so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.
Last week I had the pleasure of attending the annual HR Grapevine conference (#HRGV2016 if you want to check out the Twitter coverage of the day). Last week’s conference, and in particular one of the keynote speakers Benny Higgins from Tesco Bank, inspired me to write this blog post. From here on out I’m going to be referring to Mr Higgins as Benny, for convenience and also because its fun to pretend we’re friends.
So what was it about Benny’s speech that I found so inspiring? Never before, has my career and my love of literature collided so vividly than it did during Benny’s talk. I have a BA & MA in English Literature, but I’m now an L&D and BD Consultant; Benny is a banker and according to his Wikipedia page he has a “literary bent”. He quoted from the Great Gatsby (one of my favourite books) and from Maya Angelou’s poetry (everyone should read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings) and I lapped it up. In his lilting Scottish accent, it felt to me like he spoke from the heart about subjects and topics he truly felt inspired by, and that’s what the best kind of presenters and speakers can do. They leave you feeling as if they’ve given you a small piece of themselves, an insight into their lives and hearts and you feel connected.
Sticking with the literary theme, I would say that Benny was the very antithesis of what Holden Caulfield would have described as a phony:
“He started off with about fifty corny jokes, just to show us what a regular guy he was. Very big deal. Then he started telling us how he was never ashamed, when he was in some kind of trouble or something, to get right down his knees and pray to God. He told us we should always pray to God—talk to Him and all—wherever we were. He told us we ought to think of Jesus as our buddy and all. He said he talked to Jesus all the time. Even when he was driving his car. That killed me. I can just see the big phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs.”
Perhaps I’m just one of life’s skeptics, and maybe I found Benny so shocking because post the 2008 financial crisis, we’re all experiencing severe distrust for anyone working in banking, and maybe I was expecting more of an 80s cliché, a Gordon Gecko or someone straight out of Glengarry Glen Ross:
MOSS: That’s the God’s truth. And it gets me depressed. I swear that it does. AT MY AGE. To see a goddamn: “Somebody wins the Cadillac this month. P.S. Two guys get fucked.”
(David Mamet: Glengarry Glen Ross).
After Benny’s session I started wondering about my presenting style, and if I manage to make a connection with my audience. I was recently lucky enough to give a guest lecture at Leeds Beckett University for their 3rd year business and HR students, and my talk was on values-based leadership. I truly hope it resonated with them. I tried to speak from the heart, I was open and honest about the types of leadership mistakes I’ve made and seen, although I doubt I was inspirational. Nevertheless, Benny has got me thinking that maybe its time that my literary and work lives stop being so separate. Although my favourite poem is Howl by Allen Ginsburg (the tattoo is mine), and I’m not sure your average sane person is going to be inspired by that, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked” – and then again, maybe those of us who empathise with Ginsberg need inspiration the most.
Nevertheless I can certainly see why Benny chooses to quote Maya Angelou, an undeniably inspirational woman and a beautiful poet, I can’t believe he has been fortunate enough to have met her in real life:
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
(Maya Angelou: Still I Rise).
I’m going to endeavour and aspire towards making my audience feel connected with me, and feeling as though we’ve shared an experience together. Next time I prepare for presenting or public speaking, I’m going to attempt to not just inform and persuade but also to connect and engage and I hope you do the same. We could all be a little more like Benny Higgins.