The alarm bells started to ring when he claimed to be a world champion of public speaking. Closer examination revealed that he’d merely won a team debate contest in high school and was greatly stretching the truth.
Other claims were harder to examine. He bragged from the stage about being on the board of multiple international companies, and turning a number of them around to profitability. But then he made the mistake of being too specific. He told an audience that he was a qualified CFA. The veracity of that one could be verified. ‘Nope,’ the governing authority responded to a query. ‘He definitely isn’t.’
The nail in the coffin was when one audience insisted on a Q&A session, and he stood dumbfounded in the face of the question: How did you turn these companies around? The hesitant gibbering was embarrassing.
After that, we knew that the king wasn’t wearing any clothes. The doctor had bought his degree online. The rock star was miming all along.
What can we learn from an industry fraud?
It’s entirely possible to learn all the wrong things from his story. For instance, we might learn that lying really is profitable (Can’t argue with the Porsche in his garage).
Or we might rush to the knee-jerk reaction that the speaking industry needs greater rules, governance and enforceable standards.
Frankly, I believe that nothing could be worse for us. While the spirit of high-standards is a wonderful and necessary ideal, rules and regulations would gut the soul of this splashy, messy, effective-because-it’s-so-human industry. Speakers deal in magic, and we need the leeway of a qualifications-free environment. We are the Roman on the senate steps, the radical on the soap-box, the person who stops in the middle of the crowd, uses his wits and intuition and declares, ‘Wait! We’re all going the wrong way!’
No, stricter rules are not the right lesson to learn here.
Rather than overreact, let’s learn some practical lessons that we can all use in our speaking careers; lessons which I believe would actually cause us to prosper more greatly over the long run (Let’s see how much longer that Porsche can resist sequestration, shall we?).
Let’s learn these lessons:
Hyperbole is unnecessary:
Sadly, our industry-fraudster is actually a genuinely talented speaker. He could stand on the strength of his oratory skill alone. There is no actual need to make false claims.
Your on-stage brilliance is enough. It will suffice. Lying in your claims is like creating a potential future enemy, then sending it out into the world and hoping it never comes back to destroy you. The level of risk, pragmatically speaking, is ridiculous.
Now, a moment of fairness: In the early stages of our speaking careers, we are all desperate to punt the hyperbole: Undeniable best in the universe! Throbbingly most grand alterer of mindsets. 60-million times intergalactic champion of everything! I know because I’ve done it too.
But as we mature in our careers, we begin to lose the sense of desperation and tone down the language. I would recommend a simple statement of truth. In my case, for instance, I can state: ‘5 x winner of the Toastmasters Southern African Championships for Public Speaking.’ What I shouldn’t do, however, is claim to be ‘The very best speaker in Africa,’ as I did when I was younger and painfully insecure.
Just state the truth. It’s enough. You don’t have to have been the Pope and slept with Sofia Vergara to land a gig. Good grief; it’s just a gig! Just have a couple of solid, honestly-come-by credentials, and you’re in the running.
There is no need to be better than your audience at everything:
Just be good at your thing.
One of my clients once hired the industry fraud. He told me about it afterwards, saying that he felt this young man had an almost pathological need to be better than his audience at every possible skill, and to exceed them in every imaginable qualification. ‘It wasn’t necessary,’ he said. ‘We don’t expect him to be the best in the world at everything.’
Just bring your own unique and useful message. To tell your clients that you can out-lead them, make better tea than them and better satisfy their wives than they might ever venture to accomplish, is immature.
Celebrate the strengths of your clients. Help them to compensate for weakness or oversight with your own legitimate strengths. But it is too great a burden to place on yourself to have to be better than everyone at everything. Be good at your thing. And share the ‘how-to’ with your clients. That way you enrich their world and justify your fee. That’s all. That’s sufficient. Job done.
Portraying unattainable success is counter-productive:
A friend and author in the speaking world once shared his observations on the industry fraud with me: ‘He talks about buying his first Porsche in his twenties. I can’t relate to that. Even if it was true, it’s a level of success that’s unattainable to me. So it becomes irrelevant. It’s not useful.’
So, you obliterated The Incredible Hulk in an arm-wrestling match. You taught NASA how to fly. You even beat a Kardashian in a preening contest. Nice! But if I can’t possibly do those things in my world, then you are simply bragging, not teaching or inspiring.
Outrageous claims are unnecessary and counter-productive. They do not teach. They do not inspire. Their untruth renders the message about how ‘you can too’ both a lie and a depressing over-requirement on the psychology of your audience.
Hired to teach and inspire, such a speaker has misled and depressed. How, then, can they justify the fee that they charge? Rather than add value, they have removed hope.
When the big guns offer to mentor you…say yes:
A serious heavy-hitter in the South African speaking circuit and a genuinely good man sat down over coffee with the industry fraud. He tried, gently, to point out the errors the young man was committing and to explain why it hurt the industry as a whole. He complimented his actual speaking skills (which, I will repeat, are genuinely excellent), and he offered mentorship.
We are blessed to be part of a rare industry; one that is almost disproportionately populated by genuinely good men and women; people who are happy to share skills, trade insights and mentor the eager. An industry of helpers and growers.
The industry fraud responded to the heavy-hitter with nothing but arrogance. He couldn’t have been less interested. And for this reason, he has created an environment in which other speakers, who must use genuine credentials in their marketing and who lay claim to nothing more than what they have actually achieved, now can’t wait to see him fall.
At the risk of being melodramatic, I believe the old phrase applies: Evil bares within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Certainly, this young man is far from evil, but the principle applies nevertheless.
How many contemporaries, how many agencies, how many clients can you lie to, before, through your own actions, you utterly undo your reputation? One of the most basic moral imperatives found in almost all cultures and religions; one of the most deeply ingrained tenets of human morality is simply this: Tell me the truth.
How sad to watch this unfolding saga. How genuinely heart-rending to watch it all go wrong. Particularly in the face of such genuine talent.
Douglas Kruger is a professional speaker and author who encourages people to think. He speaks on Expert Positioning and the misunderstood link between work and wealth. He is a 5x winner of the SA Championships for Public Speaking and the author of three books.