Speaking business about adding value, substance " and bookings | nnbusinessview.com

Speaking business about adding value, substance " and bookings

John Seelmeyer

One-time MGM chorus girl Karen Burns got a call 25 years ago, offering her $100 for a presentation to a convention the next day, where she would fill in for a speaker who’d canceled at the last minute.

She took the gig, talked about the life of a showgirl, and liked it well enough that she devoted 25 years to life as a professional speaker. Long enough, in fact, that a presentation that first was titled “Secrets of a Showgirl” transitioned to “Secrets of an ‘Old’ Showgirl.”

But for all the secrets that Burns spilled as she sat on stage three or four times a month, applied her makeup and became a showgirl before the eyes of an audience, she didn’t share the one secret the cadre speakers who take the stage around northern Nevada.

It’s not much of a way to make a living.

The National Speakers Association, which limits its membership to folks who either have made 20 paid speaking engagements within the past year or made $25,000 in the past year from speaking, counts 15 professional speakers in the Reno-Tahoe area.

Most of them, however, use their speaking engagements only as one element of a business that typically generates revenue as well from book sales, training programs or management coaching.

Chuck Sweeney of Reno, for instance, geared up his speaking business in 2002 after he retired as a sales and management executive with New York Life.

Today, he speaks about leadership development to audiences around the nation about 30 times a year. About half his audiences are big groups, while the other half are small groups at an executive retreat or an association meeting.

“I really love this. Speaking energizes me, and as long I’m energized, I’ll never retire,” Sweeney says.

But the lion’s share of his professional hours are spent in one-on-one professional coaching sessions. Coaching and speaking, Sweeney says, grow from the same roots.

“What you are selling is what you know,” he says. “People have to buy into it.”

Coaching also provides a haven from the stresses of airline travel, hotel rooms and rooms filled with strangers who await great truths from a keynote speaker.

“Travel is the worst part. It’s been hard on my body, all this running around the country,” says Jane Boucher, who has been on the road in the U.S. and Europe much of the last 25 years, speaking on development of high-performance work groups.

Even while Boucher pays more attention to business coaching, she says it’s hard to replace the profound satisfactions of a well-delivered speech.

“When I’m in front of the audience, I’m a teacher. I love to teach, to see the light bulbs going on in their heads,” she says.

As the recession has pinched the budgets of groups that contract with high-powered speakers to keynote conferences, Boucher says she’s managed to stay busy largely through calls from professional groups that require continuing education of their members.

Michele Nichols of Reno, a former Business Week columnist and founder of “Global Hug Your Kids Day,” says the speaking business has evolved even in the seven years that she’s made platform appearances.

“Today’s model is the expert who speaks. You need to be an expert on something,” she says.

Old-style speakers, who assembled the wisdom of others into a motivating presentation, get fewer calls.

“People don’t want a book report any more,” Nichols says.

And even authors who take the podium to talk about their own books and their own expertise have a hard time getting bookings unless they combine their expertise with polished platform skills and a well-craft presentation, she says.

Stacy Tetschner, chief executive officer of the 3,000-member National Speakers Association, says value both in style and substance differentiates the public speakers who have thrived even during the recession.

“It’s a great time to be a professional speaker so long as you bring value,” Tetschner says.

A 2007 survey, the most recent conducted by the association, found that the average fee for a keynote speech or a breakout session led by a professional speaker was about $5,000.

Tetschner says fees have been under pressure through the downturn, but speakers have sought to protect their income through delivery of added value an additional breakout session after a keynote speech, for instance.

For Burns, the downturn proved so disheartening that she essentially gave up on public appearances for a couple of years.

But now she’s returning with presentations really more like small stage shows based on the 1,200 costumes she purchased after the lavish “Hello Hollywood Hello” stage show closed at the MGM Grand in Reno in 1989.

Burns calls the new presentations “docutainment” a combination of history, backstage gossip, music and dance.

Like Boucher and other speakers, Burns says the greatest satisfactions come from teaching an audience.

In fact, during the 35 years that she’s been on stage as a showgirl or a speaker, Burns has continued to keep her Nevada teaching certification active.

SIDEBAR

Northern Nevada public speakers band together, launch Web site

Michelle Nichols knows perfectly well that experts all experts, no matter what the subject matter are required to travel from out of town if they expect an audience to listen.

“No man is a prophet in his own home town,” acknowledges Nichols, a professional speaker who acts as den mother to an informal grouping of folks in the Reno-Tahoe area who make a living next to a podium.

But Nichols has her fingers crossed that groups that face tight budgets while they plan a convention or business meeting in northern Nevada may be more willing than they were in the past to hire a local speaker.

The 15 professional speakers in northern Nevada who are members of the National Speakers Association have banded together to launch a Web site http://www.reno-tahoe-speakers.com that includes a mini-catalog and booking details.

The speakers’ pitch: They’re nationally known. They don’t run up travel or hotel expenses.

And, if snow closes O’Hare in Chicago on the date they’re scheduled to speak, it’s no problem. They’re already here. NNBW staff


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