Episode 156 – Funny Business with Brendan Barns

Brendan Barns‘Our events are a bit like a business book; a business book should give you new ideas, cutting edge content, stuff that you haven’t thought about before. But great business books can do it in a way that makes learning fun, that is entertaining to read, that also inspires the reader.’

London Business Forum do events a bit differently. You don’t get Tom Peters in boxing gloves at your run-of-the-mill business presentation. In this episode, LBF founder Brendan Barns talk about what makes a great talk, and why laughter is such a powerful tool for engaging attention and communicating ideas.

Spoiler alert: Creating a great talk is not so different to creating a great book.


London Business Forum: https://www.londonbusinessforum.com/

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Alison Jones:                        Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book club. And it’s a real pleasure to be here today with Brendan Barns who is the founder of the London Business Forum, which has organised hundreds of events over the last 15 years or so, featuring some of the world’s most influential business thinkers. Welcome to the show Brendan.

Brendan Barns:                  Good afternoon. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Alison Jones:                        Well it’s great to be talking to you, and you and I met of course at Graham Alcott’s book launch the other day. So it’s great to be able to seize the moment and go, oh, would you like to come on the podcast because I’d love to talk to you about the whole Business Forum thing and the fact that you work with so many interesting business speakers. So just, let’s start by telling me a bit more about the London Business Forum. What is it, how does it work?

Brendan Barns:                  Sure. So the London Business Forum was born in 2002. My background is I set up a speaker bureau, so I would represent mainly business and political speakers that would go to events and give inspirational and witty speeches. And what I discovered whilst I was doing that was that most business events are torturous. People feel that they’re being punished if they’re told to go to a business event. And I felt that life and business events didn’t have to be like that.

So I could see an opportunity to create business events that were little bit different. Of course they’ve got to have cutting edge ideas. We’ve got to find new content that’s going to interest in stimulate people. We think about it as opening up people’s minds and poking around inside, getting them thinking differently and behaving differently.

But there are two other magic ingredients that the London Business Forum strives to deliver at every event it does: we strive to put a smile on people’s faces. Why would you want to go to a business event and be miserable? Learning should be fun.

And then finally we try and make sure that people go away with springs in their shoes. They go away bouncy and inspired to want to do things a little bit differently. So I always think our events really are a little bit like a business book, a business book should give you new ideas, cutting edge content, stuff that you haven’t thought about before. But I hope that great business books can do it in a way that makes learning fun, that is entertaining to read, that also inspires the reader. So I think whilst we specialise in live events, I think we’ve got quite a lot in common with business books. And of course most of the people that we work with on events are business authors.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. And I really want to come to that synergy because there is, there’s a sort of a, there’s a unity somehow isn’t there between somebody who has done the deep thinking required for the book and somebody who can stand on stage and talk about it. But this is a big ask, and I laughed when you said about business events are usually torture. I totally get it, I’ve been to enough of those in my time, tell me what you do and how, because this is the awful thing. Isn’t it? Somebody’s just written a business book. They may be a very worthy person with very important ideas. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they can stand up on stage and, and wow an audience. So what do you do differently and, how do you get people on board with that?

Brendan Barns:                  Well, it is true to say that not all business authors are brilliant presenters. In fact, it’s fair to say that very few presenters are outstanding. And sadly there are some authors are in business and elsewhere that have what I call a charisma bypass. Their books can be very interesting to read. But when you hear they themselves talking about the content, it sounds like they’ve got something else they’d much rather be doing. So what I try and find are business authors that are not only great in print, they’re great in person too, and sadly, that’s just not everybody. You know, we’re all different, aren’t we? Some of us love performing. If you’re going to be charismatic and inspiring on stage, you’ve got to have a bit of something about you. It’s not an arrogance, but it’s a certain confidence, you want to perform in front of people. And the reality is that not all authors, not all business sources want to be like, it’s the same as journalists. Actually a lot of journalists I find very dull actually but I enjoy their writing, but I wouldn’t necessarily want to go and listen to them talking for an hour.

So different people are good at different things. And what we try and identify of those business authors and thinkers that also have that ability to inspire people on stage. Because if I put somebody onto the London business forums stage the bores my delegates rigid, they won’t be coming back. And we can very quickly undermine the reputation we’ve built in a very ruthless way, to be honest, over a very long period of time. But we only have the very finest communicators in front of our very important delegates that come along to our events.

