Grant: Hey friends, welcome back to The Speaker Lab Podcast. Today we are going to be chatting with keynote speaker, David Avrin. I’m excited to talk about his speaking journey and also what he is seeing that is working today — not yesterday, not tomorrow — but what is working right now for finding and booking paid gigs. So David, thanks for joining us today.
David: Hey, it’s great to be here. This is a perfect subject to talk about certainly for your audience because the world is opening up and the opportunities are amazing. We’re taking advantage of it.
Grant: So for some background and context, give us a snapshot of who you are. Who do you speak to? What do you speak about, what does your speaking world look like today?
David: Sure. You know, I was one of those guys that came out of the marketing world. I spent a lot of years in healthcare marketing and worked with a lot of national restaurant brands and others, and I was one of those people that was sort of asked, “Hey, would you teach a summer course? Would you come and speak to our organization?” And after working with a fellow colleagues from the National Speaker Association I realized you can get paid for this.
People actually pay for this, and it was a big revelation. But what was really funny was my great friend and colleague, Eric Chester, who is a hall of fame speaker, I did some PR for him over 20 years ago. And I remember asking him the question and thinking, you make how much money for an hour.
And what’s really funny is his answer to me that day is the same as my answer when people say the same to me. He said, “Yes, that’s true, but I don’t do it every minute.” So yeah we get paid what might to some look like a ridiculous amount of money, but we’re putting in a lot of work not just the business part of speaking and the prospecting and the converting of the speaking opportunities, but it’s how many years of expertise.
I tell people all the time, speaking is not a business, getting the gig is the business. We love speaking. That’s just the performance. That’s our concert. We love that part of it, but the business of this is really hard. And so sustaining a business [is the key], which we’re really fortunate that we’ve done in my office here for over 20 years now. My brilliant assistant has been with me coming up on 10 years next month.
How It All Started
Grant: So what especially early on was working? You’re talking with Eric and you’re realizing there’s an opportunity here, so what worked? Early on, and probably still a little bit today, there’s a lot of imposter syndrome of, you know, part of me wants to be up there, but part of me is like, I could never get paid. That seems completely ridiculous.
David: So how arrogant does it sound if I say I don’t have imposter syndrome, I have delusions of grandeur? That’s how confident I am. But no, of course, early on it is a business that nobody is born knowing how to do.
Let me take you back a little bit, but I’ll sort of talk to you a little bit more on my journey. We have a really interesting profession in that we are really one of the only professions is those who speak and teach and inspire from the front of the room. One of the only professions where most people got into this profession, because they were encouraged by somebody who has no idea what this profession is.
And so what I learned early on in this business, and we’re happy to address all this, to be clear for everybody listening — it is not in lieu of your passion, but it’s not because of your passion. We can talk about that. But early on in my journey, I was really fortunate that, you know, I’ve been on stage much of my life. I sang in a band early on and I did theater and things like that in college, it was always really comfortable.
I started teaching and people would ask me to come in. I was PR director at a children’s hospital in Denver at the time. And they would ask, “Would you come and speak to our group or whatever else?” And I learned from professionals in this industry, what it takes.
And my first couple of years I did pretty well. I had a new book out, which was called It’s Not Who You Know, It’s Who Knows You. And that did really well. And the phone was ringing. I was doing pretty well. And so this is probably 14 years ago — I’m at a National Speaker Association Event. It’s a Sunday evening and I’m sitting out with some friends out by the pool. And I was talking about my business and my good friend and hall of fame speaker looks over and he says to me, “Dude, you don’t have a business.” And I’m like, what do you, this is like my best year ever. He says, “no, you have gigs. Don’t confuse that with a business.”
And I said, “What’s the difference?” He says, “What are you going to do next year? What’s your revenue going to be next year?
And I said, “How the hell do I know?” And he says, “Exactly, you don’t have a process in place. How are you finding contacts and turning them into leads and leads into prospects and prospects into paying gigs and paying clients.” He says “You are so headed for a fall. I have seen speakers do seven figures, and two years later they couldn’t pay their mortgage.”
