Marketing is not a fancy hat (so don’t wear one)

I was on a client call recently, a team of folks from the financial services industry (whom I’ve been spending more and more time with lately), and we were talking over a concept that mattered to them and that they wanted to communicate.

“Can’t you do some clever marketing thing to, you know, message this?”, one advisor said.  

Hold up.

I had to remind her (gently, gently) that what we weren’t doing, ever, was trying to be clever. That marketing wasn’t, isn’t, a magic trick, and if you play it that way, you end up with gimmick, not substance.

And that the whole point of doing any messaging work is actually trying to find the heart of the message, the true, real, substantial thing—and that to find it, you had to dress everything down, not dress it all up.

But her misconception is common. Really, really common. We think that branding, marketing, messaging, whatever you want to call it, is about finding a fabulous hat to put on top.

In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s finding the very soul of the brand, the meaning of the work you do, underneath all the layers upon layers of stuff that you think you need (but usually don’t).

Marketing is either real, or it’s worthless.

As Seth Godin says in his latest book, This Is Marketing (and I recommend it strongly, especially if you THINK you hate marketing or are bad at it):

“Marketing is the generous act of helping others become who they seek to become. It involves creating honest stories—stories that resonate and spread. Marketers offer solutions, opportunities for humans to solve their problems and move forward.”

I talked about this, and my own process for capturing a powerful message, recently with my friend and colleague Julia Bruck, creator of the free How to Create Your Million Dollar Message summit—a collection of conversations with top industry leaders covering everything about business media.

In our conversation for the summit (which you can get here), I walk you through my steps for how to come at your brand messaging, which is what people tell me they struggle the most with—how to “wrap their brains” around it, how to get perspective, since they’re often just so close to it they can’t see it at all.

I told her, and I stand by this, that being good at what you do is table stakes. There’s nothing more important, above and beyond being able to execute on your trade, than being able to compel someone as to why they should care.

Without it, you just sit there and hope that someone comes knocking with their wallet out. And, yeah, that doesn’t work (trust me I’ve tried).

And the opposite holds true: There’s no point in having a great message if you can’t actually get behind it. Otherwise, you just get real good at lying (and you won’t be good at it for long).

Julia didn’t just interview me, of course—she interviewed a host of other experts and pros on messaging, including the Million Dollar Machine” coach Michael Burt, top internet marketer Heather Havenwood, Marketing Mentor founder Ilise Benun, Paleof(x) founder Michelle Norris, and Mr. Personal Power Mastery Douglas Vermeeren. You can catch ’em all here.

Make this the year you land your million dollar message. There are few things as critical. And of course, let me know if you need help!

Don’t Scrub the Grit from Your Story

Once I worked with a professional comic, helping with ideas for a TEDx talk about comedy she’d like to give.

She shared with me a terrifying account of the night, decades ago, when her abusive husband threatened her with a blunt object in his fist. And how, in that moment, a joke saved her life.

But when she wrote up her idea for the TEDx application, about joke and saving lives, specifically her, she made only a vague and veiled reference to an incident of domestic violence, without any of the vivid detail she shared with me.

Now, this was absolutely her call, and I get it. I work all the time with people who want nothing more than to connect with and compel an audience. And yet they are afraid of bringing their most vulnerable moments, their fallings and failures, into focus.

Instead, they smear vaseline over the lens. They don’t want to look bad. They don’t want to dwell on the times that felt ugly and embarrassing and shameful. It’s the last version of ourselves we want to show. We want to help people, not bum them out.

So when we tell our stories, we skim over the lousy parts to get to the good stuff—the thrilling, inspiring climax. As Brené Brown writes in Rising Strong:

“We much prefer stories about falling and rising to be inspirational and sanitized. In a thirty-minute speech, there’s normally thirty seconds dedicated to, ‘And I fought my way back…’. We like recovery stories to move quickly through the dark so we can get the sweeping redemptive ending.”

I have news for you. Glossing over the hard stuff doesn’t help anyone.

Lessons that are not hard-earned feel too easy and lightweight. And guess how they can feel earned? By showing us how you earned them.

