JLA agent Oliver Shermer examines ageism in the speaking industry…
It’s fair to say that most of the guest speakers we meet on a weekly basis are white, middle aged, middle class men. That is not a criticism of them. Most of them have served in some of the highest positions in government, run global corporations and led armies in various conflicts around the world. They have decades of experience to their names and now spend their time communicating important messages to audiences of insurance brokers, bankers, entrepreneurs and various branches of government. They make up the large majority of the people we put forward to clients. Things change a little bit with time, but seemingly not much. We work with a larger number of female guest speakers from similar backgrounds now, although not enough. We work with a larger number of guest speakers from minority backgrounds and there’s a larger visibility of gay speakers and guest speakers on disability and from other areas that you didn’t see as much before.
We sometimes like to ask our clients to consider something unusual. We may have had great feedback on lesser-known guest speakers and we use that to put them into other opportunities where we can. Some clients though are a bit more resistant to the risk. They know what’s worked for their audiences before and they know it will work again. Sometimes we succeed, the client loves this new name at their event and JLA have earned and cemented their place as the best advisers on new talent.
One of the stranger dynamics at play is how much age can be a negative variable when we make suggestions for guest speakers for a particular brief. It’s surprises me that a client keen on expressing their open minded credentials will see it as a badge of honour to present a lot of diverse backgrounds on their speaker agenda, but will draw the line when it comes to a really young speaker in particular.
I can remember several examples when I’ve discussed a speaker at length with a client, had a positive response to their biography and business acumen, only to hear them hesitate when they find out the young chap or young woman is under 25. Sometimes it works the other way and they love the idea of being able to book someone who has achieved so much so young, but my point is that the contention over age still seems more acceptable than a contention over the sex of speaker or anything else. Perhaps it’s not. Maybe it’s just still more socially acceptable to criticise someone’s age than anything else, particularly when it comes to business experience. Perhaps there’s some logic in that.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t book really young guest speakers who have had interesting disruptive ideas and established early success. Here are a few high flyers to make you feel like you haven’t done enough with your life, or depending on your outlook, inspire you to do more:
Josh impressed us the moment we met him. An entrepreneur since 13 who began doing business with companies in China at 15, Josh is now in his early 20s and running his own manufacturing business. Josh lectures audiences on the benefits of disruptive innovation techniques in manufacturing and supply chain processes and generally astonishes them with his insight.
Justin founded the music and picture sharing social media app Tunepics in 2014. As well as being named by Wired as one of their Top 100, Justin also advises brands such as Chelsea FC, The Natural History Museum and an increasing number of our clients’ audiences on their digital strategy.
We know Fraser as “The Jam Man,” but now he does beer too. With his grandmother’s help, Fraser starting selling jams to friends and neighbours at 14, but signed his first supermarket contract for Superjam at 18. The success of the sugarfree recipe propelled him to the title of 2007 Global Student Entrepreneur of the Year and more recently, Fraser Doherty MBE. He has since branched out into Coffee and Beer with Envelope Coffee and Beer52 and is still only 27.
The youngest person to reach both the summit of Everest and the North Pole, Bonita gives audiences her lessons learned and talks about future challenges. She asks audiences to apply the metaphor of the seemingly insurmountable odds of her expeditions to their daily lives as well giving the occasional climbing lesson to JLA staff.
Perhaps the exception to the rule is that comedians seem to get younger and younger.
Chris was one of the success stories at JLA’s RVS last year and has gone from strength to strength with our audiences since then. He a comic, rapper (no really, it’s good) and at 25 already a veteran of the Edinburgh Fringe, winning the Amused Moose People’s Choice awards for best show in 2014.