I will tell you I didn’t sleep that night because he was right. I went home, talked to my wife, found a way to invest in an assistant to help put that process in place. And so we spent a lot of time prospecting. We would identify who would love what David Aron has to say, and when to pitch to them and what to say as part of the pitch, and we had this whole process in place for when we follow-up. We don’t automate anything. Anything and everything is personalized and people ask, “Doesn’t that take time?” Yeah, of course it takes time. But for what we are compensated. And the role that we play, it’s absolutely worth it.
And someone asked me once how I was converting such a huge percentage of the pitches? And I said, “I don’t think we are. But we’re just pitching all the time. And we’re looking years ahead” And so we talked a little bit about sort of a sustainable business and that’s what I did as a result of that conversation. I put the processes in place and we worked very, very hard.
Grant: Well, I think that’s also a misconception outside looking in that someone assumes you’ve had a successful 20 year career. You are paid significantly well for being a speaker, so it’s just easy for you — the gigs just fall in your lap and certainly there’s a lot of momentum that you have from past gigs and referrals and just having some name recognition, but the point being that you still have to work at it, you still have to put an effort. And you know, if you turn off the spigot gigs eventually will kind of peter out and you’ll stop getting booked.
David: Yeah, let’s be clear. I’m not a celebrity. Most people are listening or maybe looking me up have no idea who I am. I’m good at what I do. A lot of people are, but if you are on shark tank right now as one of the sharks, you’re not having to spend a lot of time looking for gigs, right? People find you. But part of the key to our long term success is we never stop marketing. We never stop. Now probably half of my engagements come from somebody who saw me at another engagement, but half of our gigs are from outbound pitches of somebody, to someone who had no idea who I was until we reached out to them.
I’ve got staff that I have to pay as you do as well. I’ve got three colleges I’m paying for right now. And that’s coming up soon for you, my friend. But no, it’s not enough. And when we’re looking at the calendar and we’ve got some really sparse times, we look back eight to 10 months and say what was happening.
Right. Did we stop pitching? Did we stop? This is a business, like I said, speaking is not a business, getting the gig is the business and we treat it like a business and we get up in the morning and we go to the office and we’re talking to clients and we’re writing articles and we’re recording videos.
I think the biggest lie, and it’s an inadvertent lie, but the biggest lie that’s told to aspiring speakers is that thousands of great, wonderful messengers every year — if you have passion, if you have a story to tell, if you want to make an impact on one person and speak your truth, you can make a living.
It’s just not true. Now that said, if you can connect your expertise and passion and wisdom and experience to a problem somebody’s willing to pay to solve. There’s the magic formula. And I think people misinterpret me sometimes and say, it’s not in lieu of passion, but passion doesn’t get you booked.
It’s taking that passion or that expertise, or wisdom — and if you can use that to clearly solve a problem that an organization has or a business or an association and be convincing from a marketing perspective, you get that opportunity you get on that stage.
I think there’s enough business for everybody. But it’s sad to watch so many people leave this profession early because they’re starving and that’s why organizations and for what you do [The Speaker Lab] and the people that you teach and train, you’re helping to connect that wisdom gap that people have.
It’s not about your passion or the fact that you survive cancer or you lost a limb. I mean, bless your heart. Not mocking it in any way. But what did you learn? I love the line that says don’t tell us what you’ve done, tell us what you learned. And apply that towards business.
Why You Need to Bring Passion & Value
Grant: We tell speakers all the time that you conquered cancer, you climb mountain Everest, you won a gold medal. The reality is that might help you 5% to get your foot in the door, but the audience does not care. They want to know what does this have to do with me? How does this impact me? Is this going to impact and change my life? My family, my marriage, my job, my profession, whatever it may be.
And so what do you say to those speakers early on who are just trying to figure out what those first steps may be? Because oftentimes what we feel like we need to do is we need to look for any opportunities. I want to spread the net as far and wide as possible. Like — “Do you need me to speak on that? Yeah, I can speak on that.” We’re just looking for anything to get some traction, a momentum. So how do you kind of balance that in terms of what you’re passionate about? Something about what you’re an expert on versus just looking for reps.
