The Future of ‘Professional Speaking’—a warm take

Notes for my erstwhile colleagues

I began this article in preparation for an online event wherein I was asked to share my sense as to the future of ‘professional speaking’—that odd game wherein some of us are paid relatively large amounts of money1 to enchant rooms of people. I then polished up my notes into the article before ye here. I indulged in some mild madness along the way, and I am not even sure how much I agree with myself in the end. But here we are.

Here’s a recording of the session itself. I begin a little grumpily—the session immediately before mine was a powerpoint presentation dedicated to helping folks use ‘Facebook Ads’ and trackers (delivered by a Facebook employee and a paid media company, no less). And, whilst I understand that ‘These Are Desperate Times’—surely the profession needn’t stoop so low, so soon? Is keynote speaking now but a commodity, like anything else? Probably.

But anyhoo—I cheer up after but one minute, and then our conversation blossomed into a semi-wondrous AMA. (ノ◕ヮ◕)ノ*:・゚✧

If you speak or work with speakers—or if you are considering this role in some way—I humbly suggest: this video might be rather insightful and relevant for you.

tl;dr – social media has warped the profession; yet covid-19 offers us a chance to rekindle enchantment, restore meaning, and reimagine what may yet be.

Before I get carried away in my impending high-horse tirade—I would like to warmly thank the Professional Speakers Association of Australia for having me. Truly: my life would be very different if I had not joined the association more than a decade ago. It’s in a large part thanks to the mentorship I received from some of the profession’s greatest speakers that I am where I am today. Some of the most inspiring people I know are part of this association, and it has my eternal gratitude. Righto—

Saccharine aside—I fret for the profession.

I have done for some time. Well, not fret per se but more like ‘amusedly mourn’ for what was (whilst optimistically seeking what yet may be). It’s no fault of the association, or the profession; there are no villains perpetrating this. It’s just how things have unfurled (and similar woe betides many professions today, including my beloved academia). Thus there’s nothing to be ‘solved’ here—‘it is what it is’, so to speak. Ergo the following is more of a reflective (and hopefully constructive) critique of late capitalist society and the warping influence of social media on the profession—and what we can do about it. Here goes.

We ‘professional speakers’ are most of us well versed in the art of Enchantment.2

Whilst a good academic lecturer can wield minor enchantments to great affect, the best professional speakers have refined their stagecraft into an art. There still needs to be relevant substance behind this art, of course (and this is often lacking)—but suffice to say: I don’t use the word ‘enchantment’ flippantly.

There’s a magic3 to a keynote presentation delivered by a professional that has honed their craft. Such performances can generate a palpable ‘felt-resonance’ that is difficult to articulate, yet impactful in a way related to the same sense as to why live musical performances can be so utterly moving when compared to their mp3 counterparts.

The way in which we can be primed and thus more receptive to ‘insight’ via the means of congregating and conspiring4 together as an audience under5 the deft charismatic sway of a professional speaker is (at least somewhat) profound.

When I was learning the foundations of this nebulous craft from my many mentors—before social media and podcasts were a thing—events and gatherings were one of the main sources of insight available to us. You literally ‘had to be there’. You couldn’t read about it in books6 or watch it on a show.

Now: not so much.

From 2010–2020—and particularly in the past five yearssocial media has subverted and supplanted much of what we knew events to be.7

In very many ways, this was direly needed—far too many conferences and events were (and still are) yet another manifestation of patriarchy and whiteness; a modernist pantomime of dud narratives8 framed with compelling-yet-hollow sophistry and manufactured feels. Oh how I sometimes wish the self-proclaimed business ‘thought leaders’ of this epoch were subject to the same scrutiny as artists.9 But!—only to a point. And only as a means to enable us to collectively do and be better, together.

The spirit of any critique ought be generative. When critique gets too out of hand, we end up with a situation wherein it isn’t safe at all to experiment or +think-in-draft, and where any potential progress is torn down by the seemingly progressive.10

This is happening right now, of course. And I don’t even quite know my stance in regards to ‘cancel culture’ (it seems to be an emergent property of the aberrant social media platforms of our times), other than to say: I would hope that we might, collectively, be able to rise to meet the complexity of our challenges (or at least strive to) rather than artificially flatten, reduce and Balkanise everything. I would also wish that we could all embrace a lot more fluidity in how we relate to each other and ourselves—so that we might all listen more, learn from our mistakes, humble up, dance and distribute power, for the betterment of all.

