What Clients Need to Hear isn’t a Brag List. It’s What You and I Can Do for Them.
He stood on the meeting platform and delivered his ten-minute mini-keynote to the rest of us speakers. It was all right. Not bad for someone who’s only been in the business for a short time.
At the end of his piece, everyone stood up and gave him a standing O. Kindly, he didn’t exactly deserve one. Given that these folks stand for absolutely everyone (you stroke my back I’ll stroke yours) the standing O in this environment is meaningless. If we sat down and clapped politely and without enthusiasm for a few folks, that would be useful feedback. It should be earned, not handed out like free samples to everyone who stands on stage.
I spoke to him later. He didn’t remember me at all. I sure remembered him. As an African American Air Force pilot, he had an interesting background. The year before we’d had a long discussion about differentiation. Like so many military and athletic folks who start speaking, it’s almost always about teamwork and leadership.
This guy has so much more to offer than that. As we talked last year, I found a major differentiator. As a young man, he had worked a lot with horses. I don’t know a lot of African American combat pilots with that background. As an advanced rider, I also know how horses are so often used in executive leadership programs. He got the point. Liked the idea. For a half-minute.
Clearly he both forgot about the discussion and the point, which was not to look like everyone else in your field. His speaking points were, quite frankly and very sadly, vanilla. Nothing you and I haven’t heard a hundred times over. That’s a problem. Folks hire new, inventive, creative, funny. Not same old, same old. It may be new to him, but not to a sophisticated audience. That means we need to know our market, what they know, and our competition. Particularly those who are very, very good in our lane.
He didn’t remember me at all. Guess I made a huge impression. That says something about his listening skills. Or, perhaps, I’m just not all that impressive ( I can attest to the veracity of that myself).
What would have spiced up his program would have been a few stories about what made him different as a leader. Not many like him have his horse background. Lots of us would hear that as a prime differentiator. If for no other reason that horses have long been partners in the military, and still are. Americans have a soft spot for these animals, and it would give him a chance to touch on a bit of history and talk about how horses taught him to be a better leader.
What was unfortunate was that not only did he not take that suggestion and make it his own (which is his perfect right, this isn’t about my little ego), he handed out a promotional piece on all our meeting tables.
It’s the classic rookie speaker mistake. On that piece he lists ten of his military accomplishments. Picture of himself in uniform with rows and rows of medals.
Um, nobody cares, unless you’re trying to impress your unit commander. He still thinks like a military man. This is marketing. Big difference. Different language, different positioning.
While this very talented and accomplished man has skills, I can’t think of anyone who will hire him as a speaker until he can express three fundamental things:
- What results can I as a client expect? What problem(s) do you solve?
- What has he delivered for other similar clients (metrics)
- How is he different from the thousands of other leadership speakers out there?
A list of what he’s done is little more than a brag fest. This has an unfortunate way of telegraphing our insecurity about ourselves. In the military, we proudly show off our board of medals on our chests, which is how other military peeps understand who we are and where we’ve been. In a matter of seconds we can scan the medals, the strategically-placed gold or stripes and know that person’s history, accomplishments and war theaters.
It’s an internal language. Civilians use brochures, business cards, websites to do much the same.
That doesn’t translate to civilian work, unless of course you’re working with a defense contractor. Even there, and I have been military, an employee of two Fortune 100 defense contractors and a Tier One supplier to several as a speaker, I still had to prove my worth. What’s in it for them?
That means presenting what a potential client can expect.
In her superb article on branding, Medium peep Felicia C. Sullivan points out just how complex and scientific building a brand has to be https://medium.com/s/how-to-build-a-brand/lets-talk-about-how-to-build-a-brand-543b2dfbc4f5. The problem is that in the speaking industry, it is heavily populated with self-absorbed folks who are so determined to prove their worth that they will list any and every skill (tied my shoes by myself at the age of 18 months!!!!!!) they ever built. Whether or not it’s relevant, whether or not anybody but their friends care about it.
Speakers are hardly alone, but their self-absorption is on steroids. Imagine going to their annual conference. Three thousand-plus speaker and speaker wannabes whose favorite topic is themselves, barking at you and bending your ears for several days straight. They even hand out their promotional materials- to their competition no less- in an attempt to get work.
Even the educational breakout sessions are largely exercises in motivational masturbation. We can’t help ourselves. We thrive on an audience and often forget it’s not about ME. It’s about the client. The audience. What they need to walk away with, their actionable items. The real speaking pros (as in most industries, I’d guess) tend to be very humble and excellent listeners. For good reason. That’s how they consistently get hired.
I no longer attend for that reason. I was, and sometimes still am, guilty of same. I would prefer not to spend time with folks who would reinforce a bad habit. I want to emulate the best, and be coached to manage my weaknesses (kindly which are legion, but I’d prefer to skip that part).
In this man’s pricey piece of marketing, which is blank on the back (where his creds might have been to support what he could do for a potential client on the front) is a waste. Speaking as someone who has hired folks like him, I wouldn’t. His material shows no empathy for the problems executives face. It’s all about MEMEMEMEMEMEME.
Most of us do this. He’s no exception. I did it when I began as well. But this is also why there are programs and people who can help military folks transition their skills. Graciela Tiscareno-Sato is one of those, a speaker herself, a prize- winning author and someone who now focuses on helping vets make that transition. She’s also an Air Force pilot, a woman of color, and someone who was honored at the Obama White House (https://www.linkedin.com/in/gracielatiscarenosato/) for her contributions. People like this have already done the work. It makes enormous sense to go out and find them. And hire them.
Guy’s got talent, but in this regard, he’s kinda clueless. That is the definition of what is likely to be a failed speaking business in a few years. There’s a superbly-talented female Air Force colonel not far from here who is crushing it. That’s because in her leadership training, she found a lane. She writes for major business publications and her materials focus on what she does for people.
How she solves problems.
That’s what folks buy.
As a fellow pilot, I hope the Colonel does some course corrections. He’s got skills, but he won’t get much work unless he stops listening to his own advice and hires a pro. That’s a good investment. The best of them point out where our egos and insecurities cause us to stumble. I stumble all the time. If I don’t have help I will live my life in a state of perpetual face-plants.
I suppose that’s fine, but it’s hard to breathe with earthworms up my nose. So I get help.
Most of us have no idea how to market ourselves. Most of us still think “everybody needs me.” That’s a death knell. Vanilla doesn’t sell. Differentiation does.
Hell, I’m no expert but I’m better than most. If nothing else, I know what I don’t know. That’s a monumental gift. This is why I hire a coach.
What we don’t know can bring us to the ground in a messy landing before we hit cruise altitude.
As he himself pointed out on stage, he needs a co-pilot and a navigator to fly a C-130. So do you and I if we want to pilot our business. If I count on myself as the sole source of advice, I am working with a fool.
I will crash land. Already have,plenty of times. That’s why I hire coaches and people far smarter than I am. In the military that’s your unit.
Right now this colonel is flying solo. I hope he finds a wingman or woman who knows marketing. I hope he builds a team. We need his story, his voice, and the skills that he can bring to audiences that badly need to see non-white-male faces at the podium.