Later this week I’ll be attending the convention of the National Speakers Association. The convention, aptly named Influence 11, will be attended by some 1500 and features a packed line up of speakers and thought leaders.
This will be my 30th consecutive convention (it is difficult for me to believe I’ve done anything consecutively for 30 years). Reconnecting with my many speaker friends and colleagues is always appealing, but I have asked myself whey I continue to attend. There is a significant cost of time and money to attend.
So why go?
The answer: I want to continue to be part of the larger conversation.
Every profession or group buzzes about those top of mind concerns and opportunities that enable you to gauge what’s going on and what might happen. Just as John Donne reminded that no man is an island, so too is it impossible for someone to lead in intellectual isolation. Opinions, assessments and plans always need to be informed, and that is best achieved by being part of the bigger conversation. That conversation allows us to check our perceptions and conclusions against what others are thinking. Groupthink is bad but crowd wisdom is powerful (check out The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki).
A conversation is dialogue (something that Congress seems to continually forget). As important as good listening skills are to a conversation, it isn’t enough. Being able to contribute to the conversation is a sign of leadership; that is having something worthwhile to add. If you’re not informed enough to add something intelligent, well, you’re not really part of the conversation nor should you try to be.
As an NSA board member for many years and serving as president in 2004-05, I was deeply a part of the conversation of governance. While I’m still happy (when asked) to offer my opinion, I don’t truly feel I’m part of the governance conversation anymore. That would require time I haven’t invested in obtaining the deeper information I need to be informed and helpful. Understanding the basics is easy but the devil is in the details and the nuances.
The bigger conversation at NSA Convention will be about professional speaking, thought leadership and the issues, needs and opportunities of our profession. This is my 25th year in the business, and familiar as this may sound, I’ve seen more change in the past 4-5 years than the previous 20. Much has been driven by technology, but there are many factors that have shifted the playing field for clients, audiences and speaker.
Ultimately, speakers provide expertise via the spoken word (and other media I won’t address here). Historically we evaluate a great speaker by the content of their speech and the eloquence of their delivery. Increasingly it is about the results their eloquence and expertise create for the organization at large and the individuals in particular. It is about, as my friend Nido Qubein says, “the product of the product.”
In the age of perpetual distraction, communicating from the stage is more challenging than ever. Audience members covertly and often overtly check their email and text messages. They are able to check the accuracy of speaker’s statements in real time thanks to Google. And they become an interactive part of the presentation by tweeting and posting comments while the speaker is still on stage.
Of course these are incredible developments and–viewed correctly–amazing opportunities. But this profession is not for the feint of heart (can you think of a job or profession these days that is?). The conversation in Anaheim next week won’t create unanimous agreement, but it will stimulate thinking and provoke action.
That’s what all great conversations do. And that’s why as a leader you always want to be a part of the larger conversation.