You’ve probably heard public speaking is a good tool for building your business. Give a talk, the thinking goes, and clients will be impressed enough with your ideas that they’ll hire you. But does it really work?
During the course of researching my new book Stand Out, I spoke with Tom Peters, the legendary co-author of In Search of Excellence, who told me about his early days stumping for the book. In the months and years following its publication, he told me, “I wasn’t getting much sleep, and I was writing articles for anybody and everybody. It was pure brute force. I was doing 125 speeches a year.” That averages out to between two and three talks per week – but it helped him establish a reputation that’s lasted decades.
Even that pace looks slack compared to Angela Lussier, however. She’s an entrepreneur I met when we were both speaking at a panel discussion for my alma mater Smith College. In 2009, she quit her job at a recruiting firm to follow her true passion and become a career coach. She knew it was the right decision, but her economic situation was precarious: Ahe only had $2,000 in the bank. “I had to act fast to build this thing,” she says. It turns out, she did it entirely through public speaking – even though at the time, it was her greatest fear.
Lussier reached out to all the local college career centers offering to do free workshops. She figured they might be interested in a former recruiter who wanted to provide career tips for graduating seniors but most of them didn’t even return her messages. She shifted her focus to pitching local libraries on her workshops. “One person said, ‘How long have you been in business?’ I said, ‘Since Monday.’” Not surprisingly, they weren’t interested.
With bills to pay, however, she didn’t have a choice: She had to keep dialing. After she’d called nearly 30 libraries in her region and been rejected by all of them, one finally said yes. When they asked how many workshops Lussier wanted to offer, she immediately realized she could leverage it into a series. So – without any materials developed – she announced she’d do eight. The librarian followed up: “Can you do one series in the afternoon for people who are unemployed, and another at night for people who have a job?” Lussier quickly agreed. She called back the other libraries and pitched her workshops again, this time leveraging the social proof of her one engagement to win other gigs. Within a week, she’d booked 32 workshops over the next two months.
She created the content for the workshops quickly and started delivering them, sometimes up to three times a day. She spoke to almost every kind of group – from Rotary Clubs to women’s business groups to college students. She recalls sweating, stuttering, and turning red in front of early audiences. She joined Toastmasters and willed herself to practice and improve. “I realized the most successful people were the communicators,” she says, “and if you don’t speak up, no one knows what you have to offer and you’ll be left behind. I made a promise to myself that I’d learn to speak.”
“Over the first year I did probably five hundred workshops,” recalls Lussier. Her marketing efforts paid off. “People started coming up to me and saying, ‘I want to hire you.’ And that was how I built my whole business.”
Public speaking may not be the right business development choice for everyone. But Angela Lussier’s example shows it’s possible to use it as a tool to attract new clients and create a powerful pipeline – even if it seems terrifying at first.