Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Speaker Launch Toward Success - A Case Study from Maureen Zappala

(Editor's Note: Over the last couple of years, I've watched my friend Maureen Zappala transform herself from a top-notch Toastmaster Speaker to a Wannabe Speaker to an actual, Bona Fide Keynoter. What does a journey like that look like? What does it feel like? I asked her to share that with us, in as transparent a way as she could, so that we could really see 'behind-the-curtain' of her efforts, perhaps finding instruction, and inspiration, for our own Launch Toward Success!)

“I’m not a marketer. I’m a speaker.” That thinking is the quickest path to being broke. The fact is, professional speakers are not paid to speak. We’re paid to market.

To reinvent myself as a speaker and get serious about making money at it, I made intentional and bold changes in my approach. In hindsight, there’s nothing magical about these changes. You can find this information anywhere. But unless you try out what you find, you won’t know what works for you. This is what worked for me. 

First, in late 2012, I attended a speaker training workshop. I shelled out a lot of cash, aligned the planets so my kids were carpooled and fed in my absence, and flew to Atlanta for the 3 day “Speak It Forward” Boot camp. It was conducted by my friend Kent Julian, a wildly successful pro speaker in the education market. Wow. I knew a lot of the material he presented, but now I had it all in one binder, presented in a linear, logical way that made my left-brained engineering mind wild with the delight of great possibilities. I could do this! I had a plan. Off I went.

To start, I joined the one year follow-up mastermind group after the boot camp. There were 10 of us, buzzing with excitement about making speaking-business things happen. The energy propelled us forward…at least for a little while. Emotions wore off and commitment, sheer will and iron-clad determination took over. Sometimes I didn't WANT to send another email or  make another phone call, or research another conference opportunity. I didn't WANT to listen to another recording of my horrible speaking where I was guilty of using the word “and” about 4,395 times to create a run on sentence that lasted a solid seventeen and a half minutes. But our group pushed each other.

For my topics, I decided to speak on the leadership lessons I learned while at NASA. Leadership speakers…ugh. They’re everywhere. What’s so special about me? My branding had to set me apart from the zillion other leadership speakers out there. Then it hit me. “Hey, I’m a female propulsion engineer.” I always thought it was ordinary, but people often would say “Wow, that’s pretty cool.” Hmmm…maybe I needed to capitalize on that. Duh. How many female propulsion engineers do you know? ‘Nuff said. Even though engineering was in my rear view mirror  (I left NASA in 1997) and even though I don’t speak on technical topics, or exclusively to technical audiences, it’s a unique branding that gets attention. I loved my work at NASA, and it’s a big part of who I am, so it was a natural choice for my branding. I became “High Altitude Strategies: Propelling Your Team to Peak Performance” 

I outlined 2 keynotes and gave them catchy names. I didn't write the 2 keynotes. I just outlined them. A mistake a lot of speakers make is to write and perfect a speech, only to find out that nobody wants it. I started with outlines and good stories. Then I shopped for audiences to see if any of them were interested in them.

I contacted local service organizations and Chambers of Commerce, because they are always looking for speakers for their events. I knew they didn't pay money, but they were people with pulses and that’s what I wanted. I needed audiences. Kiwanis, Rotary, Lions clubs and networking groups all have an online presence so I searched the Internet to find contacts. When I found a contact, I emailed a simple request, emphasizing my desire to serve them. Here’s the exact text of one email I sent:

“Hello, I was looking at the Richfield Chamber of Commerce website and I see that you host several events where you bring in speakers. Can you tell me how you chose your speakers? I think I have some topics that would be of interest to your members. 
 Please let me know if I can serve you. I can be reached via email or phone at your convenience.

Warm regards,  
Maureen Zappala

This  usually got a positive reply. Then I’d connect via phone, which is better than email because it’s more personal. (I’ll confess, though. The phone is hard for me. As social as I am, I really am an introvert. I could go days without talking to another human, and be ok with that. I had to be intentional to get out of my cave and talk to people.) I’d refer them to my website (where I had my speech titles and descriptions) and bounce around ideas around to get a feel for what direction they wanted to go. It worked beautifully. The titles were the real hook. “Is your Supersonic Team Producing Subsonic Results?” and “Leadership is NOT Rocket Science” were catching attention. I was getting booked. For free at first, but you must start somewhere. Now I needed to develop the actual speeches.

I wrote them, and I delivered them. I recorded them and reviewed them (oh wow…that was dreadful) and rewrote them and delivered them again. I worked at making them great. Your best marketing is to be great behind the microphone. 

At each event, the feedback I got was pure gold. I found out what worked and what didn't. It was win-win-win. The meeting planner got a free speaker. The audience got a great message from a decent speaker. And I got priceless feedback to fine tune the message. Oh, and I got to sell my book. (Make note to yourself: write a book.) 

Some of these free speeches were jackpots of opportunities for paid engagements as well. Through networking, I met people active in their professional network groups. For example, as a result of meeting someone when I spoke at the Richfield Chamber (email above), I am working on negotiating a keynote speech for a state chapter of a large national association. And they pay. Pretty well, too. Sweet.

In parallel to this free speaking, I did a metric ton of research into other opportunities. I spent hours at the library scouring the Encyclopedia of Associations, the National Trade and Professional Association directory and the Dun & Bradstreet Million Dollar Directory to find conference and contact information. I searched the internet using keywords like “2014 conference” and “leadership conference” and “women engineering conference”. 

I learned a LOT, primarily what groups would be hiring people with messages like mine. You bet I’ll stay in touch with those event coordinators. While cold calling is part of the booking process, the richer fare is gotten through building relationships. Relationships have to start somehow, and stalking conference chairs via the internet is a viable option. OK, stalking is a strong word. But contacting a conference chair whose contact information is listed on a conference website isn't a bad idea. It gets my name on their radar, and I can follow up later for more opportunities. It’s worked. I've booked with groups I can identify with: women engineers. I’m working on other aeronautic and aviation organizations. It’s a slow process, but it will pay off. When meeting planners need a speaker, I want them to think of and choose me because of the relationship we've built.

It’s not all been sunshine and glitter. If you could see the mountain of emails I've sent to associations asking about contacts, you’d shudder. There are hundreds. And the outflow exceeds the inflow. In other words, unlike with service organizations, I wasn't getting a lot of response. But I must keep pushing forward. 

It’s a numbers game, and you can’t game the numbers. You must do your due diligence. The work I do today may not see results for months. But I’m certain I will see results. That makes the journey fun.

A New York City native, Maureen Zappala relocated to Cleveland in 1983, employed by NASA’s Lewis Research Center after graduating from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. She left in 1997 to pursue other interests including direct sales, fitness instruction and motherhood. Now as a professional speaker, she challenges organizations to “push the envelope” of their own expectations, so they can propel their teams to peak performance. You can find her at


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