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Ep #73: Drop the Mask On Stage

by | Podcast

If you listen to The Thought Leadership School Podcast you've heard me talk about how I believe surrendered speaking is where I think our greatest impact lives. 

Because as speakers who are out to serve and share our curiosity, enthusiasm and passion with our audience, it's going to take more than just briefing, prep and practice.

It's going to require letting the masks come off and just showing up with what you've got in the moment.

Any hyper professionalism or perfectionism you show up on stage with is just a barrier to this kind of connection.

Letting your natural enthusiasm that rises up in a moment show itself, letting yourself stumble over words and then reframe it and say it again without making a big deal of it… These are the ways that connection and rapport can allow the kind of trust that allows an amazing transfer of content to your audience.

And when you do this, you’re able to create a much deeper impact than any perfectly crafted and slickly delivered talk could create. 

In this week’s episode, we’re talking about dropping the mask when you’re presenting and how to be even more yourself while inspiring, teaching and captivating your audience.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • What I mean by the masks you wear as a speaker and why they need to come off in order to make a deeper impact
  • How you can learn to release the mask and become more of a surrendered speaker in order to create the greatest engagement with your audience
  • Why just telling a story that feels vulnerable to you and risky is such a powerful way to deepen the experience of your audience
  • How staying present and watching your audience will allow you to change what you’re about to do or say in the moment in a way that will serve them best

Listen to the Full Episode:

Full Episode Transcript:

Welcome to the Thought Leadership School Podcast. If you're on a mission to make a difference in the world with your message, you are in the right place. I'm Michelle Barry Franco and I'm thrilled that you're here. Hello, hello. My Thought Leadership friends, it is fall as I record this and I'm looking out my window and it's starting to get kind of dark outside and the beautifully colored leaves. Even here in Northern California, we get some changing of the leaves and it's so pretty and it reminds me of being in Virginia. That was one of my favorite things about living in Charlottesville, Virginia, is we had these big giant leaves that would turn amazing colors this time of year. So I'm thinking about my time in Virginia. All my friends in Virginia who I know are enjoying the beautiful fall there and I do love fall here in California to California is a wonderful place to live.

This is definitely not me complaining and I grew up here, but it was really such a surprising difference to live somewhere where the seasons especially fall and spring were so different. You know we have kind of a lot of consistency here in California. So thinking about fall, which makes me think about Halloween because Halloween is coming up and every year I say to myself, this year I'm going to dress up because we go to these gatherings where we bring our kids and there are all the parents who are also our friends and some of those parents actually dress up. Actually some of our kids don't dress up anymore because they're teenagers and they're way too cool. But then there comes this time as a parent when you're like, I don't really care. This sounds really fun and I'm going to dress up and I feel like I'm at that phase.

But I never pull it together enough to actually get a costume going. So every year I stand at this Halloween gathering that we go to. I look at the parents who've done something fun to celebrate Halloween by dressing up. And I think next year I'm doing it. So I still have about a week I think to pull together some kind of costumes. So I am open to any and all exciting. And not too difficult to pull together ideas that you have for my Halloween costume, but I'm not just talking about Halloween because of my costume and my need for ideas. I'm actually thinking about masks and like the masks that we wear and especially the masks that we wear on stage. You know, I don't know if you have heard me tell this story, but one of the reasons that I became a speaking coach is that I worked in corporate America.

I actually worked in a high tech company@anumberofhightechcompaniesduringthe.com era. And I worked there while I was simultaneously teaching college classes at night and I would go to work during the day and work with these fascinating, brilliant minds. These people who went to incredible schools, had these remarkable educations and they were really dynamic and fun and interesting and we'd have these great conversations and then we'd go into the boardroom or you know, the conference room and they would go to the front of the room to present their ideas. And the strange thing would happen where they would like morph into this hyper professional, frankly boring presenter and I'm simultaneously, I'm teaching at night, I'm teaching college classes at night and I'm watching my college students go from nervous and scared and not sure how to put together a presentation to interesting and fun presenters all within a matter of a couple of months.

And you know that public speaking class that you were required to take in college? Most likely. Well that's the class that I was teaching, or at least that's one of the classes I was teaching and I was thinking what happened? These people who I work with, I know most of them had to take public speaking, especially since many of them had MBAs from fancy schools. I know they had to do presenting. Why are they choosing to go up to the front of the room and get more boring, get less interesting at a time when they needed to be even more engaging and captivating. So it really just got me thinking this was very early on. It's not like I went, okay, now I'm going to go start my public speaking consulting business for people who work in high tech. Now. It took me years actually to go from that insight watching that happen to actually creating my business, but it did plant that seed and when I think about masks and the masks we were on stage, it always takes me back to that early time when these wonderful souls would just put on what felt like this hyper professional persona so that I think they thought they would be more respected.

