Rory Vaden on How to Find What Makes You Unique

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Grant: Welcome to Episode 404 of The Speaker Lab Podcast. During today’s show we’re chatting with my buddy Rory Vaden and talking about all things speaking and even more so building a personal brand, which Rory and his team are experts at.

Rory one thing I don’t know if I’ve told you before, but I was emailing you recently and I was pulling up your email just as a quick search in your inbox. And I think one of the original emails I sent you was in 2004 and I was just getting started as a speaker.

I sent you an email because, you know, you email half a dozen different speakers, just trying to pick people’s brains. And, you had a thorough email back to me, and I’ll find it and forward it to you. So, you were indirectly super helpful for me early on. And so I appreciate that.

Rory: I was just telling you before you hit record, I’m so proud of you dude. You’ve done a great job. You’re helping people like you, you’ve got a great brand going and you’re solving a specific need in the world.

It’s great to see where you’re at. And that’s our heartbeat, man. I mean, you know, like a lot of people these days know us for some of the like really household names of the kind of people we work with. But like our heartbeat is for the mission-driven messenger, that aspiring person, because that’s who I was like when I was 17 years old going ‘I feel called to this, but I don’t really know what to do or how to do it.’ There was just no playbook, and like, random bits of information stored in random places.

Grant: I felt the same way, like, how does this mysterious world work? And I know you started super young as well, where oftentimes we were the youngest people in the room and the audiences we’re speaking to could be our parents. So, constantly wondering, what do I have to bring to the table? So real quick, give us a quick snapshot of how you got into speaking and what’s been your journey over the past several years.

Rory’s Background

Rory: Well, I was raised by a single mom who sold Mary Kay cosmetics, which means that I grew up learning the principles of personal development and success from the time that I was a little kid. It also means I know more about makeup than I do about cars, which is a true story. And then when I was in college, I went door to door for a direct sales company for five years – 14 hours a day, six days a week, straight commission, and paying all my own expenses.

The company had these national events every year where the top student got to speak. And so that was my whole motivation because I wanted to get invited to speak in front of like a few hundred people. And so I did that, and then at one of those conventions, there was a gentleman who came out on stage named Eric Chester – a hall of fame speaker. And in his speech, Eric mentioned he had a son that went to CU Boulder. And so I went up to him and I said, ‘Eric, that was an amazing speech. One day, I wanna do what you do, because it was funny and it was insightful. Right now I need your son’s phone number because I’m gonna recruit him and he’s gonna come do this program with me.’

And so he gave me his son Zach’s phone number, and I recruited him. Basically, the deal Eric made was if you personally mentor my son in this program and make sure nothing bad happens to him when you guys are out there, then when you graduate, I’ll personally mentor.

So that went on for a couple of years, and then I finished undergrad and I’m meeting with Eric Chester because he’s so true to his word. He said, “Rory, I don’t play well with others. And I never have had very many mentees because I’m annoyed by people who ask for my advice and don’t follow it. If I’m gonna spend time on you, you have to agree right now that you will 100% do everything that I say.’ So I said, ‘Yes, sir. Mr. Chester, I will do it. You give me an order and I will execute it. Tell me what to do.’ And he goes great. ‘The first lesson: the single greatest difference between a good speaker and a great speaker is 1000 presentations. I want you to go out and give 1000 presentations. After you have given 1000 presentations, come back and I will tell you, step two.’

Rory Takes the Stage

He told me about Toastmasters. So I joined Toastmasters and they had this contest called the World Championship of Public Speaking, and there were 25,000 people who can compete from 90 different countries. So I spoke 304 times for free. In 18 months, I read dozens of books. I spent thousands of dollars on coaching and I made it to the world championship. I was in the top 10 speakers in the world and I lost, but then in 2007, I made it back.

I was 24 years old and I studied harder, got more coaching, and made it back to the world championship. And in 2007, that was the year that I, well, I lost again actually, but I lost as the World Champion of Public Speaking first runner-up and that was kind of how I thought I would launch my speaking career. Two years ago I became the youngest American in history to be inducted into the Professional Speakers Hall of Fame by Eric and I still am super excited to hear what step two is – haha!

Is Toastmasters for Everyone?

Grant: Do you still recommend Toastmasters as a good option for speakers, especially early on looking for opportunities?

Rory: Toastmasters is not really for professional speakers. It’s just for people who want to be better at speaking. It’s the easiest, fastest, most encouraging place that you can go to immediately get stage time for free and get quality people and real coaching, instruction,  feedback, and practice.

