November 10, 2010

Storytelling for Business – Don’t Get Distracted

I spend a good deal of time in the United Airlines Red Carpet Club. As a matter of fact, I’m writing this article in the Denver Red Carpet Club. As I look around at my fellow travelers, I like to imagine where they are on their journey. Some are waiting for the last leg home. Others are just beginning their journey away from home.

I’m sure you know what it’s like. You overhear people on their cell phones negotiating contracts, talking to their kids, or discussing what they had for dinner. And then, there might be the occasion where you see someone in pain. Perhaps that middle-aged man just lost a loved one and he and his wife are headed to a funeral. Maybe that lady who looks pasty and exhausted had surgery last week and she’s on her way home to an empty house.

Life, in all of its manifestations, is happening around us at an airport: a family is going to Disneyland; a daughter is flying off to college; a spiritual seeker is on a pilgrimage to India. Sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes it’s subtle. The only certainty is that everyone is at a different place on his or her journey.

I have no idea where someone is on his or her journey through life when I see them in an airport, nor do I have any idea where someone is on their path when they’re sitting in my audience to hear my keynote.

This fact has been brought home to me many times as a speaker. One time, when I was speaking in Las Vegas to an audience comprised of members of all branches of the military, I noticed a man with what appeared to be a scowl on his face. He was dressed in his Navy whites and looked like he did 200 pushups every day before breakfast. After the speech, as he waited his turn to speak to me, he still had that serious look on his face. I thought he was angry with me for something I had said. Instead, he was kind and sincere as he shared with me how much my speech had meant to him. I had completely misinterpreted his facial expressions.

Another time, a woman in my audience appeared annoyed by my every word. She fussed and fidgeted all through my speech. She was a short woman wearing a very professional business suit.  I thought she must be a manager or supervisor. When she finally approached, she thanked me profusely for helping her see what she needed to do to change her life. I had completely misinterpreted her body language.

I had interpreted her body language without any understanding of where she was on her journey. I had interpreted her body language to mean that I was doing or saying something wrong.

If you’re a keynote speaker, this has probably happened to you. You work hard to develop a speech that inspires and motivates, that informs and instructs. You rehearse and prepare with the best of intentions. Then you stand before the gathered crowd and deliver your presentation with every ounce of genius you can muster.

And smack dab in the middle of your speech, you see a face that distracts you. He looks bored. Another person is looking down in their lap and shaking their head side to side. You think to yourself, “That person disagrees with me”. Someone else is checking his or her email. A man leaves the room. A woman looks at her watch. The meeting planner whispers in someone’s ear.

It’s easy to go “cuckoo” with all of this going on. It’s easy to misinterpret what you see. And it’s very easy to take it all personally. But in most cases, it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them.

What my experience as a keynote speaker has taught me is this: Notice, Never Interpret. It’s fine to notice what’s going on in your audience, to be aware, to be present. It’s dangerous, however, to interpret what you see in someone’s face or body language.  And it’s even worse to assume that it has anything to do with what you are doing or saying.

In my experience, most of the time, what I think is going on with someone is only the surface story. To use a medical analogy: it’s the symptom and not the cause. Without really knowing where someone is on their journey, their body language can be completely misleading.

Now, when I notice someone looking at their watch or looking bored, that’s all I do. I notice it. I never interpret it. When I’m delivering a keynote, my job is to stay focused on my material and to deliver it at the highest level. And quite honestly, when I have exactly 60 minutes to deliver a brilliant speech that exceeds my customer’s expectation, my job is too important to let myself get distracted or taken off course by misinterpreting an audience member. I have a job to do and every second counts.

So the next time you’re delivering a speech or presentation and you notice someone who is fussing or fidgeting; or you see someone with a stern look on their face; Notice, Never Interpret. You may actually be that someone who, at just the right moment, steps in and says or does something that makes a profound difference in his or her life journey.

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