David: Well, I think part of it is we have to take a couple of steps back and get over ourselves. Right? We haven’t created the cure for cancer that tastes like chocolate, right? We’re a messenger, we’re a teacher. We have something to share, but you really have to take a step back and say, as yourself if someone is going to be willing to pay to share this information?
I’m telling the people who are listening to this right now, nobody is going to write you a check for $10,000 so that you can have a cathartic experience and live your truth and your passion on stage. But they will write that check if you’ll use that to solve a problem. So to get back to your question about how do you start, I think you start by becoming a student of your subject, your broad subject, maybe it’s within leadership or sales or emotional intelligence or marketing or whatever that might be. Look at others who are doing what you do, don’t steal what they have, but be inspired. And don’t assume that everybody just because they’re out there doing it or they’re promoting it, that they’re successful at it, but see what a really good video preview looks like. Look at somebody else’s marketing materials. Look at their course description.
The way you start is you take a step back and you say, “What’s my message?” How am I differentiated from others who are doing the. Who, with money, would be willing to pay to hear this? And then it starts crafting that presentation and structure and there’s no shortage of places to look. I mean, there’s lots of ways to do this, right? And here’s the thing. You don’t have to be great to make it in this business. You have to be good and you have to deliver something of great value.
I know people who are reasonable speakers. But I mean, knocking it out of the park with wisdom and insight and research that we had not heard of before, but people get really caught up in the mechanics. We saw this a lot during COVID they get so caught up on how many cameras they have and what’s their switcher. Meeting planners don’t care how many cameras you have, they want to watch you on screen and say, “Are they good? Can they deliver a message?”
I hear people say, “I took a three day bootcamp on hand gestures and I can’t get the phone to ring.” Pick up the phone! Nobody cares about your hand gestures. Nobody. I mean, so many people are over coached. Do you know what the best speakers teach? What they know? How do you think about the overlap between what you are passionate about? What you’re interested in, what your knowledge belong to, what your expertise is, and then actually what people are hiring speakers for.
Grant: There has to be an overlap because like you said, just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean anybody cares and it’s also bad advice to just say what’s the most in demand topic and how do I jump in that lane? And so how do you find what that right balance is?
David: I mean, first of all, you look at the two extremes, those who are just looking for what’s hot. You have no credibility to speak on that subject just because you decided to. I love the line that says we have the only profession that has written more books than they’ve read. And so people are writing books, they have no expertise. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have value. And it doesn’t mean you can’t be inspiring, but motivational speakers are struggling. Companies are looking for ROI and then on the other end of the spectrum somebody who is so nichey and they’re so excited.
I have developed the only system where people can actually work out in their chair and it’s gonna lower your healthcare costs. And it’s gonna, right. I’m the only onstage dog polisher I can polish dogs and nobody else is doing well. Do you know why nobody else is doing it? Because nobody needs a dog polish.
I just made that up. I don’t know if that’s a good example or not, but Grant you’re right. It is a melding of the two. So you look at what you ave earned the right to teach about. What have I earned the right through my life experiences, through my traumatic experiences or through my educational research? What have I earned the right to talk about or speak about? And then this is the overlap. You have to find a broad category to be in, but you have to find a unique niche within that category. So if you’re doing something that doesn’t fit into leadership sales, marketing — I mean, there’s so many different things, right? That’s what meeting planners are looking for. I’m not talking bureaus. I’m saying like somebody from an organization from Hilton Hotels, and they’re having a big conference. We need somebody on leadership. We need somebody on culture. We need somebody on sales. So they’re going to look within those categories.
But then within that broad category, you must stand out, not by being outrageous for the sake of being outrageous, but something that makes somebody go. “Hey, I never thought about it that way.” What’s your unique insight? Jason Dorsey was talking at their most recent National Speaker Association event about unique research. What’s your aha moment? What challenges? Conventional wisdom. This is daunting for people. And if you’re listening right now and you’re an early speaker, this is work, but my friends, it is so worth it. And the people who aren’t willing to do the work but who do the cliches, who get on stage and tell stories that have been told a hundred times, like the starfish story or something else, they have very short careers.
