Transcript as delivered on Sunday 22nd April 2007, in Minneapolis, Minnesota:
Photo credit: Dave Harris
Hello everyone. My name's John Pendal and if you don't know who I am I can best be summed up as the "Ugly Betty" of the leather community. Actually, we've just got the American version of that show in the UK. They were going to remake it with a British cast, but although there are lots of people suitable to play Betty they couldn't find any actors for the rest of cast with good enough teeth.
Have you had a good weekend? (The audience cheered) I've done a few of these events and I have to say the absence of anything appearing to go wrong takes an awful lot of work. And I haven't noticed anything go wrong this weekend. The organisers did a fantastic job, didn't they? (Applause) It's also nice to be at an event, and there are very few of these, that are truly pansexual. And by that I don't mean predominantly straight with a few gay or vice versa - but just unite everyone regardless of gender or sexuality or age. (More applause)
I really don't know why they asked me to do this. It only seems like a few years ago that I was parading around onstage in a jockstrap at IML in 2003. If you'd told me then that in 2007 I'd be the closing keynote speaker at LLC I'd have thought you were crazy - especially looking out at the calibre of the audience in front of me!
I was quite scared until I got the brief for my speech from the committee. Apologies to the local organisers if I've misunderstood this, but the way it was explained to me was the theme of the weekend is "The Art of Sharing Power - A Work in Progress". Barbara Nitke, our opening speaker, would talk on "the art of sharing power" and I was to talk on it being "a work in progress". In other words: the job isn't finished and I'm to give you a motivational speech to inspire you and send you out with fire in your bellies.
Well, when it comes to motivational speeches I'm on firmer ground. I spent seven years drawn into Christian fundamentalism - don't laugh, it wasn't funny. They got me as a teenager and I had to travel the UK going into schools, talking to young people and getting them to make a commitment to the ideas I was presenting. Much of my year as IML was spent giving appeals onstage for people to give money to causes that I was recommending. And in my private life I'm a "pushy SM bottom" and an escape artist, which both revolve around getting people to do what I want.
So when it comes to motivational speeches I'm on much firmer ground ... and IF I was actually going to do that to you today, this is a summary of how I'd do it. Now I could actually do a whole seminar on influencing people but I only have a few minutes so I'll cover this as briefly as I can.
I'd start my making a joke about myself: something self-deprecating. This serves two functions. First, it relaxes you by setting a humorous tone and dispelling any notions that this is going to be a dry and boring speech. Second, it allows me to poke fun at other people because you all know that I can take what I dish out.
Next I'd ask you to think back over the weekend and how good it was. This is a psychological technique called "anchoring", heavily used by TV advertisers. They show you images designed to provoke good feelings and then end with a shot of their product hoping you'll link the two. I'd be doing the same hoping that by inviting you to recall your highlights of the weekend that those feelings might rub off on my speech. You can make this seem more altruistic by encouraging a round of applause for the organisers for what a great job they've done.
Then I'd make a series of statements that I know you'll all agree with. How noble the aims of the event, how wonderful it is to unite everyone, what a high calibre audience you are. This is because when you start on a train of thought where you agree with every statement made it becomes progressively harder for you to change your mind and disagree with what the speaker's saying. That's why salesmen who want you to sign up for things always start off by asking you questions which are impossible to disagree with. It also helps to build an element of trust because you have a mental filtering mechanism which you employ when you listen to people you don't trust. But if we all get along with each other and you agree with everything I say then you're more likely to disengage that safety mechanism.
I also want to set myself up as the voice of authority. This is so my words carry more weight to your subconscious. So I'd probably make sure that when Steve introduced me he'd mention that I was a trustee of the Spanner Trust. And I'd make some reference to winning IML - something disparaging about wearing jockstraps - but the message would still be there. I might also bring out a medal that I never normally wear.
