How to Grow Your Business with Speaking with Chris Brogan

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Grant Baldwin: Today we are joined by my buddy Chris Brogan, speaker, author, entrepreneur, all around good dude. Chris, what’s up, man? 

Chris Brogan: Hey, I am thrilled to be here, Grant. Thanks for having me on. 

How Speaking Fits Into Brogan’s Business

GB: You bet. All right, so you seem to have your hand in a lot of different things, and speaking is one of those things that seems like it’s been kind of a recurring theme in your business and career. So tell us, today as it stands, how much speaking are you doing? What are you speaking about? How does speaking fit into your business? 

CB: Well, it’s funny given the topic of the interview, but I have cut my speaking back a lot. In 2010, I did 106 events, which was technically one every three days. That was way too many. I cut it down to 78 the year after, and then about 40-something the year after that, and I wanted to get it to around 24 or so speeches a year, you know, two a month. I cut it a little too much in 2014, like I didn’t quite get that number. And then now it’s just settled into right about where I want it, which is twice a month.

Speaking is a great part of my business. I enjoy it a great deal. I mean, I have to admit, I really love the stage for being an introvert. It’s the one time where I can really kind of flash my David Lee Roth, my inner David Lee Roth, and so it’s fun. 

What it does for my business . . . I mean my business basically, we’re a media and education company, and so we teach people how to build simple plans and projects to make business success. So I’ve gone from teaching mostly marketing and sales stuff to teaching people just really fundamental stuff. And so on stage that doesn’t ever come over as well. You know, giving people lessons in a keynote is never all that exciting.

So now my keynotes are kind of like big vision things around leadership, how to keep people more engaged and how to get more performance in yourself and others. And then from that, I work my way into, you know, the nitty gritty through my courses and stuff. So my speeches are usually at the service of the organization where I speak, but then also I endeavor to hope that people will keep connected with me to do other stuff.

Who Brogan Speaks To

GB: What types of markets and associations, conferences, groups are you speaking to generally? 

CB: You know what? I get to speak to such a variety and you know, my call yesterday before we recorded this was with the Independent College Bookstore Association. So they’re people who run college bookstores. I’ve done autobody, I’ve done glass, but the glass on smartphones, not on windows. And so I’m thrilled every time I get to do this sort of thing.

Retail, real estate. I’m always thrilled because people think that I would want to hang out with other nerds and innovators and stuff like that, but frankly, it’s always fun to talk GeeWhiz, like everyone just got back from Consumer Electronic Show a little while back.

It’s always fun to talk GeeWhiz, but to me it’s where does the rubber meet the road? And that’s where I have my most fun talking to people. And that’s where I get my good reviews and speaking reviews is when people say they actually knew what they could do with the information I gave them. And that’s what I kind of strive for.

How Has Speaking Changed Over Time?

GB: Who you want to speak to and what you want to talk about, how has that evolved and changed over time? 

CB: You know, I think it’s a great question, Grant. And then the other thing I want to say about it is that I find that so many people tell me how badly they want to speak on the TED stage.

And I would say that when it was like 2006 and 2007 and I was getting ready to be a speaker, I wanted to be on the TED stage and I wanted to have one of those, you know, 20 million view YouTube videos or something. But I could care less. I’ve turned down TED twice now. I’ve said yes, and then turned and then changed my mind twice.

And not the main stage, but like TEDx events – it’s because I can’t really abide the, “We’re going to work with some kind of coach and they’re going to make you into a TED speaker” thing. I bristle at that and it doesn’t mean I think I’m a better speaker. It just means I don’t want to be yoked to somebody’s format. So that’s one thing that’s changed is I thought I wanted to be a TED guy. And that’s like the furthest from being interesting to me. 

One thing that’s changed is I spoke mostly to marketing and sales and tech innovators for the last many years. And now I’ve been speaking to associations and also, interestingly, HR.

So human resources uses a lot of what I know how to do in marketing and sales inside their company, and I’ve been having a lot of fun with that, teaching people. How can they grow their connectivity with the people inside their organization just the same as you would customers outside. 

