I sat in my little metal folding chair absolutely petrified. My hands were sweaty, my posture slumped, and I couldn't hear a word the presenter was saying. All my faculties were consumed with the fear of my impending doom.
What was so downright terrifying?
I was about to give my first official public presentation.
I was eighteen years old and an engineering co-op student at General Motors. More for our benefit than anything else, at the end of each semester we co-op students were required to give a presentation of our work assignment and accomplishments that term. They were horrid affairs, to be sure, with a dim little old-fashioned bulb-type overhead projector, and amateur flimsies comprised of lots of really unimportant information. One by one each victim would get up and grind through a horrid three minutes. Soon, it would be my turn.
My memory blanks out at this point. Perhaps it's some sort of protection mechanism, the kind of thing that eliminates our past tragedies from memory or at least preserves our self-image by refusing to remind us of what dorks we once were! At any rate, I can't recall one detail about that presentation except for how scared I was beforehand.
It didn't go away any time soon, either. Year after year we'd go through the same drill and I'd be wigged-out-scared each time.
Fast forward to today, where I basically make my living speaking in front of audiences around the world. I give somewhere around 50 public talks a year, and have been doing so (and often more) for almost 20 years. Now, I don't even break a sweat. I am not only NOT scared by speaking in public, I actually relish each moment!
First, the proverbial "time on the water." Anything we do a lot will eventually become comfortable. Notice I said "comfortable." Just because we ultimately get comfortable at doing something that previously scared us to death, however, doesn't mean we actually get good at doing it!
To become good at public speaking, I've learned (and continue to learn) that one has to accomplish several things. I've written and spoken a lot on this elsewhere, so for this short article I'll just condense it into a nice little jingle taken from the world-famous smash hit song, Old MacDonald, as in, "Had a farm." We all know how the next part goes: "E - I - E - I - O!"
Let's use that little bit of wisdom in the form of an acrostic (I know, I know, I hate acrostics, but this one was just too cute and memorable not to do! Give me a little slack here, sheesh.)
E = Educate - this means to teach the audience something they didn't know before. It should be a good reminder to deliver real content, something valuable, insightful, helpful, or profound.
I = Illustrate - this is one of the most important things to remember; you haven't told them until you've shown them. Use stories and illustrations to drive points home.
E = Entertain - if you don't make it fun, it won't be memorable. Worse, if you don't keep their attention, they won't even hear enough to remember any of it anyway. So be entertaining, engaging, and fun.
I = Inspire - this is where the emotional component comes in. Remember: the difference between being articulate and eloquent is passion. Eloquent speakers share their passion as much as their information.
O = Outcome - What action do you want the audience to take as a result of your talk? If you don't give them marching orders, you can be sure they won't march anywhere other than away from your podium.
There are millions of little, simple guides like this one, but I have to make the case that this little jingle from Old MacDonald just might be the most memorable. I hope it is. And I sincerely hope that when you next have the opportunity to speak in front of people, you think of this little acrostic and don't just have the jingle running through your head (because that would be annoying).
"And on this farm he had some chicks . . . "
Everyone has experienced walking into a room of strangers and not exactly knowing what to do. Where do you sit? Who do you talk to? What do you do with your hands? Is everyone looking at you? What are they thinking?
These feelings of insecurity are natural, but they don’t have to be permanent. In fact, one of the worst things that can happen to your ability to relate to other people and to “fit in” is to be overly conscious about yourself and how you are coming across. Being self-conscious means being less “other-conscious.” This is bad, because it basically means you are too busy thinking of yourself to be thinking about the other people.
“But I am thinking about the other people,” you might say. “That’s why I feel so awkward in these situations.”
That may be true. But you’re thinking about how those other people are thinking about you, which isn’t really thinking about them at all. It’s really just another way of thinking about you, by thinking about what they are thinking about you. Get it?