Another way that you can show the audience that you're the voice of authority is by controlling the environment. Maybe arranging for the lights to go down over the audience as you come up on stage. (They did.) I'd also want you nicely relaxed so I'd arrange to have the closing speech moved to immediately follow a meal. (It was.) So a combination of darkness and the fact that you're well fed hopefully relaxes you all and stops you from listening too hard to what I'm saying, or not saying.
I'd also arrange for the doors to be closed (they were) because this exerts a subtle pressure on you not to leave to go to the toilet. Motivational speakers do this because if somebody needs to go to the toilet and can't it makes them very distracted and distracted people are far more easily swayed.
I'd then go on to give you some examples of leather leadership that I've seen in my travels with some heart-rending stories, which are all easy to picture and have an emotional core. One way of hypnotising people, say in hypnotherapy, is to tell stories that are easy to imagine and have an emotional resonance to them. Now I wouldn't be trying to hypnotise you, but by telling you these stories I could get you into a suggestible state where you're far more likely to sign up to an idea, or a financial arrangement if you know what you're doing.
Now I'd be careful with my words too. There are certain key words we're taught as children, like your own name, that you're always listening out for even as an adult, which is why you can suddenly tune into a conversation about you in a crowded room. You can use these key words to motivate people along with certain ways to construct your sentences using alliteration, repetition and leading phrases - where you start off with something that's true and you move in to where you'd like it to be true - to sway an audience to agree with what you're saying.
So having controlled the environment, set myself up as a voice of authority, used humour, chosen my words carefully, set of a train of thought where you all agree with what I'm saying and emotionally connected with you, it's now time to feed you some content.
Except if you're a motivational speaker who's a bit dubious there probably isn't any. Your only aim is to convince the audience that you're fantastic and they should invite you back. Where there is content, it usually follows one or more of the following five rules:
Devious motivational speakers work from the assumption that humans are greedy and lazy. We prefer easy answers that will make our lives better with the least effort. They will try and make you feel guilty if you don't do it - and if it doesn't succeed there's always a get-out clause so it's never the speaker's fault. It's also makes you less likely to complain if the plan doesn't work if you believe you're the reason it failed.
So let's say I was going to come up with an idea along those lines for LLC. Something like: we all know there's more work out there to be done and it would be wonderful if there were more people around to help. So we could each make a commitment, here and now, to bring one person with us to next year's LLC. Enquiring minds might say that if we only invite one person they might not necessarily come. So let's say that only 20% of people we invite would turn up. That means that you each have to think of five people that you're going to invite to come along next year.
Five people. That's simple, it's easy, it should work, and if it doesn't you only have yourselves to blame.
The speaker would back this up with some amazing examples from his own life. How exaggerated they are, we don't know. And he would do everything he could to instill in you the idea that this was possible.
Finally, after reaching a crescendo in the presentation, the speaker would sum up with a complicated list or idea that you have no possible hope of remembering, followed by a very simple sound bite you can all agree with. Our brains have no way of coping with the sudden deluge of information so they reach out and grab hold of the first thing they understand - the simple phrase at the end. Politicians do this all the time. Afterwards, if anyone asks you what the speech was about you'll all remember the sound bite.
So that's a very simple structure. There's a lot more to it than that but I'm not here to give a motivational speech. It's a con trick. It's the Emperor's new clothes.
Removing my IML medal and vest
Photo credit: Dave Harris
So what I'd like to do is give that speech but without any of the tricks I've just said. Please could someone near to the doors open them up and if you need to go to the toilet you can. If there's somebody by the lights please turn the lights up on the audience. And I'll just remove my IML medal and vest.
(The audience called out for me to remove my shirt as well.)
So I'll try and continue without any of those tricks. This is information I've gathered on my journey. If you think it works I'd like you to take it away. If you disagree, that's fair. ENGAGE your filtering mechanisms. In fact, even come up and tell me you disagree, at some suitable point a long way in the future when I'm half drunk.
