Last fall, I was in London, UK facilitating a two-day leadership forum for tech leaders at one of the big banks. The forum focused on Change Management, to address the rapid and unsettling changes they were facing in the workplace. The two days were to help them adapt to their new reality, so that they could, in turn, support their staff through the changes.

About half the group was from the UK, but the other half was from Luxembourg (and a few from Malaysia) with English as a second language.

I quickly discovered they were a dynamic group of 100+ people–engaged, interested and talkative.

Day One starts off swimmingly. The internal speakers perform well and the group actively participates in the reflection exercises I facilitate. Everyone’s into it. Even the food is good!

Momentum is building for the highlight of the day–the keynote speaker. From Australia, our special guest is both a subject matter expert and a motivational speaker. I’m psyched. I’ve heard first-hand that he’s “amazing”! In fact, the National Speakers Association describes him as “one of the 25 Most Influential Speakers in the World”.

He’s deliberately slated for the last hour of the day, so we can end Day One on a high note. The group (and I) will be inspired, energized and wowed!

I make the introduction, the crowd explodes into applause and then I sit back to enjoy watching a master at work.

The first 10 minutes are okay. He has some interesting ideas–innovate, put the customer at the centre of what you do. Not exactly ground-breaking, but relevant.

I notice the group is listening, but not really engaged. The speaker continues his lecture, but makes little effort to connect with the audience. He asks a couple of perfunctory questions to elicit quick responses, but nobody participates.

I have to remind myself that this guy’s a pro and knows what he’s doing. He’s making some valid points, yet they’re falling flat in the delivery.

Now I can tell he’s really losing the audience and I ask myself, “Why is this happening?” Is it the Australian accent? After all, half the audience has English as a second language. Maybe, he’s just speaking too quickly. But, this guy’s a world renowned public speaker; surely he knows how to adjust his pace for the audience.
Then I wonder, “Where’s the sizzle?” This guy was supposed to get everyone fired up. The audience looks more expired than inspired.

More blah, blah, blah. Finally, after what feels like an interminable length of time, I can tell he’s wrapping it up and I feel a momentary surge of relief.

Until it dawns on me…he’s about to turn the group over to me

And, then I’m downright angry. He’s handing me a restless, exhausted, scowling audience that can’t wait to leave. Frankly, neither can I.

But, I can’t let Day One end like this. I have to face the music.

So I do.

In the last dying minutes of our speaker’s talk, I make my way over to Paul, the sound tech, and ask him to cue up a tune and play it when I give him the signal. He’s skeptical, but game.

The band’s name and song title says everything we need…It’s “Welcome to Your Life” by Grouplove.

I thank the speaker; he receives lackluster applause and hightails it for the door. Now I’m left with 100+ disgruntled faces staring at me.

I know I’m taking a risk, but I ask the audience to stand up and move a little bit. Then, I demonstrate a little step to the right, step to the left. They follow my lead.

I give Paul the signal. With the music at medium volume, the audience starts to smile. I see Stan, a 55 year old from northern England, start to gyrate his hips. At the back, I see the most serious woman at the forum grinning from ear to ear.

Time for full volume. I’m dancing on stage. Well, sort of dancing. I’m doing my side step dance, waving both arms in the air.

And, so is everyone else.

The agony and frustration of the keynote speaker is gone. I feel like I’m with 100+ of the funnest, coolest people in the world. We dance the whole song and I finish with a great big out-of-breath thank you to the audience. I’m thanking them for their willingness to trust me and let the music move them. We all erupt in a roar of applause, with hoots, laughter and even a bravo thrown in.

Day One ends on a high note.