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The Building Blocks of Speaking Human-First
How do you speak so people will listen to your world-changing ideas?
Bruno Martins | Unsplash
I started my podcast, Speaking Human-First, in 2023 to answer a simple question:
If you want to change the world with your ideas, how do you speak so people will listen?
There’s plenty of books and blogs and how-to videos about leadership, content marketing, and building personal brands. There’s also tons of information about market research and how to study your audience.
But if it was as simple as that - two sides of an equation - we’d all be world-renowned leaders by now.
The most important part is missing: connection.
To change how people think it’s not only about you and your audience. To get the result you want - to create deep and lasting impact - you have to forge an unbreakable bond between the two.
We’re not after followers. We want to inspire action.
We’re not selling products. We’re selling ideas; ideas we’ve crafted over decades through study and lived experience.
This begs the question, ‘How can I effectively show up and communicate to my audience in a way that spur connections and builds trust in this data-driven, AI-exploding world?’
According to this season’s guests, it depends. It depends on you. It depends on your message and it depends on your audience.
Clear as mud, right?
Well, listening to a wide range of leaders share their battle scars is a helpful way to test the waters.
This season we heard from eight leaders each making an impact in their own unique ways. And while on the surface their strategies appear different, they’re all grounded in common themes.
I want to explore these themes through the filter of three principles I use when working with clients:
What you say, matters.
How you say it, matters.
Who you are, matters.
These are my guiding principles. This is the start of speaking human-first.
I’ll explain each of these in a minute, but there’s more.
I also ask clients to dig deep and answer this question: ‘Why can't we see each other as equals?’
Because to build trust with your audience, you have to tap into something far greater than your knowledge and expertise. You have to connect as human beings.
Which means we have to show up real - and real is going to look different for every single person.
There’s lots to unpack, so I’m breaking this episode into four chapters.
Let’s get to it!
Chapter 1: There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to thought leadership
This season, our guests kept circling around common themes.
For starters, we need to talk about a lot more than tools and tactics. More than crafting crystal clear ideas. More than choosing between writing or video or podcasting - or whatever technology or social platform comes next.
Turns out, to change the world with your ideas, you not only need people to listen - you need to inspire them to think differently.
And that requires a deep connection; a foundation of trust alongside a vision for the future.
Perhaps simple, but definitely not easy because there are two sides to this always-evolving equation.
There’s you, and then there’s the person on the receiving end of your message.
Let’s start with you.
Every communicator’s personality, skillset, and comfort zones are different. What works for an extrovert likely won’t work for an introvert. What helps a podcaster or TikToker might not keep a community organizer front of mind.
So when the next ‘it’ marketing or communications strategy comes along, think twice whether or not it’s a match for how you best move and breathe in the world.
Meanwhile, your audience is filled with humans. Humans who are messy and constantly changing. What resonates with us today won’t necessarily work tomorrow.
Which means… wait for it…
There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to communicating world-changing ideas.
Believe me, I wish I could give you a magic formula or five-step process that would guarantee your idea to spread.
But I can’t - because it doesn’t exist.
But what I can tell you, and what this season’s guests have confirmed, is that a few guiding principles go a long way to helping your ideas scale deep.
Chapter 2: Where my three guiding principles come from
What you say, how you say it, and who you are matters.
These principles first surfaced while working at National Geographic Adventure Magazine and were later reinforced when I criss-crossed the globe as an international photojournalist for a Boston-based newspaper.
When I flew into a political frenzy or a humanitarian disaster, I had to quickly establish trust by watching, waiting, listening and learning.
I watched people’s body language to see everything not being said.
I waited patiently for the moment people revealed who they really were.
I listened without judgment and with humility.
And I learned that discomfort and unanswered questions are rich grounds for connection.
In the last ten years, these principles crystalized while partnering with world-renowned educators and researchers, authors and keynote speakers. Together we’ve created content millions would see but approached every idea as a connection between two human beings.
We leaned into mediums that heightened their strengths and appealed to their unique audience.
We translated complex topics into simple concepts so everyone could understand.
We crafted nuanced interview questions, pulling from prior research and present-day attitudes.
We wrote powerful narratives into scripts and web copy.
And we created visual branding designs that reflected the difference they wanted to make in the world.
In other words, we pushed way past sharing information to create an experience.
And now, I’m taking everything I’ve learned, plus a relentless work ethic, and I’m dreaming big.