And I'm not sure if that's exactly what happened, but I do know that everyone hated meetings and everybody thought it was a problem to solve, but nobody really knew what to do about it. We didn't bring in public speaking coaches. We didn't even bring in training, which now fascinates me, especially since I get to do trainings for companies. I do presentation skills training for companies, so I know that it happens, but way too many companies just don't put it at the top of the list anyway. As I'm thinking about the masks that we wear, and I know that you may not work in a high tech company or even in a corporate environment, but the truth is I see it all the time at conferences, even at small meetings and local gatherings I go to, there's this mask that so many of us put on when we're about to share our ideas and what seems like a more formal setting, like a presentation or a speech, and it's the opposite of what should happen.

But I understand why it happens. It happens because that's what we've seen happen. It seems like it's supposed to, even though nobody really likes it. It's a fascinating thing. So I'm often asking myself, how can I help my clients? How can I help myself release the mask and become more and more of the surrendered speaker that I know will create the greatest engagement with my audience? And how can I help my clients do that too? So that's what I want to talk about today. If you listen to the thought leadership school podcast regularly, you've heard me talk about surrendered speaking and it really is where I think it's at, where I think our greatest impact lives. That's where the greatest expression that so many of us are looking for, that we're called to bring. That's where our ability to express ourselves in the way that we dream of and imagine happens.

There's something in us that knows that we're supposed to fully express ourselves. It's difficult to wrap words around, but it's something that I'm deepening into and as I think about Halloween and costumes and shedding these kinds of masks, these coats, these cloaks, all these things that block us from being fully expressed. I really love this metaphor of the masks at Halloween time, so I had a dream recently. It was actually earlier this week and I woke up, I don't remember my dreams very often, but this one I woke up in the middle of and it was very vivid, except for the part that I don't know if the person in the dream was me or someone else. That part I'm not clear on. But I was very, very connected to this character and she was a Moonwalker. She was actually preparing to walk on the moon. And I don't mean like the dance move, by the way.

I don't mean moonwalk. I mean literally a Moonwalker, a person who goes to the moon and walks on the moon and learns about what's on the moon. So she was preparing for the next trip that she was going to take to the moon so that she could gathered data. You know, she was a scientist of some kind of, she had this intense curiosity and love of the moon, and there was a lot of PR and media around the work that she was doing. So in my dream, I saw this woman, I saw her training for her moonwalk. I saw her talking to the media. You could tell that she was just steeped in this whole experience. She was out there talking regularly about what it's like to prepare to walk on the moon and really how she feels about this next journey that she was going to take to the moon.

And of course there's all the risks associated with going out into space. She was preparing for all of those. My sense was that this woman, yes, it was about going to the moon and everybody wanted to hear about it and she absolutely had a message to share about the moon. She also had a lot of curiosity and couldn't wait to go explore it further so that she could bring that back and share it with everyone. It was about all of that, but it was bigger than just her message. Bigger than just her journey to the moon. She was steeped in this. It was her world. Stick with me on this because I promise it ties back to speaking. It was so clear that the actual journey to the moon was just a part of what she was doing. She was on a mission.

She was in love with the moon and wanted to share this experience with the whole world because she wanted to bring that curiosity that she brings to the learning about the moon and share it with everyone so that we could learn from it. And she wanted to deepen her own understanding along the way, so it was having these conversations with the media and it was preparing herself physically, mentally, emotionally for these trips. That's what her day was made of. This is what hit me when I woke up. I thought, oh my gosh, this is not about speaking. I mean it is about speaking and it's not even just about Thought Leadership though. It's about Thought Leadership too. It's about this deep call to know something deeply, to engage with it in a way that's just so rich and so personal, yet also full of so much possibility for sharing, for serving others with that deep, rich curiosity and engagement.

I'm hoping this is making sense to you because for me this has felt like a profound insight. When I think about that inclination to go up in front of a room and feel like we have to put on pretenses, we have to become someone that we're not. We have to put on these masks. I think it's because we're not actually focused on the right things. We're not focused on the deepest part of our call and when you are connected to that deeper part of your call that I'm not just talking about your message though. Yes, definitely that at the heart of it, but that place underneath the message that says, I have something to say and it is personal to me and I'm going to do whatever it takes to explore what I have to say and then share what I know right now. This is what a Thought Leader does.

