120 Alison Levine on How to Scale Your Story to a Referable Speech

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On today’s episode, we talk about how to turn setbacks into wins with Alison Levine: an adventurer, mountaineer, New York Times bestselling author, and public speaker. Alison leveraged her experience climbing seven summits and skiing to both poles into a successful speaking career. Yet, other people have also climbed the world’s highest summits, and, unlike her, they didn’t famously turn back within 100 yards of Mount Everest’s summit. She realized that it wasn’t her life-changing experience as much as her message—that complacency kills and fear can propel you in the right direction—that makes her have a referable speech.

 

How You Can Steal the Show

  • Why you should treat every public speaking opportunity as your next big break, even after you’ve made it.
  • How we should view setbacks.
  • Connect with this amount of people for large professional impact.
  • Discover the value of translating the meaning of your experience for an audience.
  • Understand why your message matters more than your experience to book gigs.
  • Stand out from other speakers to get booked over and over.
  • Add a goal to get your speaker’s bureau (if you have one) more business.
  • Why you should be strategic about where you stand off stage.

 

Learn more about Alison. 

 

Browse More Episodes of Steal the Show 

Episode 115: Amy Port on Writing and Performing a Killer Keynote

Episode 097: How to live a good life onstage and off with Jonathan Fields

Episode 079: How to make a decision

 

Michael Port:
People often ask me how to increase their fees, and they want to break away from speaking for free. Now, if you want to be a professional speaker, of course having a fee is important. But that doesn’t mean that a free gig can’t be equally if not more valuable than a five-figure speech. And this statement isn’t just for new speakers. In fact, today’s guest shows us how a free experience can take you on a path that has the opportunity to have a larger financial impact.

I talked with Alison Levine, a history-making polar explorer, mountaineer, New York Times bestselling author and public speaker. Alison served as team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition climbing the highest peak on each continent, and skied to both the north and south poles, which fewer than 40 people in the world have achieved. Her success in extreme environments is noteworthy given that she has had three heart surgeries and suffers from Raynaud’s disease, which causes the arteries that feed her fingers and toes to collapse in cold weather leaving her at extreme risk frostbite.

In addition to having tackled some of the most challenging environments in the outdoors, Alison also spent time climbing the corporate ladder. She worked in the pharmaceutical and medical device industry, earned an MBA from Duke University, worked and served as deputy finance director for Arnold Schwarzenegger in his successful bid to become California’s governor, and she also serves as a senior fellow at the Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics at Duke University.

Alison leveraged her experience into a successful speaking career, yet other people have also climbed the world’s highest summits and unlike her, they didn’t famously turn back within 100 yards of Mount Everest summit. But she realized that it wasn’t her life changing experience as much as her message that complacency kills and fear can propel you in the right direction. That makes her have a referral speech. Alison Levine, it’s Michael Port. Are you still there?

Alison Levine:
I am still here.

Michael Port:
Good. I just want to make sure you weren’t on the top of a mountain somewhere, because who knows where you could be because you’re a mountaineer and a polar explorer who survived all sorts of extreme conditions. So sub-zero temperatures. I cry when it’s below 32 so I don’t even know how you do it. You’ve been high up on Mount Everest, you’ve survived avalanches and dangerous storms. So here’s my first question, what was it about your climbs up multiple mountains that made you think this experience has parallels to the business world?

Alison Levine:
Well gosh, there are so many of them and it was just… First of all, I think the very first experience I ever had, which was on Mount Kilimanjaro, which is not a technical mountain. It’s a mountain that probably many of your listeners have climbed in the past, but I always thought, “All right, it’s over 19,000 feet. It’s exposure to altitude for the first time and I wonder how I would do on a mountain like that.” And I went there and I thought how am I going to tackle this? What am I going to do? I’ve never been on a mountain before. I don’t even own the right gear or the right clothing. I ended up borrowing everything I needed from friends in order to get there.

Alison Levine:
I used to all my frequent flyer miles to buy a ticket to Tanzania, got to the base of the mountain, hired a local guide and porters at the base the mountain, started the climb, and I still didn’t know really how I was going to get through this climb. And what I realized was it was so similar to experiences I had in the business world where you don’t have to have it all figured out ahead of time, you just have to be able to navigate through the unknown and navigate through the storms when they hit and realize that those difficult times are temporary. And if you can just keep putting one foot in front of the other, you’ll eventually get to where you want to be.

Alison Levine:
And I thought about that during my business career in corporate America and I figured out that that worked for me in the mountains as well. And so that’s when I figured out well if these things that helped me in business, helped me in the mountains and I bet there’s things in the mountains that helped me in business and there were… It was similar and that you’re in unpredictable environments that are changing very rapidly. They’re similar in the fact that you can come up with a plan but whatever plan you came up with it’s going to be outdated as soon as it’s finished because you’re in these environments that are constantly shifting and changing.

