Grant: It’s Grant Baldwin here and welcome back to The Speaker Lab Podcast! Glad you’re joining us today because we are talking with one of the speaking legends Mr. Shep Hyken. Shep, thanks for hanging out with us today, we appreciate it.
Shep: Hey, great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Grant: So why don’t you first start by kind of painting the picture for us. You’ve been in the speaking industry for a long time. Why don’t you tell us who you speak to? What do you speak about? And how does speaking fit into your world?
Shep: Sure. I started my business a long time ago — so I could tell you I was about 22, almost turning 23. When I decided this is the business I wanted to get into, I saw a couple of amazing speakers. And by the way, let’s go back to my first paid gig, which was at age 12 and it was a birthday party magic show. I was paid to do magic tricks for a bunch of screaming kids. I was paid $15 and I got a one dollar tip. Several things happened at that moment. I realized this is a lot of fun. My parents taught me a couple of really good business lessons, which I still believe in today. And my mom said, write a thank you note to the people that hired you.
So whether it’s a note, a BombBomb video, a very personal email — you show appreciation. My dad said to call the parents who hired me a week later, thank them again, and ask them for feedback. And what he said was don’t just ask, “Did you like the show or not like the show?” But get specific – What tricks did you like?
So as a speaker [for feedback] you would ask, Was there a specific point or two in the speech that stood out as most actionable and relevant to your audience? And when you get that information, you can start to work and take out what isn’t being talked about and replace it with things that will hopefully be talked about.
And so [with the magic show] I noticed a bunch of parents sitting in and watching the show. So I said to the man who hired me, “Would you mind sharing those names and numbers with me? I’d love to do their kids’ magic show too.”
And so I would get the names of the parents in the back and within a matter of, I don’t know, maybe a year, I’m doing eight to 10 magic shows, every single week. My parents are going crazy trying to figure out how to drive me around to all these shows.
So anyway, we jumped to graduating college – I’m looking for something to do, and I was working – believe it or not – my family owns some gas stations. I was working at the gas stations and in their offices and then right out of college they sold the company, so I was like, “Well now what am I supposed to do?”
I thought that was what I was going to do. And then I saw these motivational speakers, Zig Ziegler and Tom Hopkins. And I said, now I know what I’m gonna do. I had an entertainment background and that’s where it started. I said, I can write a speech. I can do this. And I bought How to Master the Art of Selling by Tom Hopkins. I bought the audio cassettes, See You at the Top, which were the Ziegler cassettes, and I remember just devouring those over the next few days.
I created a plan and there were two parts to the plan. The first plan was 10 years, which would take me to the time I was 32. So I’m out of college, about to turn 23 and I’m looking 10 years out. So I created this 10 year plan and then said, “Now I have to create the plan to make that plan happen.”
I did not know what I was doing, but I started with the end in mind. And today when speakers ask me, How can I get into this business? What should I do? I say to start with the end in mind. How much money do you need or want to make? So I suggest going out a few years, but you have to think short term and long term. And if you start with the end in mind, then you work backwards.
For example, if I want to make $12,000 this year speaking, that means I need to make a thousand dollars a month. If I’m charging $250 for a speech, that means I need to get booked four times a month, and 48 times a year in order for me to make my goal. So that’s exactly how I was thinking back then.
And it’s still how I think today. But the important part of the next piece of it is how do I make that happen? And that was in Tom Hopkins’ book. I’ve got to sell it. I can’t just build it.
I now live in Clayton, Missouri, and I live literally two blocks from World News and they’re shutting down. That place was in business when I was a little kid, my dad would pick up his newspapers and magazines at World News.
But anyway — so back in 1983, I went to the newsstand. I buy four or five business magazines. I can’t remember what the names of them were, but maybe it was Business Week or whatever. I pull out the full page ads for a speaker and they’ve got to be selling something. They’ve got to have money to put a full page ad in. So I get the ads and stack them up. I got a couple hundred of them and would go to the library. There’s no internet back then. And I do research and I get the names of the VPs of Marketing and Sales or the CMO or whatever it is, and in smaller businesses, especially on a local level, I got the names of the owners and presidents of these companies. And of course I called on big companies like Anheiser Bush and Purina – companies based in St. Louis, Mount Santo, Boeing — and I would call on those people.
