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Futurist or Fortune Teller? by Sadie Sharp

By Tiffany Calvert, 18 Apr 2018

Futurist or Fortune Teller? by Sadie Sharp

I’ve worked as a freelance transformation consultant for the past 15 years and I’ve had the privilege to have seen some inspiringly creative areas of practice, and I’ve had the illuminating opportunity to see some pockets of astoundingly incompetent practice. The one thing that both ends of this spectrum had in common? They were all undertaken by people who considered themselves futurists.

The term futurist is a growing phenomenon in the speaker circuit and is commonly used to describe someone who has an eye on the future and is looking at where the world is going, with a view of helping everyone align with that future more effectively.

And some are very good at it…you only need to look at the high profile telling’s of the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to see the benefit that having such a view can present, which explains why the topic is so popular for conference speaker bookings.

However, there are also a LOT of people out there who fall into the other end of the spectrum…those that have an opinion that they are 100% convinced is of futurist origins, but they have as much substantive backing as Mystic Meg had for her Saturday night lottery fortune telling slot!

However, as a speaker booker, how on earth can you tell the difference and make sure that you get someone that will leave your delegates talking about your conference for the right reasons? Here are my 3 tips on how to tell the difference between a futurist and a fortune teller…

1)    Moderation over Exaggeration

It’s easy for anyone to shout from the rooftops that the latest phenomenon will revolutionise our world and we need to embrace it because there will be no corners to hide in.

However, as is the case with “clickbait”, although this may get peoples attention, and may even be partially correct, a real futurist will be able to substantiate and moderate those claims with realism.

For example, (and I’m no AI expert), I am sure that AI will have an increasingly incomparable impact on the world of work and replace many jobs as we know them, but in order to work, AI needs exceptional amounts of data to make decisions, so roles that require that intuitive leap of judgement will be less affected (at least in the shorter term).

And that aside, who will be programming these AI led roles? The requirement for human-driven interfaces will need the intricacies of those exchanges designed, and machines can’t do that – it takes a human to train a machine on how to act like a human.

As a speaker booker you should be able to speak to your futurist to question their take on the world and size up whether they’re adopting a speaker version of exaggerated “clickbait” or not, because if they are, the risk is that your delegates go away in dazed apocalyptic shock, or as a futurist sceptic.

2)    Joining Up The Dots

Everything in life is part of a cause and effect. EVERYTHING. And the futurist phenomenon is no different. The really good futurist speakers will be able to look at the big-ticket futurist happenings (the cause) and join up the dots to identify the knock-on impact (the effect).

As an example, there is a lot of talk about the Gig economy and the flexible jobs that are being created. Yes, this practice will be moulded and altered by the changing legislation that is attempting to evolve quickly enough to avoid the misuse of employment rights and tax liabilities.

However, legislation and tax aside, this phenomenon is changing the expectations of today's (and tomorrows!) workforce. More people than ever are now considering freelance / self-employed work as part of their career portfolio, and more universities are offering entrepreneurial qualifications.

This expectation is growing, and as is always the case with expectations, it won’t be long before even those in mainstream jobs want the opportunity to investigate this freelance way of life, but in balance with the stability of a “proper” job – so how will traditional companies need to adapt their staffing models?

Historical examples have followed this established pattern, and futurist practices are no different. After all – it only took a few years for the emergence of flexible working applications for people with caring responsibilities to evolve into people asking for flexible working when they get a puppy(!) so why should this be any different?

A really good futurist speaker will be able to take a futurist statement and extrapolate outwards to identify how that primary occurrence will have a cause and effect knock on in other areas that your delegates will be able to directly relate to. Admittedly, the further out the ripples get, the less direct the correlation and the less “certain” the impacts, but it is the skill of the speaker to encourage people to join the dots up for themselves.

3)    Practical Application Of Pie In The Sky

And my last point is directly related to the concept of helping people join up the dots. Many people attend speaker events looking to learn more and gain new insights, but the ones that rave about events are the ones that go away saying “that made a difference to me”.

So as much as many futurist practices feel like they are 10 steps away from most people’s day to day lives, a really good futurist speaker should be able to “chunk down” those happenings to help people relate the impact of them to their day to day lives.

People should be able to go away being able to identify opportunities or challenges that the futurist phenomenon creates and be inspired in their ability to thrive within it. As an example, going back to the impact of AI on jobs – it’s one thing to emphasise this impact, but quite another to encourage people to go back into their workplaces and look for areas of practice where, if the data that was being collected was higher quality, could be more efficiently automated to reduce common areas of repetitive dross in their daily work processes.  

Asking your futurist speaker “what’s the takeaway for the audience?” or “how does what you’re speaking about benefit my delegates?” should be enough to ensure that there is a firm focus on them taking something away that they can actually use, rather than going away just saying “that was interesting”.

Sadie Sharp is an entrepreneur and transformational developer and has used her unique take on the world and where it is going to help hundreds of organisations across the world disrupt what they are doing and embrace future fit practices. Her technical expertise in organisational redesign and strategic HR sees her regularly consult for the CIPD and publish her thoughts in leading journals. For details on Sadie keynote speaking at your next event, contact Unique Speaker Bureau UK on 01207 524848 or