How to become better as a speaker

Doha, Qatar.

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I am writing this from the airport in Doha, one of the most global airports in the world.

When I say “global”, I mean one of the airports where you will find some of the most diverse group of people from different cultures, countries and backgrounds.  (New York, Singapore, Istanbul, London and Dubai airports are other similar places.)

When I look up from my computer, I see:

– a group of drunk Swedish teenagers
– a lonely African man
– an Indian woman in a gorgeous Sari
– a group of Bangladeshi men
– a Chinese couple checking out the designer bag the woman apparently just bought.

I also hear two women speaking Russian, a Filipino flight attendant for Qatar Airways speaking Tagalog to a passenger and, of course, a lot of people speaking Arabic.

And so on, and so on.

Airports like the one in Doha are like “banzai trees of the world”. A miniature earth.

Some people get stressed in an environment like this.

I LOVE it.

Seeing, so close, the diversity of mankind gives me energy and joy.

Sitting here reminds me of the importance for a global speaker to craft a speech that is “universal”.

Many times, I get asked: “You who are such an international speaker — do you change your speech a lot when you travel to different parts of the world?”

The truth is that I do not.

And the reason I don’t is that many of my audiences are global since I often speak at global conferences.

If a global conference is happening in, say, Bangkok, I should not do a speech for “Thai people” since the audience at a global conference will have flown in from all over the world. And my speech should therefore work equally well for the American, the Chinese, the German – and yes, the Thai person – in the room.

So what does that mean??

It means that your standard speech should work “at home” and “abroad”. Of course, I am of the opinion that as a speaker, you should not even think in terms of “at home” and “abroad”. But that is a theme for a different post.

You should not have one “standard speech”, and then another speech where you change things according to where in the world you are speaking. Your standard speech should already be constructed so that it works for people regardless which country or culture they come from.

But that is impossible, you say.

No it is not, I say.

Yes, the people here in Doha airport are very, very different. But at the same time, they are very, very similar. As anyone who travels a lot knows, as different as we humans might seem, we actually have much more in common with each other than we have differences.

Use the insight that everyone in the audience is a human being – and craft your speech not for Germans, Americans, or Chinese – but for humans.

That will give you a speech that is not only universally accepted, it will also make your speech connect better with your audience since you are now connecting with them on a deeper, human level.

Just like the color of our skin is only, well, skin deep, so is our cultural connections and cultural differences just a thin layer compared to the deep, fundamental fabric that makes us humans.

Play on those deeper, human strings.

Use the universal themes of happiness, sadness, hope and fear, etc. It will make you a better speaker, a better story teller – and (I know this sounds  grand, but I mean it) – a better person.

Remember: People are more similar than they seem.

When I went to North Korea, I asked the western guide who was with us (and who had been going to North Korea for many years), “What is the biggest insight you have gained from going here?”

He said: “That they (the North Koreans) are just like us. 20% are assholes, but the vast majority of around 80% are nice, decent people who want the best for themselves, their families, their community, and the world.”

The problem with North Korea of course is that the 20% is in charge. I totally understood what the guide was trying to tell me, and I agree with him.

Again: we might be different, but we are much more similar than we think.

Lesson: When writing a keynote speech that you plan to give multiple times, ask yourself this question — “Would this speech work if I gave it to an audience consisting of the people at the airport in Doha?” 🙂

P.S.

The funny thing is, writing a “human speech” will make it better even if the audience consists of, say 90% Germans (or Americans or Chinese, etc.) and 10% “foreigners”. Great speeches, like great literature, music or art, connect with us regardless of  what background we have.

 

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Svanholmen Island, Sweden.

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Why do people with “normal jobs” read books when they are on vacation?

Because they want to get a break! Because they want to clear their minds and get away from the day-to-day grind of work.

So what should an author do on his vacation?

Answer: Work.

At least that is what I will argue in this post.

I have spent the last few weeks doing a lot of manual labour: planting, gardening, rowing, etc.

I do not have to do these things.

