The #1 Way to Get Clear on Your Messaging

Say what you will about holidays (Hallmark and otherwise)—they give us an occasion for doing a thing (exchanging gifts, drinking green beer, singing, etc).

If you want something done, you don’t have to wait for a holiday, but you do have to give yourself the occasion for doing it.

Things like: Writing a book. Launching a podcast. Giving a TEDx talk. You can do these things…or not. You can relaunch your website. Or not. Unless you’re under pressure to do a thing, it’s hard to get motivated to do it.

I know of no better way to be accountable to your goals and figure out what exactly you’re trying to do than to speak about it in public.

Promise a group of people you’ll show up in a room and talk to them.

That’ll motivate you. It’s like throwing a party so that you have a reason to clean your house.

When you have a date on the books to show up and speak, you’ll be under considerable pressure to deliver on that promise.

And not just that—but knowing you’re going to speak on a thing forces you to get clear on your ideas, and those are the ideas that feed other, bigger projects, like books and courses.

You can use speaking to test out and explore ideas that you may want to pursue in a bigger way.

I do this for other people (as a brand messaging expert this IS what I do for a living). But I also do it for myself! I pitch ideas to speak on topics that I myself want to explore and form an opinion on.

And it works.

It helps me get a clearer sense on what it is I stand for, and what I think is most important to put out into the world.

I’ve done it for the TEDx talks I’ve given (this one and this one), but also for a range of other events and conferences.

Committing to speak on a topic gives you the occasion to form your insights.

This is why, if you’re trying to nail down your “thing,” your mission, your message, the thing you want to be known for, you’ve got to find occasions to speak.

Anywhere—networking groups, workshops, conferences, industry events. For the avid speaker, the crowning achievement is a TEDx talk. And fact is, each speaking effort improves on the last, and helps you get a clearer sense of what you’re trying to do and say.

Don’t wait to “figure out” what you’re trying to say, or assume you’ll do more speaking “later” when you know what you’re doing. No one really ever knows what they’re doing.

Start giving yourself real reasons to stand up and speak and you’ll be forced to get really clear on what’s most important, and get it out into the world in a powerful way.


How I Got a TED Talk

Click to watch "Stop Searching for Your Passion"

Click to watch “Stop Searching for Your Passion”

The only thing more stunning than walking into the Kauffman Center in Kansas City when it’s full of people is when you’re the only one there.

That’s where I stood, slack jawed and awestruck on Saturday afternoon, August 29, 2015, hours before the thousands descended for the annual TEDxKC event. The pale wooden panels of this huge vaulted space gave the whole room a warm, golden cast. I felt like I was in the hull of some monster ship, or a cathedral, or tucked right inside God’s ear. I stepped up onto the round red carpet, the x-marks-the-spot for TED presenters.

And Then…

And I thought what anyone else would think: WTF am I doing here? Impostor syndrome is like psychological herpes—it’s far more widespread than you think, and while it may be inactive or latent much of the time, an outbreak can be easily triggered, and there you are with a full-blown case. It doesn’t go away, and you basically hope that it will go back to wherever it spends most of its time hiding.

Why wouldn’t I feel like an impostor? I, like you, have been watching TED talks for years. I even bought a book this summer, How to Deliver a TED Talk, downloaded it on my Kindle on a Sunday in Central Park, and it made me feel worse, not better. Because the author had watched and analyzed a zillion TED talks and had come up with a formula, and the whole thing made me tired. His analysis was interesting in part, but didn’t inspire. That wasn’t how this would happen.

So How Did I Get a TED Talk? 

I’ll answer this question for you now, since it’s the one I get asked the most.

I am sure there’s a more standard way (research which TEDx events are happening, apply to their call for speakers, etc). But that’s not how it happened for me. Rather, a contact of mine, Chuck Brandt, a skilled and gifted app developer at VML (the agency that runs the TEDx event), reached out. He had kept me on his radar since my days at Martha. And I hadn’t heard from him in years. Until one day in July he messaged me on FB, asking me if I wanted to do a TED talk in Kansas City. Someone had dropped out. It was less than a month away.

Um. Yes?

I love when people drop out. Seriously. It’s my jam. Nature abhors a vacuum, as do I. It’s how I got a spot at How Design Live last spring, when someone dropped out. You snooze, you lose! I was so grateful for that opportunity, and it showed—I was ranked the #1 speaker at that event. So this year, I’m going back, but not because someone else couldn’t make it.

But trust me, I in no way had this TED thing in the bag. Hardly.

TEDx director Mike Lundgren agreed to get on a Skype call with me, and asked, “The question is, do you have a TED talk in you?”

Yes, I said. And here’s what I did: I pitched. But not like sales-pitchy. I talked to him about some ideas I’d been kicking around for some time, issues that made me curious, frustrated, things that I’d thought long and hard about and thought other people would connect with. We talked about career and relationships, wrongheaded ideas we’d fallen prey to, or that had been swallowed whole by our culture, and yet didn’t sit right with me.

And THAT was what led to the subsequent Skype call the next day, and the day after that. I talked to Mike every day for nearly a week, and I wrote more every night. We were approaching an idea.

This was the leading one: My belief that the “search for passion” is a bunch of navel-gazing garbage, and wasted effort at that. And that it’s a question people ask when they don’t know what else to ask, and we fill in answers that we think sound good. And that there’s more to a passionate life than having the single best answer to that question.

My Best Advice

Opportunity favors the well prepared, right? So my advice is this: Always be chewing on something—an idea, a thought, a question, something that eats away at you and pokes holes in the platitude-laden universe. These are the ideas that fuel your best work, writing, business ideas, blogs, products, events, and yes, TED talks. What’s that little grain of sand working at the soft body of your mind and heart? The more you struggle with it, the more luminous the pearl.

Don’t attempt to neutralize the ideas that feel controversial. Kick the tires, honk the horns. Open them up like a speed boat to see how fast they go. Question everything. And—be willing to be vulnerable, to share a story, to tell the truth. Even if you fear others won’t like it.

I didn’t get invited to present at one of the biggest and most prestigious TEDx events in the country because I’m a “good speaker.” There are plenty of good speakers, but not nearly enough challenging, brave, risky ideas or people willing to champion them. So make it your business to cultivate those juicy ideas, and share them, any chance you get.