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 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 doing that, and most weren’t, as it turned out.)

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 get 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 methods, opinions and assessments from there.

  • Don’t think you have to be wildly original and come up with a whole new idea or technique.  You don’t (although that’s fine 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 get that depth.

  • Don’t worry if you’re not such a great speaker at first.  Very few people are. You just need the practice.

  • 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 being yourself while conveying useful information to people.

  • 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 doesn’t work.

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

  • Always remember that when all is said and done, it’s not about you. It’s about the work.

Good luck!

All best,