Jake Meyer makes the case for non-industry experienced ‘inspirational speakers’ at conferences and events.
Reading time: 6m 30s.
Recently I came across a video of comedian and musician Tim Minchin giving the graduation speech at the University of Western Australia where he gives those assembled nine witty yet heartfelt lessons for life.
He starts the speech with an anecdote about being at a sales conference where the company organising it had spent a lot of money on an appearance by a mountaineer who’d lost limbs whist climbing.
“It was weird. Software salespeople need to hear from someone who has had a long, successful and happy career in software sales, not from an overly-optimistic, ex-mountaineer. Some poor guy who arrived in the morning hoping to learn about better sales technique ended up going home worried about the blood flow to his extremities. It’s not inspirational – it’s confusing.”
As an (often) overly-optimistic mountaineer myself, who regularly attends events like this to give ‘inspirational’ presentations, this story did strike a chord. What is the benefit (and risk) of paying someone with little or no industry experience or credentials to come and give a talk to your organisation, or at your conference?
Without wanting to be the turkey who votes for Christmas, I appreciate that this is as much an art of justifying an element of my own existence, as it is an attempt to be objective about ‘our’ use as keynote speakers and presenters.
To me, ‘inspirational’ or ‘motivational’ is an epithet that others may give to you – rather than you laud on yourself – however, I recognise that modesty and marketing may in this instance be mutually exclusive
When I talk about ‘our’ or ‘us’, I include all my friends, colleagues and competitors who use our experiences of adventure (or sports or military) to, dare I say it, inspire and motivate others. I am purposely separating out and avoiding discussing the use of celebrity speakers, as I absolutely appreciate that the use of a well-known household name can itself be a huge marketing tool for an event.
Firstly, calling ourselves ‘inspirational’ or ‘motivational’, does run the risk of coming across as highly presumptuous and arrogant – you can imagine people sitting in the audience with folded arms thinking ‘come on then, inspire me if you think you can…’.
To me, ‘inspirational’ or ‘motivational’ is an epithet that others may give to you – rather than you laud on yourself – however, I recognise that modesty and marketing may in this instance be mutually exclusive, and sometimes careful use of these words may be productive for business development and SEO.
‘One summit does not a speaker make’. Thousands of people have climbed Everest or gone to the North or South Pole or rowed the Atlantic. Whilst some of these may tout themselves as ‘inspirational speakers’, just the process of achieving one of these things (or something similarly epic) doesn’t automatically make them an effective speaker.
I believe that the key in keynote speaking is about the quality of the storytelling, not necessarily the achievement itself. I’ve heard some truly awful speeches by incredible athletes and achievers, and some of the best speeches from those who’ve achieved things significantly less high-profile and epic.
The art of any storytelling is taking people along for the ride, so that they forget about the uncomfortable seat in the generic conference venue that they’re sitting in, and become engrossed in the experience being recounted.
A skilled speaker will then weave in elements which are relatable to the audience. The aim being to create emotional check-points which the audience can correlate to their own lives and challenges.
My friend (and much more accomplished adventurer and speaker) Al Humphreys puts it beautifully: “(Adventurous stories are) full of good metaphors. It is non-threatening to an audience because it is different to their worlds.
If I was a salesman I would get defensive if someone who was ‘better than me’ at sales started telling me how amazing they were. It is also exciting and fun, which is always a good medium for getting people to pay attention, think – and therefore perhaps – learn.”
Al is absolutely right about it being a metaphor – it’s not meant to be literal. You do not have to climb Everest in a tweed suit, walk to the South Pole naked or ski across the Sahara to Timbuktu to succeed in life. Let’s face it, they’re pretty silly things to do in the first place.
Ultimately, all of us face many different challenges every day, some we choose, and many we have thrust upon us. The opportunity of using the story of a (normally) self-imposed challenge can be a great shared or alternative method of overcoming hurdles, and many of the lessons can be directly transposed to far less extreme environments.
Top tips for having ‘high-achieving non-industry experienced person’ come and speak at your event:
- Know what sorts of messages you want conveyed. What are the themes of the conference? What would you like people to consider or do differently back in the office on Monday? The more specific you can be with these, the more a story can be tailored to your needs. I will naturally do my best to be ‘entertaining’, but if your sole aim is to ‘entertain’ the audience, I suggest you book a comedian instead.
- Wherever possible, encourage the speaker to join you for as much of the day (preceding their presentation) as possible. It can be really useful to help us understand the context of the people and the industry, and to make more connections, or at very least find the potential for a few in-jokes!
- Work with the speaker to create the right Q&A space so that it can be about relating actual lessons, not just questions like “What did you eat when you moon-walked the entire length of the African Rift Valley?”. Normally this can be achieved by having a host or MC who can pose some relevant questions to set the tone. Get the speaker to give you a list of the best lessons from their experience. Chances are, they won’t talk directly about all of them, and this then gives the MC/host some useful follow up questions.
- Do not replace the industry specific expert with an inspirational speaker. It shouldn’t have to be either/or, and if it is, then I’d recommend that you go for the person who can impart some actual skills. Even the most jam-packed agenda should leave room for both the knowledge sharing and inspiration (which in themselves are certainly not mutually exclusive).
So going back to Tim Minchin’s concerns – no, I don’t want audiences going home concerned more about frostbite than improving their sales techniques. What I want is for people to leave my session having had the opportunity to hear some incredible stories which will make them reflect (positively) on their own daily challenges and how to overcome them.
And, dare I say it, perhaps a little motivated and inspired to do something differently as a result.
About the author
Jake Meyer is a mountaineer and keynote speaker, and full time consultant for the Inspirational Development Group. He still has all his fingers and toes.