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Professional Speaking Rules to Break

Professional Speaking Rules to Break

Reprinted from the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers:

Ask the Expert : What “Golden Rules” Can Be Broken?
by Alan Weiss

The speaking business has changed significantly in the past decade, but the people in it often seem not to have noticed, as if watching jet aircraft from the insular comfort of their stagecoaches and thinking there’s nothing odd about that. I’ve seldom seen so many antiquated ideas bandied about as if still contemporary. I’m sure it was useful at one time to know the best way to kill a Tyrannosaurus, but even if the approach still made sense, the great beasts were last seen tens of millions of years ago.

I’ve been asked to report on what “golden rules” can be broken. I assume we’re talking about speaking and not Commandments, so here are my nominations:

1. Working through intermediaries.
It is ethically and pragmatically necessary to establish a relationship with the person who is making the investment in the speaker. That is never a bureau, a meeting planner, or an event manager. We must find the individual whose objectives and evaluation are critical, because it is their investment. The better bureaus and meeting planners readily facilitate a meeting with the true “buyer.”

2. Acting like a “hired hand” and ecstatic to have the business.
I actually heard an NSA convention speaker say that he was a “hired hand” who would help a client move tables or set up recording equipment. I’m not a hired hand, I’m a highly skilled professional, and I’d no more help with non-speaking activities than my doctor would help find an oil leak in my car during my visit, even if he knew about cars. We must stop undermining our value.

3. Thinking that stage mechanics and movement outrank words and meaning.
There have been bogus citations of “research” purporting to show that non-verbal behavior has more impact than words. This has been perpetuated by those who either never looked at the “research” or don’t know how to use words. Words are the tools of our craft. I’ve listened, rapt, to people who speak well even if they choose not to—or can’t—move at all.

4. Believing that audience evaluations are important.
“Smile sheets” are just dumb. The audience members are the last people you want to ask about success. We’re often called upon to make them uncomfortable, to shake them out of lethargy, to accept radical change. We don’t need for them to like us, we need for the buyer’s objectives to be met (see #1 above). You’re not in this business to be loved. If you need love, get a dog. (And within the profession, I’m bored to tears of undeserved standing ovations.)

5. Maintaining a fee schedule.
You should stop looking at a speech or training program as an “event.” Think about what you can do prior (e.g., interviews, surveys) and what you can do at the session (e.g., handouts, coaching), and what you can do after the event (e.g., newsletters, email access), and you now have a project instead of an event, that is worth ten times your “speaking fee.” The problem is that you probably “throw in” most of those extras for free to prove your value! (And bureaus demand “fee schedules” because they treat speakers like an ongoing cattle call.)

6. Thinking you have a “message” and this is an avocation.
This is an occupation, and unless you are meeting a market need (or creating one) no one cares about your “message.” It’s great if you overcame some challenge or learned some cosmic lesson, but unless you can interpret that into practical improvement for others, it’s just a nice story over cocktails and nothing others want to pay to hear. (No one will pay to see your vacation slides.) This is a business, not a hobby.

7. Listening to “experts.”
Unless the ski instructor is six yards ahead of you on the hill doing exactly what you want to do, the instructor is a fraud. Drinking brandy in the chalet is insufficient. Only listen to those who have done what you want to do repeatedly and successfully. Most people at conventions lie to each other about how well they’re doing, and too many people giving advice are solely “advice-givers,” with no real credentials of success.

Feel free to break all of these rules. I have. So do the people I coach. Now, follow me down the slope….

© Alan Weiss 2009. All rights reserved.

Written by

Alan Weiss is a consultant, speaker, and author of over 60 books. His consulting firm, Summit Consulting Group, Inc., has attracted clients from over 500 leading organizations around the world.

Comments: 7

  • Jeffrey Summers

    March 7, 2010

    1. Oh yeah!
    2. Definitely!
    3. Absolutely!
    4. Love it!
    5. Great value!
    6. Tell me more!
    7. Amen!

    (Just trying to come up with more creative ways to say “Another great post Alan!”)

  • Alan Weiss

    March 7, 2010


  • Philippe Back

    March 8, 2010

    Amen to that.

    Alan, you rule and made my practice a much better one, by leaps and bounds.

    I loved the one on making it a project and not an event.

  • Rick Butts

    March 31, 2010

    BINGO Alan –

    Every one of your points here evokes scores of dreadfully misguided and unprofessional illusions that hurt a speaker/author’s business.

    Worse, are the pretenders who have never been paid for a speech who purport to teach others, and perpetuate these bad ideas.

    (there were a lot of fancy words starting with “p” in that last sentence. Hopefully the toastmasters dont’ get me!)

  • Alan Weiss

    March 31, 2010

    I wouldn’t worry about Toastmasters, alliteration is great in writing and never dumb down what you say. The Toastmasters do not help professional speakers.

    People feel that feedback and advice is always good to consider. It is not. The source is the key. If you’re a coach, you better have been there and done it excellently and repeatedly. That “coaching university” certificate means nothing by itself.

  • Dennis Bauer

    April 5, 2010

    Everything has a flip side. Regarding Toastmasters, the clubs may not be much help to professionals, but they do two things: give the non-professional some experience and confidence for otherwise-threatening, everyday speaking responsibilities, and give the professional a venue to rehearse segments of new material. A professional won’t worry about the Toastmasters’ “excellent speech” on feedback forms, but will notice if and where people laugh or go to sleep. There are real people in the audience.

    And apt alliterations are almost always acceptable as auditory aids, as are Allanisms.

  • Alan Weiss

    April 5, 2010

    There is always on flip side only on somewhat outdated 45 rpm records. The Toastmasters audience is NOT a good place for professionals to try out that level of material. As you state, and I agree, it’s a good place for those who need to overcome fear of speaking.

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