How to write a talk with an idea worth spreading

Yesterday I was invited to speak at my local chamber of commerce to a group of invited business people about the power of speaking as a communication tool, and in particular the value of TED-style talks for small business. A TED-style talk is one with an idea worth spreading – so says Chris Anderson, founder of the world-renowned event series.  A high percentage of businesses in CoCs are service businesses so I wanted to illustrate how this kind of business can find an ‘idea worth spreading’ as well as the many academics, authors, researchers and scientists who we often see on the stage at TED. One of the great benefits of the rise of TED and the power of the internet has been the enormous renaissance in speaking. There are now so many more opportunities to put your business in front of others. An idea worth spreading is a talk worth considering to promote your business!

As you probably know, storytelling is one of the most powerful tools to use in creating talk that connects with others, so fortunately I remembered the story of my divorce lawyer Christopher.

Many years ago when I was in the process of considering my first divorce (yes, unfortunately I’ve had two – you can’t be good at everything), a good friend recommended me to Christopher. I was in a bit of a state, as is often the case at the outset of divorce proceedings. It had been a painful and messy few years. Christopher was old school; one of the nicest, most polite men you could possibly hope to meet. He was enormously supportive and got the job done with the minimal fuss, drama and rants from me!!! He also happened to work for one of the most expensive, well-known legal firms in London – I didn’t know that at the time when my friend sent me there!!!

Years later, when Christopher had had a belly full of handling high profile celebrity battles and titled wrangles, it became time for him to return to his county and set up a practice of his own. As he had known my work as a communicator well, he called up (Christopher had an amazing way of staying friends with all his clients) and asked if I could help shape his new brand. He wanted to find a way to do divorce differently; without the combat, without the divisive battles. He wanted to construct a different kind of law firm.

I suggested we write a TED Talk. The pince-nez style glasses were lowered on his nose, and a dry remark headed my way like a bullet: “Ah yes Jenny but you know, we are building a legal firm, not a speaking bureau aren’t we?” Now from anyone else that might be thought condescending, but delivered in Christopher’s twinkling style it was just amusing. Happily he had enough trust in me to give the thing a go.

How do you shape an idea worth spreading for a law firm?

So how did we start? Well for a TED-style talk, you’re looking for a through-line; an insight or an idea to share with others to provoke a change of heart or mind or just impart new and valuable knowledge. So we took years of correspondence – stripping out any personal references of course – and put the communication through a analytical process to see if we could spot any commonalities, any trends or thoughts that were worth investigating. Into the very first word-cloud, we found all the sort of phrases and trends you might expect: divorce, settlement, I want, custody, division etc. And one that we didn’t. Spoons.

It was then I remembered one of Christopher’s first phrases when I steamed raging into his office for the first time about who was going to get what, what should happen, why it was all awful. He looked at me over his glasses and smiled gently and said “Now Jenny, we’re not going to make this all about who gets the spoons are we?” I thought we were on to something.

We talked about it a little more, and we realised that the spoons discussion was a regular thread in Christopher’s correspondence with people. “Having a ‘spoon’ moment” was a legendary comment whenever things got a little antsy in discussions! It was Christopher’s way of starting to deflect the situation from a combative division of the spoils to something more humanitarian, with a longer term view towards happiness in the future. We investigated a little further. And found that the faster clients came to a place where they could move away from division of the spoils, the less likely it was for them to ever come back asa client. A little more research and we had reasonable evidence to suggest that those people made successful second marriages.

So we had the basis for a talk: The Psychology of Spoons. Now, it never did make it to the TED or TEDx stage. But not only did Christopher use the talk where appropriate, but his more junior staff members at the new business adapted it for their own use to speak in smaller women’s groups and community gatherings. Some adaptations included Why I Was Happy to Lose My Spoons. And in no time at all, Christopher’s new business began to develop a reputation for exactly what he wanted: a place to come to take the pain out of the divorce process, make it more human, and deliver longer term happiness to participants. A place where divorce was a new beginning and not a divisive end.

It’s not easy work to look for an idea worth spreading. But if you find one it can be remarkably effective as a communications tool for your business even if it never finds its illustrious way to the TED stage.

How do you find your idea worth spreading?

In Christopher’s case, here’s what we did:-

  1. We looked for evidence against which we could draw a wider conclusion
  2. We did that through 1-2-1 discussions about all his observations of clients over the years, how he worked with people, what the commonalities were
  3. We put correspondence through an analytical algorithm to see what showed up
  4. We looked for something new – a new insight into behaviour or thought
  5. We looked for something surprising around which to build a story
  6. We were prepared to challenge a widely help belief or norm with our findings
  7. We considered ways to present an old idea in a new light – i.e. aggressive confrontation doesn’t work / not all lawyers want to prolong the fight to earn more money etc

If you would like help looking for an idea worth spreading for your business, do get in touch. I’m very happy to work on a 1-2-1 basis with you. If you would prefer to work it out in a group of like-minded business leaders, you could also join one of my Transformational Talks courses later this year. The next course stars on June 26th, and the Autumn courses on September 4th and October 23rd.

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