A Question of Courage

“Love the ultra-local stand up – that takes a double serving of courage!”

That quote was my coach’s response after hearing that I’d performed stand up at a beer festival in a local village. And that the material featured said village (as well as my own – I like to be even handed with these things). It was a risk, but one I was willing to take because, well, sometimes we need to take a look at our reflection and have some fun with it.

I also covered cervical screening, grief, childbirth, intimate waxing, drugs, social mobility and the sense that ‘making it’ can leave you feeling like you don’t belong. Sometimes the weightiest topics benefit from the lightest of touch. And sometimes what is terrifying to one person will leave another feeling like they’ve had the chance to truly be themselves.

Performing stand up offers the opportunity to tell my story, connect with others and represent what many people are afraid to share or reveal. We build lives and personas, (rightly) modify our behaviour as we raise our children and for some of us (certainly me) we can find ourselves wondering where that part of us that leapt around in a moshpit went to. We become afraid to say what we think in the workplace, at home, in front of new friends. It helps when a comedian tells it like it really is.

Courage? Yes, I think so. But on the part of the venue – they knew what I was going to talk about – I’d like to thank them for having the courage to book me 🙂

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As a writer, I bring humour and humility to what business leaders want to say.

As a compere and stand up, I tell it like it really is.

Want to know more about what I do? Have a look at my LinkedIn profile.

The Value of Vulnerability

Vulnerability in the tech industry is dirty word. Firewalls must be robust, infrastructure must be secure, and if you’ve not got a handle on your data, you might as well write your own headline for The Register. In the past eight years I have written enough whitepapers and thought leadership pieces for vendors, developers and solution providers to paper a datacentre, so the spectre of what happens in a cyber attack is never far from my mind.

But there is a place in tech where vulnerability is valuable – in leadership. At the same time as putting the fear of God into enterprises, I have worked closely with founders, CMOs and CTOs to help them bring to the fore what they’re all about. And it isn’t about being a bullet-proof, bombastic uber-director who can crush a competitor with their bare hands. It’s about putting themselves in a position of vulnerability.

A distinctly non-corporate approach

So what does vulnerability look like? For the people I work with, it’s about taking a distinctly non-corporate approach – but one that recognises and respects the business. This means:

  • Sharing a little about themselves
  • Acknowledging fears and going for it anyway
  • Challenging misconceptions
  • Having fun

Hello all you risk-takers

A common trait that I have found amongst the people I work with is that they are used to taking risks in their professional and personal lives but they haven’t found a way to comfortably combine the two. They worry about getting it wrong, making themselves look stupid or undermining the credibility that they’ve already built. In an era when we are told to ‘bring your whole self to work’ it is very hard to strike that balance when you are carrying the number or responsible for a team of seasoned solution architects.

Creating a connection

The place in which demonstrating vulunerability is particularly effective is at company events where, let’s be honest, even the most dedicated of us will flag at the twenty-fifth mention of the conference tag-line or call to action. They provide a rare opportunity for employees to connect with their leadership in person – and a perfect setting to deliver something memorable. I mean, you’ve got great lighting, proper AV, an autocue and a captive (and possibly hung-over) audience – don’t waste that on another set of BORING SLIDES!

Here’s an idea

If you’re starting from a blank page, it’s hard to know what will work. And if you’re only working with people within your organisation, it can feel difficult to come up with a truly fresh idea. So here’s an example of something really works well.

Using poetry and rap

I’ve written raps about annual reports and poems on the focus for the next fiscal. And, because it’s always using words related to that business (and often name-checking people on the team), it brings the right balance of corporate and comedic. It also provides a chance for a leader to express vulnerability without feeling like they have to share something overly personal. Most people recoil in horror at the thought of having to recite a poem or rap on stage but most leaders are already comfortable speaking in front of a large audience. Using poetry or rap provides a great stretch for the presenter and something memorable for the audience.

That was so brave

The feedback from the audiences who have witnessed their leaders truly embrace this has been phenomenal. “I could never do that”, “That was so brave”, “It was amazing!”. In one particular instance, I worked with the incredible Leanne Brown to create a piece that she completely and utterly owned – going so far as to create a video with a soundtrack. As a marketing leader she was epitomising creativity and effective messaging. She also created an asset that could be re-used (another marketing gold star). To find out more about what Leanne did, and why it was important to her, check out her post.