There is a very helpful saying that goes something like this: You wouldn’t worry so much about what other people thought of you if you knew how seldom they did.
Remember that. It’s very helpful advice.
One of the biggest areas in which you can have a breakthrough in dealing with other people is to realize that everyone feels as if he or she is at the center of the universe. They are busier thinking about how they are coming across than they are noticing how you are coming across.
So here’s what you do with all of this. Here’s how you stand out in a world where almost everyone is self-focused and nervous too. Enter a room with your head held high, your eyes making contact with others, and a smile upon your face. Be the one who approaches other people and introduces himself first. Don’t wait for others to make the initial contact. You make it yourself. Play a little game in your head by pretending that the one who makes the initial contact first wins! Shake hands, give your name, and strike up conversations by asking others about themselves. People are infinitely interesting when you care enough to dig into who they are and what they are about. Try it. You will be shocked how effective these little steps are.
I mean it! Act comfortable even if you are not. Force yourself to behave in the proper way and eventually it will become a habit. No one will be able to tell that you are actually feeling a little nervous deep down inside.
There is a line in a rock song that says, “Charisma is the key to opportunity.” It may not be as simple as all that, but it’s not too far off the mark, either! The world seems to make way for a person who knows where he or she is going. And there is no better way to demonstrate confidence and a sense of direction than by being comfortable around other people. Learn the habits of good interaction with people, whether they be older, younger, or much different from you. Get good at being the initiator. And stop worrying so much about what other people are thinking about you. Trust me, if you do these steps often enough, they will think much more highly of you for doing so!
I was in a bookstore one day browsing through the section on historical fiction. I am a sucker for a well-written novel set in a real historical time and involving characters from our past. Thumbing through the familiar names of Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden, and Jeff Shaara, I was surprised to come across a couple of books in this genre by Steven Pressfield. I knew Pressfield to be the creator of the story behind the movie The Legend of Bagger Vance. Intrigued, I bought both books and read them with relish. They were remarkable. They transported me back in time, immediately got me interested in their characters, and also taught me much about the epochs in which they were set. Impressed with the breadth of Pressfield’s creative ability, I dug into the story of his success.
Apparently it was seventeen years of trying before Pressfield got his first professional writing job. It was a partnership on a screenplay for a movie called King Kong Lives. Excited and confident of success, Pressfield invited everyone he knew to the movie’s premiere. Nobody showed. Not a soul. Then the review of the movie in Vanity Fair said of Pressfield and the other man who helped write the script, “. . . Ronald Shusett and Steven Pressfield; we hope these are not their real names, for their parents’ sake.” Talk about criticism!
Pressfield himself writes of that time in his life, “Here I was, forty-two years old, divorced, childless, having given up all normal human pursuits to chase the dream of being a writer; now I’ve finally got my name on a big Hollywood production . . . and what happens? I’m a loser, a phony; my life is worthless, and so am I.”
If the story had ended there for Pressfield, we may never have heard of him. But something happened. In Pressfield’s words: “My friend . . . snapped me out of it by asking if I was gonna quit . . . no! [Pressfield answered]. ‘Then be happy. You’re where you wanted to be, aren’t you? So you’re taking a few blows. That’s the price for being in the arena and not on the sidelines. Stop complaining and be grateful.’”
It’s hard to imagine sometimes the resistance and rejection successful people have overcome on their journeys. We look at them and immediately see their genius, their ability, their authentic swing. We know them by their Margaritaville. But excellence comes only after the long struggle against any and all obstacles that come along. This is easy to forget when looking upon someone who has “made it.”
There is another, deeper lesson to be gained from Pressfield’s story, however. In effect, he was told not to waste his failure. Specifically, he was reminded to be grateful for it!
We have already been through the discussion about how failure isn’t fatal as long as it isn’t final. But we need to emphasize here that failures are extremely valuable if utilized properly, that is, if they are used as learning experiences and employed in the task of making us better.
