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In this episode of The Speaker Show, Maria Franzoni interviews Thimon de Jong.
Thimon is a strategic foresight expert specialising in future human behaviour & societal change and the implications for leadership & business strategy.
Examining how human behaviour and societal change influence business has never been more important. Syncing a business strategy with rapid societal changes and dynamic human behaviour is a challenge. Luckily, a new style of expert has emerged, with Thimon proving one of the most successful.
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Maria Franzoni (00:14): Welcome to a new series of The Speaker Show. I’m your host, Maria Franzoni following in the footsteps of the wonderful Sean Pillot de Chenecey. In today’s show we’ll be talking about the future of human behavior and societal change. But before that, let me tell you that The Speaker Show is brought to you by Speakers Associates, the global speaker bureau for the world’s most successful organizations, providing keynote speakers for events, conferences, and summits, right let’s get started. So our guest this week is the founder of Western strategic foresight, a think tank specialized in future human behavior and societal change, and the implications for leadership and business strategy. He’s a sought after keynote presenter and leadership trainer. He lectures at the social psychology department of Utrecht university, where he teaches master students. How academic research can practically be applied to improve business strategy. He himself has a master’s degree in cultural studies with a minor in international business studies. He’s a former insights and strategy director at trends, active researcher at freedom lab, future studies and editor in chief at reload magazine. Please welcome my guest Thimon de Jong, Thimon. Thank you so much for joining me. Where are you speaking to me from today?
Thimon de Jong (01:35): Oh, Maria. Thank you for inviting me. I’m presenting from Amsterdam, my virtual studio here at home.
Maria Franzoni (01:41): Wonderful. You sound fantastic. Tell me about your microphone.
Thimon de Jong (01:46): Oh, I it’s actually, I play in a band. I play bass guitar and I do the, the backing vocal. So this is my backing vocal mic it’s so it’s a, a mic band’s use. I think it’s a sure. M5257 it’s standard band mic. Yeah.
Maria Franzoni (02:03): Oh, sounds great. Might have to have some of your music when we, if we get time. So is that what you wanted to be when you were growing up? Did you want to be in a band? Did you wanna be a rock star?
Thimon de Jong (02:11): No, no, no, no. I, I wanted to be a professional mountain biker for a very long time. I actually went and studied in Maastricht to the Southern part of the Netherlands. The only part in Netherlands that has hills. So that’s, I chose the, you know, the, the town first, the city first at the university first and then picked the study. But then, then when I started racing, I was too tall and too heavy and realized that was not for me. So that was the fir yeah, that’s my whole teenage. That’s what I wanted to be.
Maria Franzoni (02:43): Fantastic. And how did you move from that to studying human behavior? I mean, that’s a bit of a leap.
Thimon de Jong (02:51): Well, I’ve, I, I think I’ve, I’ve been fascinated by humans and why they do what they do from a very young age. So it made sense studying that. And, you know, my first real job was a journalist and then, you know, writing about people and their behavior, I worked for youth magazine, so, you know, curiosity and why do people do what they do and then went to work for a research firm. So, so, you know, the people’s, I find people endlessly fascinating. And when you think you’ve figured something out, something has changed in the outside world and then people change again. So there’s never an end, so there’s always something to learn and to see and, and, and to analyze. I, I, I, so, yeah, it’s really my, my passion studying human behavior. Yes.
Maria Franzoni (03:40): It’s actually very clever as well, because you’ll never run out of people to study. Will you? It’s a, it’s a job that keeps growing and growing forever. So that’s very clever.
Thimon de Jong (03:48): Yeah. You can just put me in a bench anywhere. If there are people, I just sit there and watch their be, you know, watch them and look at how they behave and try to, you know, it’s, there’s always something to see. So busy airport, you know, any city town, you know, if, if there’s people around I’m, I’m you know, I’m there being interested and, and, and taking notes sometimes even.
Maria Franzoni (04:11): Okay. But you’ve sort of specialized specifically on the future of human behavior. Why the future, why not? What’s going on now?
