On today’s episode of Steal the Show, we’re talking about raising your speaking game using sports performance principles. 

Alan Stein, Jr. worked as a performance coach for some of the highest-performing athletes on the planet, including NBA superstar Kevin Durant. He shows us how the lessons he taught top athletes can bring out the best in any performance.

How You Can Steal the Show

  • How Alan found his philosophy for a successful life and career on a basketball court. 
  • The time-tested secret to making performance easier. 
  • The career-crushing mindset every speaker must avoid to perform their best. 
  • Why even “the best” in the game needs a good coach. 
  • The filter you need to set so you can achieve your dreams. 
  • How he made the leap from sports performance coaching to speaking by saying “yes.” 
  • How a haircut helped him align himself with the brand he was building.
  • What all speakers need to give themselves once they step off stage.

Learn more about Alan here.

You can purchase Alan’s book Raise Your Game: High-Performance Secrets from the Best of the Best here.

If you liked this episode you may also enjoy:

Episode 124: Giovanni Marsico on Building Your Tribe

Episode 125: Simon T. Bailey on Quitting Your Full-Time Job to Be a Pro Speaker

Episode 119: Jay Baer and Daniel Lemin on How to Get People to Talk About You

Michael:
For years, Alan Stein worked as a performance coach for some of the highest performing athletes on the planet, including NBA superstar, Kevin Durant. Then he took those skills to the stage to show corporate leaders across the country, how to improve their mindset, performance, and productivity. In this episode of Steal the Show, Alan that explains how to raise your speaking game using the performance principles of the world’s best athletes. What’s up, buddy?

Alan:
How are you Michael? I’m doing fantastic.

Michael:
I’m good. How are you?

Alan:
I’m equally lovely man. It’s great to reconnect with you. I haven’t seen you in a little while.

Michael:
It has been a while. Last time I saw you I think was here at HPS, HQ.

Alan:
Yes, that probably is right.

Michael:
Right? And one of the things I remember vividly about you was while everyone else was having lunch and just talking, relaxing, hanging out, you were in the theater working on your blocking.

Alan:
I had to get those reps in.

Michael:
You did. You had to get the reps in. I use you as an example because very often when we work with athletes, elite level athletes, and we’ve got Olympians and professional athletes, and then of course, you who trained elite level athletes for so many years, I see an approach that is pretty consistent across these athletes is also pretty consistent across a high level military personnel that we work with, like former Special Operations personnel or SEALs, et cetera. There’s this intensive focus on repetition. And it seems like the athletes that we work with, use their time very, very well. I’d love you address this, do you see… you know a lot of speakers now, you’ve been in the business for a while. And you know, probably even more athletes, elite level professional level athletes. What do you see that’s different between how athletes approach their craft, and how most professional speakers approach their craft?

Alan:
Well, honestly, I actually see there to be a lot of similarities. I have been thankfully with the HPS network and many of our mutual friends have been able to befriend and have mentors that are just renowned speakers and I do notice that they have a strong appreciation and affinity for the rehearsal process for the practice and for getting in the reps. And as you just said so insightfully that’s exactly how athletes approach it. Really, any high performer in any area of life, realizes that the key to mastery is purposeful repetition and the timing of that is so important. I remember vividly doing the HPS A listers and while everything was still fresh in my mind, everything that you and Amy had shared, that was why I wanted to get those reps in immediately.

Alan:
I didn’t want there to be any time or any disconnect between what was being taught, and when I could start to get in the reps and get in the practice. And I’ve noticed that with elite level players and with elite level coaches the timing, as well as the repetition, those two things need to work in synergy.

Michael:
One of the stories that I heard you tell, which is in your book, also, I think, is about the time that you either met or first saw Kobe Bryant training. And I’d love you to tell us that story because I think it’s a great example of what it takes to function at an elite level.

Alan:
Absolutely. And this is probably my most signature story because it really encompasses my entire philosophy. I mean, this is the Keystone to everything that I believe and everything that I teach in my talks and workshops now. This was back in 2007, Nike invited me out to Los Angeles to be the first Strength & Conditioning coach for the Kobe Bryant Skills Academy and Nike was being incredibly innovative and they were bringing in the top high school and college players from around the country for a really intense mini camp with the best player in the world. And I don’t know how many of your listeners follow basketball. For those that don’t, just know that in 2007 Kobe was the best player on the planet.

Alan:
I’ve spent my entire life in a basketball bubble. So I always heard this urban legend of how insanely intense Kobe’s individual workouts were. And now that I was finally on his camp staff, I figured this was my chance and this was my shot. So my earliest opportunity, I walked up to him and asked if I could watch one of his workouts and he was incredibly gracious and he smiled and said, “Sure, man, that’s no problem. I’m going tomorrow at 4:00.” And I immediately got confused because I had just got done looking through the camp schedule and the camp schedule said that the first workout with the players was the following day at 3:30. And Kobe quickly recognized that confused look on my face and he clarified that with a, “Yeah, that’s 4:00 AM.

Alan:
Well, you know, Michael as well as I do that there’s not really a legitimate excuse on why I couldn’t be somewhere at 4:00 in the morning. At least not an excuse that a guy like Kobe is going to accept. So I’d pretty much committed myself to being there. And I figured if I was going to be there anyway, I may as well try and impress him. I may as well show him how serious of a trainer I was. So I came up with the plan to beat him to the gym. So I set my alarm for 3:00 AM and the alarm goes off and I jump up quickly get myself together and I hop in a cab, and I head straight to the gym. And when I arrive it’s 3:30 in the morning, so it’s clearly pitch black outside, and yet the moment I step out of the cab, I can see that the gym lights already on.