I know you want to move people. But you can’t fast forward through the hard stuff and get to the climactic happy ending, cue the musical swell. No one will believe it.

In order to create and deliver a talk of meaning and value, and to forge connections, you must let us experience the truth, let us see you and what happened. You must let the details of it speak. The power is in the details, the scene, not the “telling” of a bad thing that happened that we won’t go into.

Show us how you fell. How it hurt. Show us the complexity of how you rose.

Brown writes,

“To strip failure of its real emotional consequences is to scrub the concepts of grit and resilience of the very qualities that make them both so important — toughness, doggedness, and perseverance.”


When you’re writing a talk (or an article or a book or About page), resist that urge to gild your failures and falling, as Brown says. Let us see them, bloody and rough and terrifying and lonely.

Don’t talk to us from a mountaintop; let us rise with you.

If you’re scared or unsure how to tell gritty stories, or even moderately stubbly ones, join us at Tapped to Speak LIVE in Boston, April 4&5. This powerful, intimate event will get you fired up and focused on your stand-out signature talk.  Learn more and reserve your spot at


How to Be the Quarterback for Your Own Ideas

If there’s one thing about me that you’d never guess in a million years, it’s that I play in a co-ed touch football league, and have for years.

I can’t believe it myself.

I’ve never been much of an organized sports person, and the memories I have of playing in my youth consist of long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.

But a few years ago, friends invited (read: pressured, threatened, cajoled) me to join their team because they were down a girl and why wasn’t I playing, anyway?

I really, truly have no idea how, I said.

So I learned. And I love it.

Yes. I learned how to play football and actually started playing over the age of 40.

And I learned something about myself too: I’m a damn good receiver. Defense? Not so great (which is weird, considering how defensive I get as a rule). But turns out, I’m all offense on the field.

But another thing: I’m only as good as the passes I’m thrown.

I happen to have a fantastic QB who throws a laser-sharp pitch and most of the time I feel like I was just in the right place at the right time. His skill determines my success.

My point: One of the most important skills you can learn is to pass an idea with power and precision to someone who’s ready to catch it.

(You’re the quarterback in this scenario, of course.)

Pitch, pass, same thing. We call them pitches, so be it—but what I mean is your ability to get your idea into the hands of someone ready to receive it, someone who, by virtue of positioning, intent, and sometimes pure luck, is wide open.

The members of the media (editors, producer, bookers, bloggers, writers, podcasters) want to grab a great idea and run with it. But if the throw is off or not directly aimed at them, it ain’t happening.

You can learn to throw better.

My business partner, Paula Rizzo, and I developed “How to Be a Media Magnet,” an entire course to help you learn to crack the media code. And pitch better. And perform on camera better.

Plus you learn how to:

  • Tap your expertise to go from professional to on-air expert
  • Search your brand for ideas, inspiration, and content
  • Connect with key influencers in the media
  • Face off with your fear of self-promotion
  • Make a producer or editor’s job easy and be their favorite go-to guest

The only way to get media is to give it what it wants. Come find out — and start snapping your pass.

Holiday Fix: Swap out bad questions for good ones

One of the things you likely dread (loathe, hate) about the holidays is not so much seeing the family, but fielding any number of triggering questions that set you on your heels, flare your defenses, and bring your blood to the boiling point.

And that’s because sitting down across from relatives who haven’t seen you in a while means facing up to their often innocent (though sometimes not) questions, but also, to who you are, where you are, and whether you’ve progressed from, well, the last time you sat down from them.

Questions like,

So, are you still with what’s-his-name?”  (Read: Have you dumped him yet?)

Aw, where’s what’s-his-name?” (Read: We liked him more than the others.)

That’s too bad it didn’t work out. Seemed you two got along.” (Read: I know nothing about your relationship but it seemed good to me.)

“You still at that job?”

“Have you found a job yet?”

“You still single?”

“Have you set a date yet?

“When are you going to have kids?”

“When are you having another kid?”

I won’t even get INTO any of the ribbing, barbs, or flat-out aggression that revolves around sports, religion, or politics.

Here’s the point: Every great conversation begins with a good question. The problem is, we so often lead with lousy ones.

