A couple of years back, I was lucky enough to attend a keynote on happiness from the philosopher and Founder of the School of Life, Alain de Botton. In it, he spent a lot of time talking about the power of transcendence; creating 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, every single one of them has succeeded in taking me out of my own head. They've made me feel part of something that is bigger and it was incredibly empowering.
One of the questions that I often ask at the beginning of my thought leadership programmes, is what would you like your audience to feel after watching you speak. The most common answers I get back?
'Inspired' or 'motivated'.
And I can tell you right now that, if that is your end goal, you're setting yourself up to fail. Not least, because if you include those words in your speaker application, you won't even make it onto the stage (as one of the TED curators told me in person when I was in NYC in 2017).
That might come as a surprise to many of you reading this... particularly if they are words that you would use to describe yourself after watching some of your favourite talks. So here's my theory on inspiration.
As adults, we have forgotten what it feels like to learn. So when we do learn something new and it has been communicated in a way that opens our mind to a whole world of opportunity and possibility, we often fall back on words like inspiration to describe them.
But what you're really experiencing here is transcendence and it starts with education, not a Tony Robins style pump up, which, can feel pretty cheesy and uncomfortable at the best of times; particularly if you're a reserved Brit like me.
Before I share some tips on how you can go about evoking transcendence in your talks, I think it's also worth pointing out that having the ability to do so has never been more important. Why? Two reasons:
Firstly, because the events that happen next year are going to have higher curation standards than ever before. In other words, it's going to be harder than ever to land high profile in-person speaking opportunities. Secondly, in order to revitalise the conference industry, it is going to be all about creating the most memorable experiences possible for those attending and the speakers will play a big part in that.
So how can you evoke transcendence in your speeches next year?
1. Display Emotional Intelligence
The best speakers have a deep understanding of their audience and on a thought leadership stage, there are two types of people that you're going to need to impress.
Those who are like you; united by a common interest (similar industry, background, philosophy etc.)
Designing a talk for the first category might earn you some industry respect, but it's not going to change the world. If you're delivering a speech to a mixed audience, your job is to open the door into your world to everyone, regardless of their interest in your subject matter. And if you do, the impact could be significant.
Emma Watson's speech launching the HeForShe movement at the UN is a great example of this. When she walked onto the stage that day, the room was filled with feminists and men. The easy thing to do would have been to deliver yet another talk on feminism that appealed to the already converted. Instead, she delivered a talk that put men at the forefront of the feminist movement. The result, the start of the biggest feminist movement since the suffragettes.
So if you want to evoke transcendence in your next thought leadership talk, you need to showcase inclusive expertise for both types of audience members.
2. Include at least 3 world-class stories in your talk
You can't evoke transcendence without being about to tell a great story. And the very best 15-18 minute speeches tend to have at least 3 absolute belters, so no pressure. Here's why... the very best stories give your audience a chance to embody the main character. What better way to take your audience out of their heads and give them the opportunity to 'relativise (not revitalise) the human experience' (Alan de Botton's definition of transcendence).
Top tip: We often associate the best stories with once in a lifetime achievements, but often it's the everyday observations that have the most profound impact.
The first two minutes of Tim Urban's TED talk is a great example. Of all the stories he could have told, he told one of nearly missing the deadline to hand in his thesis. Hardly awe-inspiring; in fact pretty gutsy when you take into account who would have been in the audience that day. The point is... the most relatable stories can be found in the mundane.
3. Rethink your Close
There was some amazing research done by Nobel prize-winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman on the relationship between experience and memory. He found that the end of an experience is the most important factor in determining how we feel about the experience as a whole.
The problem is, the end of most presentations fizzle out because they sound something like this...
'So, to summarise, this is really important, that needs a lot of attention and if we can do this then we can achieve the other. Thank you.... Does anyone have any questions?'
No, we don't. Because that, was dull.
Compare that with how Bill Clinton ended a distinctly average keynote that he gave at the Excel a few years ago and I can still remember his last sentence...
"I would swap all of my years as president of the United States to be twenty again because I think that the next few years are going to be the most exciting in the history of mankind. "
And at that point, 1500 people stood up and applauded. It was an incredible experience to be part of.
So, hold something back until the very end. Then, at the moment your audience is expecting you to close and transition to the mind-numbing Q&A, let it drop. Pull the rug from underneath them, and deliver a jaw-dropping 60 seconds of content that will leave them wanting more.
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