Solving Upwards: Revisiting My Speaker Strategy Clarity Model During Social Distancing

At the beginning of March, I published a post here sharing my Speaker Strategy Clarity Model. But in the weeks since then (which have felt more like years), conferences and events large and small have been canceled or rescheduled, our everyday vocabulary now includes phrases like “social distancing” and “flatten the curve,” and — hopefully — everyone who can isolate at home is doing so. In addition, much of the global economy is on pause, and the financial markets are thrashing around like a live electrical wire. All the while, every speaker and would-be speaker on Planet Earth is firing up Zoom and other virtual platforms to try to reach the audiences they miss seeing from the stage. And in the midst of all this chaos, I hear from even longtime professional speaker friends that now they really don’t know what to speak about.

So with not only the meetings and events industry upturned but the whole world seemingly in chaos, where can this possibly leave you as a speaker? When your work has been about helping others by sharing insights from a stage, what can and should that work look like when the audiences all stay home? More to the point: when they’re all coping with the stress of a global pandemic and worried about their health and finances?

Solving Human-Level vs. Humanity-Level Problems

I think the original Speaker Strategy Clarity Model still applies broadly, but an addendum that may help us in this moment is to think about the problems we solve and how to uplift them.

We must stop and recognize a new truth: when there is a humanity-level crisis, it’s natural to feel human-level panic. One of the ways panic manifests is that we feel the inner call of our survival instincts, and we may hurry to put out a promotional message, trying quickly to make money to save ourselves and our families from the financial ruin we fear is coming. That’s an understandable response, but it’s one we have to try to quell within ourselves.

Our best impulses at this moment will require us to respond to humanity-level crisis by empathizing our way down to human-scale problem-solving, and in doing so, trying to lift our work up to humanity-level problem-solving. If you are in a position to solve problems directly at the scale of humanity, with actions such as manufacturing personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, then by all means, please do so, and I wish you all the very best and will support you however I can. But most of us are going to be better positioned for work at the human scale, which means empathy is our strongest asset right now.

An opportunity to solve problems “upward” from the human level to the humanity level

(Of course, empathy was always our strongest asset, but in ordinary circumstances it may feel like a luxury that requires patience to deploy. In times of crisis, it’s absolutely vital.)

What about B2B?

Even if your work is directed at business leaders, the best and highest work you can do right now is to help leaders lead with our best and highest human attributes, especially empathy. I listened in to a brilliant webinar my friend David C. Baker, who is a keynote speaker and author of The Business of Expertise: How Entrepreneurial Experts Convert Insight to Impact + Wealth, gave for his clients and followers about how their businesses would likely have to adjust during this period, and while it was all very sensible and pragmatic, it was also clearly heartfelt and human, even while talking through the unfortunate realities of staff reductions. Our audiences look to us for perspective and insight; let’s not let now be the moment when we fail to connect back to the human impact of every decision we and they make.

Perhaps you can think of that model sort of like this:

Even within B2B, you’re still solving problems for humans and humanity

Marketing? In This Economy?

The urge to market and promote is going to be strong, and it is an understandable impulse to want to stand out above the crowd of other voices asking for attention right now. But as I watch emails from brands come in, a few of them stand out as being well done, and they illustrate the best approach that we who are speakers and thought leaders can borrow as we plan to promote our work:

  1. acknowledge the reality we’re in, preferably in a way that shows you’re doing something useful about it
  2. offer ideas with some kind of value that creates relevance between your core brand and the recipient’s reality, and then
  3. get out.

Here’s a promotional email from Crate and Barrel that I thought walked that fine line well: it stayed on brand, the offer was relevant, and the promotion wasn’t so heavy-handed as to be in poor taste.

Perhaps you disagree with this example or with any of these guidelines. That’s OK — do it the way that feels right to you.

Just don’t oversell, and likewise don’t turn the communication into pageantry or melodrama. For once in our lives, everyone around the world is experiencing a version of something that has everyone’s attention at once — there’s no need to dwell too long on what we all already know.

Twist, Don’t Pivot

We also all need to be especially sure we are offering value right now that’s as close to our expertise as possible while relevant to the moment. Not all of us are experts in virtual presenting, so it doesn’t make sense for everyone to try to sell that offering in webinars and online courses.

If you do have expertise relevant to that topic, for example, be sure to add your own twist to it. A kajillion videos went up in the past few weeks on how to be effective when presenting on video, but my friend Mark Bowden, who is a top body language expert and the author of Truth and Lies: What People Are Really Thinking as well as being a sought-after keynote speaker, is uniquely suited to be able to offer guidance on how to come across in the limited medium of video and virtual presentations with trust, credibility, and empathy. (Do be sure to watch that video. It’s a great resource for us all right now.)

What’s especially elegant about what ends up happening when you do that is that you can take a human-level problem — the need to come across well on video while everyone is working and presenting from home — and solve it upwards towards a humanity level, because if more people learn how to communicate well on video, it seems possible to imagine that human communication could improve at scale.

You’re uniquely suited to something, too. What human-level problem can you solve upwards towards humanity?

Be safe, be well, be sensible, and, of course, be as helpful as you can.

