On public speaking

July 16, 2014

I delivered a webinar this evening for a client of Harvard Business on leadership and complexity.  Cynefin was already in use so this was bringing in the expert.   Now Webinar's are very different from a live audience.   The latter is really easy if you know your stuff and if you stay flexible and pay attention to the signals coming from the audience.  With a webinar I prefer not to have visual contact as that creates confused signals, visual is not enough, neither is it sound, there is a presence to an audience that you learn to sense over time.  Interesting poor speakers often think that a speech is a one way process, generally because they are delivering material that does not flex with listening to the audience.  We also get over rehearsed speakers but that is another story,

Given that is not possible virtually to get feedback, nor will it be in the foreseeable future I treat virtual presentations as radio interviews.  One of the best of those I ever did was in Sydney with Phil Adams while I was working in IBM.  In effect it was a conversation with one person that you knew was going far wider.  But it means you are in conversational mode.  So I always spend a few moments remembering that interview and settling myself in with headphones (again you have those in a radio interview) and prepare to converse.  I keep the ideas organised into clear sections and limit the amount of ideas and concepts in use.

The event went well, it was to a leadership group of an international company with people from multiple language and cultural backgrounds.  It helps to have worked in such an organisation of course but it means speaking slowly (something that is an effort for me) and paying attention to structure, short sentences and not using colloquialisms other than as a rhetorical device, in which case you explain them.  Khrushchev used to be brilliant at this when he was leader of the old USSR.  He would say ​We have an old Russian proverb and then provide it with a story.  I'm sure he made half of them up on the spot but it was a very effective technique, it drew the audience into a different world. 

Either way it worked well today and I got an email at the end which said: The feedback is coming in and it is all very positive!  Many came away energised about applying safe-to-fail probes on the challenges they identified were in (or moving toward) the Complex domain.  That also makes the point about webinars, you need to give people something they want to do.  In complexity work and Cynefin in particular the shift to parallel safe-to-fail probes is one of the most intuitive actions and easiest to explain.

It is important to decide what you want to achieve in any presentation and a variety of strategies are available for different venues and opportunities.  If I am in Shock and awe mode, trying for a long term shift then I operate my three-thirds rule.  That seeks to inspire a third, confuse a third and anger/disturb a third of the audience.  Then you hit a lot of concepts at a high level with a lot of wicked metaphors and acerbic asides.  There is no point in being nice and anyone trained in the British Parliametary style of speaking (which I was) finds it natural.  This technique only really works in a live audience as you walk the line​ of acceptable verbal behaviour throughout and you have to adjust fast if needed. Incidentally you know when a subject is nearing the end of its life cycle when the audiences really don't like this style!  I discovered that at a KM conference in Europe two years ago when I think I excited 5%, confused 30% and angered the rest.  Interestingly the near identical presentation to a KM conference in London the previous week and gone down very well.   I was tired, I really should have changed tack but I started to get irritated which is always a mistake for a speaker.

Another good disruptive technique is to read the descriptions of other speakers and deliberately create the odd virus like the five most dangerous things people say about X which includes paraphrases of points you know will come after.  Good speakers take this in their stride and give as good as they get, others get flummoxed and that is no bad thing as we need better speakers, oh do we need better speakers.   The point about all of this is to create diversity for learning. &nbnbsp;Conferences were all the speakers agree with each other are turgid.  Mind you the worst are the magpie speakers who simply spin together partially understood things in non-controversial ways to ingratiate themselves with the feel good brigade.  Good speakers stimulate debate and discussion at events and organisers need to provide for that.  Mind you I feel sorry for politicians where the art of oratory has been replaced with the need not to offend and to create sound bites.

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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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