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Even experienced professionals have moments of uncertainty that remind us of the best thing we can do to help others grow.


matthew ferrara expressing belief

Last week I took a big risk: I asked 2000 audience members to do something most people fear in life: Stand up and speak publicly in front of a crowd. It could have been a disaster: What if they refused? What if they said weird things? What if they stared at their smartphones?

Let me back up a moment. Last summer, after taking an inspiring creative writing class in Italy, I decided to explore the idea of “better writing” for better marketing. My idea was that digital storytellers needed to start with better writing, not just better technology. Words matter, whether they describe  products and services, or they are used to direct our photography and multimedia marketing.

These days, most of us have mastered “digital distribution” but much of what is being spread around the web could use a creative boost. I challenge people to spend an hour in the “analog world” of paper and pencil, reading and writing, before they start marketing. When we read great literature, explore creative photography and write about people and  places we like, we tap into the creativity that digital marketing consumers demand.

Until last week, my creative writing session worked fine in small groups; even a convention of 500 went well last Fall with the help of a few people with microphones running the room. But on Monday there were 2000 chairs in the room.

Had I finally bitten off more than I could chew?

Typically when speakers address a large audience, they stand and deliver a tightly controlled speech. Even with multimedia presentation tools, interaction is limited to a show of hands or a text-based poll. Relinquishing complete control every few minutes to a big audience can get out of hand; regaining control from a chatty audience is challenging. And asking people to stand and read aloud in front of others – thousands, this time – was taking a big risk.

Controlled chaos would be asking for a lot!

That’s when I emailed my client and asked her for confirmation that, indeed, my main-stage event was intended to be the interactive, creative writing class. Not one of my carefully staged, perfectly timed keynotes. Almost sheepishly, I triple-checked she was okay with the risk of chaos for such an important event at her conference.

That’s when I was reminded of the most important thing anyone can do when helping someone grow.

My client didn’t coach me. She didn’t offer motivational platitudes. She didn’t make suggestions on how to keep control, or even ideas to minimize the risk. She simply said:

I wouldn’t have asked you to do it, if I didn’t believe you could do it.

Just like that, my mind clicked into confidence mode. I could do it: not only because I’d prepared and practiced or because of my years of experience. I could do it, because my client believed in me. Someone I greatly valued and respected “had my back.” My worry drained away and I began to only think of how much fun we could create!

More than coaching or information, the greatest thing they did was back us up. We needed support, not guidance: the sense that someone believed we were ready, even though we remained unsure. We can do this for others, too: To show excitement for their efforts, to help them imagine what it will be like to be successful when they do it. In a way, we’re giving them permission to grow by letting them know we’re there for them, come what may.

I was looking at the event video today: At one point, someone was reading aloud in the audience. I’m grinning hugely on stage. Attendees were jumping up and down, waving for a microphone and their chance to speak. I realize that I was passing along the belief someone showed in me to others, too. I was giving others a safe chance to practice, take a risk, and leave better for having tried. What’s more: I couldn’t find a single tweet from the audience during that hour. Everyone was busy writing and reading – and growing – to bother with their smartphones.

Consider who you could be showing a little confidence in today: at home, in the office, even a client. Training and coaching are good starting points but nothing motivates someone to take a risk like telling them you believe in them. Even, ironically, when it’s someone whose job is to tell others that, himself.