Sometimes it’s because people wield questions with an agenda (to incite, to offend, to ruffle). But, to be fair, often that’s not their intention—or yours! Because sometimes it’s you asking the same-old questions, not because you’re a jerk, but because the questions themselves are knee-jerk; you ask them because you always have.

It’s time to change it up.

Let’s stop poking at the same old sore topics, triggering each other’s defenses or boring each other to death.

Newer, better, more complex questions can bring out the best, most interesting stuff in the people you already know. Most of our questions are about status updates, and to some extent that’s fine. But when’s the last time you learned something totally and utterly NEW about the people you’ve known for decades, maybe your whole life?

I believe good questions aren’t just key to better dinners, or dates, (which they are, by the way), but the only way to get at the best, most interesting part of you, no matter what you’re trying to do.

Whether that’s “get along with my mother-in-law”—or give a talk, or explain to someone why they should work with you. Literally, any of those things.

And so to that end, I want to give you some good questions to use during this very social season, and you should feel free to use them liberally—at cocktail parties, at dinners, on first dates, in prepping for client meetings, the talk you’re giving at that upcoming event or conference.

I curated 25 good questions (get that collection here) but for now, let’s start with three good ones:

  • What common bit of wisdom do you hear a lot but that you completely disagree with?
  • When in the past year have you done a total 180 on a thing, and why?
  • What’s one thing you always thought you hated or would hate, and you now love?

Like these? Get the curated collection I created, 25 Questions to your TED-worthy idea, right here.

Why you shouldn’t start with your big idea

A few weeks ago, I took a small group of brilliant professionals away from their homes and families and deep into the Pennsylvania woods for three days.

They asked to go, of course. Why?

So they could go off their grid, and plug into a different grid altogether: The one that powers their creativity and genius. It was the maiden voyage of Tapped to Speak INTENSIVE—a Gateless retreat designed to help access their best stories and ideas and craft them into the talk they’re dying to give.

Now, some of the people there identify as writers, but most of them didn’t. In fact, half the group had never even been on a retreat like this, which was very much a writing retreat, very content focused.

I’ll tell you why:  Because giving a killer talk doesn’t start with delivery; it starts with content.

This is a step many speakers skip. In fact, they get into speaking because they think it means they don’t have to write anything at all.

In fact, whether you identify as a writer or not, the act of writing is what helps you access the ideas, the scenes, the rich detail, the sparkling moments of discovery, that light up a talk, make it real and relatable, moving and memorable.

Problem is, many people and instructors use the traditional academic “essay” model, where you start with a “big idea” box and then start putting stuff in it. It feels very top-down and linear and like work. I hate it. 

Instead, we did not start with any kind of “big idea” box. We started with scenes.

Vivid details. Moments. Turning points.

You might say, “But I’m not trying to write a novel.” Doesn’t matter. This is the practice that makes your talk stand out. Hell, it makes the world stand out to you in a whole new way. 

One woman had never written a personal piece of anything in her life. She felt shy about doing it, about sharing it. But since that’s what we do in Gateless (write on the spot and share it right away), she did it—and man, we were blown away! She shared moving scenes and demonstrated a high level of craft by shifting from one scene to another, and revealing some very powerful truths about her life. We were watching a TEDx talk take shape before our eyes.

The scenes will tell you SO much. Starting with a scene takes you away from cliche, from platitude. It starts you in what’s real, what happened, and what matters. Even the smallest scenes can form the foundation of a powerful talk.

Bottom line: You’re probably not giving yourself enough credit for your own creative and writing abilities. I guarantee it. It was schooled out of you, it was graded out of you. Scared out of you. Imagine if you gave it half a chance.

Try it: I’m about to give you a prompt to write to.

You’ll have 20 minutes, and these are the only rules:

  • Take us to the scene.
  • Show us a specific place in time—that means use at least 3 of the 5 senses (if not more) to illustrate where we are, what’s happening, what you’re experiencing, and why.
  • You can flash back to past or future if you like, too—the key is to show us, not just tell us. Paint the picture for us so we’re there, too.

OK, here’s your prompt:

“Think of a specific moment in time when you seriously questioned a decision.”

