(This is one of the longest posts I've ever written but it includes 'how-to' presentations, writing tips - including speechwriting, a behind-the-scenes account of a TV appearance, a tribute to someone who helped me start out as a speaker and a little advice regarding merchandising. Oh, and 19 Public Speaking Tips...)
Gravesend Probus, Kent and Essex AV Club
June 1 was another day with two bookings, starting with a morning talk for Gravesend Probus on My Life as a Freelance Comedy Writer at St George's Church Hall. I found the venue thanks to their Speaker Secretary mr bennett sending me the most detailed directions I have ever had for a booking - including maps and colour pictures of landmarks as well! The club also publishes its own monthly magazine for members, one of the best I have seen.
A good talk and question and answer session afterwards.
It's funny, in May 2011 I had my first booking for a video-making club since the autumn of 2005 and in June 2011 I got my first engagement for an audio-visual club since...that's right: autumn 2005! The audience this time was the Essex AV Club at Rayleigh.
AV clubs produce presentations involving two projectors where slides merge creatively into each other, accompanied by a recorded soundtrack. When I wrote about speaking to the Orpington Video Makers Club I mentioned the challenges of delivering a 'how-to' presentation for an audience working in a visual medium when so much of my experience has been in radio. The challenges are even greater with an AV club because they deal in still images and the recordings are usually solo voice-overs rather than dramatised. Nevertheless, there was still plenty that I was able to draw upon, not least of all my years of caption competition successes for visual humour and, of course, public speaking and radio work in relation to those voice-overs.
Public Speaking Tip #415: Once you have delivered a 'how-to' lecture to one type of organisation you may then be able to adapt it to others - even those which appear at first to be rather different.
Given the challenges, I was very pleased to receive this email testimonial afterwards from Gordon Clarke, their Programme Secretary:
"I would just like to take this opportunity to thank you for coming to Rayleigh and giving us your lecture on 1st June.
I personally found it very entertaining and interesting as did the club members I have spoken to, most members learnt some useful tips and got something out of the lecture. I hope you enjoyed your visit to Rayleigh as much as we appreciated your lecture".
And thank you to Mr and Mrs Clarke, not just for the lift from the station but also for the great fish and chip supper at Kings Restaurant in Rayleigh before the lecture!
Producing a large amount of daily topical comedy material
On 7 June I was asked to write for a daily gags service. I had approached them exactly a year earlier when speaking bookings were down and now they came to me wanting me to start the very next day - when I had a 4am start and two speaking gigs!
They wanted a large amount of material - around 40 gags and observations, 5 days a week - and this would be in addition to the jokes I write for my own service. Altogether this was more than I was producing back when I was writing for two weekly BBC national radio comedy shows plus other projects.
I wrote for the service for four weeks before deciding to knock it on the head. For one thing, it wasn't easy to fit so much extra writing on a daily basis around my speaking gigs and for another, the owner and I didn't always agree on what was funny (when I write this sort of material I tend to base my ideas on my own years of live performance and also that of writing for a wide range of demographics).
Nevertheless, I was grateful for the opportunity and I wish them well. It's a long-established service (although mine has been running for longer!) and it provides some very good material.
What I gained from it - apart from a payment! - was the knowledge that even after all these years I can still come up with a great deal of original content if I need to.
Public Speaking Tip #416: When you have a speech or presentation to write you may feel that you will never come up with enough material to fill even half a page, let alone the expected duration. Just relax, take it steadily and write down any ideas you have - even if you don't think they're any good. Others will soon appear and you can cherry-pick the best.
The important thing is to always be ready to note down an idea when it comes to you - this is just as likely to occur when you are busy with an everyday task as when you are staring at a blank screen or page!
(More about this later in this post...)
Rickmansworth 1967 Club, Herts and Crofton WI, Hampshire 30th Birthday Meeting
Wednesday 8 June found me with yet another double booking (as well as now having to come up with two lots of topical gags for afternoon deadlines).
I set off very early in the morning for Victoria (writing all the way!) and from there I travelled up to Chorleywood station where I was met by a gentleman from the 1967 Club who meet at the Bedford Arms in Chenies. I had spoken to them in November 2006 and had thought I was booked to go back the following September until it transpired that the booking had disappeared along with their old Speaker Secretary!
No such problems this time, though; after enjoying the members' conversation over a super lunch I spoke to them about The Power of Humour in Everyday Life and was then kindly given a lift back to the station. I continued writing and sent off my material by Blackberry from Euston.
I then travelled by coach down to Fareham where I was met by a husband of one of the members of Crofton Women's Institute where I was to speak on My Life as a Freelance Comedy Writer at a meeting celebrating 30 years since its foundation. The venue was the Methodist Hall in Stubbington.
I had looked up what was going on in the news that month in 1981 but couldn't find anything that inspired a suitable gag so I simply listed a few news stories in the speech anyway and linked this to the business of writing topical jokes nowadays. The vote of thanks afterwards included some appreciative comments about my looking up these historic references. (Of course, if any other speaker before me had mentioned anything about events that year then I would not have included them).
Public Speaking Tip #417: It's great to be able to include a joke about something you have researched for a speech but this may not always be possible; sometimes the mere mention of something that you have looked up is enough to draw appreciation - it still adds colour and shows that you have made an effort.
Public Speaking Tip #418: If you are speaking at a special occasion, such as a birthday or anniversary it may be wise to have a quick word with speakers who are on before you or pay particular attention to their content just to make sure that there is no duplication, for example, when it comes to mentioning historical facts. Of course, you may have a whole different take on something that has already been mentioned, in which case it may be OK to go ahead with this as long as there is no risk of overkill.
Now, there is a story that I only include in this talk if I am speaking to Women's Institutes or in Kent as it relates to a WI booking in that county. It appears in Nick R's in a Twist! as 'The Keeler Question' and I used to end it by doing a (fully-clothed) impersonation of Christine Keeler in her famous pose astride the chair. I say 'used to' because this was the last night that I did this bit of visual business. The story itself got the usual great laugh and sitting astride the chair also a got a roar of laughter which was gratifying, not least of all because it drowned out the sound of my trousers ripping!
I didn't mention this to the audience and they didn't notice (I was wearing a long jacket). As I have said, I no longer do that action with the chair; instead I tell the postscript story of the torn pants - and that gets a big laugh of its own!
Public Speaking Tip #419: Sometimes additional content for a particular part of a talk comes from something that has happened elsewhere when you delivered that same content, maybe an incident or audience response. Postscripts can add to the entertainment, information or motivation in your presentation so always consider adding them.
My thanks to the gentleman for the lift, to the ladies of Crofton for the buffet and to my partner Val and her new sewing machine for addressing the aftermath of an anecdote.
My appearance on BBC TV South Today - from 1994!
I received an email on the second Sunday of June (sadly too late for the two talks I had recently delivered for video-making and audio-visual clubs) headed 'Blast from the past'. It was from Pete Doherty - no, not the rock singer with the, er, colourful lifestyle, this one is a TV producer who, back in late 1994, filmed a piece about me for South Today, BBC One's early-evening news programme. He had just posted it on You Tube along with other favourites he had worked on. It was fascinating to see it again (I had long since lost the old video I had of it), especially as it was filmed nearly a year before I had started getting any training as a public speaker.
But all these years later, I can see that there is still plenty of advice to pass on from this early media appearance.
Here is how it all happened...
I had been advertising for scriptwriting work in the Stage and my ad had been spotted by Mr Doherty who was filming a series of arts-related pieces under the title 'The Scene' for Wednesday editions of South Today.
I had watched South Today since I was a child and had always wanted to appear on it. It's a programme with integrity and I knew I wouldn't be 'stitched up' - often a risk with pre-recorded items.
Public Speaking Tip #420: A media appearance may seem like a fantastic opportunity - and it usually is - but try and find out a little bit about the programme first. What is its tone? Does it seem to have an agenda? Do people appearing on it get edited unfairly? This is a real danger nowadays, especially with reality shows. Sometimes you may be best advised to politely decline.
I was given several days' notice (not usually the case with appearances on local news magazine programmes) so I tried to make my small study look as much like a writer's room as possible. At the time I was writing for, or in friendly contact with, a number of comedians, cabaret acts and agents and I asked them if they would like their photos to be seen in the background on my wall during an evening TV news show. They certainly did! Various publicity shots arrived through the post and one performer drove all the way from their home on the outskirts of a neighbouring town (a round trip of around 14 miles) just to put their picture through my door! The second part of the piece was intended to show me 'out and about' working with a client so I got the after dinner speaker Clive Greenaway involved. At the time the advice I was giving him was solely based on scriptwriting and what I had observed performers doing at radio recordings, comedy clubs, fringe theatre and the Edinburgh Festival; as I have said, I wasn't actually a public speaker myself yet, let alone a presentation skills trainer!
Public Speaking Tip #421: If you are fortunate enough to actually be given several days to prepare for a media appearance then make the most of it. Think about the setting, etc - it isn't just about the questions and answers!
Public Speaking Tip #422: A media appearance may be based on some activity of yours but it does no harm to give some help to others if possible.
I told the agent I had back then about the programme. He was a former stand-up comedian who had often appeared on TV and he advised me to be as 'up' as possible - something I found very difficult at that time but I did my best.
Public Speaking Tip #423: A TV appearance is a big deal. Do you know anyone who has appeared 'on the box' who can pass on some useful advice?
Pete and his very friendly and experienced cameraman Trevor arrived early - about 7am! - but they had forewarned me.
Public Speaking Tip #424: Media appearances can involve a very early start (as any film extra can testify!) You may be invited to give a live interview on a breakfast TV or radio show but even pre-recorded items may be completed early in the morning.
At this time I had just launched my daily topical comedy show prep service for radio presenters (only one client back then - he stayed with me for fifteen years at five different national and local independent stations!) and my morning's work was writing for him. This involved buying the morning's papers so I was filmed walking to the newsagent's, buying them (twice to get two different shots!) and walking home with them.
Public Speaking Tip #425: TV appearances may include you being filmed doing some mundane, everyday tasks. Try and look as natural as possible.
Writing my topical material was a little more tricky than usual that day. I hadn't had much sleep and due to the filming schedule, I had about half the length of time I usually spent on writing. Add to this the fact that it wasn't a great day for news that inspired gags plus I had the presence of a TV camera there (which meant covering up the newspaper's Page 3 girl! Is it my fault if some of the best stories are always on that page...?) The joke that got broadcast wasn't my best but it did at least illustrate the mental process of writing a topical joke so watch and learn!
Public Speaking Tip #426: When you are being filmed going about your usual work you may have very little time in which to produce a satisfactory result. You just have to do the best that you can.
At this point Pete and Trevor wanted to get something to eat so I sent them along to a nearby cafe which had just become my usual writing place (and remained so for several years). While they were gone I noticed that Pete had very helpfully left behind the list of questions he was going to ask me so of course I spent some time rehearsing my answers!
Public Speaking Tip #427: It isn't always possible but you could try and find out in advance at least some of the questions you might be asked in a media interview.
When the guys returned I faxed off my quota of material to my radio presenter client and we then travelled over to Clive's to film a segment there. Clive had already appeared on TV a few times (and has been featured numerous times since) and the filming was quite straightforward.
Now watch the piece.
The completed film has a voice-over from the presenter Jenny Hull. It opens with clips of Ronnie Barker and Dave Allen, two comics who I never actually wrote for (both actually had 'open-door' policies when it came to writers for parts of their sketch shows but the Two Ronnies and Dave Allen at Large had both finished years before I started writing professionally). Nevertheless, these are well-chosen funny examples of gags. The piece introduces me (much thinner and still with a little hair left). I talk about the papers I use, you see my notes and my wall with some of those publicity shots I mentioned.
Next we come to the newspaper-purchasing action sequence! There's a brief summary of my background and some of my credits are mentioned before a clip is shown with my own pizza gag from the News Huddlines. Now, the 'Hudds' was a Radio 2 show but on 31 March that year it had overtaken the Navy Lark as the longest-running radio comedy show (with a studio audience) and this historic live broadcast had been filmed for a piece on BBC TV's Pebble Mill the next day. One of the few extracts they included was that gag of mine, an idea I came up with right on the deadline and which Roy Hudd praised on air. It not only gave me a national TV broadcast of my material (albeit uncredited and taken from radio) but it also provided a brilliantly useful clip for South Today - especially as it was performed by other household name comedians (June Whitfield and Chris Emmett are also in the clip with Roy).
The carefully-covered pin-up page is seen, I talk about writing the Monty Python joke and the gags are faxed off. The presenter receiving them certainly didn't sound like the voice you hear on the end of line - he would never have got the job! Producer Pete was having a bit of fun putting a funny voice to a mini-documentary about comedy. It's a confidential service and the DJ wouldn't have wanted his real voice heard anyway - not even in a region hundreds of miles from his radio station.
Then we go over to Clive's. Pete having a bit of fun again here, filming us to look like one of the classic Smith and Jones head-to-head routines! Next is a clip of veteran comedy writer Barry Cryer, taken from his 'Two Old Farts in the Night' show with Willie Rushton (the title wasn't mentioned on this early evening broadcast; nowadays they could probably get away with it). He does a great gag of his own and, like all the other famous comics featured, has superb timing. He passes on some down-to-earth advice taken from his decades of experience and the piece concludes with another tip, this time from the relative newcomer: me. It's what I said in Public Speaking Tip #416 earlier in this post.
Looking at the piece now I obviously wish that I'd had the public speaking skills I have now. My delivery would have had so much more energy. (Clive has also come on in leaps and bounds; having worked really hard studying magic he now does a really popular Tommy Cooper tribute show). I would probably also have had a few pre-written one-liners in reserve in case it was an uninspiring day for topical gags.
Public Speaking Tip #428: A media appearance is a good opportunity to air some of your well-honed content if you have a chance to work it in as this will probably sound better than something off-the-cuff.
I might also have tried to get a little more sleep the night before. But I did the best I could at the time and I'm delighted to be on YouTube. Sadly I look rather different nowadays.
