Paul Colston hears Boris Becker thrill an audience at the Kruger Cowne/Conference News Breakfast Club and asks the three-times Wimbledon champion and coach of world No.1 Novak Djokovic about his ‘alternative’ events career
After such a glittering career in tennis, you moved successfully into broadcasting and public speaking. How did you find that transition?
It very much felt like a natural transition. Obviously, having been a part of the game, the way I would approach commentary was from the inside. You can get into the frame of mind of the player and get an insight as to what they’re thinking and why they may have made a certain play over another. Public speaking is just an extension of that. Rather than simply reflecting on what’s in front of you, you’re building up a wealth of knowledge and expertise and then sharing that insight to an audience who want to know how those skills and that expertise is applicable to, say, a business or marketing audience.
What were the new skills you needed to acquire and which were the best tips you received along the way?
As a player, you naturally review your own games – see what went wrong, see what could have been done better and even what was done right. You get to know your own weaknesses as well as your opponent’s. Not only does this insight come from your own self-critique but also from your coach who has your best interest at heart. Having gone through that process over years, when I moved into commentary, it was simply taking that skill, because it is a skill that takes years to perfect, and sharing that commentary with an audience who may approach the game from a different viewpoint.
I mean those watching Wimbledon for example are passionate about the game and that observation and review from someone who has been in the game gives them a deeper insight. Transferring that to the public speaking sphere, you’re taking expertise that a handful of individuals hold and allowing the corporate world to get a glimpse of what it takes to win a grand slam for example. I’m a businessman myself so that skill has helped me personally.
Celebrity speakers can really liven up an event. Can you name a conference where you felt your motivational messages had a particular effect on delegates and which events have you particularly enjoyed speaking at?
I’ve spoken at a host of events but a personal favourite of mine is definitely the One Young World (OYW) Summit. The event is geared towards young leaders aged 18-30 who represent a cross-section of industries, all hoping to impact the world in their own way. Whether they hope to make a difference in business, sport, through NGOs or the general corporate world, that knowledge is passed down from experts, inspiring a new generation of experts.
You have presidents, CEOs, global sports personalities and even musicians deliver talks at this global event with delegates going on to become politicians, writers, even astronauts. The OYW event creates a community that takes the lessons they’ve learnt at the summit to inspire a legacy across hundreds of countries.
Do you have a standard script when speaking at events, or do you tailor to the sector/market?
It tends to be tailored depending on what the sector is. Of course, I will do the prep beforehand but as I am so used to talking to big audiences, I suppose it’s about getting into that frame of mind. It’s sort of performance, instead of performing on the court, I’m performing on a stage. It’s just a different skill I’m utilising.
You have picked up numerous awards in your career; what are the main ingredients of a good awards dinner and what elements contribute to them being less successful?
Length is the biggest problem. Keep the number of awards to a minimum. Make sure that if there is drink there is food, a too rowdy crowd is annoying. Good organisation and information for the attendees are also requirements.
Can you share a couple of your motivational techniques when coaching and delivering rallying calls/messages?
At the level at which I coach I don’t need to deliver motivational techniques as such. I need to find real information that changes the perception of how to play, so for example before Novak’s 2014 Wimbledon campaign, he practised on outside grass courts where the bounce was terrible so that when he played on Centre Court he would appreciate the improved quality of the grass.
The German system of the Messe/trade fairs is a world leading venue model. Have you ever played tennis in a messe or delivered a speech in one?
I delivered a speech at the Frankfurt Buch Messe in 2013 at the launch of my German autobiography – it was pandemonium and they had to close the hall.
How many events a year do you speak at on average?
I do quite a few and they take me across the world.
I might be delivering a keynote in the UK for a small audience one week, speaking at a private team event in South Africa the next week and then travel to India a month later. I’m still coaching full time so I have to ensure I am focused on what I need to be focused on depending on the time of the year.
If there is one tip you’d pass on to fellow sporting professionals considering a second career as celebrity speakers, what would it be?
There are so many transferable skills you can take from sport to public speaking. The experiences you have are truly unique and this wealth of knowledge can be applied to all industries. I mean teamwork, leadership, overcoming obstacles, aiming for the big win… These are all things that can be or will be experienced at some point in a person’s career. Relating that to historic sporting games that the audience can use as a template to build upon creates a framework for success, or I’d like to think so.
Of all the tennis players you faced on the court, who was the best ‘communicator’ of them all?
Although John McEnroe is 10 years older than me – we played nine times against each other [I won 7 times!]. He was both a good communicator and charismatic, skills that he has used to great effect as a commentator.