Thursday, January 15, 2015

Coaching a cadre of conference speakers to give TED-quality talks

"Amazing." "Most interesting thing I've ever seen at a conference." "These made me remember why I got into health care."

Conference organizers and program directors are increasingly in search of ways to enliven programs and get away from panels and keynotes. Many are using  TED-style talks to do so. There are plenty of benefits from the organizers' point of view, from variety in the program and baked-in brevity to being part of a hip yet established trend in public speaking.

But there are many more benefits to trying this approach, like these audience reactions at the recent Align conference on health care quality. A cadre of 16 speakers from Aligning Forces for Quality, a national demonstration program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, were featured giving five-minute TED-quality talks about challenges faced by their projects, successes, and lessons learned. By the time each of the 16 "spotlight speakers," one from each project, had done their talks, they'd become the hit of the program.

That's an ambitious assignment, and I was fortunate to be the coach for these spotlight speakers. Here's how we pulled off this successful session:
  1. Selecting non-traditional speakers: The program's 16 coalitions--which include health professionals, business leaders, patients and more--nominated one speaker each. I quickly came to appreciate that those selected were not the usual suspects. They represented a range of roles: Nurses, physicians, business developers, patients, and only a few project directors. Many of the 16 speakers selected are introverted or infrequent speakers, or just plain nervous about speaking.  But all were highly committed to making this assignment work, a huge advantage in our coaching and eventual success.
  2. Speaker's choice on subject matter: While talks needed to focus on some aspect of the program, we gave speakers their choice of topics, ruled out yawn-inducing overviews and lots of slides, and urged them to resist lobbying by others for inclusion of off-topic items. Instead, in the spirit of TED, we asked them to use personal storytelling to shed light on the progress they were describing and make it understandable to all. Having the latitude to come up with their own topics was both challenging and an incentive for these speakers.
  3. The gift of time limits: I can't lie. The five-minute time limit was a big concern for these speakers, but it also served as a useful tool in structuring and organizing the talks. I advised them to aim for 120 words per minute as a guide to writing a script that had a prayer of coming in under the time limit. I'm pretty sure none of the speakers had had to limit their talks to five minutes before, and that's where practice came in handy. On performance day, we reassured the speakers that no ills would befall those who came in over time, since we had plenty of speakers whose talks were shorter than the limit, and overall, the session came in slightly under its allotted time.
  4. A two-pronged approach to coaching: We used a combination of group and 1:1 coaching for these 16 speakers. Group training works well and efficiently when you want a group of individual speakers to reach a particular norm--in this case, the five-minute talk in the style of TED--and when you need to ensure that all the individual speakers hear the same instructions. During our one-day workshop, we looked at how much you can fit into a five-minute talk and what distinguishes TED-style talks from other formats. Then each participant came up with a plan for his or her talk, including the personal story as well as any rhetorical devices--analogies or metaphors, for example--they wanted to use. Each speaker described his or her plan in a short video recording so we could provide on-the-spot feedback about their delivery. The group training was followed by two one-hour coaching sessions by phone or Skype, as well as interim reviews of scripts and practice videos, so I could coach them on their talk structure, language choices, and delivery. 
  5. Practice: Every speaker put in hours of practice, sending me their results for input along the way. At one point, we had nearly every speaker practicing in their cars on the way to work, and many, many colleagues and families were turned into practice audiences. Without the speakers' efforts, these talks would not have been the polished jewels that resulted from all that practice. And I want to note that these speakers carried on with the practice despite a host of deadlines, busy schedules, family emergencies and more--real troupers.
  6. On-site support: We encouraged all speakers to arrive the day before for an orientation to see the stage, green room, hair and makeup location, and other backstage details, and did a walk-through so they'd know exactly what would happen the next day. This step is often overlooked and makes a world of difference in preparing the speakers. Rooms were set aside so I could do on-the-spot 1:1 coaching or run-throughs with speakers during the day as needed, or so that introverted speakers could get some alone time to replenish their energy. And I was backstage with each and every speaker for last-minute help and encouragement, until the last one came off the stage.
I have to say that the entire group exceeded expectations--theirs and mine. After three months of preparation, it was lovely to hear the audience laugh or gasp or go silent at the points we'd anticipated, as jokes and revelations and serious moments hit their marks. There were nerves a-plenty backstage, but none of them showed onstage, as I'd reassured the speakers would be the case. A couple of speakers had interruptions and moved so smoothly through them they were soon forgotten.

Speakers used a variety of rhetorical approaches to the talks: Some acted out conversations or thought about what life would look like if something had or hadn't happened. Others related the program's challenges to a personal challenge. And we had some colorful metaphors going, from comparing the fits and starts of a new project to teaching a teenager to drive, to how a successful consumer engagement campaign should really be like a well-crafted breakfast. The juice that powered these talks, however, were the personal stories. We heard about near-death experiences and everyday happenings, emotional moments and amusing episodes. Talks were grouped into related themes that made sense for the program.

"Intensive training and coaching--as well as commitment and bravery on the part of the speakers--was instrumental in the success of the Aligning Forces Spotlight speeches," says Katherine Browne, deputy director and chief operating officer of AF4Q's national program office. "The presenters have become great messengers for the project's impact."

Sixteen talks are too many to summarize here, but I encourage you to look at the posted videos and see for yourself how well these speakers did. I've asked some of them to write about their experience for my "Talk About the Talk" series, in which speakers I've worked with share their preparation and delivery experiences for high-stakes talks, so you'll be hearing more from them in the coming weeks and months.

If you're considering a similar project for your program, conference or company, let me share what I see as some of the benefits:
  • It's a novel way to provide what several of the AF4Q speakers called "the best professional development I have ever had." If you want to invest in your executives--be they nonprofiteers, government leaders, or company managers--public speaking and presentation coaching and help preparing for a high-stakes event are investments your executives will truly appreciate. Even the seasoned speakers in the group cycled back to say, "I wasn't sure I'd learn anything from this, but I did."
  • The talks can be used again and again if you structure them well. This national program will be concluding in 2015, after many years as a flagship initiative. The local projects need to focus now on sustaining their efforts without the foundation's anchor support, which will require lots of outreach and fundraising. I urged speakers not to make their talks specific to the event, but to their projects, so that they could re-use the talks in these forthcoming pitches--and some speakers practiced by doing their talk at small-group meetings with donors before the conference.
  • You can shape and hone messages and speakers to create a cadre of messengers for your nonprofit, agency, company or product, as Browne points out. Just imagine if your entire team each had a unique, effective, on-message talk they could give in five minutes to customers, investors, donors, volunteers, supporters, suppliers or any other audience you need to work with. Your client services agency could field a team of people when pitching clients for new work and make them see beyond the numbers and the PowerPoint slides to the heart of what you really do. For this national program, one potential legacy is the creation of these messengers, 16 people who can now go on to more confidently and cogently share the lessons learned and spread them around. It's a benefit that will last long after the program closes its doors.
I'd love to hear about a team or cadre of speakers you'd like to field for your business, nonprofit or government agency. Email me at eloquentwoman at and let's get started! 
Come to my pre-conference workshop at the Spring Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference in Cambridge, UK, this April. What goes into a TED-quality talk will help speakers, speechwriters and conference organizers understand how to craft and deliver a talk in the style of TED, whether you're getting ready for a TEDx conference or just a presentation in this popular style. Go to this link  for more details on what's included, as well as a significant discount for readers of The Eloquent Woman. The workshop is on 15 April, and the conference is 16-17 April. Please join me!