“But we’ve always done it like that”.

If you mutter those words to me, you can probably expect some eye-rolling to begin with, then a very big sigh of audible disappointment, followed by a withering glare of doom.

For different reasons I have been thinking about this recently. You know – the moments when you know how it has always been done, but you also know that’s not what you actually want to do.

Over the years I have learned when to follow my gut and not do what was expected of me, but it wasn’t always the case that I knew when to trust myself.

I’ve been thinking in particular about speeches that I have made where there has been a clear expectation of what I am “meant” to say, but I have ended up doing something different.

I have been given the guidance and the expectations have been explained, but I have this feeling in my stomach that the resulting speech is not what I want to say.

In those situations, what do you do? Do you follow the guidelines and expectations of those around you, or do you go with your gut and give the speech you want to give?

The Christmas Speech

Let me give you the example of my first Christmas speech as Chair of a not for profit a couple of years ago. The expectation was that the Chair say a few words at the beginning of the lunch to welcome everyone and set the tone of the event. However, it was made very clear to me that “they are not here to listen to you, Jo”.

I knew that I didn’t want to just say, “Hello, you are very welcome, bon appetit”. But then I felt that if I said anything more than that, it had better be something smart and intelligent, and ideally very insightful about Brexit, business, and the future of the organisation in its 25th year.

But I had no idea where to start. I couldn’t think of anything smart or intelligent to say about business or Brexit, the event was getting closer and closer and the speech was not getting written.

But I sure as hell was going to say something.

Finally, 24 hours before the event, I was getting kind of desperate. As I was waiting for a client to arrive, with about 45 minutes on my hands, I asked myself the question “Jo, if you could say anything in that speech and know that it could work, what would you like to say?”.

I realised that I wanted to make a very different kind of speech – not just hello and welcome – but one about the lessons I had learned stepping into this role, lessons about handling the fears, about surrounding yourself with the right people, and lessons about building on something that was bigger than any one Chair.

Once I realised the kind of speech that I wanted to write, the words flowed without any problem.

And so I wrote that speech. And the 200 plus business people in the room responded to it well, telling me that it had been one of the most human speeches they had heard that Christmas.

And they didn’t mind listening to me at all.


Other unexpected speeches

Of course it’s not just me writing these “unexpected” speeches. Often the work that I do with my public speaking clients involves helping them give the speech they really want to give.

For example, I often have clients who talk about a very technical subject and feel conflicted because we work on a speech with a lot of storytelling and practical examples, but they know the industry “expectation” is to come with a lot of legislation vomited on to a slide.

Or, of course, there are the clients who know they deserve to take the credit in their speeches for their role in different projects, but also know that to do so will risk them being thought of as “difficult women”.

And there are the speeches where we work on different ways to present difficult subjects, even if that means getting the audience to create a human block chain.

In the end, our work together is about challenging the expectations and finding a way to give the speech they really want to give.


How do you know?

So, how do you know when to follow your gut, and when to follow what everyone else is telling you is expected?

I don’t think that there is a one answer fits all response to this, but here are a couple of questions you can ask yourself.

First of all, the expectations that others have about what should be said or done.

A caveat before we begin – the expectations and guidance that you receive from someone about your speech are more often than not incredibly helpful. That’s the whole point of having a supervisor or mentor teaching you and helping you to develop.

However, there are times when it’s not the case. Here are some questions that can help you tap into your gut and spidey senses and determine when the “expectations” are not the way to go.

  • Think about what people are telling you to do or say – how does thinking about it make you feel? Does it make you feel light and energised, excited about the idea? Or does it make you feel constrained, or sad, or frustrated or another more negative emotion? Martha Beck in her book “Steering by Starlight” talks about recognising the feeling of “shackles on” or “shackles off” as a way to indicate when doing something helps you live true to your vision and values, or when you are about to do something that goes against that.
  • How accurate is the story that there is only one way of doing things – the way you have been told is expected of you? If you were sitting on a jury listening to the evidence being presented, what would the lawyer for the defence be saying to justify and prove that to be the only way to do it? What about the lawyer for the other side – what evidence is there to disprove the advice or guidance? Think here about who is giving the guidance, their experience, the risk profile of the speech or message.
  • If you were to follow the expectations of others – and keep following that – what impact would that have on you and your career? Would it take you forward and rise you up, help you grow and learn? Or would it keep you small, squash your voice and keep you stuck in a corner?


If you then decide not to follow the expectations of others, here are a few questions to ask yourself about what it is you want to say.

  • If you knew that whatever you said or did would work, what would you want to say?
  • What is your vision behind that?
  • What is important about saying that or doing that, even if it’s not what is expected?
  • What’s at the heart of that?

These questions are to really confirm for yourself the why behind what you are thinking. In my view, there is little point doing something different just to do it differently. But there is a whole lot of point to challenging a status quo, pushing our boundaries and taking things out of our comfort zone if it can make the audience think in a different way or otherwise bring a lot of extra value.

Finally, you need to translate what you want to do and say into something that your audience can buy into. So how do you get your audience on board?  Think about these questions:

  • How can you approach the topic/ different message in a way that it resonates with the audience?
  • What does the audience need to hear from you to get them to buy in?
  • Can you go all out different straight away, or do you need to build things up in baby steps?

Remember, when you are bringing something different to your speech, something that might not be expected, you need to take your audience on a journey from where they are today, what they think or feel, or how they behave about the thing – to where you want to take them. And where you want to take them is thinking and feeling in a different way, behaving in a different way. So how do you guide them on that journey and show them the way there? (Spoiler alert, this will likely involve a lot of storytelling on your part, and a lot of answers to the question “so what?”).


When all is said and done

There is no one “right” or “wrong” answer to the question of whether you follow your gut or you follow the expectations of everyone else. But the main thing I want you to remember is that just because everyone has always done things in one particular way, does not mean that you need to do it the same way too. If you do decide to do something else, remember that this will involve you doing some work to bring that different message to the audience in a way that resonates, but it is always, always doable.


Got a speech coming up and trying to work out whether to follow the crowd and what has always been done, or go with your gut and try something new? Want to brainstorm for a half hour together about it? Well, drop me a line at joanna@joannadenton.com, tell me you have read this blog, and let’s jump on zoom for a free consult and talk it out together.