Author, Speaker, Coach, and Connection Creator
Michelle Tillis Lederman is speaker, trainer, coach, and author of four books, including the internationally known, and her latest, . She is CEO of , which provides customized communications and leadership programs for fortune 500, non-profit, university and government clients. A former finance executive and NYU Professor, Michelle is a regular in the media appearing on NBC, CBS, Fox, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, NY Times, CNBC, and others.
Michelle’s favorite title is probably connection creator. She is one of Forbes Top 25 Networking Experts, and is passionate about helping people work together better and have a broader impact. As she discloses in our interview, connection is the “umbrella” that contains her area of expertise.
In our conversation, we covered a range of topics, including:
- How her books elevated her training and speaking platform.
- Why relationships are critical to riding out disruptions like the current one.
- The book she never wrote on communication
- How to find your niche when you’re a “Zig Zag” personality like Michelle
- Understanding your special sauce
- Why comparing yourself to others doesn’t work
If you’re time is short and you’re interested in finding your own area of specialization, fast forward to 20 minutes in, where we talk about niches, umbrellas, and finding your special sauce.
Find the books we mention here
Learn more about her coaching, consulting, speaking and training at Michelle’s website.
Listen to the Interview
Read the Transcript
On building a platform through relationships
Anne: Michelle, tell me: you have four books out, and you speak on leadership, and you speak on networking and communication. How have you built this platform to get to this place where you are now?
Michelle: It’s funny. It’s a question I’ve been asked frequently. The reason I wrote the first book was to try and answer that question. When I wrote The 11 Laws of Likability, it was trying to explain to people my approach to building a business through building relationships. That’s what I believe in: relationship-based business building. This is more true today than it was when I wrote that book.
It came out in 2011, but I started working on it in 2008. People trust, and want to work with, people that they know and people that they like. That’s the subtitle of the book: Relationship Networking … Because People Do Business With People They Like.
92% of people trust referrals. People are four times more likely to buy when referred by someone that they know and trust. So, think about trying to build a platform through word-of-mouth and through a referral reputation. That’s the big answer to the question.
Somebody today asked me a similar question about I get clients. I say, either they see me speak, or they know someone who saw me speak and that person mentioned me. Every once in a while, I hear, “I found you on the web.”
Anne: All of that stress we do over organic search engine optimization and all of that is maybe putting our focus on the wrong place. Really relationship optimization is what we ought to be thinking about.
Michelle: That’s an interesting phrase. On the one hand I love it, on the other hand I don’t, because when we think about relationship optimization, it sounds very strategic. I’ve always been against strategic networking. I’ve always been a little anti-strategic networking. I almost called the book Organic Networking.
That’s really where The Connector’s Advantage, which is the follow-up to the 11 Laws of Likability, that’s where it comes into play. The advantage of having connections is faster, better, and easier results. But when you go targeting straight to that end person who you think can make things happen for you, it is not organic. It is not a natural connection. It is a forced connection, and that’s when we go “I don’t know what to say to them.” If you are introduced through a natural evolution of a relationships, then you’re not thinking about I’m here because I’m trying to get something. You’re here because we have somebody in common and now I’ know what to talk about.
Anne: Optimization is a terrible word, like you said. It’s about nurturing those relationships, and having them, based on a shared interest.
Michelle: Shared interest, shared values, shared experience, shared causes.
Anne: It’s interesting that you talk about this moment, and we’re having this conversation at a point in time when everybody’s sheltering at home, businesses of all kinds are shutting down or pausing. I can’t help but feel that the ones that will come out of this best are the ones that are focused on maintaining relationships during this time, even if there’s no revenue. It’s the relationships. We see lovely examples of that all around us, especially with small businesses. Such a great message.
Combining books, speaking, and training
Anne: You have four books out, which is an impressive catalog. Congratulations. Tell me about the dance between the books and the speaking. How do the books support the platform, and the platform support the books? Which way do you look at that? Or both?
Michelle: I think both. You asked what’s the evolution of how I got where I am. I would say that I was doing the work. I started to transition out of finance in 2001, laying groundwork. I had some clients, and I was appointed to NYU as a professor in 2004. In 2005 is when I went on my own solely. My first book didn’t come out until 2011.
