The Prime Minister’s former spin doctor is the ‘ultimate catch’ on the celebrity speakers’ circuit, reports Tom Leonard
Rory Bremner does it all the time, Alastair Campbell is thinking of doing it and John Culshaw would rather not do it with any more builders. As for William Hague, apparently he does it better than anyone.
Good evening and welcome to the lucrative world of after-dinner speaking. Reports that the Prime Minister’s former director of communications is about to dip his toe into the speaking circuit has come as little surprise.
Mr Campbell is understood to be about to sign with JLA, the biggest speaking agency, and as one of its “A-band” speakers he can expect to make as much as £25,000 for a single appearance. Even more lucrative engagements beckon in America.
How much he will be prepared to say on the subject people will want to hear about – his time in government – remains to be seen, but agency insiders have described him as their “ultimate catch”.
If he signs up to the circuit, Mr Campbell will join a list of 250 names on JLA’s books, each profiting – sometimes enormously – from that unshakeable belief in corporate entertainment that no event is ever really complete without a few words from someone famous.
Mr Campbell supports Burnley FC in the First Division, which is about where he can expect to be in the speaker league. The JLA assigns fee grades to all its after dinner speakers. The most expensive, the “AAs” who cost more than £25,000, are a small bunch. They include Sven-Goran Eriksson, John McEnroe, P J O’Rourke, Sir Peter Ustinov and Lauren Bacall. The “A”s – worth £10,000 to £25,000 – include the television presenters Angus Deayton, David Baddiel and Gary Lineker, the actor Richard Wilson and Mr Hague.
Spending £5,000 to £10,000 gets you a “B” – including Clive Anderson, Ken Clarke, Will Carling and the writer Meera Syal. Too expensive still? The “C”s (£2,500 to £5,000) include Kate Adie, the young explorer Bear Grylls, Loyd Grossman and the former government spin-doctor Martin Sixsmith.
The “D”s – a snip at £1,000 to £2,500 – will still get you a household name such as the cricket commentator Henry Blofeld, Trevor Brooking and Terry Waite. It will also get you Graham Cole, alias Pc Stamp from The Bill and Christine Hamilton.
Internationally, Bill Clinton currently sits at the top of the earnings tree. Next, is the former New York mayor Rudi Giuliani. Mr Clinton commands in excess of £135,000 for an appearance while Mr Giuliani is not far behind on £107,000, not including travel and accommodation. But who is most in demand in Britain? Mr Lee has no doubts – it is William Hague. “Whatever people think about him politically, the one thing on which there is almost universal agreement is that he’s a great speaker,” he says. “He was always well known for performing well at Prime Minister’s Questions and that translates itself wonderfully into performing after dinner.”
So why is Mr Hague not included in JLA’s premier league? Fees are not solely determined by the level of demand but factors such as their availability (some only make a handful of speeches a year) location and the audience. Some speakers prefer a cross-industry audience to one made up from a single company as it is more likely to lead to further bookings.
Addressing potential employers has its risks however. Anderson was widely reckoned to have scuppered his chances of getting another chat show after he made a desperately rambling speech to television chiefs at a Royal Television Society dinner in Cambridge last month. Some delegates remembered a past speech to the convention by Bremner – one of the busiest and most popular speakers on the circuit – which would have been far more hilarious had it not been pretty much a carbon copy of one he had given at the Edinburgh Television Festival a month earlier.
“There are a lot of thankless gigs out there,” says Mr Lee. “There are audiences who are very, very hard to please. There are people who think they’ve seen and heard everything.” So what are the tricks of speaking? Mr Lee knows a few: try to connect with an audience by referring to one person in the room they all know so you don’t look like a “complete hired gun who has only turned up for the money”, he says. Be careful not to patronise your audience – Mr Lee recalls the American speaker who produced a platinum credit card to illustrate a point during a speech in Manchester – “From the moment, he pulled it out of his pocket, he’d lost them”. Don’t tell your audience how to run their own business and don’t talk for more than 30 minutes. Finally, give the audience something to take away, such as a story they can re-tell.
The BBC presenter Jeremy Vine, a recent recruit to the speaker circuit, adds a few more. “I once did a speech for some computer operators. I tried some jokes about computers and the room went completely quiet – it was a disaster,” he says. “The more you work on trying to convince the audience that you’re one of them, the worse it goes down.”
Another lesson he has learnt is not to believe everything the host says. “I was once briefed beforehand that it would be good if I could fit in my ‘economic worldview’. As soon as I touched on it, I could see the shutters go down across the room. I knew I’d lost them.”
As for the funny lines, they should never be generic but preferably drawn from personal experience. “There’s a limited number of gags going round and most people have heard most of them,” he says.
As the star of the impersonations show Deadringers, Culshaw is predictably in demand for dinners and award ceremonies. Like many entertainers who work regularly with comedy writers, Culshaw gets help with his speeches from the same team who help with his lines in Deadringers. “There’s always a balance between taking the mickey and taking it seriously, because for the organisation involved, it could be the main event of their year,” he says.
He discovered the hard way that thorough audience research can be crucial. Some years ago, he was booked to address what he was told was a “group of builders”. He turned up with a portable disco and a repertoire of raucous party games to discover the audience were the top brass of an international construction company.
Meanwhile, the speaker business is growing – JLA will provide speakers for 1,200 events this year – and agents now hold auditions at which event organisers can watch a speaker doing a practice run.