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3 Questions to Ask Before You Do Your Next Talk

There’s nothing like getting tapped to speak at an event or conference—it’s not only nice to be asked, but it speaks volumes about what people think of you: That you have something of value to share with their community, and they want it.

That said, there are three questions I ask myself before I accept, let alone begin to prepare, for a talk. And it isn’t, “When, where, and what should I wear?”

Nope. They’re questions that most people don’t ask before they dive in, and I believe you should to set yourself up for success. I like to ask the organizer these questions so I get a handle on who I’m speaking with, but also, I use it to generate my own questions and shape my content and approach accordingly.

(This is part of a live webinar I did recently called “5 Steps to a TED-worthy Talk” and I’m happy to share it with you because attendees found it so useful.)

1. Why are they there? 

There are lots of reasons people take a seat at an event. And they’re worth considering:

They paid to be there. If they paid their own money to attend an event, they want something in return, and expect something, right? What investment are they making—are you speaking at a business seminar or an event that’s more lifestyle focused? Are they there to rally together and change the world? Or is this meeting or community more focused on trying to maintain the status quo?

They paid a lot to be there. Then there’s the next level up—I’m talking not $50, or even $500 to be there, but like $5,000 or maybe more. We’re talking fundraisers, high-profile events. Now, if someone is donating that much money to be part of an event, it’s not because they expect, say $10,000 worth of content.

As Seth Godin says, when people pay to be somewhere like that, they’re saying to themselves and each other, “people like us do things like this.” Think about how what you’re about to tell them affects or touches their vision of the world, and their role in it. Especially if they’re there for a big cause, a pioneering effort, or perhaps something less grand but no less expensive.

They have to be there or else. Perhaps the group of people you’ll address have to be there because it’s their job, their managers mandating it, or it’s part of their own training and required.

I won’t purport to know what every group of required attendees thinks when they walk in a room, but that’s why it’s worth asking. Is this an event that’s highly anticipated, or deeply dreaded? Do they have high expectations or the lowest of low? This is how to gauge your own approach. Often I’ve found people who file in with zero expectations are sometimes the easiest to delight.

2. Why did they pick you?

The people who hired you or invited you to speak have their own goals and objectives, and they’re not necessarily the same thing. Do you know why that is? (And it’s not just cuz you’re awesome, even though you are.) I once spoke at an event of full-time employees in the HR business, and I was told, “We want you to motivate them enough to love their jobs, but not to leave.” Good to know.

Ok, so, do they want you to inspire the people there to be empowered and to create positive change? Or do they want you to inspire…compliance? There is no good or bad here, by the way.

We operate under the assumption that they want what’s best for the attendees and the organization. But what that is something they take the lead on, not you. So ask, and listen closely. Maybe they want you to wake them up—or perhaps, calm them down in the wake of organizational or industry unrest. Good to know.

3. Why are you there? 

I mean, aside from because they asked. Maybe they’re paying you good money to be there, and that’s great. But no matter what you speak about, chances are, you don’t do it for the money; you’re there because you want to exert some kind of positive influence, some change or fresh perspective or compelling information that can change the way they think and live.

So it’s important to be clear on your own intentions. Maybe it is a good gig and you do it every year, end of story. You have some contacts there and you like to keep them up.

But maybe this speaking event presents another, larger or longer-tail opportunity, in which you make inroads to do more work with them or to get a foot in the door in their industry.

Perhaps it’s an event in your own industry, and speaking there gives you a bit more clout and attention, and that’s a real plus. All great reasons! Just be clear when you’re going in. Because the way you approach a talk to people whose business you know is quite different from when you’re an outsider. Both have great advantages, if you know how to use them.

Bottom line, be honest with yourself about what is expected of you here, and also what YOU want to get out of it. The purpose and mission that drive your talk may not change, but the way in which you deliver it does, group to group. And the more mindful of that you are, the more powerful and effective you will be—and the more opportunities will come your way.

(Want to learn how to create a stand out signature talk that gets you booked, again and again? Join me for Tapped to Speak, my six-week online program designed to help you land the idea, develop the talk, and wow the crowd. Registration closes Friday, 6/16/17 @ 8p ET.)

