The crowd in the hall was at least 200 strong, mainly young people in their twenties. A super-hero costumed DJ on the stage was providing the deafening rock music as we waited for the event to begin. Finally, the theme music from Rocky announced the entrance of the MC and his entourage. The scene was straight out of Madison Square Gardens for a heavyweight bout of some kind – security guards in dark suits flanked the MC who was wearing dark glasses that doubled as a matrix sign scrolling various ‘Tech Off’ messages.
This was nothing like any tech event I’d ever attended.
Earlier that day I’d been contacted by Royd Brayshay, a friend of mine who texted me a link directing me to some event details. He asked if I wanted to go as he was intending to be there. The promotional copy suggested it was a wrestling contest interspersed with tech talks. It all sounded bizarre but I thought if it has talks in it, I’d go.
Once at the event I discovered there was no actual wrestling, just the hype surrounding wrestling – capes, costumes, prize-fighting belts and over-the-top MCs. Judging by the effort put into the show the sponsors had clearly allocated a ton of money for it.
The outlandish MC (@BeyonceOfTech) and his crew cruised past me and sailed onto the stage. Once he had the microphone the MC harangued the crowd for their lifeless response to his appearance and baited them into becoming a vocal mob. After ten minutes of vocal pistol-whipping the crowd bayed at the required ear-splitting volume.
It was then announced that one of the Creative speakers hadn’t turned up (I guess creativity is unpredictable) so there was a Wild Card opportunity for someone who was stupid/brave/drunk enough to take on the challenge. My sober ears pricked up.
The explained format was this: there would be four separate bouts where a Creative would battle a Techie to determine who was most relevant in the world. Each contestant would give a five minute illustrated talk to trade blows. After the four ‘fights’ the winners of the bouts would gather on stage and the roar of the crowd would decide the overall champion who could then rightfully claim the prize-fighting belt on offer. The hysterical crowd cheered the strutting MC and the atmosphere was redolent of well, … a prize-fight.
I volunteered to be the Wild Card.
In all my presentation skills workshops I encourage the attendees to take up every opportunity to speak in order to improve their skills – it’s the only way to improve, so if I can’t walk the talk I’ve no business running a speakers workshop.
Then the fights began.
With so many attendants on stage the speakers had trouble knowing who to approach for the clicker that controlled the slides and with the frequent ‘mic drops’ during the talks it all seemed a bit chaotic. After each bout the MC asked the crowd to voice their approval or disapproval of the speakers. A pretend clapometer measured the decibel rating and the winner received a little trophy.
As I watched these early rounds I had about half an hour to figure out what I was going to say in my slot. I didn’t have any slides to worry about so I could concentrate fully on my narrative. At first I considered just having some fun with the audience and playfully going over some presentation hints and tips but I eventually decided to tell the story of Semmelweis who discovered that hand washing in hospitals saved lives. I’d given this talk before at a Bettakultcha event so I figured it should work well within the time constraint but it also has a serious message to it that fitted the remit of the event.
The energy in the room was the highest I’d ever experienced at a speaking event so I was going to have to adapt my usual style of delivery to fit the mood in the audience, I was going to have to make my stage persona a lot bigger. Rule number one for speakers is: it’s never about you, it’s always about the audience.
I have to confess, as experienced as I am, when the time came to ascend the stage I was feeling nervous; this was an unfamiliar sector for me and I had no preparation – but hey, I was a seasoned compere so I could improvise! Another rule for speakers is to use your nervous energy in a positive way.
As soon as I hit the stage I set up a ‘call and response’ format to assess if the audience were willing to follow the story. This got them immediately engaged and I was able to monitor their attention as the story developed.
The talk was going well and I intended to follow the structure of the original talk I had given at Bettakultcha but as I was nearing the conclusion I suddenly thought of a ‘let’s not fight but collaborate’ ending to the talk that was more appropriate for the occasion. This was improvised but judging from the cheer coming from the audience it hit just the right note.
I won the bout.
The climax of the event was where the four finalists stand on the stage for the ultimate clap-off. As I stood at the front of the stage I kept to the promoted theme and played to the crowd with ridiculous ‘body-building’ exhibition poses that indicated I wasn’t taking myself too seriously. The whole package must have worked because I was declared the overall winner of the contest and was awarded the champions belt. It was a surreal but hugely satisfying moment.
The learning I got from this experience was:
Be spontaneous and take every opportunity to speak (but don’t traumatize yourself).
Adapt to the needs of the audience and the context of the moment.
A close friend of mine is a teaching assistant in a well-respected school. She works mostly with disadvantaged children who have special needs and she is a wizard at motivating them.
She told me this tale recently of an incident she was involved with at school and I asked her if I could retell it here because it demonstrates how stories have incredible power and can produce astonishing results (she agreed of course, otherwise I wouldn’t be retelling it).
