Among the sessions I particularly enjoyed at the Great Ideas Conference in Orlando was one titled “Great Ideas Ignite.
It consisted of four 5-minute masterful presentations on various topics by 4 dynamic and highly engaging speakers. What made them so engaging? Of course they were all polished, skillful and, in a couple of cases, even charismatic speakers. But so were many other polished professional speakers throughout the conference who conducted energetic, well-received presentations. “Great Ideas Ignite,” however, engaged people fully, stimulating both the intellect and the heart, spurring the audience to spontaneously stand up and applaud several times.
I have been thinking about these presentations since the conference. I think that a big part of their success was that the speakers did not just deliver polished and “canned presentations.” Unlike other good speakers, they didn’t come across as patronizing. They drew from their own personal experiences and connected with the audience on a personal level. This was especially true in the case of one of the speakers, Erik Schonher.
Eric’s topic was “The Power of Many to Support One.” It delved into the essence of community—why and how it creates meaning and value for individuals; why and how humans gather together to draw on each other’s resources, and why, together, they can create meaning and value that they could not create as solitary, self-contained individuals. After all, this is really the essence of meaningful membership rather lists of benefits and numbers, right?
The speaker was eloquent, effortlessly tying together experiences, observations and ideas to support his topic. Once he had built his thesis, he offered examples drawn from his personal experience. The most powerful example was that of his wife’s illness and death. He talked about the devastating loneliness and grief that followed the funeral and the small acts of love and compassion from all kinds of people that helped ease the painful transition and restore him to health. You could sense an immediate change in the atmosphere—heightened energy, increased engagement and personal involvement, complete attention and anticipation for what the next words might be. Where would the speaker take them? Many in the audience had tears in their eyes. Yet Schonher’s examples of a deeply personal experience enhanced rather than distract from the topic and maintained the professional tone of the session. He shared what must have been the most painful experience in his life, without a trace of self-pity or manipulative sentimentalism, with dignity, simplicity and focus on his topic.
So why do most of us feel that we have to remove our own “personhood” in professional dealings? And I am including myself here. It is as if, the minute we enter our workplace or engage in a professional conversation, we don a uniform and speak a foreign language. This is why it is often a strain when we have to wear our “professional personas” for too long. Fragmented selfhood takes a toll on us.
Nowhere is this fragmentation more evident than in relationships with members/customers. One client association became upset when I pulled together an agreed upon group of motivated volunteer leaders and told them they would be the core agents of change, working with us as partners on the project. The reason was that “announcements” of new roles, titles, awards, positions etc. had to come from the top in official communication which, incidentally, would take time to formulate, approve and send. Yet this one was not a formal announcement. Motivating and creating partnerships with members; gradually developing core leaders and building collaborative, customer communities are completely different from, say, announcing new board members or an official board committee. It is an intimate, informal, fluid and personal process of motivating, connecting, building relationships with, and developing core stakeholders.
It turns out that all of the association’s communications with members were formal, scripted and one-way. Membership staff was literally at a loss when they participated in an exercise in which they had to change the tone of conversation with a sample of members and simply get to know them as individuals. It was like once they entered “work,” they forgot the simple rules they spontaneously applied in personal interactions. No wonder attrition was mounting and members were mostly unengaged.
Mind you, I am not talking about fake intimacy here—like cute cards with birthday messages to members; baring your personal lives as in a reality show or holding hands and signing Kumbaya. I am simply arguing for bringing ourselves to our professional lives as whole persons and treating customers as whole persons.