Top 10 Mistakes New Keynote Speakers Make

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Motivational Speaker Kelly Swanson is an award-winning storyteller, author, and comedian who teaches you how to harness the power of your story to connect, engage, and get results. In this blog, Kelly focuses on the business of professional speaking. Kelly’s post day is Friday. If you aren't sure how to comment on this story, click here.

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Top 10 Mistakes New Keynote Speakers Make: Motivational speakers youth campFor the record, there is a new motivational speaker born every minute. Off the record, most of them have no idea what they’re getting into. Me included. I made every mistake you can make in this business, and I’m pretty sure I’m not done yet.

So, in case you’re listening, I’m sharing my bloopers with you in the hopes that you might dodge them yourself. But I doubt it. Sometimes life has a way of making us learn things the hard way. If that’s your case, then at least we can link arms and fall together.

10 Mistakes New Speakers Make:

1. I Spent Money Before I Made Money

I’m like a homing pigeon.  Some strange part of my brain always knows the closest shoe store. I can be on my way to the grocery store, and out of my peripheral vision I’ll spy a pair of gray animal print cowboy boots in a distant shoe store window. The moment is accompanied by angels and harp music.

At that instant, I must have them  – even though they cost more than a mortgage payment. Despite the fact that five minutes ago I didn’t even know they existed, I am now convinced they are the very thing I need to complete me. These are the boots that will change my life, I just know it.

Unfortunately, the same part of my brain followed me into my business. That’s why I spent years with a basement full of books I was sure I would sell in a week.

It turned out I couldn’t even give them away.

That’s why I ended up with four heavy duty spotlights that I intended to take everywhere with me – only to realize my clients already had their own lights. That’s why I ended up with the coolest bigger-than-life cardboard cutout of me and my town logo that wouldn’t fit in the car.

I’ve made some pretty boneheaded decisions with money in my business, and if I had followed one simple rule, I might not have made most of them:

Don’t spend money until you make money.

Let the business pay for the business. You will have to spend some money on things like business cards and pens. But don’t go out and spend five thousand dollars on a demo video before you’ve even have your first gig.

Make money first, spend it second. Even then – think twice.

Thanks to technology and the internet, there are a lot of ways to get what you want for free or very low cost. Even though our business is now successful, we try to run it on a small budget. Call us crazy, but we like putting more money back into our pockets.

 2. I Copied Other Keynote Speakers

Just because others are doing something doesn’t make it right for me. It didn’t work with skinny jeans, and it didn’t work in my business either.

I was in this business for seven years before I realized I was a keynote speaker, not a trainer!

I was surrounded by trainers and facilitators, and I spent valuable time and energy trying to learn from them — even though that’s not what I do.

Yes, of course, you will study other speakers and see what they are doing that works.

However, you must fight the tendency to do the same thing they do. Copying is the kiss of death.

Stop trying to be the cover band.

Create your own style, your own path, and your own way to reach success. Strive to be an original. I promise that you already have what it takes to be uniquely you.

Your talents, your gifts, your life experiences, the way you see the world, the way you deliver your message – it’s what will set you apart. People can copy your material. But they can’t copy you.

I was scared to be different.

I looked at my fictitious town and characters, the way I delivered my messages, and I decided it was too different. Nobody else was doing it. So I put my gifts aside and set out to find something safer. Big mistake. It turns out that being different is something most keynote speakers wish for. And it’s not easy to have something that makes you different from the other speakers.

Please don’t wait as long as I did to realize that you are allowed to be just the way you are. Only better.

3. I Settled for Good Enough

I have always been high maintenance when it comes to my hair. I will work for hours to get every piece in place.

Vain, I know.

For years I didn’t really bother much with the back of my hair, figuring nobody really saw that part anyway. This was good enough.

Who wants to add another hour? I’m just saying.

And then one day, on a whim, I looked at the back of my hair in the mirror. And to my horror, there was a huge bald spot right in the middle.

Turns out that, somehow in the process of fixing my hair every day, I was creating a look back there similar to that of walking through a wind tunnel backwards. It wasn’t pretty. I still cringe when I think of every place I went with that hair – for years.

No wonder I kept getting all the looks of pity.

Good enough doesn’t win in surgery. It doesn’t win in sports. And it doesn’t win in the speaking business. There are a tremendous number of speakers out there.

Most of them are mediocre, at best, because they stopped at good enough. The sad thing is that they didn’t have to be. They just focused more on marketing than on writing a better speech. Your speech is your product. That’s what you are selling. If your speech is not remarkable, you will get lost in the shuffle.

As soon as you settle for good enough, another keynote speaker will pass you.

