How to Stand Out on a
Thought Leadership Stage

Subscribe to my coaching email:
3 Public speaking tips a month to help you become a better leader

Subscribe here

If you've ever done any communication training before, there's a good chance you'll have come across the 55, 38, 7 rule. It came from a couple of studies done back in the 1960's by a psychologist called Professor Albert Mehrabian and it states that body language accounts for 55% of the way we communicate, while your voice and your words account for 38% and 7% respectively.

This of course was music to the ears of public speaking coaches across the world. 'Don’t worry about what you say, worry about how you say it.'

But there was a problem, like lots of academic studies that get picked up by the press, his experiments were oversimplified and the findings were completely misinterpreted. What he was actually testing is emotion is communicated in face to face scenarios. He asked the subjects to vary the way they communicated a particular word, essentially negating the impact that the word would have.

The result though has been profound.

To this day, our stages are filled with 'leaders' who come across well on stage but say absolutely nothing of value. People who rely on their charisma to carry them through.

Few things frustrate me more.

If you are given the opportunity to deliver a thought leadership talk, you have a responsibility to make sure that you say something that matters. Not least because if you were to give a 15 minute talk to an audience of 200 people, you have been given the equivalent of 3000 minutes or 2 days worth of time - you have a duty to make it count.

I say this not to dissuade those who already agonise over every word that they are going to present, but to give a reality check to those that don't. In fact, those who were the most reluctant to speak TEDxClapham were almost always the ones whose talks went on to have the biggest impact, whether it was going viral online, changing government legislation or landing book deals or raising significant amounts of funding for their cause.

The point is, putting time into your message will be the most effective use of your time if you are looking to give a big stage presentation. On my thought leadership programme, we spend 60% of our time working on the message. A fortnight to pin down your core idea and the same again to craft the audience's journey (outline) and again to add depth to that narrative. Sound excessive? It's not...

If you were to speak at TED (not TEDx), they would expect to receive the final draft of your talk script 3 months before you're due to speak. Why? Because it gives you 3 months to practise delivering your talk. By then, you'd know it so well, it would look like you rocked up and delivered a spellbinding talk completely off the cuff. Being effortless takes a surprising amount of work. In the world of TEDx, I can't speak for other events, but we weren't quite as strict as that at TEDxClapham - final drafts would come in 6 weeks before which we found to be ample.

I should also note at this point, I'm yet to find another conference brand that cares as much about that 'what' - which is probably why when you think of thought leadership conferences, TED are the brand that first springs to mind. And for those of you who are planning a big stage presentation in the next year that isn't TED/TEDx, herein lies a big opportunity...

In an attempt to entice impressive entrepreneurs to speak at their events, speaker scouts ask them to come on stage to either talk about their 'journey' or their business, which, to me is baffling. No audience member has ever bought a ticket to a conference in the hope that the speakers will be talking about either of these topics. In fact, most people's 'journeys' are enough to send their own families to sleep!

So whatever stage you're planning to speak on, simply by not delivering a talk on these topics, you are differentiating yourself from all of the other speakers that your audience will see that day. And that's important, because while you might be part of the 'speaker team' that day, make no mistake about it, you are competing with them for your audience's attention and their memory.

Now, before you decide to sack off your dreams of becoming a thought leader because it all sounds a little bit too much like hard work, there is some good news. You only need to create great content once; when you've created it, you can reuse it.

A few years ago, I went to see Simon Sinek give a keynote in London as part of his latest book tour. 80% of the content he delivered that day, I'd heard before. My initial thoughts were 'you cheeky...,' but upon reflection, I realised how clever this was. He was implementing a speak smart not hard strategy.

There is a limit to how much world class content that anyone can create. I've seen too many leaders fall into the trap of creating a brand new talk for every speaking engagement they have and it's just not sustainable. Every thought leader at the top of their game builds a content palette of set pieces that they can use as and when the time calls for it.

A little known fact: Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' was actually a set piece that he had no intention of using when he stepped up to deliver an address that became one of the best speeches of all time.

The other thing that I noticed from Simon Sinek that day was that some of what he delivered was content I had heard him deliver years before and it taught me an important lesson: Make your content timeless.

Planning to speak at an industry conference? Delivering a keynote on current trends is not an effective use of your time - it will be out of date by the time you walk off stage and there'll be little reason for people to watch the recording of the talk by the time it finally gets released. 7 of the top 10 most watched TED talks of all time are over a decade old and they still feel as relevant now as they did back when they were released. For all of you reading this, you need to be creating content that has at least a 3 year life span (ideally 5+) from the day you deliver it and doing so will hopefully help you to avoid death by detail in the process. 2 wins for the price of 1 right there!

So... takeaways. From a coaching standpoint, I have 3:

  • What you say matters,
  • Build a content palette of set pieces,
  • Make your content timeless, your diary will thank you.

But there's one more I'd like to offer. Putting the time into crafting your message from the off is going to save you a lot of time in the long run. If you have aspirations to become a thought leader or at least deliver a piece of thought leadership, you need to make time for it rather than try to work it around your already too busy schedule.


Since starting this blog, I've had a lot of interest about my thought leadership accelerator and one of the most common questions I've been asked from all those I've spoken to so far is how much time do I need to commit to come out the other end with a new talk and a big stage presentation to deliver it at?

2 hours/week if you know your subject matter, 3 hours/week+ if you're speaking on a new subject and significantly longer without a programme in place to harness your focus!

Subscribe to my coaching email:
3 Public speaking tips a month to help you become a better leader