Finding ways to help your audience connect to your ideas.
An interview with Nick Morgan about using storytelling to help an audience emotionally connect with your ideas.
What’s the best way for a speaker to help their audience connect with their ideas?
Many organizations have brilliant employees with a great depth of knowledge, but when it comes time for them to share that knowledge, they have trouble finding their voice. How does a speaker connect with their audience? How do you evoke emotion, and gain the investment of your listeners?
Our guest today is Dr. Nick Morgan, one of America’s top communication theorists and coaches. He is also the President of Public Words, coaching speakers and business leaders in methods of connection, helping them develop their ideas, and bringing their insights to life with powerful language that will move people to action.
We discuss why it’s best for thought leaders to focus on their insights, narrowing their area of expertise and making their ideas accessible to learners. Nick explains that speakers should share stories that are relevant to their audience, otherwise it won’t hold interest. In addition, your story should identify a specific problem that the audience understands, and illustrate concrete solutions. That’s how a speaker connects emotionally with their listeners.
One method of establishing an emotional connection is by telling stories of conflict or failure. While many have difficulty sharing such personal stories, Nick describes why these are exactly the stories your audience most needs to hear. They want to understand the stumbling blocks you faced, and how to overcome those challenges and reach success. As a coach of some of the world’s top speakers, Nick shares great advice for breaking through the primal fear of public speaking. He discusses why speakers should establish a clear narrative, and how to gain confidence through repetition of those stories.
If over the last two years you’ve felt disconnected or misunderstood during virtual conversations please check out Nick’s book Can You Hear Me?: How to Connect with People in a Virtual World.
If you are planning to add speaking to your repertoire, or even if you’re an experienced speaker, this episode is a trove of wisdom. Listen in!
Three Key Takeaways:
- To make an emotional connection with your audience, you need to find the intersection between thought leadership and listener relevance.
- Share your thought leadership expertise in a narrow band, and seek out an audience that needs your insights.
- Be passionate about your thought leadership. The audience can only be excited if you’re excited, too!
Join the Organizational Thought Leadership Newsletter to learn more about expanding thought leadership within your organization! This monthly newsletter is full of practical information, advice, and ideas to help you reach your organization’s thought leadership goals.
And if you need help scaling organizational thought leadership, contact Thought Leadership Leverage!
Bill Sherman If you practice thought leadership long enough, someone will ask you to speak on the topic. And many organizations find that they have subject matter experts who are comfortable speaking about their ideas with other experts felt less comfortable speaking with non-experts. So how do you give voice to your ideas?
Bill Sherman My guest today is Nick Morgan. He spent a career studying communication with a focus on verbal and nonverbal communication. Nick is the president of public words. He’s coached many of the top professional speakers in the world and is also the author of many books on speaking, most recently: Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World. He’s also written one of my all-time favorite books titled Working the Room. I’m eager to talk with Nick about how to communicate more effectively. We also touch on his journey as a coach of thought leadership practitioners, as well as his own thought leadership journey.
Bill Sherman I’m Bill Sherman and you’re listening to Leveraging Thought Leadership ready. Let’s begin. Welcome to the show, Nick.
Nick Morgan Thank you, Bill, it’s a great pleasure to be here, and I’m delighted, particularly excited to be talking about thought leadership with you today. This is a passion of both of ours, so let’s get started.
Bill Sherman It is! So, you and I have known each other for the better part of 20 years. And so with that, I think one of the joys that I have is when I think about you, I think about connecting people with ideas. And you’ve done that in the world of speaking in person. Now you focused on virtual. And so I want to dig into that a little bit, and let’s start by setting the table when you think about connecting people with ideas. How would you explain that what comes to mind?
Nick Morgan Well, so many things, but let’s start with a couple that seemed key. I began my career after I was an academic for a while as a political speechwriter. And so, the first thing I learned was, you have to understand the voice of the person that you’re working with. In this case, I was the speechwriter. I had to in essence, channel the governor so that I could speak with his voice. And one of the mistakes you tend to make early on is you think I have to say something brand new and clever. But as you and I both know, there are not a lot of new ideas under the Sun. Most of the ideas around the big themes that thought leadership tend to be about leadership and change. And those kinds of great issues. Most of what can be said has been said. But what’s different is your voice, your unique voice. Nobody’s going on the on the road that you’ve gone on in your own personal journey. And that personal journey has to inform the themes of the thought leadership that you strike. And so that’s really the first. That’s the first place to start is figuring out what’s your voice. And that’s gotten more complicated over the years because the news to me was fairly simple. You kept a lot of your personal story out of this and focused on your expertise, your knowledge. And now it’s expected indeed, perhaps required that you be authentic and self-disclosing and bring a lot of your own personal journey into the story. And how much information is too much information? Is the just the operative question. So, yeah, that’s how we get started.
