A decade ago, when I joined my local Rotary club, part of the initiation process required that I introduce myself to the club in a 4 minute presentation – what they call a Who Am I? I wanted mine to be a little different from others I’d seen, so my wife Mary Anne joined me on stage, and as I went through the various roles I’d had in my life, she handed me the headgear – a hat, helmet, ball-cap, wrestling head-gear, swim cap – that represented that specific phase of my life. When we got to me being a father, she tossed me 1-2-3 dolls. The crowd loved it! How I delivered My Who Am I? was part of my statement, and it was appropriate that I had my life’s partner with me.
When I joined Toastmasters, I was informed that my first speech must be an “Icebreaker” – a nerve-wracking 5-7 minute speech to introduce myself to a room full of experienced public speakers – all taking notes. The title of my icebreaker was “The Prince of Mediocrity” and I shared how I am mediocre at more things than anyone I know. Appropriately enough, it was a mediocre speech and got mediocre evaluations. But I had given my first of many speeches, and had given them a clue as to Who am I.
My good friend Rick Rochelle and I lead NOLS Executive Leadership Expeditions with 8-12 adults for 7 days and nights each summer in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. During the expeditions, everyone tells their story in a 15 minute Who Am I? Living and working together in pristine mountains and wilderness, disconnected from the distractions of civilization, with no email, smart phones, or internet, people quickly develop trust, and truly open up and share with each other. The result: Deeper personal connections, which for most, are the highlight of the expedition.
In his consulting work with other organizations, Rick uses an exercise adapted from Simon Sinek’s Finding Your Why, which is a different twist on the Who Am I? People in the group pair up outside the group context, and the partners interview each other and share experiences that had the most impact on their lives. At the conclusion of each interview, the interviewers provide feedback to their partners on common themes, threads and impressions garnered from the stories they heard. Afterward, when each person delivers their Who Am I? to the entire group, they don’t tell their stories, rather what they learned from hearing their partner’s perspective on what these stories might say about them.
The Who Am I? is a simple and effective tool for people to get to know and learn about each other beyond what comes up in most work environments. In the business communications class I teach at the University of San Diego, we follow the lead of Toastmasters, and the first presentation my students give is a five minute Who Am I? In several organizations of which I am a part, we decided to begin regular meetings with one (or two) members giving a five minute Who Am I? We are often surprised at what we learn about our colleagues’ backgrounds, what they believe is important in their lives, and we learn how thoughtful some speakers are about their values, fears, joys, and the trajectory of their lives.
Without exception, the effects of this little exercise have been positive. In some cases, it has profoundly and positively transformed the dynamics of the group.
Beginning a meeting with a Who Am I? makes an important value statement: We are people with individual lives and values, and recognizing this is important enough to take a moment to facilitate getting to know each other’s stories, before getting on with the work we have to do together.
At the SEAL command where I work, I recently heard a Who Am I? in which the speaker quickly listed many of the titles he’d had in his life, and then downplayed them, noting that these titles did not define him as he saw himself, nor did he want them to define him in the eyes of others. He then shared with us the titles he believed were most important in defining who he is: Friend, father, trustworthy colleague, team-mate, life-long-learner, uncertain about the future.
The Who Am I? presentation can open a door to more profound conversations and connections outside of the group setting. Which can contribute to more trust, more caring, and more mutual understanding within the group. Which can lead to more productive and positive relationships.
Which are a good thing.
(Note 1: See below for some simple considerations in how to build Who Am I? sessions into your organization)
(Note 2: Who Am I? part 2, coming soon, will look at the question from a more personal and “existential” perspective.)
Some suggestions for building Who Am I? presentations into your organization.
- Set a specific time limit and enforce it. I assign a timer with green, yellow, red cards.
- Suggest that people rehearse and time themselves giving their Who Am I? Whether 5 minutes or 15, the time runs out quickly.
- Encourage people not to read their Who Am I? and to speak from the heart.
- Try not to do more than 2 at a time.
- Allow a few minutes after each presentation for people to react, let the presentation sink in, and to ask a few questions, eg “Is your ex-wife still in the circus?”
- For a five minute presentation, I suggest speakers structure their presentation as follows: An opening, 3 main points, and a conclusion.
- Think about YOU being the first one, to set the example and the tone.