I had my plan and I wrote it out and I, what I’m going to say to these people and I smiled and dialed. And I remember having index cards when any showed any interest, I’d write down what it was and my follow up date? And I had index cards and a little box with one through 31 for the month.
And that was my CRM. Primitive CRM. So that’s how I started. And my friend, Bud Dietrich, who I’ll affectionately call my illegitimate father, he passed away. He was in his nineties just recently. He was my mentor, one of my mentors. And what he said to me is “Shep, what you’re getting ready to do is not an easy business, but there’s no reason you can’t be extremely successful.”
This is my thought. If you would spend 40 hours a week working on the business, that’s the key — get business for 40 hours a week. You’ll be successful during those 40 hours, but that does not include writing a speech, practicing a speech or doing anything related to the actual product. You can do that on evenings and weekends, but during the day you need to be talking to clients.
So I came up with this idea. I wanted to do 100 people a week – try to make a hundred connections. Well, I realize you call people. They’re not there. They don’t call back. But I could still do 20 or 25 calls a day. And that’s what I did. I smiled and dialed. And I realized back then I could actually get to about 15% of the people. So with a hundred calls, I talked to 15 people, maybe one or two would be interested in what I had to do, and sell to them. And if out of the one or two, if I got 10 of those, one of them was going to buy.
So it’s a numbers game and Tom Hopkins taught me that in his book. It’s all about numbers. If you understand, and you figure out, if I make a hundred calls, I’m going to get three for every 300 calls I make. Not connections, but actually dials. I’m gonna probably talk to maybe 35 or 40 of the 40.
Now here’s the thing 000 that’s a lot of work! But how do you get started otherwise? I know I seemed to be doing better than that, but from the standpoint of just that strategy alone, it was about 15% of the 15% that were interested in me.
So you have to do a lot of calls to get that, but if you’re a good speaker, you should be getting another speech.
Now I was rogue, Iwent five years without being a member of the National Speakers Association before I was smart and finally joined a friend of mine — Tom Riley kept saying, You’ve got to join.
Finally I did and it was the best thing I ever did. So I did this and I started realizing that everything I was doing was right. I could just do it. Because I met a lot of people that showed me how to make it better. And while I was already pretty successful back then, I was even more successful after my first year or two in the association learning what I learned.
And what’s amazing is you can go to a session that says never cold call again, just use direct mail. And then I would go to the next session that said not to waste your money mailing everyone, just pick up the phone and call them. Eventually I realized they’re both right. You just have to figure out what works for you or maybe do a combination. So my first clients, I was very lucky. I had a bunch of smaller companies here in St. Louis, but my big clients were Anheiser Bush — they were actually the first company to sign a contract with me. The second one was Enterprise Rent A Car. They booked me at a dramatically different fee I might add, but I remember the Anheiser Bush event and the gentleman said to me, “You know, we could use you a lot if you would [be open to it].” And he told me what I needed to do, and I did and averaged 25 dates a year with them, for the next 10 years, which is pretty good.
The other big client I had that used me again, and again, was General Motors. Now, remember I was a magician and they liked that entertainment value. So I had that and if there was an auto show, which are these big shows with all the automobiles for the manufacturers, I would be brought in to entertain the public for a little bit of the time, but also in the mornings before the show opened, I would talk to the dealers and all of the sales people with a keynote.
Sometimes they’d send me to a dealership. I did a lot of work where I’d be in a city for a week and they would send me to three or four dealerships in the morning to go talk to their personnel about how they can create a better service experience. So anyway, that’s how it all started. And today I’m very lucky – I’m still doing it and it’s been almost 40 years now.
Navigating Nerves, Imposter Syndrome, and Customer Service
Grant: You’ve obviously built a very, very successful career. You’ve raised a bunch of questions for me within this. So I’m curious, even if we go back to when you’re in your early twenties doing some of the first gigs, or even just deciding that this is what you wanted to do – because there are a lot of people listening who have been in that spot and just that imposter syndrome creeps in – did you feel a lot of that early on? Do you still feel any of that today?
Shep: You probably don’t know the answer, but just in case you do, I’d be really impressed. Who do you think was the number one customer service company was back in the 1980s? The one that everybody said gave the best service.
Grant: I want to say Xerox.
