While close to finishing my master’s degree, I attended a panel on career advice. I was excited to hear the messages from the lineup of speakers with experiences, varying from leading corporations to founding startups. My enthusiasm waned when the first thing one of the panelists mentioned was that prospective employers might look at your social media before hiring you and you need to ensure it is appropriate.
Months later, I attended a graduation ceremony where an acclaimed alumnus began his keynote speech by recommending that the new grads “network, find a mentor, and learn as much as you can.”
In yet another scenario, I was at my fifth autonomous vehicle conference in three months and the keynote speaker said, “vehicle hacking is going to be a major issue,” dropped the mic, and walked off the stage.
Ok, so up until this point, you are thinking that everything stated in the three examples above are good advice. Your digital presence should be professional and appropriate, because you never know who will be looking. Networking, finding a mentor, and investing time in learning are all great things to do. And finally, vehicle hacking is a problem that needs to be solved before autonomous vehicle technology can be perfected.
My disappointment with these statements stemmed from the fact that I had heard them all before — many times. I wanted to hear advice that was unique and earthshattering, but the generic statements left me craving for more. A good message, shared too many times and lacking specifics or a further explanation, is a missed opportunity to make an impact and lasting impression.
Our messages can get people to think differently, try out a new methodology, or take the new steps toward reaching that next phase of a career. Remember that your audience came to hear your message, they chose to be there, and their time is valuable. Ensure that your words of wisdom and keen insight do not just turn out to be another part in an average day that they will soon forget.
So, how do you use your voice to say something new that goes beyond the status quo?
Share something only you can share
The advice and points I mentioned above were important, but the gaps were that the speakers did not leverage personal examples to enhance their messaging. We all have unique experiences, and we should tell our stories in a way that only we can tell them. A message like this will have the greatest impact. Say something new, make it unique, and have people listening on the edge of their seats.
Personal stories help your message to be more authentic. People latch on to authenticity. The fact that your story is one that only you can share will help maintain your audience’s attention. Being authentic puts your audience directly in your shoes, and enable them to better understand the message you are sharing.
Focus on the “how” not the “what”
Networking, finding a mentor, and learning as much as you can sounds great, but it is easier said than done. As people in technical fields, we know there are a billion ways to solve a problem, and the path you take is the most interesting part of the story. When you focus more on how to accomplish a goal, you start telling a story, and that story will be new to every listener.
A story is easy for your audience to follow and boosts engagement. Like the point above, you want your audience to be able to put themselves in your shoes. By telling a story, you become relatable. You pull back the curtain by describing the journey you took and providing clear examples. Articulating the “how,” supported by your experiences, allows you to create high-impact messaging.
Have an opinion, but be diplomatic
This one can be tricky. Do not be controversial for the sake of shaking things up, because a personal brand is tough to build, but easy to lose.
The world is changing every day, and by having an opinion and sharing that opinion, you are challenging the status quo in areas where you believe there is room for change. For example, if you are on a panel and someone says, “the biggest problem is autonomous vehicle hacking,” and you say, “I agree that is a challenge, but one thing I don’t think people are talking about enough is…” then you are using your voice to say something new.
Adding your unique thoughts to the conversation helps create dialog, and this is how you can drive change or spark innovation. If you just agree with everything else being said, then your audience walks away unchanged and uninspired.
Let’s not continuing sharing the same old messages, but instead strive to make an impact with every interaction. If you are delivering information, provide a question and answer session that allows your audience to ask their ‘hows?’ Conversational engagement of this type is invaluable. Whether you are speaking to hundreds of people or a few colleagues, start using your voice to say something new, through personal storytelling, and focusing on the “how” and not the “what,” and don’t be afraid of having an opinion.
Paige Kassalen loves to put her creativity to use by solving problems in emerging technical fields, and has been an IEEE member since 2012. After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech in 2015, Kassalen began her career with Covestro LLC. in 2015, and soon became the only American engineer working with Solar Impulse 2, the first solar-powered airplane to circumnavigate the globe. This role landed Kassalen a spot on the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 list along with feature articles in Glamour, Fast Company and the Huffington Post.
After Solar Impulse, Kassalen helped Covestro develop its strategy for materials for the future of mobility, and shared her work at conferences around the United States. In 2020, Kassalen received a Master of Information Systems Management degree from Carnegie Mellon University and now applies her problem-solving skills to the finance industry, where she works with teams to develop big data strategies and implement innovative technologies.