celebrities, not squares

et’s be honest. Anyone who has ever sat through at full-day’s training course or conference programme has at some point required matchsticks for their drooping eyelids.

This is not, of course, the desired effect that speakers or training event organisers wish to have on their delegates, but the soporific powers of listening to speaker after speaker are well documented.

Could the remedy lie in a well-scheduled celebrity speaker, someone brought in specifically to liven up proceedings, to provide the all-important “wow” factor?

The proliferation of celebrities now offering their services to the business speaking circuit may well be evidence of their ability to do just that. Since their triumph at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the coxless four, including rowing legends Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, have been in great demand by event organisers across the UK.

They have topped many a conference bill with their inspirational insight into the kind of determination and commitment necessary to succeed.


Leadership, team-building, motivation, change management, globalisation – if your training event touches on any one of these subjects then there is now a wealth of A-, B- and C-list celebrities – or guest speakers, as many prefer to be described – you could invite along to wow your audience.

Since the early days of guest-speaking, when you had the limited choice of business guru Sir John Harvey-Jones or after-dinner specialist Lance Percival, the circuit is now awash with sporting heroes, e-business entrepreneurs, politicians, newscasters, business leaders and assorted gurus. But what do you get for your money?

If it’s true celebrity you’re after then you’ll have to be prepared to dig deep into those pockets.

An A- or B-list celebrity speaker is going to set you back between £5,000 and £10,000, and possibly anything up to £25,000.

For someone with stellar status, say first man on the moon Neil Armstrong, expect to part with even more than that.

However, there is a multitude of less costly, but no less valuable, speakers out there too. To have skipper of the first all-female crew to compete in the Whitbread Round the World Race, Tracy Edwards, Olympic hurdler Sally Gunnell or explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes attend your event will require a cheque of somewhere in the region of £2,500 and £5,000 (see panel on opposite page for a price guide).

“The fee generally goes up according to the speaker’s fame and experience,” explains Jan Jenkins, director of public speaking agency Speakers Corner.

“At the lower end, you are paying for someone who has a good story to tell but who is not necessarily that famous. When you consider the costs of the venue, the catering and production, then the speaker’s fee is relatively low, and a good speaker, who has taken a full brief, will add so much value.”

A popular, but not conventionally famous, inspirational speaker is war hero Flt Lt John Nichol. He came into the public eye after he was shot down and captured during the Gulf War and subsequently paraded him on Iraqi television. Night after night his battered features were headline news.

Nichol was a reluctant recruit to the speaking circuit. Having refused several invitations to speak about his Gulf War experiences, “because I couldn’t understand why someone on their way to senior management would be interested in what I had got to say”, he was finally persuaded to tell his story at a corporate event.

In the eight years since he started his speaking career, Nichol says he has learnt a lot about what corporate audiences want, and what they don’t.

“At first, my talk was about telling people how the RAF does its business and how they could learn from it. But the feedback I got was that this was nothing new. People didn’t want to be told how to be a better insurance broker or manager. They wanted to know my story,” relates Nichol.

“Now my presentation is 90 per cent John Nichol’s story and 10 per cent what I learned about myself from my experiences.”


Successful celebrity speakers soon learn to avoid the “teaching-granny-to-suck-eggs” approach. A speaker whose life has revolved around sports is unlikely to have the in-depth knowledge of, say, the telecoms industry necessary to advise a sales team how to weather a market downturn. If that’s the sort of presentation you want then specialist business speakers are available.

Sports stars and war heroes have a more ethereal message to communicate. Theirs is usually a story of triumph in the face of adversity, of finding strength in trying times. It is for the audience to translate the lessons or morals of a story from the battlefield or sports arena to the boardroom or sales pitch.

“We want a story of someone going from complete certainty to complete uncertainty in a matter of minutes, of going through extraordinary change,” explains Simon Redwood, senior management training and development consultant at BT’s training company, e-peopleserve, who has booked Nichol to address the Future Managers Programme for the past five years.

“His story is not just a war story, it is a story of undergoing change that is still relevant today. There are parallels with the world these managers face, parallels for them to pick up in our industry.”

This does not, however, mean that a celebrity’s presentation should make no reference to your organisation whatsoever. Far from it.

However, do not leave them to their own devices when it comes to research. You too should do your homework on your would-be speaker – meet them before the event, brief them fully on what you require from them in their presentation and also on your company, in particular any issues it is currently facing.

Be suspicious of any guest speaker who balks at a pre-engagement meeting to exchange information.

Athlete Kriss Akabusi is renowned on the circuit for “going the extra mile” for his clients. According to both clients and agents, his preparation is thorough and his knowledge of his audience is reflected in the way he adapts his basic message.

“Knowing details about a company means something to people. It says, ‘This guy has taken the trouble to investigate who we are and has not just taken his presentation off the shelf’,” says Akabusi, who makes a point of meeting the organiser and whoever is writing his cheque.

“When they book a speaker they need to know it’s a safe booking. If I make mistakes, they are the ones who’ll get it in the neck.”

Akabusi’s reputation as an inspirational, motivational speaker is established to the point that he has made it a full-time career and newcomers to the scene are turning to him for advice, among them fellow athlete Derek Redmond and equestrian Kate Allenby. He tells them to ask themselves three questions before embarking on a speaking career: Am I passionate about my subject? Are the people in the audience important to me? Am I prepared to do this for nothing if needs be? If the answer to any of these questions is no, Akabusi’s advice is “Don’t do it”.

“We are approached by hundreds of people who think they have a story to tell, but who are simply trying to jump on the bandwagon,” warns Jeremy Lee.

“When booking a guest speaker don’t simply be wowed by their biography. If you insist on working in the dark then you are taking an enormous risk.”

A household name may wow an audience, earn you some Brownie points with the boss, who can boast about meeting them to his golf partner, and add glamour to an event.

However, avoid becoming starstruck when flicking through the lists of available speakers – perhaps a lesser known speaker, with an amazing story still to tell would be a better use of your, probably limited, budget.

Lee cites several semi-known names who have started to gain a reputation on the circuit, among them England rugby union manager Clive Woodward, successful businessman Adrian Webster and yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur.

“Her’s is a great story and the best angle is that she came second,” says Lee. “People relate to someone who still has goals to achieve, who’s still hungry for more.”

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