Alan:
Even from the parking lot, I could faintly hear a ball bouncing and sneakers squeaking. I walked in that side door, and I see Kobe is already in a full sweat. He was going through an intense warm up before his workout actually started at 4:00 with his trainer, and out of professional courtesy, I didn’t say anything to him and I didn’t say anything to his trainer I just sat down to watch. And for the first 45 minutes, I was actually shocked. For the first 45 minutes I watched the best player in the world do the most basic footwork and offensive moves. I mean, he was doing stuff that I had routinely taught to middle school age players. Now it’s important to know this is Kobe Bryant. So he was doing everything and an unparalleled level of intensity. And he was doing everything with surgical precision. But the actual stuff he was doing was incredibly basic.

Alan:
Now his whole workout lasted a few hours and once again, I didn’t say anything to him or his trainer when I left but my curiosity kept gnawing away at me and I had to know so later that day at camp I went up to him and said, “Kobe, I don’t understand. You’re the best player in the world. Why are you doing such basic drills?” And once again, he was incredibly gracious and he flashed that million dollar smile. But he said, with all seriousness, “Why do you think I’m the best in the world? Because I never get bored with the basics.” And I remember that that has stuck with me ever since, that the best player in the world and someone that has truly mastered his craft, said his secret, and I’m saying that in air quotes is that he never gets bored with the basics. And I found that that was a seismic life changing lesson for me because it just showed me that just because something is basic, it doesn’t mean that it’s easy.

Alan:
And a lot of people use those words interchangeably, but they’re not synonyms. That what you need to be good in any given craft or vocation or skill set is usually a mastery of the basics and the fundamentals. But doing that, as you know, as someone who has mastered his craft, doing that every single day with consistency and effort and precision is far from easy. Because if it was everyone else would be doing it.

Michael:
Yeah, sure. That reminds me that Marcus Luttrell who’s a Navy SEAL, retired. People may not be familiar with his name, but they may be familiar with the film that Mark Wahlberg starred in that was based on Marcus Luttrell’s experience as a Navy SEAL in his final battle before he retired, called Lone Survivor. He tells a story of when he and his twin brother were 14 years old. Then his twin also became a Navy SEAL. But they from a very young age, wanted to be Special Forces soldiers. They lived in Texas and there was this guy who lived in the woods who was older now probably in his 60s, 70s but was a Special Forces operator I think the Army. And so Marcus and his brother went to him and said, “Listen, we want to go into Special Forces 2. We’re only 14, but can you start training us?

Michael:
Now this guy lived out in the woods in a trailer. And was the scary guy that most people did not talk to because he was not exactly right in the head. And the guy said, “All right, fine. Be here at 4:00. So Marcus and his brother showed up at 4:00 after school and the guy was sitting on a log at the place he had told them to show up. And he didn’t look happy at all. Yeah, he meant 4:00 AM and he’d been sitting there since 4:00 AM waiting for them.

Alan:
My goodness.

Michael:
So there’s your 4:00 AM story. But they would meet him every day at 4:00 AM before they went to school and train from the age of 14. And he said, “By the time we got to the SEALs training, it actually wasn’t that hard because we’d been training at a similar level since we were really very young.”

Alan:
Wow. Well, that that’s one of the things that I immediately gravitated towards you and to Amy and just the HPS mindset and culture was this concept of being so thorough in your preparation and so thorough in your rehearsal and so thorough in everything that you do, down to the most specific of details so that when you actually take the real stage, you can take a deep breath and smile because you’ve put in the work to deserve the opportunity to be successful under the bright lights. That when you put everything into practice and you make everything as game like as possible, it almost makes the performance easier by default. And that’s not saying there’s anything easy about giving a keynote, but it becomes easier when you do that.

Michael:
Actually. Yeah, no, I think it should be pretty easy when you’re actually doing it because you’ve already done all the heavy lifting.

Alan:
For sure.

Michael:
Performing, it made me physically tiring if you’re doing keynote every single day of the week. It’s a fair amount of energy, but it’s not close to the kind of energy you need to put out if you’re doing a musical on Broadway eight shows a week. It’s not even close.

Alan:
Right. No.

Michael:
And so I want to dive a little bit deeper into this because you may be able to help our listeners around this particular issue because sometimes what I see is people will work really hard and sometimes they will make the stakes higher than they might need to be. So they have a gig that’s important to them. Maybe it’s the biggest gig that they’ve had so far. And so they put it in a lot of work into it. But they put so much pressure on themselves that when they actually get to the time when they’re going to perform, they end up pushing, trying to force an outcome. And as a result, they tighten up. It’s a little bit like my son who is a competitive tennis player, there are times when he tightens up because he wants to make something happen. And he loses his fluidity and his flow and his spontaneity. And so great performances generally exist at the intersection of preparation and improvisation.

Alan:
Absolutely.

Michael:
That’s when you see what feels to the audience like authentic, organic spontaneity, but that’s very different than winging it.

Alan:
Oh, for sure.

