How to Get More Speaking Business with Hugh Culver

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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 Baldwin: Today we are joined by Hugh Culver, who is a speaker up in Canada. Hugh is not only a great speaker, but he’s just a great guy. I want to bring people on the show who are as good off stage as they are on stage. He is a wonderful, wonderful guy and I’m really honored to be friends with him.

We’re going to be talking about his journey; his story as a speaker. He and I are going to be co-hosting a webinar together on Thursday, February the fourth. He and I are going to be doing some training about the speaking industry and some helpful tidbits about building your speaking business.

How are you doing, buddy?

Hugh Culver: Hey, Grant. Great and I’m excited about being on the new podcast.

GB: We connected a couple months ago. You have those moments sometimes where you talk to someone and you think ‘They get me; I understand them”, and I know that when you and I first Skyped I thought, “I like this guy”.

HC: I felt the same way. It is a funny thing in the speaking business, most people don’t spend enough time around other speakers. They spend a lot of time around family and friends, maybe their clients. There’s a lot you can learn by being around people that are trying to do the same thing you are. There’s so many ideas out there, it’s just really great to find people that are forging ahead. You can look at what they are doing and decide if you want to do it as well.

GB: One of the things that I noticed early on in my career was that I was worried— I wanted to connect with these other speakers, but we were all trying to get the same bookings and we were trying to go up to the same audiences— they’re going to be competitive or they’re not going to be willing to share what’s working or what’s not working.

But one of the things I’ve noticed is that speakers are very, very generous people. I think we all realize there’s plenty of business to go around for everyone.

You and I both speak, but we also cross paths a lot in the business side of teaching people the speaking business, how you get bookings, and how you get started. There’s a lot of new speakers that follow both of us.

It would be easy on the exterior to think we’re competitors, but there’s plenty of people in the world that are interested in speaking that are going to connect with you, or me, or whomever. So it works out well to have those symbiotic relationships.

HC: It’s a great mindset to have. I heard a great quote and I think it was on Tim Ferris’s podcast; he said, “If you want to get advice, ask for a million bucks. If you want to get in a million bucks, ask for advice”.

The whole idea is that if you go asking for money, people are just going to give you some good advice, right? But if you actually ask for advice— go to another speaker and say, “I really admire what you’re doing. Tell me how you’re being so successful, or what can I learn from you?”— you’ll end up getting money.

So, I think we need to understand, it’s a big market out there. But we also need to understand that in terms of our customers, there’s a lot of speaking engagements that are available that don’t get filled. What I mean by that is they get filled by internal people rather than by paid external people.

It’s simply because a lot of event planners don’t know who you are. So, part of a speaker’s job is to connect with other speakers, learn from them, but also to broaden their circle of influence in a huge way, because they’re missing out on a lot of businesses waiting out there.

GB: We’re going to be talking about a lot of stuff related to your business, how you’ve built your business, what’s working for you, as well as some of these practical applications for speakers at large; how we get going, get started, and build the speaking business.

Tell us what your speaking business is like today. What do you talk about? How often do you speak?

HC: I got into the speaking business coming out of adventure tourism. So, I had an unusual route into the speaking business. I was in graduate school, and I had just finished selling a company that flew people to the South Pole; that was just such a bizarre company and it had done extremely well. It was a multimillion dollar company when I sold it. Then I was asked to speak at the university I was at.

Since then, I went from being a trainer, into becoming a professional speaker, then— in the last six years— into building my own proprietary products. If you look at my roster now, what you’ll see is that I speak about only one topic, and it’s called “Think Plan Act”. It’s my way of helping people to be more effective in the world of work. I speak 45 times a year. I used to do 110 events a year.

GB: That’s brutal.

HG: That’s a lot. You know what that’s like, right? That was a combination of everything from speaking on the main stage, to training in seminars, to facilitation.
It took me about 15 years to get smart in terms of how to run a speaking business.

After those 15 years of building and building and building— working like crazy, being on the road all the time, and reaching that 110 events a year— I shut down the company, moved to a much smaller office— it was 227 square feet with no windows— and for two years I rebuilt the business.

