I got a D in Accounting for Non-Business Majors: A story of how I exploited one of my most humiliating failures to win over an audience and become a decent public speaker
About six months ago, I got to do a keynote speech at an annual event that the American Association of Accounting Professionals hosts for accounting academics from all the major colleges and universities in the US. For my presentation, I decided to use only images for the first time ever (vs. slides with text on them), having just read a book about the cognitive disconnect that takes place for the audience when you put words on a slide and then talk at the same time. The book, Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath (highly recommend, by the way), provided a great explanation for how images that support your point as more of a metaphorical backdrop vs. literal message are more powerful and memorable.
I was excited about testing out the new approach, particularly to a group of folks who tend to be fairly literal (albeit brilliant) thinkers. And yet one thing was missing—my opening line. Over the years as I’ve endeavored to become a better public speaker, I’ve learned that one concrete, tactical thing I can do is come up with something personal and ideally self-deprecating that:
Gets their attention,
Humanizes me and forges a connection, and
Makes me feel more comfortable and less nervous in front of however many people there are in the audience.
So this particular time, as I was sitting in the audience getting nervous about heading up there, it finally hit me—my opening line. I realized that this was a keynote for a bunch of accounting professors and remembered that I got a D the first time I took accounting as an undergraduate Government and Theology major and then continued to struggle the two other times I had to take accounting thereafter—first through a community college course I took to prepare for my MBA program that I got a C in and then in business school at Booth where I can’t remember if I got a C or maybe a super low B (my memory is failing me on purpose here ☺).
Anyway, here’s how I ended up setting up my keynote: “I have a deep, dark secret that I’ve been keeping for 30 years and I think it’s time for it to come out today...I got a D in Accounting for Non-Business Majors at Georgetown…and there are two reasons that I tell you this…
I’ve struggled with three-ish accounting classes and realized there is no learning curve for me, all of you are superheroes to me, and I marvel at your amazing intellect and skills.
Because I think everyone loves a good hero’s journey and mine is that I thought my career was over when I got that D in undergrad—that no one would ever hire me, that I wasn’t smart enough to do anything of significance…and yet I went on to a top five business school and ended up as an executive in one of the most quantitative industries—tech—and roles within it that’s possible.”
I then went on to the meat of my presentation—it was about my company’s own hero journey. And when I stepped off stage, I was immediately swarmed by people and continued to be approached by dozens from the audience throughout the rest of the day. The event organizers said the survey feedback on my session was the most positive of all. Everyone noticed the images vs. text and remarked on how much it drew them in. They also commented on how personal I made my piece vs. the other presenters, and how they wanted to emulate it.
My point is that two really simple things that anyone can do helped me stand out, particularly because it was a super business-focused event on a super boring (yet important) topic. In the end, people want to feel something, they want to be entertained, they want a good story, and we as Women@Work can do all of those things if we just take a step back and rethink the things that are unique to each of us that we can capitalize on to forge connections on a 1:many situation, similar to how we would in smaller, more intimate settings. Think of public speaking as a conversation with the collective group vs. a presentation, think of the feeling(s) you want to create in them, think of how you can establish a clear goal or action that they can do, how you can help them achieve a tip or learn something new that they can use in their own lives and careers to be better and more successful.
I want to end with two more realizations, which have come sort of late in life for me:
Anyone can become a good public speaker. Break it down, figure out your thing, err on the side of being more visual, consider how to structure your presentation like a good story with an intro and build-up, climax, and denouement or resolution. Interject human and ideally funny stuff about yourself and your experiences. Figure out how to be relatable. It’s better to be perfectly human in these cases than trying to be perfect (and probably boring). Study other good speakers, but don’t feel like you have to be like them (i.e., some larger-than-life dude who was born to be an actor—yet here he is in a corporate setting—with some awesome accent and hair). You have the power of surprising and delighting your audience by being exactly who you are in your own unique way, but it does require some thoughtfulness and work to do it well in bigger settings.
Early failures are not the end of your career and life more broadly—in fact, they’re just the beginning! Now that I think about that disastrous D from the clearer perspective of a ~50-year old who’s had an amazingly full life and career, I realize it wasn’t so bad! No doubt it was a massively embarrassing waste of money for my parents, a tangible and enduring mar on my record, and a seemingly catastrophic point of no return. However, while it did impact my confidence and even my actions in ways I wish it hadn’t, it also opened up all sorts of opportunities and ultimately fueled me to prove it wrong. Now I know that I am way more than a D in Accounting.
Best of all, I relish being at a point in my career where I can look that D right in the eyes in front of the American Association of Accounting Professionals, God, and everyone else and say, “F you, D…you did not defeat me and you actually helped make me a heck of a lot stronger. I showed you!” ☺
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Christina Van Houten is the founder of Women at Work. Based in Boston with her husband and two teenage sons, she has spent the last 20 years of her career as a senior executive in the enterprise technology sector. Prior to evolving into tech, Christina founded a women's athletic apparel brand and served in several public interest roles focused on community and economic development. She started working at age thirteen and hasn't stopped since. She’s eager to help women find their way to the best possible life they can achieve.