When you miss out the hard part, you make us feel bad.
Most conference talks make the audience feel bad about themselves, because the presenter talks about their achievements instead of how the audience can become more awesome (or how they can “kick ass”, as Kathy Sierra puts it.) This isn’t deliberate, and it’s straightforward to change, as long as the presenter is willing to take a risk by making themselves vulnerable.
Imagine you’ve been asked to present about something you’ve learned, or a project you’ve completed. You have something valuable to share, which means you took risks to get there—learning something is always uncomfortable. But when you start writing your presentation, a voice in your head tells you that people don’t want to hear about your struggles—instead they want to be “inspired” by your success. And so your failure story about learning transforms into a success story about “good practice” and “return on investment” and the way things should be done. You miss out the hard part of your project: the failures, the self doubt, the fear of criticism, the shame. You edit history to fit the form of almost every talk you’ve seen, until you come up with what you think we want to hear.
As the audience, part of us does want to hear your success story: the voice of shame, the lizard brain, the resistance. The lizard brain is trying to protect us from vulnerability by repeating the story that we learned as children: I’m not good enough. That’s exactly what your talk is communicating to us. You edited out the hard part and you’re telling the story of your project as if you found it easy, as if you’re a super-person, as if you’ve never faced shame in your life. We translate your story into a story about ourselves: “I could never do that, I don’t have a super-power.”
We might tell you that we feel “inspired” and that your case study will help convince our boss to give us permission to do our work. But we’ll walk out of the presentation feeling bad about ourselves, affirming that we’ll never amount to anything—that we could never be like you.
There’s another part of us that wants something different from you, though: we want you to be vulnerable. To risk our rejection and criticism and to share your struggles. To model the type of behavior that we need to practice in order to do our true work: doing things that scare us because we might fail. If you’ve ever seen a talk like this, you’ll remember it: you probably described it as honest or brave. This type of talk makes us feel challenged, scared, and hopefully brave. We realize that you, the person on stage, are just like us—you struggle, you feel shame, you fail. You’ve shot down our excuses (“I’m not a super-person”) and you’ve told us that we’re capable of great work. We’ve learned that it’s OK to be uncomfortable, that other people believe in us, and that we have to take risks in order to do our work.
Back to your conference talk. You can choose to be honest about the hard part of your work, and focus on making your audience awesome instead of telling a fictional super-me story. Here’s the catch: it will scare the hell out of you. The couple of times I’ve tried it, it’s made me shake with fear, as if my body is trying to shut me down. But if you manage to feel the fear and do it anyway, it will change you—because you’ll help people to fight their own demons, to make themselves vulnerable, to do work that matters.