by Steve Adubato, PhD

Recently, I delivered a keynote speech for a group of students at the Berkeley College High School Business Forum. Set at the Papermill Playhouse in Millburn, hundreds of seniors were looking for some tangible and practical communication advice as they set out into the world, particularly when it comes to career choices.

One of the hardest things about speaking before such a group is to get their attention, much less keep it. I decided that instead of lecturing to them (which they are used to), a better approach would be to get them involved from the beginning. Simply put, to engage them.

The theme of the speech was based on Keith Harrell’s book, “Attitude is Everything”. One of Harrell’s tenets is “the key to happiness is realizing that it is not WHAT happens to you that matters…it’s how you choose to RESPOND.” I immediately told the students about several times I had been rejected or turned down in my career, which included losing my seat in the State Legislature at 27, losing numerous Emmy Awards (before finally winning a few year’s back) and getting rejected from more than a dozen book publishers before ever getting Simon & Schuster to agree to put out my first book.

I said that success in business and in life is largely based not on what happens to you, but what you do with it. Within in the first minute, I asked those students who among them had been rejected or turned down to raise their hands. In a group of over 400, well more than half had their hand up. One young man, who was dressed well and had a wide smile, said his name was Jose. I brought him up to the stage and asked him how he had been rejected and he said; “A few years ago, I was overweight by more than 50 pounds. I asked this girl out on a date and she said no. Finally I asked her if it was because of my weight.” After hesitating, the girl said to Jose, “I’m sorry, but it is.” While some students laughed or giggled, they were all engaged.

Jose told his fellow students that he was dejected, but quickly realized he had to do something about it. He started going to the gym, eating right and taking care of himself. Today, he says he feels more confident about himself and his possibilities. He doesn’t think much about the girl that rejected him, but on some level, he thanks her for giving him the motivation to improve something about himself that he clearly wasn’t happy with.

I watched the students as they listened to Jose. They could relate and were nodding their heads. He connected with them in a way that I never could with any story or anecdote as the keynote speaker.

There is a lesson here for all of those who communicate in public. Stop thinking you must have all the answers or have to be the “expert” delivering the entire message. It’s not all about YOU. In fact, it is really all about THEM—your audience, what will move them and what will motivate them. Very often, the answer is one of their own who speaks in a voice that they can relate to.

No matter how good you think your presentation is, as soon as you pull someone in from the audience, you have a much better chance of driving your message home. A presentation does not need to be a one-way experience or monologue. An engaging dialogue—in fact, a conversation—is what will help you succeed regardless of the venue. Try it the next time you are asked to present and write to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to let me know how it went.