Episode 52: Michael Port – Steal the Show
Do you have those negative voices in your head that you’d like to quiet down? Michael Port, New York Times bestselling author of Steal the Show, is full of great counter-intuitive advice that shifted the way I do things. Discover how to silence your internal and external critics, what you can do to get the best feedback, and how to deliver a perfect performance every time.
- “You can be a critic or a performer, but I don’t think you can be both.” @michaelport on how to STEAL THE SHOW #podcast
- Great performances require real preparation – why #practice won’t make you stiff with @michaelport
Book: Steal the Show
Bio: Michael Port is the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling author of six books including Book Yourself Solid, Beyond Booked Solid, Book Yourself Solid ILLUSTRATED, The Contrarian Effect, The Think Big Manifesto, and STEAL THE SHOW, his latest. Michael has been featured on all the major TV networks and is one of the highest rated speakers working today. He runs a company of experts advising businesses on marketing, business development, and public speaking.
Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.
Michael Port is here with me today, he’s a New York Times bestselling author. He’s written six books including the one that we’re talking about today, “Steal the Show, from Speeches to Job Interviews to Deal Closing Pitches. How to Guarantee a Standing Ovation for all the Performances in Your Life.” He is a keynote speaker, he is a go-to coach for professional speakers and CEOs around the world. His companies offer workshops, private coaching and online courses on marketing. He knows quite a bit about showing up in a way that allows you to bring your best performance forward, and the book itself, “Steal the Show”, is a great and very straight forward read about speaking in public in a way that brings out who you are and in a way that is compelling to your audiences. I thought it was a terrific book. Michael, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Michael: Thank you so much for having me. Appreciate it.
Peter: Michael, let’s get started with one thing that you say in the book, finding your voice, the courage to share who you really are. Not just what you want others to think you are, or who you want others to think you are. That’s in some ways very obvious and in other ways quite profound and realizing how many of us show up in a way that tries to meet expectations as opposed to showing up with our authenticity. Can you talk about that for a moment?
Michael: Sure. Well, different times in our lives we wrap ourselves up in layers of persona. We think those layers of persona are going to serve like armor and protect us, when in fact often it’s just parchment-like armor. It’s easy for people to poke holes in it and sometimes people are more inclined to poke holes in your armor if they feel that you’re presenting yourself in a way that’s not authentic. Of course, that’s the irony. When you present yourself in a way that’s very honest, and very authentic, generally people are less interested in knocking you down. I say, let’s strip away those layers of persona and let’s discover how we want to behave in the world so that we feel fully self-expressed and we’re not expressing ourselves in response to others in rebellious fashion to others, but expressing ourselves based on what we believe and we’re not forcing those beliefs down other people’s throats. As a result we tend to be less worried about criticism because most of the fear that we have around performance or presenting ourselves in a way that is larger than our typical walking around our house self, is based on the fact that we’re afraid to get rejected. Rejection doesn’t feel good, I don’t like rejection. I haven’t met too many people who like rejection, but it’s a part of life.
If we are worried about rejection then our fear is stronger than our desire. Until our desire is stronger than our fear, we may not show up as the kind of leader that we know we can be.
Peter: This is of course the $100 million dollar question, which is the ability to show up in that way. Meaning, this fear that so many leaders have is one of being vulnerable. You and I can talk about this and theoretically say, of course, what we know is that people connect in vulnerability. They don’t actually connect in strength, they connect in vulnerability. Showing up with some vulnerability in who you are is the key to being able to convey your message in a powerful way. On the other hand, when you’re the one who’s about to do it, there’s fear of rejection. And rejection when you’re pretending to be someone else doesn’t hurt that much because it’s not you. It hurts a million times more if you get rejected and you’re actually being authentically yourself because that’s a deep identity rejection.
How do you help people show up in that vulnerability and get over the hump that is pushing them towards protecting themselves or the mask of sorts, or that kind of armor?
Michael: It’s interesting because we think that it’ll hurt more if we actually go after what we want. For example, when I was an actor, that was my first career. I had a modicum of success. I was at that point where I was doing recurring roles in TV and small roles in film, and doing a lot of voice over. That was my bread and butter in between gigs. I was testing for a film called, “Kiss the Girls”. It was with Morgan Freeman and I was to play opposite Morgan Freeman, his partner, his cop partner. That character also happened to be, spoiler alert, I don’t think too many are going to be watching that film it’s an old film, but also turned out to be the serial killer. I guess I looked like a cop or a serial killer, either one or the other, or both. I remember reading the script and thinking, “I don’t know, is this going to be great? Do I really want to be a character that is a serial killer, I don’t want to typecast myself. I don’t know.”