Nick Cave recently wrote of cancel culture in an exquisite post. An excerpt:

Mercy is a value that should be at the heart of any functioning and tolerant society. Mercy ultimately acknowledges that we are all imperfect and in doing so allows us the oxygen to breathe — to feel protected within a society, through our mutual fallibility. Without mercy a society loses its soul, and devours itself.

Mercy allows us the ability to engage openly in free-ranging conversation — an expansion of collective discovery toward a common good. If mercy is our guide we have a safety net of mutual consideration, and we can, to quote Oscar Wilde, “play gracefully with ideas.”

Yet mercy is not a given. It is a value we must nurture and aspire to. Tolerance allows the spirit of enquiry the confidence to roam freely, to make mistakes, to self-correct, to be bold, to dare to doubt and in the process to chance upon new and more advanced ideas. Without mercy society grows inflexible, fearful, vindictive and humourless.

Also: here’s a much bigger frame for the topic of ‘cancel culture’, worth watching.

Meanwhile: the internet remembers.

And society does not let you forget.

At least, not in its current configuration. And our adaptation to this is keeping us locked in stasis. Our ability to change and develop as a society is thusly ossified—despite all the talk about transformation.

Thus—coupled with the rise in social media—events have transitioned from sacred/intimate ‘you had to be there’ gatherings to performative productions wherein everything is staged, recorded and then promulgated out of context into the open web. Experiences are increasingly less geared toward the live in-person audiences, and ever more to the virtual/perpetual/eternal/imaginary online audience who will ‘catch up later’. In doing so, we’ve been groomed to ‘play it safe’.

Whereas in times-past an event would be assessed by the qualitative/resonant impact it had in people’s lives (months or years after the fact),11 for the past decade—up until covid-19, at least—events have increasingly been designed for (and measured in terms of) the quantitative impact they generate via the vanity metrics of likes and shares.12

Speakers are increasingly chosen to generate such. Thus we see things like selfies-from-the-stage, pithy tweetables preferenced over thoughtful provocations, and simplistic acronymistic quick-fix interventionist soltionism-hacks over any kind of complexity, nuance or depth. It’s all, seemingly, about what will look good in the soundbites and the feeds.

Our new warped arena has groomed us to show up in an increasingly performative mode; hyper-vigilant to how we might be perceived by the phantom online masses.13 This is an aberration; an unfortunate +delusion of progress resultant from ever-shortening attention spans. We’ve been hoodwinked; obsessing over the accumulation of petty (and mostly artificial) social capital whilst completely missing the point. Oh how we have strayed.

We have forgotten the ‘magic’ of gatherings.

And many of us have forgotten the mythic role we play in such gatherings. To be the harbingers of ‘sense’ amidst the noise. To be the rekindler of meaningness, via the deft weaving of myth and metaphor. The provocateurs that challenge the status-quo. The knowingly-naïve prophets who hint at better worlds and ways. The jesters that speak truth to power. And so on.

Or maybe it’s just that the role has since become corrupted? I don’t know. Everything changes. And everything is subject to memetic drift; ourselves included.

In any event, covid-19 offers some of us a chance to refresh our relationship to the arena; how we show up, and the spirit in which we play. About time, too!

Ergo, here is my sceptically-optimistic dubious warm-take on ‘the future of professional speaking’.

Professional Speaking is dead.

Long live professional speaking.

It’s not really dead, of course. But the landscape in recent times has left the profession in a perverted shape for some time now. With covid-19 in play, the likelihood of event organisers justifying large in-person gatherings (major conferences and events) is understandably low, and will likely be this way for some time.14

But in the meantime: what’s a professional speaker to do?

Well for starters: don’t call yourself a professional speaker, lest you become locked into that particular mode of delivery.15

Besides: you are not (just) a professional speaker. None of us are. ‘Speaking’ is just a modus to which you may be particularly well-versed in. You happen to deploy this modus as a professional16—and yet this is but one of the many modi at your disposal. This ‘decoupling’ of identity and modus is key17—for doing so frees you up to consider: what mix of modes might best serve in this particular context? How might you best contribute, with what wit and wisdom you have at hand?

