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Today, I delivered a speech as the only external speaker when Trendwatching (www.trendwatching.com) had their trend seminar.

Trendwatching.com is an amazing company that collects trends from all over the world using 3000+ trend watchers. Their website offers an amazing number of free trends (and even more if you pay for it, of course).

During the seminar today, they (the people from Trendwatching) presented some of the most interesting trends at the moment. I stayed for the whole day because I found it so fascinating to listen to them.

And this post will be about an insight that hit me during the day.

 

The Trick to Being a Great Speaker: Moving Your Audience from Point A to Point B

A common critique that speakers often get to hear is “most of the stuff presented during the conference/speech was not new”, or “I already know most of this stuff”.

I would like to comment on that.

You see, I think that a conference where everything is about brand new insights for the audience would be very exhausting to listen to, and I actually doubt that you would be able to digest it all.

A good speaker is supposed to move the audience to a new place – but in order to do that, you have to start where the audience is. Another way of saying it would be “you can not move someone from A to B without starting at A”.

The trick to being a great speaker is that you are able to sense where the audience is (Point A) and then sense how far you can move them (Point B).

Move them too little and the audience will feel that they did not learn anything.

Move them too far and the audience will not understand what you are talking about.

But that means that some parts of your speech need to include examples or descriptions that the audience is familiar with, to make them accept the world view that you are painting. They feel, “Oh, I agree with the speaker because I feel/think the same way”. Then you, as a speaker, can start moving them.

Also, remember that the an audience will always consist of people who have different knowledge sets of the subject you are talking about. So, you have to speak to the “middle knowledge” of the room. This means that some people will already know what you are talking about, and some will have no clue.

My insight from today was that a speech (or a whole conference) is successful if there is even just one new insight that you take away.

Like the conference today.

 

The Stapler Example

There was, of course, many examples of trends that were presented which I already knew about: everything from Uber, to AirBnB and Spotify. The usual suspects, so to say.

But then, there were many I have never heard of, and a few that really made me think.

Like when Henry Manson from Trendwatching.com was talking about the trend of how the world is becoming increasingly transparent, and illustrated it with a product review of a stapler that had 581 (!) reviews on Amazon.com.

Imagine, 581 people have taken the time to write down a review of a stapler — a $10 stapler!

One good example like that can get your mind starting to think in brand new ways, or perhaps I should say that it got MY mind started.

For others in the audience, that example meant nothing and instead, some other example from the day triggered new thoughts.

And one example like that made it worthwhile to go to the whole conference for me.

As long as I get one, or a few thing(s) to take home, I will be happy as an audience member.

That was my takeaway today from the conference where I was a speaker.

Lesson: As a speaker, you should aim at leaving the audience thinking thoughts they had never thought before to move their frame of reference. But structure your speech by presenting your material in a way that it feels familiar, yet new, to the audience.

 

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Singapore.

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One of the most common questions I get when people hear that I have been a professional speaker for 20+ years is:

“Don’t you get nervous?!”

When they hear me reply: “I try to…“, they usually look so confused that I have to explain what I mean.

Since this is a blog on speaking, I am assuming that the question of nervousness is high up on the list of topics that the readers of this blog want me to cover.

So let me explain.

You see, I believe that a great speaker should be a little bit nervous.

To be nervous means to have a “feeling or reaction resulting from anxiety or anticipation.”

True, the nervousness that comes from anxiety is perhaps not the best of feelings.

But the nervousness that anticipation creates is great. It creates energy, tension, a touch of danger or vulnerability. A feeling that something is at stake.

Very experienced speakers risk loosing this tension and go up on stage and just go through the motions, fall back on auto-pilot and get the speech over and done with.

God, how boring to listen to!

Give me a nervous speaker over that any day.

A tightrope walker who is not feeling any nervousness at all when stepping up on the rope is probably walking 2 feet over the ground. That is not a very thrilling tightrope walk to watch.

And the same is true for a speech: a speaker who feels nothing when he or she goes up on stage will probably not be very interesting to listen to. Or at least, it would be more interesting to listen to if the audience felt a bit of tension in the air.

As a speaker who has done around 2000 speeches over the last 20+ years, I understand that I am at risk of falling into the trap of delivering bland speeches without a slight degree of nervousness, just because of the fact that I have done it so many times.

It’s just like the risk of missing a dangerous spot if you drive on a road you have driven 100s of times before, because you relax too much thinking that you know what is going to happen as you drive through that familiar road.

Since just walking up on a stage doesn’t make me nervous anymore, I artificially try to make myself more nervous.

Here are some helpful techniques that I use to increase nervousness:

1. I (almost every time I speak) move, or remove, one or two slides just minutes before I go on stage to make myself a bit uncertain in which order the slides are going to come.

2. I have been known to walk around backstage to create the feeling of nervousness in myself.

3. I can envision that I am totally going to bomb as a speaker while I am waiting to go up the stage, and then I think of some of the best speeches that I have ever done to counter balance the negative thoughts that come into my head. 😉

I am not saying that you should copy my techniques, especially not if you are a new speaker who feels nervous just thinking about having to deliver your speech.