Alison Jones:                        And is this a binary thing? I mean when you set up the speakers bureau, was it very much, you know, this is an innate thing, you’ve either got it or you haven’t. If you’ve got it, come onto our books and we’ll do fabulous events together. Or do you say to people, well there’s promise there and we can work on that. And what do you do to develop speakers into the kind of speakers that you want your delegates to hear?

Brendan Barns:                  Well, obviously I work at the elite end of things, but I sometimes relate it to golf. If you practise a lot, can you become Tiger Woods? No. Can you improve your game? Of course you can. And speaking is exactly the same. Even those people that don’t think they’ve got much charisma on stage, really do have the ability to improve their presentations that they deliver, it’s about being yourself. It’s not about trying to make somebody into a cart wheeling hilarious Peter Kay-type character. You can be yourself, but there are techniques that you can learn and develop that will make you more effective as a presenter. But you’ve got to want to do it. And I think a lot of people think about going up on stage as probably one of the things they believe that want to do. In fact, there have been surveys that say people would rather die than go on stage. So you’ve got to be passionate and want to do it.

Can anybody improve their presentation skills? Of course. But like anything you’ve got to put the effort in. You’ve got to practise. You’ve got to do a lot of it and you will get better. But of course, the people I’m searching for in terms of putting business authors, thinkers, speakers onto my stage, I need to identify those people that you might say have been through their apprenticeship, they’ve worked hard, they’ve got that natural ability to be able to create rapport with an audience. And you can do so much in a session.

Our sessions, or actually, they sound relatively short at 75 minutes, you would be amazed at how much you can pack into 75 minutes when you’re a brilliant speaker. I’d take the same view on books. I believe the best authors can boil down the real heart of the matter, into a few pages. I don’t believe books should be long and force people to, again, I feel it’s a bit of a punishment. If I see a business book that’s two fat and thick, I think, oh my God, you know, I’m not sure if I can cope with that. I want to get ideas quickly. And I believe the best authors can boil down something that they may have perhaps study for years into the guts of the argument, the essence of what they’re trying to say. And I think that’s very powerful.

We do something called the 80 minute MBA, for example. We’re not saying it’s the same as a three year MBA programme, but we do cover the same content within 80 minutes. We just do it really quickly and fast so people get the guts of the important issues. So I think that’s an example, uh, of the type of thing that you can do to improve the learning experience.

Alison Jones:                        And it’s interesting because I can imagine the parallel is similar there as well, to write that well, to write something that’s worth reading that concisely in pointed language that people just get immediately and they don’t have to sort of plough through 3-400 words to do it. It’s the same as speaking on stage isn’t it? It’s actually, who was that famous quote now, I’m sorry this letter so long, I haven’t the time to make it shorter. You know, you have to put the time in up front if you’re going to deliver that kind of value to your listeners and to your readers.

Brendan Barns:                  Yes, there are some great examples from history about how extraordinary moments in history are defined by an ability to say things very concisely. A very good is the Gettysburg address by Abraham Lincoln. Google that, see how long it is. It’s extraordinarily powerful and extraordinarily short. And that’s not by accident. It’s because it was worked on for a very, very long time.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. And that’s, I’m afraid, these are the hard yards as a writer. If people say you can write a business book in a weekend, in a week or so, well, you probably can, but is it going to be worth somebody’s time reading it? That’s the thing. You could probably throw a speech together in a day, but it’s not going to be the same is it?

Just coming back to that live event thing for a moment. I want to understand a little bit more what you do differently. Do you, is it just about having the same format? You put a speaker on the stage and you let them speak to people, but they’re just really good speakers, or do you actually change the format? What is it that you think makes a great business event?

Brendan Barns:                  Well, we do dare to do things that perhaps other, um, more conventional business event organisers might not do. So for some examples from our history, we have in the past put Tom Peters, arguably the most famous business guru of our times, author of In Search Of Excellence, we dressed him up in a boxing, sort of satin gown and brought him into our auditorium where he entered a boxing ring and spoke about his ideas wearing boxing gloves. Of course, it wasn’t a physical fight. It was a fight over ideas. It was called the fight for competitive advantage.