Being an Introvert and a Speaker

GB: Well, you brought up in the initial overview of the business, a couple different things I wanted to come back to and touch on. One of the things that you said was that you’re very introverted. I feel the same way. I’m pretty introverted, but I found that a lot of speakers we’re probably both mutual friends with and speakers that we run with are very similar in that a lot of us are very introverted, which doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense given that what we do is a very seemingly extroverted thing on stage.

And most people see us and they’re like, that must just be the life of the party, when that’s oftentimes not the case. So for someone that may be listening to this is going like, “Well, you know, I’m a pretty quiet, shy, introverted person. I don’t think I could be a speaker.” How have you kind of found that your introvertedness has affected, positively or negatively, your speaking business?

CB: I’m going to tell you, number one, it is very positive for me and one of the reasons is that when you start to learn that the people who are in that audience are just really hoping that you’re going to give them some kind of a tip or idea that’s going to make their business or life better, it takes a lot of weight off you because they’re not sitting there trying to judge you. When you first get on stage as a speaker, you’re so worried that they’re going to think you’re a fraud, that you’re full of it, that you’re no good.

You shouldn’t be up there. You don’t deserve to be up there. And so you lead and speak and do everything you do from the perspective of, “I’m really qualified. I should be here.” When you finally shake that yolk, if you finally shake that yolk, and I think most people who have any longevity in speaking do, you realize that you’re totally and utterly there to serve other people.

And so that takes all of that weight off your shoulders because then all you think is, “How do I explain this in a way that someone else can do something with it? How do I give somebody something that when they leave this room, they’re going to go, ‘Oh, that stuck with me forever and I’m totally going to change my business around’”? or whatever, and that’s how I deal with the introversion. 

The other thing is that if you also remember that you’re kind of like an actor at that moment you’re on stage and I bring a hundred percent who I am to the stage. You know, I’m the same guy. If you and I are talking at a bus station, or if you and I are coming out of the men’s room and washing hands, I’m the same guy on the stage as I am. In fact, I’ll talk about pee in all three of those locations because I think pee is funny.

And so I find what I do differently though is I do make sure that I’m trying my damndest to connect with people, and that also helps with introversion because all I’m trying to do is make people see some of themselves in what I have to say. And shy people can do that just as well as really extroverted people.

In fact, extroverted people are busy saying, “You’ve got to look at me.” Whereas introverted people can turn the lens through their speaking on the people in the audience.

Fighting the Inner Critic

GB: So one of the things you also said there was being able to shake that yolk of feeling like you have something to prove to the audience and I think a lot of speakers, especially when you’re getting started, do kind of carry that imposter syndrome of who am I to be up here on stage? Why would these people give me the time of day to listen? So how did you kind of overcome that mental barrier and obstacle? 

CB: Well, so it’s really funny. So there’s a voice in your head that you’re not going to quell, and it’s called by a lot of psychologists, the inner critic. And the inner critic is totally a measured phenomenon of basically people have this voice that says, “You’ll never make it. You stink. You’re not good enough,” whatever. And they say that the psychological reason that that voice exists is to try to beat somebody to the punch because we’re so afraid someone else is going to say it to us.

You’re not that good. So I actually, every single time I’m getting ready to go on stage, every single time I’ll be sitting in the wings. I’ve done this thousands of times, 7,500 people, “Ladies and gentlemen, Chris Brogan.” And as I’m climbing up the stage trying to shake the person’s hand and not fall off the risers, I’m thinking, “You’re horrible and you’re no good, and this is the time someone’s going to shout out, ‘Get off the stage!’ You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

This is what you say to yourself going on stage every single time and not consciously, like I’m not sitting there going, no, this’ll help. But that is the voice that is loudest in my head. “You’ll never make it. You suck. This is going to go terrible” or whatever. And so now what I do is I say this one thing to the inner critic every single time I say “Thank you so much.”

And it’s sort of me saying “thank you” with my middle finger up, like, “thank you because I know you’re just trying to help.” And that’s what I do. And then when I get onto the stage, the beautiful thing that comes next is I just lose myself in connecting with these people. Say something that is going to make them make a noise and that’s it.

