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Sean Pillot de Chenecey chats with Mark Pollock, resilience speaker and inspirer of millions of people to achieve more than they thought possible.

Included in the chat:

  • The tension between being a spectator and being a competitor
  • Optimism and realism
  • Reactions to Mark’s talks
  • How people face their challenges
  • Trends in events and the way they’re run
  • Soloists and collaborators
  • How Mark collaborates in the project to cure paralysis

Connect with Speakers Associates

Episode #116

Soloists and collaborators

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (00:04): Hello, this podcast is care of Speakers Associates, the global speaker bureau representing a select group of the world’s finest thinkers and thought leaders founded in 1999. Today Speakers Associates operate out of nine offices across seven countries covering the UK, Europe and Middle East. I’m Sean Pillot De Chenecey author of The Post-Truth Business and Influencers & Revolutionaries. In this series, I interview a range of fascinating individuals, proudly represented by the bureau. These change agents and industry experts give an update on their specialist, areas of knowledge, and also on their motivations and viewpoints regarding the future of business. Today, I’m really pleased to be joined by the fascinating and inspiring individual Mark Pollock. Normally for these sort of podcasts, I tend to give a reasonably swift roundup of the person before we get going, but on this occasion, because his background is so interesting and dynamic, I’m gonna take a bit longer just introducing him.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (01:08): Unbroken by blindness in 1998, Mark became an adventure athlete competing in ultra-endurance races across deserts, mountains, and the polar ice caps including being the first blind person to race to the South Pole. He also won silver and bronze medals for rowing at the Commonwealth Games and set up a motivational speaking business. In 2010, a fall from a second story window nearly killed him. Mark broke his back and the damage to his spinal cord left him paralysed. Now he is on a new expedition, this time to cure paralysis in our lifetime by exploring the intersection where humans and technology collide. Mark helps people to build resilience and collaborate with others so they can achieve more than they thought possible using his hard earned expertise. He’s inspired millions of people in hundreds of organizations worldwide, as well as at TED, Davos, the World Economic Forum, F.ounders, InnoTown, EG and Wire.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (02:17): As a speaker, Mark is best known for his 2018 TED Talk focused on resolving the tension between acceptance and hope ( delivered jointly with his fiancee, Simon George. It gathered over 1.5 million views in its first 6 months online and has been subtitled in 12 languages. Acknowledged as an expert in resilience, innovation and collaboration, Mark says, “The reason to bring in a speaker is to move the audience emotionally. It can never be about the speaker, rather it must be about engaging the audience to help them achieve more than they thought possible – that is what I am to do every time.” So Mark Pollock. Welcome.

Mark Pollock (02:57): Thanks very much for having me.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (02:59): very good mark. We were just talking by the way about something entirely depressing. That was the rugby that we saw recently, obviously over the weekend. And we won’t go on about that too much because obviously it was an utter disaster from the point of view of Ireland, but talking about something that is far more perhaps progressive and dynamic and forward looking and earlier on, we’re talking about some of the key points that you tend to bring out in your incredibly dynamic speeches in various parts of the world. So perhaps we’ll go straight into the first of those. And I thought it was really interesting, the point you’re making about a big decision being to be a spectator or a competitor. So perhaps you can tell us about that.

Mark Pollock (03:38): Yeah, well, I suppose with what you’ve just outlined there are two major issues that I’ve faced, which have been going blind when I was 22 and then falling outta window breaking my back when I was 34. So those challenges came outta the blue, they in a, in, in a way chose me and then other challenges that I’ve taken on along the way I’ve chosen them like racing to the south pole, like pursuing my quest to cure paralysis in our lifetime. So my initial perspective comes from a sense that sometimes we have the luxury of choosing our challenges and sometimes challenges choose us. And what we decide to, to do about it is what counts. And I suppose the foundation is the idea that all of us are battling with this tension between being a spectator sitting back criticizing perhaps from the sidelines versus being in the arena as, as a competitor. And for me that means pursuing success and risking failure, perhaps being defined by our willingness to try as opposed to, to the outcome. And that thread has run through everything that you described in, in, in my bio, I suppose it’s the, the mindset or the attitude that, that we have whenever we face any challenge that might appear. Mm

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (05:15): That’s extraordinary. And can I just ask that angle of, of, of, of hope as well? I mean, you talk a lot about the, the issue of being an optimist or being a realist and how that links into these issue. Perhaps you can just, again, outline that and then, and then we’ll sort of dig deeper into each one of them perhaps, but just to sort of give us an overview on that. Where are you coming from on that perspective?

