After the Spotlight

A dark room with a faded spotlight shining on an empty stage floor

The time had come and I knew it. I had fallen into a routine and that’s generally when I become bored. That was of my own doing, I had gotten too comfortable. Yet, here I was again sitting at another event with the same people talking about the same things. I convinced myself that I was here for a greater purpose, but that facade was quickly fading.

I sat at the back of the main conference centre, quietly thinking about the business and a client back home. I can’t recall if it was a good next step or whether it was going to be another conflict I had to work through. It didn’t matter. To my left, four people sat down beside me.

“Can you believe we’re here?! This is going to be incredible.” This team was clearly excited. I tried to tune them out and focus on questions from my client. Even though I showed up earIy to get some work done I was on the West coast, so I was already three hours behind.

“I’ve seen all their talks – this is a new one. I can’t wait!” This level of excitement paralleled my own when seeing Tom Petty and Rush in concert for the first time. The difference being those were actual rock stars.

While early on I was annoyed by this label – amongst others given to thought leaders in many industries – I learned to turn those feelings into a kind of sociological curiosity.

I interjected. “Clearly, you’re very excited to see this speaker. Can I ask what about their talks you find so inspiring? Is it their ideas? The experiences they share? Or is it perhaps that you think they’re a great storyteller?”

They had no idea who I was or that I was presenting the next day. It didn’t matter. They looked at me as if I was the new kid on the block, and not the boy band.

“Well obviously they are the thought leader of our time in this field.” Interesting. They didn’t answer the question. I tried again.

“OK. I’m not doubting your passion around this individual and what they’ve brought to your careers. Can you pinpoint specific ideas or experiences they’ve shared that has created a shift in your approach to business?” There was a long pause. No one spoke.

Then one of them volleyed a question back at me, “Who are you again?” I politely replied, “Right. Apologies for not introducing myself, it’s early. My name is Jeff Parks. I run my own consulting company and a training company based out of Canada. I’ve also done some podcasts for peer written journals like Boxes and Arrows and Johnny Holland. I like coming to events to learn from others, like you are today.”

Another long pause. This wasn’t going anywhere. I decided to go in another direction and run what I thought would be a fun, harmless experiment.

“Would you all consider doing me a favour? I’m curious as to what attendees find most useful after hearing keynote presentations like this one?” They looked at me funny. The quietest of the group spoke up “We told you, they’re the thought leader.” I recall feeling somewhat troubled that the individual was talking for the collective.

I tried asking the request in greater detail. After all, if I was testing a hypothesis I needed to be specific.

“Allow me to rephrase. As you’re watching the presentation, would you consider removing your admiration for the speaker and consider only the ideas being shared? With that mindset, I’m curious to know if you still find value in this specific talk?”

Another long pause. They looked at each other, then one member of the team replied. “That sounds like an interesting experience. We’re in!” Again, one person speaking for the group was a little troubling. That said, I had been up late, it was very early and I was running on too little caffeine to be objective.

There was five minutes until the big show. I decided to go and grab a snack before things got started. When I got back I lost my seat but since we were at the back of the room I could still see my volunteers.

The lights dimmed. A short welcome from the event organizer, a hat tip to the volunteers, and finally the introduction of the keynote. As they walked on stage there was polite applause from just under 1000 people, coupled with several of the best friends of the speaker shouting their approval and encouragement above the welcome.

As we hit the peak of the keynote my research team stopped taking notes. They looked at each other and began whispering back and forth. Two of them were pointing at notes in their notebook while others were pulling up what looked like projects on their laptops comparing ideas. The talk ended to thunderous applause followed by a couple of brief announcements. The conference was off and running.

I stood at the back waiting to learn about their impressions of the talk. From my vantage point what started out as enthusiasm quickly morphed into arguing, which then settled into many side debates. Eventually they reconciled from the chaos and started to pack up.

The crews from the venue were starting to transform the grand room for other talks. People moved quickly into other sessions. Most were looking for that final caffeine hit, but most of the coffee was gone.

As the team approached, I smiled and stepped to the side of the exit not wanting to impede anyone else. “So, what did you learn? Did anything the keynote have to offer provide you with next steps?” Three of them looked at me disheveled and pressed on without a word.

Interestingly, the quietest of the team stopped and confronted me. “You ruined that experience for my team.” I was shocked. As any good Canadian I began with an apology, “I’m sorry? I ruined it for them? How!?” They looked at me as if I had called out their hero for not being who they thought they were. “You know what you did. We’re here to find inspiration not be ridiculed. Enjoy the conference.” And with that they were gone.

My intention wasn’t to upset the team or ruin their experience. Clearly I demonstrated my own bias in asking them to consider an outcome different from their current reality. What I was asking for was perspective, but instead I was perceived as coming from a place of malice. I reflected on the ask later that evening. Was it something I said?

Field Notes

Whenever I’ve been asked to give talks at conferences or events I try to consider the whole experience for attendees. The success I’ve had in giving opening and closing talks over the past decade is in large part because I asked myself the same question I posed to that same small research team.

Put simply, I would start by asking, “What can I talk about that would inspire people to keep thinking about the ideas I’ve shared after the event?” I don’t believe any singular process or discipline has the template that will work for everyone. With that in mind, why would I present on a process or tool that happened to work for a specific client?

I’ve never understood why so many people get so excited to hear from an individual who happens to do what they do at a popular company. Most of the time they have no idea who that presenter is, only that they work for [insert your favourite company here]. If you want to be a thought leader, then I believe you should be literally leading people to new thoughts and ideas.

I’ve learned to push aside my own bias with respect to brands and thought leaders with whom I don’t agree, and focus on the ideas being shared. If I hadn’t developed that mindset I would have missed out on so many opportunities to learn.

Inspiration comes in a myriad of forms. You just have to be curious enough to seek out the multitude of others who don’t happen to have the spotlight on them at that particular moment in time.