Month: August 2016

The job of a keynote speaker is, more than anything, to inspire the audience.

The definition of “inspire” is to “fill someone with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative”.

The thing with inspiration is that it is contagious.

The more inspired we are as speakers (ie, the more we are filled sig the urge or ability to do or feel something) the easier it is for us to inspire others.

That is why I, as a speaker, travel so much.
By traveling around the world I get to learn about different cultures, countries and people. I get to meet different industries, professions and experts. I get to see different places, different ideas, different ways of doing things.

Last year I worked in 22 different countries. This year I have, so far, worked in 15 – on 4 continents.

To be in Shanghai, Luxembourg, Cambridge, Madrid, Hong Kong, Singapore and Sweden in one months to speak to (amongst others) young leaders from developing countries, lawyers and insurance experts in one month (as I did in June) fills me with so many different insights and ideas that I can then transform to inspiring messages in my speeches.

But you can not always be inspired.

There is such a thing as too much inspiration.

Sometimes you need to do the opposite of being inspired.

It might sound weird but the best way to explain it is to look at the actual meaning of the word “inspire”.

To “inspire” literally means “to breathe in”. (From the dictionary: “the drawing in of breath; inhalation. crackling sounds are heard in the stethoscope on inspiration.”

And if we constantly breathe in we will die.
We also need to breathe out.

Or as the dictionary calls it: “to expire” – as in: “exhale (air) from the lungs. (as adj. expired) : the volume of expired air.”

Inspiration is “input”, but creativity is “output”

So to be creative we need to take time off from being inspired and instead focus on getting something out.

And to get something out we need time to do nothing.

The word “expire” actually also means “• (of a period of time) come to an end: the three-year period has expired.”

As a speaker my financial year ends on August 31st, and I make sure that I have had enough work to take me around the world in the first 10 month of the year.
The last two months (July and August) is my time relax, think and learn.

I guess you can say that: “My time of inspiration expires in June.”

So in July I did nothing, as in no work at all.

Zero dollar in revenue. Zero miles on a plane for going to clients (Well, technically that is not true, I did fly to do one (1) speech at a conference for speakers in Phoenix, Arizona… But you get my point.)

I spent 6 weeks on my island in Sweden doing nothing but playing with my kids, relaxing with my wife and fooling around with some simple gardening. I hardly opened my computer, and if I did it was to load Game of Thrones, not to check emails, write blog posts or research a new book.

I emptied my brain. Stopped thinking about speaking or work,

Yes, I did not work. For 1,5 months.

Above is a picture of the island paradise that I have built for our family to get away from the rest of the world to just chill and relax.

Now, after 45 days or so of doing nothing – of exhaling – my mind is as empty as my energy level is re-charged.

My subconscious have gotten the quite time that it needs to combine all the inspiration and inputs that I got from travelling the world for 10 months earlier in the year.

These weeks of non-work, of “anti-revenue”, of down time are what makes it possible for me to be a global keynote speaker for the rest of the year.

But now it is time to start breathing in again. Time to begin filling up those “imaginary lungs of creativity” with new energy in the form of inspiration.

So my advice to you as a speaker is: Get out there and be inspired – but do not be an inspiration junkie.
Do not constantly breathe in. Create the time and space to let yourself breath out.

In the long run I can promise you that it will make you feel more alive, make your more creative, give you a more fulfilling life (and – for the ones of you who question the sanity of having weeks and weeks of zero-revenue time – I will tell you that letting yourself breathe in AND out will also make you more money in the end.)

At least that is how it works for me.


Steve Donahue is a storyteller.

He makes a living giving speeches about how to tell a story, and he does it by spending most of his time on stage telling a fascinating story about when he, many years ago, travelled across the sahara desert.
And he is very good at it.

Normally he stands on the big stages around the world,
but today he was sharing his insights in a small, intimate room full of members of APSS (Asia Professional Speakers, Singapore).

Below are my notes about some of the takeaways from the session. They will not do justice to the experience of hearing Steve talk about storytelling, but I hope it will inspire you to want to learn more about storytelling.

a) On how to use storytelling: Get the audience to talk about themselves

“When a person talks about themselves it triggers the area in the brain that is also triggered when we eat good food, when we do drugs, or when we have great sex.”

