How to have greater influence upon your audience when giving a talk

This blog is about developing better talks and creating greater influence with your audience. It also involves a story about stacking forks in Rekjavik, if you can stay with me that long 🙂

I’m giving a keynote this week on the way in which organisations could/should use marginal against cross the HR pathway to better shape their future. In putting together the introduction, I realised there was a critical gap in my argument. Me. Let me explain.

I planned to introduce myself, tell a light-hearted story and give general background. But there was something missing, why do I fundamentally believe in marginal gains? Without such an explanation it is difficult to deliver a logical, rational, emotional message. A friend of mine says, “you don’t know the value of experience until you have it.” He’s right. This experience, that we often take for granted, shapes our view of the world. And it is our view of the world that we are asking people to buy into. This is quite a challenge.

In my position I tend to create displacement, where, typically, people are being asked to alter their view of the world in some way. Why should they? Why should they trust my worldview over theirs? Who am I to tell them that their way is not the best/better way? The more complicated or complex the issue, the greater the ambiguity between influencing factors, the higher the levels of resistance. The greater the feeling of resistance, the greater the feeling of displacement when change occurs. That feeling of displacement is obviously not good. What can dilute such feelings of displacement? Trust. How do we create trust? Through empathetic, transparent, authentic communication. But what does that actually mean in practice?

In a recent keynote I introduced myself as “a rebel with a cause”. During the post presentation QA a member of the audience asked me, why I thought myself a rebel and what example could I give of such rebellion – two of the most interesting questions I have ever been asked as a keynote speaker. But why had I missed this opportunity in my presentation? I had taken for granted that people would understand what I mean, that they knew me, and why it was important. There was a gap and, potentially, a lost opportunity. This week I am using the responses to the questions I was asked as part of my main presentation:

I’m a rebel because I resist systems, policy, process, practice that do not find congruence with my knowledge, skills and experience. While I do my best to be empathetic, I also do not worry, too much, about what others think of me for being this way. I believe in best responses, based on the best available knowledge, skills and experience available at a given moment in time. I also expect to be challenged on my responses and therefore I want to understand the rationale for my actions [as a side note, this drives my wife nuts!]. Now, finally, I’ll tell you my story about clearing forks in Reykjavik.

I had given a talk to a group of 30 people gathered from the US and countries across Europe. After the talk we socialised over a buffet dinner (smoked puffin, as well as fermented shark – try the puffin, politely decline the shark). Being chatty, I was one of the last people to clear my plate and put away my cutlery. The cutlery pots were separated out, as you might expect, for spoons, forks and knives. I noticed that all the forks were stacked prongs up. However, I ignored this and put my fork prongs down. A behavioural psychologist was watching me and immediately said that my actions told him a lot about me. Okay, Holmes, give me the big reveal about who I am – I didn’t say this, but I do admit to thinking it. He proceeded to tell me that I was obviously a non-conformist and I had placed my fork the opposite way around to “make a statement” about my non-conformity. I have to tell you, this was no Sherlock Holmes and I was left disappointed. I had actually placed the fork upside down because I have owned a coffee shop. My staff hated it when the prongs were facing up, because the palms of their hands often got jabbed by the prongs when they went to grab them out of the containers. Therefore, I decided, regardless of everyone else’s actions that I would put my fork the opposite way around. I did not conform because I had an insight into what happens when the forks are taken back into the kitchen.

…And that is why I want to talk about marginal gains across the HR pathway.

I hope you found this story useful for your own practice. Cheers, David.

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