I was called a “Yankee” this week. Now, while I do live in Kansas and have most of my life, and while the context was by no means intended as an insult, the use of that one word, applied unexpectedly to me, has caused me to pause and think very deeply.
See, I don’t think of myself as a Yankee. Those are folks from New England, right? I’m a Jayhawker, by my own history and pride.
However, regardless of what I think, in reality, being called a Yankee by a Southerner means that I just might’ve failed the “be relatable to your audience” test. I was in the South and speaking to a large number of southerners. If I’m perceived as an “outsider” or as a person who can’t relate to the situation(s) of the participants, then I might as well pack it in and go home.
I’ve seen so many brilliant people get this wrong and therefore none of their words stick with their audiences for good reason: they often inadvertently shoot themselves in the foot with a phrase, a joke or something that alienates them. Something regional. Something political. Something that means nothing back at home, but it means everything here.
But I’ve also seen brilliant (and less than brilliant) people be absolutely themselves while still connecting deeply with their group. It doesn’t matter how smart you are; the amount of amazing facts, research, or information you have to share. It’s about connecting with the audience.
Now don’t get me wrong. My sessions went well. I had the usual good numbers of people come up to the front of the room afterward. I had lots of smiles and participation. I got new Twitter and Facebook followers. I even received invitations to dinner.
It’s just that later that evening in casual conversation with an insider, I was called a Yankee, which means I was absolutely perceived as an outsider. I was told that it was ok that I didn’t use the term “ma’am” with the ladies who deserved it because as a Yankee, I “got a pass.”
I confess that I did have an inkling of an idea that “ma’am” is an important part of their culture and hence, fitting in. I just failed to see that cultural piece all the way through to using it correctly. But some of the other gaffes I witnessed that day? I don’t think those other Yankees making those missteps even had a clue of the insults they put out to the audience.
I’m going to figure this puzzle out, not just for me, but for my clients. If people are going to pay me to come work with their teachers and to make a difference with their kids, I have to be able to do my job, do it well. I have to not only not make the silly cultural gaffes I witnessed from other “Yankees” this week, but also find the key to the front door.
After all, if you’re only getting on stage and pushing out information without connecting with your audience, or worse, you’re saying things that alienate the audience, it doesn’t matter how smart you are; how well-designed your presentation is; how highly paid you are; how broadly pedigreed you are. Your audience’s time is wasted and the money they’re paying you is wasted. You’ve not put your message into their hearts and minds.
And if you try to hold the mindset of “if you didn’t get what I’m saying, you must be dumb and it’s not my fault,” then you’re worse than the worst teacher in the room.
We’d never blame the kids for the teacher’s inability to connect with their students based on a message that’s insulting them. Yet very smart presenters often blame the audience for being “resistant to change” or “luddites.” Perhaps the blame lies in silly cultural gaffes, even in the best and most willing of audiences.
I’ve still got lots of thinking, re-playing, and re-working to do for myself. I don’t want to ever “get a pass” for being an outsider again. Ever.