Make it easy on yourself

What Leanne did so brilliantly was find a way to make the rap we worked on together work for her. Learning lyrics off-pat is fine if you’re Stormzy but then I wonder how he is with running a partner summit…..

With another client we changed the words to a massive hip-hop track. This meant that the audience were already with her as the opening bars rang out and when it got to the chorus they were joining in. Putting a spin on something that was familiar got people to up their energy levels and engage. There was even a mini-stage invasion.

Finally, for one VP of Sales, we decided on a poem but he didn’t want to deliver it from a lectern. Instead, we put his poem in a book and set it up like a cosy fireside chat – giving him the opportunity to draw the audience in so they would listen closely before surprising them with his lyrical dexterity.

In each of these instances, the leaders involved showed their willingness to be vulnerable by opening themselves up to a new challenge. The conference attendees got to see people who are at the top of their game professionally doing something a little bit risky. It demonstrated that the organisations they work for are open to doing things differently – and that they see value in vulnerability.

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As I writer I help tech leaders express themselves honestly and bring a human touch to corporate communications.

As a speaker and stand-up, I tell it like it is.

The Power of Looking Up

“When you go to the House of Commons”, said my friend Lins, “make sure you look up. It’s definitely a place for looking up.”

And how right she was. Having been invited to attend Smart Works Reading’s 4th birthday celebrations in the Churchill Room (don’t you know), I walked into Westminster Hall and was immediately wowed. Beautiful ceilings, priceless artworks and lots of statues of dead white dudes who carved out the beginnings of our democracy. It was an incredible opportunity to walk into a place where politics really happens. And to be frisked by a member of the security staff after going through the airport-style scanner.

I saw stained glass windows, yet more statues and a bronze of Winston Churchill’s head. But what was more impressive than that was the people gathered in the room:

  • The women who form the Smart Works Reading board and contribute their time and expertise on top of their full-time jobs.
  • Sarah Burns, Chair of the charity and now an MBE thanks to her incredible efforts to build something that is having a large and lasting impact in the Thames Valley.
  • Clare who overcame some serious nerves to speak with grace and humour about how Asperger’s impacts her life and how the Smart Works volunteers have helped her.
  • Aman who described how Smart Works gave her clothes, “that suited me, not just fitted me”, before going on to say how the company she now works for has chosen Smart Works Reading as its charity of the year.

There was also the marketing director who challenges the views of other families in her village: “What do you mean you earn more than your husband?”, the magazine founder who’s planning a series of talks that promise some very exciting conversations and the lawyer who I fully intend to help set up an anarchic internet radio station.

There were more, for sure, and everyone in the room gave everyone else something to think about, to move them and to inspire them. We all had someone to look up to.


I’m a proud supporter of Smart Works Reading, and provide compering and stand-up for their events (not this one though – far too risky for me to be ‘Lording it up’ in the Commons :D). To find out how you can support them, visit https://smartworks.org.uk/reading-smart-works/

Yes, Yes, Oh Yes!

There are times when you’re offered a gig and you don’t have to think twice about it. The same goes for a piece of work or a project – something in your gut that tells you it’s the right thing to do.

This time, the call came from the incredible Aduke Onafowokan. Aduke is a woman who uses her skills and talent not just to further her own career, but also to inspire other women to “build bridges” so that we might all help one another along the path to success. What I love about this attitude is it demonstrates that growth is not all about climbing upwards, sometimes we just need to help people make it across.

The Perfect Brief

Aduke’s question to me was whether I’d be willing to perform at Arise 2020. It’s a summit that’s designed to help women and men step into leadership by providing inspirational, high impact content from respected, relatable speakers. The brief is to deliver stand-up content that reflects on the female experience to a crowd that is there to learn while having a good time. As briefs go, it was a perfect one for me.

A Values-Based Judgement

What made it so easy to say yes? First of all it was truly a values-based judgement. Aduke and I have a shared passion for social mobility and shared experiences of what that really entails. We both care about encouraging women to explore their talents fully and we both believe in networks and helping other people. It’s what sold me on performing at Arise 2019, where I was bowled over by the power of the truth in the room. It’s something you can read about in this blog post.

The second part is it plays to what I love to do and what I’m good at. It’s the right audience, the right theme and the right kind of forum in which to showcase my skills. Do I want to perform in a pub full of well-oiled punters who are desperate to ‘join-in’? In short – no. Those kind of gigs can be fun, and they’re great for honing my audience participation skills, but they don’t give me the same buzz that I got from Arise 2019. It was a great gig – the audience response was awesome and I learned loads too. I came away with a far better understanding of where my style and material works best.

