Rhett Brown







40 plus per week, depending on engagements and travel

What do you do?

I educate by speaking as a tetraplegic (an eduspeakaplegic). I speak about health and safety at worksites and companies; talking about the reality of surviving a devastating workplace accident and trying to motivate and encourage good health and safety.

When I don't have a speaking engagement I work on my business at home, pitching at new companies and working on my speeches. I've been doing this just over two years now.

Your history?


I left school in 1968 and worked in various jobs until I entered the police force. I served 20 years but had to leave in 1993 after becoming medically unfit because of a severe injury I received while arresting a violent offender. I had joined the police force for life, so I was devastated.

During my police career I'd been restoring antique furniture as a hobby business so my then wife and I set up as professional furniture restorers. We did that successfully for about eight years, then in 1998 we moved to Warkworth to buy and sell houses. Over the next six years I worked as a hammer hand for a builder to increase my building and renovation skills. I had the accident on a building site in 2004. I tumbled from two unsecured planks only 2.2 metres from the ground and broke my neck.

This brought about a massive change to my life, far bigger than leaving the police force. I can't shave myself, I can't wash some of my body, I can't do up buttons or zips, I can't put shoes on.

Both my hands are paralysed. The left has virtually no function, the right has 40 per cent function so I can hold a special cup with a big hoop handle.

I can hold a pen and write - but differently. I now have four caregivers on a 24/7 roster; they are my life blood. Basically I had to learn life all over again.

How did you do that?

For months I lay in bed at Otara Spinal Unit, but then decided this wasn't for me. I thought about many career options, but studying at university for years just didn't appeal. Then a chance meeting with an OSH inspector, who was an ex-cop, gave me the idea of going to construction sites to talk about workplace safety.

I did three or four presentations for free to assess how it would go. After that, work started coming in quite nicely so I thought I should take it to the next level and charge. It was a leap of faith to believe I was worth what I was charging but I realised I had a product and I had earned the right to talk about it.

What response do you get?

An overwhelming response in terms of attentiveness to the talk and a range of really good questions and feedback. The bosses tell me the guys are often still talking about it weeks later.

What is your message?

It is brutal and hard hitting. I've had men faint during my talk on numerous occasions. I sit in front of them in a wheelchair and relate very personal details of my life as a tetraplegic and the health side effects. Life can be bloody difficult and embarrassing. And yes, every speaking engagement reminds me of what happened. The first three or four were a real rollercoaster. But once I saw the possibility of what I could do with my story, I concentrated on that.

What do you like most about speaking?

I hope in every audience there is one person that is prevented from ending up like me because of my story.

Your biggest challenge?

It is constant work pitching myself at companies. I recently got advice from the speakers association to hire a senior high school student to find company contacts for me to phone or email and pitch myself.

Training and experience?

After about six or seven months of speaking engagements I did the Speakers Bootcamp, a professional speakers' training course that hones your stage craft skills and shows you how to make a business out of speaking. I also joined the National Speakers Association of New Zealand, a forum where speakers share ideas and network and offer a junior tiddler like me the chance to receive inspiration from top quality speakers.

What are important qualities for professional speakers?

To be able to communicate clearly, to hold your audience's attention, and fulfil the obligations of the company paying you. I'm constantly working on all three. I've always been comfortable doing public speaking, but with this work I have had to develop that to a much higher level.

Your hopes for the next five years?

I'd like to become mostly self supporting by expanding my business to the speaker circuit in New Zealand and Australia.