Bill Sherman Well, in that line, I think in terms of that self-disclosure and what’s appropriate has not only moved significantly over the past few decades, but it’s still in the process of moving. And each of us is navigating and saying, OK, if there is an I in the practice of thought leadership, what is the right amount of sharing that I in the idea, right?
Nick Morgan Yeah, it varies from fairly simple answers such as the day I had to give a speech and my father had passed away three days before. Should I share that with the audience or not? Because there was no way I was going to escape from under that cloud that I was enveloped in? And it was it was going to affect how I connected with that audience. Should I mention or not? In the end, I decided not to because it wasn’t relevant to the particular topic, and I didn’t want to burden the audience with that because it would have gotten in the way of the top. But I think about a client of mine who was doing very well as a very successful entrepreneur and now CEO, and she began at age twenty-two and a half seconds from death as a drug addict. And it was literally a phone call that saved her life. Now we debated as she was working on her thought leadership long and hard about how much of that story we would tell. And it turned out because of the answer that she developed that much of that story was relevant. And so, she tells that quite a gripping and really horrific story. And then ultimately ennobling story about her recovery and her new life. So, it can vary quite a bit as to how much information you need to share or you should share.
Bill Sherman And with that, I think there’s also the challenge how do you create that connection with whether it’s an audience in the room or the audience on Zoom or whatever environment you’re in? How do you turn it from? I’m sharing a piece of me or an idea that I have into something where it becomes relatable and understandable. And I think you’ve done a good job of both in terms of being aware of that need helping people see that it’s not just standing on stage or, you know, putting yourself out for the world to see. But to evoke that empathy. So, let’s explore that sort of empathy.
Nick Morgan Yeah, I always remember the advice of my grandmother when I was about eight and prone to speaking up at the dinner table when I visited grandma and telling her all about my day and my life. And she was a stern, stern woman, wonderful in many ways, but tended to be tough on the people closest to her that she loved the most. And she said at one point, “Nicholas, not general information. And she meant the what you share needs to be of general information, needs to be relevant in some way to the person who’s listening in order for it to be acceptable, conversation for the dinner table or for the stage or for the Zoom. And I’ve always remembered that that rule from grandma and thought about it and its many permutations over the years, but things have to be a sufficiently general information. However, you don’t want to define that too narrowly because there was a book written by an African writer, unknown African writer who got turned down by something like 75 publishing houses because they all said nobody in the West is going to be interested in the growing up story. The coming of age story of a young boy in an African, a small African village. And it became a worldwide bestseller. Things Fall Apart because they were focusing on the wrong thing, not the differences, but the similarities. Everybody has to grow up. So the story of a young person becoming an adult turns out to be universal. It turns out to be sufficiently general information.
Bill Sherman And I think that’s something that. You have to be able to step away from yourself, and you talked about that process of working with the client and working through the story and saying, OK, how do we share not just the experience but the learning from it? And so you have to have a little bit of distance.
Nick Morgan Yeah, you need you need some wisdom or some distance on yourself, and not everybody has that. That’s one of the coach’s job jobs is to help them find that. But ultimately you just need to ask yourself what is the problem the audience has for which my story, my information can be a solution. And once you know what that is, then you know the extent to which it’s relatable, and you can use that as a rule of thumb to keep from wandering too far down into some rabbit hole that won’t be of interest to your audience. So that’s really the key is what’s the problem the audience has for which your information is the solution?
Bill Sherman So your latest work on Can You Hear Me in the digital age? Talk to me about that sort of transformation of because speaking had been so much in person and communications in person. So you talk about writing the speech for governor, in fact, right now we’re all in these boxes. What’s the same and what’s changing and how should we do it better?
