It’s Not Who You Know That Gets You Booked as a Keynote Speaker

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Note:  This blog post is intended for those in the speaking profession, who fall prey to the belief that it’s all about who you know in your industry. The article points out the validity in thinking that being recognized by the big names will get you booked.  While the message is intended for this audience, I think it might have some truth even when it comes to networking with our buyers. Is it still a “who you know” business? Does simply meeting that influential person guarantee you a short cut?  Not so sure.

The “Who Do I Need To Talk To More” Person

Have you ever been talking with someone at a business event and while they are nodding and smiling and occasionally glancing in your direction, their eyes are really over your shoulder, looking for someone they really want to talk to?

Have you ever been introduced to someone for the fifth time, and they still don’t remember meeting you?

Have you ever had someone be totally engaged in what you are saying, and then they begin to realize you’re not as big of a deal as they thought, and they physically disengage mid-sentence?

Have you ever done something that got you more attention in your association, and suddenly that person who has been ignoring you for years, suddenly wants to be your best friend?

Welcome to my world. Filled with the “Who Do I Need To Talk To More” people.

I have spent years surrounded by some of these people. I had one guy (who was meeting me for the third time, much to his displeasure) who literally pushed me out of the way, and said to the woman introducing us, “Oooh. I’ve always wanted to meet him. Can you go introduce us?” And he darted off leaving me standing there like a cheap one-night-stand.

Hello High School Cafeteria

My industry, or rather the groups that collectively gather and associate in my industry, tend to partake in what I call the High School Cafeteria Phenomenon.  It’s all about getting a seat at the cool kids’ table.  Why? Because we come in seeking affirmation and belonging for who we are and what we do.  We get ignored by the “haves” and suddenly realize we’re a “have not” and the bubble bursts as we head over to the table in the back.

As a speaker, I was quite confident and proud of my gifts, until I walked into this cafeteria. Oddly enough, this group of people held more power over my emotions than the hundreds of audiences who had cheered me to this moment in my career. Instead of seeking worth and validation in the actual work that I do out there, I chose to find it in here, in this tiny little cafeteria where the head cheerleaders and jocks were pretty much unknown outside those doors. Instead of learning what I could to enrich my business, I chose to focus on how they made me feel.

Mistake. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who made it.  Somehow we come to believe that if we get to the cool kids’ table, we have finally made it.  Not everybody does this, but enough to taint the group dynamic.

Over time, I outgrew this need for affirmation.  But even more, I realized something very critical:  There really is no head table.  There are just people you have heard of.  Everybody in this business has done something worthy of sharing.  Everybody has different gifts and talents they bring to the table.  It’s just that some of them have more “likes” on their Facebook page, more people talking about them in the hallways, more exposure on that big stage that we have come to conclude must equal success.

Smoke and mirrors.

It’s funny how we get the perception that certain people are “big names” based on where they sit in the cafeteria, their role in the association, their whispered reputation in hallways. I’ve known of big names who were broke, and people nobody knows who are making more than anybody you know.  And many of these unknown people are quite happy sitting at any table and striking up a friendship. These people (and I like to say I’m in this camp) are the ones who have realized that there is no cool kids’ table, but that every table has cool kids in it – which pisses off those people who pride themselves on being a head cheerleader, but oh well.

So even if you do believe it’s all about who you know, you might be surprised to see what’s under the surface of that person you think you should know – you might be hitching your wagon to a falling star.

But I still don’t believe it’s who you know that gets you booked. Let’s explore this.

Can Knowing The Right People Get You Booked?

I used to think that if only those successful people could see my stuff, they would be so impressed that they would tell everybody and I would have a full calendar.  I would sit at their feet (sometimes I still do this) and wait for them to hear my story and smile in delight as they realize I am the very person this world has been missing and they need to go tell all those secret people they know who pay a lot of money for speakers.

Well, so far, I’ve gotten a nod of respect from people I really admire in this business. And while I treasure every nod for the affirmation it brings to me as an artist (that I shouldn’t need quite so much) it hasn’t really done much to get me more business.

I have a speaker friend who knows ALL the big influential speakers, and yet he has worked his way up, gig by gig, dollar by dollar, just like me. We had years where we would take anything we could get. I would look at this guy and think, “How in the world are we at the same spot in this journey when you know all these really successful respected speakers?”  While he might have had a leg up on some inside knowledge, or a couple more referrals than I did, he wasn’t really any further along. Knowing the right people had not allowed him a short cut.  That’s really what many of us are looking for.