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4 Ways to Get Laughs on Stage (even if you’re not that funny)

Of all the people you’ve seen get up in front of a room to speak, how many do you really remember?

Very few. And chances are the ones who made an impact probably made you laugh, too.

Solid content gets a nod.

But funny gets rave reviews.

Funny gets asked to speak again. And again.

Here’s the thing: You don’t have to be a standup comic to get laughs. Or a joke writer. Or a ham.

Quite frankly, you don’t even have to think of yourself as funny.

Some people may are particularly gifted, sure. But other, I’d say most, great speakers get laughs because they work at it; they learn to use humor as a tool. And when you see it that way, you can learn to use it like anything else.

I interviewed evolutionary psychologist and humor researcher Gil Greengross, PhD, for a piece I wrote for Women’s Health magazine. And he explained that humor is not usually something made up by one person and consumed by another; it’s how humans relate. It’s something we participate in together.

“Humor is a fundamentally social phenomenon,” says Greengross. When you share laughter and humor with other people, says Greengross, you build up trust and camaradie with others.

He told me about this study, led by neuroscientist Robert Provine and published in the International Journal of Behavioural Biology, which found that in 99 percent of the cases observed, laughter functioned more as punctuation at the end of statements, in response to mundane statements, and nothing that would be deemed funny outside that context.

Aha!

That means humor isn’t always mass produced by pros—it’s made by hand, in the moment. If you’ve ever tried and failed to explain to someone why something was funny, after the fact, then you know this is true. “Guess you had to be there,” you say. Indeed.

This is great— because it means that you, too, can get great, real laughs in your talk, too.

Think your subject matter is too serious for laughs? Think again. A speaker who deftly handles a difficult or serious topic can actually earn big laughs—because in so doing, he gives the audience the much-needed chance to relieve tension.

So how can you get more laughs on stage? Here are some techniques I’ve used, observed, and put into practice for myself and others I’ve coached.

  1. Don’t try to be funny. (Be honest instead.)  

    You know who gets the most pained pity laughs ever? The person who is trying too hard. Please promise me you won’t do this. Instead, try being just blatantly honest. I know it works because I do it all the time.

    I happen to think that people who are tagged as “so funny” are often just more honest than the next person. They say things other people would filter out. Fact is, I am a speaker who also happens to perform stand-up comedy—but doing stand-up didn’t teach me to be funny; it gave me a forum and format for what I already knew got laughs: Say things other people wouldn’t. I’ve been doing that forever.

    This, by the way, is why a little self-deprecation goes a long way to winning over an audience.

    When you make a comment or joke at your own expense, you’re showing the audience that you don’t take yourself too seriously; that you’re no different from them.

    Because you’re going to appear high status on a stage, taking yourself down a peg or two makes you more relatable as a person. As opposed to an insufferable blowhard.

    For instance: I joke in my TEDx talk (“Stop Searching for Your Passion”) about how I was so down at one point early in my career that I spent every night sitting around in my underwear watching Seinfeld reruns. That got a laugh. Because the fact is, we have all done this. I still do it.

  2. Go for specific over general, every time.
    Note that in the above example, I didn’t say I sat around and watched TV. That would not have gotten a laugh. The laugh comes from the details: you can picture the person slumped there, staring blankly at the TV while Kramer comes crashing into the Jerry’s apartment. It works because you can see it.


    If you say in your talk that you were in such a bad mood and binged on junk food, that’s not going to get the laugh. But you know what will? When you admit that you started hurling unflattering epithets at the Verizon customer service agent while knee deep in a bag of Ding Dongs.

    Don’t just say a thing: Fill in the rest of the picture and include the details that give the scene weight, color, and dimension. The funny is in the granular. Always.We laugh because that’s where we see ourselves most clearly.
  3. Use pop culture references—carefully.
    What makes pop cultural references work is because again it lends specificity. It puts us in a place in time—a specific time, one we all shared and remember and perhaps are nostalgic for. It can get a laugh because it allows us to remember it and we feel included by it.


    My rule is this: Know what purpose that reference serves. Is it a cutting commentary on something happening in our culture? Is it a great comparison to show how far we’ve come or how far we’ve stayed the same perhaps?