Nick Morgan That is the question. And, of course, one we’ve all been living in for the past almost two years now. And the quick answer is that the basic rules of communication turn out to be surprisingly the same. However, you still need good storytelling. You still need to show up with energy and presence. You still need these basics. However, there are some pitfalls in the virtual world that I was actually quite surprised to discover when I did the research for the book because I’m a I’m a technophile, I’m an audiophile. I love new gadgets and I thought, This is going to be fun. We’re going to discover we have this whole new way of communicating that is going to add to our options, and that may be the way it comes down. Ultimately, when we get through the pandemic and we’re free to go back in person in whatever hybrid version of reality we experience. But for now, for many people, it feels like a restriction or a less lesser thing. And the reason for that is what we humans care about is each other’s intent more than we care about the exact words that we say. Exact words can sometimes be very important. Don’t get me wrong, but what we care about is the intent behind them. So, if I say nice job bill. You’re pleased. Because who doesn’t like a little couple of words of praise unless you think I mean it sarcastically? And then you feel stung, you say, Why are you ragging on me? So intent matters, and it matters enormously, in fact, antennas everything, and most communications and intent is harder to get in the virtual world, even on video conferencing. Just give a quick, for instance, on video conferencing. We think of it as a three-dimensional exchange because we’re used to translating in our brains. What a two-dimensional picture looks like into three dimensions, but it isn’t the same as three dimensions, and we don’t get as good a read on the other person’s emotions from the two dimensional representation of a three dimensional being your flattened out as the receiver and the and the sender, but your affect comes across as less. And just to illustrate how this can work, here’s a quick, paradoxical example there is one profession that is going much better on Zoom than it did in person. And that is mediation. Hmm. So, couples getting divorced, they hire a mediator because they’re going to be basically friendly about it, and they work out all the details of the divorce in person that can sometimes get heated, even with the best of intentions. Suddenly you’re taking away my assets. How do I feel about that? It turns out because the emotions are damped down on Zoom, that mediation works better because the two parties just don’t get as angry, potentially as they do as they can in person. And so that’s to me, that’s a beautiful counter example of what’s going on here. Emotions are tamped down. We don’t know how strongly the other person really feels about it on Zoom. We don’t get as good a read on their emotions. And it’s not just the intensity, either it’s the quality and kind of emotions as well.
Bill Sherman So that access to a motion right and the ability to evoke emotion, I think is often one of the most effective tools and the practice of leadership, whether it’s seeing around a corner and getting someone to see an opportunity or a risk and have that aha moment or for them to look back on the past and say, Oh, there was another way. So. How do you view that sort of accessing emotion? And is there a way to do it more effectively? Because I think a lot of us stumble through that process.
Nick Morgan Yes, it’s really a lovely question, because for business people, especially when we’re talking about our area of expertise, we tend to think of it as a body of knowledge. It’s not infused with emotion. So we have to remember, first of all, we’re passionate enough about it that we’re willing to devote our lives to studying this. This area, as I am about communications, I start thinking about communications when I wake up and I often doze off thinking about, Oh, that would be a good blog topic if I write it down here as I’m falling asleep. So, you know, I’m crazy passionate about communications. The issue in the business world often is that we don’t like to think about conflict in the business world. Everything is supposed to go well. We’ve got some great products or services. We treat our customers beautifully. They never complain. It’s all good. The interesting stories and the and the passion comes in when things go wrong and when there’s conflict. And to bring that in is often uncomfortable at first for the thought leader and more personally, the one who once upon a time I worked with a billionaire, the one time when things didn’t work out well with a thought leadership program. And I kept telling him, you have to tell us all the mistakes you’ve made along the way because people want to know how did you screw up and still become a billionaire? Because we know we’re going to screw up. What we want to know is how do you survive that and become a billionaire? And he was just deeply uncomfortable talking about any of the mistakes he made. He was convinced that he had done a few things right, and he wanted to tell us about those things. But they weren’t frankly that different than what other people do. He just did it more so, and as former governor of Texas Ann Richards liked to say, backwards and in high heels. He just did it with a couple of twists. But what was really interesting was all the mistakes he’d made and the things he’d learned along the way. He just didn’t want to talk about those things. So conflict is hard, and that’s what typically gets in the way of good storytelling.
