Thursday, November 13, 2014

Leadership communication: three things about all great conference presentations

Attending the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia (ASFA) 2014 with 1899 other delegates from the financial services industry, I was struck by a few realisations yesterday. 

Realisation 1: How unusual it is to have an all-female keynote or plenary line-up on Day One

Realisation 2: Truly great keynote speeches all have the same ingredients

Realisation 3: The more information we are faced with, the more meaningless it becomes

These things may not sound like blinding insights, but they do point to some important lessons for wanna-be conference speakers, or those of us who speak regularly but sometimes fall into the trap of telling people what we know, instead of something the audience might actually find both useful and entertaining.

And make no mistake, whether you're an actuary, asset management PhD or Australian of the Year, you need to be both useful AND entertaining. That's the bit in points two and three about using narrative techniques that work well for you and your audience - regardless of the topic.  

If you disagree, think for one minute about a well-known Superannuation Board member and former Central Banker who is like a human sleeping pill. Incredibly capable, a national treasure, well respected and yet induces narcolepsy in even the most well-caffeinated of audiences.

Due credit to ASFA for putting together a diverse Day One speaker line-up, all of whom met the "useful and entertaining" test. Due credit also for having a Day One line-up where Rosemary Vilgan and Ita Buttrose were the Day One opening Plenary speakers. Both are exceptional leaders, with an informed view and much value to offer the audience. Both are also women - but it's rare (and laudable) to see two women keynoting.  

Here is the anatomy of what each speaker did, to varying degrees of success.

First: know thy audience
Ita Buttrose and Mark Bouris are paid keynote speakers, household names and leaders in their field. If it's good enough for them to study their audience, in this case superannuation industry leaders, and work hard to connect with us, it's good enough for you and I. 

I am humbled by how much work good professional speakers do to make sure they know who they are talking to and how to relate their story to those people. Ita Buttrose did not make the mistake of turning up and saying what she always says - she (or a speech writer) thought about what would resonate with us as well as serve her own purposes (promoting the cause of dementia and Alzheimer’s' disease).

It's this process of sitting in the audience's shoes, and thinking deeply about our own agenda form their perspective, that humbles us, makes for a generous presentation and help us connect with people who give time and attention to us.

Second: know your "why"
Listening to Russell Investment's indomitable Don Ezra was a delight. And that's despite the fact that I am not a 60+ year old semi-retired investment guru. Don was so passionate and warm in his delivery that he infected me with his own enthusiasm for a better way to think and behave about income in retirement. 

I'm not sure this was always his spiel, but he sounds like a man fired up on behalf of a large and growing group of people - of whom he is one, but also on whom he is a subject matter expert. 

Don is an investment strategist, now semi-retired but also, it seems to me, in the happy place of having arrived at a moment in time during which his work is both a higher purpose and source of income. Perhaps it was always this way for Don. Or perhaps he's worked hard to reach the destination.

Either way, all truly great speakers (Buttrose and Bouris included) are clear about what they care deeply about - and able to infect us with their own passion as a result.

Rosemary Vilgan had a lot more content to impart but also was crystal clear about what matters most - and that's the best possible outcome for Australians who are retired, delivered by a super system that needs to evolve. It's clearly something she cares deeply about, as should we all if we are to work in financial services.

Third: keep it as simple as you can
We all "know" that this is the age of information overload. But do we really use that when we sit down to prepare a conference presentation? Mmmm not often enough if my years of conference attendance are anything to go by.

From an evolutionary biology point of view we are the equivalent of slightly evolved apes staring, confused and aghast, into the matrix. That's sounds a bit harsh, but Google "information overload" and "evolutionary biology", or "behavioural finance choice" and you'll see what I mean. 

The short version is this:
- We live in an age where the amount of information available to us has outstripped our ability to process it
- Most of us living and working in an urban environment experience some level of overload
- The more information we are presented with (or allow in) the less helpful it becomes - and our ability to make good decisions drops accordingly

So what does that mean if you're a conference speaker? You probably consistently over-estimate your audience's ability to absorb what you are saying. And your own ability to make it simple enough to be useful.

In short, the more time invested up front making our subject matter expertise accessible, the better. 

Matt Church (an expert on Thought Leadership) gets this, so I'm very much looking forward to his session on Friday. 

Perhaps that should be compulsory viewing for more conference speakers.

Bouris, Buttrose, Ezra and Vilgan kept it at the right level - there was well thought through content, but there were also clear themes even the most overloaded brain could follow.

There's much more to truly great speaking that three ingredients. That said, even just getting these right is an act of generousity towards our audiences.

Isn't that what leadership and leadership communication is all about - serving our audience, not just ourselves?

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