So my advice to people is to stay in Toastmasters as long as you can, until you’re speaking so much that you’re getting that stage time weekly from other paying gigs and engagements.

Why Networking Matters

Rory: So here’s the other part of that story. After Toastmasters, I was at a National Speaker’s Association Convention, which still emphatically recommend. I still go to NSA. If you want to be in this space, you’ve got to go there.

So I was at this NSA meeting right after the World Championship of Public Speaking. I’m there and I’m sitting in the cafeteria with the big open buffet hall and there are thousands of people. I don’t really know anybody, I’m sitting at this table all by myself, and this guy walks up to me and asks if anyone is sitting there. And I said, ‘…no, by all means.’ And he goes, ‘…you’re Rory Vaden. I heard about you. You’re the Toastmaster kid.’ And he said, ‘that was pretty impressive.’ And I said, ‘Well, thank you. Have we met? I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are.’ And he reaches out and says, ‘My name is Zig Zigler.’

Zig Zigler walked up and introduced himself to me at an NSA meeting, just walking around the halls. He and his wife Jean sat next to me and we hung out for almost three hours just talking.

And he says, ‘I’d like to mentor you if you are interested.’ And so Zig Zigler personally mentored me. So it was sort of a baton handoff from Eric to Zig at that point. I traveled with Zig; he used to speak at these big motivational events.

Rory Starts a Business

Rory: I had just left the direct sales company. I finished grad school. I did the world championship at Toastmasters, and then I had a business partner I had met from going door-to-door.

He was one of the ‘producer types’ and we thought we should start a company. We figured we would build the greatest sales training company in the world. We recruited my best friend Amanda because I grew up with her. I’ve copied off her paper, my whole life. She got me through school. She’s the smartest person I know. So we recruit her and a couple of other people and we start this company.

We had heard about this business model that Tom Hopkins was doing where people would go speak for free. He would send sales reps and they would speak for free, and then they would sell a ticket to come and hear Tom Hopkins speak. We could do that. So we literally took a yellow pages phone book and we ripped it into fourths. One of our business partners was in San Jose and he was the only one of us who owned a house. So we lived out of his house and did cold calling out of yellow pages every day on local offices, real estate, and financial advisors.

This is still the model today. Let us come in and do a free one-hour presentation. We teach our clients at Brand Builders today to go speak for free and then at the end, if we’re good, let us sell your people a chance to come to a one-day big rally, except what was crazy with us is that there was no Tom Hopkins or Tony Robbins or anybody famous.

The speakers were us. We were the speakers. People paid money to come here from a bunch of 20-year-olds to learn how to sell. And, and we did it. We sold 700 tickets at 300 bucks. In three months, we generated a quarter million dollars in revenue in three months and we were up and running and we did that for five years.

We grew that to a couple of million dollars and then we figured out how to sell coaching. And when we figured out how to sell coaching, everything changed. We grew the business to an eight-figure organization. We had 200 people in 2012, and my first book came out and hit number one on the Wall Street Journal and number two on the New York Times lists.

The Creation of Brand Builders

Rory: In 2015, I had a Ted Talk called How to Multiply Time, and it went viral with four and a half million views. Through the course of that, I met a gentleman named Lewis Howes who still has a podcast called The School of Greatness Podcast. My PR team had cold-pitched Lewis about having me on his show and Lewis thought I was cool because I was 29 years old and my book just hit the New York Times.

In the meantime, that girl, Amanda we hired? A year after we started the company, she and I start dating. In 2010 we get married then had our first child in 2017 and then in 2018, we sold that eight-figure business with 200 people. So we sold the company and when that happened, we lost all of our social media, our podcasts, our email — 20 years of speaking clients. The day that we exited the company, we had no plan and Lewis Howes calls us and says, ‘Hey man, my business has grown a little bit. I know we haven’t talked in a while. But I feel like I could use your help on some stuff. I need to set a strategy for my brand.’ And we were like, ‘Dude, we’re wide open.’ So Lewis comes to our house right here in Nashville and we spent two days with him and he goes, ‘…this is the most amazing two days I’ve ever spent on my business. This is your new business. This is what you guys need to do. And I’m gonna tell the whole world that they should hire you.’ So we went on this podcast a month later and within a couple of weeks we had a thousand inbound leads and Lewis became our first client.

So now we do personal brand strategy. We do one-on-one coaching for personal brands. We’re sort of a level-up and here’s the art of speaking, the business of speaking podcasting funnels, creating intellectual property, doing Ted Talks, doing book launches [one of our specialties] and we had three clients hit the New York Times list last year.

