So You Want to be a Keynote Speaker...

What is it like to be a public speaker? People often ask me what it is like to be a keynote speaker (they often use the words “motivational speaker” which immediately makes me cringe and brings about a deja vu to an old Chris Farley SNL routine, “In a van! Down by the river!” - but I digress). I have a quip at the ready for this question - “It is awesome - basically I get paid to travel the world and go to parties.”

The truth of the matter - part 1. Well, everything above is true - I do get paid to go to parties. There might be better jobs out there (but I doubt it…) and here’s why. After you *get a speaking gig (the hard part) life is amazing. You take an all-expense paid trip to a luxurious resort or hotel - often at the beach or in Mexico, NYC, Miami or LA. After the flight, you are picked up in large black SUV and whisked to the hotel. Usually, there is a reception the evening before and you are introduced to the CEO, CMO, sponsors - all inevitably interesting people who open up to you about their lives. You have some fine wine and a great meal, more conversation and then finally head to bed, where there is often a welcome gift waiting for you. The next morning you head down for A/V check which is usually handled by a team of professionals so that it only takes a few minutes. You have no prep because you know the material cold. Then, when it is your time, you get a grand introduction, take the stage, and (hopefully) pull the audience deep into your stories and frameworks, the noise of applause still ringing in your ears as you exit stage left. Next there is a long line of people eager to talk to you, to shower you with compliments, to buy your book and to tell you a little about themselves. Afterward, time allowing, you go to yet another reception and dinner and people approach you all evening long to share their stories and how what you said affected them. The senior executives, one by one, make time to thank you and converse about high level business strategy or amazing personal stories. After collecting your hotel points, you are whisked to the airport in another SUV, fly home collecting your airline miles, and then return to your daily commute to the couch - because you work for yourself and your time is your own. When not traveling for a talk you balance your time by nesting at home and/or connecting with friends and family, or using your points and miles to travel the world, meeting new people, interviewing the world’s top experts to gather cutting-edge information and the latest research, reading case studies and books, and collecting new stories from your adventures to put in the next book or talk. Oh, and every single thing you do, with the exception of 1/2 your rent, and groceries, is tax deductible. As my accountant / attorney told me, “your profession is the least audited of any category - less than 1/10th of a percent, because your whole life is tax deductible.”

The truth of the matter part 2. *Speaking gigs are not easy to get - it is a very, very tough business. 80% of my speaking gigs come from someone who saw me speak themselves. These are not “referrals,” they were there! So, getting started in a business like this is very, very hard. It is the classic chicken / egg, cart / horse equation. In order to get speaking you have to get speaking… and how the hell do you do that? Well, first of all, you have to be a rock solid subject matter expert with real credentials, and you have to keep your knowledge up-to-date. Then, you have to be able to take your expertise and develop it into a great talk (or talks) on relevant topics with enough storytelling to keep it engaging. You also have to have this elusive thing called “presence” a combination of how you carry yourself, how you project your voice, where and how you move, the use of hand gestures, smiles… the list goes on. Without “presence,” no matter how great the content, you will not get the call for the next talk. But even having all of that most certainly is not enough to get the word out on the street to bring in the next opportunities. Unless you are famous, speaker bureaus are useless - I’m listed with at least 50 and less than 5% of my talks come through them. Instead, it is a networking sport full of potential rejection - usually in the form of the sound of “crickets” - someone sees you talk, tells you how great it was, wants to bring you to their company or event, they then they say when asked, “no I don’t have a card, but I’ll drop you an email” and then you never hear from them… ever… It is socially exhausting - every event I work the room from the moment I arrive until I leave. I never bow out early, I offer to speak privately to any and every sponsor or executive the organizing committee wants me to meet. You are ON the whole time. After back-to-back gigs I sleep like the dead sometimes for 12 hours or more. The follow-up trail is never-ending. I get so many emails a day that require personal responses that it is a full time job just trying to keep up. When someone shares a personal story you can’t not respond though sometimes I’m running months behind. And… I have help - my business partner Monica does a vast majority of the business correspondence - each gig requires dozens and dozens of touchpoints. When someone is paying low-to-mid 5 figures for an hour of your time, they want more than an hour of your time. As I always joke, “the best part of working with me is that you don’t have to work with me - you get to work with Monica.” First there is the original touchpoint or inquiry, then the follow up, then meeting scheduling / rescheduling, getting on the phone for the sales pitch, having a follow up call with the exec sponsor, working thru corporate vendor set-up systems (which require extensive hoop-jumping) and then a few more calls and emails regarding logistics, flights, time, agenda etc. Then you have the wrangling over price (I never get involved if I can avoid it - Monica handles this) and then the contract, invoicing, handouts and worksheets for printouts, A/V requirements, introduction talking points, mailing of books to the location, travel arrangements, and then after the gig, the follow up on payment (50% up front) and tabulation and invoicing for expenses, and then of course the quickbooks, insurance, taxes and all the other things that keep a business solvent. I do very little of that, though I still do my own travel. I also manage the website, while Monica arranges and sends our semi monthly newsletter and other marketing materials, hires freelancers, and manages our CRM system. I write the books, turn my expertise into written or video content… and so on. There are so many bright shiny objects to chase that you always feel a few steps behind.