To give you a bit of an insight, in the previous incarnation, we were doing a lot of six figure contracts. I had three part-time coaches, three part-time trainers, and two full-time office staff. We were making big money, as you can imagine. Everybody told me I was super successful and I started to believe it. But when I shut down the company and moved to that smaller office, I actually doubled my net income in the following year.

I doubled my net income, I took three adventures with my family— those are the kind of vacations that we take, usually climbing or kayaking or going to Ecuador—, I wrote a book which is a national bestseller, and I trained for and won the world’s longest endurance race all in that year. My point is that it took me a long time, Grant, to get smart around this business.

If I could generalize, I would say that this is probably one of the only industries I’ve ever seen in the world where There is so much money exchanging hands with so little documentation of how to actually do it right. Speakers go out there and get paid 3,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, or more to be on stage for an hour and yet, nowhere is there one guide which says, “here’s how you actually go about doing it”. In a lot of ways, I was doing everything wrong.

I was chasing gigs. As soon as the phone rang, I would try to find a way to get them to say “yes”. I would find some way to take my existing content, repackage it, and go out there and deliver that content. It’s an extremely exhausting way to make money because you don’t stand for anything. You don’t have any core proprietary topics; you don’t have any frameworks. So, what I’ve been doing for the last six years is helping other speakers learn how to do it the right way.

GB: What you described there is the way a lot of speakers build their business in the beginning. They don’t know how to build a business. They don’t really care about a business. They just want to speak. So that’s all they’re looking for is more opportunities to speak.

So, like you said, if I get any inkling of an opportunity, I’m going to do whatever I can to get them to say, “yes”. So, how long did it take you to start? Transitioning from viewing these things as one-off gigs, these one night stands, to “how do I actually build a business around them?” How long did that mental transition for you take?

HC: The funny thing is I actually have an MBA, so it shouldn’t have taken as long as it did , but it took 15 years. Of course I’d like to say that I was doing a lot of things right. I outsourced, I had a team, I wasn’t doing any of the coaching, my head administration… but the reality was, I wasn’t building something that was easy to scale up. You talk a lot about this, and that is why I’m so attracted to the work that you’re doing. You’re being really smart around how you’re building your business.

I always encourage speakers, “Even though you’re new to the business, you’re getting your feet wet, and you’re not sure about your fees… you need to start narrowing down as soon as possible what you’re going to be known for, what your expertise is going to be. There’s four things that I encourage speakers to think about.

The first two are the topic, and the audience. We always talk about the topic and the market, or the topic and the audience. What topic is as narrow as possible that you are willing to talk about day after day after day?

For me, I love this idea of being effective at work because it’s something I always struggle with. I’m always interested in reading about it. I always take on more than I can handle, whether it’s in terms of my charity work, my office, or the social media company that we run. And then the audience, how can you be as narrow as possible? There’s people out there that, quite frankly, have a really broad topic range, but then they have a narrow audience. Or the opposite can be true.

For example, a friend of mine, all she does is work with dentists. But she’ll do anything for the dentist. She does administrative training, she does recruiting, she does outsourcing. But it’s only for dentists. You need to figure out which side of the equation, ideally both, that you’re going to be narrow on.

The third one is love. You better love this topic enough that you’re going to read books, even after you’ve been on your feet all day long, because you really care about the topic. And the fourth one is knowledge. You need to have some expertise.

It’s topic, audience, love, and knowledge; and if you have those four things figured out, even if you’re still green and you’re still trying to figure it out, at least you’re going in the right direction and you’re so much more powerful than if you just say yes to everybody.

GB: What are some things that speakers can do, especially in the beginning, to start to narrow down their topic and the audience? Like you said, for a lot of speakers, the first time we speak, it’s this rush of “how do I do that again? I don’t care who I talk to or what I talk about. I just want to speak”.

We both know you can’t build a business that way. That’s one of the things we teach people is if you can speak to anybody about anything the reality is that you can’t speak to anybody about anything. What did you do to start to narrow that down? How did you go from, “I want to speak,” to narrowing it down to, “I want to speak about being effective”?

HC: That’s a great question. I would go about it a little bit differently. First of all, where’s the love and the knowledge? Have that first, but then go and verify it. Ways to verify whether or not you have the right topic would be to look at what people are buying.

