Is Your Speech a Book Report or an Experience?

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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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Note: The opinions in this article are a bit blunt and harsh. I don’t have time to sugar coat it or throw in the required southern “bless your hearts” to soften the blow. So if you are sensitive or defensive about your speaking ability, you may want to skip this one. Sometimes in order to get better, we have to be able to hear the truth about what is keeping us from it.

And on another note:  This article is about KEYNOTE speaking, not training.  The two are very different. You can’t chop your workshop down to an hour and say it’s a keynote.

The Chorus Line of Keynote Speaking

I’ve been a speaker for eleven years, and a professional storyteller  for years before that. Speaking is my primary income, and my family’s income, and I average between 70-80 clients a year. Don’t be impressed. Some of them are for free and include relatives.  The point is that I have seen a LOT of speakers and storytellers, more than I can count, and much more than I can remember. In fact, if I had to count on my fingers the ones I remember because they impressed me, I would not need both hands to do it.

Out of all the speakers you have seen, how many would you truly consider unforgettable?

Out of hundreds of speakers, there are only a few that truly rise to the top. By “rise to the top” I mean the ones that are booked solid – the ones that people keep talking about – the ones that have longevity – the ones that are unforgettable.   The rest are in what I call the chorus line of speaking.  And it is really hard to sell your way out of the chorus line.

The really strange thing about it, is that most speakers I meet truly think they are unforgettable. It never enters their mind that they might not be as good as they think they are.  I have heard so many speakers talk about being worth more, wanting “their turn”, not understanding why they aren’t getting the good gigs and the big stages – when behind their backs, people are talking about how awful they are on stage.

Are you as good as you think you are? How do you know? What’s your proof? How often are asked back? Are they lining up to book you after you speak? How long do they remember your name? What is the actual percentage of people who praise your work – compared to the two people who think you’re better than Oprah?

Ouch. I know. But this is a business, much like show business, and much like sports. You must be great at what you do to get the spotlight. Yes, marketing and selling is a HUGE component. You can be unforgettable, but you will have a harder time if they don’t know you’re here, or if your website turns them off, or if your selling is poor and your fees are not positioned properly. But no amount of marketing is as good as hitting it out of the park every time, everywhere you go, over and over and over, in front of thousands of people every year.

I don’t know if I’m out of the chorus line yet, but I certainly aspire to be. I want to be unforgettable. This is a word of mouth business. I can’t afford to be anything less.  People don’t talk about mediocre. Mediocre doesn’t have longevity.

So how do we rise out of the chorus line?

We stop giving book reports and start delivering an experience.

Telling me about yourself and all that you’ve done and what has happened in your life, is not an experience. It’s a book report. And I don’t really care.

Giving me a hundred tips that I could have looked up on the internet, with cute stock photos – is not an experience – it’s a data dump.

Teaching me everything you know about social media is a lecture, not an experience.

The information you are sharing IS valuable. We DO need it. Yes, teaching us is important. Yes, having me walk away with a new technique IS gold. But if you want to get booked again, they need to remember YOU. Not the just the information.

Larry Winget once said on the main stage of the National Speakers Association Yearly Convention, these words I’ll never forget:

If anybody else can deliver your information, you’re not that unique.

That is the true test.  If you handed your speech to someone else, could they step in and deliver it the same way you just did?  

At this point, you’re probably feeling discouraged, just like I did when I heard these words.  But they were also words that changed my life. They were the words that inspired me to reach deep down and uncover the things that truly made me unique – that nobody else could do.  Those were the words that brought my town and all my characters back to life.  I had buried them because they felt too weird. Too different. Not good enough. Not corporate enough. Not “speaker” enough.

I was wrong.

What makes a speech an experience?

I’m starting to sound like a broken record here. But the answer is STORY.

An experience, by its very definition, is something we as humans go through – the filter by which we see the world. Each one of us will have a different experience at that restaurant down the street. Experience is about human emotion and human experience.

Data can’t do that. Information doesn’t do that.

Story does.

Story is what takes your speech from a book report to an experience. Your story. The story of your message. Your audience’s story. Your client’s story. The story of what you learned the hard way. The story of why you’re here. The story of why this topic you speak about is so important to you.

Speeches should not be just an outline of teaching points. They should be an outline of stories that PROVE and SHOW and MOTIVATE and ENGAGE the audience. The bullet points just drive it home.

The story does the work.

That is what makes you different from any other speaker. Not your content. Your story and how you tell it. Life from where you sit. If they just wanted the information they could have bought the book, or looked it up on the internet and found more and better. But they didn’t. They asked YOU to come in and speak. Not to give a book report. But to give an experience they will never forget.

The better your stories, the more memorable the experience.

Have you realized you have some work to do?  It’s okay. We all do.  We should always be working on making our speeches have more impact and staying relevant to our audience and our world.

If you want to know a little more about story – go pick up my free gift:

Knowing that you need good stories is one thing. Knowing HOW to write them is another.  I can help.  Join me at Story Crafting Camp in June in

And stay tuned – my story crafting course will soon be available online!  All campers will get it included in their camp package.

Now let’s go out there and write our way out of the chorus line!