How to Develop Perseverance as a Speaker with Alex Lee [Student Highlight]

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Maryalice Goldsmith
Hey everyone. Maryalice Goldsmith here, director of Student Success, and I am so excited to be taking over The Speaker Lab Podcast. It is a true honor to have the opportunity to introduce you to some of our amazing students, and I promise you’re going to learn so much from their experiences and be inspired by their perseverance and success today.

Alex Lee’s Speaking Topic

It’s my privilege to introduce you to Alex Lee. Alex, I think your story is really awesome and speaks to the process of thinking about becoming a speaker and actually going through our speaking framework and making it happen. And so I’d love to know, and I’m sure our audience would love to know, what do you speak about?

Alex Lee
I speak on what I call learning the language of leadership using the three principles that I have learned throughout my life, through my fire department career and my professional salsa dancing career. I speak to youth with this, and I also speak to corporations. So it’s kind of interesting that I’ve kind of found something I can speak to the young generation and high-schoolers and also full grown adult corporations. And I can use the same talk really, and it kind of makes sense both ways.

Well first of all, I love how you snuck in the professional salsa dancing – that’s really cool. Tell us a little bit about that.

Yeah, I started salsa dancing in 1999, and then I went pro about three years later and I actually won a World Championship in 2004 and then traveled the world until 2019 right before Covid hit. And I retired pretty much after that. So I am no longer currently performing and doing that, but that was a very big part of my life and I like to bring that into my talks as well.

Yeah, that’s really, really cool. And I’m sure that the performance aspect of that really helps with your speaking.

A hundred percent. That’s a big reason why I actually started speaking. In salsa, when you do a performance or you do a competition, your time limit is two minutes. You have two minutes to get your message across. You have two minutes to wow your audience, wow your judges and entertain.

And in speaking, I’ve got a whole hour, but the whole performance aspect, it’s very important and that has translated, and it’s a big reason why I decided to start speaking as a second career, because I really do enjoy that performance aspect, the stage aspect of salsa dancing and speaking.

So it definitely adds a different animal, but the whole idea is the same and that is to create memories on a two-way street, if I can put it that way. To make some memories for my audience that they will never forget, that was always my goal as a dancer and it is now my goal as a speaker, and also to make some memories for myself.

Standing ovations, the moment the crowd goes absolutely silent because they’re holding onto every word, and with salsa they’re holding onto every move and watching you. And then the point where they just come apart at the seams because they clap and laugh or do whatever, and so you know, you want to take them through those emotions. I wanted to do that on the stage as a dancer, and now I really want to do that on the stage as a speaker.

Alex’s Three Pillars of Leadership

Yeah, that’s pretty cool. Love that. So you talked about these three pillars. You want to break those down? What are those pillars?

Absolutely. Now, there are so many principles you can bring to leadership and everyone knows that there’s hundreds. For me, the three that I found that are the most crucial to leadership are credibility, humility, and loyalty.

And those mostly come from the fire department. Those definitely come through 25 years at the San Jose Fire Department, where 22 of those years I worked at the busiest station in San Jose, which is actually the 15th busiest station in America.

It’s that busy and that all that experience, all those calls and all that exposure to the job that really showed me the language of leadership, whether it was me being led by my uppers and me having to lead my crew as a captain and set an example in the department in whatever it is I need to do.

But those are the three principles that I really stand on. Credibility, humility, and loyalty. Very important. And that’s what I bring. Those are how I want to teach the language of leadership.

In terms of when you teach that to leaders, what is some of the feedback or what are some of the things that they say in terms of the “ahas” or the takeaways from these three pillars?

I think one of the biggest things is credibility. Some leaders do not realize that we are not going to believe you unless you have done it yourself, unless you have been there. Whatever it is that you lead, whatever you’re doing, like if you’re going to coach a football team, you’d better have played some football. I mean, somewhere at some point you’d better have been in the trenches, have put on the pads, and you’d better have hit somebody and played that game, or your players, your team, they’re not going to believe you and that’s very important.

Some of today’s leaders are thrust into certain positions. Even in the fire department, there were a lot of guys who took a promotional test, let’s just say, at exactly the moment that they were allowed.

