4 Ways to Honor Intellectual Property (and Your Fellow Speakers)

Eleni Kelakos presentation skills training, public speaking training, speech coaching

I have always been an extremely ethical person—even, some might say, to a fault. When I raise my hand to swear an oath, I mean it.  When I’m asked to respect rules and regulations, I do (just ask my schoolmates who teased me about being a “goody two-shoes” and a “teacher’s pet.”)  And if someone asked me to do something I knew in my bones was just plain wrong—like lying in an interview, or falsely claiming someone else’s idea was mine—I wouldn’t do it.

Which is why I was really taken back when, at a conference at which I was slated to give a presentation, the speaker scheduled before me asked me to please vacate the room during his speech.  As he explained it, in his world (the world of Academia and Business) he’s had too many experiences with colleagues watching his presentations and ripping off his ideas. “They’ve even gone so far as to steal my PowerPoint slides and used them in their own presentations,” he said. “That’s why I’ve now made it my policy to never let other speakers watch my presentations.  I don’t let anyone record them, either.”

I had two, immediate reactions to his comment and request:

First, I was offended (see my opening paragraph—when you pride yourself on being an ethical person, it stings when someone assumes the worst of you).

Second, I was appalled– It’s abhorrent to me that anyone, much less the speaker’s colleagues, had stolen his ideas, and that theft of his intellectual property should even be a concern for him. And it certainly doesn’t speak well of the professional academic culture in which he operates.

I told the speaker I would, of course, respect his request.

But I also told the speaker that I was sorry it had come down to his having had to adopt such an iron-clad “no speaker shall watch me present” policy.  I pointed out to him that I am a proud member of the National Speakers Association, an association comprised of top-level speakers, trainers, and thought-leaders who share their wisdom and expertise on a global basis. The NSA expects its members to honor four core competencies: Expertise, Eloquence, Enterprise and—most notable to this conversation– Ethics.  As members of the NSA, we have a written Code of Ethics we adhere to, among which is Article 5-Intellectual Property which stipulates the following: “The NSA member shall avoid using—either orally or in writing—materials, titles, or thematic creations originated by others unless approved in writing by the originator.”

The point is, in my professional world, speakers don’t ordinarily rip off other speakers—they, in fact, take pride in acting ethically around the intellectual property of their fellow speakers. Furthermore, those rare few that violate the NSA code of ethics are strongly reprimanded.

I really do want to believe that most people who give presentations (especially those who aren’t members of the National Speakers Association) don’t intentionally mean to violate a code of ethics. Most likely, they just don’t know any better, or haven’t given much thought the ethical side of things.

With that in mind, here are four ways to maintain healthy ethical boundaries around intellectual property when it comes to giving– and watching–presentations:

  1. Develop Your Own Proprietary Material: It amazes me when speakers take existing systems, slides, ideas, philosophies, or principles that have been painstakingly developed over time by others and claim them as their own by never referring to their origin or by disguising them slightly with new terminology or visuals. Though it may be a lot easier to use material and content that’s not yours, it’s much more fulfilling and empowering to create it from the ground up. Dare to dive in and do the work of creating your very own proprietary material—the kind of material others might wish they had come up with!  And if you do use or reference material that’s not your own—like a phrase, or system, or a methodology, get permission from its originator to do so. And make sure tell your audience who said it, who created it, and where you ran across it.
  2. Create your own Signature Phrases: If you watch a speaker and really like one of their signature phrases (one of mine, for example, is “When you shrink to fit, you take a hit)” don’t adopt it as your own. Ask them if you can use it, promising that you will reference them when you do. Better yet, do the work of coming up with your own equally memorable signature phrases.
  3. Buy the rights to photos or videos. If you want to use an image on a PowerPoint, don’t just grab it off Google images (or another speaker’s slide deck). Instead, pay for it through a website like Istockphoto.com or depositphoto.com. Same holds true for bits of film or video or tv commercials, whose copyrights are legally protected (go to websites like Pexels.com for free or low fee acquisition of video clips you can use in your presentation).  And if you want to use a song within your presentation, I strongly suggest you reach out to the publisher of the song, or to the songwriter directly, for permission to use it. (As a singer and songwriter myself, this last point is especially meaningful to me).
  4. Honor the Golden Rule: The golden rule—do unto others as you would want others to do unto to you—applies to the speaking world just as it does anywhere else. If people within your company culture or organization regularly steal their colleagues or competitor’s ideas and try to pass them off as their own, you have a deeper ethical issue to address. If you, your organization, or your place of employment view speaking and giving presentations as an ethics-free zone where any sort of activity involving theft of ideas or otherwise is allowed, perhaps it’s time to take stock and make a change for the better. With that in mind, consider creating and instituting an “Ethics and Presentations” policy with a clear-cut set of rules that you and your colleagues are expected to maintain and honor.

As speakers, the more we all hold ourselves responsible for maintaining healthy ethical boundaries around other people’s presentation materials, the more freely and widely we can share our wisdom and expertise—and the more we can make our difference the world.