• toni@tonikent.co.uk

Compering

Stand up at the White Hart

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.

Feeling vulnerable at my first stand up gig

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.

Arise 2020 Logo

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.

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.

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