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RoAne Unplugged: A Speaker Speaks Out!
By Susan RoAne   Printer Friendly Version

After 18 years in the business I have learned - often the hard way - a few things. And, I am going to share them, alternately attempting to be supportive yet NOT sugar-coating those truths.

First off, there are two critical parts to the speaking business, like most entrepreneurial ventures. One is the speaking. And the speaking must be treated as most professions where there is a regard and a demand for continuous improvement. Although ours is not regulated like the accountants, dentists or attorneys, our demand for improvement comes from three places. Our audiences who hear us, our clients who hire us. And, last but not least, from our own need to be the best we can be.

We need to be consummate learners; the vessels of information, ideas, research and awareness. And, that means we have to be very well-read. As I am a snob about credentialed vs. the charlatans, in every profession, I believe we need to be well-coached by people who are trained, credentialed and experienced; who understand the structure of a speech as well as the delivery. And, who are the ears of the audience.

That is why I have worked with Dawne Bernhardt for over 16 years, and continue to get "tune-ups." Her feedback is worth its weight in gold. And, how she delivers it is legendary - as the most gracious and motivating and truthful.

An aside about feedback. I wrote "Fed Up With Feedback: or Who Asked You Anyway?" (published in both Meeting Manager and Professional Speaker) because of the unsolicited negative feedback of a longtime member. I learned that she could and would never have anything nice to say. That cancelled the validity of her comments. As Maria Callas, in Master Class, hissed to an opera student who said he wanted her feedback, "Feedback...is such an UGLY word!"


DON'T READ EVALUATIONS. Unless you want an ulcer. People get up on the wrong side of the bed, and we are then running for the Mylanta! Choose your feedback partners. And NEVER, EVER give critical feedback to someone who just walked off stage. It astonishes me that people could be so stupid, cruel, and have such a poor sense of timing.

Also, the three worst pieces of advice came from very long-time and well-known colleagues. The two about speaking I ran by Dawne, who confirmed my thoughts about the level of crap they were. (She, of course, said it so much nicer!) And, the third was about fees, and I know the guy was not regarding me as a best-selling author, a position I work hard for and earned. I blew off his advice!

MORAL: Just because someone tells you to do, say or change something, does not mean they are right. LISTEN TO THE VOICE IN YOUR STOMACH!

Find something positive to say, the other can come in a debriefing. And, choose your debriefing partners wisely. As a former teacher, I am so much better about confirming the positive than blasting people with the (except for this article) "constructive criticism" (according to one of our earliest members, Christopher Hegarty, an oxymoron).

HAVE A "BOARD OF ADVISORS," who are not all speakers and who have business and common sense. Good "street smarts" are essential in this business. My "board" includes my best friend Lana, a Boston CPA, who works with small-to-medium-size businesses and who LOVES me. She wants me to succeed and to have LOTS of money in my retirement account.

Tip: I used my teacher retirement to fund my business, and am playing catch up. Start now to put away money for later. Not that I will retire, but have a nest egg. Better yet, an omelet.

And, there is Carl, my dear friend since we were 14. He is super successful and is the most savvy and streetwise guy I know. His ability to cut through the "BS" is renown. It is he who has cautioned me NOT to believe the braggadocio about fees, book advances, etc. He knows that male game only too well. "Drop a zero," Carl always says.

Gender Alert: Not all males do this and some females do, but the "mine is bigger than yours" tactic is generally a male game.

And, the third is Miss Fripp, who is the smartest business person in speaking I know. And she has a business background from running her hair styling shop. She has often said, "RoAne, don't waste your money on that." And, I don't.

The second aspect of the business is that it is a business and should be run as such. I have been appalled by colleagues who use their personal checkbook for business deposits and expect an accountant to handle the differences. My life has a personal finance aspect, a speaking business and the author money has its own account and credit card. Separate, but equal ... sometimes. We need not only to have goals, but to have a business plan and financial structure.

What we have to say must always come from the perspective of serving the audience either as information, food for thought, a challenge ... or support. As for being "authentic," I am so unhappy this word has been usurped from the lexicon by those whom I have thought do not get the full ramifications of what that means. It means "credible, reliable, genuine, real." It does not mean tell all your woes in the classic 12-step format. I have often listened to speakers, and think, "Get your therapy BEFORE you get on stage. Your audience is not there for your need for group therapy. They deserve better.

AND, THERE IS NOT ONE WAY TO DO THIS BUSINESS. There are many ways. I prefer to keep the money I earn and have always worked out of a home office, and wrote about it as long as 17 years ago for the original San Francisco Examiner "Careers Series," which I co-designed for three years. Some things never change, so my article was recently published in a national magazine, 16 years later. Which reminds me, keep good files of hard copy. In spite of computers, we have to keep "paper trails." I know I have for certain clients and especially for my life as an author. Don't believe this is a paperless society/office trend. Paper proof of other people's agreements and correspondence comes in very handy. Especially dealing with the New York publishing industry. Trust me on this one. "Admissable in court" has a ring to it!

