Expensive taste: the after-dinner speakers

Written by Joe Pike on 21 November 2012 in Culture
Joe Pike settles back in his chair and digests the often pricey fare served up by the political professional after-dinner speakers of Jeremy Lee Associates

This article is from the November 2012 issue of Total Politics

Jeremy Lee is clearly obsessed with audience reactions to his speakers. It is partly why his company, Jeremy Lee Associates (JLA), is the largest speaker bureau in the UK, representing business leaders, top sportsmen and respected journalists. “After listening to William Hague speak at a dinner, I’d often go the loo to eavesdrop on what other people were saying. Pretty much without exception the gist would be: ‘I had no idea he was anything like that. If I’d known, I’d have voted for him’.”
One of his most successful clients was Hague, who, between losing the 2001 general election and joining David Cameron’s bid to become leader of the Conservatives in 2005, managed to fit in over 100 speeches, most of which earned him between £5,000 and £10,000.
In the bleak political landscape of IPSA, hair shirts and thrifty spending, there are fewer ways for an MP to top up his or her salary. For a group of professionals eminently experienced in public speaking, it would be mad to ignore the financial potential of the professional circuit.
Lee is energetic, smartly dressed and speaks with a posh, gravelly drawl. “There’s ‘keynote speech-making’ and ‘after-dinner’,” he explains. “A keynote is a daytime speech with serious content, usually related to that person’s expertise, and 80 per cent of it should be substance. With an after-dinner speech, 80 per cent is going to be amusing anecdotes.”
The majority of work is on the after-dinner circuit. Audiences are largely corporates and trade associations, either management level employees or clients and suppliers. One event might be in the Great Room of Grosvenor House with 1,200 in the audience, another might be an intimate dinner for 12 at Claridge’s.
But do not fall into the trap of assuming that the assembled crowd has hurried there to see you and hear your lovingly crafted peroration. “Audiences are there because they have to be there, often because they work for the business,” says Lee. “The person we put in front of them is very often a surprise.”
Experienced speakers know the key is to win over the listeners. “You would assume that any politician who’s been through the process of getting elected would be able to do that.” He grins, “they should be used to facing audiences who are not their biggest fans.” However, the lectern is not a political soapbox, and it is a cardinal sin to use your speech as a campaigning opportunity – shades of Tony Blair and the WI. “That’s regarded as completely improper,” concurs Lee, “and you will alienate that audience.”
If the platform for your public soliloquy is an evening engagement, you’re expected to attend the dinner, and Lee loves the fact that politicians are happy to shake the hand of everybody in the room. “That’s a skill that they’ll have picked up as they rose through the political ranks, as they campaign for votes, as they kiss babies,” he says. “On the after-dinner circuit, it makes everybody feel they’ve got a bit of the speaker’s time, that they’ve gotten to know the speaker, and they care.”
The market for political speakers is, temporarily, much smaller than it was a few years ago. Lee puts this down to “the obvious fact that politicians, as a breed, are currently not deemed to be terribly popular.” And although “most former politicians are pretty eager to speak, a lot of serving politicians are quite nervous about it. There’s a perception that they need to be very careful – especially those still on their way up.”
Those moving in the opposite direction are not hesitant about throwing their hat into the proverbial ring: “We were approached by many ex-politicos after the last general election and they have, by and large, not proved popular.” 
A celebrity profile is not vital, and in some cases, such as Lembit Öpik’s, may be a hindrance. “If you’re judged as having failed or having turned yourself into an object of ridicule,” explains Lee, “your chances of making it on the circuit are slim. Any organisation hosting an event is unlikely to want to align itself with you.” 
But an idiosyncratic persona who is high-definition, endearing, persuasive, or all of the above – Ann Widdecombe springs to mind – will have a well-filled and well-funded (about £3k a pop, in Widdecombe’s case) diary.