Mark Pollock (05:39): Yeah, well, I suppose I don’t know whether it comes from the nature of, of going by blind and becoming paralyzed, or is it more ingrained in so much as I, as a teenager, you’re listening to the Smiths and Morrissey perhaps have a sort of a grim perspective from on the world, but, but the idea of being an optimist and lots of lots of people advocate for this, this idea of being, being an optimist, but for me, that, that leaves you in a, in a risky place where in a sense you rely on hope alone. And if the best case scenario doesn’t play out, you run the risk of being disappointed and demoralized. What I suggest is that rather than being an optimist, that we decide to be realists, and I find that to be the liberating place to operate, where we accept the, the brutal facts of of the start point and keep hop, align alive for the future. We resolve as realists the tension between acceptance of now and hope for the future by, by running both of those things in, in parallel. So kind of stacked on top of the idea that we have a choice to be spectators and competitors all the time. We also have a choice on whether we decide to be realists or, or optimists mm-hmm.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (07:13): I find it really interesting that parallel that also links. I mean, obviously a lot of talk at the moment internationally. We indeed globally about issues relating to climate crisis and a lot of talk that is going around the, the circles, let’s say with people like extinction rebellion from that point of view, in terms of how we deal with that situation. I think really links into this thinking of, you know, they’ll talk about four types of hope, you know, passive optimism, active optimism, and then skeptical hope versus active skepticism, you know, you know, still sort of, you know, accepting what is going on but being realistic about the threat and then taking it on, I think really interesting. Your, well, I

Mark Pollock (07:55): Asked, I think it, you know, all, all of the pessimism, realism, optimism, it’s, it’s sort of underpinned by an ability or a lack of ability to, to just face up to the facts as they are without apportioning blame to anyone or trying to get one over on someone or to, to win to be right. You know, which of course, which is of course is part of what I’m arguing for. When I say that we should be competitors as opposed to spectators it’s that mindset to drive, to drive forward, to be in the arena. But, but this second thing to, to be a realist or, and optimist is really underpinned by an ability to look at the facts which if you really dig into it, you know, in my, in my case, I’m blind and paralyzed, but I can use my arms.

Mark Pollock (08:52): My brain’s okay. I’m surrounded by great people. I have access to opportunities. You often, the facts are negative on one hand, that’s all true, but, but equally there’s lots of stuff that we can do. There’s lots of positive stuff that we can, that we can do as well. That’s also a fact, there’s lots of stuff that we have going for us if you like. So I think really that second theme is is a call for us to confront the brutal facts as Jim Collins says, no’s book. Good, good degree at talking about Admiral Stockdale, you know, confront the brutal facts. It’s the starting point and that’s not all negative.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (09:35): Yeah, yeah, yeah. And, and how do audiences take this by the way? I mean, I know you’ve got a fairly sort of spectacular reputation for delivering really inspiring talks, but the sort of the sort of, you know places that you speak, the places that you go, I mean, what sort of feedback can I say you get, do you get from audiences while you’re giving your talk? Does it tend to be in the moment or afterwards are, you’re getting a lot of feedback by people coming back to you with questions and demanding more? Or, or what, how does it tend to tend to go?

Mark Pollock (10:07): Yeah, well, you know, the natural, the natural course of events for, for many speakers is you, do you do your slot? In my case, there are a few grim bits, so I have to lighten it. Otherwise I’ve got everyone sort of, you know with the, with the, the, the tissues out dry drying their eyes. So I have to,

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (10:27): You’re talking about the Smiths there again in Morrissey. Yeah. yes,

Mark Pollock (10:29): Exactly, Exactly.

