Make stereotyping your best strategy on stage
The white-bearded, black-yarumulkaed speaker strode purposefully onto the TEDx stage. Taking his place in the red circle, he scanned the audience with a severe expression. Then he declared: “I am a religious fundamentalist.”
The crowd held its collective breath. What was this echo of the past doing here, in this marketplace of new ideas? What was he going to say?
The tension built as the moment stretched out uncomfortably. Finally, the speaker took a step forward, broke into a winning smile, and said, “I know… that’s a dangerous way to start a talk.”
The audience erupted in laughter.
Full disclosure: I was the speaker in the story. (I still am.) As the odd breed of orthodox rabbi addressing secular audiences, I know that my appearance will unnerve some onlookers before I have the chance to open my mouth.
Rather than avoid the awkwardness, I embrace it.
WE ARE WHO WE ARE
As much as we like to think of ourselves as open-minded, stereotyping is a reality of the human condition. But stereotypes don’t have to work against us. It’s true that natural biases and preconceptions prod us to retreat into our ideological comfort zones. But creatively exploited, stereotypes can nudge audiences to broaden their attitudes and become more receptive to new ideas.
Here are a few familiar examples: Chuck Gallagher, CSP, appears on stage in an orange jump-suit and handcuffs to talk about ethics. Karen Jacobsen, the Australian voice of GPS, introduces herself as the only woman men will take directions from. And Scott Stratten, CPAE, brazenly flaunts his man-bun and tattoos to set his UnMarketing message on fire.
Each of these platform veterans understands the power of harnessing stereotype. They take what makes them distinctive, confront audience members with the limitations of perception, then draw their listeners into a new mindset or worldview by embracing potential awkwardness and owning it.
“People freak out when they see me for the first time,” says Nick Vujicic. And for good reason. How often do we meet a man with no arms or legs? But Nick is so comfortable with himself, and so obviously at peace with his congenital disability, that he instantaneously communicates to his audience the sense of their own limitless potential.
About now you might be indulging the cynical speaker’s lament: “I don’t have a felony record, clerical credentials, or a disability; how can I play up a stereotype when I’m perfectly ordinary?”
DISH IT OUT AND TAKE IT
Do you remember when you were bullied as a kid? Bullies have a genius for homing in on points of vulnerability that come from subtle differences. In the same way, you can make fun of yourself. Do you have a long nose or big ears? Are you a nerd? Were you a stutterer or athletically challenged? Are you young or old, stocky or slight, tall or short?
When Robert Reich first stepped onto the dais as Bill Clinton’s secretary of labor, his 4’ 11” frame vanished behind the lectern. Mr. Reich shattered the tension when he remarked, “Well, they told me I had made the president’s short list.”
Even if you think you’re painfully average, you can riff on how ordinary you are. The smallest measure of self-deprecating humor can turn a negative into a positive.
Or, for similar comedic effect, turn a positive into a negative. News anchor Gretchen Carlson once quipped: “I’m blonde, I work for Fox News, and I’m a former Miss America; that’s the bimbo trifecta.” Turn a bullying cliché inside out and you establish instant rapport with your audience.
Inverting a stereotype can change the course of history. When asked during the 1984 presidential debate whether he had the stamina for a second term in office, 72-year-old Ronald Reagan smoothly replied, "I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."
Even the hapless opponent, Walter Mondale, had to laugh at the velvet zinger. According to many observers, that was the moment that catapulted Mr. Reagan toward his record-breaking electoral landslide.
Don’t avoid awkwardness; embrace it.
As I returned from backstage after my TED talk, a woman intercepted me. “When I saw you take the stage,” she said, “I knew exactly what kind of person you were and what kind of talk you were going to give. Then you blew away all my expectations.”
I smiled back at her, then replied, “I’m glad to hear it; that was the point.”
Published in Speaker Magazine