And I’ll give you an example – in my department, you have to have four years on as a firefighter before you can even take a promotional test. If you’re a firefighter, you know that four years down the line, there is no way you are ready.

There is no way you are ready to lead a crew inside of a fire to go save somebody’s life and save your own. You need ten to twelve years as a firefighter to really understand every aspect of leading people into that fire and undertaking decisions and what it takes to be a leader like that.

Now, there’s a lot of guys in the department who figure that rule does not apply to them. And they figured, “Oh no, I can do it at four just because I’m all that.” No, you’re not. Nobody gets to escape the accountability of credibility. Nobody can say, “I don’t have to be credible and I’m going to lead you.”

Now, do they take the test? Absolutely. Do they pass? Yes, they do. And sometimes with very high marks, but when they go to the stations and they start being captains of crews, or when they take that next step in as a chief, their constituents flat out do not believe them.

In other words, you tell me to go and do this, they might fight you on that and say, “No, that is not the right thing to do. I’m not going to do that. That puts my life in danger. I am going to do what the right thing is.” So if you want to be a good leader, you’d better bring credibility to the table. That is why I put that first as the most important of my three pillars.

Yeah, it’s really, really, really powerful and very important.

And it’s something that we also talk about in a different way here at The Speaker Lab, right? It’s like we have speakers who come to us and they’ve been speaking for 20 something years, yourself, you were speaking when you came to us, but to have that confidence which also is parallel with credibility to be able to run a speaking business and really put yourself out there as a professional speaker, it takes some reps at really building the business and understanding what that takes.

Would you say that that’s one of the reasons why you did go through The Speaker Lab?

Absolutely. 100%. I needed a path, you know?

Let’s go back to salsa a little bit, right? You can’t self-teach yourself salsa. The timing, the connection with your partner, the basics, you cannot teach that to yourself. You definitely can’t read about it. You can’t learn it on video. YouTube will not apply there. You need somebody who’s done it before. You need a path, you need some sort of a system that you can follow in order to become great. The Speaker Lab is exactly that in my opinion. I mean, you guys create a map of exactly what steps to take in order to become a professional speaker.

Now, am I at the highest levels? I’m not even close. I am not even close. I am just getting started and I look forward to going down that road, but I do know that on that road, there are no exits. You have to take that road all the way. There’s not a shortcut, there’s not a roundabout. You kind of have to take that road all the way through that you guys have set.

And I’ve found success already, just a couple miles down that road and it’s a hundred mile road. And I’ve already found a little bit of success with you guys in just a couple miles, which is why I really understand now and believe in the system here and why it works and how it works.

I’m like, “Oh, wow, it did work. That is crazy. Now it’s just up to me.” Now I’ve got to bring the content, I’ve got to bring the noise, I’ve got to bring the performance. They’re not going to give that to you. You can’t give that to me. That has to come from within. That has to come from the work. But you gave me the roadmap to get onto that freeway. Do you know what I’m saying? And that road is so very important.

Yeah, for sure. When you’re building something different, like you are, you have been speaking, there’s many listeners who are like, “Oh, I’ve been speaking forever. I don’t need another roadmap.” But I think what’s so critical here is that it’s not so much the credibility of being a speaker, it’s the credibility of being a professional speaker.

And that comes with being able to have the chops to run the business, pitch the business, pitch the brand, and that doesn’t just come because you know how to get on stage and speak. That comes from learning a particular process and, like you said, following a roadmap to get you to that place.

What Makes a Pro a Pro?

I remember when you and I were talking a couple of weeks ago and you were like, “You know, I’m not totally in that zone of calling myself a professional speaker just yet.”

Why is that?

In my opinion, to be a full blown pro you need to be booking jobs multiple times a month. You need to have people reaching out to you, wanting you and reaching out, coming to get you. At this point in my very, very new speaking career, that is not even close to happening.

I’m having to go out and put myself out there and ask if I can speak at places. So when that stops and they are coming to me, then I would consider myself a pro to be very honest with you. At that point, when they’re coming to you, then you’re a professional. Several times a month they’re coming to you and they’re coming from all over the world, or they’re coming from all over the nation.

