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UK Speechwriters Guild podcast

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Brian Jenner talks about his passion for speechwriting

Brian is an award winning speechwriter and founder of the UK Speechwriters’ Guild. As well as a passion for speechwriting Brian also has an interest in events, and in this podcast we hear how he so combines these 2 passions to organise international events in the speechwriting and funeral industries.

What does your business do?

I have a variety of activities that enable me to earn a living. I think that as a small business person, you’ve got to have several income streams and I have been working for the last 15 years as a professional speech writer, which means people contact me and ask me to help them write their speeches.

This generates a certain amount of income every year, but it’s not always predictable from week to week so I also followed my interest in organising events. I’ve organised a lot of events and networking groups over the years, but now I focus on two international conferences for speech writers and one event for the funeral industry every year. That means that I’m always busy because I can always be sending out marketing and promotion for my events, but if a speech comes along, it means I can interrupt that work and do a speech, earning some extra money there. I think that Warren Buffett says that “you should always have several sources of income so that if one dries up, you can rely on the others to ensure that you can make a living.”

What made you want to start your own business?

I would dub myself as a creative person with an entrepreneurial streak. I did try very hard to work for other people but I was always obsessed by my own ideas and that made me quite an unemployable person, so I kept on getting fired. My last job was in the city working for a big law firm where I got into disagreements and got sacked. When you get to 30 and you’ve been sacked several times, you’ve got to realise being employed and taking orders from other people is not for everybody. Some people feel they could manage their own time and want to try their own projects.

For example, one of my projects is running the Good Funeral Awards, and if I went to any business and said “I want to run a competition for people who work in the funeral industry to reward them with ‘grave digger of the year’, ‘funeral celebrant of the year’ and ‘young funeral director of the year’” they would say that’s completely mad. They wouldn’t give me any money or support me doing it but I did it and now its an annual event that gets huge amounts of publicity. I think that if you are unconventional, at the end of the day you’ve got to be self employed

What do you enjoy about your industry?

I work very closely with quite high powered individuals from time to time and help people with wedding speeches, so it’s quite an intimate service. For example, the father of the bride will contact me and say that he wants a speech for his daughters wedding and he doesn’t know what to say. That’s quite a difficult problem because I’ve got to get to know him and get to know stories about his daughter very quickly so I can help him write an emotional speech for the wedding guests. I use my former journalism skills of interviewing and I call the fathers to start probing and asking them about things such as “what was it like and how did feel on the first day your daughter went to school?”, “how did she rebel as a teenager?”, “how did you feel the first day she went off to university?” or “did you teach her to drive?”.

This enables me to focus on those experiences that are quite universal and then get the stories that can turn a wedding into a really meaningful event. It’s a case of I know what people need to say when they give a speech, but if you don’t know anything about speech writing, you’re just wandering in the dark which means that there are a lot of boring wedding speeches out there.

Would you say it is your personable and hands on approach that differentiates you from your competitors?

Well no, I think that I am a collector of jokes. If ever I hear a good wedding joke, I will write it down and store it away. I think that at a wedding or a big social event, you want some humour and a lighter touch. I think that there are lots of people who can write good speeches and do political and business speeches but I am always looking for a little joke or a bit of humour. Like I said, I’m a creative person and people that like humour are a bit odd and a bit different, so that’s my unique selling point; I can find some jokes for you.

What would you say is the key to a good speech for anybody looking for some tips?

Keep it short. I’ve had lots of best men come to me and they’re trying to sum up their whole relationship with the groom over 20 years, and they’ve written a 45 minute speech. In fact, one of the best pieces of work I ever did was for a wedding that happened in Italy, and it was a celebrity couple who had the Black Eyed Peas playing at the wedding. I often say that I should have charged £200,000 for that speech because the Black Eyed Peas had been booked for the wedding for £2 million, and I was sent the speech for the groom who had written a 45 minute speech which thanked every member of his extended family.

I thought that even if you’re a celebrity, there are only 24 hours in a day, and if you think you have a 20 minute speech from the father of the bride, a 45 minute speech from the groom and then a 15 minute speech from the best man; that would be as long as a feature film. That would be over an hours worth of speaking and these people aren’t professional speakers, so that would take a huge chunk out of the day, meaning the Black Eyed Peas wouldn’t be able to play their full set.

I managed to reduce his speech from 45 minutes to 5 minutes and I think I offered a huge amount of value there, because the wedding cost a huge amount of money so hopefully I gave the groom a more realistic understanding of what he needed to do on the day, and saved the guests from a very long period of boredom.

Generally, how long does it take to write a speech?

Writing a speech can take quite a long time. Some people will contact me a year in advance if they want to do a speech for a wedding, a big business occasion or a big social occasion such as a retirement. I would recommend that people only speak for around seven minutes since this is the maximum amount of time you can expect to keep peoples attention while still being able to pack a lot of information into seven minutes. The trick is to start early, but just do short bursts of work on it and that means your unconscious mind goes around thinking about the speech, allowing you to gather enough material, but also evaluate the material. They say that if you write a novel, the trick is to write a first draft and then leave it for a month or two, so that when you go back to it, you can see if it’s any good. It’s similar with speeches; you’ve got to give it time to gestate. The worst thing you can do is start writing a few notes the night before, or in the taxi to the event, because that is a recipe for disaster.

What would you say was the biggest challenge you faced when setting up your business?

You mentioned my books earlier in the podcast, and one of my books is called “I’m just phoning to chase my invoice” and it was a humorous look at the problems you face when you set up a small business on your own. What business is about is having a skill and charging people for it, so one of the big challenges working as a speechwriter is establishing your credibility, finding out the correct amount to charge, and then collecting your money. Those are pretty big challenges.

