In 2018, Richard Askam’s career took him on 34 flights, featuring 27 speaking gigs and trips to 11 different countries and two adventures in the U.S.
Widely known as the “man behind Coca-Cola’s Share A Coke campaign”, Richard is an expert in personalisation and marketing.
Earlier this year, I shared a 2-hour conversation with him at Knapton Wright HQ. I had prepared for a discussion about his journey from being a wine merchant to a personalisation expert, but our meet-up was so much more than that.
If you have been keeping track of our #KnapChat series so far, you’ll have delved into some wonderful careers and journeys from a range of fascinating people.
Thanks to his rich array of experiences and valuable insights, Richard Askam is the first to have two separate pieces in the series.
Strap yourselves in for a deep dive into the power of storytelling; winning over a crowd, and the life of a digital nomad.
KW: How do you foster relationships with your audience and peers online?
Richard: The majority of it is done on social media, but often the initial contact is face-to-face. Whenever I speak anywhere there is an automatic uplift in things like LinkedIn views and I tend to pre-promote and post-promote appearances.
It’s a circular economy in that you use yourself to build yourself and create the opportunities. There’s also an element of luck as you don’t know who’s in the room when you’re speaking. Every talk I’ve done has come off the back of the very first paid performance I gave in 2016.
KW: Do you have to change your delivery style and content in different countries?
Richard: Content varies anywhere in relation to the nature of the event. Understanding your audience is the key to any performance.
I tend to have an idea of what I’d like to say, but the style depends on the culture. The US, for example, are not as appreciative of sarcasm as the UK, so I don’t use it when over there.
The first time I spoke in America, I was unusually nervous as I knew it was a big opportunity. It was in a massive convention centre in Phoenix with three rooms, each occupied by about 600 people.
My talk took place at the same time as two others in the rooms each side of mine. I decided one minute before the talk to say to the audience:
“Just so you know, there are people to the left and right of us, as well as outside in the hall, that don’t know that we are in here. So when I walk to the back of the room and open the doors, I want you all to make as much noise as possible. I want them to know what they’re missing.”
The audience loved it and went crazy as soon as the doors opened. The room filled up in a matter of five minutes. If I asked a British audience to do that, I wouldn’t have got anywhere close to that response. It’s a lesson in understanding human behaviour and empathy.
KW: What’s the ratio between gauging your audience in the moment and prior to the speech?
Richard: You’ve got to set out to do something, see whether it’s working, and adapt accordingly.
For the last 20 years, I’ve sung in a band, which has taught me how to keep an audience interested. The job of a band is to get people dancing, if the dance floor is empty, you’re not doing your job, and you have to change the song, delivery, or movement.
I always sit in on the talks before me to gauge the mood and energy of the audience. You have to prepare more for the room than the speech, as most of the time I know what I’m about to say.
You see people coming in and reading off massive pre-prepared slideshows, but that just reminds me of my geography teacher at school. The delivery has more value than the content. The only person I want to read stories to is my daughter. Everyone else I want to tell stories to.
KW: How much has your band experience helped your speaking career?
Richard: Our lead guitarist had the habit of re-tuning his guitar in between songs, forcing me to fill a minute of silence with the crowd. In these moments, you either make it awkward by going to the bar and losing the crowd, or you make it interesting. I chose to make it interesting.
KW: Ah so that’s how you learned to speak in front of a crowd so effectively! But how do you make those moments while your guitarist is re-tuning interesting?
Richard: By reading the room and making it up as I go along. Whether it’s using people I know in the crowd as fodder or telling stories and anecdotes.
There are three audiences at every event, which stems from the music environment but can be used anywhere. You get the audience you deserve.
KW: What are those three audiences?
Richard: So at a music event, the first third will dance to whatever. It doesn’t matter what you do, they’re yours. They’re the people at a speech who are sat down before you start talking.
The middle third is interesting as this is split into two sections: the front and the back of the middle. Maybe you’re stood in the middle of the room nursing a pint thinking: ‘Any minute now, I’ll be ready to dance. Not sure when I’ll be ready, or how many people are watching me, but soon enough I’m in.’ If that’s the case, you’re at the front of the middle, willing but not quite prepared.
At the back of the middle are the people going: ‘I don’t feel like dancing tonight, I just want to listen to the band.’
The third audience are at the bar and don’t even know a band is playing. You’ll never get these people; they’re here to drink and the only reason they’ll move is if everyone else around them has left.
Your opportunity is the middle third. That to me is the way I define any event.
KW: How do you win that middle third?
Richard: You sweat. You make it your mission to get and hold their attention so the decision to dance is made easy for them.
KW: And how do you know you’ve got them to ‘dance’ at a speaking gig?
Richard: It’s a feeling, because you’re very exposed on stage. You’ve got no band to hide behind. When people are looking at me, I know when they’re listening. People can’t fake that look.
KW: As a speaker, you have to tell stories and engage the audience by taking them on a journey. How do you echo this in your online content?
Richard: I try to imagine a movie poster: if the Richard Askam speaking brand was a film, I want the quote that would be at the bottom of the movie poster to be the social media content.
KW: What would be on the bottom of the Richard Askam movie poster?
Richard: That’s a difficult question. It’s a bit like when people ask me if I’m a motivational speaker. I always say “No, but if you come away motivated that’s fantastic.”
