Retired dentist and medic Dr Ray Lowry - who used to be a gag writer for The Two Ronnies - has forged a new career as an after-dinner speaker. Jane Hall met him.
RAY Lowry is trying to suppress a smile beneath his bristling moustache. He has managed to keep his well-honed but occasionally impish sense of humour under control for the past hour or so. But eventually the temptation to crack a joke or two has proved too much.
He has been asked to offer some suggestions on how would-be public speakers can improve their presentation skills. In someone else the question would probably elicit a worthy, but ultimately mundane, list of do’s and don’ts.
Not from Ray. “Keep taking the tabloids,” he quips, followed by a catalogue of equally seemingly frivolous answers that includes throwing away any crutches you may happen to have lying around and sticking out your tongue and saying “aah!”
But stop to think about his promptings and it soon becomes clear they are anything but light-hearted. Lowry, 62, is doing what he has tried to do all his working life, turn the ordinary into something memorable and ultimately extremely useful.
Thus his assertion to ‘keep taking the tabloids,’ his own unique way of saying: “keep it short, sweet and easily digestible.”
And his advice to rudely stick your tongue out and toss away the crutches (not necessarily both at the same time)? “It’s important to limber up your mouth and face before you go on and avoid using PowerPoint or leaning on a lectern as a prop.”
Lowry, or to be more correct Dr Ray Lowry, and yes, he is a distant relative of LS Lowry, although the only thing he says the family has inherited from the famous painter is a slightly clumsy gait when viewed from the rear, is on a mission to make Britain a nation of entertaining speakers, especially our captains of industry.
It is a quest borne out of sitting through one too many embarrassingly bad speeches himself during an eclectic career that has seen him not only qualify as both a dental surgeon and a medical practitioner, but also lecture as a health professional and academic in Newcastle and write gags for some of the UK’s biggest comedy names, including The Two Ronnies, Dave Allen, Don Maclean and Kenneth Williams.
He has also spent more than 30 years developing social marketing to increase awareness of life-threatening diseases, such as oral cancer, as well as urging mothers to increase breastfeeding and to reduce smoking during pregnancy.
Now retired, but not out of work, Lowry staves off poverty as an in-demand after-dinner speaker, would-be stand-up comic, giving seminar lectures for the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in the UK and Ireland and coaching people to be better public speakers.
He has also just self-published Be An Entertaining Speaker via Amazon, a new self-help guide to being interesting, effective and funny in front of an audience.
Oh, and in his spare time he is also secretary of Tynemouth’s Priory Theatre and has co-written many of the amateur dramatic company’s annual festive pantomimes.
He bills himself as ‘The Public Speaking Doctor’ and two years ago set up Dr Lowry Ltd based at the home in Tynemouth he shares with wife Loraine, a retired consultant in paediatric dentistry. Their two daughters, Katy, 27, a maths teacher, and Jessica, 25, a medical researcher, have flown the nest.
He turns over around £10,000 a year, mainly because Ray has an altruistic streak. “I’d earn an awful lot more money from public speaking if I didn’t have a tendency to do it for expenses,” he claims with a hearty laugh.
“But you get treated a lot better if you do that than if you demand £400-£500 and are just another hired hand. At my time of life I would rather be doing it for the joy of it.
“I know a lot of business people will be scandalised to hear me say that. But I am thankfully in a position where I can afford to be a lot more lenient as far as that side goes.”
Having said that, Ray is moving things up a couple of gears this next year with the publication of his book and is on his one-man quest to get businesses to realise the importance of ensuring their staff are effective and entertaining speakers.
How well you perform in front of an audience can not only make or break some people’s careers, but could also be instrumental in how well a firm fares in the marketplace.
Ray says: “There are a lot of people out there in the academic and business world who have important things to say but they don’t know how to do that. That is my mission, to help people who have a lot to say about life and get people to listen.”
Some people because of the position they already hold will be listened to no matter what – although not always with a good grace.
“I can remember going to conferences and people would moan when they heard who the speaker was and I would think it ‘doesn’t have to be like that. Why does it have to be so bad? Why can’t it be more entertaining?’
“You are not asking people to be Ken Dodd, yet being a good speaker can raise you above being mediocre.”
Ray got into public speaking through his own jobs first in dentistry and medicine and then working alongside Sir Liam Donaldson – formerly chief medical officer for England – when he was the regional medical officer for the Northern Regional Health Authority.
Originally from the Midlands but now an adopted North Easterner after moving to Tyneside in 1987 for work, Lowry put his career as a gag writer in the 1970s to good use.
He had collaborated with Derek Farmer who has since gone on to be a successful children’s author, after the pair met at Birmingham University. Ray later amazingly turned down the chance to work on Not the Nine O’Clock News after his comedy hero, John Cleese, suggested he team up with the fledgling show that was to make stars of Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones as well as writers Richard Curtis and Clive Anderson.
“There is a feeling in some companies of why would we help someone else to shine if they are better than me? I remember once when I was a junior academic I had to give a speech and I showed it to my boss who made the odd observation about putting certain bits in a certain typeface, and that was it,” he says.
“I went home, looked at it again and totally rewrote it. I showed it to my boss again the next day and he said ‘that’s much better.’ But he hadn’t said anything the previous day. He hadn’t wanted someone who was better than him getting all the praise. It is a terrible attitude that is holding people back.
“But somebody who is good in business will want other people to shine as having equally good people around is actually good for business. Enlightened people want those around them to perform better.”
Of a public speaker, Ray says his own research has shown that audiences want someone who is grounded and humane, not an egotist.
“They don’t want a self-publicist, they want humanity, warmth and engagement.
“I have a film of Steve Jobs giving a speech and what is remarkable is how ordinary he is; he is not self-seeking, he is just like you and me. Yet he is able to engage with the audience and is very charismatic.”
“I was working with some people the other day and they had never thought of looking at the audience. Everything was from their point of view.
“If you are a real anorak and you are really interested in somebody you will pay a lot to hear them speak. But if you are there under sufferance you have already paid a high price and you want something back.
“ I have come away from conferences and thought ‘what a waste of my time, the company’s time and the company’s money.’”
Ray doesn’t promise to make someone an entertaining speaker in an hour. For some that may be enough; others may need a number of sessions.
He has worked with a cross section of people from trainers to academics and what he calls ‘brain boxes’ who may need to go public with their research.
He prefers working on a one-to-one basis with people who “have to do presentations as part of their job but don’t feel it is going well and know they could do better.”
Ray does seminar and group work but says it is “not as satisfying as you can’t get to the heart of a person’s problems. Sorting an individual out who recognises they have an issue and knowing you have improved their performance skills, is much more satisfying.”
“I see myself as a public speaking doctor, which suits me well as not only do I have the medical background, but I am able to help people.
“Coaching is a bit like medicine in that I’m looking at people’s inner soul; you have to have integrity, you are helping them heal themselves and you have to be knowledgeable and experienced.
“You also have to have what I call a bedside manner. An awful lot of people doing this sort of teaching are not the sort of people you would want to bare your soul too.
“But I carry myself like a doctor should do. I see people, I diagnose their problem, I sort them out and then I discharge them.”