Alison Levine:
It was just figuring out that there are going to be really tough times. There are going to be really low lows, but you can’t look at those setbacks as defeat. When you get turned back from the top of a mountain you can’t just think, “Okay, I’m defeated. I’m never going to be able to climb another mountain again.” You have to look at it as, “All right. I didn’t get it on this one. I feel this defeat, but I’m going to use this to harness my energy to be better on the next one.” And so those are all things I really think people in the business world can think about as well to help them in their careers.

Michael Port:
Yeah, it’s interesting. You may recall when we work together, we spend a day together and I said to you at one point, I said, it’s really just lovely working with you because sometimes when we work with somebody, often we’re asking or encouraging them to make big choices which means often they’ll need to change some of the things that they have been doing or thinking of doing and it can be provocative because it means either more effort or more work or more perceived risk, but when we work together no matter what we addressed together you just had this bring it on kind of attitude. You just, “That’s great. Yes. Oh, I love that. Oh, we could try that. Oh, that’s fantastic.” And it was just a joy from my perspective. But I’m wondering is that something that you feel like you’ve always had or did you cultivate that overtime?

Alison Levine:
No. I’ll tell you where I learned that. I really learned to embrace that type of attitude during my Everest expedition because you have this goal. When you’re going to climb Everest, and so the goal is get to the top of the mountain, get back down alive. Not just get to the top, but get back down alive is the goal. And I assumed before I really started researching this mountain, because I had been on smaller mountains in the past where you just climbed from base camp to camp one, to camp two, to camp three, whatever. That’s how you get to the summit. You just move up the mountain along the path.

Alison Levine:
Well, that’s not how you climb a big 8,000 meter peak whether it’s Everest or one of the other 14 8,000-meter peaks that exist in the world. You climb part way up and then you have to come back down to base camp again. And then you have to climb up a little bit higher and then you come all the way back down to your base camp again. And then you climb up even higher. You go to 24,000 feet and then you climb back down to base camp again before you ever attempt to your summit bid.

Alison Levine:
And the reason you have to keep coming back down to base camp is because the altitude takes a toll on your body and as you get higher up on the mountain your body is getting weaker. So you have to come back down in between these interim camps to rehydrate, regain some strength, get enough food and nutrients in your body so that’s what allows you to kind of come back down and regain strength.

Alison Levine:
So initially I thought, “Wow, this is going backwards. I’m coming back down to base camp. I’m losing ground. This feels defeating. This feels like I’m moving in the wrong direction. I need to go to the summit. Now, I have to keep going back down to base camp in between all these higher camps on the mountain. And what I realized was that backing up is what allowed me to become stronger so then when it was time to go for the summit I was ready. And I have actually a trademarked phrase that I use in my speech, which is that backing up is not the same as backing down.

Alison Levine:
So we have this notion that progress has to happen in one particular direction, but that’s really not the case. Sometimes you are going to have to go backwards for a bit in order to eventually get to where you want to be. So that’s why I have that attitude which is that changing direction is fine even when you feel like you’re going backwards. It’s okay. You’re still making progress.

Michael Port:
It’s a wonderful metaphor for the process of rehearsal because one of the things we see is sometimes people who don’t have a background in either competitive sports or adventure type activities like you do or they haven’t been in a creative field, they hold on to their time very tightly, and they feel that if they use that time to create something then they don’t want to let it go. They say, “But I spent two hours on it.”

Alison Levine:
Right.

Michael Port:
And they may not be as concerned about whether or not the thing is working, but they’re just more concerned about the time they spent on it or the the mess that often exists in the rehearsal process where you’re not even sure which way to go. I imagine it’s sort of like when the the wind and the snow is whipping all around you you can’t see two feet in front of you, but if you have a process to keep putting one foot in front of the other eventually you’re going to get where you want to go, and rehearsal is a little bit like that. It’s often a messy process. You can’t see exactly you know what the peak is going to look like, but if we enjoy that process and keep putting one foot in front of the other, we’re going to produce something quite remarkable.

Alison Levine:
100% and I really thought about that when we were working together because I’m working on this. I’ve been doing the same speech for basically almost 12 years now, and I need a new speech. And so in creating this new speech, I just didn’t even… I thought well, my old speech it took me 12 years and I really like where it is. Oh my god, I got to start all over with a new speech? And is it going to take me another 12 years to get it to where it’s good enough? That’s really a why I wanted to work with you and Amy and your team to see if we could move that process along a bit.