Thought Leadership evolves. Your message is going to evolve. This is not about being perfect. That's why we don't need a mask. A mask just blocks us from the connection that we can create with our audience as we share what we're currently knowing, what we've, what we're currently curious about, knowing and learning in our area of expertise from this place. A mask makes no sense. Trying to be perfect makes no sense because you're really in it together. And when I thought about this moon Walker who was doing everything she could to be in the best shape possible for her exploration, there was a purity to her desire to share her enthusiasm and excitement about the possibilities of exploring what's on the moon. So I love to talk about public speaking. I love to talk about strategies for great speaking, how to get on great stages.

I love to talk to Thought Leaders who are doing cool things in the world and share their stories and their expertise with you. But there's also this pretty consistent theme here at The Thought Leadership School of who we are and how we would be the most expressive versions of ourselves in that thought leadership, but really it's everywhere because those of us that are called to speak like this, to tell our stories in this way and to share our deep curiosity the way that we do. When you're called, when you're called to share your story and your expertise, it's bigger than just getting on a great stage or even being amazing on stage or crafting a talk full of best practices. All of that is in service of this greater mission to share something that we almost can't describe or put words around in a way that feels like it does it justice.

That's why we always just come at our message from exactly where we are and we share it with full heart and soul and with the clarity that we have right now. So much of what I see gets in the way of surrendered speaking is this desire to have everything buttoned up, but when you're dropping the mask, when you're coming at this like a Moonwalker, it's just here's what we know right now. Here's what's on the horizon. Here are the questions we're asking. I want to tell you what we've got right now and I'm going to go out there and venture forth and I'll bring back to you. The next thing that I learned. I have had so many people say to me that when they get quiet with themselves and ask themselves the deep questions about what they really want in their work, they see themselves in this leadership role as a person who has this message to share in a much bigger way than they've been sharing it.

I just had another person say this to me yesterday that they went into meditation and they were asking themselves these questions. What is I really want? What do I see for myself at this next stage? And that's exactly what they saw. They saw themselves sharing this message in a much bigger way. Now, this doesn't mean that the message comes to them all clearly articulated. That's why they're talking to me. Usually they know the general vicinity, but they don't have full clarity yet, and here's the beauty of it. We get all kinds of wonderful clarity about where they are right then so that they can go out and share it and learn as you go. That's the best way to do it. I know when I talk with these Thought Leaders and aspiring Thought Leaders, it's not about ego. It's not about the spotlight and even if it were, and even if they love elements of that, they're totally fine.

They're wonderful. I don't have any judgment around any of that, but it's just bigger than that. So let's come back to the masks we wear in this whole Halloween theme and the Moonwalker. First of all, it did give me an idea for what I might want to be for Halloween. So if you could hit me up with any astronaut costumes that you've seen, here's me over here Googling astronaut costume. So when you're doing something big and meaningful and all eyes are on you like walking on the moon for example, then you can't get too caught up in doing everything perfectly and talking about it perfectly. You're gonna, you're gonna get asked questions by the media that are going to be in the moment that you weren't exactly primed and prepared for. Of course, you get briefed and you practice your talking points and all of that, just like I do with clients.

We do all of that, we prep. But if you're really out to serve and you really want to share your curiosity and your enthusiasm and your passion, it's going to be beyond any kind of briefing or prep or practice. It's going to require letting the masks come off and just showing up with what you've got in that moment and it's going to come from this deeper place and my dream and my connection with this Moonwalker just really brought me to that place of understanding. I'm just hoping that this Moonwalker example is translating for you because it really felt profound to me. It really is about seeing how we can drop all these pretenses and show up and serve, remove those masks even more so. I thought I'd share some things that came to me when I thought about how we actually remove the masks, how we let go of trying to be perfect.

The first thing that I thought of is really we just have to let go of track. So hard, trying so hard in presentations. We become this hyper professional presenter. I better do this right kind of energy. And this happens for me too, especially when I know I'm going to go into a corporate environment. You know, I work in these financial institutions, very traditional environments sometimes, and I absolutely get caught up in how am I gonna gain credibility by showing that I understand their environment, audience analysis. I can actually get myself caught up in my own processes, but when I bring that kind of energy and I have that mask that that distance between us, they do not get the best of me. And it's been really fun to actually watch myself really practice letting go of the mask and doing some of the crazy unexpected things that I do in training now and notice the surprise and delight on the faces of the people in the room because I'm willing to sing in front of them.

