Recently one of my friends told me a story of a speaker (let’s call him Jerry) she saw at an industry conference dedicated to, as I understood, Project Management. She went to see the guy, since, as she heard, he was a member of Toastmasters.

Now, for those of you who don’t know, this usually means you can expect a strong performance. I would expect that too (in 2012 I co-founded the first English Speaking Toastmasters club in Wroclaw, which is still very active today).

However, as she was to realize quite soon, this was not the case.

“As soon as he started talking”, she told me, “something felt off.”

I asked her what was it about.

“He was speaking loudly and his gestures were very clear and visible. He was moving on stage energetically. He encouraged audience to participate.”

Sounds promising. What was the problem then? – I asked.

“But, it all appeared like he was on a mission to persuade us that he is awesome. That he is a great speaker – funny and confident.”


People were trying to hide their embarrassment.

“But it didn’t work. He promoted himself lot – sales pitches were, not-that-gracefully, inserted into his material all the way from start to finish. It felt off. He was trying hard, almost too hard to engage audience, but it didn’t work. He got mostly silence back. People were trying to hide their embarrassment. The more it was apparent he was not doing well, the more he tried to mask it.”

After the speech my friend exchanged  their feedback with other attendees. There was a striking consensus in their judgment. I think this one sums it best:

“WTF was that?”

As you can imagine, they will all avoid to see him in the future. She recalled he was young, maybe 23.

I have to say, I really feel for him even though I have not seen him speak. I feel for him because at some level I realized, I used to have a similar problem…

Social pressure

Isn’t the social pressure unbearable nowadays? If you use Facebook or other social media a lot you know what I am talking about. Does it worry you sometimes that everyone around you seem to have a perfect life, but you don’t? Scroll down your Facebook feed and it’s like reading a fairy-tale of success and happiness.

Meanwhile you sit there alone in the dark room and think your life sucks. Don’t worry. Your friends think exactly the same when they watch your social media updates.

Give it a few minutes of mental effort and you surely realize that, just like you, everyone else is only posting stuff that makes them look good in their (virtual and unbelievably stretched) social circles. But it takes a conscious effort to dig deep enough to realize, accept and be OK with that thought. Usually we don’t have time for this. We just mindlessly scroll down the screen. Does your thumb hurt already?

Unfortunately we carry this perception of the perfect world to other areas of life. Take public speaking, for example. Where else if not then, would you like to appear confident and successful – just perfect – if not when speaking in front of a peer group?

I feel that was Jerry’s downfall. Let me explain…

Confidence is about being humble, not cocky

Jerry was bragging a lot. He really tried hard to get acknowledged as expert on the topic by that industry’s social circle. He tried to belong to that perfect world of excellent speakers. Cool and confident. But here is the problem, with this approach…

True, natural confidence is not about bragging. It’s about being humble. Legitimate confidence allows you to admit that you are not perfect. That you don’t know everything. That you make mistakes. That’s true strength.

Showing a human face plays to one of the main concepts of likability – the power of similarity. We like people who are similar to us. Don’t believe me? Think of your closest friends. How many things do you have in common?

Your audience is not perfect either. And they know it well. Who is more similar and likable to them? Someone who makes mistakes just like them or a detached superhero? Since everyone makes mistakes and has flaws, even the experts, admitting to them increases your credibility. You are more believable and real.

Don’t play the superhero

Jerry wanted to be the best. But pretending you are a superhero is not going to work. You see, people don’t want someone to make them feel inferior. Their egos are at stake. Being humble and human invites them to listen and open up to you. They don’t feel threatened. They will not have to grade themselves against your standards and fail miserably. They will not feel bad because of you.

Being humble and human invites them to listen and open up to you.

Ultimately, being the hero hurts you in the end. You might feel good, but you’re the only one who ends up in that mood. Let me ask you, what are the chances you are going to want to see someone who made you feel inferior, again? In Jerry’s case it obviously took even more dramatic turn. People did not feel inferior because of him. They felt embarrassed because of his attempts to make them feel inferior.

Your New Mindset

Next time, when you speak to a group, don’t follow Jerry’s footsteps. Don’t be afraid to show some vulnerability. Resist the pressure to appear perfect, instead focus on authenticity. Admit that you don’t know everything. Show the audience that you are just like them. If you are the super hero, how can they ever aspire to reach to your level? Show them your imperfections. It will win them over to your cause.

Show them your imperfections to win them over.

My friend was considering to send Jerry an e-mail with feedback. I hope she does.

She said, “I would not be surprised if had no idea what effect his speech had on the audience”. I wouldn’t be either. He was probably so lost in his quest to appear confident and knowledgeable – just perfect – that he shut down to incoming signals. He was not able to feel the vibe and decode reactions of the audience. That’s what happens when you focus too much on how are being perceived and not enough of the real heroes – your audience.

I hope she does send the e-mail. The change in mindset always starts with the honest feedback from someone who cares enough to let you know.

I know it from my own experience.

Now tell me:

  • Have ever seen someone similar to Jerry speaking? How did you feel?
  • Did you tell them that something was wrong?
  • Every acted like this yourself? How did it end?

Leave a comment now.

Wojciech is a trainer, teacher and life-long learner on the topic of effective communication. He believes that speaking clearly, effectively and with confidence is essential to our success and taking advantage of all life’s opportunities. READ MORE