Michael:
Yeah, so I would love you to address this issue that often occurs for elite level performers where something is so important. The stakes seem really, really high and we go into it often making more of it than we need to. And as a result we don’t perform at our best because we’re tight or we constrain ourselves or we push too hard or a whole host of other factors.

Alan:
Absolutely. And you nailed that perfectly. I’ve fallen victim of that as well. And there’s a few things that I do to get me back into a proper place where I can perform at my best. First is having the mindset that the biggest gig you ever going to have is the next one. Like they’re all equal. If you can do your best to reframe things, whether you’re going to give a small workshop to 10 people in a board room or you’re going to be on stage in front of 10,000, that your preparation, your mindset, your level of care and commitment, your rehearsal, it shouldn’t waiver. And this is one of the things that was the hardest part, especially about working with teenage athletes.

Alan:
You hand them the schedule at the beginning of the year and they’re already skipping ahead to six or seven games to when they’re going to play their rival. And they’re kind of looking past some of the other games. And that can be a very dangerous trap in the world of athletics. But same thing here. I try to train myself that every gig is important and that I want to do my best to serve the audience but that I don’t need to build one of these up as if I don’t do well my entire career is going to be over. So I try to level the playing field in advance. And then the second thing I do is I just try to keep my focus on my own attitude and my own effort. Because those are really the only two things that I have complete control over. And preparation I believe is a combination of your attitude and effort.

Alan:
So as I mentioned earlier, if you put in the work ahead of time and you deserve the ability to be successful when the lights come on, I think that can help take some of the pressure away. But I try not to worry about outcomes and I focus on the process. If I have my content down and it’s customized so that I know it’s in service of the audience and I’ve gone through as many game like reps as I can, then I can simply just go through my pre-engagement speaking routine, which is just like a pre-game routine, and then when I take the stage, I can just take a deep breath and smile. And as you said so perfectly earlier, know that I’ve done all of the heavy lifting and don’t worry about the outcomes.

Alan:
I’m not in charge of whether or not the audience likes me. I’m not in charge of whether or not they find the information valuable. All I can do is the best of my ability with my attitude and effort to make those things true. But ultimately they’re the ones that decide and I don’t want to give power to them, that they’re controlling my performance. This needs to be from the inside out.

Michael:
Yeah. When I first started performing when I was you know, 19 years old, as an actor at that time, I didn’t have much craft and so I had a lot of hope and I thought, well, some nights it’s great and some nights it’s not, but that’s kind of a magical thing that may be, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. And then over the years, my perspective on it changed through experience. But what I do now is I don’t evaluate my performance just based on the audience’s response. I evaluate my performance based on whether or not I did what I intended to do

Alan:
Love that.

Michael:
Because that’s something I can control. Now, if I felt that the audience didn’t get what I promised them or didn’t get what I think they needed, then I’m going to go, keep working on how to make that happen. But I’ll still feel good about the work that I did on stage because it’s what I intended to do. Because if you have this expectation that you’re going to somehow rise to the occasion and perform better than you’ve ever performed before, just because it’s a real life situation or the moment is filled with adrenaline, it’s unlikely that happens.

Michael:
I mean, it may feel like that happens, but I imagine it’s similar and athletics except the scoreboard tells you how you actually did, but sometimes someone will get off stage and there’ll be so pumped up because adrenaline has been flowing through their veins and they just feel like, “That was amazing. I feel so incredibly alive. I nailed it.” Meanwhile, the audience was not at all connected to what was happening on the stage because the speaker’s experience was different than the audiences’ experience. So what do you tell athletes when you see them performing in a way that’s driven in large part by their adrenaline rather than by strategy and technique.

Alan:
Well, the best coaches I’ve been around have always emphasized that it’s how you play, it’s not who you play. And to me that really resonates with this, that it really shouldn’t matter who the audience is or what size stage you’re on. It’s all got to come from within and it’s got… I love your word and use of intention that are you delivering what you intended to do. Because of course if you did your homework and you’ve customized this and you’ve had a pre-event call with them and you’ve done everything that you’re supposed to do, then your intention should be right on target. And now it’s just a matter of simply executing. And to me, that’s what’s most important. It’s very mediocre performers and mediocre teams that will raise and lower their performance based on who they’re playing.

Alan:
I spent six years as a performance coach at DeMatha Catholic High School, which is one of the top high schools in the United States, and in a 40 game schedule, we were probably heavily favored in at least 30 of those. And some of those, I mean significantly heavily favored. And that’s when coach Jones would have to get with the team the most and say, “We’re supposed to win this game, but that’s irrelevant because I’m not measuring our performance based on the final score. I’m measuring it on what we’re capable of doing. And I want to measure this on are we executing to the level that we’re capable of?” The score will simply take care of itself, but you can’t, in this case, and I don’t mean this to diminish the opponent, you can’t lower yourself to their level simply because they’re not as good.

Alan:
And that’s the mindset that we all as performers need to have. That it needs to all come from within. Do the heavy lifting early, be in service of the audience, but be prepared to execute your intention to the best of your ability. And I think the more you do this, and I know this was my experience even though I’ve only been doing the corporate speaking for a few years, I have a much better awareness now when I get off stage on whether or not, “How well did I execute the intention that I had going into this?” And many times that is in alignment with the reaction of the audience. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes there’ve been some times, where I thought I nailed it and maybe the audience response was a bit tepid and there’s been other times where internally I thought, “You know what? That was not my best performance, but for some reason they absolutely loved it.”

