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Conquerors of Mt. Everest

Very impressive, but are they the right speakers for your group?

By Jim Elzinga

As an ever-increasing number of Mt. Everest climbers and other elite athletes become speakers, it is important to ensure your organization gains more than “bragging rights” from their presentation. It is critical to work with your speaker to ensure their story can be easily translated into concrete action for the audience.

We all know the inspirational power of people who have dreamed a great dream, faced extraordinary challenges, and achieved something remarkable. The potential value to be realized from engaging a speaker like this is tremendous and, today, the range of choice among Mt. Everest climbers and elite athletes who offer their stories as inspirational speakers has never been greater.

A quick search of the word Everest on the websites of a couple of speakers’ agencies reveals dozens of individuals offering their stories of tackling the world’s highest mountain. The number is growing all the time. In spite of decades of Everest success stories, the theme still resonates powerfully – Mt. Everest remains a compelling symbol and a metaphor for supreme achievement.

Let’s say you have decided to book an Everest climber, or an elite athlete or adventurer as a speaker for an important event. There is far more to engaging a speaker than picking someone from a list and plunking them into your program. To get the best value out of your investment, you will need to know your client’s needs and be prepared to draw the best out of your chosen speaker.

So how do you choose which one will be the best fit and have the impact you really want to deliver at your event? The key is to apply four key principles of design.

Know your own purpose
Ensure you are clear what you are looking for in engaging a speaker – does your event have a theme or objective that can be aligned with a speaker’s story? This will help clarify what you should look out for beyond general qualities of inspiration and entertainment value.

Know your audience
I know this is one of the first questions I ask when I am approached to speak. I want to know the context in which I will be speaking. I want to know the makeup of my audience. Then I can explore all the ways my client and I can leverage the opportunity for the audience, sponsor or client base, and make sure my customized talk can inspire tangible, realistic action for listeners.

An important detail to consider is time of day. If you are engaging a speaker to deliver a substantial, meaningful and practical message along with the amazing and inspiring stories, an after-dinner time slot with an open bar is not going to make the best use of the opportunity. On the other hand, there are other speakers whose material is well suited to the after-dinner slot. Their message is entertaining and inspiring without demanding too much of the audience, and paced to deliver the goods in 20 or 30 minutes. Match the speaker to the time slot you have available.

Know your speaker
Assuming you’re going for the fullest value in a speaker with a practical and inspiring message, a number of important questions need to be answered: Why this speaker? Why this story? Is it a well-crafted story? Is it not only engaging and impressive, but meaningful beyond the mere spectacle of extreme achievement?

As one of those Everest climbers, I have learned that my story is not just about getting up the mountain and getting back down again with a few harrowing adventures along the way. As Joseph Campbell says, “The value of the achievement lies in what you bring back as a gift to the world.” My most successful talks have been when I have been able to share my story and through it to give listeners insights into how they can use my hard-won knowledge in the world in which they live and work.

Is the speaker you’re considering able to do that – to anchor their story to the life experience of audience members?

Are there insights from his or her experience that are clearly connected to the aims and ambitions of your organization and its members?

Telling a “ripping yarn” unconnected to your audiences’s daily life and business challenges is not sufficient.
As an example, my friend, Will Gadd, a Red Bull Athlete who, on the face of it, seems to indulge in crazy, risky stunts, reveals in his presentations that he is a meticulous planner who builds many fail-safes into each endeavour. He calls this the “positive power of negative thinking.” Also, though he seems to be a lone daredevil, he works with a high-performance support team to achieve the extraordinary things he does.

Like Will, the speaker should understand the aim, purpose or theme of your event and be able to draw connections with the story she or he has to tell, even to modify the presentation to suit the organization’s needs, and speak directly to the event’s themes. Has your speaker demonstrated this capacity in the past?

More explicitly, is the speaker willing to consult and collaborate with you about the purpose or theme of your event, and adapt his or her presentation to what you hope to achieve by presenting him or her?

In order to do this, of course, you have to give the speaker direction. To do so, you have to reflect on the specific needs of your event and be able to convey that clearly to your speaker.

Reflecting on my own experience, I realize that when I speak, I am harvesting the experience contained in multiple stories, each conveying a hard-won lesson in collaboration, team alignment or leadership. Consequently, though the core narrative remains the same, I can apply it, in consultation with the event organizer, to a wide range of the real-world challenges that that organization faces. Any speaker you hire should be able to do the same.

Is the speaker a “one-trick pony?” What other life experience does he or she have that makes their story relevant to your purposes? For example, I am still actively climbing and pursuing new “firsts” in the mountains, but I am also privileged to work as an executive coach and organizational development consultant, so I have a wealth of experience and insight to offer audiences beyond the climbing domain.

Leverage the opportunity
Does your potential speaker go beyond just “the talk” and enrich the audience’s experience and learning in other ways? Lately, I have been offering an interactive keynote that combines the essentials of my Mt. Everest stories with opportunities for the audience to get into the act, using elements of our interactive digital simulation TeamEverest.

This invites a whole new level of engagement for my audience that lets them experience, via multi-media, the real-world dilemmas and challenges I have faced with my climbing companions. It allows them to make the connections to their working and personal lives. This is a significant step beyond Q & A and represents considerable added value.

Another method for leveraging and expanding a speaking opportunity is to engage someone who integrates multiple disciplines. Dr. Greg Wells, for example, was the sport science and sport medicine analyst for the Canadian Olympic Broadcast Consortium during the 2010 and 2012 Olympic Games. Greg works with and studies high performance athletes. He makes the connection between the demanding experiences of Olympic athletes and those of the high-pressure world of business, citing best practices that can be applied to optimize performance in both fields.

Challenge any potential speaker you are considering to go beyond “the ripping yarn” with additional actionable elements and resources.

What it all boils down to is this: if you want to make the most of the opportunity offered by an Everest climber, elite athlete or extreme adventurer, you will need to invest far more than merely picking a name from a list.

If you dig deep into the implications of these four guiding principles, and demand that your speaker adheres to the priorities that emerge from them, you will deliver an experience that entertains, inspires and has a lasting practical impact.

Jim Elzinga is a leadership development and organizational culture strategist. A lifelong climber, Jim is the only Canadian to lead an expedition in successfully pioneering a new route up Mt. Everest.

Appeared in Speaking of Impact, Summer 2013 Edition

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