Some people have a hard time understanding (the very Swedish) hobby of spending your vacation time working on your vacation house. But for me, it’s a no-brainer: I will have no brain left if I didn’t do this.  🙂

Doing manual labour works totally different parts of my brain than those I am normally using.

There are some who think that the only way to become an expert at something is to do it day-and-night. To eat it, sleep it, and never take a break from it.

I belong to another school of thought.

I look at my working-year more like teachers do: two intense periods (semesters) of work, and then longer periods of breaks.

Both my parents were teachers and I grew up seeing the dedication they put into their “teaching semesters”, and the need they had for those long summer vacations. Funny enough, the Swedish word for “vacation” is “semester”.

So from September to November, and February to June, I have my “speaking months” where I travel, speak, do interviews, read, learn and get inspired. But in the summers, I try to get away from all of that for weeks and weeks.

True, having long stints of “off-time” makes me less productive than if I would be working all the time. In my 20 years as an author  I have published just 9 books. But it gives me sanity.

Being an author and a speaker is perhaps the best job in the world if you want to keep an active brain – you are basically paid to think about things that interest you!

But it can easily become addictive: you want to keep thinking of things to write or speak about all the time.

Just like you need to train different muscle groups to get a healthy, all-around, fit body, you also need to “exercise” different parts of your brain, and that includes those parts of your brain which have nothing to do with what you speak about.

In my case, that would be gardening. I normally talk about having a global mindset, about innovation and creativity and things like that. Gardening keeps me grounded, focused on the very local and on just doing what needs to be done.

Lesson: Do your brain a favour and give it something to think about that has nothing to do with what it normally thinks about. It will thank you by making you feel much happier and fulfilled. And you will actually come up with better ideas when you go back into “work mode”.

Almost anyone who has had a proper vacation knows that this is true – but an alarming number of professionals that I work with seem to have forgotten this truth and instead, spend way too much time working.

 

Svanholmen Island, Sweden.

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As you might have noticed, it has been almost a full month since my last post.

The reason for my silence is that I have been very busy doing nothing.

Doing nothing work-related that is.

I have been very busy playing and enjoying life with my family on our island.

As a global speaker, I try to travel a lot around the world. Just last month before my 6+ weeks summer vacation, I was in Singapore, Norway, Brazil, Mexico, USA (twice), Canada, China and Germany.

But a lot of people get the impression that I work all the time. That is not true. Not at all.

I actually do less than half the number of speeches I used to do when I was a “local” speaker in Sweden.

My “record” was 199 speeches in one year, including one day when I did 4 speeches for 4 different clients in one day: 1 breakfast speech, one lunch speech, one afternoon speech and one evening speech.

Nowadays I will do between 60-80 keynote speeches per year.

Do not get me wrong. Going through that phase of delivering hundreds of speeches per year was great. I got those hundreds of speeches under my belt and got to learn how to deal with different audiences, different situations and different kinds of events.

But I am very happy I stopped speaking so much.

Not only is my private life 100 times more harmonious and relaxed, I also think that the quality of my speeches improved.

I became a better speaker because I wasn’t constantly speaking.

A good sign that you are doing too many speeches is that you are getting tired of hearing your own voice when you speak.

That is a sign that you are just doing the speech because someone booked you – not because you have a message that you want to get out.

If that happens to you: STOP! Take a break. Go on a vacation. Clear your calendar.

By making fewer speeches, I look forward to everyone of them. I feel grateful for the privilege to be paid to spread a message you believe in.

And a funny side effect is that I make more money now than when I did 199 speeches in one year.

Lesson: Getting your speaking career off the ground is very much like getting a plane to take off.

In the beginning, you have to increase the thrust but once you reach cruising altitude, it helps to pull back a little.

In other words, it helps to do as many speeches as possible for a few years to work yourself up to become a global speaker, but once you are there, it helps to reduce the number of speeches so that you can focus on getting the speeches that you really want to have. That will give you many years of high quality speeches to come.

I guess it is but fitting to describe the journey of a global speaker using the metaphor of a plane.