The playing field was clearly uneven, but the “visiting team” had chosen to come and play by our rules: An underdog team at its finest. I was teaching executive presence and communication to MBA students, 30% for whom English is their second language. The final assignment was TEDdy talks, 5 minute speeches in the style of TED.
I knew the assignment was stacked in favor of the American students. I was sure I’d have to give them the benefit of the doubt in grading. Not so. After the talks, I asked the students to rate “best in class.”
On both days the international students won by a landslide. My non-English speaking students out-performed the Americans in their own tongue. Why?
A Few Theories
They Didn’t Expect a Handicap: There were no office appointments asking me to understand their plight. They just got in there and worked it.
They Were Deeply Committed: This course was an elective. They could have easily spared themselves the agony, but they wanted to improve.
They Welcomed Feedback: Throughout the course I had been worried that their accent would make it hard for their English speaking audience to understand. We worked on pacing, pauses and in some cases volume. They nailed it.
They Embraced Vulnerability: Each of these students grounded their speeches in their own vulnerability. They told THEIR stories with a passion that drew us in.
They Worked Hard: They embraced their disadvantage, and incorporated the tools and techniques we discussed in class. They clearly had practiced, again and again. There was no winging it involved.
Sometimes confidence is over-rated. Swimming upstream takes more work. Hard work produces results.
Beware of the side-effects of your own confidence. A humble underdog may be nipping at your heels.