Monday, March 7, 2016

Never Speak to Strangers

This week I'm off to my association's Annual Conference. Two days of Board and leadership meetings, followed by two days of presentations, networking and facilitating deeper engagement with my members. I was only partly joking with a friend last night when I said this is the week where I earn my annual salary.

And in that conversation with my friend (who, coincidentally, also has a conference of his own to attend this week and presentations to give) we fell to discussing public speaking and the role it has come to play in our professional lives.

I've been making presentations and speaking from the podium since I moved into my current position nine years ago. The conference I attend this week will, in fact, be my tenth Annual Conference with my current association.

And I still remember the stage fright and the uncertainty I felt in my first few years. It's my job in these presentations to communicate our association's strategy to our membership, to tell a compelling story about what it is we're trying to achieve, and the successes we've had in pursuit of those goals. Early on, I had plenty of doubts over if I could do that effectively. It wasn't just a generic worry about speaking in public. It was a specific concern about how well I understood my material, how effective I could be at telling the story. New as I was, would they believe me? Would they even listen?

But over time those fears have gone away. The butterflies in the stomach have never really left, but after a few years it felt like a switch had been flipped. I remember it clearly, happening as it did in mid-presentation, standing there on the stage, looking out into the assembled audience of my association's membership. Suddenly, while looking around at all those faces looking up at me, I came to a startling realization.

Literally, I knew everyone in the room. Many of them on a first-name basis. They weren't a crowd of strangers, potentially hostile and quick to anger at any misturned phrase I might make. They were, in a way I hadn't realized before, my friends and colleagues.

That changed everything. Now, I look forward to this busy time of year when I have to distill the work we've been doing into that compelling story. It no longer feels like I have to convince a group of skeptical strangers. I'm just sharing some good news with a group of friends.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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