Shep: You’re very, very close. You’re in the genre, but Xerox was known for their sales, but not for their service. There was a company that had a high priced item that businesses bought, but price became inconsequential compared to all the benefits at the top. The quick response, the fast repairs, etc. — it was IBM.
IBM’s a completely different company today as is Xerox for that matter. But IBM hired me at the age of 25, maybe to do a speech on customer service for a bunch of IBM people. Are you kidding me? You talk about imposter syndrome. I’m going, what do I have to share? And the guy said, just give them the basics. That’s what they need to hear again and again — they need to hear the basics. And that, by the way, was my first speech with Anheiser Bush, it was called Back to Basics. It was the basics of relationship building. Which you do through customer service. Now, customer service is not always a department, it’s sometimes just the way you take care of people and the way you interact with them. And that’s what I was going for. And that was working and they hired me.
Believe me, I thought I was paralyzed with fear at times as to whether I could actually do this or not. And I remember back in the day when clients would call me, if the audience was more than 250-300 I’d start to get really nervous.
And eventually overcame it. You know, sometimes you’ve just got to do it. When I was a kid doing magic, I joined the magic clubs, The International Brotherhood of Magicians and The Society of American Magicians. And they had monthly meetings and I made it a point to learn a trick and do it in front of an audience.
Every meeting I perfected the trick, but I was not a great performer and my legs would be shaking while I’m doing these magic tricks in front of these people who are very good entertainers on their own writing. And eventually I got pretty comfortable with it and the more you do, you build your chops.
I mean, that’s what you have to do, but that’s how it all started. I’m not sure what your original question was, hopefully I’ve answered it – haha!
Oh, the imposter syndrome! Yea I think because I was focusing I got lucky. I talked about back to basics in your twenties. You can talk about the basics [at that age] you can’t talk about high end sophisticated strategy as if you’ve been out there for decades like I can today. I couldn’t have done what I do today back in my twenties, but I can do it today because I evolved. I did have regular jobs growing up and a lot of what I talked about and the stories I shared were based on those experiences.
Grant: I also want to go back to something you talked about where especially early on — and I’m assuming this has also continued to be the case for you — that kind of misconception with especially newer speakers is you assume that that so much of speaking is actually speaking and standing on stage and doing the glamorous, sexy part of standing ovations and people laughing and smiling and taking pictures of people and signing autographs.
And, you know there is that part, but there’s also so much of being a speaker that is sales and marketing and spending so much time mining and sourcing for gigs and following up on gigs and just follow-up. How much of that has continued to be the case for you?
Shep: So first of all, let me give you a line that I’ve been using when my illegitimate father, Bud Dietrich, my mentor, said to me. He told me, “40 hours a week working to do the job is not doing the speech — it’s getting the speech.”
Big difference. And if you confuse the two, you’re never going to even get to the real success. You’ve got to work at getting the speech. There are a few people lucky as they are celebrities, maybe something happened to them where the phone just rings up and because it’s something they did or something that happened to them [they get the gig].
That doesn’t happen to me. I’m talking about how we’re in the competition. There’s a lot of people that can do customer service programs. Right? So today most of my business is made through reputation, content marketing, repeat business, and obviously referrals. New business comes from that. It doesn’t come from me picking up the phone and smiling and dialing. But I will use LinkedIn as a great resource too. Even just today I read an article about one of my colleagues that’s speaking in an event next month. And I thought – I should be speaking at that event. So basically I copied the link to the article and sent it over to Cindy in my office and I shared that there are events in May and June. We should be in touch with them because if they’ve used this person, they’ll probably want to use me. I may even call the speaker and ask if I can tell them they gave me their contact information. And I would do the same thing for anyone who I trust to do a great job, a true colleague who I feel is great to follow me as well. So we will get on LinkedIn and learn about who they are.
By the way, I just transitioned over to using Speaker Flow. The way it works is better than the system that I have, I can get the same information, but I saw it a different way. I see the name of the person that signed up for my newsletter. I have no idea who they are, but I look at whatever company they’re at and then I go to LinkedIn and find out what they do. Oh! They’re a decision maker? Boom. LInkedIn is the new version of the telephone – I guess is what I’m getting at.