One good thing about winning IML is that it fills your address book with some fantastic contacts. In preparation for this speech I sent out a short email questionnaire to sixty leather leaders in my email address book. If you didn't receive an email, don't worry, I tried to avoid people that I thought would be here today. 50% of them replied, which I think is quite good considering how busy all our leather leaders are. These people have organised major leather events, sat on the board of our community organisations or fought for our sexual freedoms or civil liberties.
The sample is too small to do any statistical analysis, but as a snapshot I think it's a useful exercise.
The first question was "What's your strongest memory before the age of 16 of what you wanted to be when you grew up?" The most common answer was architect, followed by astronaut and religious minister. No-one wanted to be a leather leader. The closest answer we had was someone who said "I wanted to be a teacher, but I didn't know that would be an SM educator!"
A leader in our community is not something that children aspire to be. We don't have the luxury of mainstream cultural acceptance pushing potential leaders our way - we have to connect with them once they're adults.
So the next question was: "How did you end up as a leather leader?" Just 4 people (12%) said that they approached an established event or organisation and asked if they could join. Another 4 people said it happened by accident: they were in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time, depending on your viewpoint.
42% said they were approached by the event or organisation and said yes, and a third of respondents said they'd noticed a gulf in the community and set something up themselves.
What does this tell us? We need to go out and find people rather than waiting for them to approach us, but when we find them we have to be prepared that one third will want to start something completely new.
The third question was "If you've stepped down from a leadership position, what was the reason?" One third replied that they had not stepped down from their position yet. Of the rest, quite a few of them had held multiple positions and had stepped down from one in the past, which is what they based their answer on.
So of the remainder, only six people said they'd been able to step down freely without worrying about their replacement: three had held a fixed term of office and three felt able to step down at any time.
The rest had left for a variety of reasons: to go back to school, because of ill-health, because they left the community altogether ... but by far the most popular answer was that they felt they had to wait for a replacement before they felt they could step down and in some cases they'd even had to go out and find their own replacement!
That's not a very attractive proposition that we're offering newcomers. If you become a leather leader in the vast majority of cases you'll stay that way until you quit to go back to school, quit for poor health, quit and leave the community or you have to wait until someone else comes along.
To find out just how happy people are in their current position, the fourth and final question was "if you're still in a leadership role and you knew that the organisation could continue perfectly well without you - would you step down tomorrow?"
50% said yes.
On the good side, that's 50% who said no.
This is why the pyramid selling idea proposed by our dubious motivational speaker would never work. Aside from the fact that it ignores any limiting factor of the size of our community, and that geographically this conference moves city every year, even if each of us did manage to find someone else to come along next year 50% of us - if this survey is true - would want them to take our place.
Photo credit: Dave Harris
So what can we do to help this situation? Here are some observations gathered on my travels. I'm not saying they're right. If they're useful to you please take them away.
We need to value our long-term volunteers. I've had contact with committees which had filled a publicly recognised position with the latest titleholder, because they needed somebody good with a microphone and who was easy on the eye. The trouble is, by doing so they had lost the services of long-serving volunteers who were tired of being overlooked. Although some titleholders continue working for the community after their year is over many do not, and some don't even continue after entering the next level of competition during their year! When that happens, the event or organisations has not just lost the services of the titleholder, they've also lost the services of the long-term volunteers.
When I suggested this to one group, they replied that they'd offered MC duties to one volunteer who'd done it for one night, done a terrible job, and was never asked to do it again.
When we train someone up, they have to go through several distinct phases. There's the part where they shadow the person doing the job. Then there's the part where they're shadowed doing the job themselves. Then there's the part where they're left to do the job but given regular feedback.
How many phases of training do you think that volunteer was given?
It doesn't help that so many of our leather leaders are waiting for a replacement before they feel they can step-down. In that situation where you find a replacement and step down immediately, how much training or handover are we really giving?
