Jeffrey Robinson answers some probing questions
about being the international speaking circuit
for the agency Speakers Corner
SC: How did the corporate speaking start?
JR: I spent my last year of high school and my first year at university working as a saloon comic. This, at a time when I was still too young to get into saloons. Today they call it “stand up.” It was tough. Now that I’m old enough to get into saloons, I can’t stay awake that late. Corporates are the obvious answer. Most of the people I speak to can’t stay up that late either. A much more suitable group.
SC: Can you remember your first speaking engagement?
JR: Huh? I’ve been doing this for more than 40 years. I can’t even remember what I had for lunch yesterday.
SC: And your last event?
JR: That’s like lunch today. It was a late afternoon closing keynote that someone decided would be much nicer to have in the cocktail reception area of a converted prison (I swear this is true) than in the main room where everybody else spoke. Except the cocktail reception area was at the intersection of two long hallways. So I had half the audience on my left, down that hallway, drinking champagne, and the other half on my right, down that hallway, eating prunes wrapped in bacon. Who could forget that?
SC: Which event has been your favorite and why?
JR: I worked a corporate cruise many years ago with the great old British comic, Norman Wisdom. I went to his show and he came to my speech. I told the audience that I was very nervous with him there (which wasn’t true because I’m either too long in the tooth to get nervous or too foolish not to) and that my wife’s advice was, “Just be yourself.” So, I told the audience, “I’m just going to be myself.” That’s when I whipped out a baseball cap, and put it on sideways the way Norman famously wore it in the movies. He loved it. I’ve used the same gag several times. I did it with the television commentator Robin Day who always wore a bow tie, with Britain’s most famous Rabbi, Lionel Blue, and a skull cap, and with a television weatherman in the UK, Ian McKaskel, who wore very thick glasses. They were like the bottom of Coke bottles and were his trademark. He even let me borrow them for the gag. The old ones are the best.
SC: If you could speak at any event, past or future, what would it be?
JR: Davos. Being able to talk directly to that much power and maybe, just maybe, make a point that changes things a little bit, would be very gratifying. Also, the food is good.
SC: Who would you most like to share a platform with?
JR: That’s tricky because I’m a much more generous performer than most people I’ve worked with. I’m happy to give way, most people aren’t, and I go home thinking, why did I do that? Although if you change “platform” to “deserted beach in the Pacific,” the answer is Michelle Pfeiffer.
SC: On average, how many times a year do you speak at corporate events?
JR: Some years 6-12. Some years 12-24. It usually depends, with me, if I have a book out, or have been doing a lot of television. But that doesn’t matter because when I’m not working, either I make my wife and kids listen, or I open the fridge door, the light goes on, and I do 20 minutes.
SC: Do you use powerpoint?
JR: Not even with my wife and kids. All I ask for is a podium so I can hide my notes, a lapel mike so I can move around and a glass of water.
SC: Are you as happy speaking to 50 as to 1000 people?
JR: Fifty is good. 1000 is better. In fact, the bigger the audience, the easier. I’ve done events with several thousand, and that’s wonderful. The nightmare is 8 people. I worked one night, many years ago, for a tiny group like that and it was a disaster. Small groups are a huge risk. This bunch called dinner at 8 for 8:30, and at 9:45 they were still in the bar. The table was set up so that everyone sat together, and with each course — there were four — a different wine appeared. By the time I got introduced at 1:15 am, no one was awake. My introduction was, “We have a speaker… go ahead.” It was horrible. But then, as I was the only sober one in the room, I hope I was the only one who noticed.
SC: How do you like to be introduced?
JR: How do I LIKE to be introduced? Six foot one, blond hair, blue eyes, cat-like movements. Because that never happens, I always hand someone a brief intro and just hope for the best.
SC: Do you like to do a briefing call before the event?
JR: It is absolutely vital. I want to give the organizers what they want. If no one tells me, I ask.
SC: What are the most asked for topics?
JR: These days it’s off the back of my books on money laundering, fraud, organized crime and how they effect big business… especially the roles played by lawyers, accountants, brokers, bankers, etc. What I never ever talk about is that week on the beach in the Pacific with Michelle Pfeiffer. But, trust me, if it ever happens, I’m telling everyone!
SC: Do you have any funny/embarrassing speaking anecdotes you care to share?
JR: Funny? Not funny in the hah hah funny sense, but there have been hundreds of enjoyable appearances. So, fun, yes. Embarrassing? I’m afraid so. I have followed clog dancers at midnight, and a stripper at lunchtime. I opened with a topical joke one night about Paris Hilton and Lindsey Lohan, only to discover… to my horror… no one in the audience knew who they were. I also spoke one afternoon in Portugal, to a huge business meeting, only to find out, too late, that no one spoke English. You’d think the organizer might have thought of that, first. But then, every seasoned speaker has stories like that. What I always try to do is help organizers understand what works best. In most cases, that means an early dinner event with an early after dinner speech. Early being the key. Well planned, that suits everyone, especially if people have been working all day and need to drive home. But then, I’ve been asked a few times for a before dinner speech — I’ve never understood that — and once, an in-between dinner speech, which means I was struggling for attention with waiters spilling soup.
SC: Got a favorite film?
JR: After seeing Charades, I stepped into some woman’s shower fully dressed. I guess you have to be Cary Grant to pull that off. After Un Homme et Une Femme, I started hanging out in France. It was too fattening. After Casablanca, I started saying to women, “We’ll always have Brooklyn.” They wanted Manhattan.
SC: Favorite book?
JR: Now, you’re talking. I write books that I want to read.
SC: Favorite holiday destination?
JR: I lived in the south of France for 12 years and once you know that part of the world, it’s tough to find anyplace comparable. Although a few years ago on a speaking engagement, I discovered Savannah, Georgia. It’s ranked high on the list of America’s great secrets. Rightfully so. Hauntingly beautiful, it’s the ante-bellum South in tact. Otherwise, I’m good in New York, London, Paris, Rome and once, a long time ago, but only for a weekend, Eufala, Alabama.
SC: Got a favorite tipple?
JR: I’m not much of a drinker. That said, put a bottle of ’61 Petrus on the table and count me in.
SC: Country or townie?
JR: Definitely townie. I was 22 the first time I met a cow. It was in Texas. I was on one side of the fence. She was on the other. Neither of us were terribly impressed.