Figuring out your answer to “Why you?” can help you speak authentically and build your confidence, says communication coach Allison Shapira.
This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.
“Why you?” is the single most powerful question you can ask yourself when you’re preparing to give a professional speech or presentation. It’s where you put aside the day-to-day details of your job and the internal politics of your organization and zoom in on the sense of purpose that guides all your actions.
Your “why” is probably not “So I can make more money” or “So I can get promoted” or “So I can look good in front of my boss.” It’s deeper than that. Sometimes you may need to ask yourself this question repeatedly to get your underlying answer.
As part of a leadership communication program, my team and I coached the sales managers of a financial institution. I was helping a mid-level manager prepare for an upcoming sales call. I asked her, “Why you? Why do you do what you do?”
She responded, “Well, I like serving others.”
“Because I believe in service.”
“Because service is important to me.”
“Because that’s what my parents taught me.”
“Tell me more.”
“Growing up, my parents ran their own business. Every single day, I saw them get up early to serve their customers, putting others’ needs before their own. I think about that experience every day when I wake up, and I want to teach that to my children as well. That’s why I do what I do.” A-ha!
Do you see how we had to dig down a few layers there? We had to get past her generic answers to arrive at the deeper drivers of her behavior.
In another training program, one woman got straight to the point when she said, “My father sold insurance, and every day he came home happy. When it was time to choose a career, I chose to follow in his footsteps. That’s why I do what I do.”
You’ll notice “Why you?” often comes back to family and early childhood, and you may feel strange about sharing a personal story in a business setting. But we are not robots; we are humans doing business with other humans. We are driven by personal motivations, and we have values that guide our actions. When you share those motivations with others, even if it’s in a professional environment, you can connect on a personal level and establish trust.
One of the best places to include your “Why you?” is in the beginning of your speech or presentation. Imagine using the story about growing up in a family-owned business when you’re pitching a small business prospect. Using that story, the prospect might think, “Yes, this person understands where I am coming from. I can trust this person.”
There are many different advantages to having a “Why you?” It will help you choose language that is authentic to you rather than falling back on corporate jargon or taglines. It also animates your body and voice. When you truly believe in your message, that sense of purpose can infuse your entire person. Last but not least, it helps build your confidence. Young professionals and seasoned executives alike confess to a lack of confidence when speaking, worrying, What if others in the room know more than I do? or What if the audience is wondering why I have the authority to speak? Connecting with “Why you?” reinforces your credibility.
I remember a young woman from Egypt who participated in one of my workshops at Harvard. She had written a very general speech about the dangers of revolutions. She was too nervous to speak and finally asked me in front of the class, “Why would anybody want to listen to me? I’m only 19 years old.” I responded, “You have lived through a revolution. You have more personal credibility than someone with a PhD in the subject.” She thought about that for a moment, then stood up and gave one of the most passionate, personal speeches I’ve ever heard, telling her own story. She had to give herself permission to speak.
Sometimes “Why you?” can be hard to find. I remember coaching a man who worked in real estate development. I knew he was an engaged, passionate individual with a fabulous sense of humor. But as he stood up to practice his presentation to a community board, he changed completely. His shoulders slumped, his smile drooped, and he sighed loudly while leaning on one hip and weakly gesturing at his slides behind him. He was afraid that he was a boring speaker — and he was.
When we talked about “Why you?” he came to a startling realization. I asked him why he was passionate about his work, and, as it turns out, he wasn’t. He hated his job. He mistrusted his boss. He didn’t like the industry. He wasn’t a boring speaker; he was just bored.
If you are bored with your subject or if you’re unhappy at your job, it’s going to be difficult to give a powerful speech. In those cases, you do have a couple of options. You can change careers, which is what happened to the man I mentioned. He wound up quitting his job and pursuing a dream to revitalize an abandoned building in his city. But maybe you have three kids to support, college bills, and a mortgage. Instead of searching for what you’re passionate about, think about what you like about your work.
Working with investment bankers, I sometimes hear resistance to the word “passion.” They’ll say, “I work 100-hour weeks in a high-stress environment. I’m not just doing it for the money, but I wouldn’t exactly say I’m passionate about it. I do like being able to solve problems for my clients. It’s like a puzzle, and I like putting together the pieces of the puzzle.” That works.
You can find your “Why you?” by asking yourself a few different questions. Try:
• Why do you care about your audience or about the event where you’re speaking?
• Why do you care about your subject or your organization?
• What are you most proud of in your work?
How will you know when you find your answer? You’ll know, because you’ll feel it resonate inside and think, “Yes, that’s the thing I’m looking for.”
Excerpted from the book Speak with Impact: How to Command the Room and Influence Others by Allison Shapira with the permission of AMACOM. Copyright © 2018 Allison Shapira.
Watch her TEDxRockCreekPark talk now: