The 5 Awkward Truths About Professional Speaking

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I thought the name Troy Dunn seemed familiar. This week I met Dunn, entrepreneur and host of television show The Locator that reunites people with lost loved ones on the air, through friend and marketing expert Duff Dyer.

Dunn sold his family research business to Utah’s in 2002. Today he is co-founder with TJ Hoisington, professional speaker and co-author with Ken Blanchard of The One Minute Manager of Dunn Hoisington Leadership International, which provides leadership teaching to organizations in most parts of the world.

Dunn has been a professional speaker for 25 years. As we got acquainted I learned we share a zest for communication, and that Dunn’s company recently launched its first program and product for consumers. It’s called Professional Speaker in a Box. I asked him about the biggest impediments he sees for individuals who would like to speak professionally, along with his biggest secret to success. The success ticket is easy, Dunn says—it’s mentors. Many, many mentors.

But as for impediments, he shared with me five surprising truths about the “glamorous” world of professional speaking. As entrepreneurs hone their skills in public presenting, it is likely that at least some of these points will ring true:

1. The Best Speakers of the Future Have Yet to Admit Their Dream of Speaking to Anyone Else

There are many individuals who deep down have a big desire to become a paid professional speaker. This is not “many” as in hundreds or thousands, according to Dunn, but tens of thousands and possibly more. These people attend seminars and while everyone else is listening (or not) to the presentation, are being distracted by their own thoughts. “No offense, but I could do better than this guy.”  Or, “I wish I could ask this guy how he got started speaking. I’d love to do this for a living instead of what I’m doing right now.” Or, “someday…I’m going to do that!”

The National Institute Of Mental Health says that 74% of people suffer from some level of glossophobia (the fear of public speaking).

So that means there are 26% of people who do not fear public speaking (in the U.S. alone, that equates to 8 million people) and additional research points out that 10% of people (8 million), not only have no fear of speaking but embrace the opportunity, seek it out and even long for it. But according to Dunn, here’s the awkward truth: whatever the number of people who fit the latter description, the overwhelming majority of them won’t admit their dream to another human being. Why is this? Is it a fear of being ridiculed, judged, or even rejected? Whatever the reasons, Dunn maintains they can be overcome.

2. “Nobody Wants A Fat Personal Trainer.”

With apologies for political incorrectness, Dunn notes that one of the reasons many people never make the attempt to become a professional speaker is because they have a sense of unworthiness. They feel they don’t look the part or haven’t had enough success in their life or enough “triumph over tragedy” to justify being hired to uplift and inspire others. The awkward truth: it may be true. But this should not stop anyone from entering the world of professional speaking, he says, but it may influence their pathway into the field. They should steer themselves towards people who have “the street cred” that gets them invited into organizations and events where people are looking to be uplifted, inspired, educated. In the case of the speaking industry, “guilty by association” will work in your favor.

As an example, Dunn mentions a friend he refers to as “Matt.” Matt had always wanted to teach. So after getting his college degree to teach, he set up a business as a professional private tutor. He listed his credentials and began to market himself to the community. But he didn’t get a single client—not even one.

When he asked for advice, Dunn noted he didn’t have the credentials to simply hang out his name and wait for his clientele to arrive. He was a small brand hoping for a response that only a big brand could deliver. So he urged his friend to affiliate with a larger brand by getting a job as a teacher in a local university.

He did. Lo and behold, Matt found himself standing before packed classrooms of students that he taught with delight, day after day. He quickly became a popular instructor in packed classes with standing room only. He was doing exactly what he loved to do best: teaching, teaching, and more teaching. As I would put it myself, Matt gained credibility as a natural and recognized authority in his field. He steadily became the preferred target for those who wanted additional instruction and his lucrative tutoring business was born.

Those who have the dream and desire to speak and can do so well can open the door immediately, Dunn says. But in most cases, they need to be willing to intermingle their small or non-existent brand with a larger and recognized entity, at least for a while.

3. Many Suffer From “Home Depot Fever.”

Dunn actually loves Home Depot. But, to illustrate a point, he acknowledges he is not the guy who has any business doing DIY projects around home. His wife jokingly refers to him as “Mr. Fixit” because it’s the thing he is not. “I won’t tell you the hundreds of things I have broken while trying to fix, assemble or install something else, but it happened and it was ugly,” he says.

Yet all too often Dunn finds himself wandering the aisles of Home Depot to grab some light bulbs or a new broom and next thing he knows he’s staring glassy-eyed into the face of a hairy guy in an orange apron who’s successfully convincing him he can re-tile his own bathroom, and the sad cycle of his destruction continues.

