On being a keynote

Photo: Paul Clarke

Photo: Paul Clarke

“Keynote” sounds grand doesn’t it? Like the key stone that keeps an arch in place, it sounds like something irreplaceable, the piece without which the rest of the edifice will crumble.

Most keynoters would like to believe we are that important. The truth is, we’re not.

The truth about any keynote address is that while it sets the tone for an event (the key note is literally the note the orchestra tunes to), it’s only one of many things that the audience will hear. So while it’s important, the conference won’t fall to pieces if it’s not perfect.

Even if they reluctantly accept that they are not the centrepiece of an event, however, any keynoter worthy of the name will want to do a good job. That means delivering the right talk for a particular event, for a particular audience.

Which is why, with 40 minutes to go before the start of Learning Pool Live South last week, I found myself starting on my second cup of coffee and re-writing my entire presentation.

You see, the evening before the conference I had been at another event with Marco Faccini, who had described very positively the previous Learning Pool live events he had attended. That gave me a sense of the enthusiasm of the audience, where they came from and what they were expecting. I was already reconsidering my talk on the way home that evening, and as I lay in bed that night.

And when I arrived at the venue, I realised that the presentation I had submitted to Learning Pool’s Lisa McGonigle two days’ previously wouldn’t do.

Learning Pool CEO Paul McElvaney chatted with me on the way in – charming, full of energy and with lots of insight into the company’s progress and how the previous events had gone. That confirmed me in my opinion. I had to find a table, plug my laptop in, and re-write.

“You should really be nervous,” said Patrick on the tech team, as he saw me apparently calmly tapping on my laptop keyboard. “You’re on in 20 minutes.”

“Oh I am nervous,” I replied. “And I’d be worried if I wasn’t. If you don’t feel anything before you talk, you shouldn’t step on stage.”

That’s certainly true. I have chaired more events than I can count. I have worked with over 800 conference speakers in my time. Experience shows that the only ones worse than those who say “It’s all right. I never get nervous” are the ones that say: “It’s okay, I don’t need to prepare. I’ll work out what to say when I’m in front of the audience.”

It’s always worth getting a presentation ready well in advance, even if you know you’re likely to re-write it. In fact, you should always hone it. Delivering the first version of a presentation to an audience means you’re effectively giving them a beta product. And nobody wants that.

So why did I finish my final draft 10 minutes before going on stage? Because I had made a fundamental mistake in my previous drafts: I had written something I wanted to say, not something that would suit the event and the audience.

The event was a beautifully staged event that brought together some 300 of Learning Pool’s clients from the south-east of England. The effortlessly smooth running was something that you wouldn’t notice, which is exactly as it should be, but which any conference organizer will tell you can only be achieved through relentless attention to detail and hard work. As a fellow professional I stood back in admiration.

The event needed something with a bit of spark, some illustrative anecdotes and a clear structure to set the tone for a day of conversation and sharing with key Learning Pool customers. (They call these ‘hero stories’. I love that approach.)

The audience had committed a day of their time to be there. In many cases they had travelled some distance to be there. They deserved to be informed, to be focused on a handful of important, big picture issues, and to be entertained a bit.

And my original talk did none of that. It had been all about the stuff that was in my mind when I wrote it. It was all about me, not about what the event and the audience required.

So I stepped up, delivered my talk and I believe it went down well. We had some meaningful discussion about some important issues, we laughed and chatted together and everyone went into the coffee break ready for the rest of the day. The re-write was worth it.

There is a coda.

I had ended by saying that this might be the end of my talk, but it was also, I hoped the beginning of a conversation. The next morning I received this message on LinkedIn. Even if I hadn’t enjoyed being with the Learning Pool team and the audience, this message alone would have made everything worthwhile:

Thanks for the connection, I’m reading all the material you have on [your blog]!

I’m making the transition from trainer to Training Manager. Looking for inspiration and guidance to formalise my skills and make the transition on a personal level and professionally to elevate my organisation beyond its wildest dreams!