Alison Levine:
At first, it was kind of awkward because I thought, “I know this doesn’t all sound good and it doesn’t really flow together. I don’t know. I put it together. It sounded okay before, but now that I’m saying it out loud to you guys, I don’t feel like it goes together, and it felt messy and awkward and disconnected.” But through that process at the end, I was able to come up with sort of this outline that I really liked in this order of events, and the right sequence for the content that really made sense to me.

Alison Levine:
And it took me a couple of days after we’d work together to get it to that point, but had I not worked with you guys, I think I would still be at that awkward struggling stage where I just felt like I don’t even know where the hell to go with this right now. And it’s okay to feel like that, but it sure is nice to have a team around you to help pull you in the right direction.

Michael Port:
I imagine that you don’t climb these mountains by yourself.

Alison Levine:
No. I have been to mountains by myself in the past and I learned that I never ever want to do that again. I much prefer to be climbing with the team and then on my own.

Michael Port:
Why?

Alison Levine:
So there’s obvious reasons and there’s non-obvious reasons. The obvious reasons of course are well, if something happens to you, there’s no one there to help you. If you fall, if you become injured, if you become incapacitated, if you begin to suffer from cerebral edema or pulmonary edema, which are deadly forms of altitude sickness, there is no one there to help you. So that seems obvious. But what might be less obvious are the psychological aspects of climbing alone. And when you are in a remote extreme environment, your mind can go to a very dark place, and emotions are very much amplified.

Alison Levine:
So, yes, positive emotions are amplified but so are negative emotions. And the feeling of loneliness, and the feelings of doubt. And sometimes even the best climbers will have a tough day on the mountain where you need people around you to be your cheerleaders and to know that people are pulling for you and that they want you to succeed. And sometimes a few kind words to someone, a few words of support can change an entire outcome for somebody, and for an entire team.

Alison Levine:
I’ve seen people who were… It seemed hell-bent on quitting an expedition and going home just because they became incredibly homesick or their mind was filled with self-doubt or they had a bad day on the mountain and they were unsure of their skills going forward. And they just also were afraid, afraid of the unknown. It’s hard to admit that we’re scared, but these environments can indeed be very scary. And sometimes you just need somebody to just hold your hand and be like, “You know what, we’re going to freaking do this together and we’re going to take every step together. We’re going to do it as a team and I’m not going to do this without you.”

Alison Levine:
Sometimes just that support that you can lend to somebody can really turn things around for them. And I like to be that person that needs the support. I like to be the person that lends that support, but I’ve also been in the situation where I have been the person that needed the support. So that’s another reason why I like to climb with a team.

Michael Port:
Were you always comfortable asking for support or is this something that you’ve developed over time through your expeditions?

Alison Levine:
No. I was not comfortable asking for support because I grew up in a very tough love family where it was no whining, no crying, no complaining and you just were expected to suck it up and tough it out, and deal with your circumstances. And there’s a lot of good that comes from that. It makes you resilient, it makes you independent.

Michael Port:
That’s pretty much the opposite of my family. If you were a little upset about something, you’d be like, “Here, have something to eat. It’s okay. We can talk about it.” I could have used a little bit more of your parents.

Alison Levine:
Well, there’s probably a happy medium in between the two of our families that would be the ideal situation. But I just grew thinking that was a sign of weakness if you needed help, if you asked for assistance, if you admitted that you were struggling that was a sign of weakness. From helping me create this new speech about my South Pole expedition that on this expedition I was the slowest, weakest member of my team, and it shocked the hell out of me because I trained as hard as I could possibly train. But I don’t think I could have gotten through that expedition if it had not been for people on my team being so willing to help me.

Alison Levine:
And they were willing to help me before I asked for help. But I thought, gosh, if I had asked for help sooner, it would have saved me several days of suffering for sure. Look, I don’t mind when other people ask for help. So that’s what I have to think about when I want to ask for help. I don’t mind when someone comes to me. I kind of feel flattered that they see me as a trusted adviser they can come to for help. I’m flattered that they see me as someone who is a collaborative person, they view as a collaborative person or someone maybe they view as a mentor that they can come to for help. So I like that. So then I just had to think, “Well, why the hell would I not ask for help. When I’m so thrilled when other people come to me, why should I be hesitant to go to other people?”

Michael Port:
Between 1998 and 2010, if our research is correct, you completed 10 summits including Everest and you mentioned Kilimanjaro, and you served as the team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition. Yet during that time, you also launched a successful speaking career. I think speaking upwards of 250 times a year and published a New York Times bestselling book called On the Edge. So what skills did you already have to help you start creating content and performing on the stage, and what did you have to learn along the way?