And I'm a terrible singer, although I am taking singing lessons. I actually had my first lesson today. It was amazing. And I know I'm going to bring all kinds of new stuff back to the speaking world from my experience with the singing lessons. But you know, me singing in the classroom doing all kinds of shenanigans with my movement, my body as I demonstrate different, you know, speaking techniques or whatever. All of those things have really been a releasing of me trying to do everything so perfectly or in a way that I think they expect me to. And I'll tell you that this button deafness, that's the model for presenting. I do think it's shifting and it's shifting because it's just not working. We want people to just be real. And there's something about that realness that allows greater learning, greater inspiration, greater connection. When you have trust between you and your audience, they can relax and they can take in your beautiful message and all the things you have to share to teach them, to inspire them.

Any hyper professionalism or perfectionism is just a barrier to that kind of connection. Letting the natural enthusiasm that rises up in a moment show itself, letting yourself stumble over some words and then reframe it and say it again without making a big deal of it. These are the ways that connection and rapport can allow the kind of trust that allows an amazing transfer of content. So whether you're trying to teach somebody something or you want them to take some kind of action, probably a combination of both. You just want to let go of trying so hard. The second thing that came to me to release these masks, to drop these masks on stage is how can you embrace risk more? How can you actually put yourself out there not knowing how this audience will respond, because this is when delightful things happen. When you're willing to ask a question of the audience and wait, wait for a little bit, wait through a long pause.

This is actually really hard for people to do and I can tell you most presenters don't wait long enough. So then they walk away going, Oh my gosh, nobody's responding. Or they stay in the room and they have all this thinking rise up in their head. Oh my gosh, they're not engaged. They hate my, you know, I'm a terrible presenter. And then the rest of their presentation is peppered with a lot of crappy thinking and so then they aren't their best. Right? When you wait long enough, people will respond. I pride myself on having never asked a question in all my years of college teaching and speaking that did not get answered about it. I love to tell my public speaking college students this, I've never asked a question and not had it answered in any context. You know what the secret is? If you wait long enough, someone's going to say something because they feel awkward not saying something.

So that's one way. But the other thing is that's information. If nobody's responded to you for a while, it's probably because they didn't understand the question or the question wasn't relevant enough or didn't resonate enough. So ask it a different way. It just might need a rephrasing. But the point is it is. I understand that it is even a risk to ask for audience engagement, but that kind of risk is what allows the audience to get more connected with you. And that connection and rapport is where all the great stuff happens. Of course there are other kinds of risks that are even riskier. I remember seeing a speaker at a national speakers association meeting, you know one of the cool things that happens when you attend these national speakers association meetings is you get some of the best speakers in the world who come because this is our association.

So we had, I think it was maybe the just previous past president or he might've still been president of the whole national organization came and he did this whole talk and it was really remarkable and engaging and he also wrote a unicycle and juggled like hatchets or sharp knives or whatever. They were definitely a don't try this at home situation and he obviously was an entertainment style speaker. That's not the kind of risk that you have to engage in, but there's a lot of choices between juggling sharp knives and standing up there and not even being willing to ask your audience a question. It might be things like inviting them to have a quick conversation with someone next to them, knowing that some of them are uncomfortable talking with people that they don't know, but giving them that opportunity to have that richer experience anyway.

It might be just telling a story that feels vulnerable to you and risky, but that risk of storytelling is such a powerful way to deepen the experience. And then the third thing that came to me thinking about letting these masks fall away when you're up there on stage, is the power of just staying really present, really present during your presentation or your talk or workshop or whatever. And here's the thing, you're not going to stay present every minute. So when I say staying present, I mean keep coming back because of course things are gonna happen. Your brain is just like your audience's brains. Your brain is going to go, Oh, should I have said that? Oh, they're not responding. Oh, this is kind of scary. Your heart's going to beat a little faster when you try something risky and they don't respond the way you expected. That's okay.

Right? You're going to have this physical reaction. It might cause some thinking. You're not as present with the audience. It's totally natural. The more you know, the more you can just keep coming back to full presence with your audience. This is where surrender happens. Let all of it fall away. Come back, connect with them. Just know, okay, my brain's going a little haywire for a minute, but I'm back. I'm back there right here where they are. What's the next thing that makes sense for me to do? You know why you're there, right? You know you're on this earth to say something and you know what that thing is. You've done your preparation of course, because you're a committed thought leader and because you've done that, you can handle whatever shows up. Let that experience move through your body and come back to this audience and stay present.

