How to Build a Recession Proof Speaking Business

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Looking for practical advice and training from the world’s most successful speakers? The Speaker Lab Podcast features business tactics, tips, and strategies from the world’s most successful speakers. We post transcripts of every episode as resources to help you build your speaking business.

Grant: Welcome back to the Speaker Lab Podcast, friends! We have a fan favorite back in the house – we’re talking with the dream himself, Mr. Erick Rheam.

So we have been hearing a lot from students and just the industry right now (and even beyond just the speaking industry) a lot about the economy and what’s going to happen. What is a recession?  Are we in a recession? What’s going to happen? What are the next several, weeks, months, and years going to look like and how will it affect everybody? And certainly how does that affect the speaking industry?

One of the things I like about the speaking industry is it has been around longer than both of us has been alive – and anybody listening has been alive. It’s lived through recessions and depressions and 9-11 and wars and a pandemic. And so there’s kind of these economic ebbs and flows, these real world ebbs and flows that just happen. They’re just part of life. And so the speaking industry has survived and thrived through all of them. The speaking industry is still here and doing better than ever. When I first got started, I had been a full time speaker for about a year or two when the great recession happened and I remember going to the NSA national convention and it was this heavy cloud hanging over the entire event, and yet here we are and just coming out of a pandemic and the speaking industry is still fine, it continues to thrive.

And so what’s your sense right now and what you are seeing? I know you’ve made your own transition a few years ago, and so as speakers, entrepreneurs, and business owners, we always have this sense of unknown. We have no idea what tomorrow holds and what things are going to look like.

Erick: Well, if you think about it, Grant, when I texted you a few years ago in 2019, you were really good to me and you were very kind and gracious with your time. And I would text you crazy questions every now and then. And I remember texting you and saying “I think I might want to go full time.” And I remember you saying, “Dude, you should have gone full time a year ago. What are you waiting for? You need to do this.” And I said, “Yeah, but I’m not sure if it’s real” and you texted back and said, “It’s real.” And part of the problem, the reason I didn’t want to go full-time was that I was building my business during really good economic times. And so I kept wondering what happens if something goes bad with the economy – am I still going to be able to survive? So that really made me nervous.

Well in March of 2019 I became a full-time speaker based on your support, and I think we were going great. And then I hit 2020 and we had a situation with the pandemic and I hit a brick wall. So literally my business was a test. It was tested. Would it be able to survive?

And not only did I survive, but thrived as a result of it. And, and you and I were talking, and one of the reasons you wanted to put this together is I learned a lot during that. I learned a lot of what it takes to survive when the economy goes south and a global pandemic stress tested my business and your business and a lot of speakers’ businesses.

Defining a Recession

Grant: So first of all, let’s start by defining a recession. A recession is a temporary economic decline during which trade and industrial activity are reduced, generally identified by the fall in GDP, in two successive quarters.

The GDP is one of those things that is measured and typically we don’t find out until after the fact whether or not we’re in a recession. In fact, I learned recently there’s actually a committee that determines after the fact whether or not we are in a recession. So, we may be in a recession right now. Maybe not, it’s tough to say, inflation is super high, supply chain issues, but the bottom line is there’s some type of strain that seems to be happening right now. And so, Erick, I’m curious from your perspective, what are some of the things that when something like this happens – what are the ways that organizations typically respond that we need to be thinking.

Organizational Response to Recessions: Three Things

Erick: What I’ve seen from my perspective is there’s three ways in which organizations are going to respond. The first is organizations that are really directly affected by the recession. There are just some industries that are going to be hit by it, you can’t avoid it. And so what happens during that time is they shrink their business operations. They make deep cuts, usually laying people off, cutting down operational expenses, and just try to get through it. So that’s a real thing, but the other two are a little different. The second way organizations respond is they fear the recession. So fears are a very real thing for people and we respond out of fear.

Grant: And so to your point, this is a time where people are going to make decisions out of fear, not necessarily based on reality. Right? And so what they do is when organizations start to fear, they  think about discretionary expenditures and sometimes that includes travel and traveling to events.

Erick: The third one is, organizations want to make sure that optically they’re not putting themselves out there for criticism. So they may think, well, is this the best time to be sending our leadership team to Las Vegas when maybe our stockholders or shareholders are focused on the impact of the recession. So just optically, they’re going to make some decisions and they’ll cut back on expenditures just to avoid criticism.

