Kelly Charles-Collins On The 5 Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Public Speaker
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Surround yourself with people in the business but do not try to become them. Learn from them but remain true to yourself. So many new speakers see who people have deemed “gurus” in the industry and they try to emulate their speech pattern, dress, movements, etc. Don’t do that. If they wanted to hire that person, they would. Be you.
At some point in our lives, many of us will have to give a talk to a large group of people. What does it take to be a highly effective public speaker? How can you improve your public speaking skills? How can you overcome a fear of speaking in public? What does it take to give a very interesting and engaging public talk? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Public Speaker” we are talking to successful and effective public speakers to share insights and stories from their experience. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Kelly Charles-Collins.
Kelly Charles-Collins, CEO of HR Legally Speaking, LLC, has the unique ability to make difficult and sensitive topics more approachable.
She’s a powerhouse attorney and expert on disrupting unconscious bias, bystander intervention, and courageous conversations. Kelly leverages her 20+ years of employment law experience, intuitive perspective, and engaging personality to empower leaders to stay on the right side of the next #hashtag movement.
Kelly is also an author, TEDx speaker, founder of the Ladies Who Leverage Global Network & Mentoring Accelerator, podcast host and magazine publisher. She and her award-winning TEDx Talk — The Bystander Effect: Why Some People Act and Others Don’t have been featured on ABC and CBS and podcasts and she’s been quoted in several publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Women’s Wear Daily, and Thrive Global.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I had a wonderful childhood. I was born in St. Andrew Jamaica. Shortly thereafter, we moved to New York where I lived until the age of about three. We then moved back to Jamaica where I thrived in school. Fun fact, in Jamaica I went to school with Bob Marley’s children and Ziggy Marley was my classmate. At the age of nine, my family relocated permanently to Miami where I lived until I was sixteen and went off to college in Providence, Rhode Island. I have an older sister who is my person — my confidante and coach. I’m also blessed that my octogenarian parents are still alive, married and in good health.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
In 1995, I began practicing law. After several years I realized that being a lawyer was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So, while practicing, I did other things like taught college and law school and ran my own business. In 2016, while practicing law in Miami, I was recruited by a law firm in Tampa. It was a great opportunity to expand my horizons and I’m always up for a change. About one year in, I began to get an itch. That itch to move on. They say people have a 7-year itch, but I seemed to consistently have about a 3-year itch.
One day, I was sitting in a deposition and all I could think about was — what am I doing here? I’m destined for more. I have so much more to offer to the world that I couldn’t with the confines of the legal profession. I wanted to create a bigger impact and I knew I could no longer doing that practicing law. So, at the end of 2017, I create my 2018 to do list. On that list, among other things, was to become a professional speaker, write a book, and do a TEDx. All three were to be accomplished in 2018. I had no real idea of how this was going to happen. But the one thing I know is that when my vision is clear, I’m unstoppable.
I began to research how to become a professional speaker and landed upon a local chapter of the National Speakers Association and joined their Speakers’ Academy. I then decided I would write about something I had being speaking about and dong for years — workplace investigations. That became my first book. Then one day on Facebook, a woman popped up on my feed talking about coaching people to become TEDx speakers and I connected with her. I eventually hired her, and I got accepted to two TEDx stages — I ended up only doing one. I accomplished all of this in an 11-month period while practicing law as a trial attorney full-time.
While in the speaker’s academy, I started to develop my profile as a “professional” speaker. I had obviously been speaking as an attorney for many years, but I now wanted speaking, not lawyering, to be my profession. I got to building.
Then October 22, 2019, rolled around. [This is a whole story in and of itself.] But the short version is, that morning something moved my spirit and caused me to utter the words, My Freedom Papers. Later that day, I was asked by my partners to come to their office and told that by the end of the year, I would no longer be employed because they could not afford to pay me. I mean I always knew I was priceless (LOL). But this was not a surprise. They just didn’t realize I knew what they had in store and was ready for it. As much as I had been planning my exit, so were they. They just did it first.
