[Lesson 1] What to speak about (and why it doesn’t matter)

Every week, 30+ people email me for advice on public speaking. I used to tell them to “just give a shit” or “just be passionate about a topic, you’ll be fine” but I now realize that advice was useless. (I’m sorry, you guys.)

Here’s the thing: they’re trying to raise more money for their company, or trying to influence more customers or just trying to get noticed at work — they’re all trying to get ahead — just like you and me.

Getting ahead is hard but, relative to everything else you could be doing, public speaking is the lowest-effort-highest-ROI thing you can do for yourself. You can’t not do this.

This isn’t something I was born knowing, it’s something that took me a long time to learn. Let’s rewind the clock back to late 2009 and let me share a bit of my story: 500 Startups didn’t exist yet and I was working for a small family office in San Antonio, TX where I was charged with managing the existing portfolio of tech investments and looking for new companies to invest in.

Every venture firm — like every successful person — has some form of uniqueness but, at their core, the most successful have two job functions: attract and hunt opportunities.

That sounds obvious, yet most get it wrong. My job as a professional was (and is) to end up with financial stakes in successful companies and projects. Frankly, that’s not so different than what I — and you — need to create a successful career.

Here I was with my first opportunity in the venture capital industry and I had to figure out how to make a name for myself. I came up with three operating rules for myself that I still use to this day. I call these the Rules of the Invisible Game:

Invisible Game Rule #1: Your personal brand isn’t what you say it is. Rather, it’s how other people perceive you.

I grew up in the DC suburbs — I didn’t have connections, contacts or experience — I was an outsider to Silicon Valley, I didn’t know anyone. So I Googled them. I dug around their LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter profiles.

I studied everything about them: who they hung out with, what they were wearing and what they had accomplished in the past. What I noticed is that what they said and what they did seemed to be very, very different.

It turns out: who you know, what you wear and what you’ve done are certainly helpful but how you make people feel is extremely important.

Through that careful study, I also noticed something else: these people were very, very good at what they do. They understood that credibility was table stakes. Once you’re credible at something, you should focus on notability. In other words: once you’re good at something, it’s important that others view you as the expert.

So the key is to thoughtfully shape your personal brand once you understand that personal brand is how others perceive you.

Invisible Game Rule #2: Never pick a fight with an elephant head-on.

Regardless of the industry you’re in, there are two important facts to recognize: the incumbents will have more money and experience than you. They are your competition in an already-crowded market full of similar resumes, similar goals and a vested interest in staying on top — they don’t care about you. I call these the elephants and you should never attack them head-on. It’s best to flank them.

If you want to be relevant, you need to say (and do) something that matters. This will be the base that you use to dominate the market.

In my industry, attacking the elephant head-on meant that I’d need to (1) blog about venture capital and (2) spend all my time in Silicon Valley. I chose to do neither of these — I chose to flank the competition. I wrote the five most common things I saw them doing in their professional careers. Then I sat down to figure out what I should do that they weren’t already doing.

I chose to focus my efforts on spending time outside Silicon Valley and learning how to be a better public speaker. Neither of these were something that my competition wanted to do. (Seriously, when is the last time you saw a Partner at a major VC firm get on a flight to some small town in the Mid-West to meet with founders or speak publicly about something? When was the last time you listened to a VC on stage that wasn’t boring? Go ahead, I’ll wait.)

Unless you’ve got unlimited time and money, it’s best to out-skill the competition — beat them before they ever see you coming.

Invisible Game Rule #3: Never forget the psychology of the person sitting across from you.

Humans are funny but predictable: we haven’t changed much since the beginning of time — we want to get paid, made or laid.

Whether you’re speaking publicly or privately, remember that no one cares what you need. They only care about what they want. Your job is to figure out what they want and give it to them.

When I studied investors that did speak on stage, they tended to be boring, self-focused and (perhaps unwittingly) prone to using off-putting body language. These speakers gave little thought to their audiences. At times, I suspect they forgot there was an audience at all. Their missed opportunity was going to be my gain: I would shape my content and my presence to serve the listeners’ needs. Pumping up my ego didn’t need to be done on a stage.

Someone really smart once told me, “if you help other people get rich, you will too.” (I’m pretty sure his name was Hiten Shah. 🙂 Again, the key is to focus on what your audience wants — not what you need.

And with all of that in mind, let’s bring it back to the point: what you’re going to speak about simply doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have a system for improving your speaking ability — and that’s what this course is about. Up next, I’m going to give you a couple of exercises to get started and we’re going to get through this together.

Exercise #1: Google yourself. Everyone else will. Google your name and write down the names of the people or companies that come up in the first five results. We’re going to get you into those within the next 90 days. (If you’re already in those top five results, pat yourself on the back for being a badass… or having a unique name. Move on to the next exercise.)

Exercise #2: Notability > Credibility. Take the results from exercise #1 and Google each of the names that came up. List the top 5 meetups, blogs, podcasts or TV/radio shows that they’ve been featured on. (If you were a badass in #1 and are still sitting here Googling yourself, let’s try something different: list 3 professional peers and 2 well-known speakers in your industry — then do this exercise.)

Exercise #3: Experience is a function of the number of things you try. Get to the website of each of the items (eg, meetups, conferences, podcasts, etc) you listed in exercise #2 and find the title of the keynote / talk / panel that included your person of interest. Write these down, we’re going to target these soon.

Exercise #4: You’re ALREADY an expert in something. What is it that others ask you about repeatedly? (Don’t be shy or intimidated, this is important: it doesn’t matter how big or small your skill is, there’s something that others constantly seek your advice on — what is it?)

Exercise #5: Send me the answers to the last four items. Show me that you’re serious about doing the work, I’ll help you get ahead.

Optional: Read So Good They Can’t Ignore You. As you start to improve your communication skills, the concepts in this book will help you use them to navigate your own career. This book was probably the best $15 I ever spent.

That’s it for now. Next week, we’ll work on pulling your first talk together. Get the exercises done and send them to me, all you have to do is hit ‘reply.’

Talk to you soon.


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