I was recently at a professional conference (I am a clinical psychologist, male, 34 years old) where I sat through several presentations. A couple were adequate and far too many were a dull rehash of things I already knew.

As is often the case, I came away thinking that I didn't learn anything and I could have done a much better job than most of the "experts" I had to listen to.

I am frustrated because I don't know how to get myself to the point where I'm not in the audience but at the podium. How do I go about getting there? You seem to have managed to do this, so I want to know how you did it. I'm hoping for an honest answer.

Tim K.

Dear Tim,

I appreciate your frustration, and I remember now and then feeling a similar kind of competitiveness and resentment in the earlier days of my career, at what appeared to be an impossibly exclusive club of smug speakers, happily congratulating themselves and each other on their wonderfulness. (Some actually were smug, but most weren't, as I later came to learn.)

My best advice is this:

  • Do NOT focus on becoming famous. That is the road to hell and a feckless one at that. You can't get there from the outside-in (i.e., from the vantage point of seeing how you will look to others – there's no leverage there, from your awareness being outside your body; it's gotta come from inside.)

  • Instead, focus on a clinical area that you care about deeply and develop your expertise there. Let your satisfaction come from the doing, the learning and the helping around that issue.

  • Then acquire some depth and some thoughtfulness about it. Stay open to finding out what other experts are saying about it, being curious and interested rather than too competitive to listen, and then develop your own twist on the matter, your own methods, opinions and assessments as they fall into place from listening.

  • Don't think you have to be wildly original and come up with a whole new idea or technique. That's a wrong assumption that stops a lot of good people – thinking they have nothing new to say. You don't have to be original to make a contribution (although that's certainly great, too). You just need to be skilled and knowledgeable enough to synthesize and adapt information in a way that others can use - in other words, make a contribution that helps people do their work better or live their lives better.

  • Don't be a dilettante. Stick with your focus. More gifted people get side-tracked, because they're so good at so many things or because they're so interested in such a wide range of things. If you want to get behind that podium, stay single-minded and gather some depth of content.

  • Don't worry if you're not such a great speaker at first. Very few people are. You just need the practice to present your material well while sounding like yourself.

  • This means that for starters, you take whatever speaking invitations are lobbed your way. Don't be proud. Don't be a jerk. Don't insist on the big bucks. It's all good practice to help you hone your style of communication and get you comfortable with your material.

  • Instead of defensively thinking how dumb these speakers are, pay attention to what they're saying. You may even learn something. And you can always learn by watching what they do as a presenter - what's effective and what misfires.

  • Be patient. If you're doing what you're passionate about, the time will fly by anyway.

  • Be kind, thoughtful, grateful and generous. Conference conveners and webinar leaders especially, but also fellow presenters and attendees get a snootful of demanding, entitled divas. They're exhausting and irritating. Show a little humility, consideration and gratitude and people will remember. I remember getting a huge opportunity early on from a big annual conference, just because I didn't act like a jackass!

  • Always remember that when all is said and done, it's not about you or me or anybody. It's about the work and what it can contribute to the whole.

Good luck!

All best,