The balance: Could I coast and work a very light schedule - yes - maybe for a while, but instead I often work very very long hours for weeks or months on end. However, it is my choice and if I want to up-and-go to Jamaica for the weekend (like I am this weekend) then I do. Also there are natural off-peak periods during the main holidays, 4th of July, mid August and other times where there are lulls where you can plan ahead to do things. But during the main season months it is nearly impossible to commit to any sort of travel, event or even family visit more than 2 weeks out because the opportunity cost of missing a gig or two is so very high. I think there is also a hidden danger of getting too full of yourself. I’ve met a few successful speakers (who will go unnamed) that I think fail to realize the people who loved your talk are the ONLY ones to actually come and give you feedback. If that is the only feedback you listen to, your ego and hubris can explode. Also, I think there are a lot of “fake it to make it” players out there - so don’t fall into the trap of thinking that everyone who holds themselves out as a successful high-paid speaker is actually making it. They might be struggling more than you know. The bookings can be erratic and unpredictable. Feast or famine. If you can’t handle occasional uncertainty, this may not be for you. For the last couple of years I’ve had north of 60 paid gigs a year, and I do my share of complimentary keynotes as well for non-profits, schools etc…

Should you be a keynote speaker? Yes, yes you should (unless you don’t like leaving home). I firmly believe it might be one of the best lifestyles out there - traveling the world at someone else’s expense, meeting amazing, interesting, successful people, collecting their stories, and getting paid really well to do it, all on your own time… I get to choose what to do, what not to do, no one says what or where I have to go, and there are no paparazzi to hassle you. It, at its essential core, is a form of freedom that few other jobs provide. And here’s a little secret, I love it so much, I would pay to do it, but somehow new events keep emerging, the pipeline for the year is full (I did 16 gigs in the first 5 weeks of the year!) and international travel to Rio, Santiago, Cancun, Shanghai and Portugal are on the horizon. If you feel the urge to share your story, if you have great presence and are a great storyteller, and you have deep expertise in something useful to a business, find a TEDx near you and pitch it - that’s how I got started. If you want to know more, feel free to drop me an email or sign up for our newsletter.

PS: click here to find out how I prep for my TEDx talks

PPS: If you are serious about becoming a paid speaker, you might want to check out the Speaker School for Women.

Skunks, Trees, Skulls and Spiders...

“The perception of temporal duration is crucially bound up with memory”

“Time is a game played beautifully by children”

I was riding. It was dark. There was no moon. Swallowed by the inky blackness I entered a netherworld where all visual stimuli were black on black – gradations of the gloom expanding into the emergent silhouette of a pine tree or the dangling reach of branches articulating and then gone. Beneath my tires the ever-expanding treadmill of the asphalt swayed sinuously left and right as I breezed by, moist mists roiling in my wake.

I was repeating one of my favorite summer routines – a 27-mile round-trip bike ride to and fro across the Fox River to Primrose Farms: a community garden where I annually maintain two large garden plots (mostly super-hot chilies). My routine was to arrive an hour or so before sunset and spend the evening harvesting, tilling and grilling as the light faded and the air cooled, often with visits from friends.

This particular night fell on a particularly sultry evening in mid-August and even as I headed home at around 9:30pm the air was still so heavy that the stars were nearly completely obscured in the humid haze. As I descended into the Fox River drainage the air melted, minute droplets decorating the fine hairs of my forearms, the gloaming of the evening aching with the fragrance and nostalgia of endless summers. Like usual, I switched off my headlamp at the start of the trailhead, eyes adjusting to the near absence of light. I loved the thrill and danger of it – of the nearly unseen trail unfolding beneath my tires, the remnants of the July fireflies winking their ever shorter flashes, the ripple of the pond to the right and the endless trilling of the toads and grunting of the frogs, the sudden rumbling of my tires across a small wooden bridge over a stream, the way the soft air re-absorbed all sound. I was in love with the thrill of the dark and the heat and the sweat.