Same thing with salsa – I had to do a lot of free shows just to put myself out there. And then we entered a lot of competitions to get the name going, and then we actually won world championships. That really blew it up then. The promoters from all over the world were calling, they were emailing, saying, “We want you at our show. We’re going to pay you ___.” At that point I’m like, “Now I’m a pro. Now I’m a pro, right?” So up until that, I’m not a pro. I’m not a pro yet. I hope everyone out there knows that I am not proclaiming I’m a professional yet.

I think you have a theme going on here. It’s like salsa, firefighting, there’s this need for patience and the room to grow and evolve. And I think that that’s so important in any career but especially as you’re building a business. It’s not going to happen tomorrow.

And so you have to be patient and you have to have that ability to give your business that room to breathe, to give yourself the ability to fail and win and learn and evolve. And I think that that’s a theme for you, this ability to be patient, work the system, work the roadmap, because you know it’s going to happen, but you also know that it is a process. And I think that’s really powerful.

Right. And that was the second point of my principles – humility. You really have to be humble. You have to understand that if you want to get rich really fast, don’t speak. Definitely don’t dance salsa. Don’t dance salsa if you want to be rich.

I mean, I know there’s a lot of very successful speakers out there making money, which is awesome. I’m not in it for that, but if you want to be rich quickly, do not speak because on the roadmap, there is no shortcut. You’re going to have to put in the time, you’re going to have to be humble. You’re going to have to cross a lot of roads and a lot of “come to Jesus” moments or whatever you want to call it.

You’ve got to navigate, you’re going to have parts in your speech that are dead when you thought it was amazing, right? And you got to change that. And you’re going to have to do a lot of things that that whole journey is going to take you on. And it’s an amazing journey. It really is.

And yeah, you’re right. I did learn that through the fire department. I learned that through salsa. Some people have asked me, “Okay, how come you’re so good at everything you do?” Because I try to excel at whatever it is I do.

Number one, I only picked a couple of things. You cannot be great at everything in life. There’s not enough time. Number two, if you do something for a long time, if you do something a lot and you do it for a long time, I don’t care who you are, you’re going to get great. You will be great, but you’ve got to do it a lot for a long time. Put in the repetitions, and there’s no way you’re not going to be great. It’s just that part of doing it a lot for a long time, that’s where people, all back into what I would say the average.

That is where the great ones and the good ones separate. The great ones refuse to quit. The great ones continue. They keep going. The good ones, and even just the average ones, can’t do it for a long time, for whatever reason it is. And so that’s what I’m saying – just do it a lot for a long time and good things will happen. And that applies to speaking.

Yeah, really well said. I think there’s this balance, and humility will give it to you, where you balance expectations and dreams, right? Because some people may get too caught up in dreaming big and their expectations are maybe a little bit too aggressive, but if you have that humility it can help you balance the outcomes, goals, dreams, and expectations. It’s so important.

The Third Pillar of Leadership: Loyalty

So humility’s one, and then what’s the final pillar?

Loyalty. And that applies mostly to leadership itself. For me that is when your crew, when your people, whoever it is, when you see that you are loyal to them, that you would do almost anything for them. And this definitely comes mostly from the fireside, when you’re willing to give your life for them and they know it, you don’t just say it.

And they know you’re going to stand up for them and they know that you’re willing to go as far as actually giving your life for them.

You will get buy-in from your people. You will get people to want you to lead them. They know that. And that is the loyalty part that I put into my talks, but I think all great leaders have to have that.

They have to show loyalty to whoever their constituents are and whoever their people are and show that they’re not only willing to do whatever I’m asking you to do, but they are willing to put themselves at risk for your good, to stand up for you and to do something that’s for you.

I think that really, really goes a long way in trying to be a great leader. Those who aren’t willing to do that, this is just my opinion, but they should not be leading. If you can’t show loyalty to the people who are following you, who are doing what you’re asking, if you’re asking them to let you be their leader, but you’re not going to be loyal to them, you’re going to sell them out, you’re going to save your own self before you save them? I don’t know a single great leader that is like that. So that’s my third pillar I should say.