It is far easier to sell to someone who’s already buying than to convince someone who’s never bought before. When speakers come to me and say, “I have this great topic and it’s all about how to get better legroom on airplanes,” I think “that’s fantastic, but nobody’s buying that right now”. Or “I’m a real expert on PR for books”. Well, that’s fantastic and that might be great for authors, but authors don’t fill conference centers. You need to look at what people are already buying.

One way to do that is go on Amazon and look at the best seller lists. If you type your topic into Amazon— which is an enormous search engine which is updated every 15 minutes— and those books that are listed are not in the best sellers, in other words, they’re not top 100 in that category, then there’s probably a reason why nobody is buying that topic.

The second way is to go to Google and type in the words association and conference, then start looking at who is filling their agenda at the last event that that association had.

For example, let’s suppose that you know a lot about the medical world. We’ll type in “medical association: agenda,” and Google will fire off all these agendas at you. Start looking, is anybody buying your topic right now?

GB: That’s such a great point. I always say, “try to find other speakers who are doing something similar.” Not so that you have something that you can mimic or copy, but… Going back to the example of dentists; if I came out of dentist land and I knew something about that industry and I wanted to speak to that industry; I would want to find other speakers who are talking to dentists and what it is that they’re talking about and what is it that they’re getting paid to talk about, so that I can start to have some ideas of what is it that people are buying.

So you have at least some type of blueprint to go off of rather than, again, like you said, just shooting from the hip and saying “I just want to talk about knitting scarves for puppies.” Even if you have the love and the knowledge of it, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s an audience for it or that anybody would pay you for something like that.

HC: I’ve spoken to close to 1500 event planners, and it’s safe to say that the event planners don’t necessarily read the books that you’re reading. They don’t research blogs online. In other words, they’re not following trends. There’s a couple of things [they’re looking for]. First of all, they want to make sure that you’re a safe bet. They want to make sure that you are going to be the kind of person and topic combination that their delegates are going to love.

After that, there comes availability and price and all sorts of other things. But first of all, it’s “are you a safe bet?” The way to be a safe bet is to say things they recognize; if they recognize the language that you’re using, you are already at the top of the list. If you use language like enrollment, engagement, leadership, empowerment, resilience, and accountability, if they’re looking for any kind of leadership speaker, you’re in.

But if you start using some weird stuff that you know, even though you’re an expert in it, unfortunately, you now have an uphill battle trying to convince them that this is going to be something the delegates want to hear.

GB: When you got started, what were some things that you did to find speaking engagements? That’s one of the biggest challenges for a lot of speakers is they want to speak— and even if they have that talk acronym down, they know what I want to talk about, they know who they want to talk to, they love it, they’re passionate about it, they’ve got knowledge about it and, they know the answers— just sitting back and waiting for the phone to ring typically doesn’t work, especially when you’re getting started.

So, what worked for you early on and what have you found even works today for just getting some of those early wins, those early engagements, under your belt?

HC: I’ll give you a couple that really made a big difference for me. The first one is friends. Now this is always surprising to me. Most of your friends don’t know what you do. I was at a New Year’s Eve party and the host stopped in the middle of the conversation, looked down the table at me and said, “So Hugh, you’re one of those motivational speakers, right?” There’s nothing wrong with that description, but what I want to do is spend 10 minutes trying to explain to her what I actually do.

But it’s not going to help, because all she’s going to remember is “motivational speaker.” If you can help your friends to understand what you do, then they’re much more likely to find you work. I had this unique story, coming from Antarctica and building up this successful one-of-a-kind business —which, by the way, is still in operation— people really remembered that. But we don’t always have that kind of moniker to hang our hat on.

So what you want to do is come up with an elevator speech, something that really helps people understand what you do. For example, “I help employers find good employees, those unicorns that we’re all looking for.” Start with your friends and help them understand what you do, but also let them know that you’re for hire.

Second thing I did was go to schools. I thought, “If I can talk in front of a bunch of kids, I’m surely going to be able to survive adults.” I did 40 or 50 schools in our local area, driving around, talking, and then, eventually, started to work with the administrators. That’s what levered me into the corporate world because it turns out that between friends and schools, those people knew people in the corporate world that started to invite me in.

