The Imperfect Speaker (authentic public speaking) ~ Soulful Brand

  • 1
  • March 05, 2014

(Wisdom 2.0 photo © Lori A Cheung)


Over Valentine’s Day weekend, Ryan and I had the pleasure of speaking at a breakout session at Wisdom 2.0 in San Francisco—a conference designed to bridge insights between the business-tech world of Silicon Valley and mindfulness from various wisdom traditions.

During our talk, we and our audience experienced an emotional ride together—including laughter and tears. Overall it was extremely healing and fulfilling adventure, though not without its share of learning moments along the way…

Lesson #1: “I am neither above nor below you”

The height of my narcissism peaked when I arrived, receiving my name badge with the“speaker” label. With speakers on the main stage like Eckhart Tolle, Arriana Huffington, Jon Kabat Zinn and Tony Hsieh, I suddenly began feeling very important to have been included.

Welling with pride, I began strutting the halls and confidently nodding my swelling head respectfully to all the other speakers, easily recognized by their name badge colors from afar. I seemed to be saying with my eyes, “I’m one of you now” and “aren’t we the coolest?”

After about 20 minutes of partially bowing to all these strangers, I soon realized that I had jumbled the colors in my brain. All the people I had been acknowledging were not speakers. In fact, they were all attendees.

“How appropriate,” I thought. This is exactly where my respect ought to be directed—to everyone, no matter what name badge they carry.

Lesson #2: “What if my fear comes true on stage?”

One of my many fears about getting on a stage and sharing myself is that I’ll forget what I want to say. Before we spoke, I imagined myself going blank and losing all sense of confidence as well as any trust I had gained from the audience.

I could hear them thinking: “who is this idiot? Does he even know what he’s talking about?” or worse than their upset would be their pity: “poor guy, he’s just so out of his league.”

To counter this fear of forgetting, I practiced every day, going over my story and the concepts that wove into my narrative. On the days my anxiety kicked in, I practiced twice.

And still, on the day we spoke—even with all that preparation—in the middle of a very personal story,… I went blank.

I quickly considered my options. I could…

  • use the time to gaze at the audience until a new thought arose
  • make something up until what I wanted to say popped into my head
  • consider my thoughts lost forever and pass the mic back to Ryan for his part

Given that so much of what Ryan and I are about is self-acceptance, I felt the opportunity was ripe to name the elephant in my head, and bring him into the room.

So I opted to let the audience know what I was experiencing. I simply said, “I’ve gone blank. There’s something I wanted to say next, but I’ve forgotten what that was.”


I looked at the carpet on the floor, a rag-tag of patterns in the dim light. I turned to Ryan, and wondered if the answer would leap from his face.

It did not.

And I turned back to the audience, aware of the bind I was in. Nothing could be forced. I knew I had something important to punctuate the end of my story, but I could not grasp what that might be.

I waited… and waited.

And finally it struck me. In my state of not-fixing, my “presence” had granted me a gift and I was able to share my story’s ending.

I might say I narrowly averted a huge mistake—but honestly, in what felt like minutes passing, I allowed myself to be in a state of the unknown, making myself imperfectly vulnerable.

A part of me knows that perfection is for machines, not people. That sharing my humanity is often a point of connection, not rejection.

And still, the “expert” part of me wants to keep my guard up—to appear to have it all together,… always. As the “expert”, the last thing I ever want people in the audience to know is how terrified I am that I will mess up. But the truth is, that “expert” is an incomplete character without the kindness and innocence of “presence”.

“Presence” reminds me to be with whatever is. To respond to what is happening, and to accept the opportunities within imperfection—in other words, those moments when others can learn the most about me because nobody, including myself, knows what will happen next.


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