Failures hurt. In reading the account of Pressfield’s first professional flop, it is easy to feel his pain and embarrassment. But fortunately for thousands of fans all over the world, Steven Pressfield did not allow his humiliations to define him; instead, he let them refine him. The concept is simple but difficult to live out consistently: our failures should not define us, but rather they should refine us.
Too many times we allow our failures to go to waste. As a result of the pain of failing we quit, pout, lash out, lose confidence, and lose hope. In such cases the failures hurt, but they are not allowed to instruct. They knock us down, but then are not utilized to lift us higher. They make us appear foolish, but are not allowed to help us grow wise.
Author Frans Johansson wrote, “ . . . groundbreaking innovators . . . produce a heap of ideas that never amount to anything. We play only about 35 percent of Mozart’s, Bach’s, or Beethoven’s compositions today; we view only a fraction of Picasso’s works; and most of Einstein’s papers were not referenced by anyone. Many of the world’s celebrated writers have also produced horrible books,* innovative movie directors have made truly uncreative duds, megasuccessful entrepreneurs have disappointed investors, and pioneering scientists have published papers with no impact whatsoever on their colleagues . . . the best way to beat the odds is to continually produce . . . .”
Any life lived will most certainly come with a litany of failures, mistakes, embarrassments, and humiliations. If we are not mature enough to use these shortfalls as steppingstones, they don’t find their way into our legacy and are spilled out as waste instead. In such instances, we have felt the pain but not grabbed the gain.
Never waste a failure. Wring from it all the experience and learning you can to come back stronger and better the next time. And no matter what, keep producing.
* He doesn't mean me!
(Below is an excerpt from my next book, being crafted with love and blood even as you read this!)
There is an old story about a fisherman who believes he has died and gone to Heaven as he catches one perfect 2 lb trout after another. As he sets his fly and hooks into yet one more, he can’t fathom his good fortune. The sky is blue, the weather ideal, the fish biting like he’s never before experienced, and everything is absolutely perfect. It is not long, however, before the realization dawns on him that he is not in Heaven at all. Instead, as the boredom and the pointlessness settle in on him, he realizes he’s actually in Hell.
It’s hard to describe just how hard this little parable hit me the first time I heard it. In one moment it erased all my whiny complaints about how difficult and elusive success seems to be. The trout fisherman in Hell story is so extreme, so seemingly ridiculous, that we are confronted with a strange and brutal fact: we may hate opposition and struggle, but it is critical for our mental health. Without the struggle, we would feel no joy in victory.
How can this be? How can it be true that we are actually happier and more fulfilled when overcoming opposition than when everything is easy and simply rolling our way? It is because of the way we were made. Without a battle to win and an enemy to vanquish, the value of the warriar goes to zero. In the famous words of Thomas Paine, “What we attain too cheaply we esteem too lightly.” If we don’t earn it, we can’t enjoy it.
This is profound, and it ought to provide a telling answer against all those dismal statistics that suggest that the "odds" of making it are too tall. If we consider only statistics most of us would never get out of bed in the morning, much less find a way to force ourselves to study for that upcoming calculus exam or next achievement in our career. You see; it doesn’t matter how difficult success is or what the odds are of us “making it.” What matters is our struggle against the opposition, the force of our will against the force of everything that would try and stop us. Not only does it fulfill us to have something against which to push, but in the process it also makes us better. It is the resistive weight that builds the muscles. So ultimately, it doesn’t matter if success is hard or not, it simply matters that we pursue it anyway.
She knocks on the door to my office and waits until I motion her in. Politely she asks with expectant eyes if I'd like to visit her "gum store." For once making the right choice (trying to remember if I've put her off earlier for the same request) I rise from my work and take her by the hand.