Alison Levine:
Yeah. Well, so as you mentioned. It’s correct. During that time, I completed the adventure grand slam which is climbing the Seven Summits. There’s actually eight of those summits in the Seven Summits, long story. I’m skiing the both poles, but I did dozens of other expeditions during that time as well. So completed dozens of expeditions during that time. And I did launch a speaking career, but about a hundred speeches a year. So 250. God, I don’t know how the hell anybody would do 250 because I feel like just doing a hundred speeches a year, I’m running on fumes.

Michael Port:
Good. Because I was a little worried there. When I saw that number there I went, “Oh my god.”

Alison Levine:
I don’t know where that number came from.

Michael Port:
Well, who knows.

Alison Levine:
I don’t know. I feel even if it’s-

Michael Port:
Let’s create a myth. Alison Levine, 250 speeches a year. A legend.

Alison Levine:
Oh my gosh. 10 a week are just to myself. So it is hard. So I’ll tell you that even doing a hundred speeches a year, it feels very, very difficult to balance life with that. And what makes a little bit easier for us is that we don’t have kids so I don’t feel like I’m neglecting any one at home or not able to make it to the important events in my kids’ lives. Although, I do have god-kids and I really… They’re so important to me and being an active part of their life is really important to me. They’re in Arizona and I try to make it to the special events, and the graduations, and things like that. But it is hard when you travel as much as I do to carve out time for climbing, carve out time for friends, carve out time for family. But you have to, have to, have to make a conscious effort to do that.

Alison Levine:
And look, do 100 speeches a year might sound like the dream for some people in this industry, but I really want to stress that when you go to your grave, being known as a super-busy speaker should not be your goal. That should not be how you want to be remembered and if you’re just focusing on speaking and look, I love this career, and I know that people listening to your podcast love the career and are so passionate about it, and want to get into it or are already into it and doing well in it.

Alison Levine:
But please remember at the end of your lifetime going to your grave just being known as one of the busiest speakers on the circuit, that’s not what you want. You want to be known as the person that was there for people when they needed you. You want to be known as the person that educated people and entertained people and shared your passion for what your craft is. That part comes from speaking for sure, but along with that you’ve got to carve out the time for the people in your life that were important to you because I would much rather impact one person on a super-deep level than impact thousands and thousands and thousands of people that are going to forget me as soon as they walk out of the room.

Alison Levine:
And hopefully people don’t forget you when you walk out of the room. That’s your goal as a speaker for them to remember you forever. But I’m just saying don’t forget that the audience… Of course the audience is super important, but you’re probably never going to see most of those people again. So my point is do not forget to make the time for the people who are truly important to you in your life and that you have a personal connection with it.

Alison Levine:
And that is what has kind of helped me over the years. And I’ve had to scale back on the expeditions, and I’ve had to scale back on other things. I am full-time on the speaking circuit right now, and I have been since about 2006. It sounds glamorous but it’s also incredibly difficult at times.

Michael Port:
Yeah. It sure is.

Alison Levine:
I do love it and I do appreciate it, but I mean there are some really, really hard times when you’re doing 100 speeches a year and you’re missing birthdays, you’re missing weddings. You’re missing funerals. How does that feel? I mean, so it’s hard. You’re going to have to… There’s sacrifice that comes with everything and that’s just some of the the dark parts of the career, but the bright parts of the career hopefully make up for all of that.

Michael Port:
We talked a little bit before about loneliness and how it really can be devastating psychologically. And many speakers are often very lonely when they’re on the road because you don’t have deep connections with a group of a thousand people that you speak to for an hour. And then you’re just back in your hotel room. So how do you manage that?

Alison Levine:
Okay. So that has been a huge challenge for me and has sent me into some pretty deep bunks in the past because you’re on the road all the time, you’re on a plane by yourself, you’re in a hotel room by yourself. Like you said, you go on stage, you speak to a thousand people or a couple thousand people, or 50 people or a hundred people or whatever the number is, but you don’t really connect with them. You walk in and you meet the CEO, and you shake the event planner’s hand, and you say hi to the A/V team. But you don’t really have an opportunity to connect on a deep level with these people.

Alison Levine:
So for me the phone. It is the phone. And I have friends in this business that I get on the phone with when we’re both in our hotel rooms and we talked for two hours, three hours at a time sometimes. My friend Carrie Lorenz who I believe you know or know of.

Michael Port:
Right, yeah. Of course.

Alison Levine:
She’s on the speaking circuit and every bit as busy as I am if not more. And we talk on the phone all the time when we’re both in our hotel room and we talk for hours, but we only talk when we’re on the road because we know that our time at home is so incredibly valuable.

Michael Port:
Oh, that’s interesting.