I would say that the other thing to sort of keep in your head the whole time about the imposter syndrome is that you don’t have to be ridiculously qualified. You just have to know something that they haven’t really thought of the same way.

I mean, I’m forever in front of an industry of people that I don’t actually know their business. And I’ll make up things sometimes and I’ll say, “Maybe this is true” and I’ll get the look on my face, you know, from the audience like, “Nope, we don’t actually do that.”

And I’ll just roll it and go, “or it’s not,” and then I’ll go on to this next piece. So to me, a little bit of homework helps in that regard, but not a lot. And don’t lose your mind. Don’t just don’t go crazy. 

Backstage Preparation

GB: That helps. What else happens backstage? What is the stuff that people don’t see that you do to get ready for a speech? 

CB: You know, I’m not as good at that as a lot of people. There’s a lot of my friends who are super prepared, like Tim Sanders. Oh my gosh, that guy, you know, he prepares like a hundred different ways. Tom Peters, the legendary speaker, says he books more than one airline flight in case something happens with one of the flights. And he just eats the cost of two plane tickets. Like eff that, that is the opposite of me.

I’m like, “Oh, I forgot to get an airplane.” It’d be a little more accurate. So what I do behind the scenes or whatever is I make almost every single one of my speeches custom, which most people don’t. And that means that I’m always taking like three by five cards or little notepads out of my pocket and really working through how I’m going to make it very specific for this group.

So that’s kind of my behind the scenes. That also leads me to start thinking about what are some examples I can find with a little bit of Googling that will really resonate with the people that I’m going to speak with. 

GB: Let’s talk a little bit about the business side of it. You mentioned that in 2010 that you did 104 gigs.

That’s insane. Two years ago I did 67 and just felt exhausted. So I can’t imagine doing 104. But first of all, how did you get up to that point of doing a 104? Because that doesn’t just happen overnight. So what did you do to kind of generate that? 

CB: So, not to correct you, but 106, those other two count.

You know what? I wish I had some great advice for you. I was red hot. That was 2010. Julien Smith and I had just written Trust Agents, which ended up being a New York Times bestselling book in 2009.

The reason it was a New York Times bestselling book was nothing we did. We did nothing especially magical except ask nicely if people would buy it. And we did a couple of deals like buy a couple hundred books and I’ll speak for cheap or whatever. And we were fortunate to hit the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and 800-CEO-Read and all that.

So I was red hot. My blog was getting 200,000 unique downloads a month. And you know, I just had the world’s attention by saying you could use all these digital tools to earn trust and build a reputation all the way across the web. 

Part of it was just being in absolutely the right place at the right time. Having more than ten years of preparation for that moment. The other thing was we were just so straightforward in our processes and all that, and we were just really straightforward in our pricing.

We never negotiated prices. We were just really straightforward. I had an assistant. All the time in my career, I’ve had one person that I pay to like make sure that my scheduling’s going to work because I’m not smart to do it. And so we had very standard forms that we’d send out that said, here’s what we do, here’s how the process works, here’s how much it is, here’s what you owe, etc.

And I think that level of detail helped me on the back end. And then on the front end, I was just consistently delivering something that people could find value in. And the word was spreading through various speakers bureaus and all that. People ask me that question a lot, Grant, should I use a speakers bureau?

I called two people when I had that thought for myself. I called Guy Kawasaki and I called Seth Godin. Guy Kawasaki said, “Oh, absolutely, but don’t be exclusive – sign with all of the speakers bureaus. And Seth Godin said, “No way. Just spend 15 bucks an hour on some kind of an assistant or a virtual assistant and have them just call people proactively and get the gigs.”

I will tell you that if I were to give that advice today, I would go with Godin. Pay someone 15 bucks an hour and just go for it. Because bureaus are wonderful and I’ve done some great work with bureaus and I’m always grateful for that work, but they’re not necessarily incentivized to put me up on a stage. They’re incentivized to put someone on a stage. And so if you want more business, you’ve got to hustle for more business. 

