Listening Like a Speaker
A 7-point guide to speaking with meaning at conferences
Conferences are boring. Not the Elon Musk kind of boring. The kind that makes you, the attendee, want to saddle a Falcon 9 rocket home to binge on the latest seasons of American Gods, Billions, and Silicon Valley. All of them in one glorious, dopamine overdose-inducing sitting. That, or you could get your fix of the blue and white Facebook feed that shaves off fifty minutes of your life every day, and makes a fresh data pie out of it. The same Facebook that sells that data pie to advertisers to “bring the world closer together”.
Or, you could open your inbox to make sure that those two-hour-old unanswered emails remain that way, but hey, you got to feel productive. All the while you’ll be sipping on your [insert any prominent CRM company here]–sponsored cup of coffee. Pretty much anything, other than listening to that 20–45 minute disaster one calls a keynote, or its slow cousin — the panel.
It’s the kind of slow that makes you want to misbehave by ignoring the loss aversion [feature] of that decision-making apparatus you call your mind, and abandon the event that you paid anything from €149–795 to attend. Hell, even if you didn’t pay the €149–795.
Meanwhile on the other end of the hall…
Whether a seasoned speaker with garlands of conference tags, or someone who’s just making their bones onstage, you’re likely nervous — if not downright petrified — to have to stare back at that pool of fickle, judging eyes. You know the minutes matter. It’s not just about building your rep, nor is it because you have to create brand awareness, or the vague promise of networking, clients, and investment.
The minutes matter because what you have to say might actually be heard. It might actually make a difference. But the eyes of the screen-struck audience don’t know it yet — and that brings us to the moneyball question.
How do you get people to pay and maintain attention, when they’ve got so little of it left?
Whose job is it anyway? Is it the organizers’, the speakers’, or is it the attendees’? Maybe it’s the mission of those 2–5 cups of branded coffee that you and everyone else there will most likely drink each day. Perhaps it’s the calling of the branded company puppy that will get people to linger in between talks? Woof as a Service — deborifyng events, one furball at a time.
The short answer is an oxymoron in that there are no short answers. So yes, it’ll require more of you than the seven minutes it takes to read this post, which is why each title is a link to a book or an article. Think of the seven paragraphs as individual training regimens inviting escape from a given day — Monday’s about leadership, Tuesday’s ego day, Wednesday’s about learning to be a guide, Thursday’s about studying other talks, Friday’s about human behavior, Saturday’s for writing stories, and Sunday’s about learning how to practice. It’s a hard week, yet worth the grind. Do it.
- It takes Extreme Ownership. Ownership of the fact that the main reason why people rather browse, swipe, and scroll instead of listening to you talk, is that you’ve not given them a good enough reason to. It’s your responsibility — and yours alone — as the facilitator of content to get those eyes away from the screens and onto you. The most fallacious rationalizations ever uttered (either internally, or out loud) are “those who need to understand will understand”, “I don’t want to be too technical”, “If I had more time…”, and my personal favorite “I’m sorry, I didn’t…”. These, and other excuses are easy and even seductive, but they’ve got no place in the vocabulary of a speaker. Least of all one who cares.
- Ego is the Enemy. A bigger event does not equate with a better one. Your self-worth isn’t tied to the name of your company nor to the adulation of the crowd listening to you. You’re owed nothing — unless you’re a bank. Your talk isn’t about you, it’s about them — the audience and what meaning you can give them in the few minutes you have. Ask yourself what Colonel John Richard Boyd did: “To be somebody or to do something…Which way will you go?”
- Empathy through The Gift of Therapy. As a psychiatrist with over 50 years in practice, Irvin D. Yalom has written the best non-leadership book on leadership that I’ve ever read. He showed me that the speaker’s role is to be a humble guide, an example of a human work-in-progress, to ask and listen, to lead their listeners to insight with vulnerability, but to simultaneously be their fellow traveler.