Thimon de Jong (04:21): That’s, that’s a wonderful question. Because it actually brings like an extra element, so it’s, it’s like an extra puzzle, so historians, you know, they, everything has happened and then you try to make sense of it. But with the future, there’s this extra element of uncertainty added to all of that. So, so to, to say something about the future, how we are going to behave, you still have to look in history. What has happened in the past that we can use now you use a, you know, current trends, so what trends can we, can we see that are happening? Or are there pendulum like shifts happening? So will we bounce back from certain developments? And then there’s this extra element that you, you, you bring into. And of course, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s a fun thing to see. All right. So we, I try to argue using all kinds of research that this is going to happen. And then a few years later you can say, all right, you know, I was right. I was wrong. I was partly right. I was partly wrong. So it’s also it’s, it’s almost bit more like a game because you have to, you know, it’s, it’s fun to see if, if, if all the research and insights are, are correct.
Maria Franzoni (05:29): It doesn’t, and we’re all interested in the future. Aren’t we all want to know what’s going to happen next. So that, that sort of prediction piece is quite exciting. How accurate, how accurate can you be though?
Thimon de Jong (05:40): Well I, I think when it comes to humans, don’t change in the sense that, you know, our needs, our fears, our wishes, our desires, they don’t change much. It’s just how they manifest themselves. They change. So for example, how we respond to new technologies, how we respond to crisis situation, like the pandemic we’re in now that doesn’t change only, you know, the situation that we’re in you know, the state of the economy, the state of technology the political situation that we’re in. So it is in, in general, if you’re talking about, you know, groups of people, their behavior and how they respond it’s, you can say quite a lot of things of, you know, what will happen if you try to be very specific for an individual that is very hard, almost impossible to do, because individuals might act very randomly, but for groups and it’s it, and it’s not that extreme. So have, you know, futurists out there that do very extreme extrapolations, and then, then they come into media. But most of the times the future is not that spectacular, spectacular but the non spectacular futures are often the, the right ones.
Maria Franzoni (06:54): Yeah. And I suppose the nuances are really important to understand from, you know, when you’re planning as a, as a business leader, or you’ve gotta take it into consideration.
Thimon de Jong (07:03): Yes. Yeah, definitely. And, and the practicality, so the future, you know, you can, you can prepare quite well for things that will happen. So for example, how we come out of this pandemic, as societies, as human beings, there’s so much research done throughout how societies come outta pandemics or how societies come outta wartime situations, because these two are comparable and copy paste is a big word, but it’s, you can take so many elements, paste them on today’s world, and you can safely predict quite a few things that will happen and that we already see happening right now. And that’s for business to pair for and leaders. And they quite feel, you know, if you explain to them, all right, so this is what happened in the past. This is how it compares to today. You see, actually the leaders are working and go, ah, all right.
Thimon de Jong (07:48): That makes sense. Okay. I know what to do now. Thanks. So they have the information to, to, to actually practically act and it gives them peace of mind because there’s so much inform, you know, the information overload cliche, which, which is true, adding social media and all the craziness into that. So a lot of professionals I work with are quite, you know, restless. And then if you connect a few dots for them and give them like a practical layer as well, it’s kinda a sigh of relief. All right, thanks. I have some something, you know, to, you know, to base my decisions on, and, and now I know how to move forward.
Maria Franzoni (08:23): That’s wonderful. Give people peace of mind and give them a bit of certainty in the uncertainty. Wow. That’s fantastic. You, you seem to attract in particular, a lot of tech and IT clients is that because their world is moving faster or is there something more to that?
Thimon de Jong (08:40): Yeah. Tech and I think the second group of clients is financial services. I actually think that’s because the people side is missing in these larger tech firms in the sense that are not love, not enough psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, working there, they’re all focused on, you know, the ones in zeros, the tech, the programmers, and then they make a beautiful product, the new service. And then, you know, people do not adopt it. They cannot sell it, or they use it in a different way, or it has unintended consequences. And then it’s alright, let’s, let’s bring, I often say I represent the people side. So then I come in or someone like me and then say, all right. So this is, you know, the, the people side of things, same goes for finance. They’re all about, you know, the Excel sheets and, and, you know, finance and they don’t have them internally. So they bring in the people, experts externally. And, and yeah, so I’ve been working with quite a few techs. All right. So you’ve developed something wonderfully, and now let me help you with how people, how you actually get people to use that and to embrace it.
