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When it's OK to be "unpolished"

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

I've learned a lot in the past few weeks as I've transitioned my public speaking class online.

I've also had to un-learn some lessons and habits. Here’s one:

When I first started teaching university classes and speaking more frequently, I tried to combat my feelings of imposter syndrome with *polish and professionalism.* If I didn't feel qualified to be the expert in the room, I could pave my road to confidence with a smooth coat of over-preparation. I've relied on this method for a long time. And in a lot of situations, feeling prepared does serve me, and my professional brand, really well.

But, for my SMU students this semester, my layer of polish ceases to exist. Polish, like toilet paper and human contact, is a luxury that existed only in a former life. My students, via Zoom, have seen my half dressed child run into the room and announce that she needs to go potty RIGHT NOW! They’ve seen the inside of my bedroom. They have received speech feedback videos I’ve recorded in my yoga pants next to a large pile of laundry. Clean or dirty? Don't remember.

I’m a person who feels very exposed without access to the facade of having it all together. So it’s been especially surprising to discover that the semester, along with my professional credibility, hasn’t gone up in flames. Dare I say, it’s actually going pretty well.

Every semester, I teach students how to build rapport and credibility when they're speaking. I coach them to be impressive and professional. I also tell them the most powerful speakers are honest, vulnerable, and sincere, but I’m realizing now that I’m not actually modeling those parts as much. In an attempt to be seen as professional and qualified, I’ve polished parts of myself out.

Now that I’m forced to share the behind-the-scenes of my actual life, I realize I've overlooked how much people can connect to us when we're being our most *human.* It’s really in the nexus of our shared imperfections that we learn to trust and understand each other.

My students this semester have seen my children, the inside of my house, and my face without make-up. Likewise, I've seen their childhood bedrooms and their siblings in the background eating Pop Tarts. We know things about each other that we typically polish out of the professional and academic presentations of ourselves.

The same has happened outside of my classes. I've been in Zoom meetings where I've gotten to see my colleagues' spouses in their pajamas at their cluttered kitchen tables. I've been introduced to clients' pets, children, and natural hair colors. My friend shared with me recently that while she was in a Zoom meeting, one of her coworkers’ children climbed up into the woman’s lap and said proudly to her mom and the entire team, “I just farted on you!”

No one gets to pretend anymore. But, seeing people in their real lives makes me feel like I’m actually meeting them for the first time. Polish off, sweatshirts on. In a way, it feels like I’m more connected to my colleagues and students than I ever have been before.

I’m beginning to understand in a very real way an important message: we can’t sanitize who we really are from our work and have any meaningful interactions.

In this weird, quasi-dystopian world we’re living in, we’ve had to stop cherry-picking the personal details we share in professional spaces, peel back a layer of polish that exists for the sake of performance, and show up as our honest selves. As a result, I think it’s making us build stronger relationships.

It may be possible that we

  • Like our colleagues more when we’ve met their pants-less children

  • Understand our clients better when we’ve seen their living room furniture

  • Trust our teachers and mentors more when they admit that they’re making it up as they go, but they’re working really hard to bring us value

  • Respect speakers who aren’t just prepared, but real and honest and sincere and human

  • Forgive ourselves more willingly for our imperfections when we know they are shared

One of my biggest realizations is that *polish and professionalism* are not necessarily partners. Of course, if we’re given a platform to share our knowledge, we owe it to the people around us to prepare valuable, meaningful, clear messages. But the polish we put on top of it should allow our personalities to shine through the content, not cover up insecurities with a performance that doesn’t feel sincere.

I believe that whether we’re writing or speaking, the key to our message’s success relies on one thing: empathy. If we can understand what our audience thinks and feels and needs, we can connect to them.

In the same way, they need to be able to connect and empathize with us to hear what we have to say. We might feel exposed sharing our lives, families, homes, habits, and quirks with the people we work with, but that’s how we build relationships.

I’m over here unlearning and unpolishing...and also kind of unshowering. And honestly, all of it seems to be working out OK.


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