I had six years of doing training in companies, building relationships, building my skill. I wasn’t doing main stage speaking, I wasn’t doing keynotes. I was mainly doing training, and occasionally I might get a SHERM [Safety, Health, Environment, and Risk Management] chapter talk. That was very rare until the book came out.
What the book does for platform building and thought leadership is it shifts how people want to interact with you.
Before the book, I got plenty of training gigs. I was very good at it. After the book, I was now more of a feature. The book gives you platform and credibility to grow from. Now being invited to do it. You learn how to build those skills. Last night, I was on the phone with a client who saw me speak probably back in 2012, 13, or 14 – at the beginning. It was at a SHERM chapter, and he said, “I remember how you commanded that room. I remember how you interacted with that audience.” I ran into him about two years ago, and it had to have been at least five year since he saw me. He said, “I remember you, I remember your talk.” And he hired me.
Anne: That’s the argument for getting out there and doing in-person things. That’s the argument for getting in the room with the people and having that personal impact.
Michelle: I was booked to do something with him on April 8th. We spoke last night, we talked about should I do it virtually, should I do it in person, what did we want to do. I said, “You know what? I’m open to doing it however you want.” I was very candid with him. “As good as I can be online, it’s just not the same.” He said, “I know.”
I was frank and said, at the same time, coming out of this, I’m going to look to try to build some business back up, and building this relationship in-person is going to be a lot more effective than online. He said, “I get you, Michelle. I know you were doing this as a favor to me…”
That’s the transparency of true relationships. Yes, I was doing it just for him and I didn’t think anything would come of it, but now my mind’s in a different place. I do need to think about rebuilding a little after all of this. I’m not going to pretend that I’m not, but I’m also not going to leave you high and dry. Being able to have that frank, transparent and open conversation without guilt and without apology, really strengthens our relationship.
What I said to him was, something I can do for you right now is coaching. It’s very effective virtually. He was like, “I will pitch it, Michelle. You’ve already done pro bonos for us, you already have a great reputation here, you are not trying to prove anything, you are a trusted vendor.
Anne: Talk about the in-person work.
Michelle: You were asking me book vs. training. I think the book leads you to a different type of speaking. The book leads you to easier closes on the training. And the book leads you to higher fees. When you are doing something conference-based and stage-based and short talks, or I should say and “interactive experience” to create a mood in a room, that’s what I like to do. I’m really good at the beginning of a conference, the opening keynote, because they’re going to apply what I teach them to the rest of the conference. They’re going to have something to refer to. I’m going to make the rest of their conference experience better for being earlier. When they put me as a closer, I’m like, “Eh…”
Anne: Everyone will feel regret for all of their missed opportunities to make connections.
Michelle: I’ve done closers, and they said, “I wish you were earlier in the conference.”
I think that really is how to think of one of your pillars of platform building certainly is the credibility of a book.
Anne: It does build credibility, build visibility. Doesn’t always stand on its own, but it does help get your word out.
Michelle: It’s interesting. The first book is in 12 languages—it went international. That book still sells every week. I think there’s only one week in the last 9+ year that book didn’t sell, and that’s only in the U.S. It probably sold internationally.
Think about content that can be evergreen. What you write about is pretty evergreen. What I write about is pretty evergreen. My interview book? There’s some outdated data, because 2004 statistics are no longer relevant. I tried really hard not to do anything that would date me in this book because of the evergreen nature of books. It’s something to think about in platform building—not to write something that’s going to outdated in six months.
On finding her area of expertise
Anne: That’s a good point. So, you have a commitment to this message of relationship building. It is personal to you. That, I’m sure, fuels you through all of this work. How did you find this area as your area of expertise. How did you choose it? Did it choose you, or was it a combination.
Michelle: I think it was a bit of a combination. I always thought of myself as a communications expert. I was a communications professor. I taught organizational communications, business communications, and management communications at NYU’s business school.