I talked my way out of preparing for it in a way that I needed to because great performances require real preparation. People like the idea of winging things because they think that they’re more authentic or more spontaneous, usually it doesn’t work out so well. I didn’t get it, and I was able to say, “Fine, I didn’t really want that because it wasn’t a great script, I didn’t want to get typecast.” When I look back at that I can honestly say that I was full of baloney. I think I was afraid, and this I think was true for many of the roles that I was going out for, I was truly afraid that if I told others how much I wanted it, if I showed the world how much I cared then it would hurt that much more if I didn’t get it and I’d look really stupid if I didn’t. If I didn’t care about whether or not I got it, then I don’t really look stupid because I didn’t want it anyway. Fine. It’s not really you who rejected me, it’s me who rejected you. Of course, that was all baloney.
It took me, just like many things in life, it took getting older to discover what a lie that was. In fact now when I admit what I want and how much I want it and I don’t get it, it really doesn’t hurt at all frankly. I know that I have another chance. I know that I can keep going after what I want and, here’s the other thing, I don’t think other people determine my future. Whether or not someone says yes to me, it doesn’t mean that I’ll never have that thing that I want. It just doesn’t work that way.
Peter: It’s so interesting Michael, you’re pointing out something that I’ve completely overlooked which is that when you are not being authentic, and you don’t get what you want on the one hand, yeah you might be able to say, “Yeah, I didn’t really want it.” The truth is you know you held back. You know that you possibly could have gotten it if you were more willing to put yourself out there and that by putting yourself out there it may hurt but you know you’ve given it your all and you can move on from that. There’s no regret in the way there is when you’ve shown up in a mask. I really have never thought of it that way and it feels so true.
Michael: It’s exactly right. This is something that the creative artists experiences day in and day out if they’re really in pursuit of mastery around their work. The entrepreneur is a creative artist. A creative artist is somebody who’s trying to produce an experience for other people. An entrepreneur, a leader, is trying to produce experiences for the customer that she serves and for the people that he works with. That’s his job in part. We’re playing a role while we do it. Shakespeare said of course, people are familiar with this, he said, “All the world’s a stage.” Many people give lip service to it, “Yeah, I get that, I get that.” If you think about it, we’re playing roles all the time. We play one role at the office, another role at home with our spouse, another role as a father, another role as a brother, another role with your buddies from high school, another role with your neighbor.
Hopefully they are all authentic roles. They represent our values, who we are and what we believe. Our way of being may change slightly from role to role. People will still recognize who we are but for example, if the drill sergeant in the marines behaves the same way with his daughters who are six, seven and eight years old, that he does with the new recruits in boot camp, his relationship with his daughters may suffer. And vice versa. If he treats his new recruits in the marines the way that he treats his six, seven year old daughters, those marines may not live very long in the battlefield.
Peter: I thought it was such an interesting point you made earlier on in the book that playing those roles is not inauthentic. You’re emphasizing parts of your personality in certain situations, and you’re de-emphasizing others. You offer this very expansive complex view of who we are that offers us some freedom to be inconsistent and still consistent and still authentic.
Michael: That’s exactly right. It’s almost counter intuitive. In fact, what you discover is that people who are rigidly true to self, meaning they have trouble adapting, they have such a strong point of view that they have trouble seeing the world from other people’s eyes, or they see themselves in one way so that they can only do certain things. They have trouble advancing, moving forward, taking on new responsibilities, new roles. Again, there’s that word role. When you hire people you generally hire them to play a role. You’re going to play the role of communications director. You’re going to play the role of CFO. You want to move into leading roles over time. If you’re so true to self, you’re so rigidly fixed on an idea of who you are, it may be harder to move into those roles. When you are open to different ways of being and open to seeing yourself as more than just one thing, then you often can feel comfortable moving in and out of different roles. Moving in and out of different groups. Interacting with different people from different walks of life. I think that’s kind of thrilling. I think it’s really interesting.
Peter: Yeah, and it’s certainly freedom enhancing. It allows you to see yourself more broadly than you might otherwise and allows you to be authentic throughout the whole process.
