How a crockpot helped me captivate an audience.
You’ve been asked to deliver a 20-minute keynote presentation to a group of 100 industry professionals you’ve never met. Your company is one of the event sponsors, so you’re also there to promote your company’s products.
Your session is scheduled for late in the morning on the first day of the conference. The group will already have sat through five other presentations, including a session by one of your competitors, by the time you take the stage. On top of that, you’ll be the only thing standing between the audience and a catered lunch.
What would you do?
Would you share business results from your most well-known customers? Would you discuss insights from your latest research report? Would you demo your product?
Well, I told a story … about a crockpot.
I was in Miami last week for the Future Stores conference. It’s a retail event attended by executives in store operations, marketing, branding, merchandising, etc. The program isn’t designed for learning and development professionals, which put me at a disadvantage from the start. I spend a lot of time working with frontline retail teams, but I don’t do what these people do for a living.
Then there’s the whole vendor thing. Let’s be honest. Vendor sessions at conferences usually suck! You get drawn in by a clever title only to have the bait-and-switch happen almost immediately. The speaker spends the first five minutes telling you about products you don’t want and can’t buy. Then the educational content quickly gives way to a product demo. They won’t even give you the slides unless you provide your email address. My company sponsors this retail event, which puts me squarely in the VENDOR ZONE in the minds of attendees.
I needed a quick, clever way to get the audience focused on what I had to say instead of my title or vendor status.
Thanks for reading ECOSYSTEM by JD! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
I based my presentation on my team’s latest research project. Every year, we speak with thousands of frontline employees to find out what’s working and what’s broken when it comes to the employee experience. Our 2023 Retail Deskless Report focuses on the disconnect between corporate teams and frontline workers when it comes to solving critical issues like turnover, engagement and burnout.
My deck included some of the most powerful stats from the report, including dramatic disconnects in communication, feedback availability and overall optimism. But I didn’t want to just throw a bunch of numbers at the audience. After all, these people work in retail every day. They know what their biggest challenges are, especially when it comes to staffing and retention. And I hate preaching to a choir!
I had to find a unique angle - a key part of the story they’ve missed despite their industry expertise.
I called team members who spend most of their time working with retailers. I asked them to tell me stories about recent store visits and conversations they had with frontline associates. What were they saying that could help corporate team members better understand their challenges? How could I get their stories across in my 20-minute presentation?
Through these conversations, I was introduced to Fran, the hero of my story …
Fran is the manager of a discount retail store. She started as a sales associate and worked her way up to keyholder and assistant manager. Then, she got her own store. It changed her life.
Fran likes her job, but she LOVES her team. Nowadays, Fran is constantly overwhelmed and burned out. She just doesn’t have enough time in her day to handle all of the requests coming from corporate. She’s working 60 - 70 hour weeks to make up for short staffing in the store. Now, after more than 8 years with the company, Fran is starting to wonder if the salary is worth the pain.
This is how I introduced Fran to the audience. They immediately connected with her story. It was as if they’d met Fran before. I wasn’t the first speaker to emphasize the importance of frontline retail workers, but I was the only one who talked about the real-world challenges with which they struggle. I was the only one who gave the frontline a face and a name.
But here’s the thing. Fran’s not real. Her photo is a stock image. While the details of her story are true, she’s based on several people my team has met over the past few years. Fran may not be a real person, but she’s an accurate representation of what it’s like to do the job of a frontline manager today. She’s not just the hero of my story. She’s the hero frontline workers need to improve their work experience.
You can find out everything you need to know about the culture of a workplace by visiting the break room. This point came up several times during my prep conversations. It’s especially true on the frontline. This point resonated because break rooms were always a major focus for me as a frontline manager. One of these break room comments included a manager who brought in a crockpot of chili for their team every week. So I added this detail to Fran’s story.
My favorite part of every store visit is the break room. How many of you make sure to visit the break room when you’re on location? You can learn everything you need to know about the culture of a store by visiting the break room.
Of course, you’ll see the standard stuff - like the required employment posters and company mission statement. But then you see the perfectly maintained recognition board. You see the photos from the recent grade school graduation. And in the corner, there’s the crockpot with Fran’s famous chili that she brings in for the team every Friday.
Remember - Fran likes her job, but she LOVES her team. And that’s what we need more of. We need more crockpots … and more managers with the capability, the passion and the empathy to foster the kind of workplace experience that brings people back shift after shift, even when the work gets hard.
That’s how I ended my presentation - with a call to action for those in attendance to provide managers with the support they need to take care of their frontline teams. I really wanted to land my point, so I took things one step further. I had the story I needed to drive my point home, but I still needed a way to quickly capture the audience’s attention, especially as the sixth speaker of the day. That’s why I brought a crockpot to the conference.
I carried the crockpot on stage when I was introduced. I then did a bit of a Chaplin impression, trying to find a place to put it. I plopped it on a chair, carried the chair to the front of the stage, jumped off the stage and started my presentation. I didn’t mention the crockpot for the next 18 minutes - until I got to the final piece of Fran’s story.
The feedback was incredible! In fact, I think this may be the best keynote I’ve ever delivered. Dozens of attendees stopped by to express their gratitude, repeatedly telling me that my story was the most grounded, authentic and insightful presentation during the entire two-day event.
Thanks to my team, I found a way to stand out in a crowded agenda with an unfamiliar audience. I did it without talking about L&D strategy or my company’s products or the results we achieve with our well-known clients.
All it took was an empty crockpot and a heartfelt story.
Leadership 101: Walk A Mile In Your Employees’ Shoes
by The Disney Institute
The smartest thing I ever did as a manager was spend one shift per month working alongside my frontline team. When I managed movie theaters, I’d work shifts as an usher or concessionist. At Disney, I’d put on the costumes and work positions at The Great Movie Ride, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, DisneyQuest and Splash Mountain. I started my career on the frontline, but these shifts reminded me what employees deal with every day. This time also helped me build trust with my team, as they saw I was willing and able to do the job.
This post from The Disney Institute echoes my experience. It also aligns with the story I told at last week’s event. Remember: frontline employees don’t work for your company. They work for their managers. Unfortunately their managers are often overburdened with administrative tasks. They spend all of their time managing the business, leaving little time to lead their teams. Organizations must give managers permission to lead, including the time, skills and resources to take care of their people. Disney understands this better than most.
In The Know. Tune in for this week’s episode of In The Know as we explore the impact of artificial intelligence on the employee experience. But we’re not just going to talk about AI. We’re applying AI tools like ChatGPT, Synthesia, Resemble and D-ID to bring our show to life. You’ll meet our first fully digital guest as well as the AI version of me.
Join us on ITK this Wednesday, March 15 at 1130am ET for our AI deep dive.
Until next week, be well. JD