Mark Pollock (10:31): Exactly. I have to balance the narrative in my story to, to challenge people but it inherently is challenging with the, with what, what has happened. So, so I have to, I have to weave after we’ve some lighter notes into the story, which of course there always are. Then the formal questions and answers. I get anything from personal questions through to business questions. And then what happens very often afterwards is I have those one to one conversations where people tell me what’s really going on in, in their lives. And, and I suppose what, what you’re looking for as a speaker is not for your story to be the purpose of the exercise. As you said, in your opening opening remarks, what I, what I talk, what I try to do is move the audience emotionally so that they see themselves in my story emotionally that they connect with it in a way where they feel something rather just giving them information, because if they feel something like a good book or a good movie, they’re really thinking about themselves, they’re not thinking about my, my story.

Mark Pollock (11:51): So I, I do, I do have people who are, who connect with my story at an emotional level, perhaps in relation to what what’s going on in their personal lives or their families. And I also then get people connecting very clearly with their business challenges and with the teams and the people that they they work with. So so I would hope that the impact of my talk in the moment is that I’m challenging people to, to think deeply about how they’re approaching their challenges about the decisions that they’re, that they’re making along the way, and in the aftermath in the formal or informal questions. And sometimes after I’ve left I get to have quite quite deep conversations with people about something particular particular to them. So get, get some laughs and some, some tears sometimes. Yeah. Yeah.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (12:52): And can I ask on exactly that, I mean, looking back, I mean, can you identify any particular occasions or or events that you’ve given talks at that you look back and think that was either, either just an amazing event that was put on in a particularly interesting way and or an event where what you’ve said just seems to have resonated even better than it does for, for all the others?

Mark Pollock (13:17): Well, well, I think, I think the, you know, when you come into an organization from, from the outside, it is notable and I think it’s thankfully it’s changing, but it’s notable that a lot of expense and effort goes into creating the annual conference, but often, often nobody wants to be there because the content is so criminally boring. And, and external speaker scores points simply by not being a part of the organization. Right. now that is not satisfying from my, from my point of view, where I see people engaged and where I can really add, I mean, a little more challenging for me, if, if the internal rhythm of the conference and the length of speeches and the content of those speeches, if it’s good, then I’ve gotta even be even better to have an impact. But what you find in those pacer, shorter conferences is that the audience are actually listening and engaged because they have not, they have not been bored by 1, 2, 3 or four days of terrible content up to that point. So I, I, the ones which are I mean, they’re often, they’re often in the, in the discussions with the organizers beforehand, they often say we want to have our presentations, Ted, like yeah. And really that means shorter with one good idea, as opposed to lots of PowerPoint presentations with slides, where the presenter says, no, I know you can’t see this

Mark Pollock (14:59): You know, we don’t have it there in the first place. Yeah. Yeah. So I’m seeing, I’m seeing a lot, a lot more conferences where the presentations are shorter where there’s a mix of talking to and breakout sessions. Mm. And overall the, the days are very often a little bit shorter. And I think that’s a, I think that’s a positive thing. Mm.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (15:21): Perhaps they could sort of a, in the sort of in the angle of utter transparency and honesty, they could just run sort of two day events where day one is actually titled criminally boring with terrible content. And then day two is Pacey shorter. So there .

Mark Pollock (15:35): Yeah. Well, look, I, I think, you know, I, I find myself my, my, my fiancé is a lawyer and lawyers are generally so, so intelligent. They’re also very judgemental of each other. And as a result lawyers and other professional services, when they stand up to present, they feel the need to, to get as much technical information across to the audience as possible. Mm. And of course that does not engage the audience. I mean, the audience probably all knew the technical information anyway, because lawyers are, are, they know technical information, that’s their thing. So when I’m talking to any of my friends or my fiancé, whenever they’re they’re presenting, you know, part of it is about, is about engaging part of it’s about entertainment and really what that means is engaging the audience. So they continue to listen through the, the full full presentation. And that comes from engaging stories. It comes from the narrative, not a, not a a technical walkthrough of what would be best served in a textbook. Mm

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (16:57): Mm. Absolutely. Fascinating. It

Mark Pollock (17:00): Doesn’t doesn’t need to be boring.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (17:01): Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I mean, it’s extraordinary. And, and as I think it’s it, whenever speakers get together, it and you know, one of the things I think we all tend to talk about is the brutal reality that, you know, I think stating the stunningly obvious most conferences around the world do tend to be staggeringly, banal and very, very similar it’s, it’s astonishing how few of them really stand out and how, how few speakers genuinely stand out and who can you remember? You know, what they said a month later, et cetera. It’s quite, quite phenomenal.