Bill Sherman Conflict, vulnerability, transparency and the ability to admit a mistake. Right. And those are the things that we probably sweat over the most in hindsight or in two a.m. when we’re in bed going. What could I have done differently? But if we don’t bring those things to the table, I think we rob our ability to story tell and to share insights. So you mentioned something I want to circle back to. You talked about the joy of the practice of the leadership and you said, Hey, my passion is the communication from the morning I wake up to the time I go to bed. And it’s always percolate. So was that always the case for you or what activated that joy?
Nick Morgan Well, it was really a couple of things that happened to me when I was 17. The most important of which was I was tobogganing and it was in a horrific accident, fractured my skull and was in a coma for a week. And during that week, I died very briefly and came back to life, just came running in with the paddles and shocked me back to life. And when I woke up, I could no longer read body language is a very curious thing. And it wasn’t something that that the doctors tested for. They test for to make sure your brain still functions and you know what year it is and who’s the president United States. They ask you a sort of a basic IQ test to see if your prefrontal cortex and higher brain functions have survived, but nobody asks you. So, can you still read body language neck? And it was. It took me a while to figure out that I couldn’t. It was when I went back to school and I was looking terrible having just been to this accident and I had a horrific scar running down the side of my head and my friend said, Nick, you look great. Big, of course, sarcastic 17-year-olds. And I said, thanks because I thought I meant it. I had lost the ability to read sarcasm. And it wasn’t until a couple of awkward exchanges later that I figured this out, and then I started studying body language with intensity because I knew I was missing something huge intent. Again, the ability to read other people’s attention. And I had to get it back. And so I started studying. That made a bunch of friends very uncomfortable by staring at them for long periods of time, trying to figure out what’s your emotion here? And it gradually came back, and I think I probably just recovered as well as sort of trained myself. But as a result, ever since, I tend to think about these things consciously as well as the way all humanity does, which is unconsciously, we’re all unconscious experts and body language. We when we have some friend that we know or loved, one that we know or family member, and if they’re full of emotion, they come running into the room full of good news or bad news, or they’re angry because something bad has happened. We can instantly pick up on that. Why? Because we know, well, they’re sort of baseline of communication. We know what they’re like a normal state. And so we can easily read heightened state of emotion. And I couldn’t do that for a long time. It was at six months, six to nine months, and so that led to this absolute fascination and passion for communications because once it’s sort of threatened to be taken away from you, then you realize how precious it is and you want to be able to function fully yourself. That’s how I started.
Bill Sherman That’s a fantastic story. Thank you for sharing that, Nick. It also makes me think of something that I’ve seen as a pattern working with all leadership practitioners over the years. And I’m curious if this resonates with you. I think for many, not all, but for many thought leadership begins with something of a problem or challenge you’re trying to solve for yourself. And that leads to that deep questioning where you’re wrestling with it on a day-to-day basis. And then from there, the aha and sort of the spark of, oh, there’s so much to learn and just the small area, and then it becomes self-sustaining. Have you seen that working with some of your clients as well? Does that resonate?
Nick Morgan Yeah, absolutely. It’s I can think of, oh, at least a half dozen offhand immediately that come to mind that either it’s a personal challenge they face. A scion of industry who had his company bought out from under him and so became interested in other kinds of purpose and leading a purpose driven life. Very moving story and I mentioned earlier that the woman who was a drug addict and narrowly escaped death, only to go on to become very successful and to fill her life with love and purpose and achievement. And so these stories just come to mind one after another. Sometimes it’s a problem about an idea. You know, I have a good friend who is an expert on A.I. and. Her interest comes originally from the academic study of computers in artificial intelligence and that sort of thing. And she’s found the challenges of A.I. to be sufficiently intriguing in a fast-changing world, of fast changing area of information that that keeps her engaged. So, it doesn’t have to be a personal tragedy, but there often is a personal story behind it that makes you more sensitive to a particular area or such as I was with the communication or such as sign of industry was with purpose. When you have something taken away from you or when you have it threatened, then you see it sometimes for the first time, especially if you’ve taken for granted before. And so I think you’re right, that does make a big difference.
Bill Sherman And I think that also is you have to have that passion and that willingness to study something and explore it on your own, not because you’re told to, not because you have to, but because you want to understand. And that perpetual flywheel of curiosity.