The third thing you have to do is you just have to say yes to everything. What you need is street cred, but you also need to build up your expertise. Nobody learns how to be a good speaker by updating their Facebook posts. You’ve got to be in front of an audience and your number one marketing tool is going to be your last speech. The more times I got in front of people, the more times I got referrals.

GB: I love the idea of letting people know what you do, and then also letting them know that you’re available to do this. I’m amazed at the number of times I would go speak somewhere and then as I’m talking to an audience member afterwards it seems like they have the impression that I just live down the street, drove in, and I’m just doing this as a favor for a friend. I have to say “no, no. This is what I do. This is a professional thing and…” Connecting the dots for people. If they’re interested in having me come do this for their organization, or at their conference, or their next chapter event, or meeting, or whatever it may be, just letting them know that this is something that I do and is something that I offer.

And not just letting those people know that you’re available to do it, but even to take it a step back. Like you said, it’s just letting people know this is something that you do. I used to do some coaching and I went for the longest time without getting any coaching clients and then I started talking about it and telling people, “Hey, I’m a coach. If you need anything, let me know.” All of a sudden I started getting coaching clients. It’s amazing. Like we just think ”oh, I spoke that one time So people know that I’m a speaker, right?”

HC: When my book came out, which was in 2011, I had to learn how to sell back-of-room. One of the things that always amazed me, Grant, was all I had to do was hold up my book and say, “I have a book,” and everybody pulled out 20 bucks to come buy a book. Everybody knows how that works. He has a book; It’s probably 20 bucks. But most people don’t know how to hire a speaker. The book they get; the speaking thing they don’t get. Years ago, I started using a very simple form.

I would have a half sheet of paper face-down on the table; usually I would stack them up ahead of time. So, if it’s a table of eight, I put down eight in a stack. Then just before my close, I ask people to turn it over. “Everybody please take a piece of paper.” I explain to them what the opportunities are, and one of the opportunities on that piece of paper is to bring me to your next event. So, it literally says, “check this box if you’re interested in bringing Hugh to your next event,” and then fill in your name and your phone number.

What I’m doing is, I’m adding people to my list. I’m getting inquiries for my next event, and I’m selling them my digital online course, which has now replaced the book. That simple form has generated thousands and thousands of dollars for me, because I made it really simple for people to know what to do. They get the book, but they don’t know how to hire a speaker, so you have to help them do that.

GB: [You’re] connecting those dots for them. It seems overly simplistic, but you’re walking people through and letting people know, again, who you are and what it is that you do.

I’m curious about this— you’ve done a great job of not pigeonholing yourself as purely a speaker, but you’ve expanded your business in a variety of different ways. So, what does your business look like today? What are some of the other things that you do to generate revenue in your business?

HC: It’s dramatically different. It’s dramatically different from even two years ago. We have three parts to the business. The first part is speaking, and speaking constitutes one third of my income. That has always been very steady, and it’s at the perfect level. I do 35 events a year, and I, quite literally— I really encourage people to do this— have a Google Doc with the numbers one through 35 and my job is to fill those slots.

So, I’m very intentional about that income. The second part of my income is what, thankfully, You, Michael Port, Jamie Tardy are going to be involved with this year. [It] is called BOSS, the Business of Speaking School, and that happens once a year in March and April. It’s an eight week intensive training program for speakers. It’s a hybrid program; I deliver it through videos that I create every year and also through live calls with the experts on the team.

BOSS is approaching one third of our income, not quite. The third part is SOS. SOS is our social media service. We have a team of seven people and we do social media posts for bloggers, we help bloggers get noticed. We have clients now in Singapore, all across the states, and in Canada. SOS is right now more than a third of the income, and we expect that by next year SOS will have taken over the company.

GB: How did you decide to go in the direction of SOS, in terms of doing social media? Speaking about being effective at work is one thing, and teaching speakers about getting started and building their business is something else. It sounds like there’s some overlap, but they’re also very distinct things. So, how did SOS come to be?

HC: SOS was a solution to my problem. I wanted to have a bigger presence on social media and I didn’t have time to do it. I knew that I didn’t have the attention to do it because my [focus was in other] directions. So, I hired a person to start doing it. We started, actually, with people in the Philippines. Like most people, we got indifferent results and then I said, “Forget it. I’m just gonna hire someone locally”.

