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Some things are good in theory but better in practice

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to deliver a brand new keynote for the first time. As a professional speaker, a new keynote is like a newborn child. About 12 months ago, I was talking to my team and suggested we should try for another keynote. We already had a couple of keynotes that we loved and it was difficult to see how we were going to have time for another one. More content to change, more sleepless nights wondering if they’re OK, and ongoing concerns about how you will love them all equally. But once you have the idea in your head, it’s hard to shake. So after a couple more discussions we decided to take the leap and get serious about it.

Between that point of inception and the delivery date (which again, just like a newborn was also about nine months), it felt like this keynote could be anything it wanted to be — the possibilities were endless. But as the delivery date draws closer, the reality starts to kick in, your fears start to kick in.

What if it’s ugly? 

Will other people still love it? 

Will I still love it? 


What if I neglect it, and as it gets older it starts hanging out with the wrong sort of keynotes — the ones that mumble and are hard to understand. 


Or even worse, the boring ones that send everyone to sleep, or the weird looking ones with dot points all over their slides and who are always trying to say too much…

…hmmm, I think that analogy is done. Let’s move on.

This new keynote was called Thrive on Disruption and my idea was to explore the characteristics of organisations that not only propelled them to outperform their peers, but who (in doing so) often drove the disruption of whole industries or created entirely new ones. The good news was this related to a whole bunch of research I’d done as part of my Master of Leadership thesis a few years ago. The bad news was I had no idea about how to present such big and complex ideas in a truly engaging and meaningful way.

Enter storytelling

There is little doubt that the idea of corporate storytelling is having its day in the sun. Incredible books such as Hooked: How Leaders Connect, Engage and Inspire with Storytelling by Yamini Naidu and Gabrielle Dolan, as well as Gabrielle’s follow up book Stories for Work, and Shawn Callahan’s Putting Stories to Work (just to name a handful written in Melbourne) have all highlighted the power of storytelling in making ideas memorable and relatable and I was keen to see how I could use storytelling in my new keynote. So as part of the keynote development process, I worked with an incredible story crafter in Megan Davis to help design the narrative of the keynote.

The outcome was uncomfortable

Although I’ve read extensively on the power of storytelling and even engaged a story telling consultant to help me, the outcome (more so than the process) was incredibly challenging. In reflection, the biggest challenge was to my self-perception. I had felt that as a professional speaker I was meant to be the ‘expert’, someone with the answers, or at least, with thoughtful and thought provoking ideas to share. And yet, for the first 20 minutes of my new keynote I wasn’t going to share anything thoughtful at all. I wasn’t going to share any of my expertise. I was just going to tell a story of the time I went hiking in the mountains of New Zealand with seven friends (there is more to the story than this but I don’t want to ruin it for you). To say the least this felt incredibly awkward.

And yet it entirely worked

The saying goes that some things are good in theory but not so good in practice. I can only suggest that my experience of storytelling is entirely the opposite. Although I already knew that storytelling was good in theory, the experience in practice was far better than I could have imagined. Ultimately, the hiking story served as an easily understandable analogy for how organisations operate in disruptive and challenging environments. It provided a safe way for participants to reflect on their own organisation’s behaviours and practices, to better understand what is working and also what could be improved, and it provided a relatable way for sharing how cutting edge organisations operate differently. Finally, I think the story shed light on my own mistakes and my own vulnerabilities, which in turn perhaps made the ideas I did share more relatable and achievable. In hindsight, this is everything you get told about storytelling, but sometimes struggle to believe.

And why do I share this with you all? It’s not because I want you to use more story telling in your work, though I sincerely hope you do (and please check out some of the links to the great books and people above). It’s because theory and practice often bear little similarity to each other. It’s not just that some things are good in theory and yet bad in practice. It’s just as likely that something is bad in theory but good in practice or, as in this case, something I believed to be good in theory was in fact incredible in practice. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is practice, not theory. So if you really want to know if an idea is a good idea you need to stop reading about it and thinking about it…and actually do it.

Check out Simon’s LIVE Speaking Guide to get a taste for what he does or get in touch to discuss how he can add something special to your organisation’s next event.