Maria Franzoni (09:49): And actually it’s true. Cause we’ve seen it in the past. Haven’t we, where you know, development has been created and, and people use it completely differently. And they use features that actually, I mean, certainly SMS was one of them, wasn’t it? That it was never developed for us to use and to use text. It was for, for wasn’t it for the people who had created it. So yeah, so we, we behave, we don’t always behave predictably. That’s really interesting. You mentioned also, oh,
Thimon de Jong (10:12): Wait, I, I would say that’s predictably. So if you look at technology, most people don’t like new technologies. They’re like, all right, now there’s this small group of early adopters, but this small group, but the general public does not like, does not trust new technologies. And this is, we’ve known this for over a hundred years, but for some reason IT firms think we have this new app. We have this self-driving Gar, we have the Google last, people will love this, but they don’t. So they forget the human, the psychological emotional element. And if you don’t take that in, you know, your whole innovation process or the way you launch a product, then the product will fail.
Maria Franzoni (10:51): And I imagine also the experience of using it as well is really important to understand how people will react to, because sometimes the idea of something is fantastic, but then the actual experience of using it is so hard and so horrible. Do you get involved in that side too? The actual experience?
Thimon de Jong (11:06): Sometimes? Well, my previous career, I worked at a research consultancy firm and we really deep dove into certain, you know, projects with clients. And nowadays, you know, as a keynote speaker, more on, you know, the start of a project to get things kick started you know, when, when the strategy is being developed and when it’s really, you know, the user experience or the UX design, there are other experts out there with more in depth, more detail. So I’m more under, you know, the, the, the leadership and the strategy you know, the big trends, the meta what’s happening in the outside world and how will that influence us. But if it gets very detailed, then, then there are experts there.
Maria Franzoni (11:44): Yeah. And that actually the whole strategy piece is really important because you’ve got a, you’ve gotta, as Steven Covey says, you’ve gotta begin with the end in mind. So the strategic piece is really important. You mentioned unintended consequences, which sort of raises a few red flags, isn’t it? Unintended consequences, especially when we talk about ethical behavior and, and AI there’s been so many huge developments. What about the, the ethical part of it? Where any thoughts on that?
Thimon de Jong (12:11): Well, the ethical part is something that often comes last in the sense that you develop the, you know, the technology is being developed, the AI is being developed, and then when it’s starts to be released, then in the media, social media, there are these ethical concerns. And then it’s, oh, oh, wait, what do we do there? And, and then you see there’s some wonderful initiatives where a lot of big silicon valley IT firms have now is sort of a code of conduct where they say we’re gonna use AI ethically. But it’s, it’s a bit how shall we say it? It’s, it’s not in the start of the process. And I actually think that we’re gonna move where ethics are gonna be moved, you know, as, as one of the starting points. And also if you take an organizational pyramid that we now have, you know, ethics officers somewhere, you know, at the bottom of the organizational pyramid.
Thimon de Jong (13:02): And I think we’re gonna see this decade. We’re gonna see like chief ethics officer or chief privacy officer. We have chief diversity and inclusion officer. So we’re gonna see in the C-suite, we’re see people responsible for ethics and not have it be something that’s added on as a, as a, as a last finishing touch of paint, but actually that it’s gonna be, you know, embedded in the whole organization. And there will be someone in the C-suite responsible and I’ve, I’ve met many leaders that say, oh, I can do that as well. It’s part of my, you know, I’m the CEO, I do ethics as well because, you know, what are you saying? Am I not ethical? But that’s, I compared it often to IT in the 1990s, IT was not in the C-suite. It was somewhere organizational pyramid in the bottom. And now every organization has a CIO, CTO, a CD chief digital officer. And I think ethics are gonna go the, the same way, whether it’s, you know, the ethics of AI, whether it’s the environment where it’s the ESG social it’s gonna be increasingly important.
Maria Franzoni (14:05): That’s interesting. You’ve given us a really great prediction there. You’ve predicted how organization’s gonna change. Thank you for that. That’s really invaluable. I imagine hand in hand with ethics, the other important area is trust. Yes. Is trust changing.
Thimon de Jong (14:21): Yes and no. So trust is trust is a bit like energy. Trust is not, you know, it’s always going somewhere. You can’t fully take it away, but we do live in, in, you know, often trust experts called low trust times. And, and trust is in a bit of crisis. It was already there in the 2010s, but now thanks to the pandemic and all the misinformation that’s out there, people are anxious, they’re tired. The, the mental health statistics around the globe are, you know, we’re, we’re, we’re not doing well, and that influences trust levels in society. So if we look at what kind of information do people trust, how do you make a buying decision? How do you make a decision? What kind of political party you’re going to vote for? We see that trust is low and people are very much focused inward.