Alison Levine:
I typically don’t talk on the phone when I’m at home or schedule anything when I’m at home because my time with my husband is… The hours I get with him are few and far between and I want to maximize that, and I want to maximize the time that I have with friends and other family members. And so when I’m home I typically won’t do phone calls, I will only do phone calls including conference calls with clients when I’m on the road.

Michael Port:
Oh, that’s interesting. That’s really, really fascinating.

Alison Levine:
Yeah. And it’s funny because I typically won’t even do podcasts when I’m home, but I love you guys so much so I’m home today, but I really wanted to do this podcast so I was super excited about it, but typically I say no to any podcast or anything that requires me to schedule my time when I’m home. I will do it all day long on the road, but not when I’m at home.

Michael Port:
Well, thank you. And our listeners thank you too because I know people were really excited to hear that you were coming on the show. So let me ask you a question about preparation, because I’d like to think that preparing for a speech is like preparing to climb a mountain. I mean, you don’t just throw on some shoes and a jacket and head out there.

Alison Levine:
Right.

Michael Port:
So how do you prepare for your speeches? What’s your process? What’s worked for you and what have you learned that doesn’t work for you?

Alison Levine:
Okay. So one thing I get in my head before every single speech, and this is going to sound really extreme, but I really… If there’s one thing people take away from this podcast today that I’ve shared, I want them to remember this. You treat every opportunity onstage as if it’s going to be your one big break. And that is my mindset before every single speech. Treat every opportunity onstage like it is going to be, could possibly be your one big break because you just never know.

Alison Levine:
And for me I ended up breaking into the business that way. That’s what happened for me. I had been trying for about a year and a half to get on any speakers bureau’s radar and cold calling people, and nobody wanted to talk to me. This is back when people used the phone back in 2005-2006 when people made phone calls instead of just email or text or social media. But I couldn’t get anyone to respond to emails or phone calls and nobody was interested in talking to me.

Alison Levine:
And long story short, I finally got a phone call from a speakers bureau that that needed somebody to fill in for a speaker at the last minute. It was 5,000 people in Vegas, Mandalay Bay, the speaker canceled the day before. I ended up getting on at 10:30 pm flight the night before I got to my hotel at 1:00 in the morning, stayed up the whole night to prepare a speech for this audience, delivered this speech, ended up getting a standing ovation and miraculously ended up as the highest rated speaker of the conference.

Alison Levine:
So the meeting planner came up to me afterward and he said, “Oh my god. Who are you?” He goes, “Who are you? I’ve never heard of you before.” And I said, “Well, of course you’ve never heard of me. I’m not a famous person. Nobody has ever heard of me.” I said, “I wouldn’t expect you to.” And he said, “Okay, but hang on.” He’s like, “You killed it.” He’s like, “You got a standing ovation.” He said, “How come no speakers bureau has ever mentioned your name to me before?” And then I just came clean and I said, “Listen, I’ve been trying to break in this business for almost two years and I can’t get anybody to give me the time of day.”

Alison Levine:
And I said, “I can’t get speakers bureaus to return my phone calls. I can’t get meeting planners return my phone calls.” And he said, “Look, I book more speakers in just about any meeting planner in this industry. I’m going to call every bureau that I work with and I’ll tell them what you did here for me today.” And he did. He made those phone calls for me and then the bureau started reaching out to me. That was my big break.

Michael Port:
That just gave me chills.

Alison Levine:
I think about that experience every single time before I go on stage because you just never know. And they had all kinds of… The other speakers were Cal Ripken Jr. who’s famous baseball player and they had Jim Lovell from Apollo 13. So they had famous speakers that were $30,000, $50,000. And then I think they booked me for like 10 grand or something like that at the time. It was even my first big paid speaking engagement to me that was so much money.

Alison Levine:
And it is a lot of money. It’s still a lot of money. That’s a huge amount of money. I think getting $1,000 for a speech, you should be proud of yourself. Getting $500 for speech you should be proud of yourself. This is a lot of money for a speech, but for me at the time that was just a huge amount of money too like it should be for anybody. I couldn’t believe I got paid in and then I couldn’t believe the reception I got from the crowd. And then the fact when they got the speaker evaluations back that I ended up being the highest rated speaker.

Alison Levine:
So that really built my confidence and made me realize every opportunity, it could be your one big break. And so what I thought about before I got on stage as I thought this audience is expecting. So they were expecting… This is back when the show, The Apprentice was really big back in like the mid-2000s. The show, The Apprentice was very highly rated show and there was this woman Carolyn Kepcher who was Donald Trump’s sidekick on the show. She was the blonde woman that was in the boardroom with him. She was the executive vice president of the Trump organization at the time.