Set a timer for 20 minutes. Go!

(Tell me: what happened?)

P.S.: The next INTENSIVE will be in late spring…but in the meantime, hold the dates for Tapped to Speak LIVE – April 4 & 5, 2019! We’re still figuring out details, but tickets go on sale very soon!

On the Verge of an A-Ha Moment

How is it that one moment you can just be sitting there, chewing your fingernail and then, a split second later, things just click?

An idea or thought springs forth with such clarity it’s astonishing. How did I not see that before? Things go from foggy to clear, from flat to three dimensional, from black and white to full-blown Technicolor. What follows is usually a burst of energy, like a geyser popping right out of the front lawn of your brain.

That is an a-ha moment.

It may change your day, or your life. Or it may just be incredibly satisfying: You unscramble a word puzzle, figure out how to use the voice to text feature on your iPhone.

Remember those “magic eye” pictures? Called an autostereogram, these images allow you to perceive a 2D image as 3D. (Go ahead, do it—I just went down the rabbit hole myself for a bit there.) When you train your eyes to look not “at” the image, but “through” it, an entirely new image appears. That’s the best physical metaphor for an a-ha moment that I can think of.

Other a-ha moments don’t spring off a page like that, but I believe bubble up from the back room of your brain where they’ve been hammering away at a problem for some time, maybe without you consciously realizing it.

Sometimes it’s just the right situation or person or even a single word or comment that serves as a trigger, and BOOM the door flies open and there it is, your a-ha moment, standing there with a big smile and a corncob pipe, or however your a-ha moment looks to you.

Do you remember the last time you had an a-ha moment?

What did you do about it? How did it change how you see a thing?

I have them all the time in my work with clients, and it almost always sneaks up on us, when we aren’t looking. We have to court it, yes—we stay open, we peek around corners, we turn things over, roll words around in our mouths. And then! There it is. The idea. The tagline. The opening line. The whole shebang. It shocks me every time, how it just walks through the door and announces itself. Cocky thing, that a-ha moment.

One of my favorite books about creativity is Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. Tharp is brilliant, yes, but she credits the fact that she has made creativity a HABIT.

“Everything that happens in my day is a transaction between the external world and my internal world,” she writes. “Everything is raw material. Everything is relevant. Everything is usable. Everything feeds into my creativity. But without proper preparation, I cannot see it, retain it, and use it. Without the time and effort invested in getting ready to create, you can be hit by the thunderbolt and it’ll just leave you stunned.”

If you make it a point to challenge yesterday’s assumptions, question the things everyone takes for granted, you open yourself up to more discoveries—which almost always come about as a result of connections you make between two different things.

What have you done today to leave the door open to discovery?

That’s the only way an a-ha moment can come in. It may scare you to death in the kitchen as you pass through and find it sitting there, drinking coffee. It may shock you for a moment, but you’ll be so glad it showed up.

On October 4, I’ll be hosting the first annual A-ha Women’s Speaker Series at the Stifel Theater in St. Louis. Formerly TEDxStLouisWomen (and where I gave this TEDx talk on being single two years ago), every talk revolves around that moment—when everything changes.

I not only have the honor of emceeing the event, but I’m also the speaker coach, so I’ve had the added privilege of working with each speaker on their talk.

Talk about a-ha moments! It’s really fun to help a speaker identify the moment that their whole talk hinges on, and surprise!—it’s not always what they thought it was. But in the midst of talking about it, the light flips on and bam! There it is.

My hope is that these speakers’ a-ha moments will trigger thousands more. Because the moment that light goes on, everything does.

I’ll of course share the event when the talks go online (which of course they will). In the meantime, I’d love to hear about some of your a-ha moments. Tell me!

What It Really Means to Be Authentic (and How to Know If You Are)

We all say we want to be authentic. What does that even mean, though? We seem to think it means “likable” and “down to earth”—which is why we want to be perceived that way. But in fact, authenticity isn’t necessarily good or bad; it’s consistent. It’s real.

You can be authentically warm and funny.

And you could also be an authentic jerk.

Authenticity is like a glass wall; in order for it to work in your favor, you better like what’s on the other side.

