Last weekend I had the pleasure of being a keynote speaker at the HUTAC annual leadership conference. HUTAC is a multicultural and interdisciplinary association of young professionals who were awarded the Huygens scholarship (HSP) for academic excellence. This is a great organisation of high achieving young professionals, who got in touch with me and I’ve worked with earlier in the summer, giving them a workshop on storytelling. On the back of this they had me open their conference with a talk/presentation/session Leadership.

The brief I received was very broad, but included requests for improvised performance, audience interaction, and leadership tips. I created something that fit all of these criteria, called ‘The Flipside of Good Leadership‘.

Because improv and leadership (in this context) are actually different uses of the same skills I was able to create the content that would provide the structure for my presentation. I knew that I would do a short solo improv set, and outline a couple of principles that would put them in the right mind-frame, and tie each of these to an interactive pairs exercise that they could do in the room.

As I moved towards drafting the conclusion, I checked to see the acronym that my principles created. It turned out that those principles – PLAY, AWARENESS, and RISK, spell PAR.

Par isn’t ideal in these circumstances. I mean, I knew I could make a connection between par and achieving a baseline of acceptable performance, but that’s not very inspirational. However, when you reverse those letters, you get RAP.

If you know me, you probably know that not only do I love hip hop music and write and perform some super fresh rap tracks occasionally, but I also love to freestyle rhyme.

At this point in the process, it was obvious to me that there was no other option than to freestyle rhyme the end of my speech. But I needed a beat. So I decided that I would teach the attendees to beatbox and then drop the rhymes.

Part of me knew that this was, if not a terrible idea, then at least a terribly risky one. Of course, due to the content of my speech, I knew that this just reinforced its necessity.

So I got some help from Trent Pancy (the other half of Milly Can Rap) on how to teach the room to beatbox, then I told enough people to ensure I wouldn’t back out.

The day itself

The room that we were in (in Utrecht’s Academiegebouw) was covered floor to ceiling in oil paintings of elderly white male scholars. It had a lectern in front of an elegant fireplace, and stretched out on creaky wooden floors. In short, it was the perfect place to do a dynamic interactive session on improv-based leadership skills.

So I went ahead. When I arrived at the front of the room I said “hello” to the room. Silence. I waited a moment, then tried again. “Hello,” I said, with an expectant pause at the end. There were a few scattered “Hi’s” in response. I knew I had my work cut out for me.

But the audience to their credit, did become engaged. My short improv set, inspired by the word “forest” actually had a complete narrative arc, and a few laughs throughout. And after that we all settled in. The half hour passed quickly, as I worked from topic to topic, and included at each an exercise they could do that would illustrate the principle I was discussing.

I also used references to Jason Bourne and Indiana Jones, which is a movie reference record for me. And then, we were at the end. I introduced the closing element with, “Many of you may not know this, but I’m also a freestyle rapper.

[titters] And you are all – or will be – beatboxers [murmurs].”

And we were off. I did forget to make the link from the R-A-P to the ‘rap up’, but nonetheless the group gamely started beatboxing a basic p-t-k-t, and I launched into a freestyle, using the words I had written on the flip chart as my guide.

And then it was done.

Despite the lack of a direct link between the acronym I was working towards and my decision to freestyle the end of my keynote address, it worked. And I left feeling good about the job I had done, and the way that the group came alive during the speech. I mean, between the thought-leadership, the solo improv comedy, the movie references and the freestyle rap, I really threw everything I had at the presentation.  And I think it paid off.

So I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re looking for a conference speaker, get in touch, I’d love to join in and be part of it. I have a nice suit, a pleasant demeanour, and the skills to rock the party.

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