Nick Morgan Yeah, if that’s not there, then it’s not going to go the distance it when I work with people, they often sidle up to me sort of early in the process and they say, Nick, do you think I have the talent to do this? And I’ll say to them, if I’m feeling particularly honest that moment, I’ll say, you know, talent isn’t what I’m worried about here. It’s whether you have the determination to go the distance and the determination ultimately springs from passion. We can coach you into doing – giving a good speech, or help you get over the pitfalls, the things, the mistakes that people make. But if you don’t have the passion, then you’re going to get tired of it because it’s a long process and you won’t go the distance.
Bill Sherman Well, and that’s so true because the journey of thought leadership, both as an independent practitioner as well as if you’re doing it inside of an organization, the arc of thought leadership is not something you do for a week. It’s not a quarterly project. It’s something that gets woven into your DNA. Those who become most successful at it.
Nick Morgan Yes, absolutely, and it both, as you say, inside and outside organizations inside the organization, you have to push against the kinds of forces that want to keep you focused on just maximizing profit or just taking care of the customers or just developing new markets or whatever it is you’re supposed to do. The inertia of a company is quite strong and whatever their key directions are like that. And so to say, Well, we’re going to start a larger conversation and ultimately will benefit the organization because it will raise everybody’s profile. That’s a somewhat that’s a somewhat delicate argument to make and isn’t always met with huge enthusiasm initially, and it helps if you’re higher up in the organization. If you’re lower down, it gets even more challenging. So you need a lot of passion, a lot of enthusiasm to keep you going. And it’s hard to measure ROI, especially at first.
Bill Sherman Right. Right? Because the signals of success aren’t ones that you can measure through content marketing, for example, your reach or the number of likes engagement. Often when you’re putting an idea out for conversation, that seed that you plant takes a while to grow and it’s below the soil. And so you don’t see it until it sprouts and you’re like, Oh, that maybe took me half a year or a year for that idea to really start even have that green shoot?
Nick Morgan Yeah, absolutely. It’s long-term work. And if your business is obsessively focused on the short term, as many businesses have to be and as many are, then then you’re not. You’re not going to have an easy ride. So, you do have a lot of passion that gets you through. But don’t let that stop you if you’ve got the passion.
Bill Sherman Absolutely.
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Bill Sherman So one of the things that I know you and I have talked about before and this leads to the concept of passion, is the ability to see the connection between your area of interest and the news of the day. Stories that are in the world and it has a term news jacking. But I want to explore that with you because you’ve said that over the years, it’s a skill that some people catch immediately and some struggle with. So, I’d like to get your perspective on this in terms of what is it, how does it work and why do people struggle?
Nick Morgan So I tell people, as they’re getting into a thought leadership program, that it’s like a filter you put on the world and you’re going to be using that filter for the rest of your life. And it’s precisely in the moments when you’re not expected to be think about it thinking about it that that it’s so important. So, I have I have relatives who live in the UK and I got a call from one just the other day who said, you should see this piece by Boris Johnson. He just made a complete idiot of himself giving a speech on the BBC, and it’s hilarious. And immediately, my thought leadership communications, you know, of course, this relative knew me and knew my interest. So that was, in a sense, a softball. She knew I’d be interested in it, but there was Boris Johnson giving a speech and he got lost for twenty one seconds, which is an eternity of stage time. And it was even whether you like the man or not, whether you agree with his politics or not. Everybody’s uncomfortable watching those 21 seconds.
Bill Sherman He’s shuffling papers, gaping in terror. Yeah, yeah.
