The business of speaking

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9 May 2015 – Shanghai, China.

“You did more in one hour than what we have been able to do in years!”

These grateful words came to me today from the mouth of the global head of branding of one of the largest professional services firms in the world. I had just stepped off stage after delivering a one hour keynote speech at the company’s Asia Pacific Partner Conference.

I smiled and said, “Thank you”.

She added, “Your speech also changed the way I look at the world.”

People sometimes ask me why a company would fly in a professional speaker from a different country just to have him or her speak for one hour.

The answer is simple: Because they see results.

If you are a trainer, you can aim to teach a skill or to instill knowledge in your audience. But if you are a speaker, you should aim to rock their world. You should try to change their minds.

Now, not every keynote speech succeeds in altering the universe of the audience, but every keynote speaker should at least try. Because a great speech can change the world.

People have gone to war – and to the moon – because of great speeches.

Now, the stakes when giving a keynote speech at a corporate kick-off might not be as high as when Churchill was rallying his citizens against Hitler or when President Kennedy got the Americans to want to send astronauts to the moon.

But at a global or international conference for a global company, the stakes can still be high. A successful speech that changes the mindset of the top 150 global managers of a billion dollar company can mean millions in saved costs or increased revenue.

In the case of the conference today in Shanghai, my speech got the Asian leadership to understand why the company needed to become more global in the way it is run, something the global management unsuccessfully had tried to communicate for a few years. Now, after a one hour speech, the audience was on board.

If you look at a keynote speech as an event where, in this case, 150 top managers got a one-hour message that helps them get on-board the global strategy – then suddenly the idea of flying in a keynote speaker doesn’t seem so strange.

Perhaps that is how professional speakers like myself should sell ourselves: not as “giving a one-hour speech” but as “delivering 150 hours of top management transformation” 😉

Lesson: When planning a keynote speech, ask yourself, “How will this speech transform the minds of the audience?”.

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May 7, 2015 in Singapore.

This is an email I received in my inbox today, 7th of May 2015, asking me if I can deliver a speech in Europe for a regional conference on (wait for it…) May 19th!

“Let me shortly introduce myself. My name is (Name of Client) and I am working for (Name of Company).

We are a leading insurance broker and risk advisor being active in more than 100 countries.

Once a year we have a regional event for our European and Middle East/Africa managers – in total around 100 colleagues. For our joint dinner on May 19, we are looking for an innovating, motivating and inspiring speaker.

Kindly ask you to let us know if you would be available and interested to join our event as a speaker for dinner on May 19th.

Many thanks in advance and best regards from Vienna.”

Here is a company planning an international conference for hundreds of people and they are booking their speaker for this conference less than two weeks (!) before the event.

The interesting thing is that this is becoming more and more common. When I started as a professional speaker 20 years ago, companies would book speakers months in advance, and sure, some companies and event organisers still book way in advance. But overall, companies are now booking with much shorter time frame.

Not long ago, I was booked with a one week time frame where the CEO had decided 8 (!) days before the conference happened that he wanted to have an Asian Regional Conference.

On the first day of the conference, the CEO stood up and said: “We normally plan conferences months in advance, but I wanted to show you that we can do things much faster, and we HAVE to do things much faster in the future to be able to survive.”

So to prove that the company could move much faster than they thought it could, he had forced them to do a conference in a week.

Not all CEOs are that extreme, but planning of conferences has for sure become quicker.

What does this mean for a speaker?

It means that we have to understand that one of the reasons companies decide so late which speaker they should bring in is that the theme that they want to cover in their conference might have also recently changed. Be sure to have an extra briefing call (or meeting) the day before the speech to be up-to-date with the latest developments in the company so you know what the company is going through right now.

It also means that we have to be more flexible with our own planning, and that we should not stress out if our calendar has some empty slots in it a few months from now.

Lesson: The business of professional speaking has more and more become a “just-in-time-world” as the world of business is changing the way they plan their conferences. Clients want their conferences to be current and relevant – and in an ever faster changing business environment, that means they might wait to book a speaker until the very end to make sure the speaker fits with the theme of the conference. As speakers, we need to understand the rationale behind this behaviour.

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At the Shangri-La Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand.

A couple of hundred clients of software company Sabre met at the Shangri-La Hotel in Bangkok today. The delegates came from 38 different countries and represented some of the largest hotel companies in the world.

The theme of the conference was how technology is changing the hospitality industry and Sabre was showing their latest innovations in booking software.

The only external speaker was me.

I was there because they wanted me to speak about innovation and change.

Why am I telling you this?

Because I have been invited to conferences just like this one for 15 years, to companies in all industries (from banks to car companies) and in over 55 countries. I would love to think that the reason I get invited back, time and time again, is because they think I am a great speaker (and that is, of course, true in a way – they would never invite a speaker they did not think was great.)

But my point is that it is not ENOUGH to be a great speaker. There are many great speakers who do not get invited to give keynotes at global conferences, and there are actually multiple reasons for why those great speakers do not get invited.

Today I am going to talk about one of those reasons: The need for a “universal niche”.

As a keynote speaker, you need to have a theme that is “niched” or “positioned” enough so that you can become an expert in it and be seen as a thought leader of that niche.

But at the same time, the theme needs to be “universal” in the sense that it needs be a theme that never goes out of style, which is of interest to any industry, at any time. (Yes, you can of course be an “industry specific speaker” and only speak at, say, wedding conferences, but I think having a universal theme is much safer, more lucrative and easier to sell.)

Many speakers saw their booking rate tumble during the Global Financial Crisis, especially speakers who were selling themselves as being “entertaining” or “funny” – suddenly companies did not want to book them. Their theme just wasn’t suitable for a conference where the company was trying to save money or just had to fire staff.

But I never saw a decline. I had as many engagements as I had always had straight through the GFC. Why? Because my “niche” of speaking on “business creativity” is “universal” — companies need to be creative in good times, and in bad times.

How can I speak at events with diverse themes such as a banking conference, a travel conference, and a car conference, etc.? Because the theme of “business creativity” is “universal”. All industries need to change. All organisations want to innovate.

During the Sabre conference, the internal speakers from Sabre mentioned the word “innovation” or “creativity” more times than I could count – so it was with great confidence that I could go up on the stage and begin my speech by saying “I am very happy to be here because I think my speech will fit very well to the theme of this conference.”

The funny thing is, that is an introduction that I could use at almost every corporate conference that happens in the world today, yesterday and tomorrow.

Lesson: Ask yourself, is your theme “universal” enough that it would fit well at any conference, regardless of what the conference is about, or what industry the conference is for?

If not, is there any way that you can make it more universal?

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