Her big brown eyes and freckled face are all delight as she tours me around the various flat surfaces of her bedroom, each delicately decorated with candies and gums of many colors and varieties. On one particular tray she has segregated Chiclet candies by color, arranging rows of them in a clever striped pattern. On another featuring one lone piece of gum on a tiny silk pillow, she has affixed a sign that reads, "Some of our gum is even royal!"
Everywhere there are signs, and prices, and even games to be played. Displays have been crafted with boundless creativity and flare. Her marketing skills as a 9 year-old are so far ahead of most adults that I consider hiring her on the spot to write ad copy for our company. "And here are some magazines I put together, Daddy," she says, offering me two well-researched handcrafted gems replete with explanations and diagrams showing how gum is manufactured. Throughout each magazine are clever ads and jingles, one-liners and specials. I marvel at the bud of talent inborn.
She is my only daughter, all sweetness and flair, with her own style and dramatic expression. She is precious to me beyond description. And perhaps to her, I am (in addition to her mother) the only audience that counts. Her happiness increases as she sees that her work has pleased me. Later, she again enters my office and hugs me. "I love you so much," she says.
The creative process is exhilerating. We conceive an idea, lay out our plans, and begin work under the most naive of expectations. The mere act of putting things together as we see them rushing into our mind is invigorating. In this delicate early phase, we are alone with the stream of conciousness and can hardly answer its call quickly enough.
Eventually, however, our peaceful cocoon of creativity must clash with the violent opinions of the real world. And usually we are not treated very kindly. Know-it-alls and pedants, critics and cynics swoop in to pluck the joy from our freshly birthed creations - feeding on our receding happiness like parasites without a food source of their own.
And it hurts.
In fact, many who are stung by the unfeeling mud from the masses retreat within themselves and carefully hide the candle under a bushel, having learned the lesson not to bring it out in front of others ever again. It is tragedy in the true sense of the word. When one's creativity is snuffed by harshness, innocence is lost. Something dies. The world is a little less beautiful.
But a true artist doesn't perform for the world. A true artist creates because it is what she does; who she is. All she has to do is remember who her true audience is. It's not the world, or its teeming masses of unthinking envious critics, or even its well-meaning coldhearts. No. Her real audience is her father, her Father in heaven. He is the One who embedded those talents and creative capacities in her to begin with, and it is for His pleasure she should give life to their impulse. Just as I attempted to do in the sincere expression of my approval and affirmation for my daughter's "gum store," God does for His children; for those who are called according to His purpose. He is never harsh or unkind in his praise of our sincere use of talents for His glory. And He is never too busy. Having thus pleased Him, we should thereby be insulated against the opinions of mere mortals. After all, it wasn't for them.
So express those truths you hold deep inside. Create, write, paint, build, design, assemble, as for a king. His is the only opinion that counts. He is your lone audience; the audience of One.
"And" is also a very important word when it comes to high achievement.
We have all heard about the importance of focus. Most of us suffer from distraction diseases of all sorts, including "Interruptidess," "smart-phone-check-obsession," "multi-task-mania," and "involvement-overload." Our natural tendencies are toward diversion and distraction, not focus. Even so, in the accomplishment of all high achievement, there is a degree of breadth required. There is such a thing as too much focus.
We have all heard that it is critical to "major on majors," that if we "fit the big rocks in the jar we can always get the little ones in later," and similar sayings. And these are all true. However, in our rush to simplify and focus, we must not forget that life is not that simple, and nobody accomplishes worthwhile goals without the ability to handle several things at once. The key is to know which majors to major upon, and which minors not to disregard.
You see, for every major task toward an objective, there is always a supporting cast of minor details. We may ignore most details as trivial, but some are not. I am reminded of coach John Wooden teaching his incoming freshman basketball players to turn their socks inside out and remove the balls of cotton that could otherwise cause blisters. Mastery and accomplishment are to some extent the product of understanding what details are important and which can be disregarded. We must learn what minor things play a supporting role for the major things. Once we know this, only then can we ignore details and smaller things, knowing that they really play no role in achieving our overall goal.