Nick Morgan Trying to find some bit of inspiration in there. And he finally gives up after 21 seconds that he starts talking about Peppa Pig. It’s one of the funnier moments in recent political history, and if you don’t know what Peppa Pig is, it’s a favorite TV show that was launched in the U.K. and there’s a Peppa Pig world. It’s like Lego World or, you know, any of these characters that they get a theme park. So this is Peppa Pig theme park. And the prime minister had toured it recently as an example of British initiative and creativity and enterprise. And so locked in there somewhere there probably was a point that he could have made had he not been so obviously lost. But yeah, he did not do that well, but it was an ideal moment of news, Jackie for me. So that was a pretty easy one. As I say, the harder one is when you take an ongoing issue that’s that is constantly debated. Let’s say the good and bad news about the environment. We tend to hear so much of that on a daily basis that it sort of achieves background status in our minds unless we are particularly passionate about it. But it sort of goes in one ear and out the other. You see, we have so much, so many news feeds that we’ll hear the same stories seven times during the day. And so we think, yeah, that’s happening. It’s bad news and so on. But we need to be able to pay fresh attention at that point and see, is this relevant to my area of expertise and not precisely tuned it out because we hear it about it so much? And that’s the real opportunity, because pity the poor press that has to report on something like that over and over again. They’re always looking for a new angle. So, if you’re the bright spark who comes along and says, you know, this is really about X my interest. Artificial intelligence could solve this problem, then the press will love you because you’re bringing a perspective that allows them to write something new and you’ll get attention that way. So it’s a great way to tie your story, your story where you sometimes struggle to get people to pay attention to something that they’re already paying attention to, and as a result, it’s can be a very effective way to spread the word. But. You’ve got to be ready and always have that filter on. Always be looking at the world thinking, how can I turn this into a news item about my subject?
Bill Sherman And that’s that twenty-four/seven. Sort of your mind tied to your passion, it’s the voice back in the back of your head that for you is thinking about communications, for example, for your friend, I whatever the topic you’ve chosen, whatever your passion is, is always looking at the world through your lens with fresh eyes and saying, Is there an opportunity here? Is there a story that ties to what I care about, right?
Nick Morgan I had a lovely example of this the other day I was on vacation. This was in August, and I was just walking into a cafe and there was a gentleman in front of me who said he’d like some toast. And the person in front said the clerk said, Sure, OK, I’ll get some toast for you, and he’s sitting there and looking at the person. There’s clearly something he’s frustrated with, and he waits a while because he’s polite to say anything. But he says, Why aren’t you using the machine? And Clarke just looks at him and says, What? What are you talking about? And realizes he’s gesturing to the little credit card reader, which is made by a company called Toast, based here in Boston. And he saw toast on the top. So he thought this was some magical new way to toast. And yeah, we the reaction of the clerk was priceless. She didn’t want to draw attention to, you know, his moment of foolishness and humiliate him, and I was trying not to crack up behind him. But, you know, we can all understand this technology moves fast. He’d never seen this before. Just because it was about the size of a credit card was awfully small to be making toast. But never mind, he wanted this, and if
Bill Sherman it did, makes toast. I want to see it used, right? How cool would that be? Right, exactly, exactly.
Nick Morgan So, yeah, so there was an opportunity for anybody, for an A.I. story. You know, it wasn’t. It didn’t quite work out as a communication story, although I wrestled with it for a while and I loved it. But yeah, it’s for any number of of particular interest that would have made a lovely little vignette, taking a lot of technological adaptation and so on.
Bill Sherman So we’ve talked about your start into the world of communications back at 17 and you over your career. But a teacher, a coach, a consultant, an advisor, you’ve worn many hats. I want to talk to you for a few minutes about what have you learned, both being a practitioner as well as that adviser. And so I think those are two different perspectives in thought leadership and there are more practitioners and fewer of us who do the advising. So I want to ask you, what have you learned by seeing many people wrestle with their own leadership?
Nick Morgan Well, it’s never as interesting as you think it is to the rest of the world. That’s the first thing you have learned. So a certain amount of humility, you’re going to be wearing that filter all the time. And so you’ll be like that annoying person at the cocktail party who won’t stop talking about X. Whatever that is. So you have to where you’re learning your expertise lightly and have a sense of humor about it. But also you can’t despair. People will be interested. And if they’re not and you are, it’s probably because you haven’t figured out how to tell the story yet in a way that will make it sufficiently relevant to people. Back to my grandma, sufficient general of general interest is the key question How do you make this a general interest? And what your job is to find the human theme, the elemental story in in that area of expertise. What brings it to life? And of course, the people who struggle with the people who are in the more esoteric fields like A.I. and that kind of thing. But then when you look at a lot of recent movie making and TV making, A.I. is all over it, right? Robots and all that kind of thing. So there’s there are stories to be told. It’s just you have to figure out what they are and as I say, find it in the conflict, which is not the first place you want to look usually. But so that’s the main thing is, it’s not as interesting to other people as it is to you. And also, if you do it right, you can get their interest and you can get them to pay attention. And the key is make letting the audience do some of the work and making it about them. So it’s about being aware of and talking to your audience.
