Wednesday 9 June 2021 7:45 pm

Exclusive: ‘Allow yourself to f*** up once in a while’, says Speak2Impact founder and TED talk writer Susie Ashfield

Susie Ashfield started out as the voice of middle-class products on day time television; everything from Channing Tatum’s latest blockbuster to Jersey Royal Potatoes.

Alongside her voiceover work, she worked as an insurance broker in the City, managing a portfolio of high-net-worth individuals, including celebrities and business high flyers.

Seeing a gap in the market for speech training that blended performance art with the corporate environment, Ashfield founded Speak2Impact where she works to provide clients with a greater understanding of communication, through tone, structure and delivery.

Speak2Impact founder and TED talk writer Susie Ashfield

Ashfield specialises in coaching clients to deliver high impact speeches and presentations, from content structuring, to a delivery “that cannot be ignored,” as she puts it.

City A.M.‘s sits down with the speaker and trainer, who now runs high energy workshops, ranging from deal making conversations for City professionals to training in ‘TED style’ talks for people in a range of fields and sectors, with clients that include Santander, S&P Global, Coca Cola, Rolls Royce, Walt Disney and NATO.

You had an interesting journey so far. What has been the highlight in your career to date?

Listening to an audience roar with laughter at my client dropping a joke in front of 6,000 people at the O2 arena. What that crowd didn’t know was that for months, we’d been rewriting that, rehearsing the delivery, saying it 100 different times in 100 different ways, just to get it to sound so ‘off the cuff’.

One of my hero’s is Dolly Parton, and my favourite quote of hers is ‘it costs a lot of money to look this cheap’.

It takes a hell of a lot of preparation and practice for a speech to look so natural. The best way of describing what I do is that I make my clients look good, feel good and sound good when they speak publicly, whether that’s on a podcast, TEDx Talk, interview or, as with the story above, in front of a live audience of thousands. That was the biggest gig I’ve done for a client to date in terms of crowd size and we were both ecstatic after I’d watched him absolutely smash the delivery.

Tell us more about your clientbase.

I have been really lucky in terms of the individuals I get to work with and the stories they want to tell; 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. Whilst those days when I watch a client deliver are always special, I still love the day-to-day stuff as well.

How has the pandemic changed your job?

Pre-pandemic when there was face to face communication, my role was essentially client-hopping. I don’t cope well with staying in the same place for too long, so I’ve done my best to build a career where no one day is the same; one day I might be helping a CIO overcome the sense of impending doom they’re experiencing around an upcoming talk in front of the shareholders, the next I’ll find myself with an app founder getting them to talk about their own product in a way the rest of the world can understand, it’s amazing how being so close to your product renders you unable to explain it in tangible terms. These days I do all of that, but online from my kitchen.

Since we have discussed the highlight of your career, let’s also touch on your biggest setback, so far.

It feels like a bit of an obvious answer here, but I’m going to have to go with Covid. In a world where your job relies almost totally on the concept of live audiences, I can’t tell you how completely lost I felt when the pandemic hit. I’m aware I’m far from being the only person in this position and many have had it a lot worse than I have, but I remember on a particularly low day driving through the city in a taxi and seeing all of the offices I used to confidently stroll into being boarded up.

The whole world was changing right in front of me, and I felt powerless to stop it.  

But as it turned out, human beings can be a lot more resilient than we give ourselves credit for, and in just a few short months everyone had gotten their heads round the concept of working online, and with that emerged new communication issues and challenges.

It suddenly became more important than it ever had been before that my clients came across as genuine, vulnerable and engaged with the people the other side of their screen, and it felt as though the most desirable factor in communication coaching went from “make me look confident” to “I need to be authentic”.

And then we had three lockdowns.

Yes, lockdown also did mean that people suddenly had a lot more time on their hands, so recently I’ve been working with a lot of people who’ve been avoiding facing their deep-rooted fear of public speaking until a global pandemic meant they’d completely ran out of excuses. 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. I get to witness 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.

I now have clients that I feel I’ve been on very big emotional journey with who I’ve never actually met in reality.

If you are one of those clients and you’re reading this, then I’m really looking forward to seeing you in real life and going for a drink. Please remember to not say something like “I thought you’d be taller in real life” though, because I hear that a lot (I’m 5’2 at a push…).

And is there something you are particularly proud of?

Being an absolute clown. No seriously, I’m trained in clowning. I didn’t think this skill would ever have any use outside of drama school but in fact it allows me to find the points of interest in even the driest data, or see the colour amongst the beige. Coming in and asking a C-Suit executive of a major company the same sort of questions an eight-year-old child would feel facetious, until they realise, they’re struggling to find the answer.

The best communication should feel embarrassingly simple, so if you’re bold 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 take action as a result of what you’ve said.

Give us an example of that.

Well, this insight allows me to translate technical content into storytelling that sticks with the listener and makes my clients more excited about delivering something that they know has humour and humanity in it. Once they’re confident enough to step away from using communication as a way of demonstrating how much they know about the subject, they can start to play with the material and actually deliver something that the audience want to hear.

Clients often feedback to me that much to their surprise; they’ve gone from loathing to loving the speech delivery process.

The rush can even become addictive, I’ve seen some go from hating showing three people their PowerPoint to signing up for a live TEDx talk in front of a roomful of strangers.

From what I have seen, most people who do the kind of work that you do are men.

Yes, female speech coaches are pretty rare, but young, female speech coaches are almost unheard of, and with the right client that gives them fresh insight. When I first started out that felt daunting, but having built a business almost entirely through word-of-mouth recommendations I feel like I can relax a little. It also means I understand the mindset of my clients who suffer from the dreaded imposter syndrome, and that feeling that they’re just not good enough.

A touch of pressure is a very good thing, but if that turns into an expectation of a perfect delivery every time then you’re going to hate to any kind of performance. My clients laugh when I tell them that all I want them to be is ‘confidently average’, but it really challenges a mindset where perfectionism is blocking authenticity.

What advice would you give to young women who’ve just started their professional life?

If you hold yourself accountable to unachievable levels of excellence consistently then you’re going to make your life much more difficult than it needs to be. Allow yourself to f*** up once in a while, because I can tell you from experience that it’s going to happen. Change your mindset from “this has to be brilliant, and if it’s not brilliant then it’s terrible” to ‘Whatever happens happens, I’m doing this for my own experience’ and you’ll find you feel much more confident about delivering. The whole world isn’t judging you nearly as harshly as you feel, in the same way the audience isn’t sat there just waiting for you to mess up your presentation.