Peter Urs Bender, guru of the power presentation, pauses for his words to sink in. Gathered before him in the gracious meeting room of Toronto's Vaughan Estate are 75-odd members of the Canadian Management Centre, all upper-level executives, senior vice-presidents, treasurers, a sprinkling of CEOs. They have forsaken family breakfasts and canceled meetings this Monday morning for one purpose: to learn the secret of how to make a speech without making fools of themselves. This is the '90s after all. If the other guy puts on a better performance, where does that leave you? Last, that's where.
Faces expectantly upturned, eyes fixed on the oracle at the front of the room, the assembled supplicants await insight. Bender does not disappoint. A vibrating spring of a man topped with a thick mop of curly, grey hair, he bounces among them, dispensing wisdom distilled from a lifetime’s worth of study and observation. "Tell stories. Entertain every seven minutes. Leave the podium with pride even if your presentation didn't come out the way you wanted." Fifty heads go down, 50 pens are put to paper. You don't want to miss a point, you can't afford to, not if you're going to stay competitive. If the stuff about keeping the audience entertained is occasionally lost on this crowd, there's one point everyone is agreed upon. Life isn't fair. If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always got.
If that sounds familiar, it probably is. A growing number of professional speakers are reciting the same kind of mantra to packed audiences across North America. The message is motivational, but it comes wrapped in the packaging of your choice. You want to learn how to sell better? How to be a superior marketer? A more effective CEO? Or perhaps you want to predict the future with demographics? Somewhere out there is a speaker who can help. And given the state of the economy, there are few among us who don't need whatever assistance we can get. Small wonder that more people make their livings as purveyors of the gospel of self-improvement than ever before. "There's alot of work in this business," says Bender.
Membership in the National Speakers Association based in Tempe, Airz., has shot up from just 100 in 1977 to more than 3,700. In Canada, the numbers are smaller, says David Sweet, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers, but the growth trend is the same. Sweet's organization was formed in 1995 and now boasts 260 members - and he figures there are at least a further 550 professionals, plus celebrities and humorists, doing the same circuit who have yet to sign up.
What's behind these remarkable figures is, of course, the economy. "There's so much change happening out there, with all the corporate restructuring and downsizing, that alot of people are going through massive adjustments in their professional and personal lives," says Farah Perelmuter, president of the Toronto-based Speakers' Spotlight agency, which represents about 100 speakers, including Bender. Her client list is a cross-section of corporate Canada, and includes such heavy hitters as Canada Post, Bell Canada, Newcourt Financial and Merck Frost Canada. "Companies," Perelmuter goes on, "realize they need to do something to help their employees deal with the change."
Even the victors are struggling to adapt to the new environment. IBM Canada is typical. In the early '90s, sales at the computer giant took a turn for the worse. The company compensated by chopping 4,000 jobs from a workforce of 12,000. the surgery was successful and business picked up, so much that IBM Canada's payroll has recently grown to more than 13,000 and climbing. "It's been a bit of a teeter-totter," says Mike Quinn, manager of corporate public relations at IBM. Not surprisingly, the company is a strong believer in continuing education. Last year, Quinn says, it forked out $42 million on skills development, which means everything from hard-core technical courses to funding employees who want to attend motivational sessions given by the likes of Tony Robbins, guru of personal power.
Ford of Canada recently dispatched its entire Windstar production team - 3,300 workers - to sit before a battery of speakers. they got pointers on how to communicate ideas clearly and instruction on the importance of teamwork. They also learned about the big picture, about the global economy and how it affects their jobs and the plant they work in. That's a big change from just a few years back, says Jim Hartford, Ford's manager of public affairs. Not so long ago, the company hired workers "from the neck down," expecting only that they screw bolts together as quickly as possible. What changed Ford's thinking was the realization that in today's competitive world, quality is a matter of teamwork. when workers understand that, they're likely to produce a superior product.
These days, though, employees also have to know how to get the best out of themselves at work. "After the recession of the early '90s, people came to recognize that if they wanted to be part of an organization, they had to be very good at what they do," says Chris Peacock, a program director for the Canadian Management Centre of the American Management Association International, which bills itself as the largest not-for-profit management-training organization in the world. "All organizations are leaner now," says Peacock, "but they have to produce more than ever before. It all comes down, really, on the shoulders of the employees. To produce more, they have to have the right skills." The GMS is in the business of booking speakers to teach those skills to its members. In 1996, more than 6,000 people attend CMC-sponsored presentations and seminars, up from half that number in 1992.
