Introducing a more meaningful speaking event

By Cassandra Schwartz, recent Comm Lead alum and co-founder of She Has Drive. More about Cassandra on her website.

When was the last time you went to a conference and learned something actionable from EVERY speaker?

If you’ve experienced this, please tell me more — because that’s an event I’d like to attend!

For most of us, the answer is never. We’ve sat through boring lectures, incredibly awkward or confusing talks, and cringed at poorly planned panels. Last fall, my class within UW Communication Leadership gathered to tackle the problem of endless, predictable talks. We demanded more, not only for ourselves but from ourselves.

Over 10 weeks we reviewed talks, dissecting their format, structure, audience engagement, and even style. We debated, respectfully, the merits of various approaches. We considered the impact on each decision—asking questions and considering things like language barriers, disabilities, resources, and a slew of other possibilities. While the format AND the experience mattered to our class, so did the topics and really, the purpose of such an approach. After spending countless hours picking through the differences and successes of talks like TED, Ignite, and more, we narrowed on what not only made sense but also what would enhance our approach.

Let me be frank, TED Talks or the foundation of them is not new. These orations have been around for much of the history of humanity. But the TED talks themselves have transformed into a cultural status symbol, creating an idealized perception of what it means to give a TED Talk. To be fair, there are plenty of examples of how TED Talks have catapulted thought leaders into success. The list of NOW household names like Simon SinekBrene BrownChimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Sheryl Sandberg.

And the issues with TED Talks and the many imitators has been written about ad nauseam. ForbesInc.Vice, and even Benjamin Bratton wrote about the issues for The Guardian and spoke at TED about the problem with TED Talks. So we focused our efforts on creating something worthwhile. Here’s what we came up with:

IDEAS: Inspire. Develop. Engage. Amplify. Space.

The Purpose:

IDEAS is an interactive event that invites everyday people to share innovative ideas and strategies that will shape the future. The goal is for presenters to engage the audience and provide actionable outcomes that build connection and influence change. Our goal in facilitating these events is to cultivate topics that are impacting our communities and networks today.

This event results in a cultivated invaluable network of community partners, industry contacts, and thought leaders.

Many different types of talks and presentations exist to communicate ideas, yet there is a vital need for a new format to address the myriad of shortcomings in existing formats. Presently, some examples of drawbacks lie in length of talks, overly structured that you can guess the outcome regardless of topic, unrealistic or generic call to action items or talks given by industry professionals only.

Topics are not limited to just positive or feel-good stories, but also the severity of issues or ideas that might not be as popular, but necessary to be told.

Topics should be considered in a global context, we are not afraid to attack larger issues beyond the Pacific Northwest Bubble. Speakers are not solely evaluated by their credentials or industry experience, but by strength and credibility of the ideas they wish to share.

Diversity is not optional. Most platforms lack diversity, sharing the ideas of primarily white men. The need for diversity should not only address appearances – adding diversity in gender and race is a good first step, but we will also prioritize diversity of communities represented, engaging diverse audiences and distributing in ways to engage a diverse public, private, and nonprofit constituencies.

Audience members react to Melissa Schwartz’s talk on “Using Social Media for Good.”

The Format:

For the initial event, presenters had 6-8 minutes to share their idea. But the format is meant to work for any length. Despite the arguments, there isn’t a perfect time allotment for speeches. Some of the world’s most famous speeches were but a few minutes in length. The length is not the important piece of giving a talk.

The words you choose to express your idea, are.

For IDEAS — each presenter is introduced and then given the stage to jump straight into their speech. They are directed to share no more than three key ideas and the must leave the audience with next steps.

They are given the choice to use slides. There was no requirement either way. One thing our class learned during our discovery phase is that slides can be both a positive and a negative in a presentation. For example, they can help a speaker stay on script, this is especially useful if the speaker is presenting in a language other than their native tongue. On the flip side, irrelevant or distracting slides can derail a presentation and enable a speaker to lose the audience.

To help speakers make a decision about using slides, our class came up with these questions:

If any of these questions are answered with ‘yes’ than a slide might be beneficial. However, a ‘no’ response should make you pause and consider not using a slide.

  • Will your audience benefit from visualization?
  • Does a simple statistic, quote, or visual add more than what you could say?
  • Does the slide help connect people to the story or provide context?
  • Does it provide a visualization to an unfamiliar concept?
  • Is the slide important to the narrative?
  • Is the graphic or chart easily understood with a glance?
  • Is the slide easily understood by anyone without subject matter expertise?

Following the conclusion of the IDEAS talks, the event is not yet finished. One of the areas our class found lacking was audience engagement. To help the audience get more from the event, an IDEAS event must include meeting space to discuss the material, ideas, and talks further.

I was asked to introduced IDEAS in January at CommLead Connects, which include several IDEAS Talks varied but focused on solving communication problems. As part of my role, I also designed the breakout sessions, our first attempt at audience engagement following the talks.

Breakout Sessions

The breakout sessions were designed to enable attendees to have conversations, connect, and learn more from one another. The goal of these sessions was to create a more engaging and meaningful event (as I mentioned above) as well as warm attendees up for the networking hour at the end of the day’s event.

The sessions were 40 minutes long and comprised 15-20 attendees and 2 facilitators. Groups convened in small rooms where circles of 15-20 chairs were set up. Each facilitator pair had a whiteboard with markers. Prior to the event day, each facilitator was taught key best practices on leading a discussion as well as provided with resources to learn more. Their roles could make or break the success of each group’s session.

Comm Lead alum Alvin Singh speaks during a breakout session.

There’s a lot I learned from our execution at CommLead Connects — ways to improve the event, the talks, the breakout sessions, and the overall attendee experience. But I’ll save that for a future article.

At CommLead Connects I stood up in front a couple hundred of my peers, mentors, program faculty, and communication professionals, to introduce IDEAS, each speaker, as well as the breakout sessions.

I am terrified of public speaking.

Every single time I stand at the front of a room all my anxieties kick in. My heart does a tap dance in my chest, my hands quiver, and my mouth becomes so dry it feels like my top lip is permanently stuck to my teeth.

But you wouldn’t know this.

I’ve worked hard to tamp down the feelings and let my words be heard. I am terrified, but I’m more afraid of what happens if I don’t stand up, speak, and share my story.

Watch the video above to hear the story I was too afraid to keep.

IDEAS was more than a class project. It has become a living, real-life event & experience. Over the coming weeks, more of the talks from January’s event will be published. I encourage you to watch each of them.

But what I really hope is that you’ll be inspired to finally tackle that idea you’ve been contemplating. That problem you know can be solved. That possibility that you’ve tamped down for too damn long.

If you made it this far, please share with someone you think would benefit from reading this story.

Article re-posted with permission from LinkedIn

Recording and post production by Bryan Flynn, Jacob Hilsabeck and Alex Stonehill

Alex StonehillIntroducing a more meaningful speaking event
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