Alan:
And that’s why I’m a big believer in film as well. I film almost every one of my talks to go back and watch so that with clear mind and low emotion, I can go back and actually evaluate my execution. But yeah, it’s a very dangerous and slippery slope when we give the power away to the audience or in sports to the opponent. We have to be in charge of our performance.

Michael:
Yeah, it’s interesting. We have a number of students who film their speeches religiously for training and development purposes rather than just for promotional purposes. They just set up their own little camera and they don’t really care about the quality of the footage. They’re just want to the footage. They can evaluate the work that they did, which virtually every single competitive sports team does religiously. I mean, if you play football, you’re watching game films on Monday nights.

Alan:
Absolutely.

Michael:
And that’s what you do and you’re analyzing it ideally without bias and without passion, you’re just trying to analyze what you did and didn’t do and what you need to do to improve next time. So let me ask you a question about self perception that maybe you could help us with a little bit. As a performance expert and performance coach, what kind of advice would you give someone who either feels that they’re not good enough or too good to train? For example, sometimes, we have obviously a reputation in the industry is being pretty rigorous with respect to the craft and to the work that we do.

Michael:
So sometimes people will think, “I want to go to HPS and I want to train there, but maybe I’m not good enough yet, so maybe I should get ready first and then I’ll go train there.” Or they say, “Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard their reputation, but I am so much better than everybody else that I’m going to be too good.” And both of those perspectives are usually off the mark, meaning A, we’re either not evaluating ourselves accurately. Either we’re putting ourselves down unnecessarily, unfortunately, or we are building ourselves up with a little bit of ego driving us and we may not be seeing the areas that need improvement. And so what do you say to folks who either feel like, “Well, I’m not really good enough to get in there and start working. “And I don’t mean just here specifically in HPS. I just mean in general. Or folks who are like, “Yeah, no, I’m so good. I don’t really need to do that. I’m just natural.”

Alan:
Well, on the first side. I would say that you’re simply delaying the inevitable and that you’re probably never going to feel like you’re ready if you have that mindset or you’re never going to feel like you’re good enough. So there’s no reason to resist it or delay it any further, and that’s what you teed up so perfectly. I mean, no matter where you are on the spectrum, you’re brand new to the speaking craft or you’ve been speaking for 30 years, you still share the common denominator of you can get better. And that’s where the highest performers that I’ve been around they have high confidence, but they blend that masterfully with humility. That no matter how good they are, they know that they can continue to get better. With the first example, with someone that doesn’t think that they’re ready, they’re probably more concerned with things outside of themselves and outside of their control.

Alan:
They’re thinking, “Well, if I go to HPS, am I going to be the worst one? If I go there, are Michael and Amy going to think, ‘Man, this person’s awful. They’re never going to get better.” And both of those scenarios obviously are not true, but they’re stepping outside of what they can control and they’re playing one of the most dangerous games that we can play in the speaking industry. And that’s playing the comparison game. They don’t think they’re good enough. Well, in comparison to who? If you’re measuring yourself against the titans in the industry, yeah most people probably don’t feel like they’re good enough, which is even more reason why you have to go to HBS or get some type of quality training. So on the first side, just don’t play the comparison game.

Alan:
Just focus on the fact that there are people out there that have a specific expertise in something that you need. And if you can go there with humility and to be open to coaching and open to feedback, you’re only going to get better. And you should actually take pride in the fact that if you don’t think you’re very good right now, I mean you’ve got nowhere to go but up. I mean, your future is so bright. You should be so thankful to be able to meet people like you and Amy because you’re going to get so much better.

Alan:
And then of course on the other side, and I see this in athletics all the time, is the arrogant, complacent mentality that I’m already really, really, really good. And while that may be accurate, it doesn’t mean you can’t get better. I mean, if we recall my Kobe story, I don’t want it to make sure that we gloss over the fact that I mentioned he had a trainer. He wasn’t in there by himself at 4:00 AM he had someone who he entrusted to guide him through what he needed to become even better. And the best people in the world, in any area of life, have a coach or have a trainer or have an instructor or a mentor, whatever term you want to use because they know that no matter how good they are, they can always get just a little bit better.

Alan:
And what I love about you guys, I mean, you guys do such an incredible job of being able to cater to either end. That I’ve seen you worked brilliantly with people who are very new to speaking and clearly I’ve seen you heighten performances of people that are already spectacular. So I think in either scenario yeah, the first group needs to improve confidence a little bit and stop playing the comparison game. The other one probably needs to eat a small slice of humble pie and get in there and work on their craft.

Michael:
Am I correct in saying that you’re quoted on the Penn state football programs locker room wall?

Alan:
That is correct. Yeah. That was one of the neater experiences I’ve had so far.

Michael:
And am I correct that the quote is, “Are the habits you have today on par with the dream you have for tomorrow?”

Alan:
That is correct. That is a mantra that I do my best to live by every single day.

Michael:
That’s fantastic. I have two questions then.

Alan:
Sure.

Michael:
Number one, how do you focus on improving your habits? And I’m asking this question in part because I know my son is going to want to know the answer because he’s 14. One of my boys is 14, and he is currently reading The Power of Habit.

Alan:
Ah, love it.

