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Thanks but no thanks: when to turn down a speaking engagement!

Night-mayor bureaucracy and bookings

Over the past few weeks, the new mayors of towns all over the UK have been taking office and embarking upon a year of around 500 engagements, most of which involve at least a short speech. The first of these is usually an address to a large audience at the mayor-making ceremony.

Back in May, I was contacted by the Human Resources department of a council in a major town in the South asking if I would be available to provide public speaking training for their Mayor-Elect ahead of their swearing-in. Having witnessed at first hand the difference that my coaching can make to a mayor at this sort of function, I was certain that I could help.

This was at the time when the news was dominated by the scandal over politicians' expenses and, even though these concerned MPs not councillors, I decided out of concern over public money in a town that I have an affinity for to price this as a private coaching session rather than a corporate training event. I quoted a price for three hours' coaching which also included giving an overview of the mayor's script. Needless to say, the council HR seemed very enthusiastic.

But then I received an email asking if I could supply a CV. And two references!

Now let's look at this, shall we? They may have been a Human Resources department but I wasn't actually seeking a job with them; I already have several, thank you very much: speaker,speechwriterradio scriptwritercomedy writer... And they had approached me. There are plenty of relevant biographical details on this website so why could these people not simply copy them?

The same applies to references. There is no shortage of high-profile, unsolicited testimonials on this site.

But wait (as they say on teleshopping channel infomercials) - there's more! They also wanted copies of various insurance policies (not all essential) and for me to sign a finicky agreement and study their Diversity Policy (even though I'm not generally in the habit of regaling students with a stream of political incorrectness!) I never had all this nonsense when I was booked to deliver presentation skills training by somewhat larger organisations such as the Home Office and ICL Fujitsu but this was now becoming purely academic anyway because I was fast losing interest. 
I gave the matter some serious thought over the weekend and emailed the HR people on the Monday morning to say that I was no longer interested and was actually rather offended. Their ridiculous red tape would have added hours of extra work for a low-paid engagement which would probably have been paid for weeks afterwards anyway. Sadly, this bureaucratic nonsense will probably become widespread. For one thing, it gives publicly-funded, box-ticking pen-pushers something to do!

Of course, I didn't lose sight of the fact that at the centre of this was a mayor who needed help with making their important speech but there is no shortage of competition in this game and I am sure that some other coach would have been happy to jump through the jobsworths' hoops to get the booking. Whether they could have achieved the same results at such a low cost to council tax payers is another matter.

I am not going to identify the town concerned out of consideration for the mayor who is entitled to confidentiality over their coaching needs and who might not have approved of (or even been aware of) the bureaucratic nonsense involved in arranging even a one-off coaching session but this does raise the whole business of turning down work - even in the current financial climate.

In my first years of speaking, I took on all manner of engagements, many for little or no return. As a result, I gained a lot of stage time in a short period and progressed pretty rapidly. Lisa Braithwaite recently wrote a very good blog post about pro bono speaking and even today, there are odd occasions when I will consider speaking on this basis, perhaps for an audition, a genuine business networking opportunity or for a charity whose work I support.

But the fee should not be the only consideration when deciding whether to accept a booking. Not that it's always easy. There have been times when I have been contacted by speaker secretaries who have seemed brusque or awkward on the phone but have turned out to be delightful in person (along with the rest of the audience) and I was glad that I went along.

But corporate after dinner speaking can be a bit of a minefield. I have never forgotten this article by Sunday Times journalist Jonathan Miller from years ago. Some professions are to be treated with extreme caution unless you are a very experienced comedian or much-loved celebrity. Based on what I have heard from other speakers, the police, armed forces and DSS managers can be very, er, challenging, perhaps because these are all occupations where feelings have to be kept in check all year when dealing with superiors and the public but may come spilling out at a hapless guest speaker when booze loosens inhibitions at an annual dinner. An agent once told me that software salespeople had been a nightmare for some of the speakers on their books.

This may sound snobbish but when approached about speaking at a company's annual 'do', it may be wise to ask whether you will be speaking to the just the management or workers from all levels within the company, some of whom may not be interested in your content!

Some enquiries just beggar belief. I was once approached by an agent who had received a call from a woman who had wanted to book a speaker for a private dinner she was holding in a London restaurant. She had told the agent that she had never booked a speaker before and didn't quite know what was involved but she wanted someone good looking! (Well, that's me and most of the male UK speaking circuit out of the running then, darling! Perhaps a singer or male stripper would have been more appealing...) Nevertheless, this agent (who I can only assume had lost my photograph!) contacted me and asked if I could ring the client.

I reluctantly made the call and there was no rapport, especially when she asked me what after dinner speakers actually do!  I explained to her that I am a radio comedy writer and that at dinners, as well as including anecdotes about writing for radio and appearing on TV, I use humorous observations and  topical gags. This seemed to interest her and she mentioned something she had noticed which she thought was terribly funny about the media coverage of the 9/11 bombings and could I include that? Now, this was October 2001 - just weeks after the tragedy. The topical comedian's warning 'too soon!' didn't even begin to describe this woman's insensitivity (not that I would ever include materail about such a topic). Not only that, from what she had told me about the demographic of the audience, I was pretty certain that even though there would only have been about 50 of them, some would have had friends or relatives in New York affected by the bombings.

I extricated myself from the conversation and called the agent back. Several hundred pounds wasn't bad back then for speaking to such a small audience but I wasn't remotely interested. Agents don't always like speakers turning down bookings but, give this one her due, she was as appalled as I was by the client's request and said she wouldn't be dealing with her (and I believed her).

If you do inadvertently accept a dodgy engagement, these can at least provide material for your future bookings, as the story of the Quantity Surveyors' Dinner Debacle from my booklet Nick R's in a Twist! proves (and very therapeutic too!). And don't forget that my speaking career started as a result of a seemingly disastrous TV appearance which provided a funny and motivational story which I have told hundreds of times since. 

Public speaking can generate its own material! Nevertheless, you do have to exercise a little care about what you get yourself into.

Public Speaking Tip #321: Progressing as a speaker means that you have to strike a balance between accepting bookings which stretch you and avoiding those which turn out to be nightmares - whatever the fee!

Oh, and here's an extra tip for any other mayor who might want me to coach them in public speaking: make the approach yourself or through a friend and not via your council's Human Resources department - you will find it's a lot less complicated for both of us!

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