This is a phenomenon that pervades the speaking industry as well (often enough to be almost criminal, he says). Good, honest people with the dream of launching a speaking business wander into industry associations, conventions and seminars where they are quickly pulled aside and told how simple and critical it is to publish a book, launch a profitable blog, pay to be listed in a glossy catalog or website, get sexy pictures taken, build a killer press kit, attend highly expensive training on how to speak, how to be funny, how to dress.

The innocent dream chasers end up spending massive amounts of money on “stuff” (Dunn’s polite word for the issue) that he maintains is not required to be a professional speaker, and even if it were involves things that are not as easy to do as they sound. “These potentially powerful speakers are knocked out of the business before they even begin by vendors who only survive by continually finding new dreamers to sell to.” Worse still, he notes are the sellers who pass their victims around by sharing their lists, combining their offers and endorsing each other. It’s a brutal and aggressive industry that has existed for decades, he says.

Dunn himself acknowledges having been a member of an association (“the big one” in the speaking industry) and in the year he joined was the youngest member ever on record. “Yes,” he says, “I attended the trade shows where the sharks circle the newbies with tempting offers and promises of easy success, and I bought the t-shirts and the DVD sets of tips and strategies from the pros.”

Decades later, after authoring best sellers, hosting shows and getting big fees to speak, he warn others that nothing the “sharks” ever sold or said to him turned out to be useful or true.

“It wasn’t how the real industry works,” he maintains.” But many of the sellers don’t understand why it doesn’t because they’ve never truly succeeded in the speaking industry themselves. They’ve only succeeded in taking money from others who want to get into the industry.”

As my own note, I find the same to be true of many if not most of those who are selling training aids for success in entrepreneurship as well. You should get your mentoring and training only from those who actually are or who have actually been successful entrepreneurs, not simply successful at selling their materials to others.

Dunn says what may be the obvious…”Run away! Save yourself!” Then he softens a bit: “Pehaps not entirely. But be careful, be cautious and listen to your loving and skeptical spouse who is not as ‘punch drunk’ as you may be about pursuing your dream. Yes, you can succeed as a professional speaker, but a garage full of ‘stuff’ from vultures (vendors) is not a path to success.”

As a note, I am personally a member of the Mountainwest Chapter of the National Speakers Association as is fellow Forbes contributor Devin Thorpe, who serves as an officer of that chapter. I have not attended the program’s national annual convention, but have found the regional meetings and presenters to be highly beneficial for prospective speakers. Likewise, the leaders and participants work willingly to help each other progress in meaningful ways.

4. Original Songs Are Overrated.

Name your favorite singer or band. Now name another. Now think of one more, Dunn challenges listeners. Now think of your favorite song by those three singers/bands. Odds are strong, he points out, that the songs were not written by your favorite singer or band.

So it goes in the world of speaking. Great curriculum comes from teams who pore over principles, develop effective teaching strategies, mix in a little psychology (if they’re smart). Then speakers can integrate their own personal stories and life lessons. No, this is not how every successful speaker emerges. But this is how the large seminar companies who train corporations and organizations around the world succeed, and the process is highly effective. Great tools are great tools.

“My message to those who have a strong desire to speak but are locked into the belief that they don’t have anything important or valuable to say is that’s okay!” Dunn says. “That fact will not stop you from having a successful career as a professional speaker. There are legitimate, reputable training organizations (yes, our team is one of them) who have proven and powerful curriculum and are perpetually seeking strong speakers to present.”

“So yes, you can become a successful speaker without developing your own curriculum,” he concludes. “All day long.”

5. There Is No ‘I’ In Speaker.

True success in the speaking industry does not reward (at least in the long term) the ego maniacs, the superstar wannabes or the posers with fake Rolex watches and slicked back hair. Those who achieve highest success in the professional speaking business recognize that speaking is a team sport, Dunn maintains.

“Failure comes to those who try to make it as a one man band,” says Dunn. Whether you build a team or join a team, understand that teamwork makes the dream work….’ as the leadership expert John Maxwell has said. But the rest of that quote is equally as important: ‘…but a vision becomes a nightmare when the leader has a big dream and a bad team.’ So choose wisely whose team you join or whom you invite onto your team.”

With these inputs are you ready to take a second look at a potential speaking career? Or could you advance your career and business by learning to present more effectively than you currently do? I imagine the answer is yes, and if so, these points should help you find the momentum to start.