I was fortunate to spend the better part of 36 hours in Coeur D’Alene, ID this week to talk to a roomful of very enthusiastic folks about Social media, and it got me thinking: With all that yapping some of us do onstage, more often than not, true dialog tends to get lost in shuffle. We talk and talk and talk, and then towards the end of our session, we leave 10 little minutes open for questions, and that’s it. Well, that isn’t enough. As much as I like to speak (and hear myself speak, if the length of my blog posts and presentations weren’t a clue), I much prefer the back and forth of Q&A even to my own incessant droning. Give me dialog. Give me conversation. Give me engagement. Not just on Twitter and the blogosphere, but with a real crowd, flesh and bone, pencils sharpened, phone cams at the ready. Give me a town-hall atmosphere over a lecture any day.

Which is why at the end of today’s 3 hour session on stage and 20 solid minutes of questions, I stuck around for another hour after the event ended to make sure that everyone who had a question for me got an answer. THAT, more than my time on stage, was the highlight of my evening. Why? Because I got to meet people, truly interact with them, get to know them better, solve specific problems for them (hopefully), and become part of their world. There were handshakes involved, pats on the back, stories of ski trips in Savoie and breaking world records and harrowing tales of survival (no, really). And then people started taking pictures for their blogs and facebook walls and whatnot, and that was a lot of fun too.

At 6pm, we were all strangers. At 9pm, everyone knew who I was, but the dynamic was still speaker/audience. At 10pm, I had connected with some wonderful human beings with fascinating stories to tell and made at least a dozen new friends. It was all good, but guess what: That time between 9pm and 10pm, that’s the part I got the most out of.

So speakers, ye of talent, skill and charmed lives, here’s the deal: Don’t limit yourselves to just “speaking.” Stick around. Get to know your audience. Chat with them. Listen to their stories. That’s where the real value of your speaking engagement is. Not the proverbial icing on the cake, as it were, but its warm gooey heart. The lectures, the presentations, the time on stage, eventually it will all blend into one big mess of jumbled memories of spotlights and silhouetted figures lined up in neat little rows, of people nodding and smiling and taking notes, and if you aren’t too awful at it, the wonderful sound of applause too. Always as sweet as it is brief. But the memories that will stick with you, the ones you’ll want to hold on to, the ones that will separate this event from that one will be those of the moments you spent hanging out with the fans. The ones who want their picture taken with you. The ones who want to show you their dog photos and their battle scars and the iphone case their grandson made for them. THAT’s the good stuff.

So someday, when you’ve made it big and you make obscene bank going from event to event on some conference circuit or another, when you feel that the speaking you do makes you some kind of rock star, remember that the fees you command, the VIP treatment you’ve gotten used to, the applause and accolades you enjoy, none of that stuff is owed to you. You’re just lucky to be there, just like you were lucky to be there when you were first asked to speak – for free – at a local business event by a friend who wanted to give you a break. Nobody in that crowd owes you a damn thing. But you, sir, m’am, you owe every single person in that crowd EVERYTHING. Remember that. Always.

So mingle. Shake hands. Hang out. Get to know as many of the people who come listen to you “speak” as you can. They’re the best people you’ll ever meet, and I don’t need an R.O.I. equation to know that.

Have a great Friday, everyone.