For all the years that I have been a member of the Professional Speakers Association, I never attended the annual convention. But after each convention, at the subsequent Chapter meeting, I was always made to feel like Dick Whittington hearing stories about London; the streets of the convention were paved with gold, I was told, every encounter resulted in some nugget of wisdom or information, a priceless experience. ‘It can’t be that good, surely?’ I thought to myself.
So this year I decided to find out, especially as I had got myself involved in an x-factor style speaking competition, which would have its conclusion at the convention.
And thus, on 14th November at twelve o’clock, I was stood at the check-in of the Crowne Plaza hotel in Marlow. The programme kicked off at 12.30 pm and I was being told that I couldn’t have a room until 2.00 pm. – I needed a shave and a shower after a long journey and somewhere to dump my stuff – what sort of organisation was this?
Dick Whittington had arrived in Marlow.
After the welcome meeting and lunch it was time to see and hear some of the gold I was promised. Here are some edited highlights.
Valda Ford is an American lady. That’s the positive stuff over with, now here’s the constructive criticism. Someone should have advised her that a British audience is a different animal to an American one. I’m not familiar with American audiences, but extrapolating from the content and structure of her speech, I’m guessing that they are incredibly slow at following a story and spend most of their lives waiting around in airports. Maybe she did something remarkable later on which redeemed her speech, I wouldn’t know because after ten minutes I had lost interest and I went to check into my room and tidy myself up.
The half hour showcase slots I found most enjoyable. What I liked about these was the intimacy of the gatherings. Maybe forty people maximum at each showcase. This is a very demanding set up for any speaker as they are eyeball to eyeball with their audience and can detect any energy fluctuation in the room. Should the speaker lose the attention of the audience there is absolutely nowhere to hide. Equally, should the speaker fire the imagination of the audience then there is no better place to be.
Just one small concern though, at what point does ‘research’ becomes plagiarism?
Here’s some gold though that Jeremy Nicholas (couldn’t his family find him a real surname) inadvertently gave me after his half hour showcase about hunour. He told a story (ironically enough) about Bob Monkhouse being accused of plagiarising a Harry Hill joke. In response, Bob produced a film of himself using this same joke decades earlier. When I later asked Jeremy what the joke was he admitted that he did not know. This immediately suggested that the story could be apocryphal and that everything Jeremy had said was unreliable. I’m not saying it was, this is just how the mind works. So at last, a coin of value was given to me; always know more material than you deliver.
Then it was my turn. The candidates x-factor style speaking competition was, strangely and disappointingly, a closed session. When I asked those in charge as to why this was they gave an unconvincing answer about protecting the competitors’ feelings when the feedback was being given by the judges. Yeah, right. If you can’t stand the heat, don’t try to be a chef.
As I didn’t eventually win I can’t say too much about my impressions of this event as they would be highly subjective but what I learned was this; speaking is easy to criticise but hard to do.
If the competition is run again, I would suggest that a comprehensive list of guidelines be issued to all competitors with specific criteria of what the judges are looking for. I was the only competitor to use PowerPoint for example and I was criticised for doing so. It might have been easier if the rules simply stated, ‘No PowerPoint’. And if it is going to be an x-factor style competition, then at least make it a competition and allow an audience (and maybe even give them a vote).
Friday was concluded by a speech from Alvin Law. I had not seen Alvin before and apparently, as people later told me, he had put a lot of work into his presentation. It showed.
For those who don’t know, Alvin was born without arms after his mother had taken the notorious Thalidomide drug. Technically he is ‘disabled’ although after seeing his performance you would be hard pressed to say in what way. The man is a superb performer. His fire-cracking voice alone commands attention but with the addition of impeccable timing and physical dynamics he was simply irresistible on the night.
There is a story of an old man who sits by the side of the road just outside a large town. A traveller stops and talks with the old man. He asks him what the people are like in the town that he is are about to visit. The old man asks him what the people were like in the place that he has just come from.