Fame sells, Lee affirms. “You are more likely to be offered lucrative speaking engagements if you have a high profile. You can achieve popularity simply by word of mouth, but it’ll take a lot longer and the fees will be a lot lower.”
For the high rollers, the fees range from £1,000 to £150,000 for a 20-minute spiel, with the upper limit being commanded by former world leaders. Gordon Brown’s international rate for speeches is $100,000 (just over £60,000) although a recent four-hour appearance in Moscow earned him £124,494.99, or £500 a minute.
After losing his bid for the Labour leadership, David Miliband signed up with the London Speaker Bureau, and although his engagements are irregular, he charges a premium. In January of this year he spoke at a business event in India, netting £20,000 and an additional £6,601 to cover travel and accommodation. Last year an appearance at an economic seminar in Sweden notched up a further £25,500.
The money is tempting, but gigs are not as regular as often claimed: “There’s a great deal of green-room exaggeration about how many engagements one’s getting,” says Lee. “In reality, the busiest people on the circuit will almost certainly peak at about 100 engagements a year. They have to be enormously popular, pitched at the right fee and be able to juggle speaking with all their other commitments. They also have to keep their presentation fresh. Otherwise, it’ll get around very quickly that they’re simply repeating the same old shtick, and their popularity will wane.” 
That figure, however, is “incredibly rare”, he explains. “Generally speaking, a very popular name on the circuit is doing 30 or 40 gigs a year.”
And a large fee does not mean a long speech. “We would always advise that the optimum length is about 20 minutes,” says Lee. “Half an hour is perfectly reasonable. Any more than that, and you’re probably demanding too much of the audience.”
So what should these 20 very expensive minutes contain? “Well”, he says, leaning in conspiratorially, “the essence of a good speech is to tell the audience something they didn’t know about someone or something they do know. It’s revealing something exclusive. They must feel privileged. If you can succeed in letting the audience in on a secret, or what appears to be one, you’re halfway there.”
Preparation is vital, and so is levity, but one of the biggest mistakes is to reach for the dictionary of quotations. “A speech, like any other form of communication, has to be authentic to work,” Lee explains. “If you’re quoting a Greek philosopher, Churchill or a 19th-century statesman, you’ve got to sound as though you’re so immersed in that person’s life that it’s perfectly natural for that thought to have occurred to you. If you’re not – let’s face it, nobody is – it’s going to sound fake, pompous and ridiculous.” He pauses, a look of despair crossing his face: “And the same goes for Chinese proverbs.”
Lee advises speakers to “take it seriously, prepare, do your homework, make it your own”, pointing out that the bulk of the audiences go to a lot of these events and so notice repetition. 
His worst nightmare is the repetition of a particular joke: “It’s that God-awful gag about the argument in the middle of the Channel.” He sighs. “The admiral of the fleet says, ‘Get out of my way, I’m the Admiral’. The other one says, ‘I’m a lighthouse. Your call’. It might have been very funny when it was first told... I suspect in the 19th century.”
Jeremy Lee's Top Tips
- Optimum speech length is 20 minutes. Any more than 30, and you're demanding too much of your audience.
- Don't use your speech as electioneering. It's completely improper, and you'll alienate the crowd.
- If it's an evening engagement, you are expected to attend the dinner.
- Go around and say "Hello", one to one, to everybody in the room.
- Rack your brain for amusing incidents, things you’ve witnessed: if you can succeed in letting the listeners in on a secret, you're halfway there.
- You don’t need to be famous, but developing a profile on-air and online will raise your fees.
- Keep things fresh, otherwise it will fast be known that you’re repeating the same material.
- 80 per cent should be amusing and engaging stories, 20 per cent should be substance.
- Don't reach for the dictionary of quotations: it will sound fake, pompous and ridiculous.
- Take it seriously: prepare, do your homework, make it your own.

Tags: After-dinner speeches, Issue 52, Jeremy Lee Associates, Joe Pike, Speakers, Speech

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