A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.
The days of the 1-hour keynote speech from a motivational speaker may be long gone.
At the National Speaker Association Winter Conference, the theme “The Future of Speaking” invited images of holograms and robots. While at least one robot did make it to the stage, content instead focused primarily on an industry that’s listening to and learning from its audiences.
Clarity of ideas, engagement with the conference audience and, of course, technology were the major threads.
Clarity of Ideas: Be crystal clear with your content.
It’s not enough to be “rah-rah” motivational, according to Tamsen Webster, former producer of TEDxCambridge. Webster says, “TED has changed people’s expectations of what is possible in a short amount of time.” In her telling, TED raised the bar on how clear we have to get about our ideas to become effective communicators.
Webster says that there’s a big difference between having an idea and having “clarity of idea”. She uses the example of charades. Putting her arms over her head in a point, she says, “You might think to yourself, ‘I’m nailing the Eiffel Tower’, but then I say, ‘What are you, a pencil?’ [The audience] can’t know what you know.”
Webster continues, “Until it’s clear to you, the audience, it doesn’t matter how clear it is to me, the speaker.” She sees it as a speaker’s job is to break down the idea into small enough parts to rebuild the pieces of the idea in other people’s heads.
Even for people like professors and public speakers, who spend much of their days presenting their ideas, she says it’s a challenge to boil them down into the 3-18 minutes required for a TED-style format. That’s the benefit of these short speeches – developing that level of clarity about your own idea.
According to Webster, the future of speaking is being able to know your idea well enough that I can say “Tell it to me in 30 seconds, 30 minutes, or across 3 days,” and you’ve got the flexibility to adjust or “accordion” your idea. It only works if you’ve got that high level of clarity.
Engagement: Partner with the conference.
Danielle Cote is VP of Event Marketing for Sage, an accounting and business management software. In this role, she and her team host about 50 events per year. During a panel of conference professionals and meeting planners, she told the audience, “Even the word ‘speaker’ is passé; I’m looking for a partnership to brainstorm ways of applied learning.”
When Cote is hiring for an event, she wants speakers to demonstrate interest in her audience by asking questions about conference objectives and what’s important to attendees.
Rather than relying on speakers bureaus, which specialize in helping meeting planners hire the right speaker, Cote instead scouts speakers herself by attending local conferences in the region where she’s hosting her next event and talking to colleagues about their experiences.
Whereas people in the industry used to “expect speakers to fly in on capes and land on the stage,” Cote wants speakers who work closely with the conference, catering material to the audience, and engaging before and after via social media and targeted marketing.
Like Cote, Nancy Vogl sees her work as people-focused. After starting her speaker’s bureau over 25 years ago, Vogl says “The world is clamoring to go back to that meaningful service that used to be the norm.”
She explains, “If I’m really paying attention and listening to what problem [my client] wants to solve – what’s most important – then I’ll come up with the best speaker options for them to consider.” Establishing the right speaker-audience relationships is so important for her that she laughs, “I’m just as excited booking a high-profile celebrity at a global conference for a fee in the six figures as I am booking a $3,000 speaker for a local library.”
The business of booking speakers is highly relational, and meeting planners increasingly want a genuine partnership with speakers (and bureaus) that are invested in their audience.
Strategically use technology.
According to Crystal Washington, a technology strategist and futurist who’s regularly hired to give keynotes on technology, “‘Audience interaction’ is currently a buzzword.” In her mind, this goes beyond the typical Q&A or having the audience do a “turn and talk”, where they share a quick conversation with their neighbor.
“Humans are becoming the cyborgs 80’s movies warned us about,” Washington explains. “Our devices are always with us, so speakers need to stimulate both their audience’s biological and mobile brains.”
In the near future, Washington suggests that speakers leverage the power of augmented reality, curating their presentations so that members of the audience holding their phones up to the presentation can get a deeper dive into the content. Bluetooth could cause phones to vibrate to notify during a startling point in the story, or a 3D image could pop up that’s part of the experience.
Washington is already putting technology into action. “I’m starting to empower my audiences to use their mobile devices even as I’m speaking,” she tells me.
When she has a phone-based activity, she has people partner with each other so that, rather than “audience-to-phone” (where people are focused on the tech), the experience becomes “audience-to-audience-to-speaker”.
Even as technology advances, it can be used to build meaningful connection, both to the content and to the other people in the room.
As the speaking industry adapts to a rapidly changing landscape, these three strategies can help speakers continue to grow with audience expectations and create more dynamic and engaging content.