Gyles Brandreth is one of Britain's most sought-after public speakers. Author, broadcaster, former President of the Oxford Union, one-time MP for the City of Chester and a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury. He once featured in the Guinness Book of Records for making the longest-ever after-dinner speech – a whopping twelve and a half hours!
We had the pleasure to sit down with Gyles and discuss his love of speaking and how he got started on the circuit. We also discover the secrets of happiness, and why, when he attends a dinner, he always sits down, turns to the person on his right and thinks about the Queen of Denmark. Watch the interview or read the full transcript below.
In conversation with Gyles Brandreth
When did you start speaking professionally?
I love words. I love the English language, and I have been talking, I suppose, ever since I could walk, or perhaps before. I am the son of a lawyer, and the father of a lawyer. My son has twice been public speaking champion of the world! He is a barrister and a brilliant speaker and he and I have done a course called Mastering The Art of Public Speaking. But, I have been speaking professionally for more than 50 years.
I began at school, entering competitions as a public speaker, and then when I went to Oxford University I became President of the Union, the debating society. It was then a kind of kindergarten for aspiring politicians. All sorts of people like Edward Heath former Prime Minister. Tony Benn had been President of the Union, and I became President of the Union. And as a result of that, as soon as I came down from Oxford I was picked up by a speakers agency run by a man called Cyril Fletcher.
He was a famous comedian in his day, also a famous pantomime dame, and I became the youngest member of his Associated Speakers circuit, aged 22. I was set out on to the world and I remember there was an annual event that took place at The Dorchester Hotel, where we all turned up. All the speakers came, and there were very distinguished internationally famous people who were there, and then there was me.
We were colour coded, according to price! So you arrived and the real stars were gold, and then there was a green, and I was a murky brown, as the cheapest person. I think I was £30 – it seemed quite a lot of money to me. We paraded around and we were selected. People came up to you to say what do you talk about?
In those days there was a big ladies luncheon club market and the first speeches I did were entirely to rooms full of women wearing hats. In the late 60s, early 1970s, women still had lunch – several hundred of them together in the dining room – all wearing hats, often with plumes in them. So my introduction to public speaking was seeing seas of women with bobbing hats.
I have been speaking professionally all these years, and I then became a Member of Parliament. And now I suppose, that whilst I do a variety of things – as a journalist, as a broadcaster, as an actor, I suppose a hundred times a year at least, I am out there speaking.
I love doing it because it presents me with an engagement with life. I mostly now do corporate events, the ladies luncheon clubs sadly on the whole don't exist, and I do a lot of corporate gigs around the world. It's very privileged because you sit at the top table with the chief executives; the top people in the top firms in the world. So you get to know what is happening, what's worrying people, what the trends are.
But also, if you are like me, what I like to do at these events, and I always do do, is I try to visit every table during the evening. Both to see the whites of their eyes, to see what they're really like and see the mix, the gender mix, the age mix, but also to find out what they are thinking, what is worrying them.
The world you meet when you go out as a speaker is a bit different from the world you read about in the newspapers or see on television. Up close it is a better world, people are achieving rather more. If you read the newspapers you would think that engineering in the United Kingdom was dead; it isn't! The right kind of engineering is thriving. You discover things as a speaker.
What type of speeches do you deliver?
Essentially in the speaking line I do three things. I do after dinner speaking, which I hope is good humoured and good hearted and is always aimed at being a celebration of whoever I'm with. For me the key is them, not me, and so I very much try to make what I say relevant to that audience and I spend time with them on the night beforehand meeting them.
I do an awful lot of awards ceremonies, which again I love because it is celebratory. You're meeting the best of the best, there is a great atmosphere in the room, and you discover things about an industry, a world that you didn't know, and it's heartening.
It's also quite moving, actually. Awards ceremonies are quite moving because as the people come up on to the stage and you shake their hand, and you say something fun to them, often they've got tears in their eyes and you can see that this award means a great deal to them. That's humbling and exciting and that I find quite a challenge. Getting the balance right between keeping the energy going, because some of these awards ceremonies… the one I did in Athens the other night there were 90 awards! Can you imagine? Sometime there are only a dozen, but you have got to keep the energy going.
Awards ceremonies are a strange event because at the beginning of the evening everyone is high because they think they are in with a chance. But as the evening wears on and more and more awards are given away, gradually more and more people in the room realise they haven't won at all! We bought this table under a misapprehension! So they could turn hostile and you have to keep them on side. I love the challenge of award ceremonies.
Keynote addresses I have come to in recent years, and it is very different what I do for a keynote addresses. I do two essentially, though I vary them. One is based on the work I did on happiness. When I lost my seat in the House of Commons I felt a failure, I felt disappointed in that.
