Creating Delightful Conference Talks - Of Wisdom, Warmth and Whimsy
Updated: Nov 29
Picture Credit Photo by Andrea Piacquadio
I’ve been lucky enough to see numerous conference talks, especially in the Agile, DevOps and Coaching fields. In many different ways they have been informative, insightful and entertaining. For a speaker to offer all three in any measure is an achievement, but some serve up a perfect blend, bringing their ideas to life and leaving the audience buzzing with a fulfilling sense of delight.
I’ve been considering what leads to this elusive and wonderful feeling. For me, it's a subtle, almost intangible, blend of three ingredients; Wisdom, Warmth, and Whimsy.
These three aren’t necessarily spoken or overt, but can be sensed, in slides and interaction, in demeanour and tone, humour and gravitas, in choice of topic and visuals and most obviously, in the presence and style of the speaker.
The promise of Wisdom is often what entices people to a talk, the desire to gain knowledge and learn. Wisdom and knowledge are however very different things. Consider for a moment the difference between the rules of the road (knowledge) and how to actually drive safely in different vehicles and conditions (wisdom). Knowledge and instruction are generally pretty easy to find on the web, but each speaker’s wisdom is what makes their session unique and valuable. Their interpretation, their perspective,their connections, their different journey and experience.
Wisdom is also about emphasis and choice of content - in a limited time with unlimited choice, what does a presenter decide to share? Lets say a leadership framework comprises five elements, a knowledge based approach might treat all five equally, but what if in practice one is more significant, challenging or relevant? The wise presenter puts more emphasis on what is valuable to the message, to the audience and what will help them towards their goals.
It’s easy for key insights to be diluted, even during a relatively short talk, so the presenter needs methods to ensure their key points stick. It’s a tricky balance. Overdoing a few points risks a shallow talk lacking depth and risking disengaging repetition. Too many points and the audience may feel inundated or unsure what is significant. Somewhere in the middle leaves people with key takeaways and allows space for the audience to personalise and draw their own meaning.
In addition to what is emphasised, wisdom shows in how points are emphasised. There are thought to be multiple learning styles and the wise presenter mixes these to reach a range of people. I suspect that even if we have a preferred learning style we appreciate variation within a talk, so this is good for both reaching different folk and holding attention. Much of this is in the wise choice of delivery method including mixing up visuals, body language and tonal emphasis, stories and moments of audience participation.
Warmth is the human touch, it can be unspoken and yet is tangible from the moment the speaker arrives on stage. All it takes is a tiny smile. It’s about how they hold themselves, use space and collaborate with the audience, do they welcome and match energy, is there a degree of eye contact and reach into the room?
When warmth is present the tone is authentic and matches the presenters personality, there’s no acting, and they are not on auto pilot. It’s not about being overtly ebullient, and there is emotion, the listener just feels comfortable, like a friendly conversion. There is a feeling the speaker is just pleased to have an opportunity to share their thoughts.
To get a sense of warmth’s significance watch one of those machine narrated tutorial videos. They are often beautifully scripted, flawless in terms of content, and can include wise and whimsical moments. Somehow though they lack warmth, personally I have no connection, no relatedness and this affects my engagement and trust of the presentation.
Warmth also emanates from how the speaker chooses to speak of people and organisations, from their inclusive language and empathy. I find this can be lacking when speakers talk about change and people in roles with different viewpoints, sometimes becoming disparaging and using ‘them and us’ framing. This doesn’t mean always agreeing and avoiding challenging subjects. It does mean being respectful and recognising that everyone is doing their best in their situation. Above all it means being constructive and encouraging generative dialogue.
Warmth is the more precarious and easier to stifle of these three, as it often reflects how the presenter is feeling. It can be suppressed by nerves, performance anxiety and concentration on delivery. I note though warmth is often very obvious in first time speakers and new talks, there’s enthusiasm, experimentation and humility. Strangely the moments where things don’t go to plan, when the speaker rallies themselves and recovers, are often the warmest, transformed from ‘sage on the stage’ to human, we can’t help but relate and cheer them on.
There are various definitions of whimsey and, while I kept using that word, it did not mean what I thought it meant. Here I’m referring to novelty and what holds attention, fascinating and unexpected detours to open the mind and help grasp new perspectives. If the talk is about Coaching Tech Leadership then I largely expect conversation in that area, an excursion outside of that sphere, perhaps an insight drawn from the presenter's hobby, makes it personal and memorable.
Of course attention can be held with shocking facts and dramatic gestures, but whimsical content is often inclusive, positive and psychologically safe.
Particularly noticeable are whimsical thought provoking questions like “What if we did this instead of that?”. Some of the best don’t even provide an answer, perhaps because the presenter is figuring it out themselves, which shows warmth and a desire for wisdom, it also encourages listeners to think more and seek their own meaning.
During one of my first coaching courses the presenter took a short tangent and mentioned healing a somewhat volatile relationship. “I decided to smile at my partner every day the moment I got through the door after work…did that make the difference? I don’t know.” While the rest of the course content has faded, this casual musing has stuck with me for well over a decade, reminding me of the importance of micro interactions and mindset.
Whimsey is probably the hardest to cook up, emerging from a person’s unique experience, style and mind. Forced content can seem inauthentic. Too much whimsey can distract or detract from the premises of the talk, too little and the talk risks being bland. It’s like seasoning a dish, a pinch here and pinch there, and make sure you check the audience’s appetite.
I’m not claiming this is a comprehensive recipe for successful talks, when I’m coaching speakers part of the challenge is picking through the sheer volume of good advice to find what matters and works for the individual and their aspirations.
When I’m attending a session I find the right blend of these three aspects of wisdom, warmth and whimsey can elevate a talk from good to delightful. I’m delighted by the wisdom I gained or discovered. Delighted and included by the warmth and authenticity of the speaker. Delighted by the whimsical moments piquing my curiosity and getting me thinking in new ways.
Of course finding this elusive state is as much about the speaker as the audience, it is very much co-created. Arrive expecting to be bored and chances are you will be. Attend full of willingness to listen, to be present and curious, and you’ll always find something. So my closing question is; Next time you go to a talk, how will you ready yourself for learning and delight?