How Brogan Got So Many Gigs

GB: Yeah, I totally would agree with that. I’ve done I think 400, 500 events at this point, I think less than ten have come from bureaus. And so if you get a bureau gig, great. But I think it’s hard to build a business around that for most people. So I’m curious though, before you hit that 106, right place, right time mark, what were you doing prior to that that was working to get business? How were people finding out about you or were you doing much speaking at that point?

CB: You know, so 2007 is when I started my professional speaking career. And when I say professional, right before that, I was just showing up at places where I’d speak for free. And I would just do it and do it and do it and do it and do it. And then one day someone called and said, “Hey, Constant Contact wants you to come in and speak on such and such, how much will you charge me?”

And I said a thousand bucks. And they were like, okay. And I was like, dang, too low. So then I did that, and then I got my fee up to like $2,500. And the way I did that was I just kept thinking, how do I deliver that much value? And then one day in a hallway, this is around the time where I was getting ready to write the New York Times bestselling book, or it was just about to get published, Guy Kawasaki says, “Hey, I just sent you a gig. Make sure you ask him for a lot of money.” 

And I was like, “Uh . . .” So I leaned in and I said, “Guy, I ask for like $2,500 a gig. What should I ask for?” 

He goes, “Ask for $25,000.” 

I was like, “Oh, yeah, you don’t want me to get this gig.” 

He goes, “Just do it.” So I’m on a call and it’s like me versus like six really nice people and they get to the point about money and so “What’s your speaking fee?” And I had been practicing it because I knew I would blow it. So I had practiced like thousands of times saying $25,000 as if it was absolutely my fee. So I said it, $25,000, and there was dead silence. And in my mind there was maybe three and a half minutes of dead air. In reality, there could have been maybe six seconds.

And one of the six people said, “Would you take $20,000?” And before the words had left their lips, I said, “Yeah, that sounds okay. I could do that. I can work with that.” I couldn’t have sounded more rookie and they must have been on the other side, like smacking their foreheads going, “This guy had no idea.”

But I totally did it and I got to $20,000 and I earned it. I worked really hard because I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is like almost ten times when I used to charge. I better work harder.” And then right after that I had a New York Times bestselling book, and that ended up being the going rate.

And so I was charging $22,000 a day for 2010, 2011 and 2012. Around 2013, the market really collapsed in speaking and/or what I had to talk about people just weren’t all that into anymore. I was less hot. And so now my fees start around $15,000. And what I can tell you about that, you know, because people will ask is “Well doesn’t that price you out of a lot of gigs?”

And I say yes with joy in my voice. And I always say that there’s lots of people cheaper than me and there’s lots of people who cost a ton more than me. And you’re calling me because you want me, not because you want a certain budget. And so you have to decide which one you want more and what I can do to deliver and earn that value. And that’s actually how I’ve always negotiated is I negotiate on value, not the price. 

GB: Gotcha. I’m curious, just in terms of presentation, because obviously you’ve delivered hundreds if not thousands of presentations before and to audiences of all different sizes. What are some of the best presentation tips and tricks that you’ve picked up along the way? Things that really help you to really nail it. 

CB: Well, you know, first off, I’ll mention a couple of people. So I think Dr. Nick Morgan, Nick Morgan has written some really good stuff and he’s got a book out about presenting that’s really good. I also can highly recommend Michael Port’s Heroic Public Speaking.

I would say that the things that I’ve learned, I’m very unique. In fact, Nick Morgan writes about me in his book that I was basically unteachable in a way. I spent $6,000 with him. And the end result was, we both agreed that I probably couldn’t use much of his advice, which I thought, darn, that hurt.

But, you know, I know what I’m not going to do for $6,000. And again, I don’t blame him and he doesn’t blame me. He wanted me to do a very standardized thing and I just didn’t do it. 

One other person I want to mention, Tamsen Webster, who is a part of a company called Oratium. It is amazing speaking training and it’s totally worth it. So take a look. 

