Inspirational Woman: Susie Ashfield | Public Speaking Coach

Susie AshfieldIf you’ve ever managed to watch the film ‘The King’s Speech’, then that’ s the best way of explaining my role.

If you’ve not seen it (and you should, it’s a great film), then the next best way of describing what I do is that I make my clients look good, feel good and sound good whenever they speak publicly. That means I deal with everything from content ideas, script creation, body language, vocal impact, stage fright, confidence, and delivery. I also do the occasional voice over for things like dating site adverts and washing powder.

Back in the good old days when there was face to face communication, my role was essentially client-hopping. No day is the same; one day I might find myself in the city helping the CIO of a £100 billion investment firm reduce the length and increase the impact of their opening speech for an annual general meeting to an audience so big that it’s taking place at the O2 Arena. The next day I might find myself in Holborn to advise a nervous director at a FTSE 100 on how to lighten up and stick to the message in their upcoming podcast interview. If it’s my last client of the day then I might see if I can get them out of their fancy boardroom and into The Seven Stars where gradually, I watch them transform from a stiff in a suit to someone with absolute passion for their profession, full of tangible examples that I now have to get them comfortable enough to use in the live recording.

For days at my desk, I might be listening to voice notes from my client who’s just putting together their thoughts on the stories they want to include on the TEDx Talk. I’m looking for something that makes them standout: a vulnerability, a story, a cliff hanger moment in their career or a surprising point of view that shows them as being innovative, but human. These days I do all of that, but online from my kitchen.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Yes, but that plan went awry quite quickly. I desperately wanted to be an actor, but unfortunately, I wasn’t good enough at waitressing.

I’d like to tell you that I quickly and cunningly thought up a new plan and diligently followed through on that, but realistically everything happened in a much more turbulent way, although it might be better to rebrand that as ‘organic’. One day I was waitressing at an event and a guest saw me struggling (I told you I wasn’t a good waitress), at which point we struck up a conversation and by the end of our chat she suggested I give up my short-lived career in catering and come and work for her as an insurance broker. Naturally, I assumed she was joking, so I was somewhat surprised when I turned up the next Monday to see that a computer had been set up for me. Whilst I knew it wasn’t where I wanted to stay forever, I absolutely loved my time there and did it for years, looking after everything from Harry Style’s art collection to Richard Hammond’s cars. I was aware that it wasn’t where I wanted to be ultimately, but what I noticed from my time there was how nervous all these corporate professionals were about public speaking; they knew their stuff, they just couldn’t get it across with any kind of impact. I decided that I could help with that, so I started telling everyone I knew that that was what I’d be doing from now on. Unbelievably, people actually started to employ me to do it.

After that the work started coming in organically, and as soon as one company saw the benefit of what I did, they’d pass my name to another, and it wasn’t long before I was being put in front of directors and C-Suite Executives to get their speeches to really engage with their audience. I noticed a theme emerging: my clients felt that they had to be the most formal version of themselves in order to make sure no one ever doubted their credibility, and it meant they delivered in a fairly robotic and complicated way. It was, essentially, a hidden result of stage fright and imposter syndrome. Early on in my career I decided to get trained as a coach so I could deal with that side of my client’s mindset, which really helped me understand the pressure they were putting themselves under.

As things progressed I did whatever I could to get in front of more clients. I still do as much work as I can with friends and friends of friends on wedding speeches, which I never charge for, but instead always ask for a introduction to their company, which has resulted in some fantastic opportunities, including being recruited to coach a CEO on their TEDx Talk. Naturally, that led to more and more of them coming my way, with all sorts of clients and stories, from a female CEO engaging with internet trolls, to a financial rockstar who wanted to put pensions planning on the National Curriculum, to an app founder who decided to cross the Atlantic Ocean alone after his business failed. I helped each of them tell their stories in their own voice, as opposed to an automated, contrived cover version of who they really are.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Absolutely, and I still am. I think the biggest would be tearing myself away from the addiction of a comfy and warm monthly payslip and heading into the unknown. On top of that, dealing with the feeling of having no idea what to do with myself for a long period of time, and worrying about where I’d end up. The trick there, is to take the pressure off. My mum is in her 70’s and she still hasn’t decided what she wants to do with herself but manages to live a very fulfilling and adventurous life regardless. Women are brilliant at tearing themselves down, almost to a point of making it an art form, and one of the best tools they have in this is comparing themselves to others. The moment I stopped worrying about what other people thought about my achievements (or lack thereof) is the moment everything started to happen for me.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