And yet they are wonderful people and wonderful storytellers and sages. And if they’re willing to do the work, and I know that’s something that you do with The Speaker Lab, that you teach them that process, they have a really good chance of impacting a lot of lives, not just one.
But they have to be willing to do the work, but you’re right. It has to be a melding of the two. It’s got to be a subject that people are looking for, but a unique take. And can be a unique solution, but it can also be a unique diagnosis. Everybody says, it’s this, but it’s really this.
How to Build the Right Processes For Your Business
Grant: Now one thing we’ve referenced a few times on the show is in the book by Michael Gerber. He uses the illustration of a bakery. And he talks about the skill set of being a good baker, of making good bread or cupcakes or cakes, whatever it may be, is a very different skillset than running a bakery.
And that is very, very true. Whenever it comes to speakers, there are speakers who are amazing on stage, but really, really suck at running the business or finding the gigs. And so oftentimes most speakers are good at one or the other. It’s rare to find speakers that are good at both. And maybe they’re out there, but it’s not common.
Most speakers tend to avoid the business. We just assume that if my talk is good enough, if my message is good enough, if my website’s pretty enough, if my videos sharp enough, if I get signed on with a bureau, totally. How do I find a bureau? How do I find an agent then gigs just magically fall into my lap and one of the things you kind of alluded to earlier is you have to get good at running the business. And the business means being able to consistently find and book gigs. So walk us through your process!
David: Sure. And you’re absolutely right. I don’t think it’s that some are good at one or the other. I think almost everybody’s good and focuses only on the performance part and very little on the marketing part, and this is not easy, but when you create systems and process, and once again not about automation, but here’s how we find context and turn them into leads. And so, our process, and I’ll be honest, we actually have extra people and we’ve got some people overseas who do nothing but do research for us.
And they’re searching association lists and we created this rubric that identifies a speaker association. So we examine, when was their last meeting? When is their next meeting? Who were the speakers? So I can get a good sense of what fees they’re going to pay.
You can’t just pitch organizations when you get a contact. They will normally book, when there’s non-pandemic time, eight to 10 months out. So if you look to see that they have their annual meeting every year around mid-May. Right now, as we’re recording this early April, you’re not going to pitch to them right now because they’re knee deep in the details of their upcoming presentation or the upcoming conference. Right? Your stuff will get lost. So we always pitch 30 days after the end of their last conference. Because then they’re starting to talk about next year’s conference. They’re starting to pick their committee for all of that as well.
So we have an initial pitch letter that we send and we pitch for a specific meeting, you know, for this organization, that David Avrin has a compelling message. If you want to skip all the rest of this [pitch email letter] click here, you’ll know in three minutes, if he’s a good fit. And we send that out. And when we do it, we put it in our CRM system, we use Karma Speaker right now as our CRM, we put a note, a task that one week later we do a follow up.
We have three times the response to our second email as we do for our first email. Because we reference what we sent last week, and hadn’t heard back. And so we’ll reach out three times if we don’t get a response or no, and then we stop.
Then it goes back in and we pitch them again next year. This last January, right before COVID, we booked three gigs that my staff had been working on for over three years. Now, to be clear, it doesn’t mean that we’re pitching every day, but we tried. And finally there was somebody on the committee where it hit where there was a title that somebody thought we are planting seeds and planting seeds and planting seeds, and we are watering them and watering them.
And yeah, it’s work. But if you went to work at any other corporation, you’d be working as well. And so if they respond, then it sets a whole other course of how we respond and we try and send a BombBomb and then try and set up a Zoom call with me.
Our conversion rate when I do a BombBomb, which is the video email, it’s a great service and our conversation is about 87%. Granted, these are people who’ve already responded that they’re interested, but this gives me a chance to say, here’s what I know about your industry, here’s the deliverable. So we’re always nurturing, but nothing falls through the cracks because we have a CRM system that customer relationship management speaker flow does a great job. Even Salesforce is probably a little robust for our needs, but we are pitching. We’re following up. We’re trying to set up calls and we love them up. If I know that I’m under consideration, we’re sending him a signed copy of my book. We’re inviting them to a Zoom call.