Thimon de Jong (15:10): So I’m only gonna trust people that, you know, I, I, I know personally my neighbor across the street, my colleague from work and, you know, we’re very much focused inwards, and that that’s part of this as we’re still in this crisis situation. But it depends a little bit in what part of the world you’re in. If you, if you trust the government here in the Netherlands trust and government is still high, but you know, the parts of Europe, it’s, it’s completely the opposite. So yeah, I can talk about the, you know, trust is incredib by yeah, but it’s, it’s key to any trust is key to any relationship. So any client relationship, you know, all leaders want to be high trust leaders. And how do you do that in low trust time? You know, brands organiz want to be high trusts brands, high trust organizations, and, and that’s actually very difficult. So so the environment changes, but the, the key component is like, how can you get a high trust relationship? How can you be a high trust leader? So these, these, these fundamentals don’t change, but the environment changes like the crisis that we’re in. So that, that’s a thing that I try to explain to the organizations leads. I work with, you know, how does that work and how can you increase trust in yourself and in your organization
Maria Franzoni (16:20): Really valuable, really valuable. And you, and you mentioned relationships. And, and one of the things that you talk about is the fact that relationships both personal and business are getting shorter. That’s a bit concerning, isn’t it?
Thimon de Jong (16:32): Yeah. The, yeah. So okay. So these are questions that I have to, I have to be careful that I go, go into not go into full keynote mode. So for example I’ll give you one example. I’ll give you one example. So the there, there, there are wonderful statistics on how long the the time is that people spend on average ad in, in a job. So how many years do you work for an certain employer? Now the average in Europe now, so these are Europe, Eurostat figures is now 4.5 years. So on average, the average European employee spends 4.5 years an employer. And if you go to youngsters in their 20, in his early thirties, it’s two point, I think 2.7 years, two point something which is quite short. And, and you know, that, that famous or infamous job interview question, where do you see yourself in five years time with the else, somewhere else.
Thimon de Jong (17:28): Right? So that, that, so these very, so the, we already know, you know, the lifelong career, you know, we it’s long gone, but still, I have so many conversation with, with organizations and HR teams that say what to keep our talent and our talent is leaving. And we give them these wonderful programs and we paid them well, and then they disappear the award for talent. And I say, you know, these are times. So actually one of the, the pieces of advice I give is you should facilitate talent leaving instead of the strategy, try to keep them in, force them in as much as possible. So say, I know this ahead of HR at this wonderful multinational, the other side of Europe, I’m gonna get at you a place there. And, you know, hopefully I’ll see you in two, three years time, because we know that young people, you know, they’re going switch jobs from here to they’re building their careers. So there’s just one, one example on, you know, shorter relationships in, in the, you know, really quantitative. If you look at the time they spend at, you know, employers
Maria Franzoni (18:24): Fascinating, it’s changed so much changed so much over the years, the generations behave differently, don’t they, and we’ve talked a lot you know, in business about millennials and that’s been the main focus, but, but you like to focus on gen Z, Z because you say they’re, they’re quite different too. How, how are they different? I’m sorry, I’m asking for a thesis.
Thimon de Jong (18:44): That’s fine. Questions. I try. Wonderful question. So GenZe is, is the youngest generation that we now see in sociological research. So they’re born approximately it’s not very strict from 1998 onwards. So they’re in the early twenties now the oldest ones. So how they’re different. So so like two things cause again, talk for hours about this. One is, they’re the most entrepreneurial generation of all generations. So we can actually measure entrepreneurialism the most entrepreneurial generation. So if they, now they start to work at firms, they might be your interns or your young talent. If you don’t give them entrepreneurial, you know, some kind of entrepreneurial part in their job, just say, you know, you are 22, you do what I say, you know, they’re gonna leave. So you, you have to let them be entrepreneurial.