Yeah. And I think there is also a loyalty to oneself, right? Because if you’re trying to be a great leader and you’re just trying to please your constituents and do what’s right by them, but you’re not doing what’s right by you, right?

That should be aligned to the company mission or to whatever the mission of what you’re leading is. But I think we often forget that, and I think speakers who are trying to build professional speaking businesses lose the loyalty to themselves, and they start saying yes to all these things.

And it really puts so much pressure on the business instead of just saying yes to what’s really going to drive the business forward. Not exponentially, but drive the business forward in its integrity. And so loyalty to oneself is really important.

I was doing an interview with a student the other day and he was like, “You know, my new normal is, I say no to a lot of things now.” It was perfect, right? Because he’s like, “Before, I said yes to everything and I didn’t make a penny.

Now I say no to a lot of things” because, going back to that roadmap, he’s got a very specific roadmap for his business and so he knows what’s loyal to himself, to his brand and what’s not. And so saying “no” is a very powerful two letter word sometimes, when you’re building a business.

Absolutely. Take that back to where you talked about how you know you’re a professional when you’re turning down gigs. That’s another list right there.

How Does Alex Bring His Lesson to Youth?

Yeah. That’s awesome. So I know we’ve been talking a lot about corporate, but you also talk to youth and so how do you spin this to the youth population?

So I just got through speaking in Idaho at two leadership conferences over there for their high school youth. And it was awesome. And I mean, it was easier, talking to them in the sense that the whole conference was based around leadership.

So they had me as the keynote over there. And to spin it to them was so easy because they’re so enthusiastic and as long as you can take your talk and make it super exciting, take them on that rollercoaster ride, they’re going to hear you, they’re going to pay attention to you.

If I went up there and I just kind of went monotone on them, I don’t know a lot of speeches where you can go monotone and be okay. I think there are some that actually can do that because of the subject matter and the audience.

But with an audience, you’ve got to keep them engaged, so when you say, how did I spin it for the youth? Maybe I showed a salsa video and they loved that. I had a lot of humor in there that was kind of along their generational lines, that communicated to people a lot younger than I am, things like that. Just keep them engaged, keep them entertained so they can hear your message. That’s kind of how I did that.

So it’s the same content but you’re just catering to the audience. We do have some speakers who have the same content, but it can tap into different audiences, which when you’re first building your business, we’re always like, “Stick to that one audience. The rest will follow.” But go for the lowest hanging fruit.

So that’s interesting.

I was a youth minister for 15 years and so it’s really important that when you’re speaking to the youth, that you’re not speaking at them, but you’re actually having a conversation with them and there’s definitely crafty ways to do that while you’re on stage to get them engaged.

So when you joined The Speaker Lab, it was really more to make this a professional speaking business. You had been speaking for a long time. What are some of your longer term, next three year goals that The Speaker Lab has helped you think about and establish over the next few years?

My goal has always been to be speaking a couple of times a month, once or twice a month at most, professionally, somewhere here in America or it’d be great if we can go around the world, but somewhere here in America that I could speak two times a month. I just retired from the fire service. Twenty-five years of service. It’s amazing being retired. I’m not going to lie to you.

But that being said, what do you do all day? I work on this. I’ve got young kids too, and that also plays into it. My youngest is eight. And then eleven and fourteen. And one of the blessings of retiring so early and having kids later is that I get to spend this time with them.

When I was working full-time as a firefighter and professional salsa dancer, I was not home very much at all. I was not home. I mean, on my days off, I would literally leave the house at seven at night, not return until about eleven at night, and that was 95% of my days off. So I don’t want to go back to anything like that again, I want this opportunity to spend time with my family.

However, speaking is a passion. It is going to be a second career, so my goal for that career is to speak a couple times a month. Get my message out there and have a good time doing it. And like I said, create those memories on a two-way street for myself and my audience. That’s my goal.

Yeah, I love that. I mean, you’ve definitely put the work in in other areas of your life and to be able to enjoy your family and also build the speaking business – that’s one of the greatest things about being an entrepreneur. When you map out your year and you think, “Okay, when does my family have some downtime that I want to be a part of? When do they have downtime that I don’t want to be a part of?” And then you can kind of plug in and say, “I’ll do three gigs this month and no gigs the next month, and two gigs the next.” Like, you have some control over that, you know?