Put bluntly: it’s not about polished and perfectly crafted off-the-shelf keynotes. You are not a pull-string speaker. Rid yourself of the notion that you have a packaged product to sell, for that blinds you to what’s really at play (and encourages a kind of naive-hubris and conviction-swagger that just won’t hold, these days). Also: let go of the notion of your own inflated specialness. Yes, you are special (of course; well done)—but so is everyone else.

This is not a time for heroes.

We have long venerated the notion of ‘the hero’. The individual who—against all odds—had the tenacity and courage to face their fears, cross the thresholds and triumph over a challenge. Along the way, they learn to ‘believe in themselves’—their ‘true authentic selves’, no less—(whilst also ‘staying true’ to their vision, goal or dream—no matter the cost).18

Everyday heroes might make sense in simple domains (where things are stable and the path is straightforward and self-evident), if we were feeling generous.

They definitely make sense chaotic domains (where any intentional action is better than paralysis).19 But such heroics are incredibly situational, and perhaps best served by the actual leaders at play, more so than any external speaker brought into the mix.

But if a domain is complicated (an ordered/mechanical system with many moving parts, like a factory), we don’t need a hero so much as we need someone with the relevant expertise to solve problems and bring about improvements. If it’s a particularly complicated problem, then it might make sense to hear from several experts. In any event, speaking can be an effective modality—though maybe only to the extent of sharing general principles and applied heuristics. Otherwise, this is mostly the domain of technical consulting.

You can see where this is going, right?

Most of the contexts in which a professional speaker contributes are complex domains that involve people (and their inner worlds), interpersonal relationships and intersubjective ‘meanings’ within shifting contexts. We now live in a hyper-connected ‘post-industrial’20 world where new (mis)information and memetics reshape our futures quicker than they can be understood.21 Our challenges are thus wickedly complex, ambiguous and contextually unique.22

Challenges like systemic inequality, ecological devastation and the increasingly perverse sense of alienation brought about by modern life cannot be ‘fixed’ or ‘solved’ by any self-proclaimed heroes wielding simplistic or singular ‘right’ answers. If anything, we only ever hold a partial truths—a +protosynthesis—as to what might bring about +meaningful progress.

Ergo, don’t show up with the answers: bring the questions. And then bring these questions to life—enchant them with myth and meaning; make them relevant, salient, useful.

This is a time for legends.

Groups of people, working together—collectively—toward a future less bleak. Working in and with complexity, exploring, learning and weaving new ways. Sure, there might be heroics—but this is far less about individual heroes, and much more about the contexts that give rise to such.

Right now, as our world shelters in the midst of a global pandemic23 —many of my colleagues are flexing into new technologies; equipping home studios with the best lighting, sound and recording setups so as to offer high-production presentations in 4k resolution.

This is all good and well—and I imagine this will swiftly become baseline hygiene for the profession. But let’s not fall too enamoured with the shiny new technologies. Back in the day, the very best speakers in the world—the Masters of Enchantment who bring a depth of experience and a broad distillation of timely insight and wit—would use flip charts. Sure—there’s lots you could do with PowerPoint slides—but there’s something enduringly effective about a flip chart in the hands of a master.24

Either that—or no flip chart or slides at all. A Master Enchanter doesn’t even need such. Nor a Master25 Illusionist, Diviner, Conjurer, Evoker, and so on. Sometimes it helps; oft-times it gets in the way. To draw from the solarpunk manifesto, we ought embrace whatever High Tech we can—while keeping the mechanics of it out of sight and mind, so that the outputs are simple, elegant and unobtrusive.

Then we can focus on what’s really vital right now: making sense amidst the torrent of noise, bullshit and distraction that plague our modern lives.

You mightn’t have the answers—but you may have perspective that can help others to make more sense of their own context, so that they might, in turn, move closer towards a more meaningful kind of progress.

It might also be that—in addition to thoughtful provocation—you may be able to hold space for sense-making. To weave in some Professional Facilitator magic (a vital modus we haven’t quite touched on here yet), so as to hold the tension of generative ambiguity, so that richer meanings and deeper insights might yet emerge.

Well; shoot. It only just occurs to me now…

I could have written a much shorter thought-piece. It would simply say that The Future of Professional Speaking is sidestepping into Professional Facilitation. Not as a meek/invisible facilitator who asks generic questions, but a facilitator imbued with your own kind of perspicacious perspective, wit and panache.