We dare to do things like that that perhaps other organisers might not do. We tend to go to raked theatres. I want people to feel that this is a show. I’ve never done an event in a hotel, although there are some very nice hotels. I’m broadly generalising. Some of my biggest clients are hotel chains and I like their hotels. But for our purposes, we like a rake theatre and most hotels are on the flats with no natural light. It’s a very different kind of experience. I’m trying to make people feel like they’re just about to experience the show of a lifetime. Even though we might do an event in the morning or afternoon, we’re trying to get that kind of hype.

We’ve taught people to juggle, we’ve sent people in orchestras. We’ve done all kinds of quite unusual things that you might not expect to do at a business event. And I think that’s probably what marks us out, is that over a very long period we now have a track record of people coming to our events and expecting something just slightly different. And we don’t always do crazy things. It depends who the speaker is. It depends what the context is, what the subject is, where it is. It depends on lots of variables, but broadly, however we run an event, it’s got to do those three things I talked about right at the beginning: It’s got to be about ideas. It’s got to be fun and it’s got to inspire people.

Alison Jones:                        And I love the way that you’re pitching it. It’s a performance really. And that’s the expectation that you’re creating for your audience where you, when you’ve got them into that auditorium style, when you give that big visual punchiness, you’re setting them up so that they’re prepared to take something as a performance rather than a run of the mill business talk.

Brendan Barns:                  Absolutely. And often we’ll do that right from the very beginning of an event. So, depending on who the speaker is, if I feel the speaker is quite a showy type of person and can cope with this kind of introduction, then I’ll give them my special introduction, which is I say to our audience, the guest speaker we’ve got today, I want you to pretend it’s the person that you have been waiting your entire life to see. I want you to stand up, get on your chairs. I want you to shout, wolf-whistle, make as much noise as you can. I want you to go completely wild when I introduce this person.

Of course, sometimes I might be introducing the person that that is genuinely how they feel about, but that’s not often how business speakers are perceived. So I’ve built up that momentum. And then on comes to the stage whoever the speaker is whilst we’ve got this group of business executives going completely wild and crazy as if they’re at a rock concert. That’s not generally how a business event starts. And that’s one of the sort of techniques I’ll use to make sure that the people attending the event understand this isn’t a business event as usual. I want them to lose a sense of who they are. Really open their minds, really engage, enjoy the experience.

Alison Jones:                        And what I love about that is it’s quite playful. It’s actually really smart because what you’re doing is engaging them completely, because listening to a talk, you’re co-creating really, aren’t you? You’ve got to engage in what the speaker is saying. So by getting them into that state of mind, you’re getting them into state where actually they’re so receptive. They’re excited. They’re going to take so much more from the talk than they would have done if they were just sitting there clapping politely.

Brendan Barns:                  Exactly. Now, a lot of people that come to London Business Forum now have been before, but for those that have never been to an event, they come with an expectation that it’s going to be absolutely boring, tedious. They’re going to learn nothing. They’re going to wish they were back at the office doing something that’s, you know, been troubling them. Everybody within a business context of the moment seems to have more to do in less time. So taking time out is a really critical and important thing, especially when you’re able to really provoke people, make them think differently, that you have to respect their time. We’re all so busy. So really making sure that they go away thinking that was fantastic use of my time is very important for us. We are hugely respectful of the trust the organisations give to us by sending, they’re very important people, their delegates, mainly middle to senior level management to our events. We never underestimate how valuable that time is.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, and of course the same with a book, isn’t it? It’s a massive investment of your time and energy, you know, your most scarce resources. So if you’re a business person, you need to make sure that that’s given you a good return on investment. It does strike me that ‘London Business Forum’ doesn’t necessarily communicate the fact that you’re going to see Tom Peters in boxing gloves. Did you think about your name or did it just sort of evolve that way?

Brendan Barns:                  Well I remember when we first set London Business Forum up, we did actually go out and try and get some sponsorship from various companies and we failed miserably. But the name was sort of one of those names, it does what it says on the tin, but I agree, actually it’s slightly dull even though, you know, Yes, we are a forum, we only do events in London and they’re all about business.

So it does describe very accurately what we do but I remember going to see KPMG to try and get sponsorship. And I’m blind in my left eye. And just before the meeting started, I went to pour some water into the glasses that were on the table. I realised that I was actually pouring beyond the glass and the water was cascading off the table over the executives from KPMG who were going to sponsor our events to the tune of lots of money. So actually we never got any sponsorship.