    If you’re doing a talk that will be recorded and shared (say, a TEDx talk), you don’t want to make a reference to something or be too dependent on an example that’s exclusive or fleeting because then the talk has a more limited shelf life.

    My rule of thumb is that if you want to make a pop culture reference that isn’t lost on half the crowd or meaningless six months from now, use one that has stood the test of time, meaning, is old enough that people will remember. The more mainstream the better, usually.

    This is why a reference to Duran Duran is going to get more laughs from an adult audience than Drake. (Then again, it depends).  People love to be reminded of where they came from, their shared history, things they can laugh at now.Making just the right cultural reference, be it to older songs or movies, foods or fashions, or something we all used to be into but are embarrassed about now? That’ll get a laugh. Again, consider the crowd and what purpose that reference serves.
  4. Take a hard left turn.

    I said you don’t have to be a comic to be funny, but it does help to take a tip from the pros. I had the chance to study under comic Jim David, a very successful standup who has performed for decades. And he says that comedy isn’t a talent or a gift.He said joke writing is a mathematical equation, and anyone can learn it.

    Jokes are, he said, simply a series of hard left turns. You make the audience think you’re going one way and then you make a hard left; it throws them off, and quite often, will make them laugh.


    You see this technique lots of places, by anyone trying to entertain and engage someone else—so you see it in comedy sure but also compelling narratives and great advertising, novels, horror movies, you name it. It requires that you know what someone anticipates or assumes, and then–surprise!–go in a different direction.

    Think about what your audience anticipates, and then, hang a left when they least expect it. When done right, your audience will be surprised and delighted to be along with you for the ride, and they’ll remember you long afterwards, too. 

Want to learn how to crush it on stage? Join my FREE online training June 7 & 8 – “5 Steps to a TED-worthy Talk.” And start stepping up your game in ways that get you noticed—and booked to speak again.

The #1 Way to Get Clear on Your Messaging

Say what you will about holidays (Hallmark and otherwise)—they give us an occasion for doing a thing (exchanging gifts, drinking green beer, singing, etc).

If you want something done, you don’t have to wait for a holiday, but you do have to give yourself the occasion for doing it.

Things like: Writing a book. Launching a podcast. Giving a TEDx talk. You can do these things…or not. You can relaunch your website. Or not. Unless you’re under pressure to do a thing, it’s hard to get motivated to do it.

I know of no better way to be accountable to your goals and figure out what exactly you’re trying to do than to speak about it in public.

Promise a group of people you’ll show up in a room and talk to them.

That’ll motivate you. It’s like throwing a party so that you have a reason to clean your house.

When you have a date on the books to show up and speak, you’ll be under considerable pressure to deliver on that promise.

And not just that—but knowing you’re going to speak on a thing forces you to get clear on your ideas, and those are the ideas that feed other, bigger projects, like books and courses.

You can use speaking to test out and explore ideas that you may want to pursue in a bigger way.

I do this for other people (as a brand messaging expert this IS what I do for a living). But I also do it for myself! I pitch ideas to speak on topics that I myself want to explore and form an opinion on.

And it works.

It helps me get a clearer sense on what it is I stand for, and what I think is most important to put out into the world.

I’ve done it for the TEDx talks I’ve given (this one and this one), but also for a range of other events and conferences.

Committing to speak on a topic gives you the occasion to form your insights.

This is why, if you’re trying to nail down your “thing,” your mission, your message, the thing you want to be known for, you’ve got to find occasions to speak.

Anywhere—networking groups, workshops, conferences, industry events. For the avid speaker, the crowning achievement is a TEDx talk. And fact is, each speaking effort improves on the last, and helps you get a clearer sense of what you’re trying to do and say.

Don’t wait to “figure out” what you’re trying to say, or assume you’ll do more speaking “later” when you know what you’re doing. No one really ever knows what they’re doing.

Start giving yourself real reasons to stand up and speak and you’ll be forced to get really clear on what’s most important, and get it out into the world in a powerful way.

