Very early in my career, I suffered from a credibility problem. People told me that I was great on stage and in the front of the room but there was a difference when we were conversing in one on one situations. Because I love making people laugh and the feeling that comes from being the center of attention, I had a real tendency to push the envelope and make jokes that called my professionalism into question. It was the difference between the person on stage and the person making people laugh that was killing my credibility.
It was during one of my moments of getting hot and rolling on a subject that should never be mentioned in a professional setting for the sole benefit of cracking up most of the people I was sitting with that I went too far. One of the people that I was sitting with called me on my conduct and gave me a piece of advice that had been invaluable to me ever since. She told me how I was letting my love for the spotlight steal from my message and that if I really wanted to impact people, should Live My Life Like As If I Were On Stage.
It blew my mind at the time because she was right. We wouldn’t take medical advice from a doctor who smokes or parenting advice from a deadbeat dad. Why should anyone take leadership advice from a person who could not lead themselves? It completely shifted my thinking and left me with some hard choices to make. Did I want to entertain everyone with my comical sense of humor, or did I want to be taken seriously as someone with a message? Because I did, it became clear that there were some behaviors that I had to tighten up. Specifically, these were my big issues:
Use Proper Language
What does proper language mean? Obviously, it includes not cursing or using vulgarities in public. If I wouldn’t use them on stage, then I shouldn’t use them when conversing with others. Obviously, it meant matching my tenses and using correct grammar. I would never stand on stage and knowingly use poor English, therefore my English off-stage should be correct and proper as well. It also had to mean, however, that I would avoid the kind of crude humor that could win me cheap laughs but lose me the respect of others. This was a tough lesson to learn because I enjoyed those cheap laughs that at the time seemed harmless. It was only after that I considered the impact they were having on my image.
Cut The Negativity
The old saying that misery loves company seems to be true. When we’re talking about how bad things are and how tough things seem to be, everybody likes to chime right in. As long as someone has it rougher than us, we must be doing well! This was one of the habits I really had to work on. Living my life as if I were on stage meant I had to cut out the negativity and focus on framing the positive. Ironically, this is one of the parts of leadership that I spent a great deal of time talking about; how it’s a leader’s job to frame the positive. No wonder then, people would question my credibility when they found me talking about only the bad stuff. I’m in no way suggesting we should be Pollyanna, pie in the sky all of the time, but it’s important to demonstrate the positivity that people expect from a leader whether on stage or in person.
Look The Part
Whether we like it or not, appearance matters a lot to the way we’re perceived. From our body language to the clothes we wear, we have to make sure that our actions line up with our words. For me, it was a nasty habit of crossing my arms. I would speak about being open and positive and when I was engaged in small groups or one on one, my body language told another story. Sure, most of the time people cross their arms because they’re cold or because they’re comfortable, but regardless of the intention behind the act, the signal being sent is that we’re closed, combative and angry. Not the signal that the confident and charismatic speaker is trying to send. Another big offense I had with looking the part was being present. I’ve long said that one of the worst things that someone can do is to give someone with ADD a smartphone. Speakers make for lousy audience members anyway, but I had developed the habit of being on my phone as others spoke. I was listening. I heard every word they said. It didn’t appear that I was listening. It was killing my credibility.
Making adjustments to my behavior was a major step outside of my comfort zone. Simply admitting that I had work to do wasn’t something that I was really excited about, but self-awareness is the starting point of self-improvement. I knew if I wasn’t credible, it didn’t matter how polished my presentation. What I was shouted so loudly in their ears that they couldn’t hear what I said, to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson. When I begin living the advice to live my life as if I were on stage, so much changed for me. I was taken seriously. Doors that had been closed began to open. I became credible and as I did, I began to display a polished professional image.