And therefore, on January 1, 2020, my professional speaking journey began.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Being able to openly discuss race and racism in the workplace. As an employment lawyer, those topics have been taboo topics, never to be discussed. However, considering George Floyd’s murder, we were able to take the plastic off the good furniture and have open dialogue. This has been one of the most rewarding things in my speaking career. The ability to have honest conversations about hard and often hurtful topics with the agreeable and the disagreeable.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Wearing the wrong shoes. I wore very high heels to one of my events. I also wore them before the event and had to walk what felt like miles in a huge convention center. My feet started going numb on the stage. I could hardly move. I was wishing and praying nobody could tell. I’m sure they could. I powered through it and as soon as I got off that stage, those shoes came off. But it was so far gone, that even walking barefoot was a challenge. Lesson — Wear comfortable shoes — mostly I wear blingy slippers. Change into my shoes right before I get on stage. Immediately put my slippers back on once I’m off stage. And yes, I do that even when people come up to meet me and speak with me. Remember, I said be you. And that’s me.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are so many people. But if I were to choose the one person who has made the biggest impact on my business as a professional speaker, it would be my coach and friend, Dawnna St. Louis. Having practiced law for over 23 years at the time we met and 20+ years as an employment lawyer, you can imagine I had lots of things about which I could speak. I was having a challenge with narrowing that down. When I met Dawnna, I had nine topics I said I would talk about — NINE!! Totally crazy.
Dawnna said — uhm no you won’t. You can have three. What??? So, we worked diligently to narrow down my niche to three topics. At that time, those topics were Unconscious Bias, Bystander Intervention (which was the topic of my TEDx), and workplace investigations (the topic of my book, which had been published by then). Whew that was such a relief.
We then homed in on Unconscious Bias as the signature topic because I could leverage my expertise as an employment law attorney. Next, we talked about setting my rates. Up to that point, I had been charging about $5–7.5k for my speaking gigs. But Dawnna immediately put an end to that. My rate was $10k and I needed to be able to say it and shut up. It was little scary at first, but I knew she was right. That was in early 2019. As of summer 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, my rate is now $20k. When I think of that in comparison to being billed out as a lawyer at a rate of $175–300 per hour, it’s mind-blowing. But this change and Dawnna’s coaching, has allowed me to make more money than I did as an attorney in a shorter period, doing something I love while also making an impact. Don’t get me wrong, I loved practicing law — well most of the time — but the impact was missing.
You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging and intimidating. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?
Yes! First accept that failure is a necessary journey on the road to success. We all fail. The key is to look at the failure as a lesson. I always say “sit, don’t stay.” What I mean by that is when things happen in life, sit to acknowledge it, but whether it’s celebrating or brooding, you can’t stay there. Progress requires forward movement.
Second, make sure you understand that speaking is a business. So, while it looks great when you see people on stage or on video or wherever, that is just the delivery part of their business. There’s a whole lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to get them there. You must be willing to do the work.
Third, before you embark of this journey, you must know what you are going to speak about, who you are going to speak to, what are you going to charge, who will pay you for what you are speaking about, what is the value you will provide. That value is what gets you paid.
Fourth, you must have a depth of knowledge about your topic. You must be able to discuss and answer the most obscure questions or at the very least know where to direct people to get the answer. It’s not enough to just be able to repeat what people can find on Google or decide that you are now a “X” speaker because that is the hot topic. You must be a subject matter expert — regardless of what you’re speaking about.
Fifth, surround yourself with people in the business but do not try to become them. Learn from them but remain true to yourself. So many new speakers see who people have deemed “gurus” in the industry and they try to emulate their speech pattern, dress, movements, etc. Don’t do that. If they wanted to hire that person, they would. Be you.
Sixth, stand in your power when it comes to getting paid. So many speakers steal from themselves by unnecessarily speaking for free, charging rates that are too low, or discounting their rates out of fear and a scarcity mindset.
Seventh, understand that there are different speaker business models, and you need to choose the one that suits you.
What drives you to get up every day and give your talks? What is the main empowering message that you aim to share with the world?
My goal with my talks is to open hearts so people can change their minds. As the mother of a son who is a victim of police brutality, this is vitally important to me. If I can open people’s hearts and they can open other people’s hearts, my desire is that the ripple effect decreases the chances of my son becoming the next hashtag. As the Black mother of a Black son, this is truly a matter of life and death to me. That’s really it. It’s that simple.
You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?
