She stood up there, poised and professional. Her impressive background, the ivy league schools and a fancy title with a Fortune 500, seemed to go with the expensive pantsuit she was wearing – like Garanimals, everything matched (did I just date myself?). Her presentation was articulate and well constructed – very controlled – with just a little too much polish. I felt like she was speaking at me instead of to me. She seemed removed. Aloof. From the moment she stepped on stage, she was clutching her notes like a shield. But she didn’t look at them. Not once.
Who was this beautiful, intelligent, seemingly successful woman? I couldn’t tell. She had just given a full presentation and yet even as she finished, I felt no more connected to her than I had before we met. She was still just as much of a stranger to me. Masked. Protected. Untrusting. But it wasn’t me she didn’t trust – she didn’t trust herself.
Over the years I’ve learned to read the signs. There are “tells” – we all have them. When people present I can spot them right away. The notes are one dead give-away. There are hundreds of “tells”. Evasive eye contact, or looking right through the people in your audience instead of connecting with the human beings you’re trying to reach. Being too controlled, too careful – masked to perfection. All mechanisms to combat the vulnerability we feel. And, like protective armor worn in battle, they may get us through the presentation, but they’re not likely to get us any closer to being heard.
When I was giving her feedback, later in the day, I called her on it. “You don’t trust yourself,” I said, gently. “You were clear, articulate, you knew exactly what you wanted to say, and yet you evaded your audience and held onto your notes for dear life. You didn’t need them.” The look on her face, a mixture of bewilderment and relief, told me I had hit on a painful truth that she had been hiding for years. It was one I recognized because I’ve struggled with it myself and have seen it in hundreds of others – men, women, emerging leaders, senior execs – no one seems immune.
“Oh my gosh!” she said, “I know!” Then with a panicked look in her eyes, like she’d just been “found out”, she pleaded in a hushed voice, “What do I do? I need my notes.”
“No. You don’t need your notes. You are good. You are well prepared. You are better than you know. Trust yourself. Focus on connecting and let your audience bridge your confidence. They want to be there for you but they can’t if you don’t let them in. You have to risk connecting.”
Easier said than done.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not encouraging you or anyone else to walk into a presentation, notes-free, and pull it straight from your behind. Preparation is critical. But like an actor who rehearses before they take the stage, we must let go of the script to perform powerfully. We must take down our protective gear and risk being vulnerable in an effort to truly connect.
For without making connection what’s the point?
When the formerly-too-perfect-senior-executive took the stage later in the day to speak, I could see her eyes dancing – alive with a combination of nervous anticipation and excitement. She was there. Fully present with us. And her presence was electric. It was as if she had just needed permission to let her real self show up. When she spoke, every person in the audience was mesmerized. She held us in the palm of her hand the entire time. It was breathtaking. At the end the audience leapt to their feet in explosive applause. As I watched her, I felt hot tears stream down my face, because I knew – I knew what a leap of faith she was taking, I knew how hard it was, and I knew that it would change her forever.
While the risk she had taken will certainly make a difference in the way she leads and presents in the future, and she’ll likely reap tremendous benefits professionally, I saw a much bigger reward. A reward that lies in wait for all those who risk true connection. For in finding a way to trust ourselves, we don’t just learn to leap.
We gain the wings to fly.