Here’s to getting through this by solving upward to our highest and best work,

Kate O signature

What Should You Speak About? Sharing My Speaker Strategy Clarity Model

I am a professional speaker, and while I don’t speak about speaking, I do often get asked for input on how people can get into speaking, become better speakers, grow their speaking business, and so on. And I like to be able to be helpful when I can.

So at one of the recent opportunities to speak to a group of speakers, I was asked to talk about speaking strategy and how to really hone in on your topic.

By way of an answer, I put together the following model, and I’m sharing it with you. Maybe you’re working in a field where you occasionally get invited to give presentations at conferences. Maybe you are already a speaker but you want more clarity about what your topic area should be. Even seasoned speakers will benefit from this exercise every so often — perhaps make it part of your annual review, and it will keep you directed toward your own true north star.

How to Draw the Model

Start by taking a full-sized sheet of paper and drawing three circles that overlap a bit, like so:

Three overlapping circles

Next label those circles as follows: “What is your unique experience, your credibility?” “What do people pay to learn?” “What are you endlessly curious and passionate about?”

The three circles with their captions

Pause here and take some time to fill in a few answers to the three questions.

“What is your unique experience, your credibility?”

For this, think about what gives you authority in your subject. Do you have a unique accomplishment? Were you Team Captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition like my friend Alison Levine? Were you the first female F-14 Tomcat pilot in the U.S. Navy like my friend Carey Lohrenz?

Or is your story more personal? Are you a cancer survivor with a unique observation about your journey? An early childhood educator with a unique perspective?

Dig deep and capture some of those characteristics here.

“What do people pay to learn?”

Now think about what you can speak about that people will shell out money — their own or their employer’s money — to learn. Companies will always pay good money to teach their employees better sales and leadership skills, and many invest heavily in other professional and personal development topics. Every business discipline has industry events full of paid conferences. Individuals are often drawn to skills that can increase their marketability and value as employees, or skills that help them become more independently successful.

Of course people often pay to hear about and learn about squishier topics too that they hope will make their lives better, like improving their interpersonal communication, strengthening their relationships, finding their purpose, and so on.

Think about the topic areas adjacent to your expertise where you know people are willing to pay to learn, and list a few of those.

“What are you endlessly curious and passionate about?”

To me, this one is the kicker. If you only thought about what you’ve already done and what you already know, you’d have nothing pulling you forward and keeping you current. But think about the subjects that fascinate you, that you maybe collect articles about, that you always stay up to speed on, that you could talk for hours about at a cocktail party if you found someone equally as interested in the subject.

Ask yourself what you wish you knew more about than anyone else in the world.

Go ahead and write one or a few things in that circle.

Your X Factor

Now that you have your three circles and you’ve labeled them and filled in some answers for each one, take a look at the section where all the three circles overlap: this is your X factor. Think about what gives you credibility AND what people pay to learn AND what you are passionate about knowing.

Try to articulate this X Factor in a few words or a short phrase. If you can capture it just right, your X Factor should reveal something about your unique selling point in the marketplace. Not bad for a few circles, huh?

The X Factor

Bonus: The Overlaps

What I find so interesting about this exercise is that you also get meaningful insights from the overlapping areas.

The overlap areas

Your Unique Experience and Credibility + What People Pay to Learn = Event Themes

When you think about the overlap of your credibility and what people pay to learn, that should lead you to some ideas about the themes of events you may want to search for to find speaking opportunities.

What People Pay to Learn + What You’re Curious and Passionate About = Media Hooks

When you look at what people are willing to pay to learn and what you’re passionate about, you have a great formula for satisfying media outlets with up-to-the-minute hot takes that people care about.

Your Unique Experience and Credibility + What You’re Curious and Passionate About = Content Ideas

And when you look at the overlap of what you have credibility in and what you’re curious about, you should have a rich source of ideas for content that you can create as a thought leader.

The Grand Slam: Add Your Purpose Statement

Of course in all areas of my work and my life, my mindset is that purpose plays a big role in strategy. So I added the question: “What is your driving purpose for what you do?” Theoretically you should begin with this question, but I think it can be as clarifying after you’ve taken inventory of your experience and credibility and all the rest of it, too. It can help you go back through your answers and refine them, bringing them all into alignment.

The full model with purpose question

So that’s the model. When I presented it to the last group of up-and-coming speakers at a weekend-long speaking bootcamp, one woman came up to me the following morning and said with a smirk, “It’s all your fault I had to throw away everything I had and start all over again.” But I heard her talk the day before the exercise and the day after, and the clarity she had after working through the exercise was inspiring. When you want to communicate powerful ideas, clarity is a gift.

Speaking of Gifts: Have a Free Download of the Full Model

To make this as easy as possible for you and save you some drawing and labeling, I’ve put together a worksheet you can simply download and get going on. There’s no email signup, no obligation to buy anything from me, no program I want to upsell you into. If you find value in it, please share it with other speakers. The best way to thank me for sharing it is to use it to make a great speech that helps make the world a better place.

Download “Speaker Strategy Clarity Worksheet” speaker-strategy-handout-by-Kate-ONeill.pdf – Downloaded 299 times – 45 KB

Here’s to the clarity of your X Factor,

Kate O signature