Michael:
Which is a great book. That’s, I think, a great companion book to your book Raise Your Game. And so he wants to know. Then I would also love to know what your dream for the future looks like right now as a speaker and an author.

Alan:
One of the things that’s neater is as I’ve gotten older and hopefully become wiser and certainly more experienced, I’ve actually found that life can become much more simplified. I think I made life way too complicated in my 20s and even early 30s, and now in my early 40s, I’m allowed to, or I’ve allowed it to kind of slow down. And here’s the filter at which I run everything through is making this decision or doing this thing or having this habit, “Is this taking me closer to the man I want to be?” And we could substitute that. Like we can even have great clarity and just talk about speaking. Is this thing I’m about to do, does this take me closer to being the keynote speaker that I want to be? Or does it take it further away?”

Alan:
And if you start to list your primary habits, you can run it through that filter. Your son should be able to look at what he does on a daily basis. His morning and evening routine. What he does during workouts, how he eats, when he goes to bed. And he should be able to run each of those through that filter and say, “Does doing this take me closer to being the best tennis player I’m capable of? Or does it actually take me further away?” And it’s a binary question. I mean, it’s either yes or no and then clearly the goal is to get as many yeses as possible, as consistently as possible, which means now you have everything in alignment.

Alan:
So I’ve got to look at all of my habits. My morning routine, I’ve got certain things that I do every morning and I do believe that those things put me on the path to being the best speaker that I’m capable of. And certainly I’m a human being. I’m fallible, I make mistakes and I’m far from perfect, but I noticed it over time, most of the decisions I make, most of the time are putting me in the direction that I want to go. And for me, where I am currently is not near as important as the trajectory at which I’m going and as long as that ramp is facing up and I know that everyday I’m getting a little bit closer to being the speaker I’m capable of, or being the father that I’m capable of, then I know I’m doing the right stuff and when I do make a boneheaded mistake or I develop a bad habit, that’s probably taking me away from those things, I’ve now got the awareness to recognize that and I can put systems in place and I have people that care about me enough to hold me accountable to make those improvements.

Alan:
So that would be my long winded answer is figure out what it is that you want to be great at and make sure everything you do as consistently as possible is in alignment with that thing.

Michael:
I love what you said about habits. It’s such a simple, simple, simple question. Does this habit get me closer to the goal that I have or farther away from the goal that I have? It’s really quite simple. Now, of course you have to have a goal.

Alan:
Of course.

Michael:
You got to start there. But if you do have a specific it’s such a simple way of managing your behavior.

Alan:
For sure. And let’s reference the Kobe story again because we’re keeping that word. Yes, it is simple, but it’s not easy. I would imagine the decision for your 14 year-old son to go to bed at nine o’clock instead of staying up all night playing on his iPad, that’s not an easy decision to make when you’re 14. The temptation’s there. I’m sure he wants to stay up late and do what 14 year olds do. So I’m not saying that the decision to go to bed at 9:00, that’s not an easy one to make, but it is simple. If you want to be a great tennis player, you need to get rest and sleeping is the equivalent of plugging your phone in to get some more juice. So you have to do it. Sleep is non-negotiable if you want to be a high performer in anything. But it’s not easy to do.

Alan:
But yes, as long as we can run it through that filter every time and make the best decisions that we’re capable of as often as possible, then we’re golden. And then that next step is insulating yourself with people who will tell you the truth and people that will give you feedback and hold you accountable to that. And I think you know, of all the things that I respect and admire the most about you and Amy and the whole HBS community, it’s being able to offer… you guys offer feedback with love and compassion and as long as someone is open to receiving the coaching gifts that you guys give, and you guys hold people accountable, there’s going to be improvement. And that’s what I think is step two that no one should think they have to go at it alone.

Alan:
I know tennis is an individual sport, but I hope your son knows that if he wants to be the best tennis player he can be, he can’t do that solely by himself. He has to insulate himself with great people who will hold him to that incredibly high standard.

Michael:
Indeed. Yeah. That’s great. Thank you. Let’s talk a little bit about your career as a speaker and an author because, and tell me if this is accurate, I feel like your trajectory has been accelerated. It’s been pretty quick. This is your first book?

Alan:
Yeah, I think.

Michael:
Raise Your Game?

Alan:
Yep.

Michael:
And it’s doing quite well. I see the book all over the place online. I see you all over the place and you’re speaking for clients like American Express, PepsiCo, FDA, Equinox Fitness Club, Starbucks, USA Basketball, et cetera. And I would love to know just a little bit more about that journey so that our listeners can get a sense of what it was like for you at the beginning. What kind of gigs were you doing? Where you’re charging? If you were, how much were you charging or were you doing mostly free gigs? And then how did you start charging more? And you know how often are you speaking these days? And where do you see your career going?

Alan:
For sure. I think one of the most important parts is, and we can’t have folks forget, so I’m 43 years old and I started “the corporate speaking” and I say that in air quotes. I actually look at my starting date as when I met you and Amy down in Fort Lauderdale for HPS Live, would have been three years ago this fall. But I had been doing speaking before, but the speaking was in the basketball arena. So it was the coaches, it was the players. I wasn’t new to the speaking game. I felt very comfortable in front of other people. I loved being “on stage” although I was always in gyms, in sneakers and shorts. So it wasn’t like I went from zero to just waking up and saying, “I think I give a give a chance at this speaking thing.”