Exactly. I don’t want to lose that. I’ve only been retired a month, right? And it has been incredible. But now that I have that, I don’t want to lose that point where you’re stuck to a schedule and even though the kids have these days off I’m also going to be coaching football with my sons and I don’t want to miss games. I don’t want to miss practices. And I just don’t want to go back to that point.

The worst part of being a fireman, the worst part, besides possibly getting killed every time you go to work, is the things you miss because you’re at work. Because we work every holiday, it doesn’t matter. I’ve worked multiple Christmases. I’ve missed birthdays, Thanksgivings, New Year’s Eves, Christmases. I’ve missed that. This is the worst part of being a firefighter – you miss so much stuff. I don’t want to miss that anymore. I’m not going to miss any of it anymore, and I’m not going to do it at the expense of anything.

However, in between those times, in those days, I’ve got some time.

You sure do. I love it.

Yeah, I mean it’s really about creating your own roadmap now, right? Like we gave you the roadmap to build out the business. Now it’s the roadmap of how much do you want to make? What does that look like in terms of speaking gigs? When do you want to plug those in, and when do you want to just enjoy life in your family? It’s really important to create that plan.

Taking the First Step Toward Making Money as a Speaker

So what advice would you give someone who’s thinking about joining The Speaker Lab? And they may be a speaker, but they don’t have the business part, or they may just have this great topic that they know they can make an impact with and they didn’t even realize they could make money as a speaker.

What do you think, outside of joining The Speaker Lab, obviously that’s an obvious, what’s a really great first step for them?

The first step for them, let’s just assume that we’re talking to people who obviously find public speaking as a passion. So we can assume that they have a passion for public speaking. One of the things I would say is definitely do not do it for the money. I know that’s odd and that’s something funny to say right off the bat, but don’t do it for the money because then your talk is going to take on a whole different look.

It’s going to take on a whole different vibe. Because if you’re doing it for the money, you’re not doing it because you want to create memories, you’re not doing it because you’re passionate. And you can’t pay for that. You can’t. You can’t buy passion, you can’t buy desire, you can’t buy that. No amount of money will create that for you.

So make sure that your passion is in the right place and that you’re doing it not for the money but because it’s the right thing for you to do. The money will come. That’s different from other things. I’ll just give you an example:

I don’t care how good you are at salsa dancing. I don’t care. And I know that world inside out. I lived it for so many years. The best salsa dancers on earth are working for 1980s-minimum-wage levels of money. So no matter how great you get, you could be the Tony Robbins of salsa dancing, and you’re making nothing. Speaking isn’t that way.

If you become great, you will be rewarded. You will be rewarded, you will be very comfortable. So don’t worry about that.

Make sure you’re there for the right reasons and make sure you’re speaking for the right reasons and that your passion is in the right place. And money can be a part of that. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be any part of the thought process or part of the plan.

Of course it can be, but let’s hope it’s number 10 on the list, number 8 on the list. Do you know what I’m saying? Let’s make sure it’s not in the top five for sure.

And in that case, I think you will go far if you can accept that and if you can buy into that.

Yeah, I think it’s excellent advice that you’re giving right now. Back in the early 400s or late 300s episodes, we did a Coaches Corner podcast, Nanette and I, another coach, and we talked about really defining your profound “why,” like why do you want to build a speaking business? What does it all mean and why is it your passion?

I’m interchanging those two but it’s really, really important to make sure that that’s what you’re leading with, because, to your point, money’s great. We all love money. Money provides a lot of different things. But that can’t be the only driving factor. It has to be something more profound and powerful.

And one of the things we speak about all the time, when you speak, you want to make an impact. You want to get people to think differently and feel differently and do something differently. And so if you don’t have that in the forefront of why you’re speaking, this business can get really challenging really fast.

Yeah, because, no matter what, you’re asking something from your audience.

I mean, when I would go out and perform, they were paying to see us, number one, so they’re putting up cold hard cash to see you perform, and you got invited from America to go to Japan, to go to Korea, to go to Abu Dhabi. These are all places that I’ve danced. They’re paying you and they’re paying to see this guy and this girl from America to do this thing, right?