Another point to consider: when someone leaves or joins an established team, it isn't the same team with one less or one new member. It's a completely new team. All the relationships within the team will be different because someone left or joined. Psychologists have documented this process of shifting group dynamics. It's why so many reality TV shows are based on the concept of someone leaving or joining every week. Every time someone leaves or joins the group all the internal dynamics are different. It takes about a week in TV time for the new cliques to form, and that's exactly when someone else is pulled out or put in to the mix. So effectively you get a new TV show every week.
Too often in our teams we assume that everything's the same, it's just somebody's left or joined. It's not - we have to be prepared to think of it as a completely new entity and do all the team building that that requires.
The next point to consider: don't be scared of change. It's natural sign that an organism or organisation is alive. I'm not just talking about Old Guard and New Guard, or young people wanting to do things differently. I'm talking about a natural process of change that takes place within every healthy group. Let me give an example, using a heart-warming story that's easy to imagine and has an emotional core.
Picture, if you will, a close group of four friends: professional musicians, who love baroque music, and happen to be gay. They're very happy with their chosen careers and the high standard which is asked of them - but sometimes they long to relax by playing music they like, just the four of them - where they can be themselves.
They set up a string quartet called "The Little Pluckers" and before long they have quite a following by word of mouth. So much so, that other professional LGBT musicians ask if they can join - and the quartet becomes a chamber orchestra.
They get some publicity in the gay press, and before long they start having regular rehearsals and a performance schedule booked up months in advance. The group continues to grow, but auditions are held to maintain the high standard set by the founders.
Eventually it becomes a fully fledged gay orchestra with a couple of hundred members - but there are rumblings of discontent. Why do they always play baroque music, when there are other styles to be explored? (Showtunes, for instance.) Several members have had close friends apply to join and fail the audition, which they felt was unfair. Shouldn't a gay orchestra be inclusive? Isn't it discrimination to say only professional musicians can join? Why do the full members get so much say in what the orchestra does? Don't they all put in the same effort? Why don't they all have an equal say?
The founders reply there are many gay and lesbian orchestras and they wanted to set up something different. If people don't like it they can join one of those.
The rebels don't want to leave, they've invested time and money in this. They gather support and before long there's an extraordinary general meeting and a proposal that the orchestra should have a democratically elected board, which is passed. The original group of founders and friends feel that a coup has taken place and leave. The orchestra tries to continue but without musical direction, combined with a lowering of entry standards and loss of the professional core, it struggles to keep going and never quite recovers.
Did that story ring true with anyone?
We need to be open to change and see that as a natural process and not something to be scared of. Leather clubs which are growing in Europe tend to be the ones which are re-writing their rule books and asking newcomers what they want from the club. Some of the results are surprising. MSC Belgium has seen a marked increase in membership and popularity after they made their dresscode stricter.
Glad that's over at last!
Photo credit: Dave Harris
Finally, put your hand up if you're part of a fetish club, board, committee or some area where you're working with other people. (90% of the audience raised their hands.) Now keep your hands raised if in the last year your group has suffered a major disagreement between the members. (Only a few hands came down.)
Pretty much everyone.
Our community attracts people with dominant personalities and encourages them on their journey to become more dominant. We welcome kinky, creative, way-out fuckers and invite them to become more kinky and way-out. We preach to newcomers in our community that we're here to challenge taboos and break established norms.
Is it any wonder that our committees and boards are beset by strong egos and unorthodox ideas?
When faced with such disagreements, the question I'd like to ask the warring factions is: "Do you care more about seeing things done your way, or do you care more about the future of the organisation?"
If you believe the organisation is doing good work, if you want to see it survive, then be prepared to let some battles go. Compromise. Negotiate. Listen.
There's a lot of work to be done - I hope we can do it together. Value our volunteers. Give effective training. Work on building teams. Embrace change. Put the needs of the organisation first.
And beware of motivational speakers offering easy answers.
International Mr Leather 2003
(For those who are interested, I spoke for 26 minutes.)
Copyright © John Pendal 2007. All Rights Reserved.
You are welcome to link to this page but text must not be reprinted without permission from the author.