Last week, I attended a couple small business networking events in Chattanooga. I have mixed feelings about networking. For one, I’m an introvert and I know I can only Cinderella so much before I turn back into a pumpkin. And two, you just never know if you’re going to meet anyone who might actually help your business, whether as a client or a vendor. But this time, I’m glad I went.
I spoke with one nice woman, a business coach who, when I told her I was a book coach, immediately blushed and looked down.
“I’ve always wanted to write a book,” she almost whispered. “But I don’t know what to say!”
This woman told me about her decades of experience managing teams and working as an executive at multiple companies. She left her full-time work in corporate America to help entrepreneurs grow and scale their businesses. She spoke at conferences and consulted with major companies in Tennessee. But when it came to writing a book, she didn’t know what to say!
Truthfully, I totally get it.
I love reading. I love hearing new ideas and learning what others have to say. As an editor, this helps me because I truly get excited about my authors’ incredible ideas. I feel so invested in making sure their voices are heard.
But knowing what I have to say? That’s another story.
I’ve spent decades trying to figure out what I have to say—and it’s only in the last few years that I finally feel I’ve been able to start using my voice more.
So I’d love to share with you what’s worked for me, and I hope it’s helpful to you.
Imagine walking into a restaurant, where there are dozens of tables. People are gathered around each table laughing, debating, theorizing. Each table features a different conversation. One table is talking about finance and the best investment strategies. Another table is talking about beauty and body in the media. Another table is talking about the challenges and joys of being working moms. Yet another table is talking about the role of faith in society.
I walked into this restaurant, and I felt paralyzed for a long time. Which table did I want to sit at? A lot of the conversations around me felt interesting and enticing. I wandered around for years, listening and learning.
But I kept coming back to one table in particular. It was the “Great Books & Publishing” table. I heard Allison Fallon talking about memoir structure, and I heard Jeff Goins encouraging aspiring writers to claim their identity as a writer and do the work. I heard my first boss, Arnis, talking about great works of fiction that I now MUST read. I heard one of my professors talking about the theme of sympathy across 20th century British Literature. I had questions, they had answers. I could sit at this table all day, forever.
Like me, it might take you a while to decide what table you want to sit at. That’s ok. You’re allowed to try out different tables—and you should. If and when you start getting bored at one table, move on.
You don’t have to stay committed to one table forever, even once you do decide where you want to contribute. You’re not chained there. But you should find the table that most interests you for a time—enough that you could stay there for a good long while. The one you have the most questions about. The one where the conversation is most robust and exciting, in your opinion. Find the conversation and the people that you want to be a part of.
When you settle in, get oriented to the conversation. Listen to what everyone is saying. It might be confusing at first, but you’ll catch on. Learn the lingo. Know that this person holds these perspectives, and that person always talks about X.
Analogy aside, this means reading lots and lots of books on that topic, and interacting with the other authors and thought leaders who are writing about it. I can’t stress enough the importance of reading and knowing the other people who are writing about your topic of interest. Theirs are the other voices that your audience is listening to. You need to know what they’re saying so that you can keep up with your audience.
I know many authors who view the other voices at their table as competition. They’re afraid to speak too loudly, lest someone else at the table “steal” their idea.
Forgive my French, but that’s bullshit.
You need the other people at your table. You want them to pressure-test your ideas. You want to make sure you know what views they hold, so you can respond intelligently to them.
These are also the people who will best advocate for you and your ideas, even if they disagree with you. Yes, it’s true. I know lots of authors who speak on the same topics, even who disagree with each other, and yet they all endorse each other’s books, because they’re friends.
Stop thinking of the other voices there as your competition. They are now your best allies and comrades, bonded by your shared passion for this conversation.
The amount of time you spend listening to the conversation will vary by person. Some people might plop themselves down, listen for a minute, and immediately start joining in. Others might take months, maybe years, before they feel confident enough to start interjecting.
So here’s the critical question: What do you actually say?
Author Warren Berger has made a living as a “questionologist.” Warren usually likes to sit at the technology and innovation table, but his role there is to ask questions and explore the role of questions themselves. He also points out how other people ask questions at other tables for maximum impact.
When we ask questions, we make everyone else think deeper. So ask away. Poke holes in others’ assumptions. Challenge binary thinking. Questioning just might be your unique and incredibly valuable contribution.
But you don’t have to stop there. When you ask a question, take a stab at answering it, too!
And here’s where we get to the root of what I think is holding most people back.
A lot of aspiring writers think they have to have it all figured out before they put an idea out there. You don’t. Learn the art of the brave “maybe.” As in, “Maybe the answer is…” or “Maybe the reason X is happening is because of Y…”
The best writers don’t let perfect be the enemy of done. They venture forth with an idea, even if it’s half-baked—maybe especially if it’s half-baked!—because they know that offering up an idea to the table will make it better.
One of my favorite articles of all time is “How Elon Musk Learns Faster and Better Than Everyone Else.” Regardless of your opinions on Elon, the man’s a genius. He’s the master of the brave “maybe.” As author Michael Simmons explains, here’s how he does it:
Essentially, Elon makes connections between different ideas to see what happens.
This process of learning principles and then applying them in new contexts is called learning transfer, and I think it’s one of the most valuable skills writers can learn. One of my authors, Julie Stern, writes extensively about it.
You can do this easily by asking yourself: How does this relate to that?
This is why I encourage you to listen in on other conversations often. Read widely. You may be surprised at what you learn and the connections you can make at the table where you want to be heard.
You don’t have to start with something jaw-droppingly profound. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Remember, you’re going to be here for a while. You’ve got time to build your ideas. So start small.
Maybe this looks like posting on social media, or writing a blog post. Maybe it starts with a private email to a friend before you venture it out in public. That’s fine. Start small, and let it grow from there as you become more confident.
Here’s what I know to be true. Everyone has some wisdom to share with the world. Rest assured in that truth, and let your confidence take root. Remember not to hold too tightly to your ideas, but to invite a conversation. Stop thinking of yourself as an “expert” who has to have all the answers, and instead think of yourself as a conversational thought partner on this intensely interesting topic.
You’ll have so much more to say, the conversation will be so much richer, and people will love joining you at your table.