And I’m not making a hundred contacts a week like I used to, but I am still saying that once in a while outward bound marketing or outbound marketing is still a very good thing to do. And just using LinkedIn in a different way. Now with this potential client, they’ve signed up for my newsletter. Maybe I’ve sent them a connection on LinkedIn. If somehow we start to interact, I have a series of questions I’m going to ask over a period of interactions and I know when the right time is to ask if someone from my office can get in touch with them about an upcoming meeting.
How to Sell Yourself
Shep: Early on it’s about you promoting yourself, and you have to be willing to do that. I was brought up when all the different jobs I had growing up, one of my managers said, “I would never ask you to do something that I wouldn’t do myself.” So one day I put this guy to the test. I was outside trying to cut these weeds away from a fence. He drove in and I was the maintenance guy of a building one summer. I’m 14 or 15 years old and these weeds are taller than me — they’re huge and I’m struggling. And I said to him, “I remember when you told me you wouldn’t ask me to do anything you haven’t done before, got any ideas?” And he came over, took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and started whacking weeds. So I think that if you’re going to ask somebody to sell for you, you better learn how to sell yourself the best way first. So that you can impart that wisdom as to what’s been working. Granted, there are people out there that are professional sales people that know how to do it on their own, but if you’re going to bring somebody in and have them learn and work with you on your business, that’s what you have to do.
Grant: Well I think one of the things that’s interesting about you is obviously you’ve been in the industry for several decades coming up on 40 years. Like you said, you have seen a lot of different shifts in the industry from recessions and 9/11 and pandemics. And obviously the pandemic has been something kind of new, hopefully more and more we’re coming out of that.
What are you kind of seeing in terms of the industry right now, and where things may or may not be heading over the next few years?
The Future of the Speaking Industry
Shep: Sure. Well, a couple of my friends say things are as good if not even better than before the pandemic. You know, I say bullshit to that. That’s not quite the way it is for most of us, including myself. I have gone through a bunch of changes. Like you said, in the late 1980s, we went to the Gulf War and that’s the first time I noticed lead times going from anywhere from six months to a year.
When I first started in September, I could tell you what 50-75% of my year was going to be the following year because I had clients that were booking a year in advance. We got to the late 1980s, I believe it was the Gulf War and all of a sudden that time shrunk down to like three to six months, and it’s never changed, it’s been three months or less. I think on average, maybe two to three months out is when we’re getting booked today. We never got back to the majority of clients or at least half or more booking that far out in advance.
So today as we come out of the pandemic, I believe we’re seeing light at the end of the tunnel, more and more events compared to last year and the year before. That’s for sure. But, I think people are still feeling uncomfortable. I had a client that we had a booking in April say, look, we’re just not comfortable with Delta now.
We’re shifting and they push the date to October. So, I don’t know what that cost them in their hotel and all that, but that was an expensive change for them to make. I still see the largest of large companies, the Microsofts, the Oracles, the SAP’s very reluctant to have customer events. They will have their own events, but the industry events have been tough, but I’m seeing associations come back in, which is great.
I have a number of clients over the next few months that I’m excited about because we couldn’t work together the last couple of years. So I think there is light at the end of the tunnel. It’s not like it was before, but something I want to share that is really important is that when we went into the recession in 2008-09, a number of us lost 80% of their business. That may be bad if not worse than the pandemic, because I think during the pandemic enough of us were doing virtual events by a certain point.
I don’t know how many webinars I was doing in 2008, maybe a few. I’ve been doing virtual events for years, but initially it took a lot of expensive equipment and internet bandwidth, etc.
So we didn’t have [much of] that. It was you speak and sell books and maybe do some training. And I remember talking to a friend of mine that did a hundred and some odd dates, and he was down to four dates that year. Four! And my calendar was pretty full and he said, “How do you do that?” I said, I smile and I dial, I get on the phone. You’re right. A lot of people aren’t having meetings, but guess what? There are people and companies that are still having meetings and some of them will hire speakers and we just keep calling until we find the ones that do. And we keep calling until they finally say yes.
I bring that up because I’ve said from the very beginning this is the best way to get business. The fastest quickest way is to do specific outbound calls and build that relationship. If business gets tough, and I’ve said it for years, we will go back to that. We will not rely upon my content marketing or my reputation for the last two years. I haven’t been on stage. That means I haven’t been able to do a booking and have somebody from that audience say, “Hey, we want you for our meeting next year.” That hasn’t happened in two years. I will be lucky to do 20 or 30 engagements this year.