Grant: So those three are ways that organizations primarily respond across the board, but let’s dig down a little bit further here. What does that mean exactly for the speaking industry? What are some ways that you see this playing out again over the next several months and years for the speaking industry?

Erick: So here’s some things to expect as a speaker, as you’re kind of preparing yourself for what may happen over the next few months. Number one is organizations are going to change their priorities and their behavior, right? And it’s usually going to affect travel. That’s usually what happens. So what that means is revenue for the conference declines and that gets passed down to the speakers. So if they’re losing revenue, they’re expecting speakers to adjust to that.

I’ve also learned that speakers who have existing partnerships with event planners, those type of speakers tend to thrive because what I’ve found is event planners tend to lean into what they know and like. So when things get tough, they want to go to what’s predictable. So if you’ve got existing relationships, you tend to thrive better. During that time, training budgets don’t go away. This is important to remember during economic downtime, recessions, pandemics, the training budgets stay pretty solid.

Usually what disappears are the travel budgets and that’s what affects speakers. That’s why it’s important to have a strategy to chase those training dollars when travel still goes away and still be profitable during a down.

Five Strategies to Thrive in a Recession

Grant: So in spite of what’s happened, there’s a lot of opportunities that continue to exist. In addition, one of the best things to come out of the pandemic for the speaking industry was virtual. The pandemic hits, virtual becomes the only game in town, and what we have seen now two and a half years later is that as live events have come back, they’ve not come back in replacement of virtual, but they’ve come back in addition to virtual. And so now you have a lot more opportunities and a lot more flexibility for speakers on what it is that you can offer vs. just being dependent on in-person events. I think if a recession’s really going to hit, virtual is going to play a much bigger part. So you’ve got five different strategies that speakers need to be considering thinking about leaning into right now, in order to thrive during a recession,

Let’s dig into this. What’s the first key strategy that speakers need to be thinking about?

Erick: Number one, invest in yourself. The reason for that is your skill set that you personally have is the most important asset for your future economic success. So this is the time to make yourself more attractive to potential employers or event planners by upgrading some things that are involved in your business.

So here’s some things you can do to invest in yourself:

  1. Upgrade your marketing assets like headshots, demo videos and websites
  2. Freshen up your abstract and testimonials
  3. Update your references

Grant: Whenever it comes to updating your marketing assets, especially headshot, demo, video website, those types of things. If the economy is to really go south, then one of the things that creates are some potential job opportunities. If people are looking for things, you might find some videographers and photographers who would love to do something for a discounted or lower rate. Also, within some of our programs, we actually create your demo video and your website for you. So if you’re thinking I know I need a new website, I know I need a new demo video, or I don’t have those at all we actually take those things completely off your plate and make your demo video, make your website for you. So, what are some other ways that we can be investing in ourselves?

Erick: Write a book based on your signature message. Every speaker needs to get here eventually. I’ve had some veteran speakers, multiple times tell me that if you look at some of the best speakers out there, the ones that are commanding really good fees, they all have a book on their signature message.

My book really helped elevate me, and I would recommend looking at self-publishing or hybrid. It’s the way to get your book out there quickly and that helps elevate your credibility. Nothing provides credibility more than being an author. We respect authors even more than PhDs. When you read somebody or meet somebody who’s written a book, that elevates them.

Erick: The next thing I would recommend is upgrade your credentials. I know the National Speaker Association has certifications that you can go through that really adds credibility as a speaker and can be industry specific. The other thing I would recommend is hire a coach or go through a training program. You know, there are a lot of things you don’t know, there are blind spots, right? So now is the time to fill in those blind spots.

Grant: So the first thing is  investing in yourself – what’s the second key strategy we need to be paying attention to right now?

Erick: Go virtual.

Grant: We’ve seen a ton of statistics that prove there’s been massive growth in the virtual market and virtual speaking opportunities. So it’s definitely something that the world is much more accustomed to now than they were even pre-pandemic. So when you say, go virtual, what exactly does this mean for a speaker and how should we be considering this or playing this out?