We had one person working for us. Then a month after creating this little program, I was driving down to Vancouver to a little speaker meetup that I was running. At the end of the evening I asked people, “How many of you would like a service like SOS?” 30% of the room gave me their credit cards. I thought, “okay, I better go build something. I’m onto something”.
We have women that work part-time for us.

They all live here in British Columbia. They’re very educated women; two of them have graduate degrees in English. They read the blogger’s blog, write social media posts, and schedule [the posts] so that every day we are getting more social media traffic and attention to those people. It’s $150 USD a month, so it’s really inexpensive, basically $5 a day, and we take care of social media for people. It’s really taking off like crazy, obviously.

GB: I love [that you’re] paying attention to the needs that exist in the market from speaking clients and from speakers that you work with, colleagues, and peers. Even just scratching your own itch and paying attention there to see how things can evolve and develop.

We’re going to be hanging out next week doing a long workshop webinar that’s going to be going way, way, way in depth on building the speaking business. So, wet our appetites a little bit, Hugh. Tell us what we’re going to be talking about and why someone should take a little bit of time out of their afternoon to come hang out with us.

HC: One of the things that I’ve become really fascinated by is the idea of the business side of speaking. Most speakers focus on getting hired, doing a great job on stage— which is fantastic, and that’s what you’re being paid for— but there’s actually an opportunity to build a real business. I’ve come at that slowly, but I’ve started to realize how important it’s been in my evolution. What I mean by that is, look for ways to create multiple streams of income from your speaking.

You’ve gone to all this work to build your expertise; you’ve got this knowledge, you’ve now created a great speech around it. That’s one product. The next thing to look at is, how can you repackage that? In this webinar, I’m going to be explaining how you can start thinking strategically and building those products right from the very beginning.

The first product I’m going to show you how to create, could probably bring in another 10-15% of your income right away, but also create more referrals and leads. It’s all about how to build a really smart business so that you can start to create passive income. So, you’re getting more success as a speaker, but at the same time you’re building up the kind of income that you can actually retire on.

GB: One of the things I always ask speaker friends who are on the show here is, give us a story where something happened on stage, in a venue, or with a client that you thought was the end of everything.

HC: How much time do we have? When you’ve done, as I have over a thousand keynotes, you have lots of stories. But I’ll tell you one in particular, and it just happened last year. I was following another speaker at a small venue, very high end clientele. I had one hour.

There we are; everybody’s gone for lunch. We’re trying to hook up my laptop; nothing’s working. It’s one of those situations where you had to have an HDMI cable; I didn’t bring my HDMI cable.

They’re frantically running around trying to help me out and they’ve got all these techies and I realize, “this is really not going to put me into great energy. I’m going to be frantic and I’m going to be worried.” So, I just told them to hold off. I said, “look, it’s absolutely fine. I don’t need it.” It was this really cool transition once I went from, “oh my gosh. I won’t be able to show my slides” to “who the heck cares”.

Suddenly, I could actually relax and I would say that was probably the best presentation I’ve actually done all year because I wasn’t anchored to slides. I was free flowing. I was having fun with the idea that we just had this great recovery and nobody knows the difference in the room. It really taught me an important lesson, which was, it can look like a disaster, or it can look like a fantastic opportunity.

I’ve watched speakers come in and spend 30 minutes with four audiovisual tech people trying to hook them up to wifi in the basement of a hotel which has no wifi, because they want to show one YouTube video in the middle of their speech. It puts everybody into a horrible state. The speaker is all anxious and sweaty.

The audience is now wondering what the heck is going on. What we have to do as speakers is we have to roll with the punches and we have to understand that at the end of the day, nobody really cares about that particular quote, or joke, or slide that you wanted to show.

What they want to know is that you care about them, you understand their problem, and you’ve got some way of helping them get out of that problem faster and easier than they could do it on their own. If you can pull that off, you’re going to get rehired every single time.

GB: That’s part of being a speaker, but you definitely have to roll with it. Hugh, if we are interested in checking out you and what you’re up to, where else can we go?

HC: Best way to go is just go to and go to the resource page.

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