Behind the Curtain
December 2, 2015
What a fabulous show you put on last night in Birnam. We brought a couple of friends along who had not heard you talk before, and they too had a fab night. Thank you Andy!
I had mentioned in my previous email that I am just breaking into the public speaking scene, and I wondered if I could please ask you a few questions. If you don’t want to answer all, or any, of the questions, I won’t be offended.
1. Your talk is around 2.5 hours long. (Wow, the longest I have done is 50 minutes.) How much of that was scripted? It seemed like you occasionally went off on a tangent, but you still seemed to run to time. Were these wee detours cleverly planned, or do you have a method of knowing how long you are talking from.
My talks are never scripted in any formal way (I know many people do do this), and are more like a long monologue from memory. I just have the slides set in the order so as to remember the stories, acting as a frame work (don’t let the slides act like containers for your words though, speak over them, and try not to address them directly). I tend to tweak my story and refine it each time I talk, so if you saw my talk a month ago it would feel very different, and like comedy its a process of refinement, something not helped it you’ve learnt it from a rigid script. In fact I did a 3pm talk then a 8pm talk in Saturday and the technician said he enjoyed them both and that they were both very different in tone/humour etc.
I try and speak for 1 hour, then a break, then another hour, but at that gig I just went off on too many tangents (the next day I cut out all the growing up stuff), and although people do sometimes complain (baby sitters etc), I think that having a living breathing human being up there, with no script or notes, well that’s the downside of the up.
As for tangents, well they are just that, and unlike people like Eddie Izzard or Ross Noble, who weave them in with a lot of skill (they’re all scripted), mine are genuine tangents in the story (unless I have a slide that backs up the tangent) and I find it hard to control or formalise my thoughts, and really just say the first thing that comes into my head!
2. How long does a 2.5 hour talk take to write and rehearse? I needed 5 months to write and rehearse my 50 minute talk. (I can’t use/see any notes, so all has to be memorised. 50 minutes is around 6,000 words.)
I would say the biggest mistake speakers make is they project a version of themselves that is false and not genuine at all, and rehearsing a talk is a bad idea in my mind. I once saw a guy talk about being shot down and captured in Iraq, being tortured etc. It was as if we were sat in a pub, and it remains one of the most effective talks I’ve ever seen (and I’ve heard a lot of talks!). I also saw Simon Western give a speech and even after 33 years of giving his talk he still had to look at his notes, which seemed to put a slight barrier between him, his story, and the audience. For me a speaker who can stand up there, with no slides, notes, and just tell a story of humour, humanity and complexity is the ideal.
Although unscripted I do think a lot about what I will say beforehand, and try and have multiple narratives running through the show, and use callback or foreshadowing a lot. Often a slide can seem very random, and clever people often are too stupid to understand it’s not that random (some people assume I’m just a stupid climber and so read what I say like that). For example one of the first slides is of my wife getting remarried and me being the photographer at the wedding. This introduces some interesting ideas about who I am (show don’t tell!). It also sets up an idea of my past relationships, how at the end I lose the woman I believed was the love of my life, and onto new relationships (that ‘I’m a high risk boyfriend’). Since Dunkeld I’ve added in a piece about me having panic attacks when I got divorced in 2006 (that show the levels of stress people can be under without acknowledging it), and my mum coming round and stroking my hair for the first time since I was a kid, which I then introduce at the end. Only a a handful of climbers have climbed Ulvertanna, but we’ve all had our hair stroked, and so it’s and easy way to impart to the viewer the impression of that event. The whole stuff about going mad and losing control is an ongoing process, and I feel that people understand that this is not scripted or even understood by me, but that it’s instant and raw and honest (and had led to a ton of amazing emails from others who’ve gone through the same thing). When I talk about going crazy at the end, if you were to pull back, you’d see that it’s all crazy from start to finish, plus there is also - from what people have heard - the hint that I still am struggling with many things, that I have no answer, only the hope that through love, climbing and my kids I can get to solid ground. I guess I offer no easy answers or certainty.
3. I see that you are linked to Speakers from the Edge. I’m guessing having someone like that is essential for getting bookings? Do they take a lot of the strain, i.e. organise bookings, negotiating fees, organising travel and accommodation, etc? What other benefits are there for using someone like them?