Brand Builders Group and Speaking

Grant: So today, with Brand Builders Group, you work with people, again, not just speakers, but certainly speaking is a big part of that?

Rory: I think there’s a big challenge for a lot of people who say, ‘I want to be a speaker, but I also want to have a book, or have a podcast, or have a course, or do coaching or consulting and do all of the things.’ We both understand you can do all the things, but you can’t do all the things at once. Like something is going to come first. Something is going to come last. And we both know speakers who do a hundred gigs a year and nothing else and are super successful and speakers who do 10 gigs a year and a whole bunch of other things and are successful. So it’s not that necessarily one’s better or worse than the other, but helping people really get clarity on how to do all the different pieces of the puzzle and fit them together.

Grant: So, what are some of the challenges that you see in working with clients and helping them to narrow down and really determine where speaking fits into the mix?

Rory: Well, so speaking as a business model, you know, a lot of those things are either business models or they’re marketing mediums or their content distribution mechanisms.

There’s a more fundamental question that we start with and that we really address, which is based on the single best piece of personal branding advice that I’ve ever received from a guy named Larry Wingett. Larry wasn’t really a personal mentor, but I knew him from NSA and Larry said this, ‘…the goal is to find your uniqueness and exploit it in the service of others.’

And so when we started Brand Builders Group, and part of this was the conversation started with Lewis Howes as we intuitively developed this process. We call the brand a DNA helix. It’s a six-part framework that we take people through that helps them identify their uniqueness. If you can identify your uniqueness, you have a chance to break through the wall.

Two Kinds of People

Rory: One of the frameworks that we teach, we call Sheehan’s wall, named after another colleague of ours, Peter Sheehan, who’s a brilliant genius. We’ve adapted a little bit for personal brands, because he does more corporate consulting, but in any industry, in any environment, there are two groups of people.

There are those who are unknown. They’re struggling with obscurity. They’re not well known. They’re not yet trusted. They’re not yet recognized. And then there are those who are well known. They have notoriety, they have trust. They have an impact.

Everybody is trying to break through this wall. There’s this invisible barrier, this invisible wall between the two, and what most people do, which is a mistake, are they look at all the people on the other side of the wall and think, I’m going to do all those things. And what happens is they start doing all of this stuff and they bounce off the wall.

The reason they bounce off of the wall is actually because of a principle we wrote about in my first book Take the Stairs, which is that if you have diluted focus, you get diluted results. The key to breaking through the wall is to find your uniqueness and figure out the one thing you can be known for that and are truly the best in the world at. And you become known for that thing. And that is how you break through the wall. And once you’re on the other side of the wall, you can expand into other things or change directions.

Finding your Niche

Grant: How does someone start to narrow down and go from being the buffet to being a steakhouse?

Rory: So, it’s very simple. It’s not easy. So I mentioned there are six questions to effectively do this and I’ll tell you the first one.

The Genesis of a personal brand is answering this question: What problem do you solve in one word? People trip all over themselves to answer this question because it’s not easy. It’s difficult. We’ve done this now with over 600 clients – we know it’s not easy, but if you can’t nail this, everything’s gonna break down along the way.

Here’s the thing, people buy solutions to problems. So the question is, are you just a random voice among a sea of noise talking about random things? Or are you speaking with a level of precision and clarity that cuts through the way that you would ping a glass in a room full of people that suggests if you have this problem, I’m your person.

There are some really great recent examples of this. One of my favorites is Brene Brown. What does Brene Brown talk about? She spent her entire life dedicated to solving one problem. Shame. She was a researcher. She studied shame. She dedicated her life to understanding shame, exploring shame, analyzing shame, helping people who had shame, and trying to help them get past shame. Why is shame there? What do we do about shame? And she figured out a one-word solution, which is vulnerability. And, Brene Brown rapidly became one of the most influential people in the world.

Another example, is Dave Ramsey, for 30 years has dedicated his entire life to solving one problem – debt. For three hours a day, every day for 30 years, he has said the same thing over and over and over again, seven baby steps. And it’s brilliant. That’s how I got to know Dave; he changed my life long before we were friends.

Tony Robbins dedicated his life to solving pain and suffering as he describes it. And then Mel Robbins, if you watch closely, her whole personal brand is helping people with anxiety. They have anxiety, right? It’s a very specific type of fear. And she talks about her panic attacks and you know, the whole five-second rule.