What would you say has been the biggest success for your business?

I have a weird perspective on business in that I quite admire the quakers because they were a religious group that was known for being brilliant at business which makes you think “why would that be?” It’s because their religion is quite disciplined and running a business is about discipline. I work with a lot of creative people who are very talented but had lots of issues around money and charging for their services. I’ve learnt over the years that running a business is about being clear about the services you’re offering and being aware that everything revolves around money, and your careful management of that money. If you know how much money you have in your account, you know how much your expenses are and what you need to pay yourself, you have a really clear idea of what you’re doing in your business. A lot of creative and artistic people spend huge amounts of energy developing their talents, but they’re not very good at negotiating fees and generally seeing that money is a terribly important thing because if we don’t have enough money, we start underpaying ourselves and you can’t function properly within society.

So my biggest success was to realise that although I love writing and I love organising events, ultimately, mathematics is one of the most important skills that I end up using every day and thats calculating how I make a profit from a particular deal, but more importantly how do I avoid making a loss. From a religious point of view, it’s like every day you’ve got to develop good habits such as doing my accounts and making sure that I’m keeping track of my finances. For example, using a mobile phone service that sends you your bank balance every day so that I can check every morning because it’s wonderful to see money going into your account, it’s wonderful to count that money and it’s wonderful to have money to spend on going to events, on holiday, pay people to design my website or do my business cards, allowing them to be creative. It’s about learning that business is a discipline and that it revolves around money.

If you could give one key piece of advice to anyone who’s thinking of starting a company, what would it be?

I think you’ve got to realise that everything involves risk and you don’t know whether your business is going to work until you try it. Lots of businesses in theory should work but they don’t, whereas other business where you think “why would people pay for that?” have a market that do in fact want to pay for that. You’ve got to try things, but you’ve also got to realise when to give up, and that’s why accounts software is terribly useful because it gives you the story of your business: how much money you started off with, how much you’re spending each month, how much you’re paying yourself. My initial problem with starting a business is that I poured huge amounts of energy into starting my business and I experienced the ‘sunk cost trap’ which is where I would spend so much on trying to get my London community website off the ground, and I’d spent so much time on it that I couldn’t afford to give it up, so it becomes a compulsive habit of spending more and more money, expecting that it would be different the next year, but in fact when I did give it up, it was very liberating and I just wrote off all the money and time I’d invested in it. I then started a new business which started generating money from the beginning. Ironically, i could use all of the skills I used with my community website, but I was using them in a different context and that became more profitable and more satisfying making me generally much happier. Whenever you setup a business, you should give yourself a year or sixth months to see if it will work, and if it doesn’t, you stop doing it. You do this on the basis that you can see the money coming in and going out, so you can work out whether it’s worthwhile pursuing. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between success and failure because when you fail you think “oh yes, I’m learning all the time and next time it’s going to be different” but setting yourself a deadline to make something a success is far more sensible.

How would you say Clear Books has helped your company grow?

I used several other accounting software packages though they weren’t cloud based since cloud computing is quite recent. I found that I couldn’t discipline myself to use them properly because they weren’t simple enough, they didn’t offer the right categories and I couldn’t see how much money was coming in and out, so I would get to the situation where it would be the beginning of January and I realised I had to do my accounts so I would spend two weeks collecting all of my receipts from the previous year and try and enter everything into my accounts to give to my accountant, in a panic. It made me terribly afraid of how much money I would have to pay because I wouldn’t have a clue of how much it would be. It was many years of trying to find something that was really easy to use, and not managing, and then my accountant recommended that I should try Clear Books. The first year I did things very much the same, I started putting in all my information, and I used my 30 day free trial which I thought was quite a good period of grace because you think “well I’m going to have to pay £6 a month” (which was the price when I started using Clear Books) and I thought that was quite reasonable, I’ll try it. I put all my information in, and it takes a while to find out that it all makes sense, b ut gradually I realised that cloud computing means that you can open any time. You just go to Clear Books and I can find my accounts, and I can set it all up neatly, and that user friendly nature meant that I became more and more familiar with it, and then I started to realise how useful it is because if your business starts to expand, you’ve got to keep a closer track on the money.

For example if you do a big event, you’ve got hundreds of transactions a month, so I had to put them all in to make sure I knew what was going on, and pretty soon I could get a clear picture of where I was. I see it as if you were sailing a small ship across the Atlantic and you didn’t have a compass or a GPS, you’d really run into difficulties and the accounts software is like having a compass. You’ve got to know where you are every day, so you know where to navigate forward. If you don’t know how much moneys coming in, if you don’t know how many bills you’ve got, you don’t know where you are in the middle of the wide sea, especially as you start earning more money. I’ve registered for VAT this year for example, the consequences of getting your VAT wrong or not having enough money to pay a £3000 VAT Bill at the end of the quarter would be horrendous as a self employed person because nobody is there to bail you out. You’ve got to be able to pay your bills when they come due.

If you could give one top tool or technique that you use to help efficiently manage your time, what would it be?

Having done lots of creative work and being very entrepreneurial, I think that to start your morning by opening your accounts programme is a good thing to do, because now that mobile phones send you a daily update on your account, I start my morning doing my accounts, and ironically I spend much more time on my accounts than I have done in previous years, but weirdly I’ve got much more money. So it’s very strange that if you focus on the money side of your business, everything else seems to fall into place, and when it comes to charging for things, you’ve got a much better sense of what to be charging, rather than offering to do work that is underpaid or is not appropriate for the particular situation you’re in.

To find out more about Brian Jenner, take a look at the UK Speechwriters Guild website.

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