I actually set up speakers from the edge (but sold it on), so understand the speaking business much better than most speakers (plus I work in schools, business and the theatre). Such business’s help to smooth the way, organise the dates, liaise with theatres, and in most cases run the tour (travel, hotels etc), but I do most things myself (hotels, travel etc), and travel by myself (much to people’s surprise, thinking I must have some ‘people’). As a speaker you are a commodity and Speakers simply make finding venues easier but they have no way getting bums on seats. This is down to you, your following and reputation, and making a tour a success literally takes decades to achieve (this is my fifth tour since 2005), as well as speaking in general. I’ve been speaking for about twenty years now, and money has gone from free, to just my travel, then maybe £200, right up to £5000, and has taken me all over the world. Bear Grylls charges £115,000 (plus 2 first class tickets), so I’ve not even started (which also goes to show that quality is not an issue if you’re on TV). Because I’m funny people always say I should go on the comedy circuit, but that actual audiences/reward for any comedian not on the TV is tiny in comparison to what I have, so if I was a comedian I think I’d have hit my ceiling of selling out 90% of all my shows (300-500 capacity) and it won’t grown unless I somehow made a TV series or something (very unlikely).
To be really successful you need to play nice and conform (TV is the death of most comedians), and I’m not into playing the game of prostituting my random thoughts and fucked up ideas, towing some line needed for mass appeal (people always leave my gigs, finding them ‘offensive’ etc), just to make more money and fill bigger venues. I don’t want to be Michael McIntyre, but the late Bill Hicks or for Jerry Sadowitz (well I can at least hope!). I’m not there to please, but to tell a complex and I hope entertaining human story, free from the fear of saying the wrong thing (if I’m not true to my thoughts I’ll just stand there and lie).
My brutally honest advice was if you have to force it, do tons of preparation and learning your story like a script then perhaps speaking is always going to be a struggle, and it takes so long to get anywhere, and the market is so crowed, I often tell people not to bother. Are you doing it for money, or doing it because you love to speak, just as an actor loves to act (there are few actors who do it just for the money). Like acting it makes zero sense, but if you’re compelled to try then maybe you’ll make it - but you’ll need to be good.
4. How do they get paid? Do they take a percentage?
There is a split between the venue, Speakers and me, with all costs (print, travel etc) divided between me and speakers. You can turn over a lot of money, but often when you get your share it can be surprisingly small. Often you may end up getting big and small audiences and you feel it’s a waste of time (touring is fucking gruelling!) but you need to look at the overall profit. I tour every two years, and this makes up most of my income, and supports stuff that makes no profit at all - like writing (books or this blog!).
5. As I mentioned in my last email, I will be talking at Buxton and wondered if I should drop them a line to see if any of their staff may be there and would like to come along to see if they’d like to take me on. Any tips on getting them interested would be much appreciated.
It’s a cruel reply but no one is going to push a speaker no one has heard of, and really your future business depends how good you are now and in the future. Luck does play a part, but if you promote yourself well and become a solid speaker then people (including both clients and agencies) will seek you out. Be under no illusion that you are being traded, not loved, and your value IS NOT in what you did, but on the spin you give on it. There are people out there who’s only real skill is their own self promotion of stupid and worthless stunts, but they do well - much better than me - get sponsored, talk to google, etc. They do well as they view themselves as a brand, not as someone who’s done something people might want to hear about.
6. The last, and most delicate question. Money. I spoke to someone last year and he told me that he won’t do a talk for less than £1,000. The most I have been paid for a talk was £200. As I am still feeling my way, I was very happy with that. Do you have a general price range for what you charge for your talks, and if so, does the length of talk contribute to the fee, i.e. shorter talk, less money?
For corporate talks I would charge £3000 as I think that’s a fair price for 44 years of experience, and this would seem cheap compared to some other fellow climbers who speak (who charge £5000+). For schools (state and private) I charge £500 a day, which may seem like a lot, but I’m happy to do multiple talks, speak about writing, creativity etc, and split my time between two local schools, which makes a cost of £250 for a morning inline with most other ‘trades’. In theatres I can make anything from less than nothing to £3000, but maybe this needs to be offset by the weeks spent traveling and working up to it, as well as all the free talks I do for groups I support, so it probably averages out at about £700 profit for each night. I do think that people often look at you and think ‘fuck he just charged us £2000 for a twenty minute talk’, but you’re not charging them for those 20 minutes, but the 44 years of really poverty it took to have some understanding worth sharing, and if you weren’t worth it then work would soon dry it!
Ultimately though, when I’m standing behind the curtain before I go on to an audience of 700, or stand up to talk in some London club to the masters of the universe (not the toys), or a primary school in a run down area and maybe shine a bit of light, I do it not for the money, but because I love it.