Right now, I’m thinking about how I can more creatively reach more people to discuss these important topics outside the confines of the workplace. I no longer speak about workplace investigations. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the many, many listening sessions I facilitated and continue to facilitate for companies, I wrote a book “Conversations Change Things: The “PER”fect Framework for Courageous Conversations and now train on this topic.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I belong everywhere I am, but I don’t belong everywhere. It reminds me that I am powerful at my core. That any place that I find myself, I absolutely belong there. I don’t question it. Others might, but that’s on them. However, I also realize that I don’t belong everywhere. That means that not everyone deserves my presence. This helps me protect my space and peace and be able to show up as my best self for those who I am supposed to serve.
Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Public Speaker?” Please share a story or example for each.
- You must know what you are going to speak about, who you are going to speak to, what are you going to charge, who will pay you for what you are speaking about, what is the value you will provide. When I narrowed my niche — going from nine topics to 3 — and homed in on who my ideal client was, my value increased. I became known for being an Unconscious Bias expert by everyone. This has allowed colleagues, families, friends, strangers to speak my name in rooms I’m not in. One of those, resulted in me having my first 6-figure month in 2021.
- Whatever your rate is, you must be able to say it and shut up. You can’t be afraid to demand your rate. I remember I received a call from someone who found me on LinkedIn who wanted to me to do a virtual training. This was during the pandemic, so people were just getting used to virtual. What was also happening is that people were losing speaking gigs and in turn deeply discounting their rates just so they could work. I didn’t want to do that because whether in-person or virtually, the value I deliver is the same. When I was asked my rate, I can’t say I wasn’t nervous. But I have an unwavering belief in my value, and I believe in doing it scared. So, I said the rate and shut up. The potential client said they didn’t usually pay that much but she also believed in my value and was going to go to bat for me. She did and I got my full rate.
- Be authentically you. That means in everything. The way you dress, speak, wear your hair, whatever. Don’t try to be anyone else. As a lawyer, I was used to wearing suits and when I first started speaking, I kept that up. But that’s not who I wanted to be as a speaker. I wanted to be my down to earth, approachable self. So, I show up as me. Some days that is a suit, other days, it’s denim. I might have on heels, or it might be a fashion sneaker type of day. Whatever it is, it’s authentically me.
- You must have a depth of knowledge about your topic. You must be able to discuss and answer the most obscure questions or at the very least know where to direct people to get the answer. It’s not enough to just be able to repeat what people can find on Google or decide that you are now a “X” speaker because that is the hot topic. You must be a subject matter expert — regardless of what you’re speaking about.
- Who you say you are on social media, your website, marketing materials, etc. must be congruent with who shows up for a client. As I mentioned before, I had been planning my speaker business journey for about 2 years before it started in earnest. During that time, I was diligent about building my speaker brand. I did such a good job that when I announced in 2020 that I was a full-time professional speaker, I had people say they thought I’d already been doing that for 2 years. That’s because what I put out in the world was completely consistent with who I showed up as on stage.
As you know, many people are terrified of speaking in public. Can you give some of your advice about how to overcome this fear?
- Practice. Confidence will help you overcome fear.
- Learn to do it scared. You don’t have to be fearless. Just be courageous.
- When you get on stage or right before you begin to speak virtually, take a deep breath to center yourself.
- Don’t worry if you make a mistake. The audience has no idea what you were going to say, so just keep going.
- Embrace that you’re the expert. That’s why they are there to listen to you.
You are a person of huge influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
For my speaking business, a “Silence is Not an Option” movement — one where people speak up and speak out even if they don’t think what they are witnessing impacts them. Inaction is indifference and, in our silence, lies complicity. Much of what happens, happens because good people are silent. Our silence empowers and emboldens perpetrators of bad behavior. And we know that what we ignore festers. This is why I’ve been brainstorming about how to take my show on the road, literally. I believe that conversations truly change things and that has been evidenced by the listening sessions I’ve facilitated. I have the idea, just need the sponsors. Know any? LOL
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
Oprah. Because like me, she is an excellent listener which results in being a good question asker. I want to build an empire like she has using my voice and my expertise to educate, entertain, and empower. It’s why I launched my Ladies Who Leverage Podcast and Ladies Who Leverage “Visionary Life” Magazine. Those are focused on women entrepreneurs, which is my other business. But I’d love to talk to her about the best way to leverage all of this as movements to create lasting impact in the world.
Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?
Facebook and Instagram — kellycharlescollins and ladieswholeverage
This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success
I appreciate that. Thank you for the opportunity to share my story and journey.