As leaders and high achievers we must master the "art of the both." Get good at determining which tasks are primary to accomplishing your goal, but then also discern which smaller ones play an important supporting role. In fact, it is by making these distinctions that you can then focus most effectively.
If you are new to the pursuit of excellence, or are just launching upon your dream chase, or are just now responding to a calling on your life, you may need to be warned about something (or someone):
Really, I've got nothing against Bozo the Clown. He wore his baldness with poise and managed to keep a smile upon his face despite the wardrobe he was forced to wear. Pretty admirable, any way you slice it. His name does serve as a categorization, however, for a certain type of person.
It doesn't matter how noble your calling, how amazing your talent, or how sincere your attempt, there will ALWAYS be a Bozo somewhere to criticize what you're doing. Usually, there will be several.
Bozos, you see, appreciate and grow stronger with each other's company, taking courage from their collective cowardice. Their purpose, as a lower species, is to denigrate others. They will question and criticize your ability, your talent, your motives, your heart, your character, your results, and just about anything else they can think of that you have or are attempting.
Get used to it. Realize that it's just part of the landscape of high achievement. No one, and I repeat, no one is immune from Bozo Infestation.
Exhibit A: In this video (be sure to watch it all the way through), a little eight-year-old girl sings a difficult song so well it should bring tears to the eyes of anyone even approaching the classification of a human being. And thousands of people quite appropriately clicked "like." But notice that, inexplicably, more than 2,000 people clicked "dislike." I can't imagine being in the presence of such nincompoops for even two seconds. Bozos are not above the criticism of anything, even an adorable, unbelievably gifted little girl. Just remember this the next time someone trashes you. If they can criticize little Connie Talbot, they won't have any trouble hurling their stones in your direction.
Like a swarm of mosquitos, Bozos will swoop in to darken your brightest shinings. Don't let them. As with mosquitos, you can swat them, ignore them, and curse them. But by far the most effective approach in dealing with Bozos is to apply an effective repellent. In the case of living your life and giving your all, this repellent consists of the following:
1. An awareness of their existence and a refusal to be shocked by such.
2. A refusal to listen to their vitriol, realizing that every great achievement is accomplished under a hail of criticism.
3. Pity for their pathetic little lives they are choosing to waste.
4. A steady focus upon your dream, your calling, and what God built you to be.
Don't ever let the Bozos get you down.
It happened to you and it's uniquely yours. No one else has your story. No one else has your particular mixture of experience and ability. Not only did God make you unique in all your parts, but the life He lets you live is just as uniquely yours. Nobody else experiences the world in exactly the same way as you.
These concepts are important to understand, because they form the basis of your personal brand.
What is a personal brand?
A personal brand is "whatever you do or bring to the world that is uniquely yours." Surprisingly, the more you stick to what is uniquely yours and the more authentic you are in what you do, the more interesting it is to others and the more marketable it is.
Allow me to give an example.
My incredible wife Terri Brady is a very interesting person with a compelling personal brand. Beyond all the foundational things that attracted me to her back in our college days (her love of the Lord, her values and her upbringing, her beauty, her courage, her playfulness, her native intelligence, her musical gifts, and above all, her undeniable wisdom in choosing me!), she has lived an incredibly interesting and inspiring life. Her list of brand experiences include prolonged infertility, surviving a life threatening brain tumor, engineering degree and work experience, home schooling four children, a consistent record of physical fitness, mastery of multiple musical instruments, dedication to worship and serving in the name of Christ, leading and mentoring many other women, high level entrepreneurship and business ownership, fabulous public speaking to audiences of tens of thousands around the world, a wildly popular blog, not to mention being married to a rascal like me! In addition to these unique experiences, many of which were beyond her control, how she carried herself through these events is even more impressive. The trials came without complaint, and the victories came without conceit. If you wrap all these things together you've got one incredible woman with a lot to share with others. All of these pieces together comprise Terri's personal brand. They make her interesting. They give weight to what she teaches. They give power to what she says.