Alan:
I had been doing the speaking portion for a while, but it was very raw. It was a very niche audience and that was why I came to you guys to learn the craft of what it takes to be a real keynote speaker and to be able to shift my audience away from primarily kids in your son’s demographic, teenage boys to then being able to make sure that my message would be relevant and helpful for people in the corporate world. So I think that’s one thing that’s important to note. I had gotten a lot of speaking under my belt and felt that I had the raw materials, then I just needed some coaching to fine tune that expertise.

Michael:
As a player and then and then subsequently as a coach, you’re used to being in the spotlight.

Alan:
Absolutely.

Michael:
With a lot of eyes on you in high stakes situations.

Alan:
Oh, for sure. And so that I think made that transition a little bit easier. And also, I’ve always been a relationship type person. I put the utmost value on relationships. So even though I was in the very narrow niche of basketball, I forged some incredibly strong and fulfilling relationships with people all over the world and people even outside of basketball. So that also helped jumpstart my corporate career because I was able to reach back to some people that I had served possibly in the basketball space, but then they either had a relationship in the corporate world or they had a friend in the corporate world.

Alan:
My network immediately was able to give me some opportunities just to get the ball rolling. I have four or five friends that have been in the corporate world their entire lives and my very first thing was I reached out to them and said, “I’m thinking about making a pretty significant life change. I’m thinking about leaving the basketball space and serving people in your space. But before I make that leap, I want to make sure I have something of value to offer you guys and I want to make sure that I may have some things that could resolve some of the problems and pain points you’re facing.”

Alan:
I conducted extensive interviews with them and saying, “All right, what things in my past would be helpful to you as a leader or to your company or to your team or your culture?” And I really let them dictate what would be the best stuff for me to talk about in the corporate space. So I didn’t make any assumptions or guess. I didn’t just try to say, “Oh yeah, I’m sure everyone’s gonna want to hear these basketball stories.”

Alan:
I did my homework first to make sure that what I had was relevant to make this leap. And thankfully there was very high utility and very high transfer between the things that I was learning from elite athletes and coaches and the things that the corporate world wanted and needed to hear. And once I got that framework in place, then I just started making sure that I drilled down on my content, and that was where the whole process of getting coached by you guys began. I knew immediately that the very first thing I needed to do to become a great speaker once I knew there was a need was to get the coaching to elevate my game, and that was when I met you guys and got plugged in with Speak and Spell the Facebook group that has been incredibly supportive on my journey.

Alan:
So that was really what it started with. But then I took the same approach. I knew that I had to get reps and I knew that no matter how much I rehearsed in my living room, that I had to be in front of other human beings. And I reached out to that same group of people in the corporate world and said, “Would you be open to me giving a talk to your people for free? I don’t need anything in exchange. I just need a live audience and please know that I’m not going to use them as a guinea pig. I’m going to come in there and deliver this as if you’re paying me tens of thousands of dollars, but I need some practice and I need to get in front of people.”

Alan:
And these folks were incredibly welcoming and supportive, allowed me to do that. And then one thing started leading to another and I started to pick up some other business. Didn’t charge very much when I first started. And this is where I was at fault because I was playing the comparison game. I was comparing what a corporate audience would pay me versus what I was making in basketball, which was not a whole lot of money. So it seemed like a lot. “Wait, you’ll pay me $1,000 to come speak? Yeah, I’ll be there.” And now over time that I’ve realized that I’m probably adding more value than what I was asking in payment. I’ve been able to raise my fees significantly since I started. But I have never, and I’m still not afraid to go do free gigs to work on my craft. If I have an opening in my schedule and it’s an audience that I believe I can serve and it’s an opportunity for me to get better at what I’m doing, I take it.

Alan:
And I know over time those will become fewer and farther between because hopefully my schedule is so booked with paying gigs. But I’ve never turned my nose up at being able to speak for free or for a discounted rate because I look at it as an opportunity to serve and I look at it as an opportunity to practice and I want to put those two things in my bucket as often as possible.

Michael:
What did you need to do from a branding perspective to make that transition from athletic coaching to corporate speaking?

Alan:
I still use the title and nomenclature of performance coach. So really I consider, and I still do what I’m doing now, very similar to what I was doing before. The only thing that’s changed is the audience. Instead of my audience being either 15 to 16-year-old males playing basketball or their coaches, my audience is now folks in the corporate world. But the message is very, very similar. Now I take a lot of pride in being able to really fine tune the customized points and terminology when I’m going to go give a talk. But the general pillars are still in place. I mean, the Kobe story that I shared, I’ve shared that two youth basketball players, I’ve shared that to coaches in other countries, and I share that in the corporate space because even though it’s a basketball story about a basketball player, the message, the underlying message of not getting bored with the basics applies to just about anyone in any area of life.

Alan:
So much of what I was learning from these elite athletes and coaches is incredibly applicable to folks in the corporate space. And now it’s just my job to connect those dots and make sure there’s no disconnect that they can see with great clarity. Even if they don’t like basketball or watch basketball, they can see how this will apply to them. And I have to paint that picture and be able to say, “This is exactly how this story applies to your situation and here’s how you can execute it.”

Michael:
Did you change the way that you were positioning yourself online? Did you change the way you dressed? Were those kinds of things, part of your development process or are those things that you considered over time?