Erick: So what does it mean for a speaker? If you go virtual, you’re gonna separate yourself from other speakers. The bottom line is there’s some speakers that just don’t or aren’t [going virtual] for whatever reason. And I think it’s a mistake. They’re not embracing it. So if you can come to an event planner with virtual as one of your skill sets it just opens up a lot more value that you can add to an event planner. Going virtual does a few things:

  1. Keeps you in the running for gigs, even when they have to go virtual
  2. With a virtual studio, you can do a lot of things with video – more options! Online courses and more!
  3. Going virtual gives you time BACK – less travel and logistics, and more time for family.

Erick: Another thing that really has helped me, once things opened up again, was I still brought virtual to add value to that live event. Let me give you an example:

I did a workshop down in Alabama. Normally I charge $20,000 for this type of event. Now, what I did was a virtual session with the leadership team a week before the event, and then afterwards I did three 90-minute sessions with the entire group, and I was able to upcharge them another $5,000.

The Future of Virtual

Erick: They’re predicting by 2030, it’s going to be a 6.57 billion industry. In 2022, this year, it’s a 1.39 billion industry and are you ready for this? The North American market of that is 40%. I mean, the numbers are right there, so it’s not going away. So if you want to be a viable, credible professional speaker, you’ve got to have virtual be part of it.

And then finally, here’s what I believe. If you really want to make your business recession proof, virtual is recession proof, because like I said, training budgets don’t go away, travel budgets do. There’s still a desire to get training, and if you’ve got the virtual way of doing that, you can add value with people not having to travel with you to remain viable during the down economy.

Grant: One thing we talk about a lot as speakers is that we are more than just speakers. We are in the business of providing solutions of solving problems. So whenever a recession happens or when a pandemic happens or whenever war happens, those problems don’t stop. If anything, maybe they’re amplified and there becomes a greater need for speakers to come in and provide those solutions.

We have a core program called virtual VIP [at The Speaker Lab] that you [Erick] help teach, and it’s taught live with small group cohorts of 10-15 students that go through this at a time with you when you’re able to share what’s working today – right now. You’re walking through how exactly you’re booking gigs, how you’re finding them, how you’re reaching out, what you’re pitching, and even the physical virtual set-up – cameras, lights, microphones.

So again, we’ve talked about investing in yourself. Number two, going virtual, number three. What is that one?

Erick: Develop partnerships with event planners.

Last year I had a record year, by the way. 63% of my business is with existing clients. So think about going into a year knowing that the majority of your business is already secure, because you’ve got client-based partnerships. Circle back with all event planners that hired you in the past, go back to them and offer solutions that help solve the most relevant issues you’re dealing with right now as a result of a down economy.

You want to get in the trenches with the people that you’ve partnered with in the past and show them that you’re situationally aware and you’re reasonable because that’s gonna come back later and you’re going to build trust and create a revenue stream. That’s going to keep you solvent during a downtime.

If you’re a veteran speaker, you have to lean into prospecting folks and you have to be consistent – daily. And so what are you gonna be doing? During those daily times, you’re gonna be reaching back to those former event planners and you’re going to offer your solution and ask for a referral – you have to be very specific. “Can you give me one or two names of people I could reach out to and you think I’d be a good fit for?” You’d be amazed at how many event planners will serve you because they enjoy the partnership. They enjoyed working with you and they’re willing to refer you.

They want to help you out. They want to help the other person out that they’re going to be recommending you to. So, absolutely this works, but it doesn’t work unless you ask. If you just sit back and hope that people can magically tell other people about you. It’s not that people don’t want to help you, they just don’t think of it. They’re busy. They have their own things going on. So when you’re proactively asking, it can absolutely move the dial.

Four Questions You Have to Ask Yourself

Erick: You have to get really clear on what you’re about. And there’s a few key questions.

  1. Who is your audience?
  2. What is the primary problem you’re solving?
  3. What is the promise of transformation?

Also, I think the fastest way to get on the speaker trail is through associations because they’re everywhere and their business model is that they have to train folks. So lean into your industry. Every industry has an association. Then what you’re gonna do when you reach out is to use one of your abstracts as a way to start the conversation. Be prepared to speak at a discounted rate. Don’t overthink this. You need to get your foot in the door to these relationships. It’s gonna pay off tenfold. Trust me on this. So what you’re going to do is leverage those events to start partnerships with these folks. You’re going to get referrals from them because of it and you’re going to get marketing assets.

