Maya Angelou might have articulated the most on-point definition of “epiphany”:
“It probably has a million definitions. It's the occurrence when the mind, the body, the heart and the soul focus together and see an old thing in a new way."
If epiphanies seem an odd topic for a scientific magazine to cover, they shouldn’t. These aha moments happen when there’s a burst of activity in the right hemisphere of the brain as it makes a connection between two ideas that might not seem to go together at first.
All human brains have this capability, which means most people have had an epiphany-style moment. Learning leaders can use this to their advantage when trying to make a connection with their audience, as long as they do it right.
I can’t tell you how many presentations I’ve seen that start with speakers dishing on their “moment of clarity.” That’s how Steven Kotler began his keynote at the Chief Learning Officer Spring Symposium this year — by talking about how surfing and suffering from Lyme Disease gave him his first flow experience, the state where time stands still and a task is just challenging enough to keep the mind’s interest. It attracted some of the audience because we had experienced it before during sports — I get it at the 3-mile mark during my weekend runs. Others in the audience may not recall ever feeling it, and therefore are left out of the flow, as it were.
Other presenters have a better time using anecdotes about psychological bursts of clarity to connect with their audiences, and it doesn’t mean being less dramatic. In fact, the more riveting the situation, the more listeners will latch on to a presentation — as long as the final outcome of the experience is something they can understand.
For example, trainer and speaker Danny Bader’s book “Back from Heaven’s Front Porch” is almost entirely an aha moment surrounding his near-death electrocution at age 28. I talked to him about his process of opening up to audiences and how it affects the way he teaches in corporate settings.
“People are always interested in the experience I had when my body stopped, which is profound but brief,” he said. “I didn’t have the light. I didn’t go to the tunnel … But when I share my vulnerabilities, it’s very powerful and opens a door where they’ll come in and hang out with you a little.”
CLOs can take advantage of this same approach using their own stories. Open learning sessions with the moment of inspiration that sparked a new leadership method, or a belief in one. Maybe draw on anecdotal stories from employees or managers who have already gone through a learning program and had an epiphany about the way they work or communicate with others afterwards. Any of these is better than saying, “Here’s what we’re learning today; let’s start with slide one.”
But don’t be discouraged if you can’t connect with every single learner from the first sentence. One of my colleagues at the Symposium still found Kotler’s presentation interesting, even if she couldn’t relate to the main idea.
Not everyone is on board with Bader’s practices of stillness and mindfulness but that doesn’t deter him from sharing the story anyway. If a learning leader does the job well, at least something will stick with each person in the room.
“You’re never going to satisfy all of them,” he said. “People are going to do what they’re going to do and say what they’re going to say. They may take pieces away — you may not even know it.”