Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Conference Speaker as an Artist

Being in Milan to gaze upon Leonardo Da Vinci's painting "The Last Supper" is much different than looking at a print of dogs playing poker.

Watching a play in the basement of a local church is often not the same as attending a Broadway play.

Hearing the Boston Symphony play a concert touches your emotions more than hearing a kid play "Hot Cross Buns" on a plastic flute.

Real art that is brought to us by committed artists engages our soul. (I know, I know, .... different people like different things when it comes to art.... so if you prefer dogs playing poker then that is okay, too!).

Speaking to an audience is also an art form. Presentations are more that words uttered by experts.  Oratory skills have had impact on societies from the beginning of time and moving speeches linger in our hearts and minds.

Why then are many business professionals who attend conferences forced to listen to flat presentations that fail to impact the audience?  Why are we not expecting art from those who take the stage?

It is not too much to expect a combination of substance and style from those who speak! Remember this: "Just because someone is smart or has done something cool... it does not mean they belong on stage!"

It is important to remember that art appreciation is subjective, so what one person finds appealing is not so amazing to another. Thus, my opinions of what makes for a good speech may not be the same as yours. But it is easy to identify the difference between a speaker who gives a talk, and one who is dedicated to the art of speaking.

The executive director of an association asked me once if I thought speaking was an art. I confirmed that I not only believe this, but lived it as a principle in my craft.  I take my career seriously.

She hired me.

We then discussed her motivation in asking this question. She said she learned to ask this of speakers, as their ease with the answer was a window to how they would serve her audience. She herself had studied art, and loved to see people who used their career as a canvass.  (I have not read Seth Godin's "Linchpin", but she told me this was the topic of his book).

I spent time on a recent vacation thinking about conference speaking as an art. As my family toured Northern Italy I witnessed countless historical art venues which included paintings, architecture, gardens, performing arts, etc.... I saw first hand how committed artists create legacies that move those who encounter their art throughout the ages.

Being a professional speaker is no different from being any other type of artist. Great art peals back the layers to touch the heart of people. While not every person likes a Picasso, everyone can agree he was a master. The same is true for speakers at a conference. Different topics appeal to different people, but when you see someone's artistic passion, they move you to action and you do not easily forget their words.

Yet business events end up with talking heads who click through generic PowerPoints without ever telling any stories or embracing the art of the oratory. The importance of the artistic qualities of how one speaks has been replaced by a cold and static desire for content. Too many argue for content over style, and then audiences get bored listening to monologues.  It is not a tug of war for content or style (a speaker who is just style and fluff is also not an artist)... you need both!

When you stand in the viewing room of the old monastery in Milan that houses Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" (the painting never travels, as it is on the wall itself), there is behind you another painting on the far wall. Painted by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano, it is full of important content of Christian historical and biblical importance. The content of this other painting is good, but being on the opposite the wall from "The Last Supper" it falls away to obscurity. Amazing art stands out.

Thus you find with art, as with everything in life, content matters, but alone it is not powerful. The best speakers you see at business conferences are artists. They are who the audience remembers weeks and years after going home.  When done right, and artist who speaks will paint memories into the minds of the audience.

Was the last speaker you saw an artist?  The next time you attend a conference and watch the speakers on the stage you should ask yourself  if the speaker is painting on a canvass with his words.  If the answer is no, there will still be good information that can help you succeed.  Take notes.  But if the answer is yes, prepare to enjoy the experience and drink in all the aspects of their presentation.

Have A Great Day

thom singer

Thom Singer is known as "The Conference Catalyst". He works with meeting planners and conference organizers to set the tone for a meeting. His presentations educate, inspire and motivate attendees to engage deeper in the event and make meaningful connections. 

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