Alison Levine:
She was the speaker that canceled the day before. So what I did is I just thought in my head, “Okay, what am I going to do?” So this audience is not disappointed that Carolyn kept her as a no-show.” So I stayed up the entire night. I did not go to bed for one minute and I created this presentation about being a clutch player, and being the person that comes through when people are counting on you. And I basically kind of mocked Carolyn Kepcher, and pulled, “you’re fired” video from the TV show. I had “you’re fired” video into my slides, and I photoshopped Donald Trump and Carolyn Kepcher into my slides, and I kind of mocked her in a sense for not showing up. Not in a mean way, but I did poke fun at her a little bit.

Alison Levine:
And I just talked to the audience about if you can be the person that comes through when people are counting on you. That’s what’s going to help you create trust and loyalty with your clients. And so I remember that whole experience and every time before I get on stage I think about who is my audience. What can I do to deliver something to them so that when they walk out of this room, they think there is nowhere else I would have rather been than at this conference today because then it’s a win for the client.

Alison Levine:
The people think it’s the greatest that the speakers are great. They tend to think the conference is great. If the speakers are crappy, they tend to think the conference is crappy. So you need to come through for that event planner and that client that put their faith in you and hired you. So I’m just thinking before every event these people are giving me an hour of their time that they are never, ever going to get back.

Alison Levine:
Time is our most valuable resource. I better damn well deliver something in this hour or 45 minutes that’s going to make them think that they were so glad they were in that room today and so glad that they paid the money to come to that conference. So that is my thinking, that is how I prepare. So it’s not as much about like going through the slides or rehearsing because when you do the same talk, I’ve been doing the same talk a hundred times year for 10 years. So I don’t need to rehearse the talk, and I know you always say, “Oh, we can never rehearse too much.” But I rehearse four, five times a week in front of a live audience.

Michael Port:
At your point, I don’t think I can do much rehearsal. Yeah, right.

Alison Levine:
So I’m doing it all the time. So for me the preparation is thinking about who is this audience? How can I be most valuable to them, and that’s my preparation process.

Michael Port:
Well, you know what this makes me think of? You did a TEDx Midwest talk in 2012. And in it, you shared one of your mantras which is that complacency will kill you.

Alison Levine:
Yes.

Michael Port:
And that fear is a normal human emotion, but complacency certainly out in the mountain can kill you.

Alison Levine:
Yes.

Michael Port:
It seems to me that this is one of the things that often gets in the way for speakers.

Alison Levine:
Yes.

Michael Port:
So there’s two different camps. Some speakers have a lot of fear and so they hold themselves back. They don’t make big choices. They don’t go after what they want in a big way and they’re often looking for approval rather than results. And then there are some that don’t have a lot of fear, but get very complacent. They think, “Yeah, I’m pretty good. I got it. I’m good.” I don’t know what my question in there is but it did make me think of that TEDx that you did and that mantra of yours, that complacency will kill you and it showed everything that you’re illustrating demonstrates how much you put into any moment where you’re there to deliver.

Alison Levine:
And I’m so glad you brought up that complacency will kill you because that is such an important thing to think about in this business especially you could look at someone like me and say, “Wait, you’ve been doing the same speech for 10 years, 100 times a year. Isn’t that complacency? No, it’s not because I do think about how am I going to tweak this?” And I don’t change the slides but I think about who is this audience, what are their challenges and I throw in extra talking points to make sure that it resonates with them, to make sure that they feel like I created this talk just for them.

Alison Levine:
So while I have been talking about the American Women’s Everest Expedition and the failures, and coming back from that failure and achieving success down the road. I have been using those talking points for the same 10 years. I avoid complacency by making sure that I tweak it so that it really sinks to people. And when someone says to me, “I feel like you created that talk just for us. I feel like you were talking right to me, just to me,” then I feel like I’m really hitting the bull’s eye with it.

Alison Levine:
You can’t become complacent if you just think, “Oh, well. I have a great speech, so I get a standing ovation. I get great reviews so I’m just going to stand up, and I’m just going to keep giving that speech.” So the same thing. That can lead to complacency, believe it or not because every audience is different. And things that are important to them are going to be different. And so for me that is how I make sure that I don’t become complacent is thinking about it in terms of the audience. Who is this audience? How can I help them? How can I make sure that I deliver something that is valuable to them.

Alison Levine:
So it’s not about me, it’s about them. And if you keep the audience in mind, I think that really helps you avoid complacency. And look, I think you mentioned a thing about fear is just a normal human emotion. I really want people to remember that and not beat themselves up if they feel super scared or super intimidated because you can use fear to your advantage. Fear, I think it keeps you alert, aware of everything going on around you. Don’t think of fear as a negative emotion. Just think of it as a normal emotion. And if you’re feeling fear, it’s good. It means you’re human and it means you’re paying attention. So pat yourself on the back for feeling fear instead of beating yourself up for it.

