Zen and the art of the slide-free keynote

Unless it’s maybe Season 8 of The Game of Thrones, the world is not crying out for more content. I’m well aware of the fact that exactly no one is waiting expectantly for my next post, status update or shared image. There’s just too much of it already out there.

So here are the two questions I ask myself anytime I seek to share something I’ve created: why am I sharing this? And so what? Is it meaningful in any way to me or to my friends, colleagues, students, family, followers?

I stopped giving keynotes on storytelling a couple of years ago because I couldn’t credibly answer those questions as I sought to revise my slide deck yet again, inserting the latest best practices, another visual anecdote or some pithy observation on the ongoing state of upheaval.

On stage at Fremont Abbey, Sept 8 2017

So I was determined to do things differently when I actually agreed to be CreativeMornings Seattle featured speaker this month.

I knew I was going to be in a space that was once a neighborhood church. The acoustics would be good, but maybe not the sightlines for a screen. And I was speaking to a group of creatives who weren’t looking for a canned speech. Finally, I actually dread creating slides. I decided I’d rather devote the effort to actually creating and rehearsing a well-structured speech. And anything I showed would be physically with me — from books to newspaper article to my guitar. In the way I hoped to connect more wholistically to those who had decided to spend their Friday morning with me.

Look at me! Handheld mic, no slides

It took me two weeks of preparation to get it right. First I roughed out what I wanted to say (some of the core narrative about my identity and origins came from something I jotted down in February would I to ever give another keynote). Then I wrote the script. After that I kept hammering away at it, dividing into acts and sections, then distributing it onto color-coded cue cards. Once that was done, I set to committing the gist of my talk to memory, ultimately fashioning one cue-card to rule them all that depicted the overall flow, and primary points I wanted to make. With that, I stashed away the deck of cards far from reach, and relied entirely on that one summary card — folded in four — as my only form of support.

Sketchnote of my talk by Daniel Romlein
Sketchnote of my talk by Daniel Romlein

I can read a room. I see any time that I spend on stage as a transference of energy between me and the audience. Without looking at their eyes, their physical movements, I can feel when they’re paying attention. And that morning in that beautiful space, I felt their focus, as certainly as I was aware that I was hitting the right notes. Someone told me later that they appreciated my choice to start with a short, original guitar composition. When I began playing he said, people took out their phones to record me. Then they realized that wasn’t what they were there to do, and almost simultaneously, put their devices away to focus on what I was doing. From that point on, it felt as if we were locked on each other. It was effortless synchronicity.