One of the gifts of biomimicry for a speaker is that it provides an almost inexhaustible supply of engaging stories. If I were to be addressing a conference about the future of cities I might well start with the ‘Dog vomit slime mould’ (yes, the dog vomit slime mould looks very much the way it sounds). The mould grows minimum distance networks between sources of food and, in an experiment at Hokkaido University, was able to solve the challenge of how to connect all the cities around Tokyo in the most efficient way – not only that but it took just 26 hours for the mould network to grow – ie 26 hours to work out what had taken railway engineers thousands of hours to solve. An audience at an event about healthcare might enjoy hearing about the ovipositor of the wood wasp that can drill into wood and was the inspiration for the design of a neurosurgical tool that can drill without any pushing force and can even follow a curved path. If I was at an event about fire safety or forestry, the bark beetle that can detect a forest fire at 80km and the bombardier beetle that has led to an innovative form of fire extinguisher would be must tell stories. I have yet to find a conference theme that didn’t trigger thoughts of amazing biological organisms that could inspire people to think about their subject in a new way.
The second big advantage offered by these examples is that they help with one of the other critical elements of a good speech – they help to draw people across a threshold of scepticism. This is not to suggest that all audiences are full of sceptics but if you are speaking about innovation then there is inevitably a degree of scepticism to overcome. A project that I often speak about is one that I jointly initiated and it aims to address the interlinked challenges of meeting future demands for food, water and energy. If as the speaker I were to start by saying “We had this idea for how we can harvest water in a desert, grow crops and produce renewable energy” then I expect many of the more sceptical people in the room would be leaning back, looking at their watches and thinking “How long’s this guy on for?”. On the other hand, if I begin with a story of the Namibian fog-basking beetle which has evolved to harvest its own freshwater in a desert, then those same people are likely to be leaning forward and thinking “Goddammit if a beetle can do it then we ought to be able to do it!” Once you have moved your audience across the ‘scepticism threshold’ then you can really start to engage them in new ways of thinking and the ability to look at familiar problems with a very fresh perspective.
While on the subject of audience engagement I would like to address a minor bug-bear of mine. In the fifteen years that I have been a speaker I have noticed a trend amongst event organisers towards bigger rooms and more dispersed layouts. I’m sure I am not alone in this as a speaker – when I arrive at a venue and see the seating spread out behind tables in a huge room, my heart sinks because I know that it will be much harder work to energise the room. There is a lot to be learned here from theatre design where centuries of acquired knowledge have shown that the most successful performance spaces are the most compact ones. There needs to be an intimacy for the reinforcing exchange of energy between performer and audience which is the magic of theatre. There is even a widely accepted understanding that, however counter-intuitive this may be, making the audience too comfortable does not make for good theatre – plush upholstery reduces the exchange of energy. The same is true for speaking events so, if you want your audience to feel energised and engaged then get them all as close to the speaker as possible.
So, in summary, I think two of the secrets of a successful event are good stories and a good space.
Michael Pawlyn is an architect, innovator and speaker. He was the lead designer of the Eden Project and his TED talk is the most viewed of any architect.