“I hate to admit it, but poetry ain’t filling up stadiums…” says Sekou Andrews.
And then he pauses. He gives just enough whitespace for you to silently agree before he finishes the sentence in his booming voice.
So says Sekou midway through the first track on his Grammy nominated album, Sekou Andrews & The String Theory, a blend of contemporary orchestra and punchy spoken word poetry. It’s impossible to listen to without getting chills.
Sekou has been performing spoken word poetry for 17 years. He’s won two National Poetry Slams. He’s performed for the Obamas in Oprah Winfrey’s back yard. He’s got that Grammy nominated album. And he performs at business conferences around the world.
But here’s the thing—Sekou is never the entertainment at business conferences. He’s not the poet version of Counting Crows strumming old hits to a ballroom full of tipsy sales bros at Sirius Decisions.
No. When Sekou Andrews shows up, he’s the keynote.
The fact that a spoken word poet can become a highly-sought corporate speaker is itself intriguing. But it’s also meta. One of the main topics Sekou speaks about is innovation, and how businesses can change their industries by blending things that previously went uncombined. Which is exactly what he does when he delivers a keynote in Poetic Voice.
“This art form of spoken word poetry has the ability to deliver dense amounts of business information in a highly human and inspiring way,” Sekou explains. He says his purpose is to help pave a path for others to do just that, and he now trains both poets and public speakers in his techniques.
I recently interviewed Sekou about his philosophies on innovation and public speaking—and how we can all get a little better in these tough times. Since everything he says sound a little like poetry, I’ve edited and reformatted the punchiest parts of our conversation down into stanza-like bites of wisdom:
One: Innovation Starts With “And” Over “Or”
We live in an “or” world.
We live in a world that is constantly trying to categorize you,
place a label on you,
tell you that you must be either this OR that,
and put you into a particular place,
so that they understand you.
The young artists and entrepreneurs and human beings are growing up saying:
‘We reject that.’
‘We reject that mentality from a diversity standpoint
—the labels that you need in order for you to define me—
as opposed to me defining me for myself.’
And I define myself through ‘and’.
Through fusion, through inclusion,
through the tearing down of barriers that separate us from our best selves.
The industry constantly asks me, are you a presenter or a performer?
And my answer has always been, ‘Yes.’
All of it in one.
Two: When Someone Says “That’s Not How It’s Done,” Lean In
One of the biggest challenges of my business is the industry trying to tell me:
‘No, that’s not possible.’
‘That’s not how it’s done.’
So I set out to disrupt the speaking industry to create new possibilities.
I set out to create a commercially viable industry for the art of spoken word.
Innovators see the world
through the machete shaped lens
of a trailblazer
who’s accustomed to standing in the center of wilderness
and being the only one who sees
the inevitable path.
That’s the challenge that you have as someone who is blazing a new trail:
‘I exist in that space in between your labels,
and I’m going to expand that space.’
Poetic voice is that expansion, that disruption.
Three: Pull From The Best Forms Outside Of Your Field
I’ve never been trained as a speaker.
I’ve only been trained as a performer.
My training was through acting,
through poetry, dance.
And I translated those skills to business stages.
I believe that everyone is a public speaker, everyone has a stage.
Whether you are just trying to improve your influence as dentist or attorney or doctor,
whether you’re just trying to rock a job interview,
or whether you’re just trying to crush it at a PTA meeting in front of the other parents,
whatever your stage is,
I want to teach you how to be mighty on it.
Not to be a performer, but to use the magic of performance to be a better speaker.
Let’s look at how a performer sees the stage.
Let’s look at public speaking through the lens of a rock star.
What’s a rock star’s mindset?
How does a performer see the stage, the audience, differently than a speaker?
You unlock hidden communication power
when you learn from outside of your industry
in order to stand out within your industry.
Four: Insist On Story
You are a storyteller.
Give yourself permission to remember,
that superpower is already in you.
Too often we disconnect ourselves from that superpower.
Especially in business.
We walk around, saying,
‘I’m about the data.
I’m about the information.
I’m not really a storyteller.’
And then we leave work.
We loosen our ties.
We go to a reception somewhere
—or a dinner with friends—
and we tell four
ten stories before the night is over.
So stop telling yourself you’re not a storyteller and insist on telling stories in your business.
I teach all sorts of storytelling techniques,
but none of them matter if the person doesn’t see themselves as a storyteller
You have to force yourself to reorganize your value system,
and reassign a higher value to storytelling.
If not, you’re going to default to the data,
and you’re going to always say the data is more important than the story.
But if you begin to switch that,
and you begin to say the story is just as important as the data,
—if not more important—
then you force yourself to say:
‘I have to tell the story.
And then I have to figure out how to get the data to be a part of the story.’
And when you embed data into stories as the vehicle,
you make the data unrecognizable and unmissable.
You create a human experience around business content.
Your audience thinks, ‘I’m getting the medicine,
but I’m so busy enjoying the experience,
that I don’t even notice that I’m getting the medicine.
But I do get the healing benefit of the medicine.
I get the message.
I get the point.’
Five: Remember That You’re In The Inspiration Business
I don’t care if you are a shoe sales person,
a cloud computing executive,
a healthcare worker,
a real estate agent.
You are in the inspiration business.
The most effective way to deliver information
is to find a way to deliver it with inspiration.
And the moment that you begin to accept that,
—and you see inspiration as a business objective,
something that makes your business more successful—
then you begin to understand ‘ROI.’
Return On Inspiration.
Find ways to live an inspired life,
so that you are the embodiment of inspiration,
and you are receiving its benefit yourself.
And then learn how to harness that power so that you can inspire others.
That is how you can exponentially increase your influence,
—your positive impact—
on your community, on your customers.
In this world that we’re living in right now,
we can’t gather at live events and receive inspiration.
But the live event is only the vehicle for delivering inspiration.
Inspiration itself is the actual deliverable
And that deliverable is more important than ever.
You now have to inspire hope and loyalty and productivity
— in your customers and your workforce—
more than ever as they’re sitting at home.
As they’re worried about parents and grandparents and children
as they’re trying to figure out if they’re still going to have a job.
You have to deliver that inspiration in ways that are creative and imaginative,
digital and virtual,
but you have to deliver it.
In a world drowning in shut downs and cancellations,
Inspiration is one thing you can’t afford to cancel.
Sekou’s advice aligns with my own research about how innovation is about challenging existing best practices, and how the best teams are combinations of different unexpected people. But when I first heard Sekou make the case for spoken word poetry in business, I was intrigued… yet far from convinced.
Then I listened to Sekou Andrews & The String Theory. By the time the album was over, I was converted and ready to be baptized.
Whether other spoken word poets will be able to follow the path that Andrews has blazed—or if he’ll remain the only one of his kind—remains to be seen. What’s clear, though, is like Einstein and the Beatles, like FedEx and Mrs. Fields—and every other trailblazer that was initially dismissed—Sekou Andrews shows us how innovation is about exploring the unexpected.
Because true genius is only obvious in retrospect.