In Pursuit of Mastery

Humility plays such a big role in the pursuit of mastery.

Several weeks ago I attended a Speaker Lab, sponsored by the National Speakers Association of Illinois (NSA-IL) of which I’m both a member and a board member. The lab was led by two veteran speakers, teachers and authors, Cyndi Maxey, CSP (Certified Speaking Professional) and Kevin O’Connor, CSP. Both Cyndi and Kevin have given tirelessly to our chapter and that Saturday was yet another example of the generosity of NSA members who are committed to helping others in the profession of speaking.

Over and over I’ve heard the recommendation that in order for professional speakers [or any professional] to get better, we have to seek out and welcome feedback. Easier said than done, though. It’s scary to put yourself on the line to be critiqued, some of which may hurt. But asking for feedback is a critical component in the pursuit of mastery, isn’t it? Asking for a critique says your commitment to mastery is bigger than your ego, even if it smarts. So I was one of the first ones to sign up for the Speaker Lab, and that Saturday I trooped down to Chicago to National Louis University where the lab was held. My goal was to perfect my “signature story,” a story about my dad that I wanted to use in a presentation I was giving in Indianapolis the next week. And while I’d used the story before, I’d never scripted it, so the results were often shaky and unpredictable. This time, I wanted to nail the story or, as we say in the world of music, get it “flat.” No winging it.

And that’s where humility comes in. You can’t get better without knowing what’s missing. The feedback I received at the Speaker Lab was compassionate and spot on: I meandered with too many off-track details, and the listeners weren’t quite sure where I was going. Got it. I took the feedback, scripted the story, practiced it and used the story during my presentation in Indy as “bookends,” beginning with the introduction and later ending my presentation with the story’s punchline. For the first time, I felt like I was in control of where the story was going and how it would affect my audience. It worked.

I did another brave thing: I recorded my presentation on my iPhone. Conor Cunneen, fellow dean of NSA-IL Speakers Academy and a consummate professional himself, has said over and over that it’s imperative to record every presentation and then review it to see what worked, what didn’t work and how to improve. While I would nod my head in theory, I hadn’t yet practiced this technique. I don’t know if my resistance was based on fear or laziness. This time, in pursuit of mastery, I hit “record” and later listened to my presentation while driving back from Indianapolis, a very long drive.

I was deeply humbled by what I heard. When did I start saying “um” every other sentence? How could I not have heard that before? I didn’t stop to count the “ums” but I was horrified by this vocal tic that I wasn’t even aware I had–and one I never would have known about if I hadn’t hit “record.”  Back to being a student. Back to the beginner’s mind.

One other thing struck me during that trip to and from Indianapolis. I was listening to some CDs in the car while driving, recordings of presenters at our NSA convention last summer. One of them, a veteran speaker and coach to other superstars, Lou Heckler, told a story about coaching a new speaker. After Lou gave the young man his homework, this neophyte speaker said wearily, “Boy that sounds like a lot of work.” Big laugh from the crowd–and from me. Yeah, it’s a lot of work. Discipline. Self-reflection. Practice. A hunger for feedback, a rigorous request for coaching and the ability to withstand the honest truth without flinching (or at least without dropping out) in order to get better.

In pursuit of mastery, there’s always something new to learn.

[Photo credit: “Maria Callas” by Marilyn Szabo, used with permission of the artist.]

Why Volunteer?

This morning I’m rubbing the sleep from my eyes, trying to wake up after spending the afternoon and a late evening in the city of Chicago. Last night we kicked off the first of six sessions for NSA-IL Speakers Academy (see photo, above, of our March 2013 graduating class with Mikki Williams, CSP, CPAE, center).

This is the third year I’ve participated as a “Dean” of the program, along with my “Co-Dean” Steve Beck, an irrepressible speaker, trainer and leader. Steve is also this year’s president of our state chapter, National Speakers Association of Illinois. For both of us, leading NSA-IL Speakers Academy (formerly known as Speaker University) is a labor of love. Thinking about all the work that’s required to organize and administer this program, along with a recent conversation I had with a friend who is considering joining the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce, has me thinking. Why volunteer?

First, let’s look at the incongruity of volunteering. When you volunteer, you aren’t getting paid. And for those of us who are entrepreneurs and who don’t get a regular paycheck, that’s a pretty big trade-off of billable hours. For those who are employed, it’s time away from the office which brings its own risk. You may or may not get accolades or visibility; you may or may not get “credit.”

Yet according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 64.5 million people in the United States volunteered through or for an organization at least once between September 2011 and September 2012. The Corporation for National and Community Service has a boatload of statistics, research and reports on the benefits of volunteering, including data that demonstrates people who volunteer are healthier and live longer. And if you look around you, you’ll see that really successful people always have some aspect of their lives dedicated to volunteering, whether it’s through their professional associations, their organizations of faith or their communities. As a business and career coach, I believe that volunteering is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. Here are just a few reasons to volunteer:

  • Being a volunteer puts you immediately in community with others. Our business and career success is dependent on being part of a larger community. Whether you’re a member of your local Chamber of Commerce or your professional association, you have a chance to build relationships with others. And we know that people like to work with and do business with people they know and trust. Volunteering gives you a chance to earn that trust.
  • Volunteering is like an audition. When you’re leading a committee, you get to flex your leadership muscles. As you work together with others on a project, you demonstrate teamwork. You have a stage on which to hone your presentation skills. People are observing you and believe me, they notice. Are you kind to others? Do you show respect? Do you have a sense of humor and not take yourself too seriously? Do you show up on time? Do you do what you said you’d do? In essence, are you “count-on-able?”
  • You get to practice. Volunteering is a great way to build a new skill set. If you’re in marketing, try working on the finance committee. If you’re in finance, join the strategic planning committee. Experiment and volunteer for things outside your “wheelhouse.”
  • Without getting too corny (although I think all good things in life are corny), being a volunteer allows you to leave a legacy. I am amazed at the depth and breadth of people’s commitment to their professional associations, their alumni associations, their churches or their service clubs. People devote countless hours to ensure that the missions of the organizations they support continue to thrive long after they’re gone.

I love being part of NSA-IL Speakers Academy because we’re helping other aspiring speakers reach their goals. I have a chance to share what I know, to lead from a curriculum developed by a dedicated task force of NSA members across the country, and to contribute to a profession that changes the world. One of our core values is continuous learning, and my commitment as a “Dean” allows me to learn as well. And I don’t mind admitting that I relish receiving “love letters” and acknowledgement from our participants and graduates who appreciate our devotion to them.

Over the course of my 16 years as a coach, I’ve heard one consistent theme from the folks who seek my services: they want to make a difference. Being a volunteer for an organization that resonates with you, your heart and your mission allows you to make a difference. Do it because you don’t need the money and you don’t care who gets the credit. But don’t be surprised when you get an amazing return on that investment–a job offer, a contract, a client. That’s the paradox of giving first.