A short cut.

We think if we meet the right people, we won’t have to make calls, send postcards, hustle to get the work.  Maybe there are some out there who found a short cut by meeting the right person, but I haven’t met them.  Fifteen years into this journey, and I have yet to get anywhere because of who I know.

Should Networking Be Your Business Model?

I was coaching a speaker who asked me if he should attend an educational workshop held in his area.  He was in the early point of his business, not getting any gigs, and the business wasn’t paying for itself yet.  I asked him what the workshop was on and he said publishing.  “Do you want to write a book right now?” I asked.

“No,” he answered.

“Then why would you want to attend a publishing workshop when you’re not interested in publishing a book?”

“I’m going to network. I think there will be some important people in that room.”

I can certainly understand this man’s desire to be closed in a small room with some big people. But it doesn’t really work that way.  Meeting people won’t get you gigs on Monday.  Not in this setting. And these people probably won’t refer you anyway, until they’ve actually seen you speak, assuming they even have a place to refer you.  I told this speaker that his goal should be to learn how to get booked, and then go do that. Making friends is great. Meeting successful speakers is great. They have great advice to share. But that’s all. Advice. And often that advice won’t really fit you and just send you off into a flurry of indecision and self-doubt.

If you’re in sales, then surely networking plays a big part in your business plan. You network with potential buyers. But networking to a room of competitors? Doesn’t really make sense. Yet it’s what many of us are doing.  And we walk away with a bad taste in our mouth because we don’t get the affirmation we need, or, worse, find out that big name is not the person you thought they were – making us start to hate the game instead of the player.

I believe our success in this business comes when we don’t seek to find affirmation and self-worth in our peers, but when we seek out true friendships based on sharing the knowledge we have, believing that together we are stronger, and that no one speaker is bigger than another, just traveling a different journey.

Networking In Reverse

I’m about to sound like I’m contradicting myself when I say that some of my biggest jobs came from other speakers who referred me, and that a large portion of my business still comes from speaker friends who refer me to their clients.  That may seem like it’s all about who I know. But it’s not.

It’s about the people I know who have already seen my WORK, respect it, have developed friendships with me, and want to share me with their clients and fans.

I call this reverse networking because it’s a reverse of the traditional way which is to meet a stranger, share your card, pitch yourself, and ask for the sale (or in the case of your peers, the referral.) Instead, in this industry, it’s far more valuable to be good at what you do, build a reputation of kindness and character, become known for a body of work, and then that “networking” takes care of itself. You will meet the people you need to meet, and they will already be familiar with you.

As I’ve said over and over, people do business with people they like, trust, believe, and feel like they know.  Sharing a business card over lunch and pitching your speech is not a good networking strategy.

You want to get the attention of others? Do something worth noticing.  And this doesn’t come in sharing a business card, or a portion of your speech over lunch. And you don’t need to sell me your book in the ladies room.  Go out there and be very good at what you do. Network with the goal to make friends and learn, knowing that it won’t get you business, it will get you friends and knowledge.

This is a word of mouth business. People don’t book speakers because they are friendly. They book speakers who have a solid reputation, a body of work, a list of clients.  Your time is better spent networking with buyers, not peers, in which case I still believe that the old way of networking doesn’t apply here either.

There are no short cuts to building relationships, educating yourself on your industry, getting better at what you do, and finding the gigs on your own.

It’s not about who you know, it’s about who knows you.

What About You?

Do you walk into a room and assess the people you want to meet and the ones you don’t?

Do you sit at a luncheon table and gush and swoon over the “big name” and ignore everyone else at the table?

Do you spend the majority of your time figuring out who needs to know you so that you can finally get your big break?

Are you convinced that you are already the best speaker the world has never known, it’s just a matter of getting the attention of the right people who will launch your career?

Do you make up stories about the people sitting at that table, just so you can feel better about where you are sitting?

Have you hitched your wagon to a falling star?

If this is you, then I have some freeing news to share:  You don’t need to impress them.  There is no cool kids’ table.  Most of this is smoke and mirrors. Outside these doors most of us are anonymous.  Big names are often just about perceptions. Meeting the people you perceive to be big names, won’t make you more money, or get you secret gigs.

Trust what you bring to the table. Go out there and (in the words of Steve Martin) “Be so damn good they can’t ignore you.”  Let your audiences and your clients determine your success, not your peers. And one day, when you did get the affirmation of your peers – the nod from a respected hero – you will have earned it, and it will feel amazing.

Every table is a cool kids’ table.


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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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