So my style and my method is I work from three by five cards. I put my presentation down in some kind of a smart and orderly fashion. I then make sure I cover all my points and I start with deliverables first. Like, what am I really going to have to land and how am I going to help people as opposed to starting with some kind of narrative.

I don’t have some, you know, “I was born a poor black child” kind of speech that I start with. I just start with, you know, I start with something that’s going to try to get them in the mind of where I need them to be. Sometimes a question. 

So in one of my speeches, I start, “In a world where we could buy from anyone, why should we buy from you?” Because that really puts a button on people who, for instance, are afraid of Amazon. 

And so from there, the other things I could tell you is that I love Google Slides. Like the Google slideshow presentation platform is so cool and useful and that’s really saved my butt a lot because as many times as you go to hand over some slides to somebody, it’s always in the wrong format. They’ve always, you know, lied to you and given you the wrong thing or “I’ve wrecked your fonts.” I can tell you that I belong to a bunch of speaking groups on Facebook, and that’s one of the things we always gripe about is giving over the presentation.

So I try my hardest to never put in my contract that I won’t give you the presentation ahead of time, and that I’ll either put it on your machine myself or you know, you’ll let me present from mine. That I’ve come to over the years.

I also try not to present with slides as often as I can help it, depending on how left-brained the audience is. If they’re left-brained, they need the slides because they worry that you’re just ad-libbing, but if they’re kind of creative groups, I try to present mostly from my cards because then if I want to change direction, I don’t have to follow a pre-existing slide so I can actually do it live and in the moment.

It Can’t Be Worse Than This

GB: Gotcha. Let’s wrap up with this. I want to make good use of your time and be respectful of your time. Tell us about a time where it can’t be worse than this. Some type of moment where a speech didn’t go according to plan. Tell us the story. 

CB: Grant, I love this question more than anything because I think everyone’s big fear in all things in life is that they’re going to fail.

And my answer is, great. Then fail. Like, fail a lot because you’ll only learn from it. I’ll tell you one example that’s related to the HR people. They picked a speech off of my website that I had put up a proposal for, but I had never ever spoken. Like I just wrote it up and said this I’d like to talk about it.

And so someone picked it and I thought, “Oh God, I’ve never given this speech,” and I guess what I should have done next is actually planned it and prepared and practiced and actually read my material a bunch of times to see how it worked out. I planned for Q&A and so they gave me 45 minutes and there was no Q&A and I had planned kind of like half and half, so just a little over 22 minutes of speaking and then, “Hey, let’s do a Q&A.”

I got to the end of what my existing slides said at 22 minutes, which was my plan, right? And I said, “I think we’re going to do some Q&A now. I think there’s some mics,” and the whole front row, who are the people who hired me, are shaking their hand under their chin, like, nope, that’s not coming.

Like, ixnay on the icsmay. And I just smiled politely and looked out at the whole crowd and I thought, can I fake 22 minutes of content? That’s a long time. I’ve given thousands of speeches. I’m thinking I could just add another speech to this speech. I could probably do something off the top of my head. And I went about five minutes like that.

And it was clear like there was a delineation between good speech and bad. And then five minutes in, I just went, “You know what? I love you all. I had planned something a little different. I thought we were going to do some Q&A and that was my mistake.

I’m going to give you this extra time so you can go check emails. I’m Chris Brogan. Thanks very much.” And then I ran off the stage to the people who put the thing on and I said, “I will do a free anything for you. Just pay air and hotel, I’ll do a free anything for you. I apologize so badly that I messed this up timing wise.” And you know what? I got four other paid gigs from that organization.

GB: So the lesson here is to bomb from time to time just to keep you on your toes, and maybe you’ll get some spinoff business from it. Good lord. All right, man. Hey, where can we find out more about you? If we want to check out some of your projects, some of the books that you’ve got out there, where can we go?

CB: Probably the easiest is just There’s a whole bunch of books there. If you’re looking for one that’s helpful to a speaker, either The Freak Shall Inherit the Earth or The Impact Equation.

GB: Awesome. Chris, thanks for the time, buddy.

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