How I became a public speaker — and what I did to get there
“The universe is made up of stories, not of atoms”
- Muriel Rukeyser
Q&A is usually my favourite part of any stage appearance. Last week, there was a question that threw me off, however. “What did you do to become a public speaker? How did you learn, what did you do?”. Great question? I had never really thought about that — until now.
Here is my attempt at putting together a sequence of the conscious decisions and risks I took to be able to speak in public about my two missions in life: Sustainability and Empowering people.
I was always quick to the mic as a child. Always comfortable in front of a crowd and at my best working off a group of people. In every company I have worked I quickly became the corporate cheerleader. The designated speaker. The moderator for corporate events. Practice — if it does not make perfect, at least makes you better.
Then came the step up. Dance events, awards galas, shows. The ones I excelled at were the ones which aligned my passion for crowds and the stage with my favourite content: self development and sustainability. Whether an event for East African business interests or sustainability in packaging. I loved playing to the crowd, pushing all the multihued buttons of emotion.
And so I started building my toolkit that to this day consists of four distinct processes that I work through or prepare or that I can fall back on in a tight spot with e.g. a critical, drunk, distracted or otherwise tricky crowd.
- The Crowd activation toolkit
- The Listener Engagement toolkit
- The Storytelling toolkit
- The Audience Tailoring toolkit
Toolkit aside, the gigs did not just appear. It wasn’t all presented on a silver platter as part of the day job or as a referral. Many of the gigs I fought for. For some for several years. The large majority of my gigs to date have been free or even cost me something. I never minded. It was all honing my skillset.
Over time I developed a clear methodology around how to build towards what I wanted. A very helpful book around brand building I use is Gary Vaynerchuk’s “Jab Jab Jab, Right Hook”. As the boxing metaphor implies most of the time is spent jabbing, probing, practicing to set up the hook, i.e. the Sales Ask. I’d figure out where the decision makers of the dream gigs would go and made sure I got a chance on the microphone at these smaller events to then get a moment with the decision makers. Or in a best case scenario the opportunity to showcase my talents on the microphone. Sending PDFs via email or worse, inboxing people PDFs with scant introduction on Linkedin does nothing but annoy decision makers. Don’t be one of THOSE guys.
Simply jabbing away at everything and trying to get on stage as much as possible for free is something that was necessary very early on but is not feasible for long. I have built a framework for choosing what risks to take and which to avoid to guide my decision making. Before I get to my methodology for deciding, whether to take a calculated risk, here is the story of what was perhaps my most outrageous pitch.
I had had my eyes on the moderatorship of the biggest event of its kind globally for a while. Frustratingly it seemed the incumbent, well paid moderators had some sort of first picks system in place. Moderations that I felt were mediocre on a good day and frustratingly rubbish on a bad one were the norm. I had done my ground work. I had done my right hook — sending in my application and talking to every decision maker and their influencers. And I had failed to land that right hook twice. So I packed my week-ender and flew to Japan to attend the event. I then entered the pitching competition for sustainable business ideas. And came 2nd out of 51 contenders. The top 3 were received by the judges for private consultations. The chairman of the adjudicator board? The vice president of the organisation who made all hiring decisions for stage personnel including artists and moderators.
We got to talking and the rest was almost history. I ended up moderating and giving a keynote speech at his second biggest event, ranking highest among the speakers at that event. Had we not been hit by a pandemic I would have surely reached my ultimate goal the following year.
Now, the idea of flying half way across the globe for an uncertain outcome for an off-chance that one may get an audience with a prospect may sound downright silly. But I had carefully deliberated the pros and cons using my Decision Methodology of Calculated Risks. I deliberate four key questions and if I score a 3 out of 4 I’ll do it.
1. Will I learn: is the opportunity one that helps me learn more of the building blocks necessary to achieve the big dream?
2. Will I meet the right people: will I enjoy good exposure with people who can take me a step closer to my dream?
3. Will I enjoy it: will I have the time of my life or would it be a bit of a slog?
4. Will I make money: will I make or will I lose money? No problem if I don’t make money but if this one is a “yes” I am willing to do a gig that I enjoy less.