How to Find Out if You Belong on Stage: A Lesson in Authenticity
It was late, the luggage area was dark, and I was tired. I’d just flown in from a conference in Chicago to present a speech first thing in the morning in Minneapolis. There would be a big crowd. Media. A big deal for all of us.
I desperately needed sleep.
As the bags slid down the chute to their owners’ hands, I checked my watch. I’d have five hours at the outside to rest.
Finally, the bags stopped coming. Not mine. Mine was nowhere in sight.
Neither was anyone from Southwest Airlines.
Suddenly I was frantic. All I had with me was a briefcase. Old jeans, a rumpled white sweater with coffee stains. No toiletries. No toothbrush. Sneakers and dirty socks.
My perfect Armani suit, the unscuffed pumps, my deodorant, makeup, everything was in my bag, circling Cincinnati for all I knew.
No bag, not until 9 am tomorrow, well after my keynote address.
At that late hour, everything in town was closed, even the Target stores (Minneapolis is their headquarters).
In rising panic I called my speaking coach.
He said just three words. My body relaxed completely.
The next morning, I leapt out of bed, showered, finger-combed my mop, splashed water on my face and scrubbed my teeth with my finger.
The conference room was jammed with hundreds of business people dressed to the nines. I caught some disapproving glances. Checked with the sound crew.
Now or never, I thought.
A few minutes later, the lights went up on the stage, and I was introduced with great fanfare. I leapt up next to the lectern: dirty jeans, stained sweater, sneakers, no makeup and a rat’s nest of a hairdo.
There was a collective intake of breath.
I looked out onto that ocean of faces, paused, then deadpanned,
Southwest Airlines. Your bags fly free. We just don’t know where they land!!!
Two hundred impeccably-dressed business people nearly fell out of their seats.
We laughed long and hard for a few minutes, then I launched into my program.
I got two additional pieces of work out of that event. Not because I was dressed to the nines in my Armani and perfect pumps. But because I was authentic, made people laugh, and delivered valuable content.
Too many of us waste precious time worrying about this scarf or that earring. This perfect jacket or that length of skirt. Until that program in September 2010, so did I. I put great value in being defined by my impeccable taste. The skirt with no wrinkles. Every hair in place.
That is, until I had no choice but to be completely authentic.
I’ve been a professional speaker for nearly four decades. Never have I had a better time on stage, been more impactful or better received than the day I had no luggage, no mask and no fancy clothing to hide behind. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.
What did my speaking coach say?
“Make it funny.”
Because it was funny.
Nobody cares what you wear if you take them on a journey they will never forget. Deliver value, deliver from the heart. Know your material cold. Care more about your audience than the coffee stains on your sweater.
In a world where far too many speakers are consumed by their “brand,” be it purple hair, differently colored shoes or wild hats, at some point, nobody cares what you wear. They care about the experience you gave them from the bottom of your heart.
And that, you can take to the bank.