One of the things that we did with Lewis Howes not doing the work of helping him be successful, Lewis was already a rolling stone. It took him eight years to go from zero to 30 million downloads. But in the last couple of years, since we’ve been working with him and his team, he’s gone from 30 million downloads to 500 million downloads.

And part of what he gives us credit for, which is more than we deserve, is that we helped him figure out what is the one problem he should solve. And what is the one business model he should focus on? When we started working with him, he had 17 business models to his. Per our recommendation. He systematically reduced them down to three.

He used to talk about all sorts of stuff. Now he frames his personal brand through the lens of self-doubt.

Procrastination was the problem that my Take the Stairs book solved and we did a national research study on it. Then I coined the three types of procrastination; classic procrastination, (which everybody was aware of). I invented the term creative avoidance, which is unconscious procrastination and distraction. And then finally priority dilution, which is the chronic overachiever’s procrastination. It’s unconsciously filling the day with trivial stuff, but people were fascinated about it because it was the chronic overachievers. And so my second book and my Ted Talk on how to multiply time were really about interruption and an even more narrow form of procrastination

Brand Builders Group Problem Solving

Rory: We solve one problem: obscurity. That’s what we help people with. We help mission-driven messengers to become more well known. We help experts to build and monetize their personal brand. So speaking is a part of it. It’s a small part of it. Book launches are a part of it. It’s a small part of it. Social media, podcasting funnels, copywriting websites, but most of all, building your sales team, your infrastructure, cash flow, and everything we do, are all small parts of it.

But the core, your uniqueness, if you don’t nail that and what problem do you solve in one word, it’s difficult. That’s where the journey starts for everybody we work with. We’ve done it with 600 people. Your uniqueness is something you’re so close to. It’s your innate superpower. It is your God-given design. It’s your supernatural ability, which lives inside of you in such a way that you don’t notice it. So it takes a process and it takes people around you to be able to see it.

It took me 10 years to figure out procrastination was the problem I solved. I started when I was 17. We figured it out when I was 27 and 2 years later I was a number two New York Times bestselling author.

By the way, if anyone wants, we do a free call at We do the first call with everybody for free, just because we’ll even help them see this. And then we sort of map out what the journey is and depending on how big it is, we’ll explain the steps.

Most of our clients are people who just want to speak more, really want to build their practice, and they’re just using their personal brand as a marketing mechanism to drive awareness of their existing business, whether it’s a service business or course information products.

How Can You Find Your Uniqueness?

Rory: You are always most powerfully positioned to serve the person you once were.

When we train our strategists and our content licensees, this is what we teach them; we have to look back through the thread of their life and we simply say, what obstacle have you overcome? What setback have you survived? What challenges have you conquered? Whatever that is. That is our greatest hint. It is our shortest path to finding your uniqueness, because that is the thing you’re most powerfully positioned to serve the person you once were you’re most specifically equipped to help someone get through a problem that you have already walked past.

We [Brand Builders Group] are guiding this arc all centered on their uniqueness. And that’s the trick. The only other last little thing I will say is that if you’re listening to this podcast, you probably have a calling. That’s why you’re here in the first place. After having done this for so long, we [Brand Builders Group] believe that the calling on your life is the result of a signal that’s being sent out by someone else who needs you.

We believe that it [the calling] is not something that everybody hears, because we’ve done this hundreds of times. And we know from working with people that the specificity of their calling, the specificity of the type of people they can help, is so narrow that the reason you’re feeling it is because there are so few people in the world who can truly.

Do what you know how to do there are so few people who have walked the exact path that you have walked, that have overcome the problems that, you have overcome. And so there is somebody out there right now who is looking for questions to answers that, you know, off the top of your head – they’re trying to find a path that you already walked a hundred times. They could be on their hands and knees at this very moment, praying desperately to God for an answer, and you can show up and just hand it to them on a silver platter. And when we don’t listen to the calling, it’s because we’re not thinking about that person and we’re instead focused on ourselves. And that’s when fear shows up and fear is so self-centered because we think I’m not good enough. I’m not smart enough. Somebody else has already done this.

Grant: That’s great stuff, man. If people want to find out more about you and check out what you’re up to, both with Brand Builders Group and also with your personal brand, where can we go?

Rory: Go to That would be the first thing. That’s where you learn about Brand Builders Group. Other than that, I would just go to I have a master’s degree worth of free content available there, broken up by categories and very specific things.

I appreciate so much the privilege of talking to your people and thanks for having me.

Grant: Thanks for hanging out with us, man. We appreciate it.

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