Brave New Speaking World, Same Old Principles


Mike Frank, CSP, CPAE, as told to Patricia Fripp, CSP, CPAE

The next time you speak at a seminar, be aware that you might change the course of someone’s life. I know, because that’s what happened to me.

It was the mid1960s, and I wasn’t doing very well in the insurance business in Denver, Colorado. Grasping for a way to improve my skills, I attended a seminar put together by Hal Krause, through a company called American Salesmasters—which was founded by Hal, the late Zig Ziglar, CPAE, Thom Norman, CPAE, and Dick Gardner, CPAE.  It was the first company in the country to put together for-profit seminars with famous and well regarded speakers geared toward motivating people to better performance.

When I walked out of the session, I was a different person—awakened to the possibility that I could do to be more successful. Six months later, I ran into Hal, and he asked me to go to work for him. Ironically enough, things had started to roll better by then in insurance, but I took the leap.

I quickly found myself struggling again, because my assignment was to make cold calls for six months, and I didn’t have a clue how to do it. Nonetheless, after 10 or 12 in-person, cold call sales presentations a day, I fell in love with it—and I’ve never left it since. Through 1970, Salesmasters ended up being a major game changer, producing public seminars throughout the United States, Canada and Australia, featuring:  Earl Nightingale, Norman Vincent Peale, Paul Harvey, Jesse Owens, Zig Ziglar and many of the top speakers of the past 40 years.

Going Solo

In addition to teaching me the art of sales, the seminars instilled in me the strategies to make a go of it myself in ’71, a year after Salesmasters stopped presenting public seminars. Over the course of 25 years, we produced seminars in Ohio, Hawaii, Florida and Tennessee, and had a pretty nice run. In Ohio, from 1975 to 1995, we held the largest annual for-profit public seminar of its kind anywhere in the country.

We’d average 3,000 to 3,500 people at each one of these seminars—entirely without advertising. Every seat was filled by commissioned salespeople making cold calls on businesses. In addition to the celebrities we used  (as did Salesmasters), names like: Bill Gove, Cavett Robert, Larry Wilson, Dr. Ken McFarland, Dr. Charles Jarvis, Ira Hayes, Alan Cimberg, and Marilyn Van Derbur, one of the great women speakers of all time. Many of them became National Speakers Association (NSA) Speaker Hall of Fame recipients over the next 20 years.

Success by Association

In 1973 and 1974, Cavett Robert started the Phoenix Summer Sales Seminar to bring some of these speakers together. The spark was lit to do something more formal and 70-75 of us became the charter members of what became NSA. Interestingly enough, the dues and membership requirements were so low that about half were groupies who really just liked hanging around speakers!

It was hard getting people to join, because it was a real mind shift: I’m going to join forces with my competitors? Enough people understood the value that could take place—good speakers learning from each other, educating each other, and recommending each other—we reached critical mass, and the rest is history. In those first 10 years, we grew from 75 to 1,500 and it is double that today.

As amazing as it is to look back on that progress, one of the aspects that have been most gratifying has been the surge in women speakers in the business. The pioneers were people like Dottie Walters, one of the absolute first professional women speakers. A born salesperson, she realized that she could get to more people by speaking and decided to make it happen. I’ve never known anybody who, when they made up their mind to get something done, did it more effectively than Dottie. She was a bulldog in many, many regards.

An then there was Eden Ryl, who made a 16-millimeter film back in the ’60s called Pack Your Own Chute, which promoted her to get all kinds of speaking engagements. Marilyn Van Derbur was perhaps the most eloquent of all of the early women speakers in her work for General Motors, as well as Salesmasters congresses and my own seminars. She was just incredible then, and she’s still out there speaking to this day. Ann Landers and Dear Abby did a lot of speaking engagements back in the 60s and early 70s, as did psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers, who gave plenty of professional speeches in addition to her game show.

When it really changed was when the NSA came into existence and promoted the idea of speaking. At the outset, maybe 10 percent of the association was women speakers, and today it’s around 40 percent. Corporations and big associations said, “Hey, it’s time for us to use a woman speaker” and the new generation was ready to take the reins. Now the names were:  Naomi Rhode, Jeanne Robertson (who’s become a superstar), Pat Vivo,  who we booked for educational conferences more than 300 times before she passed away in 2003, Rosita Perez, and Janet Guthrie, one of the first women to ever race in NASCAR and the first woman to ever race in the Indianapolis 500…..and, yes, you Patricia. I met you at your first NSA convention in 1977 and booked you for the first couple of times the same year. Many of us were very proud when you became the first woman president of NSA.

Personally, I felt the time had come. With my bureau Speakers Unlimited, I was talking to clients who had booked 10 male speakers in a row while their membership was growing from 10 percent women to 50 or 60 percent women. It made all the sense in the world to book a woman speaker to keynote their conferences. And from personal experience, everywhere we go, the top women speakers shine, regardless of who the audience is.

