We take the value of ‘passion’ for granted. You have a business? You have an idea? Well, then you need passion when you talk about it. You talk about it with passion, you get ‘converts’. You get converts, and those converts ‘evangelise’ for you. Passion begets passion begets passion. And let the people say: Hallelujah!
Ugh. There are those of us who don’t respond well to extreme passion.
We’re the sceptics. And we’ve always annoyed the zealots: Why won’t they just listen?! Well, the passion is making it hard to listen.
The problem with passion is that it can cloud your message and overshadow your mission enough that it’s no longer clear what you’re talking about, or even what your business is. The more passionate you are, the less professional you seem – the less human you seem. At some point, passion begins to mask the humanity it seeks to express. Passion has diminishing returns.
The advantage, of course, is that passion costs nothing to implement. It’s not a budget item. You just have to muster it. And this is why it’s overused. Says Mike Manning, co-founder and CEO of DealVector, an online network for fixed-income investors:
“When you’re creating something out of nothing, you’re often selling a vision, because you don’t have the metrics. So I think an awful lot of being an entrepreneur speaking to employees, funders [and] customers is allowing that passion to substitute for metrics.”
But there’s a way to be passionate. A method, even. It involves what absolutely no expert refers to as the ‘enthuse, temper, enthuse’ approach. The idea is to occasionally, and quite explicitly, undercut your passion with self-deprecation or, even, hedging.
The idea is
When you’re talking passionately about your product, idea or business, you need to tone down the enthusiasm, so that it’s obvious to your audience that you aren’t on some one-track mission to convince everyone of your brilliance.
On the highway of enthusiasm, you need to stop and stretch your legs every now and then, take a restroom break, buy some beef jerky. You need to relax and look around. By acknowledging – even vaguely – that your idea is not The Great Idea but one in a cosmos of good ideas, you’re making your notion even more appealing. You’re placing it in a sane context – the context of the rigour that it will take to get the idea off the ground.
“I think you can own the part of the wild-eyed entrepreneur to some degree, as long as you can do it with humour and levity and be clear you’re not taking yourself so seriously,” Manning says. “You need to do it with enough humour so that people understand you’re both in the part and playing the part.”
Wild-eyed is not a virtue. Unmitigated passion is a marker associated with various psychological disorders. You need to seem sane. The best way to do this is to look at your pitch or speech as a conversation. Your passion must be inclusive. Otherwise you’re imposing your idea on people, instead of helping them understand why it’s so good – for them.
In a conversation, you need to pick up on cues. This is not a new idea; in sales you’re taught to ask a lot of questions to home in on your audience’s needs. “If you just start talking without truly understanding your audience, you run the risk of making incorrect assumptions,” says Lee Zane of the Department of Management at Rider University.
“When I used to do sales work when I had my software business, we would do conference presentations where we’d invite 20 firms in and present our software, and I wouldn’t start until I’d asked a bunch of questions. Why are they doing this now? What problems do they have? Then I could go in and be reasonably enthusiastic in a presentation, because I knew what they were looking for.”
You can’t know what people are looking for when you’re too busy telling them what to look for. Passion is important, but it has to be tempered. It has to seem connected to reality and to your mission that was (presumably) thoughtfully considered and rigorously executed. It’s good to seem passionate. It’s better to seem driven.
Key Technical Matters
- Use body language to express passion.
- As long as it’s body language that doesn’t involve raising the roof. Or pelvic thrusting. Or indiscriminate fist bumping. Or shielding your eyes from the wattage of your own brilliant idea. Or chest beating, which has worked for exactly two people: King Kong and Celine Dion.
- Closing your eyes and reciting a quote you found by Googling ‘passion quote’ will not make you seem authentically passionate.
- Passion butts right up against a lot of other, less positive qualities, such as: mania, scumbaggery and an eagerness possibly fueled by cocaine. Fine lines there.
- Words to use instead of passion (which is an overused word): hunger, enthusiasm, drive, excitement, zeal.
- Not-so-good words to use instead of passion: obsession, infatuation, paroxysm, strong urge, zealotry.
- Your general demeanour should be somewhere between ardent and fervent.
- If you find yourself being merely keen, you are not passionate enough.
- If you are vehement, you are too passionate.
- If you are taken away by the police, you are way, way too passionate.
Want fervour with that?
We asked Loren Bouchard, writer and creator of the Fox animated sitcom Bob’s Burgers, to tell us what makes Bob, passionate owner of a hamburger joint, a well-rounded character.
“The key to balancing passion is humility. When we write a character who’s super-passionate, but we want them to be likeable and relatable, too, we use doubt and humility as our secret ingredients.
“Bob knows he makes a great burger – a truly original and creative burger. We’ve layered Bob’s character with all the attributes of a real artist – a beef artist, let’s call him. And Bob, like many real artists, has pursued his passion to the point that he is actually trying to make a living at it. And that’s when things get tricky. When the artist doesn’t immediately succeed in his chosen field, doubt comes – he sees himself struggling, sees his family having to sacrifice, to do without, all so that he might practice his art.”
Now you have a relatable character. That guy is the guy you want to meet. He’s humbled by circumstance, but does he still make a great burger? Of course he does. He makes the best burger around. He’s confident and resilient, and he’s making burgers at the peak of his burger-making powers. You love his burgers!
He just can’t pay his bills. He can’t afford that nice thing he wants: The condo with the yard, maybe. Is he bitter? Well, define bitter. He’s exactly the amount of bitter that many great flavours are: Coffee, Scotch. (Those are bad examples. You get the idea.)
Passion and confidence are great, but without humility they seem naive, unrealistic, teetering toward narcissistic. Add a healthy dose of humility, though, and you’ve got the makings of what we might call Character with a capital C. Real character is a good ingredient for storytelling and for humans, too.