And now we make a big thing about, we don’t have sponsors actually we’re very independent. We’re very fiercely protective of that. You know, ’We’re not trying to sell anybody anything at our events other than new ideas, new ways of thinking, new ways of doing, having a good time, being inspired. We’re not going to sell you anything. We’re not, we don’t have media partners. We don’t have commercial sponsors, we’re small, independent, feisty.’

Alison Jones:                        ‘We’ll throw water on you if we don’t like you.’

Brendan Barns:                  Yes, that’s right.

Alison Jones:                        That’s brilliant because it’s one of those things isn’t it? At the time, that must have felt just the most unlucky thing ever. But you’re right. It allows you to set that tone. I was going to ask you about comedy as well actually, because in my Googling and research of your background I said oh, that’s interesting. You’ve done some comedy stuff. How does that play into this? Is it something that you draw on explicitly or do you work it into the meetings or do you encourage other people to do? Tell me more about that.

Brendan Barns:                  Well, I think enjoying yourself and laughing is very important, you know, I’m big into happiness. Why would you want to go through your life being miserable? And that I apply to our event. So some years ago I did a course at a comedy school. Yes, such a place exists and I recommend everybody to go on a comedy school course. Just learn what comedians can do very well. It’s all about creating rapport with your audience really, it’s not necessarily about telling jokes, it’s about being able to tell stories and mining for the comedy gold dust within them.

Because we’ve all got stories of things that have happened to us in our lives that are full of humour. You don’t need to get nervous about telling your own story. You know, this is, um, the idea that people get on stage and they become quivering wrecks, and unable to talk about anything. But if you’re telling your own story down the pub to some friends, you don’t get nervous about that and you need to create the same kind of feeling when you’re on stage. When you own a story and it’s yours, there’s no reason to feel nervous about saying it.

So I learned some sort of techniques from the comedy world, which I now use when I’m introducing people and saying thank you at the end. I mean my part in the events is very short. I deliberately never read out introductions to speakers unless I’m forced to buy the speaker. Generally I refuse because those introductions generally when you go to business events, are sucking the life force out of people. I have no idea why people do it. So it’s very important the introductions are short, humorous as I said, sort of setting a tone for the event and then let’s get on with introducing the speaker. And then at the end, again, when I’m saying thank you to the speaker, I always try and find a couple of funny things to say. So the comedy school course helped me with that and I do encourage people to think about humour in their events. That doesn’t mean tell a joke at the beginning and wake people up at the end with a joke. It means being able to tell stories that are humorous, and memorable, that illustrate serious points. That’s the magic that great speakers can deliver.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, and it’s interesting, one of the reasons I asked actually is because ironically I’m going to the London comedy school, we’re recording this at the very end of February, 2019, I’m going on I think it’s 8th of March, something like that to do an improvisation class.

Brendan Barns:                  Oh, fantastic.

Alison Jones:                        Which, yes, I’m really looking forward to. I spoke to Dorie Clark who recommended stand up training actually rather than improve, but somebody else said to me improv is sort of mindfulness for the stage because you are absolutely… you have to play with what’s given you, so it’s a terrific training ground, not just for speaking but also for podcast hosting because you play with what people give you. So I’m looking forward to that.

Brendan Barns:                  I absolutely admire you for doing that. I’ve also done an improv course. I found it one of the most difficult things I’ve done because …

Alison Jones:                        Thank you, great.

Brendan Barns:                  Good luck. You literally have to clear your mind and it’s very difficult to do because you’re working in a team. You have to wait for the gift that you’re given by the person that communicates with you and then you respond to that. It’s really difficult to clear your mind because we’re all used to trying to predict what’s coming and anticipating what we’re going to say and just being able to clear that out and act just in response to what someone else says to you is really, really difficult.

Now, the masters of improv, one of whom is my a good friend and one of my favourite speakers, Neil Mullarkey, one of the founders of the Comedy Store Players, he is an absolute master of it, but he and his colleagues make it look so easy and it isn’t, it’s really difficult, but I would encourage everybody to try it because again, the skills are very transferable, it’s a really good thing to do and to try it. And the chances of you appearing with the Comedy Store Players are small, but …

Alison Jones:                        Yes, I’ll say …

Brendan Barns:                  …they will get better and it will help you in all kinds of other ways with your communication. So I think more people should try comedy courses are more people should go on improv courses as well.

