Shanghai, China.

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In my 15 years as a professional speaker, I met some amazing HR managers, but I have to say that none have impressed me as much as Gina Qiao did today.

Gina is Senior Vice President of Global HR at Lenovo.

Now, Lenovo is an impressive company that has gone from nothing to the world’s largest PC company in 31 years.

But as impressive as the Lenovo story is Gina’s story. In fact, it is even more impressive.

I met Gina today when I was invited to give a speech for a small number of global HR managers for companies with Asian headquarters. It was organised by EY and I was the only speaker. In the audience were Chief HR Officers of companies like Alibaba, Petronas, Geely (owners of Volvo), and many more.

I was invited to inspire them through my talk on having a global mindset, and I think it worked because they asked me to speak longer than my allotted time slot. After the speech, I got feedback like “I think this was amazing”, “I wish I met him 10 years ago. I love everything he said”, and so on.

But as inspired as they might have been by me, I was more inspired by them – and especially by the story of Gina Qiao.

Gina started in a junior position at Lenovo in China and slowly moved up to Head of Marketing in China.

After that, she was transferred to the HR department without having any experience of HR and without wanting the job.

Later, she was moved to Head of Strategy – again without having any experience in that area.

When Lenovo bought the PC division of IBM (at that time 3 times the size of Lenovo), it was decided that English would be the new corporate language. Gina, who had lived her whole life in China and studied Japanese as a second language in school, knew only a few words in English.

She almost quit.

But instead, she got a teacher and after a while moved to the USA to force herself to master English.

Today, ten years after the merger, she is not only fluent in English, but she is the Senior Vice President of Global HR at Lenovo, perhaps the most globally diverse company in the IT sector.

She told me that leaving China and the knowledge of “Chinese companies” to embark on learning about the world and running a global company had made her humble.

As she said: “You have to appreciate diversification. If you see something different, ask WHY. You can learn more than you can expect. Before, I was so arrogant thinking I knew it all because we were so successful in China. We were a USD 3 billion company then. Now, we are a 47 billion dollar company. I am so small, (there are) so many things I do not know.”

Gina’s story of her rise from being a Junior Chinese worker to Senior Vice President of Global HR at Lenovo, one of the largest PC companies in the world, inspired me so much — how she constantly challenged herself to take on jobs in areas she knew nothing about and growing in the process by continuously learning.

Lesson: Remember what mothers are known for saying, “To be interesting, you have to be interested.

It is true for inspiration too. To inspire, you need to be inspired.

As a speaker, your job is often to inspire the audience. But the nature of this job also means that you will get a chance to get up close with some of the most inspiring people in business. Use that opportunity to get some healthy doses of inspiration from them yourself.

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(On a Singapore Airline flight between Shanghai and Singapore)

 

I am writing this on the last leg of yet another “around the world trip” that has taken me from:

Singapore via
Oslo, Norway
Sao Paulo, Brazil
Mexico City, Mexico
New York, USA
Toronto, Canada
Shanghai, China
and now back to Singapore.

All in 18 days. And all on one Star Alliance “around-the-world-ticket” that cost me 12 000 USD and included 10 flights, to 10 different airports, in 9 countries on 4 continents.

Now, that might sound like a lot of travel, but it’s actually a way to reduce my travel.

If I would have flown to each of those 6 speeches on a return flight from Singapore, it would have been more flights and much more hours in the air.

During “speaking season”, it often makes a lot of sense to just fly straight to the next speech instead of going home between speeches.

By saving on “return flights”, I instead got plenty of “free time” in the cities I was speaking at where I could relax, meet interesting people, and experience the different vibes of these amazing world cities.

On this trip, the “extra free time” that I saved by cutting down my traveling time was used to experience one of the ten best restaurants in Canada, as well as one of the best restaurants in Sao Paulo, and I also got some days by the pool in Brazil, and got to do some shopping and eating on the Bund in Shanghai.

