Get people to talk

Clearly, I am a world expert on speaking to groups of people: I just did my 184th event since I started counting in late 2012. No question, I know everything. But I do know what it’s like getting to the end and saying “So, any questions?” before getting silence. And more silence. And a closing “well, um, er” from me.

I don’t get that so much now and I think it’s down to three things I’ve been trying.

1) Sometimes I’ve said very early on that we’ll be having a Q&A at the end but called it Question & Argument

2) When it’s a talk, when I’m specifically there to speak for an hour or whatever instead of working with people, I’ll say early on that there will be questions and answers – but that I’ll be asking them the questions. It does tend to get a laugh but then it also leaves you with a much better ending because instead of “So, any questions?” you can say “Right, my turn” and then you ask something. It has to be relevant to the group, has to be tied to what the talk is about, but you got there early and nattered with everyone you could find, you’ve got this.

3) Look foolish. So far this has only come up in workshops where I’ve been talking about quite specific technical things but each time it’s begun because an attendee has mentioned having a developer or someone else doing their technical stuff for them. I tell them that if their developer says something different to me, they should listen to him or her – but also do please tell me. I say this because I mean it – a developer will know more than I do – but also it tells the entire audience that you’re fine with being corrected, that you’re up for being told new things.

I said you look foolish but really it’s key that you look fine with being foolish – and that you actually are fine with it. Lecturing at someone about a point and then letting them change your mind about something isn’t just the right thing to do, it oddly demonstrates a command of your subject. You’re not defensive, you’re accepting and questioning, you’re deep into this topic and seeking new ideas that you are able to examine and build on.

I’ve also fallen over chairs a few times and that was deliberate, it was, it was.

Get over it. By writing about it.

I’ve only fairly recently discovered this for myself: when I’ve had a particularly bad time, especially if it were my fault it was so very bad, then writing about it helps me. The two times I’m thinking of, I wrote to friends. One of whom didn’t want to know and I wish to God I’d never sent it, but the other asked – and I didn’t send it to her. I wrote out a long email explaining everything and, the writer’s mind kicks in, the end result was far more structured and comprehensible than the whirlwind in my head. I wrote that, read it, understood it and had no more need to send it to her. “I’m fine, thanks,” I wrote instead.

Of course, things that upset and paralyse me are as nothing compared to what happens to some people:

In one of my leadership development workshops, we invited participants to write up and present an account of a difficult experience. We ended up with more than we had expected when Simon, a senior executive at an oil company, told the group about a harrowing experience that he had never properly digested.

On an assignment in Nigeria, Simon and five colleagues visiting one of the company’s oil rigs had been taken hostage. Two of the other hostages were killed in front of him almost at once and he was only released after long and drawn-out negotiations on the size of the ransom. He told us that he had never been able to put the experience behind him and was still plagued by nightmares.

But he also told us that writing up an account of this experience for the workshop had been somewhat cathartic for him.

To Get Over Something, Write About It – Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, Harvard Business Review (26 November 2014)

Read the full piece for a quite academic but thoughtful exploration of how this works for us.