Most professional speakers do the bulk of their business at corporate meetings and conventions, and the growth in that industry parallels the expansion of the speaking industry. Take Toronto, the business-gathering capital of the country. In 1995, according to Tourism Toronto, the city played host to 1,100 meetings and conventions up from 600 in 1986. To deal with the increased demand, which Tourism Toronto expects to continue well into the next decade, the city's convention centre is doubling its floor space later this year. around the same time, the new National Trade Centre will also be opening its doors just three kilometres down the road.
For the organizations that use such centres, the challenge is finding the right speaker. "If you bring in a wonderful, high-profile speaker but you have the wrong audience, it will be useless." Recognizing the needs of the audience is the job of the meeting planner. The planner then takes his list of requirements to a speakers' bereau. Ideally, says Martin Perelmuter of Speakers' Spotlight, the planner will have a clear idea of what he or she wants--the subject of the speech, the tone, how much of the speech should be purely factual and how much of it should be filled with motivational advice. In some cases, planners know who they want as a speaker, though usually the job of selecting someone is left to the bureau. Many bureaus encourage clients to get in touch with speakers beforehand, to sort out the details of a presentation. It's also important to establish who is going to pay for a bureau's services says Perelmuter. Some bureaus charge the speaker, while others slap a fee on the client company.
Speakers come in all stripes. Some including Tony Robbins and Canadian Brian Tracy, are motivators. Management expert Tom Peters specializes in leadership. Others talk about how to build sales, how to supervise, how to market--the list goes on. Then there are the celebrity speakers, famous people who get to the podium not because of what they have to say but because of who they are. Retired major general Lewis Mackenzie, former prime minister Brian Mulroney and columnist Allan Fotheringham have all been known to take the stage for a fee.
Should you require it, some speakers bureaus will even bring well-known individuals back from the dead. Indeed, costume speakers are in big demand, says Dottie Walters, president of Walters International Speakers Bureau, based in Glendora, Calif. Clients like them because provide inspiration as well as amusement. "Why, if your company is looking for a big scientific breakthrough," she says cheerfully, "we'll send over Albert Einstein. Or maybe you're about to do battle with the competition. We'll send over George Patten to rouse the troops."
"There is so much business out there. I don't know where it comes from, but it's out there," says Peter Urs Bender. Indeed. For those with the perseverance and a modicum of natural ability, there is also a lot of money. Fees vary, but in general a one-hour keynote address can run anywhere from about $1,000 to as much as $30,000 for someone like Lance Secretan, author of The Way of The Tiger: Gentle Wisdom for Turbulent Times. "You can comfortably do over $200,000 a year, but there are people who get by on $50,000," says Alan Simmons, a popular motivational speaker who lives in Peterborough, Ont. Bender, for instance, says he makes about 75 keynote addresses a year, for which he charges $3,500 apiece, about the average, as well as conducting seminars, for which he charges according to the number of people who attend.
In person, Bender comes across as an intense, hyperactive man, almost thirsting for your attention. Even over a quiet lunch at an Italian restaurant, he harangues, proffering advice here, admonishing there. There is no alternative; you have to sit tight and listen. Bender is a respected veteran in his industry, much in demand. He holds forth on sales, leadership and how to make a presentation, though the subtext is a message of inspiration and motivation: "If Bender can do it, anyone can!"
His own story is a tonic to all who have contemplated the possibility of defeat. Born in Switzerland, Bender was raised to be a banker. But his lacklustre academic performance (due, at least in part, to dyslexia) meant his teachers were sure he would never learn to speak English--a mandatory requirement for anyone who wanted to rise beyond the lower ranks of Swiss business.
Bender, however, was not dismayed. At the age of 23, he set off for Canada, where his first job was swabbing the decks on the ferry to Vancouver Island. By the early '70s, he was selling accounting systems and had abandoned any plans to return to Switzerland. Soon he relocated to Toronto, eventually buying a distributorship for a company that sold learning systems--how to be a better supervisor, salesman, stuff like that.