Michael Port:
Yeah. To use the fear to move in a progressive direction.

Alison Levine:
Yeah, to propel you in the right direction.

Michael Port:
So what advice would you give someone who’s experienced a life-changing event and now wants to share the lessons learned on the stage and in books? What should they do to share that in a way that will make the audience feel as you said that you’re talking just to them and not just about yourself, and what should they avoid?

Alison Levine:
Oh, I’m so glad that you brought this up because this is so important. So I mean I probably get approached by speakers almost every day who wants some advice about this speech that they’ve crafted and they’ll send me some information on them and maybe a clip from the speech. And sometimes the information is too focused on them rather than being focused on the audience. And sometimes what could be a big deal in your life might not seem like a big deal to other people in their lives.

Alison Levine:
And so you have to be able to translate your experience into something that will resonate with the audience. When I was crafting my speech I remembered listening to some Olympians in the past. When I worked in corporate America and we’d have these Olympic athlete speakers, and I think, “Wow, wow. We’re going to hear from this Olympian. This is going to be amazing.” And I would just get an audience and I was sitting in. I was so excited to hear from them.

Alison Levine:
And I would listen to some of these athletes just talking about themselves and their accomplishments, and how great it felt to win a medal at the Olympics. And they would talk about how they spent their whole life since they were six years old. They were so disciplined and their family moved them to the Olympic Village so they could train and they’ve always had this special diet and been focused, and committed.

Alison Levine:
I’m listening to this speech saying, “Well, good for you. But I want to hang myself in my cube every day at work. How does anything that you went through apply to me?” And I just thought, “Good for you, but I’m not you. I haven’t been focused on something since I was six years old. I didn’t get to have a special trainers and nutritionists and coaches. I’m doing this on my own. I’m out there fighting on the battlefield every day on my own just trying to get through this freaking pile of work on my desk, and make sure my boss is happy, and the people that report to me are happy. How is anything you said going to help me?”

Alison Levine:
So that really has stayed with me and so I want people to understand that you may have had this incredible accomplishment or this life-changing experience if you want to get on stage and talk about it, if you want people to hire you to come on stage and talk about it. You have to put it in terms that apply to the audience and that will give them some solid takeaways and will help them become better at something. So just talking about. I mean, my god, how many people out there are battling cancer. What a battle that is, and what a scary thing that is, and what a life-changing event that is for people. But no one is probably going to pay you to stand up on stage and talk about battling cancer because that’s your battle and it’s an important one, and we sympathize with you, and we cheer for you, and we want you to succeed, but how’s that going to help us? Because that’s what you get paid for.

Alison Levine:
You get paid to be of value to the audience. So take your struggles, take your achievements, take your dreams and translate them into something that will appeal to the audience. You got to be able to say, after an audience hears me, this is what they’re going to walk away with, A, B, C, and D, or whatever three points or five points. This is how I’m going to make the audience better. And just talking about your struggles doesn’t make the audience better. So that’s what I really need.

Alison Levine:
People say like, “Oh, I fought breast cancer, and then I climb Mount Everest, and I want to be a speaker.” And I’m thinking those are two amazing things. You got to give me more than that. You got to give me a lot more than that. It’s got to be what are you going to share with the audience that it’s going to be life-changing for them.

Michael Port:
Yeah. It’s a great point. Sometimes what we find in newer speakers is they can be anxious that they haven’t done things like you’ve done. They haven’t climbed all these mountains and on both the poles. They don’t have that kind of story to rely on, and it’s okay.

Alison Levine:
It is 100% okay. Look, I don’t know if this is going to make people feel better or worse but I’ll tell you, I’m calling these speakers bureaus, I’m calling these event planners. I was like, “Yeah, I was the team captain for the first American Women’s Everest Expedition blah, blah, blah,” and they were like, “Okay. We have Everest climbers on our roster. We’re just not really interested. And plus we didn’t make it. We didn’t make it to the top.” They’re like, “So you try to climb Mount Everest and you didn’t make it. There’s a lot of people that have done that. We got people that actually climb Mount Everest. So look, have you cut off a body part or anything like that?” Like if you… We got… Because I mean Aron Ralston-

Michael Port:
No. But I’ll cut off one right now if you say right now.

Alison Levine:
Right, exactly. Aron Ralston is a friend of mine and he was featured in that movie 127 Hours. He cut off his arm in Blue John Canyon in Utah when he got trapped under a boulder. Amazing story. He’s an incredible speaker. But he was out there too and he was doing well on the speaking circuit so people were saying to me, “We got this guy who cut up his arm. Can you beat that?” And I was like, “Okay. A leg. I’ve got two legs. I don’t need both. I could cut off one.”