Suddenly a strange chiaroscuro outline appeared against the black tarmac of the trail. Unlike puddles, leaf piles or other obstacles this one did not grow with proximity – instead it appeared to maintain its size, almost like it was moving along with me. Shapeless, the black hole veered left and right, disappearing and pixelating in the gloom. Reappearing it flitted to the side again and with swift certainly I suddenly realized it wasn’t a mirage – that it was something alive and traveling at the same speed in the same direction, dodging to and fro to avoid me. At that exact moment the black blot swerved right, and expanded. Something was familiar about the movement and I could suddenly see the rising shape of a long black tail gilded with a shimmery white stripe unfurling like a flag as I passed, swerving. Simultaneously to the brush of fur on my leg came a distinct hiss in the darkness even as all my neurons and adrenaline woke up screaming. Fading behind me the pungent spray missed its mark by only a 10th of a second. I remained clean and shiny, bathed in only sweat. A fraction of a second later and I would have been doused from head to toe with necrotic funk nebulized from the anal glands of a posturing skunk.

My heart raced as the adrenaline coursed through my system. At first I picked up the pace but then slowed as I remembered that where there was one skunk there may be more.  My eyes sought movement in the slippery blackness, my amygdala scanning, every neuron on full alert. I approached a second wooden bridge, eyes tracking low to the ground for movement but at the last second I saw, higher up, an oddly bloated orange firefly. It floated up and to the right. Then the glow intensified and suddenly the outline of an oddly shaped human face appeared, grinning, cigarette pressed to pursed lips. The man didn’t move nor even acknowledge my passing, something that should have been quite unexpected. I felt a wave of cold fear… what was he doing miles from the closest trailhead, standing alone on the bridge in the dark completely un-flummoxed by my sudden appearance? Maybe it was the light but his face look skeletal, his eyes black, ridges of tendons exposed on his wrists and fingers. My creeped-out-ed-ness grew and I involuntarily accelerated. I was tempted to turn on my lights. But I resisted and continued on towards the river, swerving with aplomb through the eddies and bends of the trail that I’d been down dozens of time. No way “Slenderman” could catch me anyway…

The trees closed in near the final section before the river. It was exactly pitch black, but the trail was perfectly straight there, so I shot through the warm slab of air like a spear through water and then saw yet another mirage – a large mass of blackness emergent in the space in front of me. It appeared only for a split second before impact. Claws scraped me, tendons snapped under my wheels, the bike bucked and I nearly went over the handlebars as my knuckles took a beating from the bones of a large dead tree that had fallen onto the trail. As my forward velocity stopped, the bike began to fall sideways and I hopped off into the waiting cradle and crackles of the dead tendrils. I backed up and slowly un-entwined the skeletal fingers from my frame and spokes and walked my bike into the woods around the obstacle and back onto the path.  

Mounting the bike, heart beating like a bass drum, I gave in and, finally, switched on both my headlamp and my handlebar lights – beams as strong as truck brights cutting into the mist, blinding me momentarily. With perfect visual clarity I picked up the pace and raced toward the river, working the adrenaline out of my system. Fear coursed through me, self doubt, worry, judgment… What if the skunk had gotten me? Who and what was that person doing standing on the bridge – what if he had a knife? What if one of those branches of that tree had taken out an eye?

I finally made it down to the river and for a moment I cut the lights, however my eyesight had grown so adapted to the LED’s that I had to turn them right back on again else potentially go off the trail. I followed the river to the massive train bridge spanning it and then turned right to cross the hanging parapet underneath.  I climbed up the incline and at the top of the span I stopped, exited my bike and proceeded to follow my nightly ritual: to lean over the rail, feel the breeze, smell the water, stare at the ripples reflected from the bridge lights and to … relieve myself from 50 feet up over the river – no one around to see or care. I began to unzip until I stopped short in horror.

I still had my headlamp on and in the flare of the lumens I could suddenly see the convergence of thousands tiny white filaments spanning the arch. Worse was the articulated movement along those threads. There, between the arch supports of the  bridge where I had stopped so many times over the years, was a horror – a giant black Shelob waiting there to pounce, and all around the edges her offspring dozens of tiny replicas all moving, converging on the center where my partially unzipped fly was. I froze. I backed away, watching the activity coalescing in a place where I had done the exact same thing over and over again for years, without a light. A shudder wracked my body. Too much. Too much stimulus, to many unseen dangers, too many unknowns hiding in the blackness. I had to get home.

IMG_2658.jpg


I mounted my bike. I kept on my lights. I rode fast, now fully in “flow” dodging through intersections, taking new kinds of risk, fully awake and alive, primed for monsters, horrors and hidden dangers. I pushed my physical limits and in the process experienced a weird euphoria as I hopped curbs, rode through ditches and accelerated through the final miles home.

As I consider events from 2018, this is one of the standout memories and with a little bit of analysis it is easy to see the pattern emerging: Beauty, Uniqueness, Physical Intensity, Emotional Intensity and Flow – all combined to make what would normally be a routine ride home eternally memorable. My amygdala was on full alert, writing highly recallable memories and then the flow state emerged from the stimulus, danger and possibility. And so, here I am, six months later recalling it with striking clarity: a perfect, endless summer night made, imprinted, remembered and recalled. Time expanded. I was awake. I was alive. I was really living.