All that said, there’s times when we’ve pitched and we’re three or four months in with very little response and realized that it was a keynote title that didn’t resonate. And that’s on me. I get so overconfident. Oh, I’ve got this, this great new idea. Doesn’t always work.
In short, the process is we’re sending emails, we’re pitching, we’re following up. Everything is in a system so that we know what days we’re supposed to do it, but we don’t automate anything. And I’ve been very fortunate to have a long career.
Grant: A couple things I want to highlight here is having that long game mentality. So you mentioned some events that you would follow up for multiple years. I’ve had the same experience. And sometimes I remember early on in my, my career, if I didn’t get a gig, I’d be so pissed that they went with someone else — that’s ridiculous. I’m better than them. But then I realized, well, that speaker, they’re not going pick them next year. So there’s one fewer option. And eventually they’re going to be stuck with me because they don’t have anybody else.
David: Well, especially if you knew you were one of the final. And they chose someone else, right? You know my team — a measure of their compensation is on commission because we’re out selling and they say, “Oh, they chose someone else, they’ll have you next year.” And I go, “Well, that’s fine. I have to pay my mortgage next year too, but then having a system to follow up with it.
Grant: And so again, I think that’s something that you’ve done really well and most of the time speakers make the mistake of saying, “Hey, when next year comes around, I hope you think of me.” They’re not going to think of you. They’ve moved on. And so you have to put it in your system and having a system in place.
David: I learned early on, it’s not about doing more it’s about doing what you’re already doing differently. And that if you’re already making the call and you get done with the call type in your notes — if they say reach out again in June you assign a task on June 4th and then on June 4th, it pops up on your calendar. That transformed my business.
Grant: What would you say to that speaker who for better or worse is looking for that shortcut?
David: Sure. Um, a couple things.
Number one is don’t compare your chapter two to my chapter 12. I was there. We were all that person who was new at the beginning.
Bureaus don’t get you gigs. It’s not their job. They’re not prospecting. They’re taking calls now.
It doesn’t mean that the bureaus aren’t awesome. I have wonderful bureau partners, but their preference is to book celebrities at $20-$30,000. They will recommend you if somebody calls, but they’re not doing outbound prospecting the way somebody who works for you is.
Now here’s the thing. The first 10 years I did this myself. The first six months my assistant worked for me. I didn’t let her get on the phone. I made her sit next to me for six months so she could hear how I communicated, how I pitched, how I understood what meeting planners were looking for, how I wanted to be a safe choice in their eyes.
Nobody will sell you better than you. Nobody will. So don’t think that it’s something you can outsource. And when you have an assistant, you have to compensate them. They can’t be on pure commission. My assistant, Tiffany, who’s brilliant and wonderful, nd she’s family now because she’s been with me for 10 years. It was six months before we calculated that she made enough back to reimburse what I had already paid her. We are planting seeds. Most organizations were eight to 18 months out.
And so you can do this on your own. It was only because I was growing that I had an opportunity to scale my business and add another person. Don’t hire anybody. Unless you have enough in the bank to pay them for a full year, because that’s not fair to them that if you’re starving in three months, you have to fire somebody.
But to answer your question, you can do this, treat it like a job. Be at your desk by eight o’clock in the morning, say I’m going to spend two hours every day. Say it takes you 10 minutes to research any particular prospect, get them in the system and then send a pitch. Maybe you don’t send a pitch, but you put a task that you’re going to pitch them in three months.
But if you do two hours every day and do maybe four or five an hour, that’s 10 in a day. That is 50 in a week. That’s 200 in a month of people who had no idea who you were before. But now have heard about you, been pitched for you, been able to see your video, which is a whole other subject.
Grant: I got to a point personally, I don’t, I don’t know about you. I almost enjoyed booking the gig more than doing the gig. Like the thrill of the hunt of just going after a chase, we got it. We landed it as the big gig, a national stage, a big keynote, whatever it may be. And feeling like we worked really hard to get that gig. So much of the business is sales, marketing to book exactly the gig.
David: Right. And I’ll tell you, I don’t love the process. It’s agony for me. Now, part of it, I earned the right after 10 years to have people help me with the process. Sure. I’ve got people in the Philippines who I pay well and treat very well who just do the research part that I don’t like, you know what I love, I love talking to clients.