- TED Talks, bullshit walks. Consult your speech coach before using any ideas discussed within the book. Excessive reliance on it may cause over-simplification, waves of pretentiousness, elitism, intermittent clichés, utopian thinking, and repeated bouts of infotainment.
- Think, Fast and Slow. Kahneman’s old news. So are fallacies, those pesky errors in judgment, and our predictable irrationality of behavior. Yet, the metaphor of two brains, one emotion-driven that cares about the “why?”, and the other run by logic, the “how?” and “what?”, is apt. More than apt, it’s prescriptive to any speaker who’s seeking to inspire, to inform, or to persuade an audience.
- Tell True Stories. Countless food-and-truth-starved writers, from Kurt Vonnegut to Nancy Duarte, have in the past spoken and waxed lyrical about story arcs, their beautiful shapes, and why we should use them. Now, those intricately wrought arcs have been boiled down to six core types of narratives, using machine learning and sentiment analysis. Spoiler alert: Vonnegut wasn’t far off, and neither would you be by learning how to write a short story. As a rule, get someone to listen to it before, preferably pay an editor to trim the fluff and help you…*cough*…clarify your message.
- It takes Grit, Drive, and Deliberate Practice. Whatever you call it — it’s work. The kind that demands feedback, is conscious, and uncomfortable. There are no quick “hacks”, unless you’re fine with being one. Thirty to ninety hours, that’s how much time you need to book in your calendar before a speaking engagement. And the true paradox of “the shorter the talk the longer it takes to prepare it” is valid. Every time.
You’ve gone through the points. Yet whether you’re going to act on them will hinge on your ability to internalize the content as your own. It’s much like with TED talks, keynotes, or pitches—whether an audience does something after hearing them depends on how well they’ll remember it. Here’s a technique that dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, the same technique you could use to memorize the seven points you’ve read just now.
Imagine Jocko, a grizzled Navy Seal wrestling with his own ego on the therapeutic couch of the venerable Irvin D. Yalom, before walking onto a red TED stage. He then tells a story about a “Man in a Hole” to a tortoise and a hare, our slow, and faster minds. He wants them to remember that it takes grit, drive, and deliberate practice to survive and thrive on stage.
I’d like to give you a tool — a storytelling litmus test of sorts, a question to be asked of yourself at the beginning, the middle, and the end of a story.
What will they remember?
It’s the kind of question that holds you accountable, either as a speaker or as an attendee. What story have you told that was worth paying attention to long enough for anyone to remember it? Try asking someone who you’ve told it to. Will they be able to recall enough to share it forward a week, a month, or a year from now? Just ask, and listen. No rationalizing. That’s your impact.
And so in the seventh and last minute of this piece, I invite you to go back to a memory. A memory from an event or conference, a story that left a mark with you or your business. Who did you talk or listen to? What made them tick? Why did they do what they do? Above all, why did you remember them? Please share that story as a response below. I’d like to hear it.
About the Author
As a speaker, writer, and coach, Gleb listens to around 900 speeches a year. Ranging from a 60-second pitch to a 45-minute keynote. He’s trained presenters for industry-wide pitching showcases such as Slush, Latitude59, TechChill, and LOGIN. Every year, he works with executives from almost every industry that make the world better, or have a shot at doing so. They go on to pitch at trade fairs such as the Mobile World Congress, Smart City Expo, conhIT, boot Düsseldorf, Bygg Reis Deg, or BAU.
Gleb’s also the co-founder of Fundwise, a founder-to-investor pitching platform with a 73% success rate and raising over €775K for over a dozen projects. When not on stage, he’s training for his sub-20-minute 5K, and sewing suit or haori jackets. Follow his pitch reviews at @glebmaltsev.
Note of gratitude: This piece, in its current form, wouldn’t be possible without the bare-knuckle editing and guidance of Jen Geacone-Cruz. Thank you for the patience.