Unperspective: Get Over Yourself

Some days I am a moron. And not just an average moron, but a complete moron.

This week, I was speaking at a technology conference. As the momentary “expert” on the topic, I felt I was teaching well, and the audience was learning well.

First, moron behavior. I read my reviews immediately before my next session. The majority were constructive, however, one stood out. It said that the “speaker was combative” and “derogatory to the audience.” I walked into that next session in a daze.

My immediate reaction was defensive. I realized that the one person who kept challenging me with questions – that were not questions – had started quite an ongoing battle in my session. I had found out they were like this in many sessions, so I was feeling quite justified in my defense. When they had challenged me and were wrong, I was able to respond with the correct answer. When they had challenged me and I did not know the answer, I told them I would do more research. The last time they challenged me, we were completely at odds and I responded with “you and I disagree, but since I am the speaker, I am right.”

Of course, that was my sense of humor trying to lighten the situation, so I felt justified in being “entertaining.” However, the comment about being “combative” changed that perspective for me. In this case, I am the teacher, and it is up to me to give the audience education, not entertainment. Education in an entertaining way, of course, but not to be a comedian. In retrospect, my responses were more self-based than for the audience, so I realized I had been a moron.

I started to blame the audience member whose insecurities were showing a desire to assert their superior intellect. I quickly understood it was me who the audience was “judging” based on my reaction – they were, ultimately, nobody to remember.

One of the most amazing traits humans have is a strong sense of self. This is manifest in the ability to step up to do anything at all. This trait is about how we see ourselves and how we value ourselves. The stronger our sense of self, the more confident we are. And there is a fine line between confidence and cockiness. I crossed that line when I became the entertainer – hence the review I received. No matter how much I tried to justify my behavior, I was not delivering the promise I made when I submitted this session to the event. Moron!

Impostor syndrome is something that challenges our sense of self. To react to that, we often spend extra effort in making ourselves look good. My audience member was definitely working hard to assert their knowledge visibly. This backfired on them when they were clearly wrong, but their cockiness meant they had to keep proving their worth.

That sense of self-worth is too often measured by what we think other people think of us. And this, is the other moron behavior in which I indulged. For all of my youth, I spent too much time being “silly” in order to be noticed. This evolved into adult behavior that for a long time was mostly about whether someone liked me or not.

In this instance, the event was about technology and the education of technology. It was my role to provide that education. Certainly, my speaking style is (as another review said) is “not your normal technology session”. But the goal should always be to deliver education, not to be noticed, appreciated, lauded, given kudos, or be funny.

Post-conference, I have spent a lot of time turning this concept over and over in my head. (Who says I am obsessive?) I believe this is a lesson I must learn in my evolution to be the best conference speaker I can be. I must bring my knowledge and my passion, and deliver the sessions for the benefit of the audience.

Now, if only the audience would comply!

And there is my next challenge. In my session titled Overcoming Your Fear of Speaking, I teach budding speakers how to handle hecklers and those who wish to assert their large brains on the topic and the session. For me, there is now some introspection required into dealing with all kinds of questions and interjections. I shall learn more about the management of an audience in order to ensure they feel valuable, they feel they have learned something, and they leave wiser.

The other moron thing I did while speaking was to end sentences with the word, “right?” (Just like that, in fact.) It has been something that bothers me for a long time. I have listened to speakers who end almost every sentence with “right?” or “ok?” and occasionally I had caught this affliction. I’ve spent a lot of time working to understand this particular idiosyncrasy so I could wipe it from my vernacular while speaking.

The most difficult part of the “right?” syndrome is that we never pause for an answer. We asked the audience a question, but do not allow them a moment to answer, or even ponder an answer. We stride right on to our next sentence, ignoring the fact that we had offered a question. Normally, if it is a genuine question, we solicit answers and include the audience in this part of the conversation. In this case, with no pause, we are steamrolling our audience to agree with us and our “right?”

I believe I understand this better now. When we speak, we are – for that session – the teacher. Our audience are the students. This teacher-student relationship is not an adult-child relationship, nor is it a peer-to-peer relationship. We have something to impart, some lesson to teach, some story to tell to explain a concept.

For those of us who work with the same group of people who might be in our audience, it is often difficult to step up to the teacher role. The audience members are often our friends, our peers – people we see as equals. When we treat this as a peer-to-peer relationship, our subconscious kicks in to make us aware that we are at the same level as the audience. The “right?” is an addition to ensure we have agreement with our audience – to allow us to be at their same level. It is more of a “you agree with me, right? So, I’ll continue. . .” rather than “let’s pause while you ponder my profundity.”

The lesson for me was to give myself permission to be the teacher for that session. I have the education, the knowledge, and the skills to deliver the lesson. I am offering value to the audience members. I do not need to continually check with them that we’re all buddies. That relationship is outside this room and it will remain solid after the session.

I do ask you these questions to challenge you as I challenge myself.

Are you an audience member who asks questions to learn from the current expert at the front of the room? Or are you an audience member who wishes to assert their own perceived superior intellect? The former is preferable for all the expert speakers out there. You can always show your insecurities in other ways outside of that forum.

Are you a speaker who has some insecurities when standing in front of a crowd? Step up to be the teacher for that lesson, and it will change your sessions dramatically.

And, for all of you who think “moron” is harsh, this blog is not about being soft and easy. We humans often behave in ways that need to be addressed. For me, I address these situations directly. Using this word is for me. If you take these words personally that is your choice, and it probably signifies you may have some issues of your own to address.

However, if you are behaving like a moron and these words bother you, thanks for reading to the end. And . . . get over yourself.

Originally published in IT Jungle

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Trevor Perry