‘And what do you do, Ian?’
‘I’m a speaker coach.’
‘Really? And what’s that?’
As you will know, reader, a good business idea can be pitched in fifteen seconds, or written on the back of a beer mat. I don’t know how fast you read, but thank goodness this forum allows me the luxury of a very large beer mat.
A speaker coach, like every other coach in the world, gets a different brief for every client. I’ve had a client who wanted to speak at his daughter’s wedding, which is intimidating enough, without factoring in the recently-ex wife and her new beau.
Then there was the client who was being constantly asked to speak. She was very good, but just didn’t enjoy doing it. As a brief, ‘I want to enjoy myself more’ is more at the metaphysical end of things for me, but we worked something out in the end.
The most refreshingly honest brief was the speaker who told me how much money he was currently commanding for a speech, and wanted to double the figure. Fine: at least we know what success looks like (and I knew to charge a percentage).
The most challenging client found me in Scotland, with a room full of top executives from a high street bank. They all had to speak at a conference the following day, and there was a lot of dry and technical information to get over. There was also a very new member of the team, far less experienced as a speaker and far less sure of his ground. That became an exercise less in coaching him towards improvement, as coaching the group to support him: there was so much emphasis on one weaker individual that they were making him more self-conscious – and more likely to make mistakes. I had a lot of sympathy with him, having stood in those shoes on more than one occasion.
Finally, there is the straightforward phone call from a speaker in a panic: ‘Can you come up with a page of jokes about nuclear power by 7pm?’ Yes, I can.
The client arrives at my door from their own unique background. My background is available for all to see on this website. I cannot be all things to all speakers, but I can make a difference, whether you are a Best Man and want a gag on an esoteric subject or have never spoken before, have recently been crowned and are about to cut the ribbon on a battleship. Sometimes I feel like a script writer. Other times I feel like a therapist.
Usually I am somewhere in the middle, a friendly, informed, reassuring presence with some good ideas and a clear head about the nuts and bolts of getting onstage.
The two tips I often come back to are:
- If you are not funny in real life, don’t try to be funny onstage. Audiences know when you’re being bogus, and authenticity counts for more than a cheap laugh.
- Don’t try to be a good speaker. If you are a Best Man, be a good friend. If you are talking about your area of expertise, explain it in accessible language, sure, but wear your knowledge on your sleeve. If you are a leader, be a leader. Don’t chase your followers for their approval. And you will find that you become a better speaker incidentally.
My job, then, is to help people who by choice, coercion, circumstance or etiquette find they are about to step onto a stage in front of other people and wish to do the best job they can. I like to think of myself less as the wizard behind the curtain, and more as Toto: proven to lower blood pressure.