I’m climbing marble stairs to an auditorium. My hand is on the railing to ensure my balance and to help me move a little faster, but I’m still being passed up. Many people wear suits or shoes and click on the steps. They are not looking at me as they pass me. 

I’m out of place not only because I’m slower but also because I’m carrying a large white case, nearly as tall as me, with my cello inside. 

We are all going to the same check-in desk before the leadership conference day begins. They are attendees, and I’m a speaker. I intentionally breathe slower and deeper to ease my pounding heart. 

The people at check-in greet me warmly, meeting in person for the first time after weeks of planning. As they see my cello, their eyes widen and smiles expand in delight. I feel simultaneously reassured by their anticipation and under pressure to live up to whatever unknown expectations they have.  

I can feel the old prickle of anxiety rising on my neck about performing well—perfecting every note. But I exhale to let that fear go. Today isn’t about performing Great Works by Important Composers. My purpose isn’t to prove my Musical Prowess. It’s to give the leaders there a new experience. 

I’m speaking to them about the importance of listening. My cello simply creates long tones in the space. I want people to experience the sensation of listening deeply. 

The message I want them to leave with is a question: Can we hear each other completely? Without interrupting, wholly taking in each other’s words? Just as we would with a live cello?




Nearly ten years ago, as I gave this talk, I was at a turning point in my career: I was letting go of my identity as a cello performer and teacher and leaning into my new role as a communication consultant. 

A cello in a conference room was unusual, but it felt completely natural to express my speakership this way. My most effective and powerful speakership was not by imitating other speakers I admired but by speaking from my most authentic place. 

Sometimes, the word “authentic” has confused me. I am my authentic self when I’m standing in my power in front of a corporate team, and I’m my authentic self when I’m a melted heap on the couch binging a show and slurping hot chocolate on a Friday night. 

In an article entitled “Discovering Your Authentic Leadership,” published in the Harvard Business Review, the authors discuss the concept of leadership and note the thousands of studies conducted over the years that have sought to “determine the definitive styles, characteristics, or personality traits of great leaders.” 

With a tone of relief, the authors confirm that “None of these studies has produced a clear profile of the ideal leader.” This inconclusiveness is the best possible outcome, given it demonstrates there is no specific persona one should emulate when taking on a leadership role. Rather, being a good and trusted leader is less about one’s personality and more about being true to oneself.

“No one can be authentic by trying to imitate someone else,” the article states. “You can learn from others’ experiences, but there is no way you can be successful when you are trying to be like them. People trust you when you are genuine and authentic, not a replica of someone else.”

Whether you’re an established or sudden leader, authentic leadership is crucial for building trust with your people and inviting them to see and support your vision. No one will choose to follow a leader they don’t trust, so without the trust and support of your followers, your vision will remain a picture in your head.

Later in the article, its authors define authentic leaders as those who “demonstrate a passion for their purpose, practice their values consistently, and lead with their hearts as well as their heads. They establish long-term, meaningful relationships and have the self-discipline to get results. They know who they are.”

It all starts with passion. What drives you? What is your vision? And how will you lead others to bring that vision to life?

You might have a clear vision of where your speakership will lead, or you might need some time and help. You might know your values but not the specifics.

All of this is okay. All of it is an important starting place. What matters is asking the questions.


From my book Speakership is Leadership, here are some steps to take when you are ready to investigate your speakership purpose:


  1. Get still

For Michelle Obama, the first step to finding her speakership for the 2020 Democratic National Convention was holding still. As she prepared she had questions like How do I address the crowds not as the First Lady but as myself? What do I say during the turbulent times of the pandemic and racial civil unrest to a divided nation? 

Luckily, she had a new skill to help herself listen to her own thoughts. In the early days of stay-at-home orders in 2020, she took up knitting. When she knit, she held still. She relaxed and felt her thoughts expand to a bigger view. 

As she quietly knit and thought about her talk, she connected to her longer-term view. She stopped thinking about what a specific person or group might think. She let go of trying to say the proper thing or please the critics.

In her book The Light We Carry, she described the experience of finding her message of unity and empowerment. “I’d experienced the kind of volcanic clarity that comes when you speak from the absolute center of your being. What’s perhaps strange to say is that I’m not sure I would have gotten there without the period of enforced stillness.”


  1. Ask others

In her book, performer and comedian Judy Carter teaches how to become a public speaker. One of her essential steps in her book The Message of You is to find a buddy. “The best Speaker Buddies are people who make you feel smart and funny when you are around them.” 

Ask them questions like:

  • What are the values you see when you think of me?
  • What can you rely on me to do? To say? 
  • If you were to pick me as the perfect spokesperson for a project, what would be the project and its purpose?
  • If you were to write my eulogy, what would you say?


  1. Locate points in time

“Tell me about one moment when you felt satisfaction in something you created.”

This is the phrase I use in my workshops when attendees are looking for their personal formula for purpose. I don’t ask them about their best day or what made them the happiest. With this low-stakes phrasing around “creation” and “satisfaction,” we can instead see themes of happiness, preference, and direction throughout their past and identify which ones provided them with a sense of purpose.


  1. Name what you’re reaching for

Set aside some time. Get a pen and paper.

Ask yourself these questions and write at least a page for each answer, stream of consciousness style. Write freely and openly without preparation, and in doing so, you can observe your thoughts and see what sparks of ideas come through.

  • What ideas keep capturing your attention?
  • Are there things you say that light up other people?
  • How would the world shift if everyone heard your ideas?
  • What moments in your life are you proud of?
  • What are you talking about when you feel you are speaking with clarity and ease?


So, forget trying to be someone else. Instead, look inward. Be still, reflect, and talk to others. And remember that speakership is an ongoing, evolutionary journey.   

Speakership is never complete. Speakership isn’t a one-time event you get through with a sigh of relief at the end. Speakership is a practice continuously evaluated, upgraded, and honed with others.

When it comes to speakership, action is key. Remember, too, that action takes many forms.  Some speakership stages may not require you to speak at all but just to show up. Your presence is your speakership, too. Speakership doesn’t have to mean filling the air with sound waves. Sometimes it is listening, making space to give a voice to others, or just being in a room.

Newton’s First Law of Motion states, “An object at rest remains at rest, and an object in motion remains in motion….” So, find what fuels you, share it with others on all kinds of stages, and most importantly, keep it moving.

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Margaret Watts Romney

Margaret Watts Romney is a presenter, teacher, and group synergy builder who has been teaching, speaking, stumbling, shaking on the stage, navigating communication blocks, and discovering better ways for her clients to lead for over 20 years.

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