Traveling from speech to speech has made me realise why rock bands go “on tour”. By blocking off a period for intense travel, you actually free up more time to be with your family – while getting to many different cities without extensive travel.

Being “on tour” is simply a very efficient and comfortable way to travel.

Lesson: Be flexible in the way you think about travel during “speaking season”. Return flights might be a detour.

Toronto, Canada.

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Can you learn a lot about how to become a great speaker from watching other speakers? Absolutely.

But personally, I learn more from a slightly different profession: Stand-up comics.

After giving a speech in New Jersey yesterday morning, I then flew to Toronto, Canada where I am scheduled to give a speech on Monday morning. So I found myself with some free-time over the weekend in this amazing city.

I decided to do some professional development and headed for the comedy club “Yuk Yuk’s” in downtown Toronto.

Watching comics perform the extremely difficult art of being funny is, for me, the best way to learn how to be a speaker.

You get to study how they build up their stories for the punch-line, how they use their bodies to enhance the message – and perhaps most importantly, how they deal with the audience, and in particular, the hecklers.

One of the comics last night described the job of being a comedian as: “Building up tension and releasing it.”

I think that is a great way of putting it.

But today, I am not going to write about how to structure a joke. Instead, I will talk about interactions with the audience.

A few weeks back, I had the privilege to see Russell Peters live in Singapore. Yes, going to a lot of stand-up comedy is a great perk of being a speaker.

Russell is one of the masters of “working the crowd”. A big part of his show is just him talking to the audience.

Watching him “pick” on different members of the audience reminded me about the power of transforming a speech from a one-way-communication to a two-way-conversation.

The funny thing is that you can get this “conversation feeling” even in a huge group. In the case of Russell Peters, there were more than 2000 people in the crowd.

Now, interacting with the audience means, per definition, that you loose a bit of the control that you have if you “only” stand on the stage and speak your message.

But the advantage is that you get a MUCH closer connection with the crowd.

And done right, that part of the speech where you interact with the audience is going to be the best section of your speech, and the part that the audience brings up when they come up and thank you for your “amazing speech”.

If someone in the audience says something during your speech, do not just ignore it – invite the person into the speech by asking “Excuse me, what did you say?”

If a person answers a question you ask the audience, take this opportunity to turn it into a “micro conversation” by asking a follow up question.

But remember, you are the “guy with the mike” (or “gal with the mike”) and that means two things:

1) The power of your words are multiplied, which means that anything negative you say will hurt more, so be careful of what you say.

The same words in a normal conversation might not be hurtful to a person in the audience when spoken in a one-on-one conversation, but if magnified from the stage, they might.

2) As the person on the stage, you can easily decide when the conversation is over by just moving on. Some members of the audience might get a bit too excited when being invited to be part of a speech, but if that happens, simply cut them off in a nice way by saying “thanks for your comments, now let’s move on.” Or something to that effect.

Audience interaction is like saffron in a soup – it can make the dish stand out – but be careful of using too much or it might ruin the overall experience.

Unless you are a master of audience interaction like Russell Peters, limit the amount of it that you use. But do not be afraid to “spice up” your speech with a short and sweet infusion of audience participation.

Great speakers know that those magical seconds when the speaker “leaves the safety of the prepared speech from the stage” is where the magic happens.

Think about how music stars leave the stage to go into the audience, or lets the audience sing part of the song while the singer is silent – they normally do not do it a lot, but the fact that they do it a little bit makes the crowd go wild.

Lesson: Use your audience – they are the best “prop” you will ever find.

The word “audience” comes from the Latin word “audire” which means “hear”. Turn that meaning on its head and ask yourself: When you speak, are you “hearing” the audience?

Make your speeches better by thinking of the audience as someone that you not only speak TO but whom you invite to speak TOO.

P.S. Russell Peters actually started his career at the amateur night at Yuk Yuk’s in Toronto. Now, he travels the world with his “Almost Famous” tour. Check out this video for some examples of his comedy routine full of audience interaction: