Speakers: Tips from the top

It began hosting dinners for George Best and Sir Henry Cooper. Now, as public speaker agency Performing Artistes celebrates its 21st anniversary with 21 lessons, directors JJ Jackson and Matthew Fisher share some tricks of their trade.

1. During our first foray into the events world, we worked with soccer stars Rodney Marsh and George Best. Being the much-loved character he was, Best could get waylaid by people, which proved tricky. He vanished once or twice, which caused us palpitations, but he always delivered.
Lesson for novices: always stick close to your talent.

2. Booking speakers is our speciality, but you must be prepared to go that extra mile. Our stars like Sir Geoff Hurst and Tessa Sanderson CBE are hugely popular with the public, but behind the scenes, we’ve also helped them write their speeches and coached them in their delivery. We are currently coaching other big sporting names, including one 2012 Gold medallist.

3. Watch your clients’ changing tastes. We began ‘Food For Sport’, reflecting the popularity of sports personalities in the Nineties. But in 2000, with demand shifting away from just sport, we re-branded as ‘Performing Artistes’, working with big names like Michael Portillo, Norman Lamont, Jo Brand, Rory Bremner, Stephen Sackur, Juliet Morris, Karren Brady and Digby (now Lord) Jones. Sport has now taken a bit of a back seat.

4. A key part of our job is to spot rising talent. In 2005, we convinced one of our regulars to try a relatively-unknown comedian. He was a fresh-faced young lad, but we thought he had talent, even though he could only command a very modest fee. You may have heard of him ? Michael McIntyre.

5. Putting talented people together is one fun side of agency work. Jimmy Greaves spent years talking about maybe one day writing his autobiography. He’d never have done it himself. We introduced him to a leading ghostwriter. Greavesie was only held off the top of the bestsellers’ list that year by a certain David Beckham.

6. Consider your future, but don’t be afraid to look back. Evergreen acts like Paul Daniels are still popular. Dinners we staged for Greavesie proved sell-outs. We hosted them at all Jimmy’s old football clubs, including his book in the ticket price. He sold an extra 1,500 copies.

7. Patience is a virtue in our world. One client desperately wanted Bryan Ferry, of Roxy Music fame. Negotiations dragged on for three months as the cost of big stars can test the budget. But we clinched the deal and our thrilled client later gained more than a return on his investment.

8. No matter the size of the company, it’s important to look after the bread and butter as well as your bigger clients. For years we helped supply The Pickwick Bicycle Club, whose members always dress as Dickens characters for their annual dinner. A quirky, fun event, it proved a big hit for Ron Moody, the original Fagan from Oliver, whom we booked on several occasions.

9. When Caspian Publishing challenged us in 2001 to create a new format for the corporate dinner, we teamed up with Sir David Frost to create a new ‘talkshow on stage’. The ‘Legendary Dinners with Frost’ were born, with guests like Simon Cowell, Joanna Lumley and Victoria Wood. Moral: never be afraid to pioneer something new.

10. Always ensure client’s requirements match the talent. One of our clients booked Jo Brand.

“Please ask her not to swear too much and not use the ‘C‘ word,” he begged us. After we briefed her, Jo went on stage. “I’ve been asked not to use the ‘C’ word tonight,” she began. “F**k it, that’s half my material gone before we start,” she said.

11. We’ve had some strange requests over 21 years but this one, in 1997 from a clothing store in King’s Road, London, beat them all. A client rang: “What we really need for our event is a goat.” Luckily, our friends in the military lent us their regimental mascot. Promoting the store’s chic new cashmere range, our goat proved very professional. He didn’t bleat about his £200 fee.

12. Success stories pay well, but notoriety can pay better. In 2002, after his release from jail, we were asked to book rogue trader Nick Leeson. Our client was thrilled to secure Nick’s services as a guest speaker. Not sure whether he needed the money.

13. Notoriety doesn’t always pay. Charles Ingram, the cheating major who coughed his way to a fortune on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? proved much less popular for bookings. Chris Tarrant made a fortune as host, we never made a million out of Ingram.

14. ‘Be prepared’ say boy scouts – in our business this includes Acts of God, as Michael Buerk and Peter Sissons will testify. They prefer reading the news to making it, but in 2010, after we’d booked them for speaking engagements, both were caught in the volcanic ash cloud that grounded flights worldwide. Luckily, we found a replacement for Peter within hours, then helped Michael dash thousands of miles across Europe by train. He arrived in the nick of time.

15. Never mind the opposition – watch out for superstition. Working with Vauxhall ahead of the 2008 World Cup, we negotiated the supply of Italian referee Pierlugi Collina for a TV commercial. After a month of delicate negotiations, the contract was suddenly kicked into touch. Why? The signing had been fixed for Friday the 17th, which, unbeknown to us, is the Italians’ unlucky equivalent of our Friday the 13th. Collina was extremely superstitious and gave the date a red card Luckily, the deal went through on the Saturday.

16. Always conserve enough energy for the special occasion. When the Olympics came to London, short-notice requests for speakers flooded in. We worked all hours to supply 10 speakers for 30 corporate events, all at just one week’s notice. Tessa Sanderson, Kriss Akabusi, Duncan Goodhew, Derek Redmond and Nick Gillingham all entertained guests bound for the Olympic stadium. When it was over, some say we deserved a medal.

17. Branching out on extra projects raises your profile, as we discovered in 2011 when we sponsored the Conference Awards. Last year, we supported the Conference Summit, prompting many enquiries and new clients.

  This year, for our 21st anniversary, we sponsored International Confex, supplying speakers Janet Street-Porter and Lord Prescott and also held our Speaker Showcase there.

18. Sadly, some people we’ve most enjoyed working with are no longer with us, like Bob Monkhouse, Alan Ball and Sir Peter Ustinov.

The bigger the name, the more charming the character. Our Chairman, Stanley Jackson, looked after Sir Henry Cooper for years. The boxer insisted: “Please just call me Henry.” Cooper, though always respectfully, addressed our Stanley as ‘Mr Jackson’.

19. The client is rarely wrong. One client booked ‘Four Poofs and a Piano’, the vocal quartet on Jonathan Ross’s BBC chat show. Then the client, seeking to cut the budget, asked: “Just how important is the piano?”. We had to insist.

20. Never judge a book by its cover. In 2001, we booked then England manager Sven Goran Eriksson for a publishing client’s lunch. Days beforehand, to our surprise, Sven, famed for his unemotional exterior, hit the headlines over his affair with Ulrika Jonsson. All 1,000 guests gave Sven a riotous standing ovation. How many applauded his record as England manager, and how many his alleged sexual conquest of Ulrika, was impossible to judge.

21. And finally? always respect the integrity of your artist. Don’t and you’ll soon lose your head. One client, staging a St George’s Day dinner at Hampton Court Palace, wanted their favourite actor Brian Blessed as guest speaker, on one condition. They asked Brian to dress up as King Henry VIII. The star was not amused.

If King Henry had turned up, our client might well have lost his head. 

This was first published in the April edition of CN. Any comments? Email conferencenews@mashmedia.net

Paul Colston

Author

Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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