Recently, I gave a keynote presentation to 150 people in the health care industry. After being introduced, I decided, as I usually do, to leave the safe confines of the podium (“a platform raised above the surrounding level to give prominence to the person on it”), dismount the stage, and “walk my talk” — weaving my way in between the 20 round tables in the room, each with their own pitchers of water, tent cards, and little bowls of red and white mints.
For a keynote speaker, dismounting the stage and walking into the audience is always a risk — the same kind of risk people take when they decide to get married, instead of just date. Or, why it’s often easier to love humanity than just a single human being.
People, in theory, are interested in learning. People, in theory, are interested in listening to an outside speaker, especially when he’s flown in from who knows where. But in reality, it’s a completely different story. How do I know? By looking. By seeing. And by feeling what is really going on.
To the AV guy in the back of the room, there were 150 health care professionals in attendance, but to me there were 12 different subgroups — some large, some small. Twelve different mindsets. Twelve different tribes. And while they were all being paid by the same employer, they were all paying a very different kind of attention to what I was saying — all thinking very different thoughts.
Mind you, I’m not claiming to be psychic or a mind reader, but after 25 years of doing this kind of work, a person develops a curious ability to sense what people are thinking.
GROUP 1: “Thank you! Thank you! Tell it like it is, my brother! Finally, somebody is speaking the truth! Hallelujah!”
GROUP 2: “Please do not come any closer to my table, sir. And, under no circumstances, approach me with a microphone. First of all, I have nothing to say and, second of all, even if I did, nobody in this room would be listening to me.”
GROUP 3: “Excuse me. I… don’t believe I’ve ever heard of you. Do you actually know anything about the nuances of our industry?”
GROUP 4: “It all sounds good to me. Makes perfect sense. But… um… er… how much extra work is this going to mean for me?”
GROUP 5: “I wonder what’s for lunch. I sure hope it’s not that awful chicken they served us last time. That wasn’t chicken. That was shoe leather.”
GROUP 6: “Flavor of the month alert! Last year it was Excellence. The year before that it was Lean Management. Now, it’s Innovation. This too shall pass.”
GROUP 7: “Hmm.. How can I seem to be interested when this guy gets close to my table so my boss won’t think I don’t really care.”
GROUP 8: “Innovate! Yes! We totally need to innovate! Absolutely! Wait a minute! Isn’t that why they pay our senior leaders the big bucks?”
GROUP 9: “Very cool. Good timing. How can I get my team on board?”
GROUP 10: “Earth to keynote speaker! It’s all about priorities. I mean, if I had more time to innovate I would, but all I’m doing these days is running from one meeting to the other.”
GROUP 11: “Theoretically speaking, I am with you 100%. Maybe 200%. But when push comes to shove around here, we are not in a business likely to innovate.”
GROUP 12: “Innovate, schminnovate! We need more head count.”
My point? Every keynote audience is a melting pot of varying perceptions, assumptions, and needs. In order for keynote presenters to be effective, they need to find their “golden mean” — their own sweet spot between the inevitable extremes that will be represented by the audience. Any attempt to convert the “slackers” or align with the “early adopters” will create nothing but more separation, resistance, and duality. In the end, it all comes down to what Mark Twain said years ago: “When you speak the truth, you don’t need to remember a thing.”
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