Free to Be You and Me

If you don't know the above phrase, it's from a 70s special teaching kids about individuality and how we are all..."Free to be you and me." Yeah, it was HELLA 70s but the expression stuck because it's still true. We are always free to be ourselves—within legal and cultural parameters, of course. But when we branch out and create our professional persona or "brand" we try to hew as closely to what already exists.

This seems exponentially true of people—men, mostly white men, usually between 40 and 55—who become keynote speakers. They all seem to express their individuality in one of two ways. There's the high-energy guy in his jeans and sneakers with a dress shirt and jacket who "bucks the system" and is a maverick, an iconoclast, if you will, and he's going to teach you how to be a bold and innovative disrupter. And you know he's a bold and innovative disrupter because his sneakers are Gucci.

Then there's the guy wearing dark wash jeans with his Chelsea boots (also Gucci, but maybe Prada or, in a bold and innovative move, John Varvatos) and black dress shirt and has a total TEDx demeanor. Measured...pregnant pauses...allowing the audience to soak up his knowledge and feel better for it. That seems like a lot of uniformity to our "individuality" but, with seven billion people on this planet, there's going to be overlap, I guess.

Maybe it's that people who become keynote speakers believe they have to meet a standard to get the gig so they jockey their fees to fit into the mold of other, established, speakers hoping for some spillover to "establish their brand" like they're Steve Jobs. But remember, Jobs didn't become the caricature of himself until Apple was already an iconic brand. THEN he started wearing the black turtlenecks and jeans to present his latest brain child. Before that he had feathered hair.

Curating a public image is not inherently bad or inauthentic, but being solely a curated public image without grounding it in your unique story is where it goes wrong. If you ever use words like "bold," "innovative" or "disrupter" to tell your personal story, you're not speaking your truth. Listen to Joe Gebbia tell Airbnb's origin story. He never once uses words like disrupter or innovative to describe, for better or worse, one of the most innovative and disruptive companies of the 21st century. And Brené Brown garnered 36 million views of her TEDx talk on vulnerability, despite looking and sounding just like your favorite teacher from high school.

The best, and most resonant, stories are the ones that find the universal in the specific. It's the unique details to your story that will draw people in but it's how those unique details align with each person's own experience that will make your story memorable. Find those details that speak to larger truths and curate your image around that; whether it's being a researcher who resisted embracing her own vulnerability or a guy who lost his job and rented out air mattresses on his living room floor because he was broke. People will respond to you, even if you're not wearing Gucci sneakers or Prada Chelsea boots.

But if that's who you are? You do you, just be honest about it.

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