Full text of Adam Grant’s talk titled “The Power of Powerless Communication” at TEDxEast conference.
Adam Grant – author of ‘Give and Take’
Good evening everyone. I’m really thrilled to be here and I want to take you back to when I was in my mid-twenties: Just finished my doctorate in organizational psychology, and I got one of these calls that everyone dreads. Which was, can you go in front of a group of people you’ve never met, and try to change the way they live their lives and do their jobs for four hours?
And it sounded kind of interesting so I said yes, and then I found out it was going to be wing commanders in the U.S. Air Force. Average age mid-fifties, several thousand hours of flying time, many had managed multi-billion dollar budgets, and bombed a few countries along the way.
And I came in knowing that this was going to be a challenge. And when I walked in I saw something that I had only seen on the silver screen in the past, which was of course my favorite character from “Top Gun”.
And just like on “Top Gun” they actually had the real nicknames. So when the guys walked into the room and it was mostly guys, they were “Gunner” and “Striker”, “Sand Dude” and “Stealth”. And that was the only thing I was allowed to call them because that was the only thing I was allowed to know about them, because the rest of it was classified.
So I’m sitting out, a 25 year old kid, looking out at the crowd of basically people my parents’ age, and trying to figure out, “What do I do?” And I knew I had to earn their trust and respect.
So I started talking through my credentials, my knowledge, and then started giving them a lot of background on how much they could learn from me. Which I soon learned was a big mistake. I got feedback forms at the end of the four hours. And they really touched me so much that I saved them and framed them on my wall. And I brought just a sample for you here:
This is from “Striker” who says, “Adam missed the needs of the audience… I gained very little from the session. But I trust the instructor they’ve gained useful insight.”
And that was only my second favorite. The best feedback form said, “Well, to sum up this session in four hours there was more quality information in the audience than on the podium.”
Ouch! Now, I was ready to quit teaching at that point. But I had one more session with Air Force Wing Commanders on my calendar, and I couldn’t weasel my way out of it.
I knew I had to do something different. And I started doing what I always do when I’m looking for motivation, which was looking through cartoons. And I found this one. It says it’s an elephant saying:
“I’m right there in the room, and no one even acknowledges me.”
I thought that was profound. And I thought, there is an elephant in this room, which is: I’m a twenty something kid trying to tell these senior air force leaders that I know something. And I decided I needed to do something a little different.
So I was ready to give the exact same four hour presentation, but I switched up my intro. And when I walked in, instead of going through all my credentials and trying to talk about my expertise, I just opened by looking around the room, and saying, “OK, some of you know that I used to perform as a professional magician. And I’ve actually been working on a little bit of mentalism and mind reading today. And I know that many of you in this room are thinking right at this very moment, ‘What can I possibly learn from a professor who’s 12 years old?’”
And they just stared at me. Dead silence. Then one of the guys reached for his gun, and like, “This is not good.” But then they started laughing, and one of the commanders raised his hand and said, “No no no, that’s way off. I’m sure you’re at least 13.” It became sort of a running joke for the next four hours.
I delivered the same presentation, but the feedback at the end was very different. One person wrote, “Although junior in experience, Adam dealt with the studies in an interesting way.” I’ll take it.
Another guy said, “I can’t believe Adam is only 12! Despite that he did a great job.”
I thought this was just a really interesting experience, right? Everything I was taught to do in Western culture, to be confident and assertive and display my credentials and expertise, backfired. And yet here I was, coming in and making fun of myself, calling out the elephant in the room. And it turned into a really positive experience.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that was a taste for me of what’s called the power of powerless communication. And I want to talk about that tonight. I want to talk about not just displaying our strengths, but also revealing our shortcomings. And how important that is for building trust, respect and connection with the people we interact with.