video is from a different event, she’s telling the same story, but it’s not a memorized speech. I can tell that Sally is aware of her audience and uses their responses to guide her story. It’s very close to the version that I heard, but she allows for those improvised moments to come in. 

Lastly, I will never forget this presentation from Ruthie Floats at the 2016 Ela Conference. Ela Conf is unique in that is gives keynote speaker slots to first time presenters. They believe in the person and trust their ability and power to lead. When it’s a first time presenter, it feels like the audience and the speaker are on the even ground. The audience cheers each speaker on and encourages them to keep going, even when things aren’t coming out like they planned. 

Ruthie gave a dynamic presentation on feelings and how they relate to your career and how you communicate them. She was nervous (she told us) her slides were out of order (this was her worst nightmare, she said) and these in-the-moment mistakes, made the audience love her all the more. She had to tell people to stop tweeting because the notifications were popping up in front of her presentation notes and continuing to flub everything she had prepared. She didn’t try to cover anything up or act like someone different. And when she realized she couldn’t get her slides back in order she said “You know what, I’m still me.” 

My favorite moments of her presentation were the ones that she hadn’t prepared. 

Does anyone else watch Netflix in bed first thing in the morning?
— Ruthie Floats

Whether you are a public figure or a first time public speaker, you can use stories from your own life — your failures AND your successes -- to engage and connect with your audience. Deliver a message, your data, or historical fact in a way that will make us stick with you. 

I encourage you to find the story that you want to share, and then share it in a way that invites us to listen. In the words of Carole King, “Where you lead, I will follow.” (Did anyone else hear that song as the Gilmore Girls theme song, first, before knowing it was Carole King?) 

And speaking of the Gilmore Girls... Listen to this story from the Moth told by Chenjerai Kumanyika. Listen and you’ll find the connection. It’s another terrific example of a failure story that infuses humor and vulnerability and leaves us with a message that we can cling to. I carry Chenjerai’s message with this piece of his story: “I have no idea how to use Microsoft Excel. I lied about my skills to get this job. And my solution to those first two problems is when in doubt, hit ‘Enter’.”