Alison Jones:                        Well, I shall report back. We’ll see how it goes. I think also, I’m trained as a coach and it struck me that it was very good training for, as you say, not preparing what you’re going to say, but purely listening, listening for what’s there and listening for the possibilities in what’s there as well.

Brendan Barns:                  Absolutely. I think people are beginning to understand the importance of listening. This idea of active listening, we did an event on it, quite recently actually with someone called Richard Mullinder, who is a fascinating character who used to be a hostage negotiator. So there you’re literally in situations of life and death and having to listen so intently to what the other person is saying and your communication is so important. You say the wrong thing and something awful could happen. A fascinating session that he does on active listening as we’re all used to talking, aren’t we? And we think listening just happens automatically, there is actually quite a bit more to it, if you think about it, you can improve your communications, in very, very significant ways.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. And I always encourage people when they’re reading, if they’re going to be writing a business book, I encourage them to read like a writer so that you’re not just reading as a reader and taking it in, you’re reading with a slightly more thoughtful, critical eye. You’re noticing how they’re achieving the effect that they’re achieving. You know, what are the structures, what are the, the things that are going in to causing that effect on you.

And I think perhaps when you are a speaker or you’re wanting to become a speaker, you need almost to develop that habit too. Don’t you? Not just, that’s a really good speaker. They’ve got great stage presence, but what’s going on there? What are they not saying? What’s the rhythm, the cadence, you know, all those kinds of technical things that are going on. So yes, it’s about the content, but it’s also about the metadata of the talk or the writing, isn’t it? It’s how it’s all hanging together, and understanding that in a more technical way, which I’m hoping this improvisational workshop will help me with as well.

Brendan Barns:                  Yes, I’m sure it will. And, and there are techniques, there are techniques that you can learn that will help you become a better presenter, but also will help you in your communication, you know, in a one-to-one setting or in a smaller environment. But you know, you have to put the effort in. It’s like anything, you know, if getting on well with people, is important, which let’s face it, for most jobs, dealing with people is pretty important, put some effort into it. Learn some new techniques, experiment, you can have a big impact for making quite small changes to the way you present yourself and communicate.

Alison Jones:                        Brilliant. It’s absolutely fascinating. Thank you so much Brendan. And I always ask guests before I let them go, I always extract from them a recommendation for a business book that they think everybody listening should read. So what would yours be?

Brendan Barns:                  If I was going to recommend just one book, I mean we’ve done hundreds of events with hundreds of books, but one of my favourites is a book called Story for Leaders by someone called David Pearl, whom some of your listeners may have come across when used to run Live for the Arts. He is an extraordinary creative. He is the founder of something called ‘street wisdom’. The idea of there being all kinds of wonderful answers, if you just take a walk, look at your environment, speak to people. The world around us is just so incredible. But the book he wrote, Story for Leaders, is really all about how to effectively tell stories, which I think is so important, not just for us as individuals when we’re communicating things about our lives and our families, but in business as well. It’s how to effectively get people on your side, singing from the same hymn sheet for the same vision. And this book takes us into an extraordinary analysis of how people tell great stories. And I don’t really care, um, what kind of book it is, great books, whatever the sector, whatever the focus tell great stories. So I think stories are fundamental, not just about book writing, but to the kind of people I work with in telling, you know, giving us new ideas on stage. The best speakers tell great stories. So for me, I’m a big fan of Story for Leaders by David Pearl.

Alison Jones:                        What a brilliant recommendation. I don’t know that book. I feel like I should know that, but I don’t.

Brendan Barns:                  I’ll send you one. I’ll send you a copy.

Alison Jones:                        Oh brilliant. Thank you very much. I might be back to you and say oh, could you put me in touch with David for the podcast please? Brilliant. Thank you Brendan. That was amazing. I could talk to you all day, there is so much more I want to say actually about the whole speaking thing and the techniques and the like, but we’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much for your time today. If people want to find out more about you, more about London Business Forum, where should they go?

Brendan Barns:                  You can just go to our website, which is very simple. It’s www.londonbusinessforum.com.

Alison Jones:                        Which sounds dull, but believe me, it’s not. Thank you so much for your time today.

Brendan Barns:                  My pleasure.  

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