Thimon de Jong (19:41): Secondly, it’s a very activist generation. Now, young people are always more, you know, when it’s about ideals and changing the world, that’s part of being young. So that’s a live face thing. But with the millennials the way they were activists, we sometimes refer to them in, in socially as click fist. So they were very much active online social media campaigns on Facebook and, and on Twitter and on YouTube. But the, the fun thing with gen Z, they actually are, are street protesting again. And I actually thought, so this is a thing where I was wrong. I thought street protesting would be a thing of the past and everything would move even more online. And the ING thing is, so we saw their activist behavior coming. So we were right there because that was in the research for quite a few years already, but actually street processing.
Thimon de Jong (20:28): So where does the climate black lives matter? The past area they’re going back to school day. We saw school strikes all over Europe in the Netherlands. They’re protesting here for a better mental healthcare system. So this is actually generation that when they start to work for an employee, you know, this is not generation that sits back and might like a Tweed. This is actually generation that stands up for what they, what they believe, what they want will hit their fist on the table. Actually, I don’t, I don’t think they’re gonna strike at work, but this is a generation that actually acts and collectively, so these are not individuals behind their own device. No, we’re going with a group on the streets to get, you know, what we want. And I, I think it’s a wonderful generation. I have two, or you can’t see now we’re in the podcast, but I’ve, I’ve two GenEd colleagues working with me in the back there. And it’s, if I think back, if what I was doing when I was 21, compared to the youngster, there’s now it’s it’s ideas different.
Maria Franzoni (21:29): Wow, fantastic. It’s, it’s useful that you’ve got two gen Zeds working with you because you can study them. That’s quite useful in itself, isn’t it? Yes. So you are real passionate about youth. You are passionate about ethics. It’s these are two topics you talk about. Are you an activist yourself
Thimon de Jong (21:45): Activist in the sense that I, I say a rep the people side so often I think there’s too much focus on, you know, the, the the stakeholders sorry, the shareholders know what are we doing? What’s the stock market doing? How share prices. And I think, you know, if it, I come in to represent the people side and say, you know, it’s, it’s about the people. And if you do, if you take as an organization, if you take care of people, not only the ones working for you or your customers, but society as a whole and the society you operate in, I think the world will be a, a better place. And it’s actually what people want. It’s what the customers really want. It is what, you know, the, the, the, their colleagues will, it’s what the leaders want. If you sit down with them and think, what do you really think is important? We all think the same things are important and, and these deep human needs and desires. So if I think, you know, if yes, I’m activist, I sometimes refer to it as indirect activism because I’m not a Greta Berg, but I bring in the people side. And if we really take it of people, you know, taking that as a broad definition than I think the world will, and, and the world of business will also be a better place.
Maria Franzoni (22:57): Completely
Thimon de Jong (22:58): Agree with you. It’s a win, win, win,
Maria Franzoni (23:00): Absolutely completely agree with you. So give us some insights as to what you will be working on in the future. What are you, what sort of themes are you looking at?
Thimon de Jong (23:10): Well, one big theme is mental health. We’re not doing well when it came to our mental health before the pandemic. So the, the wealth health organization said, if, if the trends continue, all the indicators were going into a pandemic, a global mental health pandemic. Now we get a different pandemic and, and, and, and, and COVID has made everything worse. And the NC thing, and again, referring to gen Z this is a generation Mo they’re the most open generation as of yet talking about their mental health, my generation, I’m 43. If I, if I break my arm and I talk to a group of peers, men, my age, you know, we can talk for hours about broken bones, but if I say, guys, I’m a bit depressed lately, then there’s a silence. And someone will say, here’s a drink, or let’s go for a bike ride. You feel better. And that’s it. And the instinct thing with the youngsters and we seen the research is that they can talk almost similar to a broken arm. They can talk about, you know, I’m, I have anxiety, I feel depressed. They talk in a similar way, and that we already see a shift happening in society and the way we approach mental health. And I think gen Z is gonna lead the way. And that’s one of our new research topics that I’m very much looking forward to, to coming years,
Maria Franzoni (24:26): They might teach us actually how to deal with it, how to handle it. That’s really refreshing,
Thimon de Jong (24:29): Reverse mentoring, reverse mentoring. Yeah. So do you already have a reverse mentor? A youngster?
Maria Franzoni (24:36): Yeah. Well, yes. We all need one. We all need a reverse mentor. Yeah. Brilliant, brilliant advice.
