In 1976, I spent a fairly miserable freshman year at Penn State University. This had everything do with me and not so much with the University; we were a clear mismatch. I was unhappy in ‘Happy Valley’ and this was never more apparent than on those autumn Saturdays when I wandered through an empty campus, where not a mile away hundreds of thousands of people cheered on their beloved Nittany Lions. This, in part, explains my complete obsession with the frightening scandal that has scarred so many.
Nitin Nohria, Dean of Harvard Business School, was an excellent speaker at TED X New England last month. He is a poised and confident presenter. His main message was about moral confidence, or our tendency to be morally “over-confident”. Most of us, he asserted, believe we are immune to the slippery slope of questionable morality, which gives rise to so much unbelievable behavior in the world. (The Penn State Scandal had not unfolded; Nohria’s subject was grooming ethical business leaders.) He believes that character is truly revealed, not by dire or difficult situations, but when people are given power.
We know this is the truth. Power can corrupt, blind and disconnect people from themselves and others. Not just for infamous historical figures, but also in our own experience with bosses, authority figures and even within ourselves. At Penn State the (ironic) ivory tower of insulation and entitlement bred astonishing actions and reactions.
How does this relate at all to public speaking? Well, outside of recommending you go listen to the TedX New England talks (I will post more in coming weeks); it is about the centrality of character in presentation. When all eyes are on us, listening to us, we have a kind of power. Understandably we want to appear in charge, in control, with all the answers. But good speakers do not create an impenetrable force field or inauthentic mantle of perfection. The recognition that most all aspects of life are messy, contradictory and not in our control paradoxically allows us to let go and stand before others as we genuinely are. And that is at the heart of being a truly powerful presenter.