Not a Speaker? That’s ok. Be an Un-Speaker.

A few weeks ago I had the great privilege of going to STORY Gathering 2016 in Nashville. I first heard about it when I talked with Lindsay O’Connor way last spring, and she shared about it as her This Moved Me Moment on my podcast, This Moved Me. (If you haven’t heard that conversation, it’s a great one!) I was intrigued! But I didn’t take the leap. I did, however, decide that I would make it happen at some point.

This is my amazing friend, Rita, believing in Nashville.

Fast-forward to this past spring and I just LEAPT. LEAPING leads you to awesome things, my friends.

Awesome things like being introduced to some amazing new musicians (like Birdtalker and Drew Holcomb and All Sons and Daughters) and seeing an astoundingly good 12-year old pianist (Katherine Liu), to seeing some incredibly moving art (Nikkolas Smith) and spoken word (Micah Bournes). I got to spend two full days immersed in inspiration, insight, challenge…from speakers like Jason Jaggard and the bold and hilarious Casey Niestadt. I even got to see one of my former guests — the awesome Hank Fortener — up on stage doing his thing! That was awesome.

But there’s one talk I saw this past week that I want to focus on. And that’s this guy: Brad Montague.

You probably know Brad. Brad, the creator behind Kid President — one of the most hopeful and delightful creations on the internet. Brad is a writer, director and father who believes that if kids and grown-ups work together, we can change the world.

I am with you, Brad!

The Un-Speaker Speaks

When I saw Brad Montague speak, I was delighted by his lightness and child-like whimsy. If you’ve ever seen Kid President (which Brad has created with his brother-in-law), then you know what I’m talking about. He strikes this balance of meaning — and insight — with a whimsy and charm that dis-arms.

And here’s the dealio: Brad strikes me as this kind of NEW speaker — what I’m calling the UN-speaker. It’s someone who doesn’t plan to make this his ‘gig’, necessarily — and yet here he is, speaking. It’s not that he doesn’t have something he wants to say and puts effort into — he does. (He must!) But that what drew him out on stage wasn’t the desire to be out on stage. What propels the Un-speaker out on stage is the mission –the purpose — the message. And that makes ALL the difference to the audience.

The audience can tell the difference between a ‘speaker’ and an ‘un-speaker.’

Take, for example, Brad — one of my new favorite “un-speakers.”

What Does it Mean to be an Un-Speaker?

1) You are nervous, enough.

Brad and I are Twitter “friends” (I mean, as much of “friends” as you can be on Twitter, I suppose!), and I sent him a message before the conference, letting him know I would be there and that I was excited to see him speak.

He said, basically, “I’m nervous!”

And can I tell you? I could tell. Just enough. And we, the audience, loved him for it.

Yes, let’s be nervous! Not nervous-nervous. Not, I-feel-sick-nervous, or Good-Lord-I-can’t-stop-shaking-nervous that makes the audience uncomfortable and worried for you… but the kind of nerves that let you know you’re doing something big, and good, and a little risky.

Nervous-excited! — or what my 11-year old daughter calls nerviscited.”

It’s the kind of nerves that drive you to prepare and to feel excited.

It’s the kind of nerves that humanizes you to your audience, because they would be nervous, too!

It’s the kind of nerves that connects rather than disconnects — which is always the goal.

  1. You are prepared, enough.

Brad didn’t come out there and do a typical shin-dig. This wasn’t a talk he’s done a zillion times before and will do a zillion times again. This talk was special to this particular audience, and this particular moment. That kind of preparation takes time.

So there’s un-prepared — and then there’s prepared — and then there’s overly-prepared — and finding that balance is the job of the UN-speaker. (Well, truthfully it’s the job of EVERY speaker — but I think the UN-speaker is at a particular advantage here because they are less likely to be lulled into a sense of complacency.)

Speaking may not be your THING, but that doesn’t give you permission to just wing it. To just rely on your reputation or expertise and figure people don’t really care.

On the whole, audiences are kind and generous — especially if it’s obvious that you care. Showing up un-prepared (or not having given thoughtful consideration to this moment) makes the audience less generous with you. This is precious time we as the audience give to you — please don’t waste it.

And on the other end of the spectrum is the dreaded overly-prepared, mechanical talk that could be being given anywhere, to anyone. Ugh. Better than the un-prepared, but it can feel a little bit like we as the audience aren’t actually WITH YOU. We are props in your show, rather than partners.

But the un-speaker embraces the opportunity as unique, and invests the time and energy that this particular audience and moment calls for.

How many times have you seen a brilliant person do a really poor job speaking? I feel like 70% of the talks I’ve seen are either overly prepared or under-prepared.

Un-speakers — prepare — just enough!

3) You are messy, enough.

It wasn’t perfect.

Perfection kills connection.

As an audience member, I want connection, not perfection. I can’t relate to perfection. It builds a wall between me and you and then, really, who cares about how this content might impact either of us?

I want it to be just messy enough.

So when you flub, embrace it.

When something awkward or unexpected or strange happens in the room — please don’t pretend otherwise. Find a way to acknowledge it, without it taking over your talk.

So Let’s Talk About Authenticity.

I think it comes down to this: authenticity.

Does the audience feel they know who you are? Do they believe you?

Ultimately, the UN-speaker is more concerned about connection than perfection; more concerned about the moment than their legacy; more concerned about being real than being the best.

So if you’re convinced you don’t have what it takes to be a speaker, that’s ok.

Go be an un-speaker.

Sally Koering Zimney is a presentation coach, award-winning speaker and host of the podcast/blog This Moved Me about the art of moving your audience.