Talking about ourselves basically makes us feel good, (and it explains the addition to social media that many of us have, because even if we only realise that someone is going to read what we say/write at a later stage it stills fires up the same happy feeling in our brain.)

So Steve’s suggestion is to use a small part of your talk to have the audience members talk about themselves in regards to the topic that you are speaking on. Doing so will trigger that happiness feeling making them feel better, and that in turn will make them like your speech more.

b) About tension in storytelling

Instead of just telling your story TO the audience, invite the audience to be part of the storytelling. Doing so creates tension, and tension is good. Or as Steve said: “I am grateful for the tension.”

At the APSS event Steve and one member of the audience (Phil Merry) got into a very funny “back and forth banter” with the audience member disagreeing with the speaker in a light hearted way. A less experience speaker might have been pulled off the track by such an exchange but Steve was able to use the tension that (naturally) comes from a speaker being challenged by someone in the audience into a “spice” that made the story he was telling less predictable.

He later told us that he loved the “unpredictability of tension” so much that he has, on occasion, given the clicker for the slides to a member of the audience and instructed them to “click when you think it’s time for the next slide”! He explained that it sometimes meant he had to rush the slides like crazy and sometimes the slides would never be clicked, but he also revealed that the audience loves the unpredictability that the handing over of the “power of the clicker” creates.

I guess you could say that “tension creates attention”.

By involving the audience he also gets “stories about the story”, ie side stories that he can now tell about when something happened when he told his story at some earlier event.

(One of these stories includes how he tells this story about walking through the Sahara and how he at one point thinks that he is going to die. He then tells the story about how one audience member came up to him after the speech and with fear in his eyes asked him: “So did you survive?” …)

c) About the rhythm of storytelling.

A core piece of Steve Donahue’s speech is when he straps on an African drum and continues to drum on the drum as he tells the story of crossing the Sahara. By changing the rhythm of his drumming he changes the intensity of his storytelling. If the story is just tagging along then the drumming is slow and subtle. When he comes to the more dramatic sections of the story the intensity of the drumming is increased – and when he comes to a particularly dramatic part where he thinks that he is going to die the drumming suddenly ………… STOPS ……..

He doesn’t mention it in his speech, but the drumming is a great way to get people to think about how to use speed, pauses and volume to create variations when telling a story (something that many speakers are not very good at doing.)
d) Narrative Function

Steve also talked about “narrative function” the ability that our brain has to turn events in our lives into stories that we can tell ourselves and others about what we have been though. Steve encouraged us as speakers to look through our speeches to see if we in them have stories that will help our audiences to create their own stories about what has been important in their lives.

Basically telling us that: Our job as speakers is to tell stories that inspire our audiences to create their own stories about their own life.

When you look at it that way you realise that the profession of speaking is not about the stories that we tell, But the stories that we help to create.

e) Thoughts on storytelling.

Steve also took the time to point out that storytelling should not be about giving people answers. The best stories are the stories that instead helps to create questions. Question that will then push the audience to go and find their own answers.

But perhaps the most interesting part of his speech was when he explained that he used to tell this long story about traveling though Sahara as a story about change. But after years of telling it he got sick of standing on stage telling it over and over again. He contemplated not using the story anymore – that story that had been his “signature story” for years and years.

Instead he did something very unusual and – from a storytelling perspective – very brave: he then started mentioning from the stage that he had become sick of telling the same story over and over again.

And then, to re-energize not only the story, but himself as a person, he went back to Sahara to do the trip one more time. But this time with a young korean man as the “main character”, because it turned out that the book that Steve had written about his first original journey as a young man had become a huge hit in South Korea selling 100 000+ copies in Korea alone.

By “redoing” the journey with a young korean man as “him”, Steve not only got new material for his speech but he also re-connected to his original story. Something that made him stop using it as a story about “change” and instead as a story about storytelling.

And now the story – and the speech! – is better than ever.

As speakers we all have our “signature stories” (the equivalent of a rock band’s hit songs) but telling them over and over again risk making us grow tired of these stories. Hearing Steve talk about how he was able to revisit his old story to find new meanings in it was very powerful and inspiring to me.

If you are a speaker, see if you can re-visit your “signature story” to find new meaning or symbolism in it that can re-erengise you to tell that story in en even more meaningful way.

