By: Jeff Haden
Who is the most important audience? Hint: It’s not the people you meet.
Whenever you introduce yourself, the person you meet is not the most important audience.
You are the most important audience.
I like to ride bicycles. I’m not super fit. And I’m not super fast. But I like riding, and in weak moments occasionally even think of myself as a “cyclist.”
So occasionally I ride in mass participation events like gran fondos. The average participant tends to be a serious cyclist: Many are triathletes, some are amateur racers, and occasionally even a few professionals show up. I live in a valley between two mountain ranges, so our events are not for the faint of fitness.
I was standing in the start area for a gran fondo that involved climbing four mountains when a man rolled over towards me. My guess is he picked me out since I was clearly one of the older riders in the field. (That was a delightful sentence to write.) As he stopped he struggled to unclip from his pedals and almost fell.
“Morning,” he said, the bass in his voice turned up to 10. “I’m Louis Winthorpe III*. I’m the CEO of WeKickSeriousButt Enterprises.”**
“Jeff,” I said. I shook his hand.
“I am really looking forward to this,” he said. “I could use the break to recharge the old batteries. Just in the last few days I’ve had to finalize a huge contract, visit two of our plants, and sign off on plans for a new marketing push.”
How do you respond to that? “Wow, you’ve been busy,” was the best I could manage.
“Oh, not really,” he said, trying and failing to seem humble. “Just same stuff, different day. I just wish I wasn’t so busy. I only have time to do the shorter course today. I would have absolutely killed the long ride. What about you?”
“I’m afraid the long ride is going to kill me,” I said.
“Feel free to latch on to my wheel,” he said, referring to drafting in another rider’s slipstream. “I’ll tow you along for as long as you can hang with me.” Then he slowly and carefully clipped into one pedal and wobbled away.
Cocky? Full of himself? Sure, but only on the surface: His $12,000 bike, pseudo-pro gear, and “I rule the business world” introduction were an unconscious effort to protect his ego. What his introduction really said was, “While I might not turn out to be good at cycling, that’s okay because out in the real world, where it really matters, I am The Man.”
While he introduced himself to me, he was his real audience.
And that’s a shame. For the next six or eight hours he could have just been a cyclist. He could have struggled and suffered and maybe even rekindled the ember of youth inside us that burns a little less brightly with each passing year.
How do you introduce yourself? When you feel insecure, do you prop up your courage with your introduction? Do you include titles or accomplishments or “facts” when you don’t need to?
If so, your introduction is all about you, not your audience.
See less as more.
Brief introductions are always best. Provide the bare minimum the other person needs to know, not in an attempt to maintain distance, but because during a conversation more about you can be revealed in a natural, unforced, and therefore much more memorable way.
Stay in context.
If you meet another parent at a school meeting, for example, just say, “Hi, I’m Mark. My daughter is in third grade.” Keep your introduction in context with the setting. If there is no real context, like at a gran fondo, just say, “Hi, I’m Mark. Good luck.”
Unless you’re in a business setting, your job title is irrelevant. Even if you are in fact the CEO of WeKickSeriousButt Enterprises, just say you work there. To err is human. To err humble is divine.
Focus on the other person.
The other person is the only person that matters. Ask questions. Actually listen to the answers. The best connections never come from speaking; the best connections always come from listening.
That day I rolled into the finishing area well over six hours later. I stopped and slumped over my handlebars beside a small cluster of riders who had finished well before me. They were already changed and working on a post-ride beer.
One of them looked over and said, “How was it?”
“It sucked,” I said.
They all laughed, and he said, “And it was awesome, right?”
I smiled, because it was. He reached over and gave me a fist bump. “I’ll grab you a beer and you can tell us all about it,” he said. I looked forward to the conversation more than the beer. Acceptance and camaraderie are earned by effort, not granted by title.
At that moment I happened to see Louis, sitting alone as he packed up his gear. I felt a twinge of sadness because he never allowed himself to just be a rider. He never gave himself the chance to fit in, enjoy a shared purpose, and to simply be a cyclist among cyclists.
When you introduce yourself, embrace the moment and the setting for what it says about you in that moment, not in comparison to your titles or accomplishments.
Just be whoever you are, skills and struggles and triumphs and failures and all. You are your true audience, even when you introduce yourself.
Always be yourself–especially to yourself.
* Clearly not his real name. (Trading Places!)
** Not really, but not far off.