Of course, there’s more to this—there always is!—but I hope these rough thoughts serve to enrich your own sense of things.

I would note that it is unlikely that what I propose will make you more money or fame. But if it’s meaningful impact you seek—and if you are willing to relinquish any heroics—this could remain a viable path for you.

  1. The money made often being proportionate to our mythos. Our mythos being, in part, a composite of our reputation—something that can now be artificially enhanced, thanks to social media. 

  2. Related and yet distinct from the School of Illusion and other wizardly arts. 

  3. And by ‘magic’ I am referring to the nebulous phenomena emergent from the dynamical co-participative interplay within complex adaptive systems. That’s a mouthful, though, and it’s… easier to simply say ‘magic’ (with ironic-sincerity). This also explains why (in terms of effort) a ‘live’ immersive and emergent event often allows for proportionately much more ‘magic’ than something overly-produced and heavily scripted. More risk, too—but that’s the charm. 

  4. Literally: respiring/breathing together, in a kind of synchronised ‘at-one-ment’. 

  5. Hmmm. I don’t like the implied verticality suggested here—but I shall resist this tangent, for now. 

  6. At least: not quite. A decent book can provide immense and indispensable depth, to be sure. But as robust capsules of knowledge; books cannot convey the same contextual reflexivity nor antifragile wit that an event (or any oral culture) might manifest. 

  7. On a positive note: podcasts have proven to be a robust and wondrous means of cultivating intimacy, nuance and depth. 

  8. Narratives that perpetuate a false belief in meritocracy, rampant individualism and inflated specialness; not to mention the ‘theatre of innovation’ that ensures nothing is changed whilst the incumbent winners take all

  9. Instead we seem to have this weirdly narcissistic circle-jerk perpetuation of performative vulnerability and pseudoscience that sounds like change whilst all the while keeping things exactly the same. Thus, in this way, many speakers are but products of the industrial ‘thought-leadership complex’, hired to serve as propaganda-puppets to the status-quo (whilst seemingly not). This is a role I myself have played many-a-time, though I do like to think that this allows me to +trojan-horse metamodern philosophy into the mix, serving as a +trickster (inverting paradigms) and a +jester (speaking truth to power). 

  10. ‘Real’ ‘thought leadership’ is suspect, and doesn’t necessarily fit neatly into conventional/default narratives. Hence why you rarely find it at events these days; especially given the memetic tribalism at play. 

  11. Oh my gosh, I was there!! I remember that! Changed my life. I’m still talking about it, years later. 

  12. The same is happening in much of the publishing industry, too. This is perfectly understandable. 

  13. ‘Okay, I’m going to be vulnerable now. I’m just going to share my truth. Hashtag real talk, okay?’ /turns to camera/ ‘Are you ready?’ 

  14. This is a good thing—flying is utterly unsustainable; a heinous affront—and new technology allows us to connect and work together, in many, many wondrous ways. My hope is that we will swiftly become much better at coordinating information across distributed teams via the deft use of the myriad collaboration tools at our disposal. And then, by working well like this—and by eliminating most of the bullshit work in enterprise lyf—we might be much more intentional about how, when, where and why we gather. And that such events will be cultivated for as much of the generative ambiguity, emergent conversation and serendipitous connection as possible. 

  15. This is one of the many important lessons I learnt from Matt Church, early in my apprenticeship, when I was but a hedgewizard. 

  16. Thus; you take the time to understand the context, you keep to your word, deliver value with integrity, and know that it is not about you or your ego. You care

  17. Which reminds me of this talk by Rohan Gunatillake—‘You Are Not Your Work’. 

  18. Never mind survivorship bias

  19. I am riffing from Dave Snowden’s phenomenally useful Cynefin Framework here. 

  20. This isn’t accurate; the industry is still happening—it’s just been ‘outsourced’. 

  21. Something accelerated by social media, and one of the elements that have given rise to the meaning-crisis we now live within. 

  22. Never mind the existential challenges presented hyperobjects like climate change. 

  23. An emergent phenomena that reminds us how interconnected we all are in this planetary ecosystem. 

  24. On that note, here’s one such master giving a neat video primer on how to use flip charts. 

  25. I don’t actually like the term ‘master’, btw. Like ‘expert’ it conjures the notion of an end-state, whereas in reality it’s mostly a case of continuous learning.