Being the smartest person in the room.

My greatest fear? Being found out. Having someone discover that I am, in fact, not qualified to be addressing a room full of marketers, executives or zoologists on design, leadership or customers.

But I don’t have this fear anymore.

I didn’t take an expensive self-help class or electric shock therapy to rid myself of this self-diagnosed and minor case of impostor syndrome. I learned how to approach speaking and workshops by having others contribute to the message and then connecting those contributions to my own experiences to build the story.

Being the smartest person in the room doesn’t mean actually being the smartest person, it means being the most aware of others and how your stories connect.

When I started speaking and moderating I took it as a challenge to single-handedly build a great presentation or workshop on my own. It was a selfish need to have everyone else bask in my ability to create a brilliant keynote. Obviously, anyone who was fortunate to be in the presence of such a presentation would be suitably impressed and in awe of the fact I did this alone and without their help or input. (Ugh, just writing that paragraph feels ridiculous, but it happens to a lot of us.)

This was how I made sure I was the smartest person in the room. By working alone, not talking to others and attempting to impress them by proving they did not know as much as I did. I was trying to make them feel stupid.

Not exactly the best way to win over a crowd.

I realized that the smartest person in the room doesn’t (necessarily) have the best education or resume — or even knows the most about the topic — the smartest person in the room knows how to connect with others.

Last November I was invited to participant in an extraordinary workshop in Dubai and speak on the power of empathy. It was a gathering of 35 very smart people, put together by a very well respected and well-known global management consulting firm and attended by various peers and government officials, including what we would consider Dubai’s Secretary of State.

It was a great opportunity, a paid speaking appearance and an honor to be included.

I was assigned an analyst from the consulting firm to help develop the presentation, which was helpful, but not enough. I built a rough outline and left for Dubai with a half-finished presentation and a need to connect with my fellow speakers.

Upon arriving, a summer camp type feel overtook my fellow participants. Everyone wanted to know who you were and what you would be speaking on. Topics ranged from robotics to the human brain, social media to sustainable energy.

What are you speaking about?

Empathy.

Ah, really. That’s interesting. Like how people feel? Have you seen Brené Brown’s talk on YouTube? I think that is a perfect definition of empathy.

This interaction repeated itself over the course of 10 or 12 different peers. Each taking the time to tell me how they viewed empathy and, unknowingly, how I could shape my 7 minute presentation to connect directly with their experiences.

I spent 3 hours in my room that evening, editing my presentation, including an emotional story about my daughter and thinking specifically how I could ensure my words connected with their experiences.

Needless to say — otherwise you would not be reading an article about it — the presentation was massively successful. You know that kind of success when grown men and women weep openly in a hotel ballroom and several peers leave their chairs to pat you approvingly on the back? Yeah, successful.

And although they did not know it, my new peers were absolutely instrumental in making that presentation happen by contributing to the talk with their own feelings and perspectives.

The secret to a great story is talking with an audience, before talking to an audience. It is a barrier that few like to cross, perfectly described by Meg LeFauve as “going from the surety of ‘that is it’ back down into the darkness of the unknown.” It is enlightening, humbling and for many, it is their greatest fear.

But it is the difference between appearing to be smart and actually being smart.


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