Here's the tremendous gift. When you stay present with your audience, when you really look at them, watch their responses. You can actually change what you were about to do or what you were just doing in a way that will best serve them. You can tell a new story, you can rephrase what you just said so that they understand it better, but you can only do that. You can only see that nonverbal communication back from them if you're present listening and willing in that moment. I remember once showing up to do a presentation. It was kind of a workshop style presentation. I think it was 90 minutes. You may have heard me talk about this before, but I had prepared, I had handouts. I showed up ready to deliver to a packed room of people and as soon as I started talking and I was asking them some initial questions, you know, warming up our opening and our connection, it became very clear because I was present and paying attention that what we were talking about, just it wasn't resonating.

Their faces were saying, what's going on here? They had these totally perplexed looks and here's the deal. Nobody raised their hands and said, I'm sorry, why are you talking about this? You know, nobody was stopped. What I was saying, they just sent me all these nonverbal cues. It was subtle but some of them were less subtle, but it did require a, my presence, my willingness to see this and respond to it and that was risky. Right. Because if I respond to it, I need to do something, but because I was able to see it and willing to respond, I said, okay, I kind of get the sense that something's going on here. I see some confused expressions. Can you tell me what's coming up for you right now? And basically they said, we thought you were going to talk about how to have difficult conversations with people and that's not what I had come to talk about.

I thought we were talking about how they could do outreach on behalf of this organization. It was a nonprofit organization and I thought that I was coming in to talk with them about how they could go do presentations and you know, speak in their circles about this organization that was not at all what they were expecting. They were expecting a conversation around how they could have difficult conversations with the clients within the organization because in many cases they were actually working with clients who were angry, hostile with the organization as well as just generally in their lives. I had already passed out a handout that was clearly unrelated to what they were expecting. There was no way for me to just kind of cover this up and do a switch. I had to stop and address this misunderstanding that I had clearly had with the leader of this meeting about what the content was about.

We ended up having a really rich conversation that night. Yes, I did feel like running. Literally, I just wanted to turn on my heel and walk out because I was embarrassed. I hadn't prepared a conversation about difficult conversations. It actually wasn't something that I talked about regularly. Although it is within my realm of expertise around communication, I have actually run other workshops in the general domain of effective communication. So I had to pivot right then. But that presence, that willingness to be present and respond to what the audience needed really allowed me to do that. I'm so grateful for that and I want you to have that opportunity as well and it really happens when we aren't trying to be perfect. It's so not about us being perfect. I have the feeling you already know that and you're not trying to be perfect, but I just want to offer is there any little thing deep down that tells you you need to be better or more professional and is there a way you can let that drop away and actually show up in whatever is raw and real for you and see what happens when you present from even more of that place.

It doesn't mean we don't prepare. Of course we do. It doesn't mean we don't do our audience analysis and really prepare content that is best suited for this particular audience. But if we learn in the moment that there's something new that maybe we didn't think about ahead of time, we can learn so much by just being present and listening and then responding to it. In that moment. I was thinking about this after my dream about the Moonwalker. I was thinking, I wonder what this dream has to teach me and I think there are some levels of mask release releasing this mass, dropping the mask that I have available to me too. I don't know exactly what they look like yet, but I know that I can't wait till my next opportunity to get up on a stage and release even more, take a little bit more risk to let go of trying so hard, even if there's just a little corner of it within me to stay even more present and be willing to feel whatever shows up and then serve from that deeper, more raw place.

And I hope this conversation about dropping the mask even just gives you a little inkling of a place, maybe a corner in your own expression, in your own thought leadership and your own speaking that you can let drop away so that you can experience even more of that full surrendered self-expression. Because to me, that's where it's at. That's where it's at for what you're wanting in your own life and it's where it's at for that connection and your ability to create the biggest and most powerful impact with the people in your audience. Because you know my friend, you know that that call you feel, that's your sign. You were made for this. And you know how I know that, right? I know that because you know that. So get out there. Enjoy a wonderful fall. I'll be here next week, so we'll talk more about fall. I'm sure. I hope you have a fabulous or had a fabulous Halloween depending on when you're listening to this, and I can't wait to be here with you next week. Take good care. Thanks so much for being here with me on The Thought Leadership School Podcast. If you want specific and actionable guidance on how to become a recognized leader in your industry, you can download a free copy of my book. Beyond Applause: Make a Meaningful Difference Through Transformational Speaking at speaksoitmatters.com/freebook.

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