Celebrating "No.": Finding Public Speaking Gold Nuggets

Bumping into dead ends of, “No” can help us more clearly see the stronger paths forward.

Bumping into dead ends of, “No” can help us more clearly see the stronger paths forward.

I believe every talk should have a gold nugget: a piece of wisdom, a gift, a new superpower that the speaker gives the audience. Finding the nugget that is not only valuable to the audience but resonates with the speaker takes some work.

It was a hot August afternoon, and I was in my office listening to a TEDxBoulder speaker talking about trying to find her gold nugget, her “idea worth spreading.” I was fascinated by the range of her stories: conversations with ranchers on airplanes about their work, philosophical talks with professors in Berkeley, discussion with extremists of the futility of throwing beer bottles to convince them to change. She and I were struggling to get clear about exactly what was her big idea takeaway for the audience.

We analyzed her talk from multiple angles, I asked about her history, we explored her life-experiences, we centered in on the values she was working from. But frequently, when I reflected back to her the “big ideas” that I heard in her talk, I got a flat “No. That’s not it.”

My first reaction was frustration. I had pulled out all the stops to help her flow through this, to find her “why,” and the words I was saying just weren’t sticking. The phrases and concepts that kept falling away to the cutting room floor could all be interesting and powerful seeds of their own talks.

The problem: the ideas weren’t hers.

I realized I was rather attached to the idea of myself being the one to uncover, to clarify, to spotlight the impactful takeaway that she was reaching for. I wanted to hear the golden, sparkling, “Yes!” from her when we felt the puzzle pieces lock into place and my suggestions matched with the intention in her head.

Through the experience of hearing many, “no’s,” I chose to watch my own reaction to them. What was a “No” anyway? It’s just carving away the parts of the stone that are not the statue. They were markers along the way of where not to go - very helpful to point us where we did need to go.

I shifted my response to “No,” from, “Drat. There’s another dead end.” to “Excellent! One less avenue to search!”  I knew that my best coaching happened when I was open to see exactly where my client was coming from, and meeting them there. I decided that it would serve her and ultimately the audience better if we celebrated the “No’s.”

As we walked together to find the message she wanted to share, she ultimately landed on the phrasing that not only captured her ideas but was much more sophisticated than anything I had been pointing to. When she reported to me her finding, we both felt a sort of clang in the air and realized, “This was it!”

A small part of my ego felt pouty for not being the one to first find the gold, but the bigger me felt very satisfied and even honored that I had been able to help her define the edges of what her talk was not, and also to walk the path with her through her arduous journey to get there.

What ended up happening was so much stronger than me handing her a package with her gold inside it: she knew she could find and claim and own the gold all on her own.

Margaret Watts Romney