Summary: Storytelling is one of the most powerful tool that we speakers have in our toolbox, and yet I am often negatively surprised by how many speakers seem to forget to include great storytelling into their presentation. Therefore it was such a joy to, for once, get to listen to a two hour presentation where storytelling was front, back and centre.

Thank you Steve.

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Picture from when I was fortunate to get a little extra time with Steve over a beer before he flew back to Canada.


Today I meet with Bob Mittelsdorf, an experienced trainer on Project Management for 20+ years who was interested to learn from me how he could transition to a keynote speaker. (I more or less only do keynote speeches, and mostly at global or international conferences for global audiences.)

Now let’s start by making one thing clear: Being a trainer is not, in any way, easier, simpler or less “professional” than being a keynote speaker.
If anything it is harder to be a great trainer than a great keynote speaker.

But for some reason “keynote speaking” as a nicer ring than “trainer” for many and many trainers want to transition to becoming keynote speakers.

In these times of Summer Olympics let me make a comparison.

Being a keynote speaker is like being a “100 meter runner”: It is a “main event”, full of energy and focus . It’s over in a flash – and the performers (let’s call them that) are some of the biggest stars of the event.

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Being a trainer is like being a “3000 metres steeplechase runner”: It’s hard, tedious work, it drains you of energy and goes on for a long time – and the practitioners are usually not stars at all, even though their achievement in many ways is bigger than their more famous colleagues who run for 100 meters.

I totally get why trainers want to become keynote speakers, and many trainers are very well suited to become keynote speakers (since they tend to have a very deep understanding of their subject) but at the same time we have to remember that being a trainer is not the same as being a keynote speaker. (Just like a 3000 meter runner can not just suddenly decide to compete in 100 meter sprints.)

Keynoting and training are different, which means that selling yourself as a Keynote speaking is different from selling yourself as a training.
But how?

That is the purpose of this post, and I will illustrate it with what I said to Bob.

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As an expert trainer on Project Management Bob knows exactly how to talk to Project Managers about Project Management.
The problem is that there is a very, very slim change that the organisers of a keynote speech at a big annual conference for a big company decides that “Project Management” should be the theme for their external keynote speaker.

Not because Project Management is not important – hell, if you ask me project management is what gets things done in a company, so of course it is a very important message.
But my point is that that is not the kind of theme that people who organises annual conferences think that the conference should focus its keynote speech on.

I said to Bob: “People outside project management do not care about project management, so you need to redefine what you talk on to make it a more universal subject.”

Bob said: “So I should call it “Project management for managers?” or “The business of project management?”

And I replied: “No. You are not allowed to use the words “project management”. Not in your title – not even in your speech.”

The reason is that a keynote speech (most of the time) benefits from leaving the “practical” and instead speaks to the audience from a more general and higher level.

If you are a trainer who train on “Presentation skills” then your keynote should be on “Making an impact” or “The Power of being Understood.”

If your theme as a trainer is “team building” then your keynote should be on “The Power of Together.”

If your theme as a trainer is “Diversity” – then your theme as a keynote should be “From Man to Human”.

And so on.

I challenged Bob to write a full 45 minute keynote speech on project management that did not mention the words “project” nor the word “management” a single time.

I suggested the title “How Business Gets Done” for his speech and that he then would use all the knowledge he has about project management to build a speech around examples of how successful things get done (from the chaos of creating 7-course dinners at 3-star kitchens to buildings of airports and the Great Wall of China (which all are examples of different types of project management, of course.)

I asked him how he would describe what project management is for someone who has never heard the phrase and Bob smiled and mentioned a quote he has in his office from Eeyore (from Winnie the Pooh). It says: “Brains first then hard work.”

That’s what project management is. (Eeyore says it during a story where Winnie and friends need to build something in one of the Winnie the Pooh stories.

I encouraged Bob to go out and find inspiring stories of successful companies, managers or other people who had succeeded by planning and then executing something and to then talk about these examples with his project management knowledge as support but in a style that inspires people to create great things, not to feel that they just listened to a training on project management.

In a simplified way you can say that “Trainers train” and “speakers inspire”. So in a way you could say that trainers get people to learn and speakers get people to want to learn.

And that’s why selling a keynote is different from selling a training course. You are not selling the training. You are selling inspiration.


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