I love talking to prospects in that final stage, whether it’s over a zoom call. I mean, my gosh, look at this great opportunity. When I first started, we were sending out DVDs and one sheets.
Your website is now your one-sheet. It tells everything about you, but they have to see what you’re doing. I love the part of the process where they’re in the process of deciding, and I get to have a conversation with them face to face over Zoom. With them or with their committee.
I mean, look at us right now. Most people are listening to audio, of course, but Grant and I are looking at each other face to face. For my parents, this is magic. For us it’s Tuesday. So there is no excuse for speakers to not be able to give the best pitch. Here’s what I do. Here’s what I talk about. Here’s how I tailor everything. Here’s what I know about your industry.
David’s Thoughts on Virtual Speaking
Grant: Very true. I want to switch gears before we wrap up here. When we started talking you mentioned some of your feelings and thoughts on virtual speaking, and now that the pandemic is starting to wrap up, or hopefully has wrapped up, it’s to be determined with virtual speaking. When the pandemic hit, it was the only game in town. So now that live events have come back more and more, we’re kind of in this limbo spot of if virtual is going away and are hybrid events sticking around. Some speakers are doing both, some are abandoning virtual, some are going all in on virtual.
So how are you thinking about where does virtual fit in, in the industry, but also for you?
David: Well, absolutely. And I’m probably not going to make a lot of friends here, but here’s the honest truth. Virtual conferences are horrible. They’re horrible. Horrible, horrible. Now, to be clear, it doesn’t mean there aren’t a few bright spots.
It doesn’t mean that we as professional speakers [can’t be successful], but if we are one out of 30 speakers and most of them are agonizing. I mean, my God. At what point did the slides become the star of the screen or the star of the show? There’s a huge slide with four words on it. And you’re tiny in the corner. I’m like slashing my wrists under the table.
They’re horrible. And people are talking about having a great background and you have this, this screen behind you. And I can’t believe people do all that. How are you feeding your families? Right? The reality is unless everybody started being better at it, it’s not the future. It’s not, or at least not the immediate future. It doesn’t mean that hybrid won’t be an element. It doesn’t mean that there will be, but it’s not 50/50 friends. Five to 10% of people will log in, pay a different fee for the conference and watch it virtually. But we know when we get back together as a conference, and I’m not just being self-serving here, that serendipity of the unexpected conversations that happen in the hallways, right?
Here’s the thing, we’re not participants on a Zoom call, friends. We’re supposed to be masters of communication. So two years in let’s get better at it if it’s going to be a fraction of our business.
Some Final Words of Advice
Grant: Let’s wrap up with this. If you’re talking to the David 20 years ago who is getting started and trying to figure things out and trying to put the systems in place and just grinding it out, what would you say to that, David?
David: A couple of things, number one, stay fresh. Keep learning. Just because a story kills, you know, they’re [the audience] on their feet. They’re laughing, whatever else doesn’t mean you need to tell that story for 20 years.
But early in the business I think you would concur the most important thing you can do besides having good subject and content. You need video. You have to record everything that you do.
They need to see you speak. They need to see what you do. Nobody’s going to take a chance. So early on it’s the biggest challenge. Find venues, find stages, even if it’s not real.
Do your best stuff. And then when you get a really great gig, then you replace some of the less great stuff with better stuff. Your video is your biggest sales tool, and it needs to be a living document. I’m about to redo mine completely here in a couple of weeks, because I just did a whole bunch of new gigs and got great footage.
Grant: How many demo videos have you gone through in your 20 years?
David: Oh my gosh, probably nine. Over the years completely different. And when virtual started, I had all this virtual footage of me gesturing with glasses. So I look really smart. I’ve got a whiteboard behind me and I’m writing on things and half of those were fake, but it was me, doing what I do and demonstrating to a meeting planner that I can knock it out of the park for them.
Grant: That’s awesome, David, thanks for the time. If people want to find out more about you, what you’re up to, where can we go?
David: Absolutely. Just look me up at davidavrin.com. This was great. Thanks for having me on the show.