I was lucky enough to attend a keynote on happiness from philosopher and Founder of the School of Life, Alain de Botton, last year. He describes transcendence as the ‘relativisation of human experience.’ Experiences that provide us with perspective, rare moments where we are lifted out of our own lives and step out of the ‘real world’.
And it got me thinking, if I look back at the speeches that have had the biggest impact on me, all of them have succeeded in taking me out of my own head. There is a lot of talk about the importance of inspiring audiences, but transcendence could prove to be an even more effective gift. Look no further than how South Africa rugby coach, Rassie Erasmus prepared his team to face England in the World Cup Final Last year.
According to ‘See-a-voice.org,’ the average reading age of the UK population is 9 years old. The guardian has a reading age of 14 and the Sun has a reading age of 8. The average conference attendee no doubt would like to think they have a reading age far higher than both the Guardian and the Sun, yet when you take into account the distractions of smartphones, the information overload that is a typical day at any conference and let's not forget the inevitable tiredness and hangovers, I’d be willing to bet that an average attendee’s reading age would be closer to that of the Sun than the Guardian.
Sir Jonny Ive once said that ‘simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,’ in which case, the very best speakers will be able to communicate their ideas in a way that requires just the right amount of brainwork from the audience. For peak engagement, aim to hit the Goldilocks zone of challenging enough, rather than too easy or too hard, your audience will thank you for it.
I stumbled across a really great exercise for this from Wired’s YouTube channel that I have now stolen and use in my public speaking programmes: Explain your talk concept in 5 levels of increasing complexity (1. Child, 2. Teen, 3. College student, 4. Professional, 5. Legend). Worth noting that the real challenge for most professionals is actually to work your way down the levels rather than up them.
Which leads me nicely onto my next point. While I can technically attribute that quote on simplicity to the former Chief Designer of Apple (he said it on an Apple advert ok?!), a quick Google search ‘informs’ me that it was actually Leonardo Di Vinci who first said it. On deeper inspection, it turns out that there doesn’t appear to be any document of his that has the quote and the disputed earliest occurrence of the phrase is actually by William Gaddis in 1955 (in his book, The Recognicions p.457 for those who are interested).
Apparently, we are living in an era of post-truth* - a feeling no doubt intensified thanks to social media, but the point is, establishing trust with your audience has arguably never been more important. Luckily there are some really simple things speakers can do to earn that trust from their audience. Crediting research appropriately, highlighting counter arguments to your own and being honest about the limitations of your findings are all simple and effective ways of doing this, but the real secret to this is leaving your ego at the door. A speaker’s job isn’t to have all of the answers, the world is more 50 shades of grey than black and white. A speaker's job is to curate the best and most relevant research and tie it up with their own opinion backed up with reason.
Speeches have been at the forefront of every meaningful movement in history; they have fought for civil rights, inspired nations and even sent people to the moon. They are an incredible catalyst for change and if persuading someone of a new way of thinking is the intended outcome of your talk, the questions that you ask may be more important than the facts you present.
The illusion of explanatory depth is the idea* that most people feel that they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence and depth than they really do and given that we base our opinions on what we know, uncovering the gaps in our knowledge may well be the key to persuasion.
In another study*** psychologists asked 198 Americans to rate their understanding and positions on a series of political policies, such as imposing sanctions on Iran for its nuclear programme. Then they were asked to provide an explanation of either WHY their positions were as they were or HOW these policies worked, and then re-rate their understandings and positions. Those that were asked HOW the policies worked discovered gaps in their understanding and subsequently provided a more moderate rating the second time round.
This incidentally reminds me of wonderful graph that explains the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Ironically, TED talks have resulted in a lot of people admiring the views at the summit of Mount Stupid.
In my opinion, at least 50% of a talk’s success has nothing to do with what you say and how you say it. As speakers, we spend so much time focusing on the performance aspect of our role, that it is easy to overlook arguably the most important factor of all; the setting. How full the room is going to be, what time of day you’re giving your talk, the layout of the room, how you’re going to be introduced, what the energy in the room will be like, are the audience there because they want to be or have to be, how engaged the crowd is, the physical distance between you and the audience. Understanding these things and having the ability to adapt your performance accordingly is vitally important.
Comedians are brilliant at this, and if you want to start learning about the mechanics behind how to create the perfect environment for maximum impact, get yourself down to a comedy club an hour before the first set to watch the organisers work their magic. On the other end of the spectrum, the Netflix documentary, 'Tony Robbins: I am not your guru', also illustrates the amount of hard work he and his team do to ensure his seminars have maximum impact.
*Though in his book, Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari points out that lies have been at the core of society for thousands of years. The role religion has played provides more examples of this than we could ever need.
** Rozenblit, Leonid, and Frank Keil. "The misunderstood limits of folk science: An illusion of explanatory depth." Cognitive science 26.5 (2002): 521-562.
***Fernbach, Philip M., et al. "Political extremism is supported by an illusion of understanding." Psychological science 24.6 (2013): 939-946.