Listening like a speaker – speaking with meaning at conferences

Gleb Maltsev, a speaker, coach, entrepreneur and a co-founder of Fundwise, believes speakers and conference-goers can be givers rather than takers. Here’s his seven-point guide to speaking with meaning at conferences.

Conferences are boring. Not the Elon Musk kind of boring. The kind that makes you, the attendee, want to saddle a Falcon 9 rocket home to binge on the latest seasons of American Gods, Billions and Silicon Valley. That, or you could get your fix of the blue and white Facebook feed that shaves off fifty minutes of your life every day and makes a fresh data pie out of it.

Or, you could open your inbox to make sure that those two-hour-old unanswered emails remain that way, but hey, you got to feel productive. Pretty much anything other than listening to that 20-45 minute disaster one calls a keynote or its slow cousin –  the panel.

Meanwhile on the other end of the hall…

Whether a seasoned speaker with garlands of conference tags, or someone who’s just making their bones onstage, you’re likely nervous – if not downright petrified –  to have to stare back at that pool of fickle, judging eyes. You know the minutes matter because what you have to say might actually be heard. It might actually make a difference. But the eyes of the screen-struck audience don’t know it yet – and that brings us to the moneyball question.

How do you get people to pay and maintain attention, when they’ve got so little of it left?

Whose job is it anyway? Is it the organizers’, the speakers’ or is it the attendees’? Perhaps it’s the calling of the branded company puppy that will get people to linger in between talks? Woof as a Service –  deborifyng events, one furball at a time.

The short answer is an oxymoron as there are no short answers. Yes, it’ll require more of you than the seven minutes it takes to read this, which is why each title is a link to a book or an article. Think of the sections as individual training regimens for any given day. It’s a hard week, yet worth the grind. Do it.

  1. It takes Extreme Ownership. Ownership of the fact that people would rather browse, swipe and scroll instead of listening to you is because you haven’t given them a good enough reason. It’s your responsibility to get those eyes away from the screens and onto you. The worst excuses are “those who need to understand will understand”, “If I had more time…” and, my personal favourite, “I’m sorry, I didn’t…”. These and others are easy and even seductive, but they’ve got no place in the vocabulary of a speaker. Least of all one who cares.

2. Ego is the Enemy. A bigger event does not equate with a better one. Your self-worth isn’t tied to the name of your company or to the adulation of the crowd listening to you. You’re owed nothing – unless you’re a bank. Your talk isn’t about you, it’s about them – the audience and what meaning you can give them in the few minutes you have. Ask yourself what Colonel John Richard Boyd did: “To be somebody or to do something…Which way will you go?”

3. Empathy through The Gift of Therapy. As a psychiatrist with over 50 years in practice, Irvin D Yalom has written the best non-leadership book on leadership that I’ve ever read. He showed me that the speaker’s role is to be a humble guide, an example of a human work-in-progress, to ask and listen, to lead their listeners to insight with vulnerability, but to simultaneously be their fellow traveller.

4. TED Talks, bullshit walks. Consult your speech coach before using any ideas discussed within the book. Excessive reliance on it may cause over-simplification, waves of pretentiousness, elitism, intermittent clichés, utopian thinking and repeated bouts of infotainment.

5. Think, Fast and Slow. Kahneman’s old news. So are fallacies, those pesky errors in judgment, and our predictable irrationality of behaviour. Yet, the metaphor of the emotional brain that cares about the “why?”, and the logical brain of the “how?” and “what?” is apt. More than apt, it’s prescriptive to any speaker who’s seeking to inspire, to inform, or to persuade an audience.

6. Tell True Stories. Countless food-and-truth-starved writers, from Kurt Vonnegut to Nancy Duarte, have waxed lyrical about story arcs, their beautiful shapes and why we should use them. Now, they’ve been boiled down to six core narratives, using machine learning and sentiment analysis. Spoiler alert: Vonnegut wasn’t far off and neither would you be by learning how to write a short story. As a rule, get someone to listen to it before, preferably pay an editor to trim the fluff and help you clarify your message.

7. It takes Grit, Drive, and Deliberate Practice. Whatever you call it – it’s work. The kind that demands feedback, is conscious and uncomfortable. There are no quick “hacks”, unless you’re fine with being one. Thirty to ninety hours, that’s how much time you need to book in your calendar before a speaking engagement. And the true paradox of “the shorter the talk, the longer it takes to prepare it” is valid. Every time.

You’ve read the points, but whether you’re going to act on them will hinge on your ability to make them your own. It’s much like with TED talks, keynotes or pitches – whether an audience does something after hearing them depends on how well they’ll remember it. What you can do is use the mind palace technique of the ancient Greeks and Romans to memorise the seven points you’ve read just now.

Imagine Jocko, a grizzled Navy Seal wrestling with his own ego on the therapeutic couch of the venerable Irvin D Yalom, before walking onto a red TED stage. He then tells a story about a “Man in a Hole” to a tortoise and a hare, our slow and faster minds. He wants them to remember that it takes grit, drive and deliberate practice to survive and thrive on stage.

I’d like to give you a tool – a storytelling litmus test of sorts, a question to be asked of yourself at the beginning, the middle and the end of a story.

What will they remember?

It’s the kind of question that holds you accountable, no matter speaker or attendee. Have you told a story that was worth paying attention to long enough for anyone to remember it? Try asking someone who you’ve told it to. Can they recall enough to share it forward a week, a month or a year from now? Just ask, and listen. No rationalising. That’s your impact.

And so, in the last minute of this piece, I invite you to go back to a memory. A memory from an event or conference, a story that left a mark with you or your business. Who did you talk or listen to? What made them tick? Why did they do what they do? Above all, why did you remember them? Please share that story as a response below. I’d like to hear it.


Cover image by Gleb Maltsev.

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