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Walking the talk

September 6, 2012
Raina Delisle
Shawn Stratton

“We can do so much on our own in the face of adversity, but we can do so much more with our team,” speaker Shawn Stratton tells the Tedx audience in St. John’s, Newfoundland. “When you’re faced with adversity, ask for help from your team.”

The crowd cheers. Stratton, a student in the MA Leadership program, has just concluded his 14-minute talk about leading a group of U.S. college students on a month-long trek through the Himalayan Mountains and overcoming an unexpected setback.

One student, Dave, had a bad fall down a 60-foot drainage when he was collecting water and broke his leg. It was 20 minutes before the group heard his screams and worked together to get Dave to safety. It was another 20 hours before a helicopter could rescue the young man, whose tibia was sticking out. As the helicopter left, Stratton was overcome with emotion. He buried his head in the snow and cried; it was the first time he broke down on an expedition in his 15-year career.

“It was a complete release of emotion,” Stratton says. “I was so happy that Dave was getting out of the mountains, but I think I was more overcome by how this team kicked into gear and relied on each other to get Dave out of the mountains safely. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. When you’re faced with adversity, you need to rely on your team.”

It’s a lesson that has as much relevance in the workplace as it does in the mountains and Stratton has made a career out of using his experience as an outdoor adventure leader to relate to diverse audiences facing teamwork and leadership challenges.

Stratton worked for the world-renowned National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and other international adventure organizations for 15 years. Today, as owner and keynote speaker of the LiveMore Group, he designs presentations, workshops and retreats for a variety of businesses and teams, drawing from his experiences travelling across six continents and 30 countries.

Stratton is a member of the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers (CAPS), but had to do multiple auditions for TEDx. He was thrilled to be accepted for the May event, which focused on overcoming adversity, much like most of Stratton’s stories.

“I really wanted to do a good job knowing that TED is a highly respected brand and it can go places,” Stratton says. “The mission of TED is ideas worth spreading and I would like my ideas to be shared far and wide if they can help others.”

For Stratton, the transitioned into the professional speaking industry was a natural one. After years of leading expeditions, he moved into the marketing department of NOLS, where his job involved giving a presentation on a Mount Logan expedition to high school and college students across North America. He did 50 presentations in four months and discovered a passion for storytelling. When a friend told him about a CAPS conference in 2006, he went and was inspired to become a speaker himself.

“Professional speaking is an easy industry to get into, but it’s a hard one to stay in,” Stratton says. “It’s competitive and like most things, perseverance pays off.”

Six years after attending the CAPS conference, Stratton is still speaking and adventuring, albeit on a smaller scale. Since his baby girl, Sierra, was born last fall, his adventures have been tamer: a month in Costa Rica when Sierra was three months old and a few triathlons (he recently qualified for the world championships as a member of the Canadian national team). He is also focusing on completing his book: a series of stories about his adventures with underlying team-building themes.

Whether he’s facilitating, writing or speaking, Stratton is dedicated to sharing his stories.

“I share my experiences and lessons to help people in their daily lives and work,” he says. “I look at it as an honour and a privilege that I’m in this position where people actually want me to be a role model.”

Leadership instructor Guy Nasmyth, also an outdoor adventurer, says Stratton is a hardworking student who brings humour, facilitation skills and life changing stories to the classroom. He notes that Stratton’s experience in the outdoors has likely shaped who he is as a leader.

“The lessons that can be learned in the wilderness are about self,” Nasmyth says. “That knowledge of self to me is absolutely the single most critical thing in understanding leadership.”

Stratton’s tips for effective speech delivery

  • Jump right into your speech. You’ve got 15 seconds to get their attention.
  • Be funny. There’s no better way to keep an audience’s attention than to make them laugh. If someone is not paying attention and they hear everyone else laughing, they’re going to feel like they’re missing out and start paying attention.
  • Find out where your funny is. If you do the same talk over and over again, take note of when people laugh and the repeat the line.
  • Don’t try to memorize your entire speech. Memorize your introduction and your conclusion and your main points in the middle.

“I tell a story, hit the audience with an ‘ah-ha’ and ask them a question. (Can you tell me a time someone did something nice for you in a leadership role?) Then I follow it up with a call to action. (Send me a tweet or an email on Monday and tell me the three things you are going to do this week that are going to help your teammate?)”

Photo by JP Mullowney Photography