Alan:
Absolutely. And you guys had a major hand in that. I had to get out of a space where, I mean my normal attire was sneakers, some Jordans and a T-shirt because that was the gym environment. And I’m athletic. I’m moving around. I’m running four to five hour workouts and then had to make sure that I created a speaking brand that was going to be consistent with certainly who I am authentically, but also with the audience that I would now be speaking to.

Alan:
I know you’ve told this story a few times and it’s one that I always smile when I had met you guys at A-listers I had a pretty funky Mohawk type haircut and still to this day, I love the haircut. I thought it looked cool and I was never worried about whether people liked it or not cause they had plenty of people in my life that said, “That’s not a really good look.” And I just disregarded it. But I remember you and I having a very heartfelt conversation and I remember the way that you delivered it to me with such compassion, you basically said, “Hey Alan, you have the right to have your hair however you want, and I actually think it looks good, but I don’t think it’s in alignment with the brand that you’re trying to build.”

Alan:
And that really resonated with me. The way you worded that to me was different than anyone else because you weren’t coming at me as this is a preference. You were just saying, “Hey, I’ve got a pretty good feeling of who you’re trying to be, and in my professional opinion, this haircut is not in alignment with that.” We can go back to my filter is having a Mohawk bringing me closer to being the corporate speaker I want to be or further away. And at that epiphanal moment I realized it was taking me further away. And if you remember the day I got home from A-listers, I got my hair cut and went back to looking somewhat more normal and in alignment.

Alan:
But that was a perfect example of making sure that everything in my brand is in alignment with this speaker that I’m aspiring to become. And you know as well as I do now with how much stuff is out in the world on social and on digital, that people are perceiving us in a millisecond and, and making snap judgements even when they’ve never met us. And the fact that I could potentially have a haircut or dress in a way that was contradictory to what it was that I was trying to be and trying to teach, certainly wasn’t going to serve me well. So was glad to make those changes and very much thank you for caring enough to be able to offer that type of honest feedback to me.

Michael:
Oh, you’re welcome. Yeah, I want to just highlight for those who are listening, who have something about them from a style perspective that is very unique and is a big, bold, strong choice in your situation certainly, but in general. We would never suggest someone change something that is a big part of who they are if they feel that they need it.

Alan:
Correct.

Michael:
And that’s a little bit different. My question to you was similar to what we’ve been talking about earlier was, do we think this is going to help you transition into the corporate environment more or not? Because your whole brand overall wasn’t super funky.

Alan:
Right. Correct.

Michael:
You had a pretty clean cut kind of conservative look about you, the way you dressed and the way you moved around the world. But you just had this really funky hairstyle which seemed a little incongruent. And one of the things that we know about meeting planners and often decision makers in the corporate world who are not at the highest level of decision making but are still tasked with making decisions like who to bring in to speak to the employees at that company. They are often nervous about making these kind of decisions.

Alan:
Absolutely.

Michael:
If they’ve got 10 people to pick from, and really, of course they’ve got hundreds or thousands of people to pick from. But if they’ve narrowed it down to 10 people, one of the things that’s going through their mind is who’s the safest?

Alan:
Yes.

Michael:
Meaning how do I make sure that there are no problems that fall in my lap after this event. So if somebody tends to curse a lot in their speeches, well that’s a choice, and for some people that may be very unbrand and most people in the industry can think of a couple people that have built their entire brand on the F word which is perfectly fine. I don’t cast dispersions. I think there’s no one way to do this work and unless your whole brand is built around that thing that is potentially provocative, is it worth it? Because if I’m going to choose between two people and all things are equal, except one of them tends to curse a bit in their speeches, I might just pick the one who doesn’t because it’s just safer.

Alan:
Absolutely.

Michael:
And the same thing, that’s how I felt about the haircut. If they’re looking at three or four people, is it going to be, “Oh I want this guy because he’s got this funky haircut and he seems edgy and different or is that going to potentially interfere?” And when we were talking about it, I think both of us felt that actually, I think it may interfere because it’s not something that we need.

Alan:
Absolutely. I mean when you look at it, I mean we could use the haircut or the cursing. It’s very rare, at least in my opinion, that the haircut or cursing is going to get you a gig. It’s much more commonplace that either of those things could cause you to lose a gig and that was not something I was interested in. I was not so attached to that haircut that I’d be willing to lose out on speaking engagements because of it. So, yeah. I mean, I think the moral of that story is twofold, one, you need to be open to feedback from people that you care about and that care about you and you should be, well, want them to tell you the truth.

Alan:
I think anytime we insulate ourselves with “yes man”, that’s not a good thing. And for you also to care enough about me and my success to be able to make a suggestion like that, I was incredibly, and I’m still incredibly appreciative of because I mean, that’s beyond your job description. I paid for you to help me get better at the speaking craft. So when you do something like that, that shows me how invested you were into me as a human being and to me as a speaker to be able to say that. And I think when we can create open and honest and very truthful dialogue and welcome appropriate feedback and hold each other accountable and insulate ourselves with those types of people, there’s nowhere to go but up.

Michael:
Yeah. I take those kinds of conversations very seriously. Anytime I have a conversation like that with someone, I sit usually for about five or 10 minutes beforehand and take into consideration how that individual will respond or may respond. I can only make assumptions initially. And what my goal is, because my goal is always got to be in line with their agenda.

Alan:
Absolutely.