Michael: Here’s a really every day life type example. My name is Michael. I usually introduce myself as Michael, in fact I always introduce myself as Michael. Nine times out of ten, people who are generally in blue collar environments will immediately start calling me Mike. I’ll say, “Hi, I’m Michael Port,” and they go, “Hey, what’s up Mike?” When I started recognizing this I thought, “Didn’t I just say Michael? Why did they call me Mike?” What I discovered over time is that that familiarity, that colloquial interaction is comfortable for them and the name Mike is … They’re more accustomed to the name Mike than Michael. I could roll two ways. I could say, “No, my name is Michael. You must call me Michael.” Or, I could say, “Okay, great.” I could let them call me Mike because why not? Then our relationship can develop based on that language and language is incredibly powerful. Language influences the way we think, it influences the way other people think about us. The language we use means so much more than we often recognize. I know as soon as somebody calls me Mike, I know a lot more about them than they think or realize I know about them.
Peter: It requires flexibility on your part to say I don’t mind if someone calls me something that I don’t think of myself as.
Michael: Yeah. I had a negative connotation with Mike because when I was in high school they called me Big Mike. I’m not very big now, but I was one of those man-children. You know how there’s one kid, he looks like he’s twenty five and he’s twelve. I had to bring my birth certificate to Little League games because they thought I was a ringer, I was older. I didn’t really like it, Big Mike sounds like you’re the dumb big kid. I moved away from the name Mike when I went to college and I went with Michael. I am of an age now where I don’t mind that. You can call me Big Mike, you can call me Little Mike. You can call me whatever you want, it’s not going to affect me because my identity is not wrapped up in something like that.
You might think this is a small little thing, but these kinds of things happen all day long. If we can role with these adaptions of our idea of who we are, we generally can move in and out of different groups. I can hang out with those guys down from the docks who want to call me Mike, and I can hang out with the librarians who have an entirely different language and way of being.
Peter: You’re bringing out an aspect of this book that I appreciated, which is that it’s a book about communication but it’s a book about so much more. It’s a book about how we move through the world and communication is the face that the world sees of us. The two, who we are and how we convey that, are inextricably connected.
Michael: That’s exactly right.
Peter: You say something that I thought was brilliant early on in the book again. If you want to silence critics, stop being critical.
Michael: Yes. First of all, can I just thank you for reading the book. I’ve done hundreds of podcasts over the years and very often the podcaster will say, “So, there was a concept in chapter two that you were talking about, can you elaborate on that?” “You didn’t read the book, I know.”
Peter: That’s funny. First of all thank you. It was fantastic book I enjoyed it. I can’t tell you how many people I interview say exactly the same thing to me once we’re off air, to say, “Wow you really read the book.” I think, how can you do an interview without reading the book? So thank you for appreciating that.
Michael: You’re very welcome, it’s my pleasure. It’s not hard to be critical. It really isn’t. My boys came home from their first day of school today, one’s eleven, one’s twelve. The first thing they do is start talking about the teachers. “Oh yeah, she’s like a robot.” “Oh yeah, did you get what’s-his-name? He’s the worst.” I said, “Guys, that’s not going to fly. You know that’s not going to fly.” It’s just too easy to do that. First of all they’re making snap judgments, second of all it’s disrespectful of your teachers and that’s a whole other conversation all together. One of the things that holds us back from taking risks and making big choices, and of course choices are the other things that tell the world about who we are. Then of course the way you communicate those choices as you indicated. Making big choices requires taking risk and we may be rejected. Of course, we talked about this fear of rejection and when someone criticizes you, you feel rejected. There’s a lot of research in fact around rejection and the research shows that when you are rejected you feel physical pain first.
We don’t recognize it as physical pain but the center of the brain that experiences physical pain is the same part of the brain that lights up when you’re emotionally rejected. Even before we know whether or not we care about the kind of rejection we got or who it was from, we immediately feel pain. Then we process it differently depending on how we see the particular type of rejection or the person that’s rejecting us. The first thing to do is to recognize that it’s a natural physiological response to feel pain when somebody rejects us, even if we couldn’t care less about that person.
For example, someone doesn’t give you their seat on the bus. Let’s say you broke your leg and there’s a sixteen year old kid there, perfectly healthy and they won’t give you their seat. You feel rejected and angry at this person, but why? You don’t know this person. You have no idea what’s going on in their life. You shouldn’t care about whether or not they rejected you. Yet we do, we feel this physical pain first and then we start perseverating on it psychologically and we can often go down a rabbit hole.
