By Alison McClelland
From: Progess Leader (February 14, 2005)
The gift of the gab has a multi-million dollar business for a Camberwell agency
After death, public speaking is commonly rated as our biggest fear.
Not even the prospect of parachuting out of a plane gets the heart thumping quite as fast as being asked to stand in front of a room full of people and deliver a captivating monologue.
One can only assume the 5000-plus public speakers listed with Saxton Speakers Bureau do not take part in top-fears surveys.
The Camberwell agency is the largest speakers’ bureau in the country and thanks to a recent partnership deal with International Management Group, it is now one of the largest in the world.
The bureau’s books read like a who’s who of Australian society.
There are captains of industry (James Strong, Jacques Nasser), politicians (Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Gough Whitlam), sporting heroes (Ian Thorpe, Pat Rafter, Herb Elliot), comedians (Gina Riley, Magda Szubanski) and entertainers (Rove McManus, David Helfgott, Kate Ceberano).
Chefs, financiers, opinion makers, lifestyle gurus and media players round out the selection.
The business of talking today - about 2500 speeches a year - is a far cry from the days when bureau founder and international adventurer Joan Saxton spoke to church groups and charities for a few guineas or a pair of stockings.
Saxton turned professional in 1965, launching Australia’s first speaker’s bureau. “She really was the Queen of the speaking industry,” Saxton managing director Winston Broadbent says.
“When you listen to her she even sounds like the Queen... She is perhaps more the Queen Mother these days.”
When Broadbent and his wife Nanette Moulton, both former teachers, bought Saxton out in 1988, they set about modernising and expanding the business, swapping carbon-copy receipts for a cutting-edge computer system.
“We rely heavily on the internet these days,” he said.
“For example, we recently booked someone in the US to speak in Munich; and we booked someone in Switzerland to speak 100km down the road.”
The business has grown from 80 speakers to more than 5000 and now has 20 staff and a multi-million dollar annual turnover.
In 1996, Saxton acquired the Sydney-based Harry M. Miller’s Speakers Bureau, and earlier this year it arranged to handle speaking engagements for IMG personalities such as Clive James, Edward de Bono and F. W. de Klerk.
“When we started it was a lot of general interest, after-dinner sort of stuff,” Broadbent said.
“The emphasis has changed over the years, it is more heavily corporate now... people want a bottom-line outcome for their money.”
Speakers earn between $2000 and $25,000 for a 40-minute talk. It is a savvy investment that pays for itself, according to Broadbent. “More often than not they (speakers) set the scene for a conference, provide a lasting message you don’t get from having the MD (managing director) standing up there,” he said.
“Someone from outside can give it a fresh spin.”
Companies will sometimes invest heavily in a big name (Bill Clinton reportedly commands $300,000) to draw people and the media to an event.
“They might want a star there because people want to touch a star,” Broadbent said.
But more often than not, the client approaches Saxton with a brief, be it a message of inspiration, a metaphor for the company’s goals, master-of-ceremonies duties or basic sales training.
“We are a marriage counsellor. We match the corporate side to the speaker,” Broadbent said.
So what makes a good speaker?
“They have to have credibility, they have got to have a reason to be there, they have got to have earned the right to stand in front of you,” Broadbent said.
“Obviously they have to be a good communicator, humorous and have the ability to tailor their talks to a brief.
“But there is also something magic you can’t put your finger on, an ability to bond with an audience.
“Li Cunxin (see “Who’s hot”) has all that.
“I sat next to two lawyers at a talk he gave who were crying at the end. Now, you don’t see lawyers cry very often.”
Saxton receives 20 requests a week from people wanting to become a speaker, ranging from “a major Australian celebrity to someone who has just spoken at their son’s 21st birthday”.
“Of that 20 a week, we might take on 25 in a year,” Broadbent said. “Our challenge is to maintain a balanced portfolio.”
Saxton’s speakers are marked out of 10 after each talk and receive an annual performance evaluation.
“Rod (McGeoch) has been a perfect 10 for four years,” Broadbent said.
“He epitomises all the necessary skills, the preparation, getting the brief right, turning up on time, mixing and mingling before and after - that’s critical.”
Broadbent, who confines his speaking engagements to industry events and family weddings, said people looking to improve their public speaking skills should start with preparation.
“And if you can’t tell jokes, start with a quote instead. Pitch it to what you can do.”
- Li Cunxin - former ballet star, turned author, turned stockbroker
- Simon Illingworth - policeman turned whistleblower
- Walter Mikac - wife and two daughters murdered at Port Arthur
- Gregory David Roberts - ex-con who escaped to India to work for Bombay mafia
- James Strong - chairman extraordinaire
- Rod McGeoch - lawyer, Sydney Olympic strategist, chairman of directors of corporations
- Stella Axarlis - opera singer turned businesswoman
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