Now, what would happen if Terri tried to teach people about scuba diving? Or produce a product focused on fashion? It wouldn't work. It's not her. It doesn't fit her brand.
The purpose of this example (beyond a shameless ploy to get points with my wife) is to demonstrate that who we are at the core, in the most authentic version of ourselves, is what we should focus on bringing to the world. In other words, only do what only you can do. It might be inspiring to know that when you do exactly that, you will be the most fulfilled. It's when you are doing precisely what you were built to do with the specific gifts God gave you that you feel the most alive. Any time you stray away from this reality you feel less yourself, less alive, less real. Life isn't about finding employment that pays the bills and then hanging on through the years waiting to die. It's about discovering what God built you to do and then doing it with all your unique abilities to His glory and pleasure.
Quite often I have people approach me asking how to become a public speaker, how to write a book, or how to best start a blog. Many times they've already made an attempt but the effort hasn't gained traction. My advice to them is always the same: first determine your true authentic personal brand. Find out what you have that is uniquely yours, and work your guts out bringing it to the world. The more your heart is in it, the more others will want it. There will always be a market for the best you've got to give (but, that is not to say that it won't be harder than you can imagine). You've got to focus. You've got to bring it all to bear on your great unique brand.
One more example.
Jimmy Buffett is an overwhelmingly successful musician and entertainer. He has attracted a following of fanatical fans who dress up in crazy costumes and follow him around on concert tours. He has sold millions and millions of dollars of music and books. He has a string of successful restaurants and a clothing line. He even has (or had) a channel on satellite radio! Over the course of more than four decades, Jimmy Buffett has assembled a massive entertainment empire. And really, when it gets right down to it, he did it all with just one song.
If you listen to Buffett's early music, you will notice that it doesn't really match his brand. The songs are serious, the topics are ordinary, and it's obvious that in those early days he hadn't really struck the chord of his true authentic gift, of his personal brand that would someday delight millions. But as soon as he produced the song Margaritaville, a star was born. He had hit upon it - an escapism genre that whisked people away from their cold, boring lives and put them in the warm tropical sun.
Imagine going to a Jimmy Buffett concert. You take in the enthusiastic crowd, you sing along with some of the songs, you feel relaxed and happy as you too escape to the islands for a few fun figurative moments. But what would happen if Buffett finished up his concert and failed to play the song Margaritaville? You would not only feel disappointed, you'd feel cheated. Buffett HAS to perform that song at every concert because it is the classic embodiment of his personal brand, and Buffett, being the consummate entertainer and crowd pleaser, knows this better than anyone.
This principle applies everywhere. How disappointed would people be if Stephen King came out with a marriage book? Or if Dave Barry released a serious novel? Or if Michael Jordon left basketball to play, I don't know, let's say baseball? These people, and every successful person in every walk of life, have succeeded by finding their true authentic gift and then giving it over and over with gusto.
Which brings us back to you.
What is your unique brand?
What are your particular foundational gifts?
What are your unique experiences?
How have you grown as a result, and what can you give out of it?
What innate talents has God given you that are yours?
What makes you feel the most alive?
What makes you feel the most fulfilled?
What things do you do that seem to bring the most accolades from people?
I guarantee that if you answer these questions and package all of this together, you will be at least heading in the right direction. Whether this means you will write books, blog, create music, speak on stages, preach, start a company, paint, organize something, lead a charity, invent a new technology, or whatever, if you line things up to be a product of who you are and what you uniquely can contribute, you will succeed. By this, I mean that you will find meaning and fulfillment in contributing something that only you can contribute.
Don't live anyone else's life for even a minute. It's yours. It's unique. Find your Margaritaville and then sing it with all you've got until you can't sing anymore. I promise, there will be fans cheering for your authentic output.