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Speaker’s Tip: Be Yourself

My home is located a stone’s throw from the Silicon Valley in San Jose, California. Several years ago I met an engineer who was struggling with public speaking at work. Although he was brilliant, he was far from what anyone would consider charismatic. Try as he did, he could not figure out how to become like other presenters he admired. Everyone praised the quality of his content but agonized over his boring presentation style. This dilemma almost cost him his job and ended his public speaking career.

Our initial focus was centered on his content rather than his presentation skills. First, we switched the way he formatted his content from outline form to “movements” (more on this later). Second, he learned the strategy of “beginning at the end”. This preliminary work helped his presentations become more purpose-centered while also improving their structure. This in turn elevated his level of confidence and relieved some of the fears that continually dogged him.

By then, we were free to look at other issues. Intuitively, I sensed a veiled problem. “Tell me the name of a presenter that you admire,” I suggested, and he named a woman at work he considered a magnetic and captivating speaker.

“Do you think you can learn to be like her?”

After thinking a minute, he said, “Honestly, no.”

Then I asked him to give me the name of someone else he might aspire to be like, and he mentioned John Maxwell, a popular speaker in corporate circles. When I asked if he thought he could become a presenter like John Maxwell, given time, he lowered his head and said after a short pause, “I guess not.”

Knowing I was gradually bringing him to an important point of understanding, I asked, “If you can’t be like the woman at work, and you can’t be like John Maxwell, who can you be?” He looked visibly frustrated and a bit discouraged as he said, “I can’t be like anyone.” I repeated his last words, “like anyone?” Then he looked up and said, “All I can be is me.”

On hearing those words I grinned and said we were now ready to get started. The lesson here is that all we can be is who we are. That is where we have to start. Aspire to be the best “you,” and leave the rest to someone else.

Years ago, as a younger speaker, this same lesson was driven home for me. It happened shortly after meeting one of the best speakers I had ever heard. After deciding I was going to be just like him, I made several adjustments to my style and delivery in hope of being more like this “master.” Soon people were noticing the difference, but not in the way I had hoped. Instead of compliments, I started getting comments like, “What happened to you? You don’t seem like yourself.” At this point, you might think I would have abandoned my plan to mimic this guy, but sadly I did not. Instead, I decided I needed to try even harder to be like him. It was a stupid decision. Things went from bad to worse. Eventually, I discovered the same lesson my engineer friend had to figure out. I could only be me.

Remember earlier when I talked about learning some things by painful consequences? Well, this is a great example. Do not waste your time trying to be someone else. Learn who you are as a speaker and grow from there. Who knows, someday someone might try to imitate you.


“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

– Dr. Seuss