Mark Pollock (17:34): Well, so someone someone told me, and I can only assume it was an Irish person, but when you’re presenting, if, if you are telling a story that wouldn’t that wouldn’t last around, around a table in a, or, or, or up at the, up at the bar in a pub, if you’re telling a story that just won’t won’t cut it in the pub environment, it’s highly likely that it won’t cut it in a in a conference environment.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (18:04): Bang there we are. That that’s the fantastic advice for every speaker. That should be brilliant. Can I ask one other thing? Again, we are talking earlier on Mark, and one of the points you were, you were talking about that again, you tend to bring out in some of your speeches is the issue of deciding to be a soloist or a collaborator. So again, perhaps you can outline exactly what you are, you’re talking about there.

Mark Pollock (18:29): Yeah. Well, I suppose this is, so this is something which, which I think we all inherently know working with others working in teams means that we should get more done than we can than we can do ourselves. But I think as someone who went blind and then got into adventure racing in this kind of first half of my story and did six marathons no week in the Gobi Desert in the north pole marathon, and 43 day expedition rest to the south pole as a blind person.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (19:08): That’s incredible.

Mark Pollock (19:11): You know, that’s what I started my speaking business on. I, I, I sort of this idea that I I suppose it was the hero narrative, mm-hmm, in many way, but of course I didn’t go. I mean, I couldn’t go, I, you could drop me at the edge of Antarctica and I’d be going absolutely nowhere as a blind person without my team. So the hero narrative is attractive and the hero narrative is often told in a, in the context of solo soloists, the individual hero. Yeah. But it’s, it’s almost, it’s almost never true. In fact, I nearly goes hard to say is, it is never true. And what I find over the last 10 years since I got back from the south pole, very pleased with myself and then fell outta the window and broke my back. Is that I’m, I’m also now selling a little bit, the, the hero narrative, the soloist narrative again, that’s what, what, what I, what the media pick up on with my endeavor to cure paralysis in her lifetime, but I have no scientific expertise, no technology expertise, little access to the kind of money was certainly not my own bank account of the kind of money that it takes to commercialize a a scientific breakthrough at a hun a hundred million.

Mark Pollock (20:39): And what I discovered was that the, I started to find world class competitors in scientific labs, people who indeed were realists accepting the brutal facts that we don’t have the answer, no, but keeping hope alive for the future that we will find it. Mm. And I found far too many of them working in isolation, working in their labs as soloists. I didn’t find enough collaboration. And in fact, what I’m now actively doing is finding and connecting people to try and fast track a cure for paralysis, bringing people together to solve complex problems. Mm-Hmm . And it is in, in the area that I’m personally interested in just curing paralysis all of the scientists, all of the technologies, all of the investors and all of the foundations agree that it’s going to be a collaborative effort, a cocktail of interventions to ultimately find a cure.

Mark Pollock (21:37): But I see I see this crisis in collaboration happening across science, business, finance families, mm-hmm everywhere. We seem to be particularly poor at, at collaborating. And in fact, so much so that I ended up read a book. I don’t know, if you’ve come across it called Never Split the Difference by the former chief hostage negotiator for the FBI, a guy called Chris Voss. Yep. And I thought for me to continue to be a Guinea pig for robotic legs and electrical stimulation and brain machine interface, which is feeding into that soloist hero narrative that’s, that’s required and unnecessary, but working with other people is where we’ll really make the big breakthroughs. And in fact, helping those people across disciplines and across different geographies and across organizations, facilitating conversations to help them work together better and was where made big three breakthroughs breakthroughs.

Mark Pollock (22:50): So I went along and did spent some time with Chris Voss learning, how he negotiated in the high stakes hostage situations around, around the world. Mm-Hmm, not to make the hostage taker, slam the phone down and stop talking, but rather discussing with that hostage taker, how they could work together to get the hostage really hostages released. That is the all four hostages released that the hostage negotiator needs to get a 100% result all hostages alive. But then the question is, what is the hostage taker? What’s, what’s the big win for them because often it’s not about the hostages are only a vehicle for getting to what they want is recognized for their country being trampled over by colonial colonialists for hundred years, or they need recognized, or they need their iden identity recognized or their place in the world recognized. So, so I suppose now I’m shooting all over in different, different areas than that. No, it’s

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (24:07): Fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. Yeah.

