How to Create a
Thought Leadership Talk Concept

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In June 2000, Tony Blair was invited to deliver an address at Wembley Arena to 10,000 members of the Women's Institute. It was 12 months before the next general election and the Labour party had decided to implement a 'Lion's Den' strategy, whereby they actively sought to connect with those who were less receptive to hearing their message.

The event began with the obligatory rendition of Jerusalem, and you can see the Prime Minister looking less than comfortable in the lead up to being invited to speak. He walks up to the lectern, pauses, shifts his gaze from the audience to his notes and delivers his opener with expert precision...

'This is truthfully the most terrifying audience I've ever seen in my life!'

It was met with unanimous laughter and you can feel the tension in the room, which had been palpable, melt away. A genius stroke.

Then he began to deliver his address; this forward looking, political agenda speech where he would go on to paint a picture of his promised land in the hope he might win some new labour votes the following year.

Big mistake.

The second the crowd thought that they were being manipulated, they turned. The initial deathly silence soon turned into slow hand clapping, which was then followed by heckles of "NO!" from the depths of the arena.

It was a disaster... but, it needn't have been.

Now, I know what you're thinking. What has this got to do with entrepreneurs delivering big stage presentations?

Well, quite a lot actually.

While you might not be met with aggression when you present, there is a very high chance you'll be met with apathy if you don't nail your talk concept. Think about the last time you attended a conference, how many of the keynotes did you actually pay attention to that day?

Most of the content that entrepreneurs deliver at conferences is forgettable. If you value your time, that is a problem. And let's not forget, the audience values their time too.

If you are asked to deliver a 10 minute presentation to 150 people, you have been gifted 25 hours of other people's time. So you have a responsibility to make it count.

One year, 400 people applied to speak at TEDxClapham for 12 slots. Of those 400 people, we chose one and I ended up having to headhunt the rest.


Because of 80% of those applications fell into two categories:

  • I want to tell my story.
  • I want to talk about my business.

Interpreted by event curators as:

  • I want to stroke my ego (~1% of personal stories that are stage worthy)
  • I want to push my agenda (just like Tony Blair).*

In both scenarios, the only 'winner' here is the speaker. If you want to land big stage presentations, you need to position your talk concept in a way that makes both the audience and the conference win first. Your return on investment of time is a buy product of this.

So perhaps the first question you should ask yourself is this...

Why is the audience there?

External Conferences

If it's an external conference you're planning to speak at, it's likely to be two reasons. To network and to learn. You might not be able to help with the networking, but I've no doubt you can teach your audience something new. Something that I'll always remember the CEO of TED saying in one of his speeches is that your job as a presenter is to:

'Change how people see your world.'

And the beauty of setting out to educate as opposed to inspiring or selling is that as adults, we forget what it feels like to learn something new. So when we do, it opens our minds up to all these new possibilities and the result is that we feel inspired and that feeling becomes etched in our minds. In other words, YOU become memorable.

Internal Events

If you're going to deliver a speech internally at a company all-hands, AGM etc. your audience is there for a very different reason; because they have to be.

So when thinking about what you're going to talk about to your team, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that using these opportunities to push the company's agenda is ok. And it is! But if you want to be the founder or CEO that inspires the people in their organisation (like the CEO I mentioned in last week's article), then occasionally it's sensible to change tact and deliver a piece of relevant thought leadership. Once/twice a year will do the job nicely.

Something to consider:

Regardless of whether you're preparing to deliver a piece of thought leadership internally or externally, it's only natural that you are going to want as many eyes and ears on the message as possible. So you might want to consider turning your talk into a piece of content that can be consumed online.

In other words, film it and release it on your social media platforms for the world to see. There's a good chance that if you're speaking at an external conference, the event organisers will be making sure this happens already - in which case you've hit the jackpot! But for those planning to deliver their talk at an internal event, remember this...

Your internal message does not have to stay internal; one of the great things about delivering a piece of thought leadership is it allows you to stay out of the death by detail, the nitty gritty and the confidential. It's an opportunity to show transparency, both as a leader and as a company, and you never know who might be watching... a potential investor, a future employee etc. It doesn't even need to be high production value, there's a certain authenticity to a video shot on a smartphone. Good enough means we can both see and hear you effortlessly.

That is working smart. I can't think of a better way of leveraging your talk or your time.

What does a successful thought leadership talk concept look like?

Your talk concept has got to:

  • Educate your audience, at the very least,
  • Have a bigger, altruistic purpose,
  • Be easy to remember.

And that means that when asked, you should be able to articulate your talk concept in a sentence. Don't even think about applying to speak at an external event (more on this in next week's article) until you can do this.

It's a process that takes time. We spend the first two weeks of my thought leadership programme coming up with this sentence.

To help, here are 5 examples of talk concepts that have landed a big stage in the past:

  • Laughter builds resilience
  • Movement can manage your mental health
  • Microfinance can re-define sustainable coffee
  • Technology is polarising the job market
  • Entrepreneurship does not equal fulfilment

Vastly different subjects that have 3 things in common. A problem to solve, a solution to offer and a legacy to achieve.

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