There’s two types of criticism. Generally, there is the external critic, the person in the cheap seat who puts other people down to lift themselves up. Then there’s internal criticism. They’re the voices of judgement in your head and they are both strong voices however, the louder the voices of judgement in your head, the more you will hear the external critics. If we want to silence the external critics, instead of trying to fight them to get them to shut up, what we need to do is work on silencing our own voices in judgement. When you don’t criticise yourself, you are less concerned about the criticism you may get from other people. That’s number one.
Number two, when we criticize others, we know that that criticism is going to come back to us. Maybe not from that person, but from somewhere, because we are living a life of a critic. You can be a critic or performer, but I don’t think you can be both. You can spend your days criticizing the work of others, or you can spend your days being creative. There are a few people who may choose, “I’m just going to criticize others, that’s what I’m going to do,” but I think it’s pretty hard to spend your time criticizing others and then also be willing to take risks and put yourself out on the line in such a way that you may be criticized yourself. I haven’t seen too many people who do that really, really well.
Peter: How do we manage that kind of non-critical perspective with feedback. Which is a gift. Criticism can knock us down, feedback can help us get better. Where do you draw that distinction?
Michael: It depends on who it’s coming from. If I’m working with a student and I give them feedback they know I’m not criticizing them because they know I’m dedicated to serving them and they respect me and they’ve come to me for my feedback. That’s feedback, that’s not criticism. If somebody comes up to you that you do not know and says, “Listen, can I give you a little constructive criticism?” You just say, “No.” Constructive criticism, is still criticism, just dressed up in a pretty outfit.
Peter: I would imagine that it’s also based in part on who the person is. Maybe also the energy with which it’s offered. I can imagine people who don’t know me coming and saying, “Thank you for that speech and I had a thought of blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” If it comes from a place of caring, it could be useful. I’m curious to get your perspective.
Michael: Absolutely. I will take feedback from people I don’t know if I think that they’re offering it in a way that’s going to be helpful and they’re doing it to help me, not to somehow serve their own needs of feeling important, or better. Or putting somebody else down as I said before to lift somebody up. We’re under no obligation to take “feedback” or criticism from anyone. We’re under no obligation. I think as people who are in pursuit of mastery, when we’re working on something that is new material that’s sensitive, that we’re unsure about, I think we should choose the people very carefully from whom we get our feedback. When we’re getting feedback, one of the things we have in our process is a way of teaching our students how to get the right feedback and how to ask for feedback because often, especially when you’re working on speeches, people will know what they like and they don’t like but they don’t really know how to translate that in a way that’s helpful for you necessarily. They are not necessarily expert at teaching one how to be better in that particular area.
If you know how to ask for feedback in a way that gets you what you need to improve, that’s very helpful. You’re in more control of that feedback loop, rather than just sitting there and letting people throw whatever feedback they want at you.
Peter: I love that distinction, too, which is the question of why they’re giving you the feedback. Are they doing it sincerely to help you or are they doing it because they want to make themselves better, feel stronger or feel bigger or something like that. You can really tell that very quickly from somebody.
Michael: Yeah, I think you can. Sometimes it takes a little bit of hutzpah to say, “No thanks I’m okay, I’m not looking for feedback right now.”
Peter: I think that’s a very powerful boundary to be able to share, especially for those of us who want to keep getting better at what we do, to be able to say, “No thanks, I don’t actually want the feedback.” It’s very powerful.
Michael: You don’t want to seem arrogant. Sometimes we feel this obligation to let people give us feedback. It’s this very interesting thing. Someone says, “Can I give you some feedback or some constructive criticism?” You’re like, “Oh, okay, sure.” You want to see like the kind of person that’s totally cool with that and you’re confident and no problem. You don’t want to offend them for saying no. If they get offended because you say, “I’m not looking for feedback right now,” that’s their problem, not your problem. You’re a creative artist and sometimes you need to protect your work and just get the feedback from people who help you grow. Not from people who just tell you you’re great when what you’re doing is not working, but people who actually help you grow.
Peter: I think that characterization as you’re a creative artist is a great one for leaders in organizations to hold on to as well. The work that we do as leaders is creative artistic work. To appreciate that allows you to take some risky steps that make you a more powerful leader. I want the business world to appropriate some of that language because I think it would be very useful.
Michael: Absolutely. I was actually just doing an interview with Eric Wall who’s a very well know speaker and artist, a famous graffiti artist just about two hours ago. One of the things we were talking about is cross appropriation. He hadn’t used the term before but what he was talking about is, “Listen, to get a lot of my ideas for my speeches, I go watch concerts. I’m friends with rock stars and musicians. I look at architecture and I look at the movie industry.” He was talking about all these places he gets ideas. He didn’t say, “I get my ideas from going and watching other speakers.” What he’s doing is cross appropriating. He’s taking ideas from one space and he’s moving it into another and in the process creating a new world. He does things as a speaker that nobody does.
