Figures of speech
By Stephen Matchett
From: The Australian (August 17, 2010)
WHENEVER he wasn't firing people, George Clooney's character in the black comedy Up in the Air was moonlighting as a motivational speaker, emptying out a backpack on stage as he talked about the baggage that burdens all our lives.
His speech was glib and content-free, the words of a hollow man in a shallow world. A world as forgiving as a live comedy crowd, as engaged as a channel-surfing adolescent, a world in which no one cares whether such speakers succeed or fail, because it's all just part of the passing corporate show.
Except when it's not. Sure, the speaking circuit employs all sorts of performers, from former prime ministers who encapsulate their achievements in aphorisms through to sales trainers who want you to understand that missing out on business is a form of moral weakness. But there are also men and women with ideas that can change lives, information that can improve company performance and strategies that can encourage recalcitrant staff to try harder.
Yet whatever they are talking about, all they have to offer is their own capacity to explain and enthuse. And it isn't easy, especially in Australia. "In the US they love motivational speakers," says Amanda Gore, a 20-year veteran of the circuit. "If Australians hear 'motivational speaker', they sit back, cross their arms and say, 'Oh yeah? Go ahead, motivate me!'"
While no one names names, just about everyone interviewed agrees there are too many frauds and failures in the industry. "There are a lot of people doing what I do who lack the credibility to talk," James Adonis, author, blogger and speaker, says. Veteran sales and marketing specialist John Lees agrees: "A lot of sales training is just recycled nonsense from people with the gift of the gab."
And there's no shortage of individuals keen to take up a microphone and tell us what a conference organiser thinks we need to hear, if only as a way to sell their book or establish a media career. Winston Broadbent, managing director of Saxton Speakers Bureau, says between 10 and 20 people a week ask him to represent them. He signs only a couple of dozen a year.
An average speaker might charge a minimum of $2000, but alpha speakers can command fees as high as $40,000. Professionals take about two days to put together an acceptable address.
Of course, what many are selling is themselves. Books advertise the speeches and speeches sell the books. Both formats create credentials for consultants and act as entrees to organisations.
It's a legitimate way of doing business. A potential customer can get more idea of what a consultant has to offer from a book than a sales pitch.
Of course, it's not a case of everyone selling the same thing. At the pinnacle of the profession are the prestige performers - men and women "who have earned the right to speak", as Broadbent puts it, through a lifetime of achievement. "Just being a great speaker is not enough", he says. While Broadbent won't say what his elite clients get paid for a speaking engagement, they are not doing it to flog books or spruik their skills.
He reels off a long list of prominent entrepreneurs, adventurers, social activists and sports administrators whose speaking skills he admires, but singles out Australia Council chairman and former Qantas chief James Strong as somebody who speaks from the "pinnacle of business" and whose "ethics, values and leadership qualities" make him worth hearing. What audiences want to hear from Strong and from others like him is advice, insight and information from leaders whose careers establish their credibility.
They also want information from experts on what is happening within the economy and what that means for their future. That means business economists and social forecasters - such as KPMG partner and columnist for The Australian Bernard Salt - are in demand. There is also a greater interest in metrics than in motivation, in ideas that can have an identifiable impact on bottom lines.
Lees is well known, according to Broadbent, "in the subterranean world of corporate advisers" for his advice on customer focus. Lees acknowledges he is not much of a media performer, saying that while he does not duck attention, "it's not the focus of what I do".
He built a career by explaining how firms should learn all about their clients, based on the customer board he created at hair-care brand Schwarzkopf 20 years ago. He started speaking and training as he was "repulsed" by the messages being offered to people in sales and marketing. "The role of marketing is the antithesis of conference drivel, which is all about being positive and working hard," he says.
For Kris Cole, industrial psychologist and mechanical engineer, speaking was the middle stage of a career that started with her training managers in quality control. She began writing on her ideas and experiences, which led to speaking offers. At her peak she was making 24 speeches a month, "all original content".
The author of 11 books including a management text used in TAFEs across the country, Cole is now an occasional speaker and full-time writer - one of the few Australian business authors whose name appears on bestseller lists.
However, consulting, speaking and writing are the outcome of her industry expertise, rather than her ability to sell herself. "While I was busy doing training I never had time to self-promote, thank God. I am not very good at that."
For other people, speaking is their main business, with writing a form of brand promotion. The best of these are consummate professionals, due to the fact that they are only as good as their last speech. They are "edu-tainers", as Adonis describes his speaking style. Adonis does not consult, sticking to speaking, writing and leading seminars for a living, with one or two engagements a week.
"I market myself as a fresh brand. [My clients] know they will not hear management techniques from the '70s," Adonis says. But the workplace relations specialist warns against expecting him to transform an organisation in an hour.
According to Gore, that is not the function of keynote speakers such as herself. "The people who can entertain, educate and create an experience are very useful for opening or closing spots, helping clashing cultures or troubled organisations move forward." She adds that a speech that changes lives can be as much about process as content, about "the ability to work with group dynamics, so you can lift them up as they learn".
Cole does not dismiss the speech-makers' craft, but believes it is important to speak from experience. While Lees emphasises craft as well as content, he warns anybody booking a conference to be wary of smooth operators. "Individuals who are very confident in delivering messages often have no ideas to impart. Because they are confident and witty, people assume they must be good."
Many aren't, especially those focused on their own promotional packaging. According to Broadbent, having earned the right to speak through achievement is a prerequisite for success, but it's only the start. Truly professional presentations emphasise the audience's interest, with the speaker working hard to build a bond. And that extends to mixing and mingling with the audience after the address. "A lot of it is about human capacity - the material is the vehicle," he says.
Especially if it makes people laugh. Almost everyone the deal spoke to agreed with Adonis that: "You don't need to be funny - unless you want to be paid."
Adonis, a speaker for five years, is increasingly cynical about the business. "I love what I do, but dislike the industry. There are people talking on relationships who have screwed up their relationships, depressed people talking on happiness."
Perhaps the speaking circuit is a fair mirror of society, where an elite seems to excel effortlessly, wonks worry whether the audience has picked up their very important points and average speakers do their ordinary best and wonder when they can drop the fixed grin.
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