That is a huge responsibility and you’d better know that your audience has paid and they’re spending time sitting there in their seat to watch you make it worth their while. You make them say, “You know what? That was worth every penny. That is one hour of my life that I am going to benefit from,” as opposed to saying, “That is one hour of my life I will never get back.” You know what I’m saying? You don’t want people leaving that way. “I wish I could have been doing anything else but sitting there and listening to this guy talk at me.”

So no, your audience, like you said, can get brutal. It’s because your audience is not going to lie to you. They are not going to lie to you. Your audience will not lie because they don’t have to be there for the most part, right? In these forums where you speak, they do not really have to be there. So they’re there. You’d better honor them and make it worth their time.

Make Your Speech Worth It For the Audience

So how do you think people make it worth their time? Do you think it is leading with that passion?

Absolutely. Lead with that passion and create memories on a two-way street. I’ve said this multiple times. So what I mean by that is this – when I choreographed a piece for salsa, I want to take them on a rollercoaster, okay?

And what I want to do is I want them to laugh. I want them to cry. I want them to check themselves. I want them to look within themselves. By the end of that show, now you’re touching people.

Do you understand that now you’re touching people when they get out of their seat at the end of the show and they’re standing and screaming? That’s because you’ve touched them. You got them, you made a difference. And they’re going to remember that moment, right?

And for me, myself, on stage, when the whole audience stands up all at once, right when the music stops, I will never forget that. I’ve never forgotten any single standing ovation I’ve ever received. I’ll never forget those. Those are creating my own memories. So if you can make that as a goal, you can change some people, you can change some lives and you can make your own life so much more amazing and more rich.

And like we talked about earlier, this has nothing to do with money. This is all about touching people and then also enhancing yourself and creating memories for yourself. Two-way street – memories for them, memories for you. Make it memorable. Make them say it was worth it. Even if they were there for free, make them say it was worth it for them to sit there and listen to you, and then you will start touching some people. That’s the goal.

Yeah, that’s powerful. That is a very, very powerful message, Alex, and I think it’s really so important because it is people’s time, right? Time is money and it is people’s time. And the event planner’s putting so much time and effort into this event, they work so hard.

And so for you to show up and not have that passion, to not want to make the impact, to not create that two-way street memory is really an epic fail for all involved. And so I really love what you’re putting down.

I think too, for you, it’s interesting how your firefighting career, your salsa career, has all played a role into where you are today. I mean, that’s life, right? It’s a combination of stories that lead us to the next journey. I really think it’s so cool how the salsa and the firefighting still had such an impact on you and that it’s still impacting the work that you’re choosing to do today as a speaker.

And oftentimes people come to us and they’re like, “I know all of these different things, but I don’t know exactly what I want to speak about.” And for the most part, it’s right under your nose, right?

It’s something that moved you, that made such a profound impact on your life that now you want to pay it forward and speak about it. And so you package it in a certain way. You have your three pillars, but you bring salsa into it to make it more engaging and more of an experience for your audience.

So I think it’s really cool how you have taken all of that and brought it into your speaking business.

Thank you Maryalice. I appreciate that.

Yeah. Well, I thank you so much for your time today.

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Grant Baldwin: Welcome back to the Speaker Lab. Recently we started a YouTube channel where we are doing a lot of what we're calling speech breakdowns, where we are taking popular TED talks and speeches...
How to get Booked to Speak at Colleges
Question: How Do You Start Speaking at Colleges? All right, so today we've got a listener question coming in from Eric Moss. And Eric is asking all about speaking at colleges, how do you get...
How to Make it in Marketing with Chris Seo
Grant Baldwin Hey, what's up friends? Grant Baldwin here. Welcome back to The Speaker Lab podcast. Today we are joined by an in-house guy. We're joined by Mr. Chris Seo, who is our Director of...
The State of the Speaking Industry in 2023 With Erick Rheam
Grant Baldwin Hey friends, Grant Baldwin here. Thanks for joining us today. We're also joined by my good friend and co-host, Mr. Erick Ream. Erick and I like to get together. We've actually done a...