Thimon de Jong (24:40): But, but do you have one though, Maria?
Maria Franzoni (24:42): I, I do, you know, I don’t actually I do up with younger speakers and so they sort of give me insights, but maybe you could be because you’re younger than me, Tim, on,
Thimon de Jong (24:53): I call myself middle age, more trouble. The more you work with young people, the, the, the older you feel. So
Maria Franzoni (25:02): Yeah, that’s, that’s the problem so best not to work with young people cause you’ll feel old. No, it’s true. I think it’s a really excellent idea. And maybe, maybe all leaders should have a young mentor.
Thimon de Jong (25:12): It’s a thing we advise and, and it doesn’t work for every leader, but we always say, try it, give it a try. And, and, or here’s a practical tip. If you pick someone from your own organization, they might feel reluctant to, to speak their mind. So find, you know, a neighbor or a nephew or a niece, you know, or, you know, a friend of a of your daughter find someone that’s, you know, would be safe and open and, and give it a try because I have a few leads say, ah, don’t wait. I have no time. It’s not gonna give it a try. And if you’ve spoken with a younger person for one, two hours, and then come back to me and tell me what doesn’t work and that hasn’t happened yet. So there’s some resistance to the idea, but if they’ve done it, they’re like, oh, wow, this was eyeopening.
Maria Franzoni (25:57): Okay. We’ll put that challenge out there. I think. So your challenge now to do that, to, to speak to somebody, youngster, somebody gen said you’ve heard it here for one or two hours and then reach out if you’re a leader to Tim on and tell him how you got on. I think that would be very interesting. So listen, I’ve made you talk about all sorts of topics and I’ve only allowed you a small amount of time, so we all know you can go much deeper. And if anybody wants to go deeper with you, you are available to hire of course. But let me ask you a question about your speaking. Let’s end on this. Some final thoughts, what makes a great speaker and what advice would you give?
Thimon de Jong (26:36): Ah, yeah, I’ve, I’m being asked this a lot and often at the, the conferences I go to there is always, you know, the, the strategic offsite. They’re always internal speakers as well. And they often ask me this and the most easy and, and, and quick honest answer I can give is if you’re passionate about the thing you’re talking about, then you are already there. If you’re truly passionate about, you know, the topic a, you can turn your back towards the audience, you can have the most awful PowerPoint slide in the world. If you’re passionate then you’re there. And often I have, you know, people who want to make a career in speaking, or, you know, at an internal conference, they’re forced to talk about the new innovation strategy. And I say, if you not really convince if you’re not really passionate about that innovation strategy, ask a different colleague.
Thimon de Jong (27:27): And if you want to move into this field, don’t pick a topic that you think will sell best, find a topic that you’re truly passionate about. And then practice, practice, practice, because people say, oh, you you’re, you’re a natural. And I say, no, no, I, I did courses as well. I, I, if I have a new opening, I might practice that like 50 times out loud in my bedroom hotel bedroom, before I go out into stage, I still do. You know, if you have the Leo, no, messies, the football is out the, they still practice every day. And you can think that mess can now pass the ball from a to B, but he still trains every day. So practice, practice, practice, and, and everyone can, can, can, can learn this. And if you, if you’re passionate there, practice plus passion and there you’re there.
Maria Franzoni (28:11): Absolutely. I mean, passion is absolutely infectious. I can, I’m infected by your passion. It really is the practice thing.
Thimon de Jong (28:18): Thanks.
Maria Franzoni (28:18): You know, as a musician, you practice practice, practice. You’re absolutely right. As a speaker, you should practice, practice. Excellent excellent advise. Thimon it’s been an absolute pleasure getting to know you a little bit better. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.
Thimon de Jong (28:30): Thank you very much, but yeah, I did. I, the time flew fast thank you very much.
Maria Franzoni (28:35): Thank you for listening to The Speaker Show. If you enjoy this episode, please leave a rating on iTunes. You can keep up with future episodes on the Speakers Associates website at speakersassociates.com or on iTunes, Google podcasts, or your favorite podcast app. See you same time next week. Bye.
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Maria Franzoni is an established and recognised speaking industry expert and one of the most experienced speaker bookers in Europe.
As well as working with speakers, Maria also hosts live shows and podcasts. She currently hosts The Speaker Show podcast for Speakers Associates.