Where Did the PSA Come From?

28th September 2023 | By Rex Warner and Chantal Cornelius

Have you ever wondered how the PSA was born? While she was still the PSA Marketing Director, Chantal Cornelius had a great chat with Rex Warner, one of the founders of the PSA. Here’s Rex telling his story.

How It All Began …

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I did a series of maritime expeditions. The first was a two-year voyage around Africa with several colleagues on an old wooden sailing boat with no engine. The aim of the voyage was to retrace the 500th anniversary of the first rounding of Southern Africa.

We set out from the UK, went down to Lisbon, and then went out into the South Atlantic. In the middle of the South Atlantic, the boat we were sailing was dismasted, and we spent 104 days at sea. We ran out of food but didn’t run out of water and made landfall in Namibia. We took the boat down to South Africa, got a new mast and sailed back two years later. That was my first voyage! The second one, I went out to Cuba for a year with the same vessel – an old wooden sailing boat, navigating by the stars. There was no engine and no electronics; it was very basic. The mission was to retrace Columbus’s voyage on the 500th anniversary. I had a great time and was able to tell the story in many ways. As soon as I returned from that journey, I went to Japan and sailed a bamboo raft five and a half thousand miles across the Pacific. This was to show how Chinese explorers had sailed to America at the age of the first emperor 2,400 years ago. Our raft voyage became the longest in the Northern Hemisphere in modern history in the last 2,200 years.

When I returned from that voyage in 1993, I got a lot of inquiries from the speaker bureaus in the UK to go and speak at corporate events in the UK and across Europe about motivation, teamwork, and leadership—the Sunday Times described our raft voyage as one of the most remarkable team achievements ever. The voyage was turned into a book, and the footage I captured was turned into a one-hour television documentary. That’s how I got into speaking, through the demand to go and speak at events.

But I had never spoken before. I’m slightly autistic, quite shy, and introverted. To be able to stand up on stage and speak to a thousand people and tell them the story without PowerPoint or any other support tools was quite daunting. For the first five years, I made so many mistakes. There was nowhere to go to work out how to speak at events, how to craft a story or set up the room in terms of heating, lighting, and sound. In 1996, I researched what was available, and there was nothing in the UK for professional speakers. I decided I wanted to set up a speakers’ association in the UK – a not-for-profit organisation to help speakers from all backgrounds. Not only those from the world of adventure, sports, politics, and business but also trainers, companies, and corporate speakers. I wanted to help them learn the best practices, learn how to speak from each other and create a social outlet. I’ve always been self-employed, and it can be a lonely existence.

I identified the NSA in America as a good role model and contacted a Canadian speaker who was part of the NSA, Warren Evans. He had started talking about setting up a ‘global network of speakers’ association and said a couple of UK people were talking about doing the same thing. Warren introduced me to Ricky and Brendan, and that’s how we came together with a shared vision to set up the speakers association. An Association which was inclusive and diverse had the aim of enabling speakers to learn how to speak professionally while also providing a social networking opportunity. We worked on it for a couple of years to develop the idea, and the great thing is, it’s like setting up an expedition! Setting up an organisation like the PSA requires a collective vision shared by all the founders and a small team with different talents and skills.

We didn’t plan it as such, but in hindsight, we all had different skills. Ricky had a shared vision but had been speaking on the speaking circuit for a decade and had a lot of expertise in speaking at corporate events. Brendan was a wonderful salesperson. Phillip – he’s a wordsmith on the marketing side of things. We had Martin Nichols, who’s sadly no longer with us, who was an accountant but also an after-dinner speaker; he brought financial acumen and experience with customer service roles. The different key elements came together in that founding team, which meant that in 1998, we had the right team with the right vision, and we could then set about delivering what is today the PSA.

The PSA Today…

Twenty-five years on, what’s impressive is that the original vision remains. It’s still about community, the collective, and bringing speakers together. We have people who join, hoping that they will learn to speak better, and then they realise it is so much more because it’s about being surrounded by other speakers and being able to ask for help. Members never expect that level of support and friendship from this organisation. It is fantastic that it’s carried on.

Building the team is so important. When you face challenges within the organisation, having the right team of people collectively working together is essential. The social element remains extremely important and should always be at the heart of the PSA; it’s not just about learning the business of speaking.

Rex Warner Today…

Setting up the Speakers Association was the beginning of the end of professional speaking for me! Life goes in circles. I started speaking after the raft voyage in 1993 and did it for a decade. By 2003, my first two children had just been born. I’d done an expedition sponsored by the Chinese government in 2000, sailing a Chinese junk boat from China to the Middle East using a 600-year-old diary written on the original Chinese voyages. I filmed that to turn it into a one-hour National Geographic television program. I’d spoken about the raft journey and some of the other voyages for many years and told the story in different ways. It was time to turn my focus to new challenges, setting up new organisations, businesses, and projects.

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