Now in the past, I’ve done maybe 10-15 virtual events. I will do 50 virtual events [this year], which now that we’re back to what I would call doing live events and not quite normal, but my fees for virtual are creeping back up to what I normally get paid to do a regular engagement. So I could end up at the end of this year, better off than I was.
Grant: So both in terms of being able to consistently do this, but also just for you personally — being a speaker is a lot of fun, but it’s also very tiring, it’s very draining, you spend a lot of time in hotels, on a lot of flights, a lot of time away from family and it can be a grind. It’s a non-sexy, non-glamorous part of being a speaker that sometimes gets overlooked.
So what’s helped you to have a successful career over 40 plus years?
Shep: Sure. I’m a very happy guy. I have a lot of interests, so I love to read and I read a lot of business books. I do magic tricks as you know, so I still buy magic books. I have friends in every city and if I have time, I make it a point to have dinner or breakfast with a friend.
I have the most incredible support at home – this is really important. I dated a girl before I met my wife (who I’ve now been married to for over 30 years). But this girl, everytime I’d go out to do a gig we’d get in a fight because she couldn’t stand being alone. And we finally broke up. I’m never going to date a girl that doesn’t get it.
So, I got really lucky. I met a girl whose dad traveled a lot during the week and played golf every Sunday. So I love playing golf and she’s extremely supportive and never once has ever made me feel really guilty about going out. Well strike that, in the late 1980’s I did a tremendous 180 dates and she said to me, “One day, you’re going to come home and the house is going to be empty. There will be no one here other than you and your clothes, that’s it.” And she made it real clear that I was way out of balance and I got it. You can make enough money. You can make more than enough money, which is what I encourage everybody to try to do, because by more than enough money, you could save for the future.
But when you start to make more than, more than enough, which is where I was, and it was impacting my personal life to the point where I could lose the most important thing in the world to me, my wife and my kids. I said, okay, I get the message loud and clear. And I’ve been very lucky that it happened at the time that it did.
So I get a lot of support. You’re right. Being on stage is the fun part. And you get that 45 minutes or 30 minutes or whatever that you’re on stage. But if you think about it, I love the hunt as much as I love the feast.
I enjoy getting to the client, building the relationship, getting them excited about the event, and deciding what we’re gonna talk about. And then we send the contract and go, okay, now what do I do? That is so much fun.
I remember early on just having a friend tell me you have to fall in love with the process of showing up, doing the work, smiling and dialing, doing whatever it takes to book the gigs and it’s a lot of work, but you can certainly build a sustainable long term business doing that.
Johnny Carson was my idol growing up and when I was 13 or 14 years old my parents would let me stay up to watch the monologue. That was all I was allowed to do. It was time to go to bed. But Carson used to say two words – show and business.
Very few people have both sides of their brains working the right and the left, the creative and the analytical. He did. People don’t realize it. He brought in those sponsors. He would sit down with the business side of NBC, who he worked for, and talk about how they were going to make this show successful.
And then he would sit down with the writers and help write content and then go out and perform it. He was the total package. That was my idol. That’s what I wanted to be. And as speakers and entrepreneurs, we have to have both sides of our brains working. It’s the speaking business, two words. So we’ve got to be able to do both and, or have the savvy and ability.
I went to Danson’s strategic coach program for over 20 years. And one of the things I learned is that we tracked everything I did in my business.
I’m at the fax machine. I’m at the copy machine. Um, I’m writing a thank you note to a client. I’m on the phone with a client. There were 45 or 46 different tasks that I did in my business. Other than doing the speech I wrote them down, my assistant wrote them down, and then we sat down and we said, “How many of these do I really need to be doing?”
And we got it down to like 16 of the 45 things.
If I was seen going into the product room to pack a box of books, my assistant was supposed to say, “Shep, go back to your office and get on the phone. That’s what you do to bring money in here. I pack the books.”
So we’ve gotta find out what we’re supposed to do and what we’re good at. And even if we’re supposed to do what we’re not really good at, we have to do it ourselves. We better get good at it and then figure out what we shouldn’t be doing?
Grant: Absolutely. And we’ve covered a lot of ground. We may have to have you back for part two. I want to be respectful of your time. This has been super fun. Shep thank you so much for sharing all your insights and wisdom with us.
For more with Shep Hyken, visit www.hyken.com.