Ready to Arise?

Arise 2020 promises to help people answer the following questions:

  • What does it really take to lead?
  • What can we still learn about our individual power and abilities?
  • How can we bridge the gap between where we are today and where we want to be tomorrow?
  • How can we pay it forward and unlock opportunities for others?

If this speaks to you, you can find more details and buy tickets here.


I perform stand-up and compering services that go down brilliantly at women’s networks and events focusing on leadership, diversity and technology. Want to book me for yours? Drop me a line at toni@tonikent.co.uk.

Why it’s Time to Celebrate the Real Influencers

In visiting a client’s LinkedIn profile today as a means to help accurately capture her voice, I’m told that she hasn’t yet written any articles. But it’s ok because LinkedIn has suggested that in the absence of her writing, I might like to read what some ‘Influencers’ have to say.

I wonder which influencers I might be offered and, naturally, I get the ‘most followed’ on LinkedIn. Tony Robbins – eeew -, James Caan – meh – and don’t even get me started on Richard Bloody Branson. The list continues with more of the same old same old. The same old men with the same old yachts and the same old dentist.

It prompted me to think about the people who are true influencers for me and how they differ from LinkedIn’s list.

  1. They have directly inspired me to take action
  2. They do things that make a positive difference to other people’s lives
  3. I can go to them for advice without fear of judgement
  4. We have shared experience and/or shared values
  5. There’s no BS

It can be easy to think that only those people with the greatest number of followers have something worthwhile to say, but I’ve found my influence and inspiration a little closer to home.

So, in the spirit of celebrating the real influencers, I’d like to say thanks to #smartworksreading #sistersisternetwork #athenanetwork, and all of the smart, funny, inspiring people that I work with and know. They influence and inspire me way more than LinkedIn will ever know.

Who influences you?

NB: This post was originally written by me on LinkedIn. Want to connect? Head on over to my profile.

Want to find out more about my work as a speaker, compere, writer or stand up? Hit the links 🙂

The Power of Being Seen for Who You Are

Reg Parrett is a man approaching a milestone, he’ll be 100 next year and shows no signs of slowing down. Dapper and debonair, this is a man who had “great larks” with the RAF, became an interior designer responsible for transforming homes and hotels across North Wales well into his late 80’s and, more recently, has proven it is possible to climb onto a shed roof when you are over the age of 95.

He is sharp, humorous and fiercely independent with a dog that understands his dislike of hearing aids – helpfully eating one so that Reg no longer has to wear it. During the past decade he has travelled on the Orient Express, visited Ronnie Scott’s and complained that the Ferrari his grandson was taking him around the Welsh mountains in was not being driven “fast enough”.

Here’s something else about Reg; I have never met him. I know about him because I had the pleasure to interview the cautiously driving grandson, Neil, about the reason he founded Helpd, an organisation that connects self-employed carers to people in need of care. A prostate operation designed to fix a problem had robbed Reg of much of his independence and, given what you have read about him up until now, you can imagine how infuriated he was at the prospect of relying on others.

It is in Reg’s DNA to be self-sufficient. When his wife died ten years ago he taught himself to cook so he was damned if he was going to be a recipient of meals on wheels off the back of an unsuccessful operation. His family made regular visits, but it soon became clear that, like it or not, having someone around who could help Reg to tidy the house, mow the lawn and help him continue to enjoy his social life was important.

Having investigated what the local authorities could provide and looked at private care agencies, Neil felt that there had to be a better way. What his grandfather needed was someone who could see him for who he was – a sociable, capable man who wants to live as independently as possible. Having a different person visit him every day or an agency worker with only 20 minutes to spare was almost worse than doing nothing.

So, along with his friend Luca, Neil founded Helpd. The carers are self-employed, which means that they can set their rates and agree their hours with their clients. For people requiring care they get to choose their carer, creating a trust-based relationship and continuity that leads to companionship.

However, despite Neil creating a business inspired by his grandfather’s needs, Reg, as you may expect, resisted mightily. It took two whole years before he finally saw that perhaps his grandson was onto something.

Come next year, Reg will be celebrating another milestone – a year with Karen (also known as “the lady that you send round to me”) someone who mows the lawn, tidies the house, helps with appointments and, every Friday, is the companion that he takes out to lunch. Proving to his friends in his North Wales town that he’s every bit as debonair as he used to be and demonstrating the power of being seen for who you are.