Grant: I think there’s a big misconception around speaking for free. And so what we always tell speakers is that speaking for free is okay. Caveat, as long as you know why you’re doing it. Remember you’re running a business. You’re not running a nonprofit, don’t do this out of the goodness of your heart. So you have to do this from a business perspective, meaning it’s okay to do something for free, knowing that I’m going to provide something of value, but you have to receive something of value in exchange. And sometimes that comes in the form of a check and other times there’s other ways to receive that value. And again, this is exactly what we teach inside of our programs. I know I keep saying that, but if that’s something that you’re looking for help with, whether you’re a new speaker or a veteran speaker, don’t hesitate to let us know.

Okay. So we’ve talked about investing in yourself. We’ve talked about going virtual. We’ve talked about developing partnerships with event planners. Erick, what’s number four.

Erick: Right. I know this is a heavy episode. This is a big meat sandwich, but it’s full of protein, so take it. This is going to be helpful. Number four is secure finances.

You have to be solvent. Businesses fail because of cash flow. You have to have cash flow. So number one, you have to have positive cash flow. How do you do that? Prospect, prospect, prospect, prospect. I can’t say this enough.

What does that mean? That means you have to keep active prospective gigs in your pipeline. So we teach in our course on how to have a pipeline. There’s five stages. We walk our students through that. You want to have prospective gigs in your pipeline at all times. You’ve got to have what I call the “red line number” and you never wanna drop below that.

Just pick a number for me. It’s 40. So what does that mean? Every day I wake up and the first thing I do is I look at my pipeline and if I have 40 or less prospective events, then I have to stop everything and ensure I have at least 40. Why is this important? Because if I’m running it through our system, in the pipeline, there’s always going to be gigs that come out on the other end of that.

Now here’s a tip for new speakers. If you’ve got a job or side hustle, lean into it, get the cash. Especially during a down economy, you’ve got to pay the bills. Don’t act out of desperation, it never works. So whatever side hustle or whatever you do to pay the bills and build your speaking business, on top of that, get a coach or something like that’s gonna help.

What do you do? Leverage the skill set that you have to get any gig possible. Now is not the time to be proud. Just get the gigs, keep the cash flow going. Once you get the cash flow in order, you have to maintain a cash reserve, two to six months and cut unnecessary expenses.

Grant: Okay. What’s the last and final strategy that speakers need to be employed through a potential recession?

Erick: Be flexible. Now’s not the time to be rigid. Event planners are stressed. They’re human beings. They’re trying to get through it like anybody else – don’t be a cause of further stress for an event planner. They’re gonna remember what it was like to work with you.

It’s a small speaking world, and if your name gets out there, that you’re really good. That’s great. But also could get out there that you were a really big pain during this time. That’s gonna get out there too. So don’t be rigid.

Be prepared to do things you normally wouldn’t do to support events. The event planner may be trying to cut costs and maybe they got a smaller room than they normally would use. Maybe they’re not using a professional sound team and maybe they’re just trying to cut costs. So be prepared. It’s not gonna be what it normally is and don’t make a big deal out of it.

And finally, you’re going to invest in either negative or positive. It’s going to come back tenfold. It’s going to come back tenfold negative or tenfold positive. Just remember how you want to be remembered when we get on the other side of this.

Grant: A thing that we say a lot here is that speaking is a relationship business and people do business with people they know, like and trust. I can tell you sometime in the next several years or decades that you’re in the speaking industry, there’s going to be highs and there’s going to be lows. And some of that may be way outside of your control. Some of that may be some mistake that you make. It could be any number of things, but that’s the nature of business. That’s the nature of being an entrepreneur. That’s the nature of being a speaker.

So again, those five strategies, just to recap:

  1. Invest in yourself
  2. Lean into virtual
  3. Develop partnerships with event planners
  4. Secure and take care of your finances
  5. Be flexible

Any other final words before we end?

Erick: The speaking industry is thriving. It is hot right now. I’m out there. I’m out there in it right now. It is hot. It is thriving. If you want to be a speaker, don’t focus too much on the fear that surrounds this general life.

If you’ve got a message and a desire. There’s an audience that wants that message and just lean into that. And I want to encourage everyone listening to this, that no matter what’s going on in the current reality, the speaking industry is going to be there, and so just lean into it. It’s a great lifestyle. It’s fun. And I look forward to seeing folks out there on the speaker trail.

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