Bill Sherman So you say letting your audience do some of the work, what do you mean by that? Because I think there’s something to unpack there.
Nick Morgan Yeah. So that that has both specific immediate applications and also more general ones. But me, see if I can illuminate it by talking about a bit of research that was done at Princeton University by a psychology professor who wired up storytellers and listeners to each other. Wired up in terms of their brains, so you could study the brain patterns of both. And what he found was he had the storyteller read or recite a fairy tale to the listeners and the listeners started to match their brain patterns up to the storyteller. We literally get on the same wavelength when you tell a story. But here’s what’s interesting when they got near the end of the story, this the listener’s brain patterns anticipated. They actually led the storyteller because they knew where the story was going. And so one of the secrets to good thought leadership is to tell basic stories, fundamental stories that resonate with people so that they can do the rest of the work that can carry it home for you. They can carry it the rest of the way. And so you want to be telling stories about deep quests and deep fundamental human conditions and things like that. What if you think it’s not about that, then you haven’t done enough work yet? You’ve got to find the deep human story within your area of expertise. And to my astonishment, I will tell you that the people who struggle with this the most are people in the medical world. And for me, that’s astonishing because the medical world is about life and death, and you can’t get much more basic and human than that. We all want to live and not die. We all want to get cured and not die of some mysterious disease. So it’s inherently interesting. But they’ve been trained. Their scientific training gets in the way they’re trained to be dispassionate and not see. And this is changing, thank goodness. And there’s lots of narrative storytelling going on in the medical world now and there, and they’re being trained in new and interesting ways. But on the whole, doctors are trained to disconnect from the emotions so that they don’t get overwhelmed by all the grief and all the pain. And but the result is it’s often hard for them to see the story right in front of them.
Bill Sherman And I think if we extrapolate even a little bit further to that, that training in science also leads to a lot of business function as well, where you communicate an idea through a white paper and you hand, you know, 20 30 pages to someone and say, Read this There’s often very little storytelling that happens in a white paper. Now, infographics and shorter forms of communication rely essentially on that storytelling. And so that ability to put the circuit breaker in and say, OK, we’re doing a white paper or a longform piece. Where’s the story here? How do we break it down to the individual beats that gets someone to see why it relates to them? Because if you can’t create that like you said, that alignment of brain rate on an EEG, if you can’t get someone to see your worlds, they’re not going to have your excitement because I’ve used the phrase that your audience will never be as excited about your idea as you are. And that means if you’re not showing excitement, they’re not coming along for the ride. Right?
Nick Morgan Yeah, absolutely. It’s you got to be 10 times as excited as they are. Yeah. The case of getting other people as interested in your ideas as you are is that’s really the heart of it. That’s the nub of figuring out thought. Leadership is finding that finding that story and going with going with something that will ignite their passion, their curiosity just as much as years or almost as much as.
Bill Sherman Or related to something that they deeply care about, right? And so if you can find that common bridge where they say, OK, you’re an expert in X, I’m curious about why, just like you and I, a conversation on the intersection between communication and leadership, there is so much that we can continue talking about. And I have a question that I think will relate to something that I’ve heard from a number of people who practiced thought leadership in organizations. And I want to ask on their behalf. So heads of the leadership have said to me something along these lines. We have some amazing experts in-house, but if you ask them to go out and speak or to share these ideas, they get scared or they deal with cold feet and they’re afraid. You’ve worked with speakers at many different stages in the journey, from novice to true pros and masters. How do you help those people who have great stories, great insights gain the confidence that they need to be able to tell those stories?
Nick Morgan My approach for a long time has been based on the neuroscience of communications, and for many people, especially thought leaders who are dealing with some area of scientific knowledge or academic knowledge, that’s quite profound. They’re used to thinking in evidentiary terms. And so they find it very reassuring when I show them this is when you go out and stand in this way on stage, you’re going to have this effect on the audience. The audience will be here with you at this point in the story because we know the neuroscience of storytelling tells us that the audience is going to respond in this way and knowing that you can control that to an astonishing extent and have a clearer understanding of where your audience is, where you are. That gives people a lot of reassurance. And so it takes away the basic fear of public speaking, which is that I’m feeling exposed. I’m standing in front of a bunch of people. We’re going to judge me. And that feeling is probably ancient. Many of my colleagues in the space say it comes from the fear of being kicked out of the tribe. That was our biggest danger 100000 years ago or a million years ago, because humans being a weak species could survive on their own. We were strong as a group, but weak on our own, so we’re afraid of getting kicked out of the tribe. Hence, any time we have to stand up in front of the tribe and be judged by the what ifs their vote is thumbs down, you know, then then we’re out in the woods somewhere with the saber tooth tigers after us. So. So that fear is real and it’s primal. But it goes away if you can understand fully what you’re doing and realize that these things are controllable and predictable.