My first book I thought would be the 5 C’s of communication: Confidence, Clarity, Connection, Concise, Clear. I had the C’s of communication. I never wrote that book. I always thought that was my expertise, that was my special gift of knowing how to frame something, to phrase something in a way that somebody could understand it and receive it and be open to it. Other people can see other things. I can hear it and I can rephrase it.
One thing is understanding your natural gifts and inclinations. I do like people. I think I have a lot of the mindsets that I try to teach naturally, but not all of them. For sure, not all of them. Part of the evolution of the platform was understanding what I come to naturally and what I need to learn, and what are those aspects that I can help others recognize in themselves and build as well.
This really was me thinking about it. It wasn’t all there at the beginning. It was, let me really think about those aspects of connections, and how those things work and happen. I actually did a survey. This is an interesting task that… and I give some credit to Maria Ross for this, because I feel like she had something to do with my thinking on this. I asked people five questions. One of the questions was, what do you think I’m know for? What do you think my best skill is?
Michelle: I thought it was communications. Everyone else thought it was relationships. Then they said, “I got a little confused when you wrote the interview book.”
Sometimes it’s understanding what people think of you for?. Why are they calling you? I do think that my heart and soul is in relationship-based business building. But the other part of that is the business building or managing others. When I say relationship-based business building, it could be the business of your internal job and building your team. I’m not talking about necessarily entrepreneurship. I’m talking about the business of your personal career.
Anne: You looked to what the world was telling you about your skills instead of what you thought. Which was wise. The interesting thing, I’ve been finding that’s a common theme. People start out and they’re here, but people keep calling them for this thing, so they realize that’s what’s needed. As long as it still fits that core passion of yours, which is communications and relationships. It’s not that you’re getting distracted by something that doesn’t fit your purpose. There’s a balance there.
On finding her niche (and her umbrella)
Michelle: It is interesting. When I started out, an entrepreneur I was working for in finance said, sometimes you have to follow the revenue. And yeah, you do. They always say there’s riches in the niches, but I’m someone who gets bored very easily. If you’ve read my book, one of the personality styles is called a zig zag. That’s very much who I am. I don’t like to go in a straight line. I like to be in this conversation, I bounce, But I always bring it back to a point. I land somewhere, but I don’t get there…
Anne: …in a linear path…
Michelle: In a linear path, right. But I can still be clear, non-linearly, which is very challenging for people who think like I do. So when we think about being a jack of all trades, which is what I’ve always been, and a master of none, that can be challenging when you want to be a thought leader. When you’re trying to build a platform. I’ve had to force myself to umbrella a bit more and niche more. I have six talks I do, and there are spin-offs from those talks, so it’s like there’s lots of stuff I can do. I can teach conflict—they’re all communication—I can teach performance feedback, and I can teach communication styles and public speaking. I have this umbrella. But the thread is going to be connection: How to connect to your network. How to connect to your message. How to connect to your personal brand. How to connect to your team.
Anne: That’s such an interesting point for people who are afraid of niching down, because they’re afraid they’ll get bored, their interests are more diverse, you find an overarching thread, you find an overarching theme and play with that.
You have the Executive Essentials business where you do training. Now you can offer these different things. It’s legitimate to have some variety in your offerings there, so you get to express and work with these different areas of interest. You’ve built yourself a way to go a little bit wider while keeping your theme.
Michelle: What I can do there is bring a team on. I say that I am the yenta—that may not translate to everybody, but clearly you get it—because I’m the relationship person with my clients, and I can understand what they need. I can help them with a needs assessment and understand what personality style they might like and match them with the right trainer from my team. I have been able to pull back from me being the person who trains all of these topics. I’ve trained time management and project management, but those aren’t my speciality. I don’t necessarily believe in the joy of teaching those things, I just know them. I now get to focus on the things I love. I still love teaching public speaking. I still love teaching communication styles. But business writing? I’m going to leave that to you.
Anne: Fair enough.