A lot of the work I do these days is helping people shape their brand positioning and presence via the talks they give. Because one of the most powerful ways to show who you really are and what you stand for is to speak from the stage.

Far too many people see speaking as a way to transmit information, to educate or inform an audience.

While that may be helpful, it stops short of the WOW factor. The kind that puts great speakers in such high demand.

Yes, it requires authenticity. And authenticity requires a degree of risk (and it almost always pays off).

But here’s the thing: authenticity isn’t something you pursue directly (“I’m going to be authentic today”). It’s the effect of how aligned you, your message, and manner are. If something is “off,” everyone knows it.

In other words, if you “try” to be authentic, then you’re not really authentic, are you? And if you’re one way on stage and another way in person, then that’s not authentic, either, right? Because there’s an inconsistency there. Authenticity is above all consistent—and real.

The reason someone comes off as inauthentic is because either they’re not comfortable with what they’re saying, or they’re trying really hard to impress you.

If you’ve ever watched a speaker (or really, anyone) put on airs, or say or do things to construct a more appealing image of themselves, then you know what inauthentic is. It’s a disconnect between speaker and message, and between speaker and audience.

Authenticity closes that gap. And it’s risky because in being that way, you show who you are, not who you wish you were.

And it’s worth doing, every time.

So what about you? Do you want to speak in a more powerful, authentic way but aren’t sure how?

Maybe you feel busy or unfocused and not sure how to start.

Maybe you’re craving feedback, but really haven’t a clue as to how to get what you need.

What if you could spend two full days focused on your message — and leave with a clear plan for your stand-out signature talk?

That would be amazing, right?

That’s Tapped to Speak LIVE, April 4&5, in Boston, a two-day, live, in-person workshop to transform the way you tell your stories, express your insights, and see yourself! Click here to learn more.

And check out the video below to learn why these 2018 had a blast and got so much out of it


What I’ve found is that nothing distills a thought leadership platform like a talk—it’s got a time limit, urgency, and must be potent to work. THAT is what we’ll be creating during this program.

I would love, love, love to see you in Boston and be part of the extraordinary team guiding you and cheering you on as you dig into your authentic, TED-worthy talk.

⇒ Click here to HOLD YOUR SPOT at Tapped to Speak LIVE! I can’t wait to see you.


Photo by Mean Shadows on Unsplash

Make Your Talk a Ticket, Not a Brochure

Would you rather be handed a brochure… or a ticket?

On balance, their material value is the same. In fact, brochures are more expensive to create and produce than a ticket (usually).

And yet the inherent value couldn’t be more different. Brochures (most of them) give you a bunch of information about things you could do, or might want to do, at some point, maybe. They give you info. The end.

But a ticket?

A ticket is an invitation.

It’s not what you could do, but what you’re about to do.

And that means the ticket itself implies action. It means you’re going somewhere. Tickets are the currency of travel, of experience, and you can’t usually get where you want to go, whether it’s a flight to Paris or a Broadway show, without one. It represents the journey and the destination. 

A brochure? Hmm. I know it’s around here somewhere. Where is it? Maybe I tossed it.

See? That’s the problem.

Your talk should not be a brochure; it should be a ticket.

That is to say, your talk should take the recipient somewhere. It’s an invitation to go somewhere, see something new, think something new. There’s excitement in a ticket. Someone gives you a ticket for something, or if you buy it yourself, you’re not going to lose it. You’re going to know where that thing is at all times.

When you step onto a stage, you have the power to give someone a brochure — or hand them a ticket.

You have access to a world they may not know, ideas they’ve never considered, perspectives they’ve never had. You don’t want to give a talk that gets tucked under their windshield wipers and left there in the rain. You want them ready to take that ticket and go where you’re going.

How you know your talk is a ticket

  • It has a clear destination. Ask yourself, do you know not just where you’re going, but where you’re taking them? What is the itinerary? It has to be purposeful and clear. Not just some thing they “could” do. That means you know what you need them to see, and then you leave most stuff out. A talk, like a trip, is curated, and specific. You don’t go to see all of Italy; you pick a few places. That’s what your talk should do, too.
  • It’s an invitation. Not an “agenda” or “instructions.” The best talks get people excited because they feel they, too, can go where you’re going—in fact, they want to. That means you give them what they need (insights, permission, strategies) to take action themselves; they’re not being told to do a thing. People hate that.

