Three big mistakes a speaker can make

Part of being a coach for speakers involves being able to take a step back, evaluate a client’s performance, and head off problems. As an account manager at Britain’s top speaker agency JLA, I booked hundreds of speakers for every kind of event imaginable. I always followed up an event with a request for feedback, so none of this is my wisdom, so much as it is my former clients’. I’m going to take the top three criticisms, and you’ll see there isn’t anything that you can’t put right. It isn’t rocket science, which is good, because I’m coaching a rocket scientist at the moment.

1. Not taking a brief
Garry Richardson is sports presenter of Radio 4’s Today Programme. He tells me: ‘It always amazes me that some people turn up at a dinner without a clue what the event is or who they’re talking to.’ Garry is an after dinner speaker at events all round the country, and for him a brief is critical. ‘If there are seventy Americans in the audience, they’re not going to get a joke about racing commentator Murray Walker.’ He also needs to know the dress code, what the purpose of the event is and who the key people in the room are. ‘I like to give the boss a gentle ribbing if I can.’ Such attention to detail is a sign of professionalism: Garry cut his teeth in working men’s clubs and rowdy sports dinners. I’ve no doubt he could turn up five minutes before speaking and do a decent job if he wanted to – but that’s emphatically not how he likes to work. How can you please a client when you don’t know what the client wants?

Garry’s JLA page

2. Inappropriate content
Caspar Berry talks about risk. ‘Every decision we make is the result of us balancing the risks with the rewards. When someone hires me as a speaker, they are making an investment of time and money that they hope will pay off.’ Caspar’s presentation includes games of pure chance, as well as games like poker which include a large element of decision-making. ‘I can tailor my presentation to most of the briefs that I get,’ he says, ‘but if they want something really specific that I don’t feel I can deliver, I will always say so. If I go out and don’t do what they want to the best of my abilities, that doesn’t benefit anyone.’ It’s a helpful attitude to take: nobody likes to turn down business, but doing so could be the first step of building something more valuable than an individual job: and that’s what Caspar now has – a reputation. Understand what a client doesn’t want and make sure you don’t do it.

Caspar’s website

3. Didn’t get key messages across
Disability is still one of our society’s big taboos. For Paralympic gold medal winner Marc Woods, it’s a taboo he confronts as soon as he steps onto the platform. ‘I immediately break the ice with an audience by having a joke about only having one leg. When the audience sees that I can laugh about it, they can relax and laugh about it too. I show race footage of athletes with different kinds of disabilities, but by that time, the audience isn’t thinking about how disabilities hold people back, they’re thinking about how these people use strategy to become the world’s top athletes.’ The moral of the story is: see things from the audience’s perspective. If there is a barrier between you and the audience, it’s your job to overcome it.

Marc’s website

All of these come down to understanding your client and audience. I think this is absolutely key. I often have clients asking me how to overcome jitters and on-stage forgetfulness. I always turn this around: if an audience is on your side, you can get away with anything. There are techniques for calming yourself, and memory, but an audience that likes you will understand your nerves and forgive you looking at your notes.

The key message is: the effectiveness of your speech is half-decided before you step onto the stage. This holds whether you’re a motivational speaker or a comedian. I saw Bob Mills hosting a charity night when, unexpectedly, the lights flickered, the microphone cut out. A second later, normality was restored. Bob flicked his eyes skyward and quipped to the massed ranks of the Coal Board Benevolent Fund, ‘So much for nuclear power.’ A great demonstration of someone making themselves integral to the event.

A good speech begins with the first time you talk about the brief. Remember: if you’re talking to an audience of sixty people, every minute of your speech is an hour of their time. If you speak for an hour, that’s nearly two weeks of someone not doing anything. Add on the cost of the room hire, catering, and the time it’s taken to plan the enterprise, and you should have a different perspective on the event. Even if they paid you nothing (and I sincerely hope this isn’t the case) it’s still incredibly expensive for them to have you there. The client clearly thinks this is a big opportunity for them to use your knowledge to improve their business – don’t waste it!

You are being paid for the privilege of filling this space with whatever you like, and if you don’t feel the weight of this responsibility, you should ask yourself if you are as good a speaker as you think you are.

Questions? Comments? Get in touch: or tweet @sillymrhawkins


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