I loved what you had to say yesterday, and the whole day left me invigorated hence me doing work tasks at 7am…

For someone who believes passionately in the need for the profession to develop itself, and that we need great training managers in the future, it was wonderful to know that I had encouraged one person on their personal development path.

It was also good to be reminded of really matters in any keynote: the audience.

An open letter to spammers


Image: AJ Cann, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0

I receive a lot of friendly requests via Twitter and LinkedIn. Actually, they are simple spam dressed up as something friendlier. Instead of replying to them individually, I have written this post so that I can simply reply with this URL: http://bit.ly/NoToSpam

Dear Spammer

You don’t think you’re spamming, because we follow each other on Twitter, or LinkedIn, or somewhere. You think this give us some sort of relationship.

It does.

A tenuous, arms-length relationship. We’re not close enough to swap favours yet. So when you mail or tweet me promoting yourself and your services, this is what’s wrong:

It looks false

You may try to personalise your message, but you’ll never succeed. This is spam marketing whatever you say. You want me to buy something or do something, but that needs trust first. You don’t have it. In fact, you just lost it when you dressed up your message as something it wasn’t.

You’ll find the route back is a long one.

When I advise people on their use of social media I always make these points: “engagement is a conversation” and “never make your first contact a request”. This is especially true on Twitter and LinkedIn, intimate media through which I have conversations with people I know and trust. Send me an unsolicited request and you burst into that intimate medium and break both rules. It’s like entering a crowded room and shouting “I’m here, listen to me and give me what I want. Now!”

It’s repellent.

You almost always deal with any reaction badly

Usually, spammers, you react with affront at the idea that what you’re doing is a bad idea. Messages like “It’s your choice if you unfollow/block me” entirely miss the point. I’m gone, but at least I told you. What about everyone else?

You have a bad case of Social Media Body Odour (SoMeBO)

SoMeBO occurs when people avoid you because of your online social habits. Trust me, for every one person like me who tells me what I think, there are at least 10 who quietly make a note that you’re not to be trusted and not someone to spend time with.

This could all have been avoided

Spamming is the cheapest, meanest, lowest, most economical and self-serving way to get a response. If you were really interested in my opinion, you would have reached out first with a phone call or email. But of course that might have been too expensive, involved a little too much effort.

The problem is that your approach reveals far more about your approach than you’d probably like.

If you really want to find out what people think, engage them in a real conversation. If you want to market properly using social media, engage in real conversation. On the other hand, if you want to be seen as an organisation ignoring the 21st century, then carry on with these self-serving campaigns and watch as the people you want to care, the ones whose interest you were craving, silently unfollow you and walk away.

Three principles for great meetings

"Meeting" by John Benson https://www.flickr.com/photos/j_benson/7023561195

Image: Maria Giannopoulos, Mifflin Street Meeting, John Benson

I bet you can’t wait for your next meeting, can you?

No, I didn’t think so.

Almost everyone will be familiar with the energy-sapping reality of most meetings: waiting for the last, late person to arrive before you start, listening to the domineering attendee who loves the sound of their own voice and that sinking feeling as the minutes tick by and you think of all the real work accumulating on your desk, awaiting your late return.

It needn’t be like that.

There’s a simple problem with meetings: they are completely unnatural, and yet we refuse to accept the fact. We treat most meetings as if they were a gathering of colleagues over a cup of tea. In reality they are far more complicated – and potentially valuable – than that. Just as giving someone Microsoft Word does not turn them into Shakespeare, or PowerPoint transform them into Martin Luther King Junior, so placing people into a meeting room does not automatically result in a smoothly-run, effective meeting. They need a little help.