Her main charge at school is a boy called Daniel (not his real name) and he had always struggled with the basics. Simple arithmetic was proving to be a real stumbling block for him. Several teachers had tried to teach him the principle of adding up a column of figures and carrying over the tens into an adjoining column if the added up numbers exceeded nine.
No matter how many times they went over the principle, Daniel just couldn’t get his head round the idea – it was too abstract for him.
Then my friend (let’s call her Jane) was given the task of helping him.
Now, my friend is a genius at intuitively understanding children and their interests so she approached this issue in a novel way.
“Look, Daniel” she said “at the bottom of this column of figures is a room. This room can only hold nine people at the most so when all the numbers in this column are added together and they total less than ten, then that number of people can still all fit into the same room together so they can continue to party.
“But if the total adds up to more than nine then that extra ‘one’ it creates can’t fit into the party room and so it has to leave the room and be all on its lonesome with nowhere to go. In order to help the lonely boy, how about we create a new room especially to house him? Let’s call the new room the ‘ten room’ and we build it next door to the other room. In here, the tens can go straight from the singles room and meet up with their own friends to play with.
“They can continue partying just like the folks in the single figure room do – so everyone is happy.”
Daniel could visualise this scenario in a context he was familiar with and suddenly everything made sense to him. He lifted his head up and proclaimed proudly to Jane. “Mrs Creswell, you can go now because I know what I’m doing.”
Jane left Daniel to tackle the remaining sums by himself. When she returned and checked his sheet, Daniel had completed all the problems and managed to work out the correct answers without any further help from her. She knew then that he had intuitively grasped the principle and in future he could apply it where necessary.
This is the power of storytelling; a disadvantaged child has been able to make sense of the world because a facilitator had gone to the trouble of explaining a phenomenon using analogy and narrative.
Imagine the rush of insight Daniel must have experienced, as the secrets of the principle of addition were revealed to him for the first time. Then imagine his realisation that this knowledge has empowered him – he can solve problems for himself!
It’s no exaggeration to say that Jane may have changed Daniel’s life forever. By investing a bit of imagination into the explanation she gave him, she made Daniel realise that there are many different approaches to understanding a problem.
Is it any wonder that Jane is adored by the children in the school?
In any talk you give, be the creative facilitator – helping the audience understand the world better and empowering them to do things for themselves. Make stories your friend and that task will become a lot easier.
It is with a heavy heart that I have to tell you that I am leaving Bettakultcha.
After seven amazing years, hundreds of outstanding speakers and brilliant audiences in Leeds, York, Bradford, Huddersfield, Manchester and two festivals I’m hanging up my clicker and leaving Bettakultcha in Ivor’s capable hands.
I’ve had an absolute blast bringing Bettakultcha to life with Ivor. From the very first event at Temple Works with the rickety board table and one loo, right through to 400 people in Leeds Town Hall and the filming of the Bettakultcha pilot for Made in Leeds – I’ve made so many friends and expanded my mind.
I’ve been constantly surprised by our volunteer speakers who have put up with my constant emails and nagging to get their slides in on time and of course the brave Random Challengers, you guys have balls! Each and every one of them has enhanced my life no end.
So why am I moving on?
As some of you know in January 2016 I began a new era in my life, when I started my own marketing business. And thanks in a big way to some of the people I met whilst running Bettakultcha, it’s going really well. So well in fact that I don’t have the time or energy to put into Bettakultcha which it, you and Ivor deserve.
I know Ivor has great plans for its future direction and I fully wish him the best of luck.
There are so many people I want to thank for their help and support over the last seven years, please forgive me if I’ve missed you out.
Susan Williamson for agreeing to let us try out our mad idea at Temple Works in the first place. Mike Chitty for constant encouragement and of course the loan of his travelling projector! Emma Bearman and Phil Kirby for being our cheerleaders and helping out no end. Nathan Clark of the Brudenell, the best venue in Leeds, for his constant patience with us. Lee Jackson for great feedback, support and the loan of yet another projector! John Popham for helping us video so many of our great moments.
And not forgetting Darren Scotland, Matt Pallatt, Becky Senior, Paul Smith, Mark Moorhouse, Tim Difford, Emma Sutton, Mike Wallis, Noel Curry, John Dolan, Imran Ali, Si Cliff, Wendy Denman, John Atkinson, Nick Copland, Kate Fox and Royd Brayshay for their help and support. So sorry for the people I’ve missed off the list would just be too long!
I may not be wielding my Bettakultcha clicker anymore but I’m sure I’ll see you all around, and who knows I may just do a Random Challenge at a future gig, seeing as I won’t have seen them before.
Our first visit to The Wardrobe in Leeds was great. It’s a fantastic room, akin to the Brudenell, so it’s got a great feel for Bettakultcha. The night had a great line of speakers with many first time presenters as well as some old hands. Here’s how the night went. Enjoy.