You give people what they need (insights, permission, strategies) to take action themselves; they’re not being told to do a thing. People hate that.

  • It has urgency. Tickets are about now, not later. And your talk must make a case for why now, not five years ago, and not five years in the future. There’s a reason why what you’re sharing with your audience matters right now, and you don’t want them to stuff it away in a file drawer like a brochure (which is what most people do with most talks they hear). You want them to take it—and run.

Want to get your TED-worthy idea out of your head and onto the page (and stage)? Join us at Tapped to Speak LIVE, April 4&5 in Boston. Learn more now! 


3 Takeaways from Tapped to Speak LIVE

I hosted my first ever large live event June 7 and 8th in New York City, called Tapped to Speak LIVE. The goal: Give people the insight, tools, and conditions to discover their TED-worthy talk.

And since it was my first time, I did what anyone with big dreams for their first event does—namely, get ambitious with the scheduling and hit everyone with a firehose.

Though it was a fantastic firehose at that, and the program was teeming with speaker talent and tools and there were firecrackers of inspiration going off so much it was like the Fourth of July in there.

And so while I can’t replicate that event here for you, I can give you three takeaways that could be useful as you think about your own work, your own speaking…and reason to join us next year!

1 | Know the real reason you’re on stage 

Attendee John Hagen’s a-ha moment!

And it’s not just because someone asked you to be. It’s also not just because you’re getting paid or you want to look smart or have a bigger career. All those things play into it, fine—but what became abundantly clear over the course of the two days, and speaker after speaker hit the same point:

You are there to serve. Period.

Public speaking is a service, not just a platform. And the speakers who approach the podium that way make a far bigger impact and have better speaking careers than those who don’t.

(P.S. Never use a podium. Seriously. Why would you take your place on stage in full view of everyone, only to crouch behind a box with just your head sticking out?)

2 | You can’t tell a story that still owns you

Sarah Montana on wielding your story responsibly.

You might have a story to tell, but that doesn’t mean you’re ready to tell it.

In her session on how to wield your personal story responsibly, TEDx speaker Sarah Montana taught us that the stage is not the place to get to the bottom of your story.

That means while you may have a story, it doesn’t mean you’re ready to share it. Ask yourself, do you feel compelled to share it so that you can get it out and figure it out? Or do you feel ready to share it from a position of having found peace with it? (Guess what the right answer is.)

Serving your audience means NOT dumping unsorted emotional baggage onto them and hoping that in the telling it’ll get resolved (it won’t). You can only tell a story when you own it and it no longer owns you.

(If you haven’t watched Sarah’s TEDx talk, “The real risk of forgiveness and why it’s worth it,” it’s a must. There’s no story so personal and hard that you can’t tell, IF—and it’s a big if—you’ve come to terms with it.)

3 | Public speaking is an exchange of energy, not just information. 

Comic Cam Hebb brings the laughs.

I know. This sounds a little woo-woo. But it couldn’t be more true. When we think about creating “a talk” it’s easy to get hyper focused on “what will I say”—in other words, what information can I impart?

But while content is critical, and has to be good, it’s not just ‘content first, delivery second.’ You must bear in mind what you want that audience to feel, think, and do from the start—and all of that inspires the talk itself.

Think about the last time you were totally turned off, bored, angered, or annoyed by a speaker. It’s how they made you feel, based on how they couched and communicated information, and what assumptions that speaker made about you.

To think you’re just teaching or giving info to your audience is to undermine your value as a speaker. You’re not there to dispense words. You’re there to change the way they feel about a topic, an industry, an issue, themselves. If you haven’t done that, you haven’t done your job.

Are you ready to craft your powerful signature talk?

Of course, we’re doing this again! It was amazing. Hold the dates for Tapped to Speak LIVE – April 4 & 5, 2019! We’re still figuring out details, but tickets go on sale very soon!