I’m dreaming of a world that signs, instead of shouts, led by a choir of leaders pushing us willingly into a more equitable world.
Leaders who inspire us with their courage and humility. Who tell it like it is and care deeply for the dignity of those they serve. Who stand strong in their expertise, yet remind us there’s still so much we don’t know. Who listen more than they speak and let their North Star - not their ego - drive.
To get there, we need impact-driven leaders to step into their story and up to the mic. We need your values front and center and for you to practice what you publish. To connect with us as real human beings so we realize how easy it is to make a difference.
But we - the audience - also have work to do. We need to develop a discerning ear and nuanced tongue. We need to listen with empathy and not rush to judgment. We need to walk in humility, realizing it’s ok for our opinions to change as we learn more information.
In other words, I’m dreaming of a world where speaking human-first becomes the norm.
And it starts with you.
You who are already on the frontlines of change. You who’ve built a wealth of knowledge and been exposed to a wide range of life experiences. You who’ve learned the art of listening.
Chapter 3: What you say, how you say it, and who you are matters
Let’s break these down one at a time.
First, what you say matters.
To change the world with your ideas, you need to change how people think - not simply tell them what to do. Which means you need to earn their trust.
How do you earn trust? You consistently speak to your expertise and lived experience and defer to others when they can go even deeper. And you listen - a lot. In fact, you listen more than you speak.
You also realize your perspective influences how you speak on a topic, and that your audience is likely coming from a different starting line.
For example, if you’re Robert Livingston, episode 1, you merge lived experience as a Black man with twenty years of research on the science behind bias and racism while keeping in mind that:
“It’s not about how smart I sound. It’s about how well the person reading it understands what I’m trying to say.” Robert Livingston
I love this quote.
Experts think they need to present as the smartest in the room and unwavering in their opinions. Yet, you could have the greatest idea in the world with jaw-dropping evidence. But if people don’t understand what you’re saying, they won’t listen. They won’t take action.
Clear, concise messaging is a must.
As Laura Zapata says in episode 5:
“Being pithy and having clarity of message in what you're trying to accomplish is the hardest thing, but that is the most effective thing you can do. You know, really distilling a big idea into its parts and understanding where your audience is coming from is incredibly important.” Laura Zapata
But this isn’t just about delivering words.
Which brings us to the second guiding principle:
Second, how you say it, matters.
Words need emotion. To inspire you need to speak from what I call, ‘the fire in your belly.’
As Abby Falik says in episode two:
“What am I pretending not to know? What is it that breaks my heart? Who am I when no one is watching?” Abby Falik
Next, translate that fire into a message that resonates with your audience.
Writer and podcaster Tara McMullin says in episode 3:
“I try to not write according to market forces. I try to not think about, ‘What can I say to get more clicks? What can I write to get more subscriptions?’ … And I think, ‘What is fascinating me right now? What am I angry about? What am I excited about?’ And then, once I know what that thing is, then I can say, ‘Okay, how is this relevant to [my audience]?’ … My job is to make that crystal clear.” Tara McMullin
Ok, so we’re listening to what’s stirring inside. Then, we’re translating our thoughts into words everyone can understand, filtering through the lens of our audience’s point of view.
Next is delivery. We need to consider both the medium and the underlying tone with which we speak.
Let’s start with tone.
People can smell fake a mile away. When you step up to the mic and into your story, you need to stay honest and grounded in humility.
As Maurice Mitchell said in episode seven:
“Humility is misunderstood. It's one of the most powerful human qualities. And I think it's an excellent tool to create solidarity. Humility is, to me, admitting that you don't know what you don't know.” Maurice Mitchell
And because you can't know everything, sometimes you’re not the one who should be talking.
Beth Livingston in episode six calls this staying in your lane:
“A lot of people, I think, Who become public figures decide, well, now I'm a public figure who's an expert on everything. No. I know my lane and I stay in my lane. Doesn't mean I don't think and have conversations about lots of things, but if I'm going to say something publicly and put my reputation behind it, it's something that I've thought a lot about and I feel like I can add.” Beth Livingston
Staying in your lane. Humility.
Now, let’s move onto communication tools - or as I like to call it, methods to show that you practice what you preach.
There are a lot of choices when it comes to communicating ideas. And you often feel like you have to do it all.
You don’t. In fact, you shouldn’t.