I loved being a Treasury Minister, it was an exciting thing to do, and I was faced with the failure in my career in midlife. It also coincided with my father dying, my brother dying, my sister dying and my best friend from school dying. All in the same period, and I felt low.
I thought, this is ridiculous, you have got everything; a wife who still talks to you – just – you've got children, grandchildren on the way, come on. So I went to see a psychiatrist – a man called Anthony Clare who did a radio program called In The Psychiatrist's Chair. And we began talking about my parents, because inevitably when you slip in to the psychiatrist's chair they ask you to talk about your parents.
I asked him, why do my parents when they talk about the second world war say it was the happiest time of their life? Because my mother during the second world war – my older sisters were all babies, she lived in London – bombs were falling! Happiest time of her life? My father, for six years during the war he was in the army – on the front line, risking his life for six years – talks about it as the happiest time of his life.
Why do people of that generation – my parents, your grandparents' generation, who went through the war, why so often do they talk about it as the happiest time of their lives? He said it is easy to explain. He said people like your mother, yes they were in London, bombs were falling, but there was a sense of community spirit. A sense of common purpose, of unity, of shared values and ethos, and that makes people feel united and happy. And your father? Yes, he was risking his life for six years. The soldiers, the sailors, the airmen and women, during the second world war – they were, year in, year out, risking their lives, but they were also being tested. All the research shows that being tested is a key element to being happy.
Very few people are happy just sitting around not doing very much. An engagement with life is essential to happiness. That's when I began to realise that this thing with happiness isn't what I thought it was going to be, and I began to explore what makes people happy.
Indeed I ended up with the 7 Secrets of Happiness. One of the most key is not resisting change, and I do resist change. As a person I loathe change, I am a conservative with a small c and a big c. Change is not for me. I do not like the 21st century. I have to tell you; all the gizmos of the century are beyond me. I do not wish to learn another frigging password! But I am wrong. I should embrace change.
Change is good for us. Change is the salt in the soup of life. Rocking the boat is good for you. Change is good and change is also inevitable. If you resist change you will be unhappy.
I discovered all these things that I have learnt are very useful in business. For many people in business the challenge of change is the greatest challenge. And leadership is not simply about forging ahead, it's about taking people with you and together building and leading a successful business. A successful business I think needs to be a happy business. And happy businesses are more successful than unhappy ones.
What have been your career highlights to date?
You kindly mention career highlights; I'm looking forward to some of those. I certainly have been appearing on television off and on since the 1960s. My first TV appearance was on a programme called Panorama, when I was interviewed by Robin Day. So I began at the top and I gradually worked my way down over the years.
I loved doing TV AM in the 1980s. Used to wear colourful jumpers on television. I tell the story of when I arrived at the House of Commons hoping nobody would remember my colourful knitwear from my TV AM days, but unfortunately the first person I encountered in the chamber was John Prescott, a man who I rather admire. If you don't know who I mean, he was our former Deputy Prime Minister. A man who uses the English language like a Rubik's Cube, a very entertaining speaker; an amateur pugilist as well. A good guy, his parents were constituents of mine.
Anyway, I got up to speak wearing a regulation grey suit, hoping nobody would remember by famous woolly jumpers, and from the opposition front bench John Prescott began barracking me going "woolly jumper, woolly jumper!" Well, I had to struggle on – it is nerve wracking speaking in the House of Commons – and particularly when there is John Prescott barracking you.
On I went with what I hope was a Churchillian oration, but on he went with his barracking – "woolly jumper, woolly jumper!" Well, eventually I had to pause and point out to Mr Prescott that the joy of a woolly jumper is that you can take it off at will, whereas the blight of a woolly mind is that you are lumbered with it for life. Of course, he did get the last laugh because he became Deputy Prime Minister and ended up in the House of Lords, whereas I… I'm here.
But actually, to be honest there is nowhere I would rather be because what my life now allows me is incredible variety. And the privilege of meeting all manner of men and women, and that is completely fascinating. We only pass this way once.
I interviewed the Queen of Denmark some years ago, and she told me that when she was a teenager her father had said to her "you're going to be Queen one day and you will go to an awful lot of state banquets and sit next to people who you think are very dull. And you can either sit back and be bored and have a dull life, or you can sit forward and be interested – and anyone you meet has always got at least one extraordinary story to tell. Make it your job to discover that extraordinary story."
So, whenever I go to a dinner I sit down and I turn to the person on my right and think of the Queen of Denmark and I think who is this guy? Okay, he is running this firm of accountants, he is running this chemical company; she is an advertising agent, she is Britain's leading female peer – what is her most extraordinary story? And I try to discover it, and I do. So for me, every night is rewarding.
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