As a writer, I love telling other people’s stories. If you want me to help you tell yours, get in touch with me at toni@tonikent.co.uk

In Praise of Microsoft Partners

It’s Microsoft Inspire awards season and I’m delighted to see UK Microsoft partners well and truly represented amongst the winners. Seeing the celebratory posts prompted me to think about the partners I worked with during my 10 years at Microsoft – many of which were spent as a Partner Account Manager.

I’ve written and spoken about my time working at ‘The Mothership’ but haven’t said much about the partner community. Something I now intend to fix because it’s thanks to them that I:

A: Learned what’s really involved in running a business – something that stood me in great stead for setting up on my own.

B: Made sure that I didn’t get too corporate to be employable anywhere else.

C: Made enough money that when I decided it was time to leave, I was financially secure enough to do so. My very best years were spent as a PAM for the LAR community – all hail EA agreements!.

So, in no particular order, here’s some Microsoft partners I’d like to thank:

Bytes Software Services

Do you know how much I loved you? If the Venga Bus was designed solely to transport one Microsoft partner around, it was you. Nobody partied like you did, nobody made me laugh as much as you. On more than one occasion, nobody booked more revenue than you. You probably paid for my kitchen. You definitely paid my kids’ nursery fees.

Teksys

My very first partner and no longer in existence (these two things are NOT related) so instead I will say enormous thanks to Shaun Frohlich for his guidance, encouragement, wise words and referrals.

SCC

Now I think you know that I loved you. Still do. People didn’t want to be your PAM, they said it was “too hard” but that was because they didn’t know what to do with a privately owned organisation chock full of personalities who saw no reason to do what a 25 year old in a nice suit told them that the corporate scorecard said they should do. We got along famously. You did a Google deal that led to a meeting with the UK GM of Microsoft that I will never forget. It kind of went along the lines of “HOW THE **** DID THIS HAPPEN?! WHO LET THIS HAPPEN?!” You invited me to present to your board, you gave me amazing opportunities and one person in particular helped me challenge some misconceptions I had about what it takes to be successful in the business world. Cheers John 🙂

Computacenter

Who’s bright idea was it to give me both SCC and Computacenter to manage at the same time? It took a while to build trust and I was never going to fit with your enterprise sales team but working with the SBU was a fantastic experience as was getting involved in exec briefings between our two organisations – I became fantastically adept at getting to know the executive assistants and writing 8 page briefing documents. We went through the launch of Windows 7 together and the horror of trying to explain to sales people who were used to winning huge deals that, really, what they wanted to be selling was BPOS.

Softcat

I never got to be your PAM…but I wanted to (we all did). Not least when there was an emphasis on booking mid-market revenue 😀

One of the best things about building a career outside of Microsoft is that I have worked with, and still get to work with, with some excellent Microsoft partners and associated businesses. These include Sol-Tec, LeadaMarket, Tech Data, Incredible Results, Coeo, Mimecast, ResourceiT and NAK Consulting. Working with them outside of the corporate walls, but with the benefit of years of tech industry knowledge, has been a new, rewarding experience in itself.

So if you’re going to Microsoft Inspire this year, enjoy the keynotes – sorry, “corenotes”…whose terrible idea was that? Enjoy the networking, the 101’s, the deep dives, the entertainment, the whole spectacle of being in an enormous venue with tens of thousands of people.

Enjoy the competitiveness of the country lounges and trying to out-do the Netherlands when it comes to team spirit (you won’t, they’ll send three thousand people in orange t-shirts who will all sit together at every given opportunity, wins every time). Enjoy the soul-crushing, head-swimming hangovers that are not fixed by free coffee and bran muffins. Enjoy shopping on a work trip. Enjoy getting to know the Microsoft team and the chance to have a beer with someone who ordinarily you’d superglue into their car to stop them getting to a customer before you. Enjoy the knowledge that outside of some of the things you’ll hear that make you want to be a little bit sick in your mouth, you are a community that is really, truly valued by an enormous number of people. Me included.