If you’ve been lucky enough to experience a well-run meeting, you’ll know that it felt different. Things that might have stood out include:

• A clear agenda and sense of purpose to the meeting
• Clarity about everyone’s role and their commitments after the meeting
• Everyone had the chance to speak, and nobody spoke too much
• It started on time and finished no later than planned

How did those meetings work so well, when most meetings are generally so unsatisfactory?

I’ve been involved in some pretty awful meetings in my time, and some excellent ones. Over twenty years, I’ve run or attended meetings looking at product development, marketing and operations and I’ve chaired meetings for shareholders, company boards and local volunteers. And over those two decades I’ve concluded that there are three principles behind any good meeting:

1) Time – Everyone’s time is valuable, so respect it. Only invite those who are necessary, start and finish on time, and demand full focus on the subject in hand during the meeting.
2) Purpose – There must be a clear, collective purpose for the meeting or don’t have it. Usually that purpose is decision making, so be very clear what needs to be decided and ensure that everyone in the room who wants to can make a contribution.
3) Process – A meeting is a point in a process; it is not a regular conversation. Actions from the minutes must be clearly assigned to attendees, with dates for delivery and sanctions for non-delivery made clear.

These three principles might sound stark, but they don’t mean that meetings can’t be positive experiences. In fact, in my experience meetings are far more enjoyable when it is quite clear that they are leading to something. The opposite – the rambling conversation that circles around itself before petering out inconclusively is a bitterly resented waste of everyone’s time.

Depending on your company culture, you might decide to reflect these three principles in any number of concrete actions. Personally, I would choose five, because it’s a number that people can keep in their heads, and keeping the actions in mind makes them more likely to be followed. To help people remember them, I’d have simple posters created like this, and hang them in each meeting room:

Meetings Code PNG

That last point is essential.

Meetings are often treated as the antithesis of action. “We’ll have a meeting about it” usually means that the subject has been kicked into the long grass to be forgotten. It shouldn’t be like that. Meetings should be the spark that starts things happening, and the force that keeps them going to a successful conclusion. By remembering the three principles of good meetings and running them according to the five practical actions, I believe we can transform meetings from energy-sapping nightmares to crucibles of intense conversation that drive our organizations.

I’ll be delivering a webinar on Five steps to turn meetings from purgatory to productive” on Thursday 9th October. I’ll try to run it according to my own principles.

LearningLive 2014 – thank you

Thanks to everyone who made the Learning and Performance Institute’s LearningLive Conference last week such a success. Taking place at the fabulous new Etc Venue at 155 Bishopsgate, it was probably our most successful event yet.

Special plaudits must go to our keynote speaker Dr Steve Peters (of Chimp Management fame) who delivered one of the best keynotes for our field that I have ever heard.

And thanks, too, to someone who sadly wasn’t present this year. David Kelly has one again done a spectacular job with curating activity and resources around the event.




The Learning Journey 2014

Elliott with keynote Hillary Clinton at Learning 2013

One of the many positive things about being the chair of the Learning and Performance Institute is the chance to support great work in our field.

I can’t respond positively to every invitation and opportunity,  but do enjoy, where possible, supporting some great initiatives for the L&D profession.

One initiative I’m pleased to support this year is Alfred RemmitsLearning Journey 2014. Alfred is arranging for a group from Europe to attend Elliott Masie’s Learning 2014 conference and is surrounding the event with talks and site visits (including Sears and McDonald’s Universities) to make it a great opportunity to learn from fellow chief learning officers. Elliott’s events are certainly worth attending: the keynote in 2013 was Hillary Clinton. This year it’s Sir Ken Robinson.

Although I am delivering one of the talks –  21st Century Skills for L&D – I have no financial interest in this, just a strong belief that this sort of collaborative activity, where we properly get to know colleagues over a series of days, is a great way of building networks and developing both ourselves and the profession.

If you’d like to know more about taking advantage of Learning 2014, please contact Alfred directly. You can find his email and phone number on the last page of this PDF which explains the Learning Journey 2014 in more detail:

Learning Journey 2014

The Learning Journey 2014