That’s what you’re talking about here, cross appropriate the language, cross appropriate these ideas. Take a big broad view of the world rather than just a small view of your own disclosive space, and generally, you can create over and over and over again because you’re not limited by this small space in which you inhabit. That’s cross appropriation. Great entrepreneurs do that.
Peter: You talk about the importance of rehearsal. I don’t know that you used the word rehearsal, preparation is what you said, to really do the preparation. How do you still feel natural and in the moment, when everything is planned out. How do you walk that line?
Michael: This is like a big softball question for me because this I just want to hit over and over and over again as many times as I can and in as many places I can. There’s this idea that people have that if they rehearse they will somehow feel stiff and be seen as inauthentic. For many people that’s true because they have tried some rehearsal in the past and they felt stiff and inauthentic when they presented. The reason they felt stiff and inauthentic is because they didn’t do enough rehearsal. They just did a little bit of rehearsal.
Here’s what happens. When you do a little bit of rehearsal then you go and perform, while you’re performing you’re trying to recall what you did in rehearsal which takes you out of the current moment. The performer needs to be in the moment to seem authentic and to be natural. If you don’t know your material well enough and you have to search for it, you’re not going to be able to be spontaneous. Improvisation plus preparation is what produces spontaneity. The more prepared you are the more spontaneous you can be because just like the actor does, they are so well rehearsed that before they walk on stage, they can forget everything that they rehearsed. It will come to them in the moment, authentically, as if it was happening for the first time. They have such confidence and awareness that they are in control of themselves and the space around them. It’s very hard to have control of yourself in a public speaking setting without complete comfort with the material. It doesn’t mean that you need to memorize everything word for word. Doesn’t mean that you do every single speech exact same way every time. It means that you have the ability to if you wanted to.
Peter: You see this most explicitly in some ways in dance. When people have rehearsed in dance and they’re just trying to get the moves, they rehearsed a little bit but they don’t really own the moves yet, everything’s a little stilted and a little awkward. Or at the very best, it’s specific and clear but without character. When they really know all the moves and they don’t have to think about making each move, then they could do an extra flip of the wrist or move of the hip or do something in their dance that adds flourish and character to what they’re doing because they’re not worried about whether they forget to raise an arm or move a leg. It’s like this visual example of what you’re describing.
Michael: That’s right. That’s where the emotional experience gets rich for the performer and for the audience. If you’re giving a speech as a leader, let’s say you’re giving your annual address, the facts and figures might mean something, although most of the company have probably already seen them on the regular memos that go around. The “here’s our vision for the future” is probably something that they’re aware of. What they’re going to connect to however is the emotional experience that you bring to them. It’s very hard to be authentic emotionally if you are just trying to remember what the hell you’re going to talk about.
Michael: Knowing your material is what allows you to feel, what allows you to exist in that moment and listen to what is happening around. Here’s the thing that’s strange about public speaking. Public speaking, people think is just about talking. Public speaking, in fact, is about listening just as much as it is about talking. Great actors are great listeners. Great public speakers are great listeners. They can listen to their audience and understand what their audience is saying, thinking and feeling, even if their audience does not open their mouth or move their body.
Peter: That’s great. Michael there’s so much more to talk about. We’ve run out of time but it’s such a pleasure to have you in this conversation. The book is, “Steal the Show, from Speeches to Job Interviews to Deal Closing Pitches. How to Guarantee a Standing Ovation for All the Performances in Your Life.” Michael, this conversation and the book underscores the beauty of your perspective which really is very counter intuitive and immediately recognizable as true. It’s a great combination, I’ve learned a lot both from reading and from having this conversation with you. Thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Michael: It’s my pleasure, thank you for having me.
Peter: If you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. For more information about the Bregman Leadership Intensive, as well as access to my articles, videos and podcasts, visit peterbregman.com. Thank you to Clare Marshall for producing this episode and to Brian Wood who created our music. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for the next great conversation.
Peter Bregman is CEO of Bregman Partners, a company that strengthens leadership in people and in organizations through programs (including the Bregman Leadership Intensive), coaching, and as a consultant to CEOs and their leadership teams. Best-selling author of 18 Minutes, his most recent book is Four Seconds. To receive an email when he posts, click here.