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Don’t forget the dreams of the people around you

October 1, 2012

This morning I was one of 400 or so colleagues sitting in an auditorium on the 12th floor of a Park Avenue office building… shivering.  It wasn’t the temperature in the room or even the fall air outside that got us feeling a bit chilly. It was the description of temperatures of -85 degrees and photos of men dragging hundreds of pounds of supplies behind them across the ice on a 900-mile walk across Antarctica to the South Pole.  One of the most memorable things he had to say summed up how he believes he made it — not just to the bottom of the planet but on a later trek across a frozen sea to the North Pole, too. “Don’t forget your own dreams. Don’t forget the dreams of the people around you.”

Robert Swan spoke for more than an hour, but none of us had to be told to put away our Blackberries or stop texting on our iPhones.  We were rapt.  He had us not only buttoning up our sweaters but laughing and gasping and, well, thinking.  It was a training on Sustainable Leadership, but it felt like one of the best storytellers I’ve heard in a long time.  And I guess that’s what a great speaker can do – make you forget the deadlines and emails waiting for you at your desk and immerse yourself in a narrative that underpins something more essential: an idea.

I’ve had a few experiences like this in the past several months. The kinds of presentations that I won’t forget, that inspired water cooler conversation when I got back to the office and streams of tweets while I was sitting in the audience. Last weekend, I witnessed the magic of Professor Hans Rosling pointing at charts with a ten-foot pole and making data sexy in his charming Swedish Chef accent. In June, I heard from Corporal Aaron Mankin, a wounded warrior who delivered a line that still hasn’t left my mind: “Six men – some fathers, all sons – gave their lives. I only gave my face.”

So this morning, as I sat so mesmerized by the speaker in front of me that I forgot all about documenting his remarks on social media, a few ideas came to mind that I’ll take with me to my next speaking engagement (hint, hint, shameless plug – if you’re in New York I hope you’ll come!).

1) Ditch the PowerPoint and use power images.  Instead of words on the screen, use photos or brief video clips that bring your ideas to life.  The photo of the member of Robert Swan’s exhibition team as his heel basically fell off but he kept walking for 5 straight 40-hour days? Nothing has ever brought determination and dedication home like that did.

2) Forget the talking points and just talk. That doesn’t mean don’t prepare. What it means is think back to that public speaking class you took in high school and step out from behind the podium, stop looking at the screen or your notes and speak. Have something meaningful to say and say it like you mean it.   Todd Park, the Chief Technology Officer of the United States of America did this at the same conference where I saw Professor Rosling, and I still haven’t gotten over my nerd crush — or my excitement for the “awesomeness” that recent Obama administration initiatives have unleashed.

3) They could be anywhere right now but they’re with you. You’re not just speaking to a room or at an event. You’re talking to real people. People who could be anywhere in the world at that moment but have decided to be with you. Give them something worth remembering. Check out this video of the most human speech I’ve ever seen, Corporal Mankin’s address to the 2012 VOWS conference, and see what I mean:

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