Once you position yourself as something or pigeon-hole yourself, the audience believes that’s what they should get from your talk and that’s who you are. I don’t position myself as anything other than a talker as that’s what I enjoy doing.
If I don’t give you any expectations, you can’t possibly walk away disappointed. Maybe the poster should say: “No expectations”, which isn’t much of a selling line, but you either over-sell or under-sell!
KW: What are your thoughts on using slides during talks?
Richard: I don’t like having a script, not in the sense that I like to make it up as I go along, but if I start putting slides up of things, people know what I’m about to say. I don’t like that, it’s like starting a joke with the punchline.
I like to surprise people and also challenge myself and the audience to wonder what I’m going to say. I’ve put some random pictures up over the years to grab people’s attention. That picture is my safety net, a trigger to remind me to talk about and link particular stories.
I started doing a talk last year about telling an old story in a new way, partly off the back of my work with the new Grimsby regeneration. I used a picture of George Lucas to talk to the people of Grimsby about engaging new audiences while in-keeping with the great history of the town..
The picture is an 8-year-old George Lucas watching TV which fades into a picture of him as an adult. The first film Lucas ever saw was Wizard of Oz and it blew his mind when it changed from black and white to colour. That was his inspiration to become a movie director, so when he created his first film, he rewrote the Wizard of Oz and called it Star Wars.
When you look at the characters, you start to see the patterns. Wicked Witch of the West, baddie dressed in black: Darth Vader. Friendly lion: Chewbacca. Tin man: C3PO. Toto the dog: R2D2.
All George Lucas did was tell an old story in a new way. That’s the metaphor for Grimsby breaking out from once being the busiest-ever fishing port to what to do next. There’s not a lot of new in this world, but there’s a lot that’s different.
KW: You describe yourself as a digital nomad. Can you elaborate on this?
Richard: It’s about living a freelance life in a world without walls, finding one thing that everything else revolves around.
There are pros and cons to technology, the pro being that it has allowed me to be anywhere I want, as long as the coffee and Wi-Fi are worth it. The cons are becoming more evident.
Some of the best articles I’ve ever written have been produced 35,000 feet up in the air when I have nothing else to do other than write. It removes the noise and allows you to focus. The days of being tied to a building are long gone.
KW: If you could go back to your teenage self, what advice would you give?
Richard: ‘Have a little bit more belief’. My teenage self was so shy. I had all the necessary skills but did not know I was capable of doing all the things I do now. This is why I encourage people to be as good as they can be.
The main barrier is doubt of our own abilities, and it’s important people understand they’re more capable than they think they are.
KW: What has been the most important thing in your career that was so important, without it, you wouldn’t be where are you today?
Richard: I worked with my dad for a long time. He had this drinks business and, as I didn’t go to university, I was sent by him out into the world to learn everything about the industry in which he worked.
I worked in a vineyard, a whiskey distillery, a retailer in Soho, an Italian wine shipping company and an accountancy business. Every one of those jobs was an element of running the family business but at the time I didn’t see it as an education, I saw it as a chore.
My dad died 18 years ago and he never got a chance to see this part of my life. I don’t think he would believe that this was even possible. The only time I ever saw him say: “Wow” was after I gave a speech at my own wedding. He said: “I had no idea you could do that.” Funnily enough, neither did I up until that point.
So realising the lessons I didn’t realise were lessons from the teacher I didn’t realise was a teacher in a period of life I utterly resented having to do as an 18/19-year-old is the reason I’m quite proficient in what I do now. The sad regret being I can’t tell the guy.
I look up to the skies quite regularly but I can’t tell the guy that taught me all that. I now realise his exact intentions. It was a university degree I didn’t even know I was studying. I hear my father’s voice come out of my mouth every day, yet at the time I was the classic son of the father.
The hardest speech I’ve ever given was at his funeral. He came from a generation that didn’t know how to express those words, but what he gave me was the key to the cookie jar. He just never told me what he was doing.
I’d love to be able to say thank you and for him to say: This is why I’m doing this…” My mum always tells me “You do know your father was always proud of you, don’t you?” and my response is “Then why didn’t he tell me?”
That’s the promise I make as a parent, to be totally honest about every question my daughter asks me. She may not like the answer but she’ll respect the honesty.
KW: So what were some of the important lessons you learned in the education you never knew you were getting?
Richard: The classic one is communication. He used to say: “Deal with everyone the same, whether they’re the tea boy or the chairman of the company. Because you never know when you may need a cup of tea or the help to buy a company.” That lesson still stands.
The ability to do that and make people feel at ease is probably the biggest skill I never knew I had. It’s not rocket science; it’s a bit of thought. It’s the one second longer it takes you to get back to your car because you’re thanking the parking attendant. It’s just asking someone if they’re alright. That’s it, but it makes all the difference in the world to everybody.
“You get the audience you deserve.”
Anyone can read a story, but very few can tell one better than Richard Askam.
My only wish, having had the pleasure of hearing so many of his tales myself, was that Richard could have had the listener his stories so thoroughly deserve: the teacher of the lessons that formed the foundations of his path to success; the person whose voice he still hears daily.
I have no doubt that somewhere his father is in that front third, listening intently to every speech, grasping hold of every word, laughing along to every story, dancing to every song.