Michael:
It’s not my agenda. I’ve absolutely, makes no difference to me what someone’s hair looks like or what their clothes look like. But just to reiterate our work is about full self expression. We’re in no way suggesting that anyone should water themselves down, but we want to make sure that you’re showing up consistently. And so I think I might’ve said in that conversation, if you do want to keep the haircut, you might want to consider leaning into that kind of style more so that your whole brand is consistent with it. And because then your consistency is one of the things that builds trust. And so even if you may be different look different, dress different, sound different than the audiences you’re going to speak. If you’re consistent across the board, they’re more likely to listen to you than if they can’t figure out exactly where you’re coming from and what you’re about.

Alan:
Oh, for sure. And it’s funny, I look back on these last few years when I’ve done this and it has, it’s been a lot of self exploration. I mean, when I first got in, I had an idea of what I thought would be the best look for my brand and then that’s evolved. I had ideas on what I thought would be the best content and even that’s grown and evolved. So I think for any high performer to constantly be open for re-invention, to always be open to level up and to be able to tweak certain things and to never be too married to any one thing that you’re at least not open to exploring other alternatives.

Alan:
And I’m with you that for some people a certain look or a haircut is very in alignment with their brand and that changing it would actually be a mistake. So we’re certainly not talking to those folks. But generally speaking, we should all be willing to try certain things and see how it goes and then be able to evaluate it and then tweak accordingly. And as long as we’re always making these tweaks to slowly inch forward and get better, then we’re going to be moving in the right direction. It’s funny because now as I mentioned, I have most of my talks on film and I’ll go back and watch some of the ones in the early days and I’m sure you can appreciate. I mean, it almost makes my stomach cringe.

Alan:
I’m looking at this and I’m thinking, “Oh, this is awful.” But then I take a step back and I smile and I give myself some grace and I go, “At that moment in time, that was the best I was capable of doing. So I have nothing to feel bad about. And in fact, I should be a better speaker today than I was two years ago because I’m constantly working on my craft.” I’m going to give a keynote tomorrow close to your neck of the woods. I’ll be in Philly and I’m going to do the best that I’m capable of tomorrow. But I actually hope that two years from now I can look back on the talk I give tomorrow and go, “Man, that was not very good.” Because that would just mean that I’ve continued to heighten and raise my game and get better.

Alan:
I think one thing too that everyone listening to this needs to know, you want to strive for excellence and continue to level up. But don’t forget to give yourself some grace and some compassion and offer the same grace and compassion you’d probably give a loved one because many times we’re our own biggest critics and I find myself sometimes getting off stage and there was two or three minor things that I wish I would’ve done differently. And those are the first things that shoot in my mind when an essence, I did a pretty good job and I should be proud of my performance. But I immediately start thinking of, “Man, if I would have said that or if I would’ve done this, I would’ve got a bigger laugh.” So just making sure we’re always giving ourselves some grace and some compassion.

Michael:
That’s beautiful. That’s a beautiful note to end on. Alan Stein Jr. I’m sure a Alan Stein Sr. is very proud of you because you a good man and there are a lot of great people in the world, but great people are not always good people and you are a good person as well as a great person. So thank you so much for being here.

Alan:
Thank you so much for everything you’ve done for me, Michael. I appreciate you and Amy immensely.

Michael:
At the end of each episode of Steal the Show, we’re featuring a heroic public speaking alumni who is saving the world one speech at a time. This week we’re profiling Eliot Wagonheim, a lawyer who turned a speech about contracts into a relatable, memorable, and referable performance by taking off his clothes. Eliot has long been great with words, not just on paper, but on his feet, having honed his skills before judges, juries, arbiters, and fellow attorneys. As a result, he was often asked to speak. Yet on stage, he had a tendency to pace, so he tried to distract the audience by making fun of himself. Deep down though, he knew he wasn’t serving his audience as well as he could, so he came to HPS to upgrade his performance skills. That’s where he learned the value of theatricality, which he soon added to his speeches, including pantomiming, walking on a tight rope and rapping.

Michael:
Then came Superman. At least that’s what his audiences are calling it when he disrobed on stage. Now, to demonstrate to business owners that you don’t have to be a lawyer to understand contracts, Eliot takes the stage dressed like a buttoned up lawyer and soon takes off his jacket then his tie, then his dress shirt until he’s standing before them in khakis and an under armor shirt. Instead of narrating a dry lawyerly speech, he transforms into dressing like his audience to amplify his message. When word of his bit got around workshop, attendees started asking, “Are you going to do your Superman thing?” That’s when he knew he’d added something unique and memorable to his performance repertoire, and it’s on the way to becoming a signature bit.

Michael:
Eliot credits his dedication to performance for opening up a world of opportunities, including increasing his fees by 1000%. He swears that’s not hyperbole, it’s a real number. He’s even secured 18 workshops from one company, an engineering firm with branches across the country. Before HPS, Eliot was doing the usual legal work for the firm. Afterwards, he’s delivering educational content. That’s truly super.

Michael:
Thanks for listening to Steal the Show. I’m your host Michael Port. We record our episodes Heroic Public Speaking, HQ. Thanks for listening and learning how to be a performer in your spotlight moments. Make sure to reach out to us on Instagram and Facebook at Heroic Public Speaking and leave us a review on iTunes if you like the show. Until next time, keep thinking big about who you are and how you see the world. Bye for now.

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