Oh, it was gorgeous: a Victorian-era hotel, with gleaming wood and leather, and lots of circulating canapés, bubbles, and high heels. At a beautifully glam women-only event, I was part of a panel where seven of us addressed issues relating to women in business.
“I wonder if you would like to speak to the fact that women often hold themselves back because of the words and phrases they use,” the interviewer addressed me. “Things that belittle, or reduce the impact and value they offer. What I mean is,” she continued, “women so often apologise, or put themselves down, and say things like, ‘I just have a quick thing I want to share’ or ‘I’m probably way off track, but have you thought about?…'”
Oh, yeah. I can speak to it. And at great length. This is because it’s something that affects everyone – not just women – and because it covers one of those massive principles that few people catch sight of. Once they do, it changes the way that they communicate forever.
People eventually believe your “weasel words”
But first, the surface problem. Yes: we use self-deprecation in our language all the time, particularly here in Australia, where humour is also dry and tall poppies tend to get cut down. We use it for all kinds of reasons that range from cultural conditioning to deliberately wanting to send a “See? I don’t have tickets on myself” message. We add what I call “weasel words” – such as apologies and qualifiers – not realising the impact that they have. Weasel words weasel themselves into our communication and undermine us most effectively: maybe not if you use them once, or twice, or even three times. But over the long haul? You betcha. The problem with weasel words is that they affect even the people who have the utmost intention of listening to you and taking you seriously.
The problem with weasel words is that eventually, people begin to believe them.
It comes from you being so good, you see. There you are: brilliant at what you do, and doing it consistently. Not only that, but you have solid ethics that you live by even when you’re home and there’s no one other than the cat watching. This means that people trust you. They trust that when you say you’ll do something you’ll do it, and they trust that when you say something, it’ll be true. So when you self-deprecate too much, people think, on a non-conscious level, “Huh. She always says the truth, so… if she’s implying that what she’s saying isn’t that important, then it probably isn’t.”
And look: I get it. I know that it’s difficult to “Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes” like Maggie Kuhn said. That’s why you have to dig deeper to find the principle that’s really at stake. The one that when you get it, will change all your communications – whether written, spoken, or expressed in any way – forever, and make them hit people where it counts.
You must care more about the message than about yourself
I taught my first writing class about 21 years ago. It was in what is known as the most isolated town in Victoria, and what I know as God’s country: Tubbut, up in the high country, where the Snowy River runs. I was working as a freelance writer then, and had no idea about teaching, so I was a mass of nerves. My nerves, however, turned out to be nothing compared to the students’: sharing their work out loud and placing it under class scrutiny was something that they did in shaking voices, sometimes in tears, and sometimes after everyone else had had a go and I was blocking the exit so there was no escape. But I loved this group of writers, and wanted the best for them and their writing, so I gave them the advice that was given to me for refining and polishing, because suited the situation perfectly, and the moment they got it was the moment they truly became writers. You must care more about the piece of writing than about yourself.
Egos are fragile. They want to be liked and loved and accepted, so when the ego is at the helm, what’s at stake when you write and share your writing is just that: pleasing others. They feel good, you feel good, nobody’s put out, everybody wins! Sounds great, right? Except that it always makes for spectacularly crapful writing.
Years on, and I have proven that this is not just the key to writing, but all communication. It banishes fear, embarrassment, shame, and nerves if not forever, then at least to where they cannot interfere with what you have to say. But only if you get it. Only if you truly, truly get it.
You must care more about your message than about yourself.
If you’re afraid, or nervous, or embarrassed, or whatever, the problem isn’t your delivery of the message. It’s that you don’t know what the message is. Or that you know what it is, but simply don’t care enough.
The only thing that’ll get you over your powerful ego is nothing less than the most powerful conviction.
We’re not big on conviction these days. Most of us tend to be pretty moderate most of the time, and that’s great, because it allows us to be open-minded and inclusive. But your message is the one thing that you cannot possibly be moderate about. You need to know it, and have a powerful conviction of it, hammering it with nails of steel into your chest because it’s the only thing that will overcome your racing heart.
Conviction overcomes any fault
Moses had some sort of speech problem. Maybe he stuttered, maybe he was introverted and hated public speaking. We don’t know, except that at the end of the day, it didn’t matter. We are told that once he accepted his call, his conviction and message were so strong that he led the captive Israeli nation out of Egypt. George VI became King of the United Kingdom by accident. It was a terrible situation for a shy, stuttering prince, and one that got worse when he was called to lead his people through the horrors of WWII. But his conviction in the greatness and resilience of the British people gave his message power, and lead them he did. Harper Lee was painfully shy. She wrote one true book – certainly one true novel, not a draft – in her life, and disappeared from public sight. But her powerful conviction that we are all equal, and we must all aspire to the highest within ourselves, influenced anyone who read To Kill A Mockingbird, and it’s the reason why I, along with countless others, mourned her when she died a couple of weeks ago, and will mourn her until the day I die, and will miss her, even though I never met her.
Imperfect people. Carried aloft by powerful messages.
And then there are the people whose delivery is oh-so-polished and beautiful, but when you scratch away to get at the message, you know it’s not there. I don’t need to tell you who these people are. You’ve met plenty of them.
Here’s a message to you if you’re one of the shy, or the nervous, or the embarrassed, or the self-apologetic: get over it. It’s not about you. It’s about the message. And if it isn’t, then sipping champagne and eating canapés is all you’ll ever do.