Michelle: I’ve taught it. Once you get to a certain place, you get to cherry-pick, and say I want to focus on doing the things that are my favorites, but for you, I’ll add a little piece on time management. I’ve been asked to do change management—not my expertise at all. I said, “You know, that’s not my speciality.” She’s hired me before, and she said, “But people aren’t playing nice in the sandbox, and that is your specialty. Maybe you can talk about likability within the framework of how people are acting through change.” So I did, and it was very well received. We did change and likability and it was fun.
It’s understanding how to take your thread through the requests, because you don’t want to say no to your clients. Find where it can become a yes or redirect it to become someone else’s yes. I never say no.
Anne: It’s a hard thing to do, to say no, but you also have to learn not to say yes to the wrong thing. That’s a wise practice.
Advice for prospective authors
Anne: What advice would you give to someone? That’s a silly question, because you’ve got books of advice, I have to be more targeted. What advice would you give to someone who has something that really interests them and is looking to develop a thought leadership platform, to make an impact with their ideas in a field?
Michelle: I’m thinking about what I would even advise myself right now. Everyone talks about, these are the things I hear: Your unique selling proposition, your USP or whatever. I hate that. I don’t know. It’s me. It’s my personality.
Anne: I’m not a piece of software
Michelle: I think that if somebody has their passion, they need to match that passion with some expertise. If you don’t have all the expertise, what angle can you bring to the expertise that does exist?
My concepts aren’t necessarily recreating the wheel. But I’m packaging it in a way that’s more sticky, more memorable. 11 Laws of Likability is something that can stay in my head. Getting these seven mindsets—that’s a number I can remember. What can you bring to it that advances that area. There’s very little original thought any more. I’m not saying there’s none, but there’s not much. I don’t think I have much. I have a way of presenting it in a way that people can access it. That’s my sweet sauce.
If you have knowledge in some area that’s already out there, what is the thing you bring to it? Is it You make it fun, funny, implementable with action steps. What do you bring to it that it can be your way?
The 11 Laws of Likability, the concepts within it—that people like others who are like them—it’s not news. You need to listen to understand? Not news. Putting it in the framework of what to do before, during, and after a conversation, or how to enable people to see what’s likable about you, because you can’t make everybody like you. I can take these little things and I can implement them.
Anne: Yeah. You add your frameworks, you add your perspective, you add your applications.
Michelle: You trademark some systems, some exercises, something. Here’s my special sauce.
Anne: Here’s my special sauce. But sometimes things don’t land with people. The 11 Laws of Likability has a lot of ideas that people, if they’re looking at it, they make sense. But you have packaged it in a way that it’s going to land differently with people, and they can do it. There’s huge value in that. There’s an infinity of stuff out there, and we can’t package and process and understand it. You make someone look at it through your lens a little differently, and you offer guidance. There’s huge value in that.
Michelle; There you go. Thank you, because I don’t know if I even realized I looked at it that way until you asked me a very good question. So you should be a podcaster, because you have a skill with that.
There’s not a week that goes by—I won’t say it happens on a daily basis—but there’s a frequency with all of thought leaders out there of, am I really bringing anything new to the table.
I’m on a group of global coaches, there’s 250 of us called the MG 100. I know, there’s 250 of us in a group called the 100, because the community grew. It’s Marshall Goldsmith’s hand-selected coaches. Especially during this time we’ve been on the phone every morning, people around the world reporting in. They’re saying, “We want to write a quick book? Can you write something?” I’m thinking, I don’t compare to all of these other people. We have those moments. What I just said was, I might not have that, but here’s what I do have.
I would advise people to not focus on what other people have, and don’t compare yourself to other people. That’s actually one of the mindsets of a connector: can they come from a place of abundance? Let me think about what I do have and what I can bring rather than comparing myself to what everyone else has.
Anne: That is golden advice. There’s always someone we compare ourselves to that is—phht—why bother? They’ve already said it all, they’ve done it all. That’s not an abundant way to join the world. And it shuts a lot of doors when you do that.
Michelle: And not everybody’s heard it.
Anne: Yes, not everybody’s heard it. Seth Godin has that saying: Yes, it’s been said before, of course, but not by you and not to me. I love that. That one just stuck with me. It’s permission to go ahead and put your spin out in the world.