 

How I Got a TED Talk

Click to watch "Stop Searching for Your Passion"

Click to watch “Stop Searching for Your Passion”

The only thing more stunning than walking into the Kauffman Center in Kansas City when it’s full of people is when you’re the only one there.

That’s where I stood, slack jawed and awestruck on Saturday afternoon, August 29, 2015, hours before the thousands descended for the annual TEDxKC event. The pale wooden panels of this huge vaulted space gave the whole room a warm, golden cast. I felt like I was in the hull of some monster ship, or a cathedral, or tucked right inside God’s ear. I stepped up onto the round red carpet, the x-marks-the-spot for TED presenters.

And Then…

And I thought what anyone else would think: WTF am I doing here? Impostor syndrome is like psychological herpes—it’s far more widespread than you think, and while it may be inactive or latent much of the time, an outbreak can be easily triggered, and there you are with a full-blown case. It doesn’t go away, and you basically hope that it will go back to wherever it spends most of its time hiding.

Why wouldn’t I feel like an impostor? I, like you, have been watching TED talks for years. I even bought a book this summer, How to Deliver a TED Talk, downloaded it on my Kindle on a Sunday in Central Park, and it made me feel worse, not better. Because the author had watched and analyzed a zillion TED talks and had come up with a formula, and the whole thing made me tired. His analysis was interesting in part, but didn’t inspire. That wasn’t how this would happen.

So How Did I Get a TED Talk? 

I’ll answer this question for you now, since it’s the one I get asked the most.

I am sure there’s a more standard way (research which TEDx events are happening, apply to their call for speakers, etc). But that’s not how it happened for me. Rather, a contact of mine, Chuck Brandt, a skilled and gifted app developer at VML (the agency that runs the TEDx event), reached out. He had kept me on his radar since my days at Martha. And I hadn’t heard from him in years. Until one day in July he messaged me on FB, asking me if I wanted to do a TED talk in Kansas City. Someone had dropped out. It was less than a month away.

Um. Yes?

I love when people drop out. Seriously. It’s my jam. Nature abhors a vacuum, as do I. It’s how I got a spot at How Design Live last spring, when someone dropped out. You snooze, you lose! I was so grateful for that opportunity, and it showed—I was ranked the #1 speaker at that event. So this year, I’m going back, but not because someone else couldn’t make it.

But trust me, I in no way had this TED thing in the bag. Hardly.

TEDx director Mike Lundgren agreed to get on a Skype call with me, and asked, “The question is, do you have a TED talk in you?”

Yes, I said. And here’s what I did: I pitched. But not like sales-pitchy. I talked to him about some ideas I’d been kicking around for some time, issues that made me curious, frustrated, things that I’d thought long and hard about and thought other people would connect with. We talked about career and relationships, wrongheaded ideas we’d fallen prey to, or that had been swallowed whole by our culture, and yet didn’t sit right with me.

And THAT was what led to the subsequent Skype call the next day, and the day after that. I talked to Mike every day for nearly a week, and I wrote more every night. We were approaching an idea.

This was the leading one: My belief that the “search for passion” is a bunch of navel-gazing garbage, and wasted effort at that. And that it’s a question people ask when they don’t know what else to ask, and we fill in answers that we think sound good. And that there’s more to a passionate life than having the single best answer to that question.

My Best Advice

Opportunity favors the well prepared, right? So my advice is this: Always be chewing on something—an idea, a thought, a question, something that eats away at you and pokes holes in the platitude-laden universe. These are the ideas that fuel your best work, writing, business ideas, blogs, products, events, and yes, TED talks. What’s that little grain of sand working at the soft body of your mind and heart? The more you struggle with it, the more luminous the pearl.

Don’t attempt to neutralize the ideas that feel controversial. Kick the tires, honk the horns. Open them up like a speed boat to see how fast they go. Question everything. And—be willing to be vulnerable, to share a story, to tell the truth. Even if you fear others won’t like it.

I didn’t get invited to present at one of the biggest and most prestigious TEDx events in the country because I’m a “good speaker.” There are plenty of good speakers, but not nearly enough challenging, brave, risky ideas or people willing to champion them. So make it your business to cultivate those juicy ideas, and share them, any chance you get.