We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby…Sort Of

One of the other ways our industry has changed is technology—but maybe not always in the ways you’d necessarily guess. In the 1980s, I was very big on getting speakers to have a demo tape on audio cassette so that a client could at least listen to a speaker, recorded live so that there’s audience response and laughter. Well, jump ahead 30 years. We went past cassette tapes. We went past VHS tapes. We went into CDs and DVDs. And today, the speaker needs website video footage of them delivering their best content in front of an audience.

Although the medium has changed, the principles remain the same. The old adage that clients make a decision in two minutes is simply not correct. They will say “no” after the first two minutes, but if they enjoy the first two minutes, they’ll want to see more. Whenever possible, I’m a believer in having at least 10 minutes of material for serious buyers to view.

Keep in mind, too, that there could be 10 or 20 other speakers being considered, and for many groups, their decision is made by a committee. So if they’re going to watch videos, they need to be able to see what this speaker does in front of an audience. For the most part, the client doesn’t care about interview, studio footage, or 10 testimonials.  Many times clients won’t even consider a speaker, no matter what kind of recommendations they get, if they can’t see live footage. Whether it’s the footage on your own site or whatever you’ve provided to a speakers bureau, it is absolutely critical.

While the brave new world of online technology makes life easier in many respects, think about this: About 10 to 20 percent of associations meet in the same centrally located city every year. So, let’s say they have their committee meeting at the event hotel in Columbus nine months in advance. They don’t want to go to dozens of websites to look at seven different YouTube clips, especially as a group. It’s just too hard to navigate through the speakers’ sites. Here’s a case where you need hardcopy DVDs. While they may be the minority, if a client says she wants a hardcopy DVD, that’s what she needs to get in order to make her decision. We’re in a customer service business—as a speakers bureau or a speaker, we’ve got to say “OK, how many do you want?” or the client will move on to their next option. It’s that simple.

Looking to the Future

As a speaker, your future is based upon how solid you are on the platform and how well you market yourself, which has always been the case. But with the proliferation of speakers and number of bureaus over the past 25 or 35 years, it really demands you to be more effective, creative, and unique than ever before. Post 9/11 and the year or two after was a scary time for everybody. The period from 2008 to the present has been tough for many speakers, because so many organizations are not having their annual meetings or they’re cutting way back on their budgets.

Having said that, you need to remember the old investing adage, “There’s always a bull market somewhere.” At this very moment, there are speakers who are having the best year they’ve ever had. There’s always going to be a demand for the right person at the right time for the right audience.

Ultimately, that comes down to knowing your market. I have one speaker, for example, that I have personally booked 800 times. He is so powerful, creative and versatile that he doesn’t even actively market himself, yet his “word of mouth” is so incredible that he gets booked as often as anyone I know. In addition to his skill in front of the audience, he has an extraordinary understanding of what clients are looking for, whether it’s upbeat, fun, enjoyable, educational, thought-provoking, or entertaining.

How do you get there in the future as a speaker? Well, each of us will have a different route to our desired destination, but I’d point back to my own origins. If you’re not a member of NSA and if you’re not active in your local Chapter, you’re making a mistake. It’s the single best place we can go to learn the timeless lessons of professional speaking and be exposed to our competitors who are there to share. I always say NSA members are willing to share everything they know except their client list—and even in that case, because of referrals; they end up doing some of that, too.  Be assured, there have been thousands of referrals from speaker to speaker as a result of NSA involvement.

Whether you’re at the annual Convention or a meeting in your hometown: Don’t be “oblivious to the obvious”…… the obvious being the things you hear from speakers that really have made it. Listen to them closely. They’re not talking out of their hats.

Frank On Fees

I’m a big believer in setting a fee structure and sticking with it 99 percent of the time. If you’re doing chambers of commerce programs in your home state and start charging different fees from one chamber to another, it’s going to get back to you—if not haunt you. I’m not suggesting having the same fee for everybody, any place, any time, any length, but what I am saying is that you need to come up with a structure that has tiers based upon geography, length, and possibly type of client. If two clients talk to each other and start to wonder why one paid half as much as the other, it needs to be clear as to why…..and you can be assured that if you can’t honestly and ethical justify the situation, you will get in deeper and deeper as you start to explain.  I am not naïve to the reality that speakers negotiate, but I do believe much of that can be eliminated by carefully setting up a fee schedule that fits you.

From Fripp

Thank you Mike for you honesty and commitment to NSA. An extra big thank you for launching my speaking career and always being an honest sounding board. Fripp

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Mike Frank, CSP, CPAE, past president of the National Speakers Association, and Cavett Award winner, is the president of Speakers Unlimited.

Patricia Fripp

Patricia Fripp

CEO & President at Fripp & Associates
Patricia Fripp, CSP, CPAE, is a keynote speaker, executive speech coach, sales presentation skills expert and past president of NSA.
Patricia Fripp
Patricia Fripp
Patricia Fripp