Bill Sherman So take away some of the uncertainty and bring clarity in terms of what needs to be done rather than worry about what might happen.
Nick Morgan Yeah, and if you have a good clear plan and you’re in mind and you know that it works, then then that gives you a lot of comfort. And of course, for many people, that kind of fright is quickly overcome. A few minutes into the speech of this sort of immediate nerves, but then for other people, it takes a longer period of time and it’s speaking in front of a number of audiences. You say you start to recognize how this is at this point. This is where the audience will laugh or this is where the audience will respond in some way that I’m familiar with now. And that’s very reassuring. If you know your audience and you know your topic, then that you can get quite comfortable, even the most extreme introvert can get comfortable in front of an audience when one is predictable.
Bill Sherman So as we begin to wrap up, I want to close with one question. There are more people at the start of their journeys in thought leadership than there are who are reaching towards the end. And that’s just true because so many people are more interested in bold leadership now than decades ago. My question would be one for you if you were to go back and offer advice to 17-year-old Nick, or maybe twenty two year old Nick starting down this journey. What advice in terms of developing the skills for thought leadership and what advice would you give for the journey?
Nick Morgan Yeah, I’d say start narrow the urges to start wide. You think I have to appeal to everybody? But you actually get further faster if you find the other experts who truly care about the thing you do as narrowly as possible and then you get to know them and you find out the tricks of their trade and how they go about it and how they talk about it. And if you can do them one better, great. But you’re going to learn from that experience and then you can gradually build out from there. But if you start too wide, if you say and this is classic, when you write your first book, the publisher and your agent will ask you, So who’s the audience for this? And you’ll say, Well, everybody and my mother. And their reaction is, Oh, we’ve got another one here, because anybody who answers that hasn’t really thought about who their audience is. It’s not true that the whole world wants to know about your expertise and to find who is interested. You need to start as narrow as possible. So that’s the first sort of counterintuitive advice I’d give. And then the second, because I ran into I had a lot of stage fright and a lot of uncertainty along the way and almost came up, gave up any number of times is in follow that passion and hang in there because it’s a we used to talk about in the consulting world, a hockey stick phenomenon where you’re first, you’re down here and it doesn’t look like you’re making any progress and then it shoots up after you’ve been for doing it for a while. Well, what they don’t tell you is, you know, an actual hockey stick has a short little blade and then a long run up right with the with the handle. But it’s really more like the other way around. You have a long, long, flat blade, right? And then it’s going to start going up. How long does it take? I mean, it’s impossible to predict everybody has a different experience, but it can take five years, you know, to really start to get noticed even in this instant world. The problem with this instant world is that it forgets as fast as it is entranced by something. And so even going viral doesn’t guarantee that you’ve got a thought leadership career. It just means that a large group of people paid brief attention to you. And that’s it. That’s a trap that many a thought leader falls into. That’s and that’s the other bit of advice I give is don’t in fact try at all for the for the short-term viral meme, but rather go for the long, the long haul and build your audience slowly. Because that short term audience, it’s like crack cocaine, you know, it’s going to come and go just like that and you’re going to be left feeling worse when you were done that than you did before you started.
Bill Sherman So there is so much more we could talk about next, but I think that’s great advice. Thank you very much for joining us today.
Nick Morgan Oh, Bill, it’s always great to chat with you.
Bill Sherman If you’re interested in organizational thought leadership, then I invite you to subscribe to the Orbital newsletter. Each month, we talk about the people who create, curate and deploy thought leadership on behalf of their organizations. Go to the website orgtl.com and choose Join our newsletter. I’ll leave a link to the website as well as my LinkedIn profile in the show notes. Thanks for listening, and I look forward to hearing what you thought of the show.