We’re often asked the question: should I show vulnerability?
There are two main schools of thought.
“Fake it ’til you make it.”
“Wear your heart on your sleeve.”
Conflicting views on how much of an act you should put on.
Particularly when public speaking.
And when Prime Minister Theresa May chokes on the last words of her resignation speech, opinion is equally divided.
So should we be buttoned-up when presenting to clients?
Or expose our true selves?
I heard a variety of views on Theresa May’s departing shot outside Number 10.
As emotion ran through her final words about “the country I love”.
“She was just being human.
What’s wrong with that?”
While others said:
“Where were her tears for the victims of the Grenfell fire?
Or the Windrush Generation sent back to the Caribbean?”
But that rare flash of emotion from the outgoing Prime Minister demonstrated a type of vulnerability rarely seen in speeches.
I say a type because there are two kinds.
The first is an unintentional vulnerability.
I’m sure she wanted to get through the speech without tears.
To demonstrate the strength of her leadership.
Instead, she drew sympathy from those who felt sorry that she was upset.
But derision from critics who saw her as being weak.
So unintentional vulnerability will evoke a mixed reaction.
However, I’m a big fan of intentional vulnerability.
Which is sharing mistakes you’ve made with the audience.
And failures that have preceded your successes.
When we do that, we make it more possible for others to succeed.
Intentional vulnerability is at the heart of our training at Pink Elephant Communications.
When running presentation skills courses, our trainers will talk about their nerves in years gone by.
When about to go on stage and speak to a big audience.
We may be trainers in communication skills now.
But years ago we felt the same inhibitions that our course participants feel today.
Worrying about how the audience will react.
Considering that the task ahead is too big for us.
Feeling we’re under-prepared.
So we share that with our audience, before setting out how we overcame these anxieties.
I turn the clock back to the early 1980s, when I was just starting out in TV.
My blood pressure would go through the roof.
My speed of delivery would quicken with my pulse.
The sweat would run down my back as the red light went on and I broadcast to the nation.
And when those worried about doing a TV interview for the company hear that, they take comfort from my former emotional turmoil.
Because I felt then like they do now.
So I can empathise with their current emotional state.
Which is very different from sympathising with an emotional Prime Minister.
In Britain right now, the race to be Prime Minister is on.
And as candidates start to list their dalliances with drugs from decades ago, it’s worth asking.
Is that intentional vulnerability?
Or simply publishing the bad news before somebody else does?
I’d spent decades wanting to show the world I was up to the task.
So I hid my fears from colleagues.
I disguised my nerves from producers and news editors.
In case they picked someone else to read the news on BBC and Scottish Television.
(And they would have.)
So at what point do you demonstrate how you’re really feeling?
And where your weaknesses really lie?
As opposed to the actual strengths you list in a job interview when asked to run through weaknesses.
My opportunity came in writing a book, Drop the Pink Elephant.
In it, I recounted a rant at a car park attendant.
A public spat with a restaurateur.
A humiliating climb-down with a waiter.
To show how badly I’d got it wrong.
And how I’d learned to act differently.
That’s intentional vulnerability.
And it allows the audience to empathise.
Because they too have been there.
Only in the last 15 or 20 years have I become comfortable with discussing my mistakes and weakness.
I do so as a shortcut.
To show others a different path from the often painful one I’ve followed.
And I find it liberating.
It’s as if I’ve removed the curse of perfectionism.
And replaced it with the pursuit of excellence.
Which is striving for the best.
While accepting things will go wrong.
When clients ask: should I show vulnerability?
I say yes.
But I urge them to demonstrate genuine vulnerability.
To use it to bridge the gap between where they are and where their audience is.
And that’s exactly what I’ll do next month at a conference in Liverpool.
When I’m speaking about public speaking.
And answering the big questions:
How do I overcome nerves?
What about the fear of public speaking?
How do I present with confidence?
And how do I embrace the opportunity to tell the world what I believe to be true?
Part of the answer is to be authentic.
To keep destructive thoughts to ourselves.
And talk to ourselves positively.
So all the audience hears is positivity.
But the more we admit the challenges in turning these fears around, the more we demonstrate what we had to work on to become better.
The sooner we can embrace our imperfections.
And give permission to others to embrace theirs.
Bill McFarlan is co-Founder and Executive Chairman at Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.
You can read his full profile here.
Photos by Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916 / CC BY-ND / EU2017EE / CC BY / InterAmericanDialogue / CC BY / Southbank Centre London / CC BY / Policy Exchange / CC BY on Foter.com.
Screenshot of Bill McFarlan courtesy of the BBC.
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