What did you do before being a speaker?
I had a lot of normal jobs before becoming a speaker. Actually none of them were normal. At 16 I was the lead in the first two series of Byker Grove alongside Ant and Dec. Then I directed my first TV commercial at the age of 19. By the age of 22 I had my first screenplay produced by Film Four. Then at 25 I decided to become a professional player. 3 years later I had set up my own film production company and five years after that we sold it to a PLC. So it says something that I’ve been a speaker now for 10 years and have no massive desire to do anything else.
Why do you enjoy being a speaker so much?
I know it sounds terribly corny and if I read it coming from someone else I know the cynic in me would want a lot of convincing but the honest truth is that I enjoy speaking because I have the privilege – and it genuinely is a privilege – to help someone else in their life. I want to stress immediately that that’s not because I have anything like all the answers. I hate the “guru” approach to speaking that’s based on any kind of notion of superiority or privileged information or anything like that. I like to be very honest in my speaking career: my life is just like anyone else’s.
Ultimately, what happened to me was that I went to Las Vegas to become a professional poker player. Coming back to the UK – as I did – to set up a company, I realised that my experiences at the poker table had really helped me make a success of that and that there was something within all that which, if translated, could help others too.
As a speaker you’re never going to change everyone all of the time - I accept the reality of that. But if I can get a few people to re-frame the way they decide and do what they do, and enjoy more productivity and success as a result… I honestly consider that to be a privilege.
What do you think makes a great speech?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I mean when I first started I was just trying to communicate the material that I was most passionate about in a way that made people laugh and got good feedback. But the more you do something I guess the more you start to see it as a craft to be perfected. I did certainly. And I decided to focus on three main criteria of a great speech which, in my opinion, are enjoyment, originality and relevance. Let me justify each one.
Enjoyment is crucial for obvious reasons. I want people to enjoy the experience of listening to me.. I have high standards, for myself, I want belly laughs and lots of them so that – even if people hate what I’m actually saying they’ve had a good time listening to it.
Actually, it’s a little bit cleverer than that obviously because common sense tells you – and anecdotal evidence on my part of over 1,500 speeches corroborates – that if someone is laughing and enjoying the experience they find it hard to disagree with the content as well. That probably shouldn’t be the case in an ideal world because it’s how wily politicians and other orators influence and manipulate us. But if you have your audience’s best interests at heart I think it’s a perfectly laudable ambition to have them rolling in the aisles.
Originality is everything I think, because it’s what ultimately makes a speech interesting. The fact that it was a new and different experience was more pleasurable, interesting and memorable as a result. It’s difficult right now to be original. There are going to be over 600 Tedx events around the world this year – that’s over 6000 speakers just at this one brand of event, all with ideas to share!
And then… in addition to being different and original it’s got to be relevant too! This is also fundamental of course because any speech only really exists to change hearts and minds. If it doesn’t do this it’s ultimately candy floss – or stand up comedy (not that stand up comedy isn’t great in and of itself!) So this presentation now has to be all of those things AND focused on improving the productivity/skill/satisfaction/attainment of your audience
I think I happened on the highly relevant subject area of decision-making by virtue of the fact that that was what poker taught me. It wasn’t like I sat down 10 years ago and planned what would make for a commercial speech in 2014, and perhaps that is a good thing
You mentioned “motivational speaking” there do you consider yourself to be a “motivational” speaker?
Hmmmmm this is a good question to which the answer is an emphatic “I don’t know”. I think partly it’s a problem of associations: the traditional idea of the all-American “motivational” speaker is not something I feel comfortable with. While I wouldn’t suggest for one moment that any individual is saying things they know to be untrue, I think it’s certainly the case that some things get said that aren’t really backed up by science or evidence but which people can sometimes take as gospel simply because of how persuasive the speaker is.
I hope that I am “motivational” in the sense that I deliver my presentations in a highly energetic way which – again – I think the anecdotal evidence of my 10 years work in over 30 countries shows energy to be infectious. I use decision-making theory as an attempt to explain why we do what we do and how to do it better. Rather than tell people to be the best all the time every time, the question that I ask is whether the decisions that you’re currently making are really the best decisions to get you to where you want to get to. This is important because it invites people to critically assess what they’re doing but to evaluate it against where they want to be. Sometimes those wants and desires will be personal, other times they will originate in their companies for whom they work.
I think I am “motivational” in the sense that my material makes people want to change. Personally I try and do that by asking questions and by inviting people through a series of doorways. I think if the invitations are seductive enough and the questions compelling enough that by the end of the journey it will be hard for people to deny that a case has been made.
What can a typical corporate audience learn from your experiences?
At a basic level I like to think that I give people some time and space to critically evaluate the decisions they take with new understanding with a view to answering a number of questions that are almost coaching questions in form.
I also try and show people one very simple truth – that ALL decisions are investment decisions. Investments of time, money, status, energy, comfort and security – made with the intention of getting some kind of long term return. That is to say – in the long run we hope to be happier healthier and wiser as a result.
With this in mind I try and give people a better understanding of what “risk” is and how it is calculated in its essential form.
I then go on to give them an understanding of the psychology of decision making and the cause of risk aversion among humans: i.e. why we are reluctant to embrace short term failures for long term gain (and, for that matter, why we do the opposite when we gamble.)
My final objective is to give participants a wholly original and empowering method for using our own natural risk aversion as a motivational tool that can be used to drive ourselves or others to achieve better long term results in ANYTHING we do!
What do you remember when you look back on your time in Las Vegas?
I was very happy as a professional poker player. I always say – truthfully – that I eventually stopped because I was bored and that is absolutely true but that was only after a couple of years or so. For most of the three years or so in which I made a living at the tables, I was a very happy, fulfilled person.
Layne Flack – a great poker player – won a poker tournament once and was asked by the interviewer afterwards whether it was his will to win that set him apart. His answer was illuminating. He pointed that everyone who enters a poker tournament has the will to win. The difference, he explained, was that he had the will to do what was necessary to win. Or – to reframe the statement – that he wanted to win enough to make the necessary short term investments.
The question is what the members of my audience want enough that they’re prepared to pay the necessary price in order to achieve? And not just them but their bosses, colleagues and team members who ultimately have to be aligned around the same desires and tolerances.
When I go to Vegas now I find it way too loud and drunken. Don’t get me wrong, it was always a little bit drunken. Recently though it’s become the party capital of the world with everyone trying to relive The Hangover every night. But then everyone prefers the Vegas that they first knew. You know why? Because they were younger then. Being young is great. But being older and responsible represents a greater level of maturity and interdependence.