One day he got a call from the Metro Toronto Board of Trade; someone wanted him to give a talk on his business. "I thought, 'Why not?'" The next day, there was Bender on the front page of The Toronto Star's business section. The caption called him the presentations expert, a description he has adopted. Then the calls started coming.
True to his kind, Bender illustrates pivotal moments in his life, as well as in his speeches, by way of parables. "Years ago, I met this Indian in a bar in Banff, Alta.," he relates at this critical juncture in his story. "He said to me, 'If you jump on a running horse, always jump in the direction the horse is going.' When I saw all this publicity, I thought of him."
It was hard work at first. "In the beginning, you speak to any group, just to get your name out," Bender says. He did plenty of freebies, for the Board of Trade, for service clubs, for anyone who asked. Again and again he practiced his speech, tightening the language, sharpening the humor. Soon, people from the audience were approaching him with speaking invitations, usually for money.
These days, Bender's insights on survival are much in demand. "My clients are not the needy; they are the greedy," he says. "It's the people who want to do better." He doesn't like to say how much he earns in a year, but he does admit that his revenues enjoyed a healthy uppick when, in 1991, he published his book, Secrets of Power Presentations, available free if you attend one of his workshops or for a cost of $15.95 if you call his 1-800 number. Next year, when his new book, Leadership from Within, there will undoubtedly be another uppick.
Bender believes in keeping clients happy. "Always under-promise and over-deliver," he says. Before a presentation, he makes sure he finds out as much as he can about his audience and what they expect. "I often ask the client, 'If you could make three changes in your employees, what would they be?' They might say, for instance, they want more teamwork. I build that into my speech, so the guy who hired me is happy and the audience is happy."
Norm Rebin, an Okenagan, BC.-based speaker who holds forth on global business and politics, takes preparation even further. Rebin's wife, Delva, who is also a motivational speaker, sends clients a comprehensive questionnaire, with queries ranging from the very basic ("Where is the parking lot?") to the specific ("What color are the table cloths?"). The idea is to eliminate the possibility of surprise. When Rebin faces the crowd, he knows exactly who he's talking to and what is expected of him, although, he says, "There's always the unknown chemistry."
It's also essential to choose a topic that interests his audience. Thanks to his apparently encyclopedic knowledge, Rebin is able to cover a lot of bases. "They call me an industrial evangelist," he says. "I speak on change, Canada-U.S. relations, international affairs, I speak on performance, entrepreneurship and cross-cultural relationships." This broad scope has made Rebin one of Canada's top draws on the speaking circuit.
At the very pinnacle of the profession, however, is Alberta-born Brian Tracy. A hugely popular motivational speaker, Tracy is a role model to his Canadian colleagues, a shining example of what a little ambition combined with a gift for the gab can do for a person. He has an office in San Diego and an entire research department that does nothing but scout out potential speech material. Last year, Tracy figures he brought in some US$20 million in revenues, not just from his speaking engagements but also from the sale of cassettes and videos in 31 countries. He says that at least half of his revenues come from product sales.
Tracy maintains that the reason he is in such demand is because he talks about the big picture. Most people are so focused on their jobs and families, they never get the chance to stand back and see things as they really are. Tracy is well qualified to give them perspective. By his own account, he spends his days travelling the world, talking not just to groups but to business leaders and high-ranking politicians, all the while reading at least two books a week. Which means there's no substitute for hearing Tracy talk. He claims that in the space of a three-and-a-half-hour seminar, he can impart what it would take the average person a year to glean through in reading.
Yet he maintains his success has little to do with the actual content of his speeches. Tracy believes that the reason crowds love him and keep coming back for more flows form his understanding of a simple truth: it's not what you say, but how you say it. Knowing how to have an effect on people with the spoken word alone is an art, though to learn, nearly impossible to master. Tracy figures it took him seven years and thousands of hours behind a lectern before he became competent. "I can still spend a single day trying to figure out how to enunciate a single phrase," he admits.
For many aspiring speakers, enchanted perhaps by the prospect of easy money, there's the rub. Very few people have the natural ability essential to succeed in this business. Fewer still have the fortitude to keep it going during the lean years, when bookings are few and far between. "There's a great fallout rate in this business," says Norm Rebin. "People think it's the road to riches, but that's the worst possible reason to do this."
"The only reason you should be speaking is because you've got to speak," agrees Bender. "You've got to want to speak more than anything else in the world."