 4. I Didn’t Believe in Myself – So I Felt Bad Taking Money for What I Did

I have never considered calling a plumber and asking him to come fix my toilet for free. I would never tell him that he should be happy to come do it for the exposure. And my plumber is never ashamed to hand me a bill and take my money.

So why do I feel guilty charging for what I do? Do men have this problem? Seems like I hear women talk about it way more than men. A little baggage ladies?

If you don’t believe in yourself, neither will anyone else. You need to understand your worth. But you also need to understand that it’s not about what you think you are worth, but what your market perceives your value to be. You can decide that you are worth thousands of dollars working as a clown for kids’ birthday parties.

Good luck convincing your market. Ain’t gonna happen.

Dream big. Dream realistic. Understand the underlying constraints.

5. I Believed the People Who Said Mine Was a Dumb Dream

When I was twelve, my sister called my roller skating performance of “What a Feeling” in a Jennifer Beal sweatshirt and leg warmers dumb. When I told my grandfather I was going to be a magician’s assistant when I grew up, he called that dumb. When I told my friends in college that I was sure the band would let me come up on stage and sing (and I wouldn’t get arrested) – they called me dumb.

For every earth shaking idea in history, there was a group of people who thought it was dumb.

When you decide to become a motivational speaker, there will undoubtedly be doubters – the people who are convinced that you will fail – who laugh and ask you if you live in a van down by the river (an old Saturday Night Live skit for those who are unfamiliar). You cannot outrun these people. However, you can ignore them.

Believe in yourself. Stop waiting for people to believe in you. It takes too long.

6. I Expected Overnight Success

Maybe I watched too many movies – but somewhere along the way I got this idea that reaching your dream happens when the right people notice you. I kept waiting and hoping to be discovered.

WRONG. You make your dream happen. Period.

Stop waiting to get noticed. Go out there and make people pay attention to you.

 7. I spent more time planning than doing.

I found ways to do anything but pick up the phone and make sales calls. When we become keynote speakers, we have this strange idea that people are going to be magically drawn to us. We don’t think that we now have to sell, market, negotiate, and follow up on leads. That’s the part of this business newbies never think about.

That hour on stage is the fun.

The other 23 hours are spent trying to find someone to book you. This business is not glamorous. It’s not easy. And it doesn’t happen in one step.

You have to pick up the phone and tell the world that you are here – one rejection at a time.

8. I Tried to Be a One-Size-Fits-All Speaker

There’s a long running joke about speakers and how they claim expertise in a gazillion different areas when, realistically, they are at best an expert in one. I get it. I’ve been there. We’re so eager, so desperate to have business, that when somebody says, “Can you speak about….” we say yes. And I still probably take jobs that I shouldn’t.

But here’s the truth – it’s better to be an expert on one thing than to pretend you are an expert at everything.

In my quest to be something for everybody, I wasted valuable time better spent looking for my tribe – that specific group of people who need my message.

Focus on your primary market and you will get more business.

9. I Got Complacent and Coasted

As fast as this world is changing, so is the speaking business. What got us business yesterday, will not be what gets us business today, or what will get us business tomorrow. You can’t let your foot off the gas and coast, or people will pass you. This applies to your web site, your social media strategies, your product, your headshots, the way you connect and network, etc.

This also applies to your speeches. Anybody relying on one speech for years is archaic. This business is all about staying relevant to your audience and relating to the experiences they are going through.

Your audience is dealing with change at a rapid rate. So should you.

10. I Beat Myself Up for Making Mistakes

The biggest mistake you can make is to beat yourself up for making mistakes. Mistakes are normal, necessary, and needed to help you grow. Coming out of your comfort zone involves taking risks, even when you’re afraid.

The harder you fall, the more you learn.

I am a professional keynote speaker. I have earned a reputation. I have earned the right to charge what I do. So when I’m on stage and lights go out, or changes are made at the last minute and I am asked to rework the message, or I have to cut a ninety minute speech down to fifteen, or something happens in the audience that I didn’t see coming – I can handle it.

I can even help my client see things coming that they don’t expect. Not because I’m that good – but because I have been speaking long enough to have made enough mistakes to teach me how to deal with the unexpected. You can’t buy that. You have to trip your way through it.

If you aren’t constantly making mistakes, you aren’t trying anything knew.

Good luck on your journey to the stage. May you come to find that luck has very little to do with.
You. Your story. Make an Impact.

  • Ha! I love the hair story. Totally been there. Great stories and thanks for the reminder of the one-size-fits-all. I ran into this in my business and training constantly. It’s tempting to say “Sure, I can do that!” only to realize in front of a crowd it’s just not the right fit.

    Great post Kelly!