What Camping and Business Travel Have in Common

Not so long ago I wouldn’t have set foot inside a tent.  The aversion to canvas was in part formed by an early experience with the Brownies where we camped on a rugby pitch in Abergavenny; one of our party had (to put it delicately) a “very upset tummy”, the rest of us were just “very upset”.  It was also informed by a strong desire to avail of as many 5* hotel experiences as possible – which, as it turns out, was a very good plan as once children arrived, the cash with which to do this vanished under an ocean of costs associated with sports clubs and the buying of shoes every six months.

Eventually I acquiesced and our family has now celebrated five years of tent-ownership which began with borrowing a tent, and ended with us owning not just a tent, but an awning, several flash gadgets and a habit for campsites that come with great facilities.  What began as a way to holiday cheaply has resulted in something that is not too far off business travel because….

Small = smart

I once managed a week in Washington with just carry-on luggage (ok, Business Class carry-on but it still counts!).  Miniature toiletries, layering of separates, strategically positioned shoes to maximise space, anything to avoid queuing for hours at a carousel or the magical game that is wondering whether your luggage will reach the same destination as you…. This habit has now transformed into the decanting of shampoo into small bottles, sleeping bags that fold into teeny pockets and collapsible colanders (who knew the joy that little gadget would bring?!).

A little luxury goes a long way

Some people won’t travel without a scented candle for their hotel room (I never once did that, but I get why you would), others insist on a glass of champagne after take-off (I definitely did that).  For camping this transforms into good wine, proper cutlery, farm shop burgers and cheeseboards.  Our friend once brought a glass cloche to protect, display and serve a rather nice cake from.  It was a crazily fragile thing to take into a field full of children and guy ropes but not one of us did not appreciate its beauty over a Tupperware pot.

You will covet other peoples’ stuff

On a business trip it’s all about admiring your neighbour’s shoes / laptop bag / Luis Vuitton toiletry bag.  Back when we had to share rooms with other people at conferences as part of a cost-saving / how to make employees feel deeply uncomfortable exercise, I tried on my roommate’s Manolo Blahniks while she was out.  Upon her return I confessed to my terrible behaviour. And then she let me try them on again – yay!    

Now we remark favourably on our friends’ camping stoves, tent carpets and camping mats, and harbour ambitions to one day own a kitchen stand.  It will be ours…

The day hasn’t started unless coffee has been served

In a business context it’s mega hangovers thanks to dinner with clients and all-nighters. When camping it’s being woken by what sounds like a concrete mixer (when in fact it is deer nibbling at grass) or having to take your child for a wee in the dark several times during the night.  All of these fade away with the first cup of strong, hot coffee.

The feeling when you get home

Whether it’s a five day business trip to the US requiring inordinate amounts of smiling nicely at customers and a cast-iron constitution, or a long weekend of fresh air and outdoor pursuits with your family, both of these things are true:

  1. You will feel like you need a holiday afterwards   
  2. There is nothing like your own bed!

Before

Before testosterone takes hold

And stubble grows upon your cheek
Before your voice descends an octave
Could I forever hold this week

Before the scent of little boy
Slips away like grains of sand
Before your chest and shoulders broaden
Could I forever hold your hand

Before your sleepy tousled hair
Is tamed into a grown-up style
Before your giggle turns to rumble
Could I read to you for awhile

Before your little body’s shadow
Lengthens to a full grown man
Before you’re big enough to hold me
I will hold you, if I can

The Power of the Truth

How many times have you been to an event and been disappointed with the keynote speakers? Perhaps you’ve sat through five presentations and only one has stood out. Feels like a waste of time eh?

On Saturday, I had the rare experience of compering an event where every speaker was first class. It was the Arise Summit 2019, organised by the fantastic Aduke Onafowokan – founder of The Sister Sister Network, an organisation dedicated to empowering women into leadership.

But what was it about these speakers that made them so memorable? It was one simple word – truth. The Summit itself had a core theme of leadership and as each speaker shared their thoughts on what it takes to become, and remain an effective leader, they were open about their challenges, their history and the obstacles they had to overcome.

These obstacles included sexual abuse, eating disorders, bereavement, life-threatening illnesses and negative parental and societal expectations. But they weren’t presented as ‘poor me’. They were simply part of their story, a point in their life, part of their truth. Hearing these people talk was the perfect antidote to seeing airbrushed lives online. No feelings of inadequacy – just inspiration and possibilities.

And what about my truth? It came in the form of throwing myself into the moment and allowing myself to enjoy being seen, to sing and to bring a bit of energy to the room. I think it was the start of something special.

If you’re looking for a compere to bring truth and humour to your next event, get in touch.