Take My Mantra, Please!

By the time my taxi reached the portico of the elegant colonial mansion where I’d be running an executive communication workshop with 40 international bankers, I’d chosen my mantra. I repeated it to myself as I bumped my drag bag up the broad front stairs. Inside the bag were 40 copies of my book on presentation skills. Knowing my subject, having hundreds of hours of experience, and producing that book didn’t mean that I should have no need for a mantra. Instead, it meant that I understood the importance of a strategy for stress.

I don’t think one mantra necessarily fits all, so I find myself developing new ones on the fly. Once, walking up to a microphone in front of 250 people, it was “I know the words to this song.” At other times it’s been “Most people are very nice,” or “I’ll think of something.”

This time, it was “I’m here to serve.” Taking the emphasis off yourself and placing it on your audience and their needs is magic. I went in with that as an attitude, and as a fallback position, and introduced myself to the roomful of crackling intelligence and body language. Good thing, too. Within a few minutes of my introduction, I put up a slide showing a definition of leadership. A large fellow in the middle of the room interrupted me. “I don’t mean to be rude,” he said, “but that type of definition is exactly why I never read books on leadership.”

I can feel you feeling for me. I felt for me too, for a moment, and I have to admit I don’t remember a lot of what I said to him right away. I know I tried to show him what I liked about the definition, but within a short while I was falling back on being there to serve. I decided to accept his stance, skipped the next slide, and started the group off on an activity they could all be involved in.

“I hope you don’t mind,” that fellow said when we broke for coffee. “Of course not,” I told him, honestly. He was making my life interesting. What’s more, he was giving me the opportunity to practice what I preach. When under pressure, stay alert to the needs of others.

I spent a lot of time that day fielding questions about delivering an important message under pressure. People worry about it so very much. This meant that just about every time I offered a strategy for success, someone would pipe up with a response that started with “But”: “But sometimes there isn’t enough time to prepare,” “But sometimes the audience is unresponsive,” “But sometimes you’re talking to two hundred people.”

“So,” I said to them, “let’s get really nervous about that, shall we?” Leadership has a lot to do with ignoring the questions—one’s own questions—that start with “But.” Give it a try. And remember, most people are very nice. You’ll think of something. And if you are privileged with a leadership position, you are absolutely there to serve.


Alison Lester is a writer and communication skills coach based in Singapore. Her books include a guide to more creative and comfortable presentation skills called Present for Success, and a collection of essays called Restroom Reflections: How Communication Changes Everything. She blogs at RestroomReflections.com, and her first novel, Lillian on Life, will be published by Amy Einhorn Books in January 2015.

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