Mark Pollock (24:09): But I, but I think, I think it’s too simple and it’s too easy to work on our own thing by ourselves, even at a world class level and think that we’ll get to where we want to go. It’s difficult to work with others. It’s difficult to collaborate. And that requires correct use of language that doesn’t put people in the back food. All of us taking personal risks that we might get it wrong that we might have to be a bit vulnerable that we might have to look and admit that we don’t have all the answers. And of course that’s all framed under the umbrella of psychological safety that Amy C Edmondson has done so much research in, in Harvard.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (24:58): Absolutely. Totally. I can talk about this one for hours with you. I go just moving on to something else though,

Mark Pollock (25:05): As I as I said to you before we started, you know, I’m conscious as I’m sure lots of the speakers you interview, the, the, the average the, the, the types of speakers that you would deal with will have no shortage of fell in 40 minutes. The challenge is for, to stop, stop talking.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (25:22): So to begin, to, to finish off and I’m fully aware in terms of being really clear for the listeners of this podcast, wherever they may be in Asia and the US and across some of the Middle East Europe, et cetera, if as I understand it. So, you know, the key topics that you tend to cover include, you know, adversity and challenges, leadership, and motivation mindset, and performance, collaboration, and teamwork, you know, human enhancement just to be clear about exactly where you’re going with this, this year, any particular events coming up that you can talk about or any any sort of, you know, new things or additional things that you’ll be doing over the next few months?

Mark Pollock (26:08): Look, I I’ve got I’ve got four things that I, that I do. And the four things that I do are also the, the areas where I learn and study and bring back into my speaking. So I’m continuing to speak all around the world. I’ve got plans to do a tour in Australia later on in the later on in the year. I’ll be speaking in, in the States, the UK and, and Europe as I, as I do every year. The second thing that I do is I’ve got a, a five and 10K running event that I have every November. And that happens in 50 cities all around the world. So we have 25,000 people running five and 10 Ks on one night, sort of like a new year’s Eve sweeping around the world in the, in these 50 cities.

Mark Pollock (26:59): So we’re growing that all of the, all of the time. And then I’m working with some scientists to combine my robotic legs with electrical stimulation of the spine and the brain machine interface in a sort of three intervention experiment. And I’ve got a fourth little side project which is back to my, my foundations in training and sports. So we’re, we’ve got a tandem bike that I use arms on the back and my south pole team mate. He uses his legs up on the front and we’re designing an artificial intelligence interface to get all of the physiological data, the technical data and the environmental data on demand so that I can kind of see here and feel what’s going on around me and with the body as I take part in a hundred and ten, a hundred and twenty, a hundred and forty kilometer cycling events. So these are my speaking running events, the science and my own training and fitness. They’re my, they’re my four things that I’m doing

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (28:12): Absolutely inspiring. Will it, I can’t thank you enough for speaking with me today. It’s been so, so interesting. And I just finished off just purely by saying that, you know, it’s tough to build resilience and collaborate with others. Your people won’t do it by chance and the business, but with a high impact catalyst, you can help them act with the courage to make it happen. And Mark Pollock, explorer, innovator, and collaborator is that catalyst. So Mark, thank you.

Mark Pollock (28:40): Thank you.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (28:44): Thank you for listening to The Speaker Show podcast. Please leave a rating on iTunes. We’d really appreciate it. And also it’d be great. If you could subscribe to the podcast itself, you’ll find it also on Google podcasts, SoundCloud, or your favorite podcast app. Thank you.

Podcast host

Sean Pillot de Chenecey speaker

Sean Pillot de Chenecey

Foresight strategist, author and podcast host Sean Pillot de Chenecey is an inspirational speaker, who’s also consulted for some of the world’s biggest brands.

Sean has a very deep level of knowledge regarding the genuine issues impacting brands from a cultural, social and business perspective.

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