Try different mediums and see what works. Lean into your strengths and pay attention to what gives you energy, what flexes your muscles and scratches an itch.
If you’re outgoing and want to quickly forge intimate connections, video-first platforms like TikTok or YouTube are go-to’s.
Video works for Britt Belwine. In episode 4, she talks about how 80,000 followers watch and engage with her weekly TikToks. She shares a lot of personal stories and a lot of disabled experiences, and she uses both to teach.
But it's important to note that it's not the disability doing the teaching, she is.
“TikTok has been so great for educating and raising awareness for other folks. I think its power to start these conversations and bring people into the movement is really exciting. And something I really like about the app.” Britt Belwine
But not all of us like being on camera. And that’s ok!
If that’s the case, consider writing and using literary techniques like metaphor to translate complex ideas into simple concepts. Back in episode one, Dr. Livingston describes antiracism as salmon swimming upstream. Immediately, we see the image in our mind's eye, and it stays long after.
“So to me, anti-racism is like becoming a salmon and swimming against this current. The first thing is you have to be aware that there's a current there, and you have to be willing to actually counteract that current. So this is sort of individuals countering the system. And you become like the salmon. And it's not an easy journey. It's exhausting. It's dangerous. There's grizzly bears along the way looking to pick you off, right? But that's what you have to do in order to reach this promised land, let's call it, the pristine headwaters upstream where you spawn.” Robert Livingston
If video and writing in metaphor don’t get the juices flowing, feel free to keep it simple. In episode two, Abby Falik talks about posting short form text paired with photos on social media.
“Speaking only what I've experienced or know to be true and blending my head and my heart in what I say and how I say it. And I think in some ways, what someone could call a platform or body of work may feel more disparate or loose than somebody who set out to be a thought leader with a very particular agenda. So I feel like I am leading and learning out loud as I synthesize what I'm seeing and learning in ways that I hope can be useful to others.” Abby Falik
Never underestimate the power of pulling back the curtain, but if - and only if - you’re comfortable with it.
Everybody's comfort zone is different.
All right, let's say you love to be in conversation. Podcasting, recording interviews, or crafting audio essays with sound effects, music, and historical clips can bring your content to life, as Tara McMullen talks about in episode three:
“Whether I'm writing an audio essay or I'm writing a written essay, I'm always thinking about what are the elements that I can add to this that are going to make this come to life? Becoming a podcaster, not only is it a medium that I like to consume, but it is a medium that I feel really excited about creating in.” Tara McMullin
And of course, there's always the power of one to one conversation. Just ask Maurice Mitchell.
“Connection and community is a social need, and the ability to bear witness to somebody's testimony, that is a social need. Who are we outside of the reflection of others? And it's a need on both sides. The ability to tell your story is transformative and healing and affirming, and the ability to witness – just to bear witness and to hear somebody's story also can be transformative.” Maurice Mitchell
It also happens to be a really effective way to respectfully engage with people who don't agree with you.
Changing the world requires moving beyond preaching to the choir. Not just once, but repeatedly.
“It's the process of constantly being curious of – okay, great, we got to a hundred people. What's the next rung above that? How do we get to the next 25? Great. How do I get to the next 25? How do I get to the next 25? And how might I have to change my approach in order to get to the next 25? Because the work and the tools that got you to the first 25 won't get you to the next.” Maurice Mitchell
This brings us to the third guideline:
Third, who you are matters.
I’ll make this one short and sweet.
It’s not easy to step up, speak out, and challenge the status quo. In fact, it’s risky.
You’ve got to be strong, to have drive and determination and keep the fire in your belly burning.
You’ve got to be ready for resistance - naysayers, doubters, criticism - and then prepare for everyone beyond the walls of your mind.
You have to embody two seemingly opposite traits at once - uncompromising belief in your vision and ceaseless humility.
You have to be resolute in your ideas, yet leave the door open to other possibilities.
At the same time, we’re not superhuman. We need support systems - what Robert Livingston in episode one calls his, ‘school of fish.’
“I think it's all about the school. Meaning, the other salmon that you surround yourself with. I don't think it's a journey that you take alone. I think it's extremely important to find your people. And I think it's important to take them along on the journey. One thing I've been fortunate enough to have is a very inspiring school of allies and friends and family and colleagues who are all swimming in the same direction.” Robert Livingston
Tina Opie calls it her go-to person to keep you in check and read emails before you hit send.