There was a fair amount of lead time - about a month - before the piece was shown. Its broadcast was seen by around 400,000 viewers and it immediately brought in a number of enquiries about writing work and the BBC in Southampton were very good about passing these on to me (remember, hardly anyone had a website back then). Even at the low rates I was charging in those days (and incidentally the £9 for 20 gags mentioned actually referred to a pre-written sheet sold by mail order, not exclusive tailored material!) I still obtained a few hundred pounds' worth of work, ranging from speechwriting for the National President of a service organisation to writing spoof letters for one of Viz Comic's many imitators. And remember: all this was before I had had any form of public speaking training! There were additional enquiries; these included the odd timewaster but also some which nowadays I could more easily convert into commissions.
Public Speaking Tip #429: There is no guarantee that a TV or radio piece will bring in extra work but then the same can be said of paid advertising - and that doesn't give you an impressive 'as featured on...' credit to use forever.
I immediately informed my local paper, the Bournemouth Echo about the programme. That led to them writing a full-page article about me which appeared two days later and contained a phrase about me which I found useful to include in my publicity for some time afterwards. So now I had a good local TV credit, useful experience, a decent-sized newspaper feature, a catchy quote to pull from it and the extra work it brought in.
Public Speaking Tip #430: If you have enough notice, you should inform your local press if you are making a TV or radio appearance as this may lead to further, useful publicity for you.
When I eventually became a public speaker, I included the tale of my South Today appearance in both My Life as a Freelance Comedy Writer and also in some public speaking classes.
Public Speaking Tip #431: It's rare that a media appearance doesn't produce some useful extra material for a speaker!
This experience made me keen to add to my television credits and the following April I agreed to appear as a mystery contestant for Roy Hudd and June Whitfield on Thames TV's 'What's My Line?' That show had a large studio audience and I got terribly nervous (not least of all because, unlike South Today, I didn't know what I might be asked). I froze in front of the cameras but that made me join a public speaking class which led to me becoming a speaker and later a presentation skills trainer (you can read the full story in 'Nick R's in a Twist!')
It's funny how one thing led to another. Thank you so much Pete Doherty for posting the video - it's brought back a lot of memories and, I hope, provided some useful tips for my readers.
Southampton Health Service Retirement Fellowship
On 16 June I had a morning talk on My Life as a Freelance Comedy Writer for the Southampton Health Service Retirement Fellowship at the St James Road Methodist Hall in Shirley. There were about 60 in attendance despite some really heavy rain that day.
Public Speaking Tip #432: When it comes to attendances for talks, unless snow is involved, fine weather seems to have more of a detrimental effect on audience numbers than rain!
And a very good audience they were too.
Mr Tom Hall
Someone who I had mentioned many times over the years in this blog, Mr Tom Hall died on 21 June 2011. I knew he had been ill but I did not learn of his passing until many months later.
Mr Hall belonged to Southbourne Literary Society, in fact he had been a member since the first meeting in 1946 and he served at various times as its President, Secretary and Treasurer. He also booked their speakers - including myself, in fact my first-ever paid talk was for the Southbourne Literary Society. That was in January 1996 and over the years Mr Hall booked me a further six times, and also asked me to help out when two visiting speakers delivered a talk about the Wolverhampton author with Bournemouth connections, Ellen Thorneycroft-Fowler. Several club members along with myself and Sue, one of my LAMDA certificate public speaking students, read dramatised extracts from the novels. Mr Hall was also most welcoming when I attended as a visitor or brought my students along for a field trip. Over the years I heard him deliver his own lectures about Roy Campbell and the history of the Southbourne Literary Society, one of which I wrote about here.
He was often in the audience at other clubs where I spoke as he was a life member of Boscombe and Southbourne Probus Club (I understand that they provided an impressive Guard of Honour at his funeral), Bournemouth Local Studies Group and SARA (Southbourne Active Retirement Association).
RIP Mr Hall and thank you for helping me start out as a speaker.
Their meetings are very well-attended and even though it was one of the hottest days of the year and I was competing with Andy Murray at Wimbledon on television, there were still around 150 there.
Despite the heat the audience were most attentive and My Life as a Freelance Comedy Writer went really well.
One point about merchandising after presentations in certain venues. Some organisations will not allow selling on their premises, as with this Salvation Army Citadel and another where I spoke a few months later. It doesn't appear to apply to all of them but bear in mind that merchandising isn't always appropriate. I always ask if it's OK to sell booklets afterwards - whoever I am speaking to.
Public Speaking Tip #433: Some organisations may not allow merchandising on their premises so it is always advisable (and courteous) to find out first. If it is not permitted then you need to consider whether the booking is still viable - and, if possible, drop the odd couple of sentences into your presentation about how to obtain your books, etc.
As I said, a long post - but then it was quite a month!