THE BLOG
07/14/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When You Speak, Sometimes Audiences Teach You More Than You Know

Remember that "close talker" on Seinfeld? Well, me, I'm a "future talker," the man who shows people how to see clearly into the not-so-distant future!

I do a lot of talking -- publicly, privately and to myself. Normally, I give speeches about "Punk Marketing" and how to make yourself better at selling. But with the advent of my popular book 2011: Trendspotting, I'm being asked to speak about: tomorrow. My audience is sales leaders, marketers, corporate execs, theater personnel, car dealers, Government officials, foreign business types and others. I have to change my tack for each distinctive crowd...on the spot and without blinking.

Publishers Weekly dubbed me the "reluctant futurist," and my post-seatback time in Sao Paolo, Tallin, Mumbai, Denver, Houston, Reno, and Queens proffers presentations promoting the ideas found inside my new book. Topic is how to "trendspot" and find the best way to get from a murky today to a memorable moneymaking day after tomorrow.

When I ask people to amend how they face the coming decade, I am faced with skepticism. Each group, then, has something to teach me about approach, ideas, reaction, timing, and -- mostly -- humility! This year I learned that audiences, though desperate to understand a wiser future, won't just take advice sitting down!

The challenge, then, is to ask those unfamiliar with me to unfold their arms and think the way I want them to about The Topic of Tomorrow! And I start each meeting with: "You'd better learn something today or I'm screwed."

I ask them to imagine that everything that's happened in the last couple of years is about to fall away, whether they want to pick at the dead skin or not. People smile, although it's the one part of my talk where I am not laughing!

[Take a look at our horrible haircuts of the 1970s to remind ourselves that mistakes are meant to be remembered, grimaced at, and then forgotten.]

Next, after they realize so much of the past eight years has been a load of crap I say let's start anew by using tools learned from sources appreciated, admired or trusted. If those listened to say anything resembling truisms, you're in good shape.

I portend to the crowd that I am one of those sources.

So what does the audience want to overcome before they leap into a new era -- the one that follows this "mediocre" (my quotes) time? "You see," I explain. "I don't want to predict anything, really. I want to show you how to find what's coming yourselves."

Confusion reigns.

"How?" I am asked. By becoming more interesting and less interested in what you already know, then sharing newfound knowledge with others who will, in a hyper-networked world, target the newly informed with their own new learning.

Think about it -- predicting what's going to happen is ridiculous. I forecast a range of futures for each group. Cyclically speaking, we are going to change radically! My job as a speaker is to create a mental map rather than a one-dimensional destination.

Most trend-thinkers build credibility by employing a tone of absolute authority and driving away any shadow of uncertainty. I find it egotistical and when I'm faced with "My way or the highway." Yes, I talk about fields where I make credible projections or where there are accepted techniques for long-term forecasts. But majestic confidence is false -- it's fake. Looking into the future is uncertain except for those who read magic eight balls with an uncanny ability.

"But, Richard," the eyes and sometimes voices say, "how can you be so confident? Where are you getting anecdotal evidence that it's all so darn mediocre today...?" From people who poll for a living, and from articles and other good sources, and others whose job it is to say where we are today. With the ever-flowing nonsense that passes for news these days, how can anyone say that anything is connecting us now?

Like, where's the glue!

One audience began peppering me with, "What's the future going to be for folks who have to change perceptions for a living?" I am nothing if not armed with data and I show how communication as an art form will change.

A group of cynical marketing experts were anxious to know if my first trend book (2002's trendSpotting) had correctly forecasted anything. I defend it a bit aggressively: Nothing in that book was supposed to be taken that seriously: I am not a big believer in clichés and I'm a light-talking guy. That was a book about the start of the new millennium, I explain, knowing how important it is the audience believes their speaker had authority.

I explained how trendSpotting taught us how to look ahead; intelligent, grounded speculation and professional expertise was the call of that day.

Peals of laughter follow as I proclaim, "I am not really as much futuristic as I am a show-off." I point out how cellular technology, an infant in '02, was written up as the savior it would become.

They then relax.

Once I spoke in front of industry sales leaders who loved my step-by-step advice on how to become better informed but quickly turned on me when I didn't get into "the fun stuff to look forward to" quickly enough.

This crowd sought nothing but predictions. Easy-peasy. Eager to hear me spout the "dessert" to move you in a certain direction? I oblige. I can inspire those antsy collectives. Voila--I'm something of a raconteur:

1. We all will work while we're sleeping. Gosh, are all these new products going to be, ahem, utilized in hours when we're supposedly adrift in our dreams? So no more wasted hours for us suckers!

2. Self-involvement evolves into an art form. What used to be gross and looked down upon -- self-aggrandizement -- becomes in no uncertain terms beloved and coveted. Everyone wants to be like David Geffen.

3. Slow attention span takes precedence after ADD peaks! We begin to take a backseat to speed, and the sudden craze is, "Why rush? We have all the time in the world." Some businesses are born; others are really down.

4. Customer service becomes law. Enough of being put on hold. After years of thinking silently, a movement is afoot: it's an adhered-to policy to take care of the paying folk!

5. You can look forward to "Turn of the Decade Syndrome" where we reboot our lives. Come January 2011, the start of a new decade means everyone prepares madly -- like Y2K, only positively. Time to make the one change to themselves that they've been desperate to achieve. So quit, start, redo -- and forgive.

And yes, I can back each one cause it's what I do.

And there was the time last winter I presented to a group of government officials who wanted to know -- with audible panting -- how to get their message to "the masses" differently. The future of the future is scary and replete with hard truths. People will soon close their minds to being pandered to, and our Government tends to spend a lot of time wagging their finger at the populace! I explained how consumer of the future - "start thinking of constituents as consumers now" - would want transparency and not gobble-de-gook or official speak.

Thinking on my feet (PowerPoint can't think this way) I asked for suggested topics -- and got them by the boatload. What a boat!

"What do we do with bad customers?" Businesses today know it's cheaper to keep a current customer than acquire new. Organizations are going to start taking a harder look at the customer side of the equation in the future. Sprint dropped 1,000 subscribers when it discovered customers were calling its service department 40 to 50 times with problems unrelated to Sprint. Realizing it wouldn't make them happy they sent them packing. We'll see more companies making this distinction and giving bad customers the boot.

"Is sleep good or bad?" Every sales professional knows they're supposed to be getting seven or eight hours of sleep a night, but really, who has time to sleep when there's so much work to be done? Volumes are written about how sleep deprived we are, but we aren't getting to bed earlier. That's going to change. The business world in general will realize they are more insightful, creative and productive when they are rested. Corp. America will use the connection between sleep, creativity, adding a tremendous boost to productivity of its base.

"So, like, do I have to start speaking English?" In this era of text messaging, blogging, and email, we've become lazy. We tend to dash off notes without proofreading. We tend to use generic catch phrases like "seamless solution" and "superior service" and why do we do it? Because it's easier and quicker than taking the time to think, write, edit, and edit again until it's clear, compelling, and precise. There's going to be a hard-to-miss backlash!

All right, now you know. It's been a fantastic half a year of standing up in for what I believe in: the future is going to be so bright we have to wear shades. I cannot take any one crowd for granted; this is their speech as much as mine.

My audience is anxious to learn and have some fun; I listen to them intently from moment one. Thanks to those under the dark lights that in the future I'll never see a crowd the same way.

For more, see the Trend Blog @ Laermer.com and buy the damn book: www.yeahwhatever.com.