“Now, if there are some things that are valid, then that's something that I will probably go to someone in my inner circle… Like I'll call Beth and say, ‘Okay, was I crazy about this?’ And she'll be like, ‘You can't send that email.’ Tina Opie
We all need that person in our life to tell us not to send the email.” Beth Livingston
So yes, this is hard work. But we need you.
You who sees the world for what it could be.
You who is ready to dig deeper to reach higher heights.
Step into the light as you, not who you think you need to be. Our flaws make us relatable and our resilience endears us.
As Abby Falik said in episode two:
“There's so much pressure to be like everyone else, and social media just makes this so much more acute. So what's needed from me is not originality. At every moment it's authenticity.” Abby Falik
Step into the light - not to prove yourself to others - but because you can’t not speak, write, film, or think about it.
Stay humble and endlessly curious.
Speak confidently of your expertise, but realize wisdom is found in the ‘I don’t know’s.’
And when everyone shouts your praises, remember what Maurice Mitchell said in episode seven:
“If you aren't aware of the fact that you, like all human beings, have an ego, and that you should not allow your ego to be the driver… You want your ego to follow and assist your North Star. You want your ego in the passenger seat and you want to drive.” Maurice Mitchell
Keep your ego in the passenger’s seat and let your North Star drive.
Those are my guiding principles: What you say, how you say it, and who you are matters.
But that’s not the whole story. One more chapter to go.
Chapter 4: Invisible systems and structures at play
“Why can’t we see each other as equals?”
I’ve been asking this question since I was a child. Turns out, it’s a critical component to becoming a trusted leader.
Why? I’ll get to that in a moment.
But first, let’s take a step back.
Equity. Are we there yet? A lot of people think so.
But Robert Livingston and Tina Opie say they spend most of their time establishing the problem of racism and convincing people that it still exists.
As members of a historically marginalized community, they should not carry this burden. They should not have to draw the bright red through line over and over again from slavery, to Jim Crow laws, to mass incarceration, to voter suppression.
That’s on us - all of us who’ve benefited from these systems at the expense of others.
Meanwhile, Britt Belwine documents her life today as a disabled person and reveals inequities to equal access ranging from day-to-day tasks to a traumatizing prison system.
She wants to normalize disability and let disabled people speak for themselves. But we’ll only get there if everyone asks for the accommodations they need or stand next to someone who does as an ally.
Laura Zapata takes this even further, saying the world's intractable problems won’t be solved until a wider range of perspectives are in the room.
Here’s the thing - when you understand that the human experience is shaped by social realities - many of which you haven’t experienced - empathy rises.
What’s more, learning the invisible systems and structures at play gives us a greater chance at seeing each other as human beings, not checkboxes or dollar signs.
Which brings us back to the question:
Why is it so hard for us to see each other as equals?
Some guests said it’s because of fear - we fear what we don’t understand. And we don’t understand because we don’t know each other. And because we don't know each other, we don’t trust one another.
What’s more, systems like slavery and capitalism have long been embedded in our society. Their webs are so vast and so deep, we don’t even recognize them anymore.
And let's face it. We don’t like being uncomfortable. We want our long-held beliefs to remain true and unchallenged.
All of this creates a situation where people view others who have different perspectives and values, even if they only differ by a little bit, as the enemy. And the easiest way to discredit the enemy is to deny them their humanity.
But as Maurice Mitchell says:
“It normalized the idea that ‘we’ is bigger than our nuclear family. That family is something that is expansive, and that if you have the capacity to give, that you are forthright with that capacity without any interest on somehow transactionally getting something in return. And that has been a bedrock of my understanding of how you're supposed to show up in this world. And that has dovetailed really well with the work that I've done, which has been the work of bringing people together so that they could realize their power, so that they could - across difference - do really hard things with each other.” Maurice Mitchell
We don’t have to play the “first pass the pole, winner take all’ game (Source: Maurice Miller). Just as our ancestors created systems, we can come up with new ones. We have the power to make real and lasting change.
Isn’t that exciting?!
And this brings us back to you - you who see the world for what it could be.
You’re not building an audience to create an echo chamber. You’re trying to change the world, to craft a vision of the future that seems inevitable if we follow you.
But you can’t craft that vision without an acute understanding that the human experience is shaped by social realities and invisible systems.
And while we can - and should - speak confidently about our own experiences, there will forever be so much we don’t know - that we can’t know without witnessing others’ stories.