Brian Jenner is the Founder of the UK Speechwriters’ Guild and Organiser of the UK Business Speaker of the Year Competition. He is also a professional speechwriter, events organiser, author and former journalist with more than twenty years experience organising events and recruiting people to social events.
Recently, I caught up with Brian by phone for a chat about public speaking and its place in the modern world…
What makes you feel public speaking is important?
Leadership is about having a vision and persuading others to go with you. Certainly if you want to be an entrepreneur, your ability to articulate your ideas to others is crucial. Being able to stand up as a public speaker and tell people, “This is what I think, this is what I believe…” is such an important skill – and it’s as important now as it’s ever been.
A friend of mine, for example, had the idea of convincing his village to make a film with him. Having the idea is one thing – but then he had to put it across to the farmers, shopkeepers and others in the local Residents’ Association in the church hall.
He had to be so clear that other people could actually see and share in his vision too – he even painted in their minds the image of a tractor rolling into Leicester Square!
Last month, that’s exactly what happened. [for news of the London Film Premiere of 'Tortoise In Love', click here] But it would never have happened without his ability as a public speaker to articulate that vision through the spoken word and take the local people with him – and that’s a persuasive speaking challenge.
Back in the 1990s, I was involved in Toastmasters International – a worldwide network of public speaking clubs. I remember going to see all these great public speakers competing in the big contests – people like Phillip Khan-Panni, Rikki Arundel and Frank Furness. They had all these terrific ideas – and I remember thinking, ‘How can they best get to share these ideas with the outside world?’
Unlike the USA where the professional speaking industry is well-established, it’s much smaller and with a shorter tradition here in the UK. This gave me the idea of creating a platform which would help today’s public speakers reach a new audience and get noticed. Comedians have platforms like the Edinburgh Festival on which to showcase their talent… what about speakers?
The culture is very different – and I think it partly comes down to class. In England, many take the view that if you’re from a certain background, you’re somehow expected to be good. It’s very hierarchical.
Where I live now in Bournemouth, there are a lot of people in recovery – due to alcohol, drugs and so on. Crucially, they talk about their recovery – and their experience. By listening to one another speak, it helps other group members to get a grip on their own challenges. It’s like a ‘talking cure.’
As a result, some Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) members become terrific storytellers – not least because they’re practising week-in, week-out! But this is very un-English – as is the totally democratic nature of AA. There’s no hierarchy. Ex-convicts mix with bankers and lawyers.
By contrast, the Anglican Church has no programme of public speaking training for the clergy. Nor is there any formalised training for academics. Skill in public speaking is something you’re just expected to pick up as you go along.
Anyone who’s sat through a tedious lecture or a boring sermon in church will know that not all of them succeed in ‘just picking it up’. Unfortunately, in this country, we’re not terribly good at pointing this out – in academia, for example, we see scientists who are incapable of getting their ideas across clearly and effectively – but they’re perceived as ‘terribly clever’ so no-one dares point out that they’re hopeless public speakers.
How has your early experience of public speaking influenced your views?
Well, I was made to go to church as a small boy. Whereas my father was an Anglican, my mum was in the Christian Science movement. They never quite saw eye-to-eye when it came to faith!
Traditional religion, in my view, doesn’t really have a concept of spiritual growth – whereas non-conformist faiths do. In Christian Science, they don’t use doctors – but they do give speeches. That’s what first introduced me to the world of speaking.
I found that good preaching can be a profoundly emotional and uplifting experience. At the same time, through my father I was exposed to very polished ‘high Anglican’ sermons. Meanwhile at school, debating was very popular too. These experiences have influenced me ever since.
What’s your vision looking ahead?
Well, I’ve no aspiration to be a professional public speaker myself. What I really like doing is helping other people achieve more in the speaking world. It comes back to your ability to stand up and tell people, “This is what I think, this is what I believe…” It’s so important.
Which one resource would you recommend?
‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion’ by Robert Cialdini.
This year’s annual Speechwriters’ Guild Conference will be held on Thursday 20th & Friday 21st September 2012 in Bournemouth. Click here for details.
The UK Business Speaker of the Year competition final will be held on Thursday 27th September 2012 in Southampton. Click here for details.
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