Speak About Yourself

“Remember: It’s not interesting when you speak about yourself,” Janet – senior HR manager with 25+ years of corporate experience – emphasized when introducing the improvised-speech session in a Toastmasters meeting.

It seemed to be a solid piece of advice from a seasoned professional.

It was also wrong.


Josh (his real name was not Josh) took Janet’s (same her name was not Janet, but I guess you got that) advice to heart.

As a result, his speech sucked.

I wanted to tell Josh in an email. Then I realized it’s not just Josh who, for whatever reason, avoids speaking about himself and gives general statements instead. Result: Presentations entertaining as a double dose of Tamazepam.

Tons of people whom I watch speak in public every day do the same thing. They deserve to know it too.

If you’re up for looking over my shoulder as I’m writing the message to Josh, be my guest.


Dear Josh,

in your last improvised-speaking performance (Topic: “Your life does not get better by chance, it gets better by change”), you managed to completely avoid speaking about yourself, exactly as you were told. Your speech in brief was: “Sometimes, you try all you can, you make a change, but if you don’t have a good boss and good colleagues, you can try all you can and still you fail.”

Congratulations to following the advice. Not so much on the performance. I hear you asking: “Damn, what’s wrong with what I said?”

I’ll tell you what.

It’s a generic statement that makes you sound like a walking book. It does not allow us – the audience – to imagine what made you come to that conclusion. It does not give your words credibility. You are missing an opportunity to make an emotional connection by sharing your experience.

Let’s look at another way how you could have approached the same topic:

“This March, I felt my career in project management was stagnating. I quit my job in Nestle and took a job offer in a top-tier global consultancy. Trainings, travel, trans-atlantic calls – all seemed to be very exciting. I was eager to learn and give my best – until the first meeting with my team. In that meeting Chuck, my manager…”

Can you see the difference?

Here we would be there with you from the very beginning.

A young ambitious man, not satisfied with his job in a large international corporation, decides to take a step into the unknown. He quits his job and goes for a new challenge. All seems to be great, until…

Can you feel it?

Before, you had a textbook statement. Now you have a story. Guess where textbook statements belong?


To your (and Janet’s) defence: I know where the “Don’t speak about yourself” hint is coming from.

It’s Dale.

Dale Carnegie: How to Win Friends and Influence People

I read that book too.

It says, for example:

“If you want to know how to make people shun you and laugh at you behind your back and even despise you, here is the recipe: Never listen to anyone for long. Talk incessantly about yourself. If you have an idea while the other person is talking, don’t wait for him or her to finish: bust right in and interrupt in the middle of a sentence.”

Distilled: Don’t talk about yourself (too much).

Is there something wrong with Dale Carnegie? Yes. Not the advice though. The context in which you’re using it.

It’s good advice when referring to a conversation. When you’re on stage however – you, your experience and your opinions are what we came for.

There may be one more reason why you might avoid speaking about yourself. You’re a modest chap and perhaps you don’t want sound like a braggart. Indeed, that is a risk.

One of Prague’s Toastmasters clubs is frequented by a guy who was working in Google’s headquarters. I saw him give two different presentations – each time he spoke about:

1. How amazing experience it was to be in a company campus where you get unlimited amounts of food of various sorts and

2. How difficult it was to make it through the rigid selection process and end up working there)

I agree with you. Not cool.

But Josh, one thing is avoiding bragging and another is trying to appear invisible on the stage. Don’t overdo it. You know – we – your audience – like you. We’re curious to hear what you’ve been through and what you made out of it. We want to know what your problems were and how you solved them. We want to know how you thought you had it all figured out, you got a bad surprise and learned the hard way. We want to know what made you cry – and what made you smile again.

Bottom line: We want to know you’re human. Just like us.

The next time you’re on the stage, don’t be a walking textbook. Tell us something about yourself.

I will listen.


Featured Image taken from unsplash.com, used under Creative Commons Zero.

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