I’ve been asked a few times this week what the secret to being a great speaker is. You’ll have to ask a great speaker for that. I have no idea. Great speakers don’t put f-bombs in their slides like I did last weekend at A Web Afternoon in Atlanta:
What I can tell you is, it’s rare that a speaker makes an impression on me, yet it happened three times at that conference. (I’m now over my quota for the year.) The following people each wowed me with a talk that didn’t last 10 minutes. I took notes. Here’s what it was that caught my attention:
Carl Smith, nGen Works
Carl was the opening act. He talked about his Jellyfish-based org structure, which is one of those ideas you hear about and think, “I can’t tell if this guy is high or if I just witnessed the start of the Next Big Thing.” I hung out with Carl. He wasn’t high.
What struck me about his talk were three things:
- He’s anticipated the audience’s point of view. I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing what the Jellyfish model is about, but suffice it to say, my brain was whirring the entire time he was speaking, testing how the model might be adapted for use at Ajax, because he was telling me how it might be adapted for Ajax—and he knows nothing about my company! Carl has tested and poked and prodded and shares his results.
- He is completely open and innocent. Carl is honest about where his model has worked, where it creates pain points, and the struggles he endured that led to its creation. Carl is open because he wants everyone in the audience to succeed.
- He creates intimacy through language. Carl speaks in a coded language that no one outside the room knows. It’s a very, very, effective way to make everyone feel part of his inner circle. You want to have a beer with the guy when he’s done. Which I was able to do. I’m happy to report that it was every bit as fun and enlightening as I expected it would be.
Bella Martin, Universal Methods of Design
Bella takes the stage. She stands at the podium. She uses mostly simple, white slides with a little bit of text. And she makes a huge, huge impact by turning a niche idea into a lever for improving broad swathes of the business world.
- She tells a story. If you’ve watched a TED talk, you know how data can come alive when presented by a capable storyteller. Bella’s that storyteller.
- She uses photos to make people smart. Early in her talk, Bella zips through a short series of photos showing people designing all sorts of products, from stovetops to iPhone apps. In doing so, she reveals processes that make you smack your forehead and say, “That’s genius! We need to be doing that at our office!”
- She reveals the world. Her model, while framed within the context of user interface design, has universal applicability. She gives people the ability meaningfully deepen their understanding of the world they live in.
Laura Calandrella, world traveler & coach
Listening to Laura, three thoughts crossed my mind in rapid succession: “Had we been in high school together, would I have had the confidence to do what she did?” quickly followed by “I want her creating the world I live in,” and “I’m looking at who I want my girls to grow up to be.”
When those are the things you find yourself thinking about during a talk, you pay attention. Laura’s impact comes from the example she sets.
- Laura makes you want to Do Something Meaningful. Laura has that X factor, and also these stories about things she’s done that you feel you should have been doing all along, like traveling to 3rd world countries to help local NGOs, and before you know it, you’re putting two and two together and you feel like you’ve just discovered the recipe for cultivating that X factor within yourself…
- She advocates. Laura has a vision of the future. She spells it out, and then keeps talking, and as she does it becomes clear how vision has infused everything she says and does with a sense of focus and inevitability. You want to enlist in her army of awesome (to borrow a phrase from Carl). Or hire her to help you bring out your own vision.
- She knows her audience. Most of us talk about leadership. Laura does it: eyes forward, machete in hand, clearing a path for herself and anyone brave enough to follow. She knows from experience and design who should be following her, and she tailors her talk for that group. (You’re a young, entrepreneurial woman in business? She’s got your back.) It’s a complete opposite style of leadership from Carl’s universally inviting approach, and it’s equally as effective.
There’s no getting around the fact that each of them also started with a compelling topic and a wealth of information to support it. What these three did was use the context of their talk to take the whole experience to another level.
Jason Seiden is CEO of Ajax Workforce Marketing. Ajax amplifies brands by aligning employees' online messaging.