“Ah, they were mean and wicked and couldn’t be trusted.” Says the traveller.
“Ah, alas, in this town, the people are just the same,” replies the old man and the traveller continues on his way.
Some time later another traveller comes along the road and asks the old man the same question. Again the old man asks the traveller what the people were like in the place he had just come from and the traveller answers, “They were friendly and helpful, always generous with strangers.”
“What luck!” cries the old man. “In this town, the people are just the same!”
I guess a convention is just like that town; you find what you are expecting to find. I was looking for soul gold but to be honest I didn’t find a great deal of it.
Warren Evans was a puzzling paradox. He spoke about platform mechanics. Now, for any speaker coming onto the stage, the first few seconds are crucial for establishing credibility but when you are an ‘expert’ on this very subject, the first few seconds are absolutely critical.
We waited expectantly for the extra special demonstration of how it should be done. Then we waited some more. Then we waited while Warren scrabbled about at the front of the stage trying to get something to work. Then, after some uncertainty, Warren sauntered onto the stage.
I’m starting to think that this is some brilliant artifice for demonstrating how not to do it, but no, the dialogue between Warren and Roy Sheppard, the moderator, make it apparent that this was unprepared for. This is like the time and motion expert turning up late for his lecture. But it gets worse.
Warren made it absolutely clear in his presentation that as the speaker you should completely own the stage and dominate it at all costs. Then he invited one of the technical crew to come onto the stage and give a speech about technical stuff whilst he himself sort of hung about at the edge of the stage waiting to come back on.
I’m not making this stuff up. It actually happened.
That said, Warren was rather endearing in his ‘devil may care’ attitude and it was sufficient for me to forgive him these contradictions.
Meet the pro’s left me bewildered. This was a group session where the attendees visited three tables of their choice, one after the other, and heard a professional speaker talk about their products and sales practices for twenty minutes. What was it supposed to achieve? I got the overriding impression that the presenters were simply selling to me. Was this supposed to be of benefit to the presenters then and not to the audience?
I once went on a Greek holiday and was unfortunate enough to get involved in a ‘free lunch’ offered by a time-share company. As you can imagine, the free lunch was paid for with hours of relentless hard sell that I stoically resisted.
Simon Zutshi’s presentation was similar to that day in Greece except that this time there was no free lunch on offer. If Simon’s values and beliefs reflect those of the PSA, then, quite frankly, I don’t want any part of it. If they don’t, why was he given time on the platform?
Philip Van Hooser minted up a bit more soul gold during his speech. He is one of the few people that I have met in the PSA who get’s it. He told a contemporary story where he advises his daughter, who is studying economics at the time, that, ‘There is no normal anymore.’ Strangely though, he didn’t push this point. Maybe he knows when a particular audience is ready to hear a tricky message.
Tim Gard finished off the evening in style. His humour was original and accessible. I found some more gold here too. For the best part of an hour, Tim was utterly sensational. Then for the rest of the time he was merely great. Always leave the audience desperate for more. They will talk about you afterwards to others and make every effort to see you again.
The Sunday morning session with the panel of bookers answering questions from the attendees had one significant moment. Someone from the audience asked the panel (in particular Brian Chernett, founder of ACE) what they thought of the PSA in terms of representing quality speakers.
“Not much.” replied Brian.
In the silence that followed you could have heard the fart of a fly. What was the point then, of being a member of the PSA?
Good question and one that I have been asking myself more and more in recent times. The PSA seems to be taking a direction that is different from my own (or maybe the PSA is standing still and it is me who is moving). Whatever, I did not find sufficient gold in Marlow to convince me to renew my subscription to the PSA. It is time for me to move on even further.
I would like to thank everyone in the PSA who helped me to get where I am today (even if I did not make the Mayor of London) and I wish you all memorable journeys.
Can I make one last suggestion? Perhaps the slogan for next year’s convention should be changed from a vague and meaningless ‘Spirit’ to an absolutely naked ‘Authenticity’.
Navigate well my friends.