BEWARE OF PEOPLE IN OUR ORGANIZATION WHO PREY ON THE NEWCOMER. I am so very concerned that we have a group of people in NSA who sell their stuff, be it products or services, and really have achieved the "vulture" level. If approached, get feedback from someone you trust.

Also, have the sense to consult those who are actually making their living at this. We hang out in the air without the safety net of other jobs or trust funds. Don't spend money you don't have on that which is nonessential. A good paper image is essential and does not come from companies who specialize in it, as others will also have your image. It comes from that which is individually designed for YOU. And, do not let a 25-year-old design cards that will be given to 40+-year-olds. Some of the most difficult cards to read are the most expensively designed. Take control and make sure you insist the phone number and others are easily read by the presbyopic meeting planner or the busy vice president of marketing. Make it easy to do business with you.

Do not believe all that you hear at NSA. The speaker who "does 200 dates" may often be counting three programs for one client in one day, for a fee that is NOT commensurate with the amount of work and energy it takes out of us. They may be counting pro-bono work. And, that is sometimes the most important work we do because the payments are an intrinsic reward that is incalculable. One of my speaking buddies told me he does "about 150 dates a year." I blanched and laughed and responded, "Geez, I don't even eat 100 dates a year!" (The chocolate covered ones are more tasty.)

As for the New Age Spiritual group, please stop telling me you are so spiritual. Those that truly are never say so. They just are, and it is not necessary to broadcast it. A beatific countenance radiates. The Pope has that as does the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa did, and a Rabbi or two of my acquaintance. I, too, watch "Touched By An Angel," and have almost from the beginning, because I am a long time fan of Della Reese, a fab jazz singer. Get real!

"OVERNIGHT SUCCESSES" USUALLY TAKE 13 TO 18 YEARS. NSA can decrease your learning curve. But, it took years for Maya Angelou to become the international icon she is. And, when we gave her a standing ovation prior to her Masonic auditorium program, it was well-deserved. And it places NSA ovations in the perspective they deserve, meaningless and often, an unwarranted practice.

I was recently told by a fellow speaker, when I said I had to practice, "Relax, take it easy." No. I can relax and be at ease in a presentation that I feel I have honored the audience by preparing. This fellow was also so relaxed that he gave a 40-minute presentation when he was allocated 25 minutes. I'm sure the meeting planners noticed his disregard for time constraints. He was relaxed and not anxious, but made the rest of us so.


Always attribute and quote those who originated the research or vignette. Otherwise, that is "stealing."

Be who you are. I NEVER wanted to lose my spirit, energy, warmth or my humor, which comes from 5,759 years of pain, suffering and wandering around for 40 years in the desert waiting for Moses to return with the ten toughest "by-laws" any organization ever had to embrace and to endure.

Make new friends at NSA but keep the old, as the saying goes, "one is silver, the other is gold." My best friends are the long-time ones, my teacher friends, etc. Know the difference between colleagues and friends.

Have a life outside of speaking and NSA. It will give you an outlet and enrich your speaking.

Work your audiences and hang out with them before your talk. People like speakers who are real - not distant.

Understand that this is a tough business. Being in it for the standing ovation or applause is about you, NOT about the audience. And, it is the wrong reason for being in our business.

Develop staying power ... do what is necessary to make it.

Make sacrifices of your time, choices, money, security. Don't sacrifice others who have not signed on for it.

Be prepared to pay dues. It is inevitable and gives us character!

Networking is NOT sales and sales is not networking. Writing a best-selling book can alter, impact, accelerate one's career and position you as the expert. Writing just a book may do none of the above. Write what people perceive as their need, not one you decide they need.

LEARN HOW TO BE A GOOD TRAVELER. Loving the opportunity to get to places you have not visited, honors your clients.

Always take a sweatshirt. You never know when the weather will change or the air-conditioning is too high.

Take a nightlight. In strange rooms we can bump, trip, fall. I fell in my own home in my own bathroom in the middle of the night and gashed my head, so that it could not be stitched. The surgeon says the good news is that the scar will end up in a wrinkle! Gee, thanks.

Bring an umbrella on the road.

KNOW WHAT BUSINESS YOU ARE IN. Don't confuse your market, clients and yourself by having so many revenue streams that your speaking business drowns in the rivulets.

Understand that relationships are built over time, based on connection, chemistry, trust and respect. Make friends, build relationships, earn the leads and always have the political savvy of knowing when you owe. Don't cultivate a friendship for your career agenda as you are wasting the time of a person by misrepresenting your purpose. If it is about business, just be clear, and save time for both of you. NO ONE LIKES BEING USED.

Turn about is fair play. Give to others the support you have accrued for yourself and your business.

HAVE FUN. Life is too short, and, as Brian Palmer of National Speakers Bureau shared, it is also TOO LONG to do otherwise.

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