The glamorous answer that I should give you is that moment when I see my high-profile clients delivering to an audience of thousands. There is nothing in the world like hearing than being sat in that audience and hearing the crowd roaring with laughter at a joke only I know I came up with. But really, it’s my coaching side of my work that gives me the greatest sense of satisfaction. I can honestly say I have correspondence from a few clients that say I’ve changed their lives, which is an extraordinary piece of feedback to be given. These are the clients who feel that they’ll just have to live with their stage fright forever, and some of them are even physically sick or tearful before having to do a presentation. For female directors in particular, imposter syndrome can be crippling and truly skewer their own judgement of how they are perceived. I’m extremely lucky to hear these clients open up to me about something that is such a closed part of them, and with a lot of hard work from both sides, the results can be transformative. I get to witness those clients going from ‘pulling a sickie’ the day before a presentation to conquering their greatest fears and performing confidently in front of their seniors with aplomb. It’s such an incredibly personal journey to share with them.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Being an absolute clown. No seriously, I’m trained in clowning. When everyone around me is being very serious and introducing me in a hushed voice to the CEO of the company, there’s part of me that’s revelling in the formality of it all, so I have to crack a joke. For the 99% of the time where that doesn’t get me in trouble, it immediately breaks the rigidity of the situation and allows everyone to relax. Asides from that, I’m the youngest person I know who does what I do. Female speech coaches are pretty rare, but young, female speech coaches are almost unheard of, and with the right client that gives them such a different set of ideas to bounce off of. I don’t see much point in getting in a speech coach who has exactly the same thoughts and approaches that the client does, but it happens.

The secret to what I do though is that a good speech should feel embarrassingly simple; most communication is forgotten immediately, but if you’re brave enough to deliver one clear key message wrapped up a joke then that may well be enough for your audience to not only remember you, but actually like you. There’s a lesson there: the clown doesn’t endear the audience with complicated words and a highly technical Power Point; they can only be as they are in that moment, and in my case that’s often someone who is physically unable to reach the top of the flip chart.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

My experience of mentoring has been somewhat hit and miss. As a largely unstructured, unpaid, and unregulated relationship it can be problematic. For me, it’s much better to develop of network of respected professionals at various stages of their career who you feel comfortable enough to reach out to, and vice versa.

I cannot tell you how many brilliant professionals (both female and male) I’ve had help me throughout my career, but in those situations the relationship is one in which you can simply pick up the phone to ask them for advice, problem solve or simply catch-up. That sort of interaction is one I’m a huge fan of and has been paramount to me under the pandemic. Of course, when you find yourself in that privileged position, you have to pay it back. I’ll often get emails and messages on LinkedIn from guys who want to know more about my career or need some guidance, which I’m more than happy to offer. Time is a valuable commodity to anyone, but I’m always really pleased to hear from someone wants to learn from my experiences or ask for a favour.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

That’s a very big, very good question. I often wonder why it is that typically, when I have a coaching session with a female director, they start the conversation by telling me what they did that week that went wrong and will add on a few blasé comments at the end telling me what went right, whilst her male counterpart, the conversation starts with the positives and the negatives are largely discounted? My answer (unsurprisingly) lies in communication. Drama, debating and public speaking need to be given as much importance on the National Curriculum as literacy. We need to make both genders so comfortable about talking about the big stuff; feelings, issues, vulnerabilities and fears, that we become a much more empathetic, communicative and balanced society. We’ve come all this way and it still feels like we barely understand the other side still. We must continue having the conversation.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Firstly, study something more business focused than clowning, or get a good accountant. Secondly, brace yourself.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

Global domination.

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