The funny thing is that suddenly, once in a while – even after 20 years of doing this – I too feel nervous before going up on stage without having to do anything to create that feeling.

Regardless of what we do to try to make ourselves a little bit anxious about how the delivery of our message will be received, just know that feeling anxious or nervous is a good one. Embrace that feeling.

I once listened to a speech writer for Bill Clinton who revealed that one US President (I do not remember who it was anymore) reportedly drank too much water before delivering an important speech to make himself conscious about peeing himself (!) to create that feeling of tension in the air that comes from the right kind of nervousness.

Lesson: Do not worry if you feel a little bit nervous when you are about to go up and give an important speech. Start to worry when you never feel nervous before a speech.

P.S.

Even if you are overwhelmed by a lot of nervousness, know that an audience will almost always try to mentally help you overcome it. Just look at this video where Swedish poet Bob Hansson steps up on stage and admits that he is nervous.

(Quote: “I am always nervous, but now I have to be nervous in English” — Fantastic!)

And notice how the audience reacts and embraces him, and the speech turns out great!

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Singapore.

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An easy way to become a good speaker  is to ask conference organisers what they hate about speakers – and then avoid doing that.

One thing that they do not like is speakers who “fly in for the speech”, as in those who show up at the conference just before their speech is about to begin, or who are at the conference on time, but do not attend the sessions.

It might sound obvious but you will be surprised how many speakers do not listen to the sessions before their own speech.

There might be many reasons for why they are not doing that.

For example:

– They are nervous so they can not make themselves sit in the room just before they are to go up and speak;

– They need some time off to focus before they go up on stage;

– The are just not interested in what the other speakers are talking about;

– They have other, they think, more important things to do.

Personally, I try to make an effort to attend as much of a conference as I can, and I do not sit in front of the room on the VIP seats. I sit at the back of the room so that I more easily can get a feel for the audience.

I do this for three reasons:

1) When you sit and listen to another speaker address the same group you are soon going to speak to, you get insights on how the group behaves. Do they seem to like jokes? Are they a tough crowd? etc.

2) You learn a lot of interesting things. There are only a few places which are better than conferences if you want to keep up with the latest trends. So, why not use this opportunity to learn?

3) THE MOST IMPORTANT REASON: By listening to the previous speakers, you can play on what the audience has already heard.  It makes the audience connect with you because they feel you are “on the same page”. It also stops you from making a fool of yourself by, for example, using the same example as a previous speaker, or contradicting a previous speaker without knowing that you are.

So let me give you an example of how this worked out for me today.

I was invited by Straits Times (the largest newspaper in Singapore) to be on a panel at a conference they had organised for foreign journalists. The theme of the conference was “Foreign Workers in Singapore”, and I had been selected as one of the “foreign professionals” who had chosen Singapore as their new home.

I was to speak at 3 p.m. but the program already started at 9:30 a.m. The first part of the program was about migrant workers and the group even went and visited a dorm where 8600 (!) foreign workers from India and Bangladesh live.

I took the opportunity to join the whole program to learn about parts of Singapore that you normally never get to know so much about. (The picture above is from one of the rooms in this huge dorm that we visited.)

I got to know things like how:

  • Male foreign workers get to pay much more to go and work in Singapore than females  do. They  pay up to 10 000 dollars just to get into the country and start working. This means that they work, on average, 17 months just to pay off the debt they incurred to get into Singapore.

 

  • Only about 20% of the foreign workers from Bangladesh come home financially better off than when they left their home country.

 

  • About 40% of all domestic helpers in Singapore do not even get one day off per week even though there is now a law in Singapore stating that they have this right.

Sad statistics in so many ways.

And that information was very important for me to hear as we were later going to discuss why highly paid experts like me decided to move to Singapore.

Because I had heard the earlier discussions about the situation of these hard working, low paying workers, I could, in my panel presentation, make a connection between this problem and the challenges Singapore faces in terms of income differences. (Something that was, for sure, in the minds of the journalists in the room at that time.)

By spending the whole day at this conference (while only speaking for a few minutes at the very end), it not only made me feel better prepared for my speech, it also gave me so much valuable insights about Singapore, and knowledge and insights that would have been very difficult for me to get had I not gone to this conference.

It’s a huge privilege to be invited to speak at conferences.

But do not let this privilege stop you from enjoying the BIG OPPORTUNITY that comes with it: listening to the other speakers.

Do that. You will learn more. And you will also become a better speaker.

Lesson: Professional speakers get paid a lot of money to speak for one hour. But that fee is not just for the hour you speak. It is for the preparations, the travel, AND for you to get last minute updates about the audience by spending time with them before  your speech.

P.S.

So how about after the speech? I try to hang around until the next break so that the audience can come up and ask questions or give feedback. It’s a nice thing to do — and a great way to get business cards for follow up business! But staying after the speech is, in my opinion, not nearly as important as being there before your speech.

 

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