Alison Levine:
And so my point is even having climbed Mount Everest didn’t get me in the door because I wasn’t approaching them with messaging, I was approaching them with an experience, an accomplishment even though we didn’t make it. I was like, “Oh, look. We’re the first American Women’s Everest Expedition and that’s got to count for something.” It didn’t open any doors for me, and so what I want to stress here is that it’s not about accomplishments, it’s about your messaging.

Michael Port:
So talk to me more about the business because bureaus love you. There are not too many speakers that I haven’t met over the years, and then not too many people from the bureaus that I haven’t met. And one of the things that I know for sure is that bureaus love you. So I could venture a guess, but I’d like to hear it from you why do you think that the bureaus love you so much and what can folks do to get bureaus to pay more attention to them to send them out, to submit them?

Alison Levine:
So there’s a particular mindset that you have to have when you work with bureaus that’s really different from when you’re booking business directly. And look, there’s plenty people they don’t need bureaus, they’re doing a great business on their own. Awesome. They’re great at marketing, they’re great at sales. I suck at all of that. I need bureaus. I don’t like to sell myself. I am not good at it. So I’ve been represented exclusively by Keppler speakers for about 10 years. And before that I worked with all the bureaus and I still do about 20… Of my hundred events I do probably 20 of them are co-brokered by other bureaus.

Alison Levine:
So I’ve been Keppler’s number one speaker for 10 years. And when I say that, I want to make it clear that when I say I’m their number one most booked speaker, it doesn’t mean I am their best speaker because I am certainly not. It doesn’t mean I bring in the most revenue because my fee is $32,000. They have speakers that are 50,000 or $75,000. There are also speakers that could probably be doing 100 speeches a year that don’t want to. They have kids, they’ve got other priorities. They’ve got other jobs that don’t allow them to do that. So when I say I’m their number one speaker, it doesn’t mean, “Oh, yeah. I’m the best speaker.”

Alison Levine:
All that means is they book me more than they booked their other speakers. That is all that that metric means is that they booked me more than they booked other speakers. And the reason I believe that they book me more, and I’m also their most co-brokered speaker of all their exclusives is because the mindset I have in working with the bureau is it’s really specific in terms of what my goals are, because my goals change when I’m being booked through a bureau. So obviously your goal when you… You think as a speaker I’m getting paid. My goal is to go out there and kill it, and for the audience to love me, and that’s my goal.

Alison Levine:
And if the audience loves me then the meeting planner is going to love me and everything’s going to be great. Yes, most of time that’s part of it, but in working with the bureau my goal changes and my number-one goal when working with the bureau is to get more business for that bureau. And there are a lot of things that go into getting more business for the bureau.

Michael Port:
You need to say that again. We need to highlight that. Say that one more time.

Alison Levine:
My number one goal is to get more business for the bureau. And these bureau agents work on… Most them are 100% commission, so every single deal that they get is a big deal for them. And the bureau itself takes a percentage of that commission, and then the agent gets what’s left over. So you might think, “Oh, well, if I just do a good job on stage that’s all I need to worry about.” No, you can do a good job on stage, and you can get a standing ovation but you might have also may be offended some people in the audience with an off-color joke or something.

Alison Levine:
You may have said something that made one of the executives cringe that you don’t realize the audience thought it was funny, but maybe one of the executives cringed. You may have pissed off the A/V team. You may have been difficult for the meeting planner, and you know what if you get a standing ovation, but you are difficult for that meeting planner, look, no sweat off your back you might think, right? Well, yeah. I’m going to cash my check. I got paid. I did what I was supposed to do. But that meeting planner may never book another speaker through that bureau again because you were difficult to work with.

Alison Levine:
And now maybe that meeting planner is going to book their next speaker through another bureau agent, and you have now just blown it for the bureau that got you that business. And maybe now you have just blown a mortgage payment for that agent who booked you for that talk because you didn’t want to come down early for the A/V check or you didn’t want to come down and say hi, to the VIPs during their morning coffee session. It’s so tempting to just be like, “No, I can’t. I don’t want to go to the breakfast, and I don’t want to come early for the A/V check, and I don’t want to stay after for an hour to do meet and greet.”

Alison Levine:
Every time you say no, there’s probably another speaker at that same event that said yes. And maybe that other speaker was booked through a different bureau, and now that other bureau is going to get the business, and you have blown it for the agent that booked you. And I don’t think that many people really think about it in those terms, but if you just think my job is to get more business for this bureau so that the meeting planner comes back and says, “Oh my gosh. We loved Joe Smith so much. He was such a great speaker. And on top of that he did meet and greet after the speech, and he stayed around for selfies, and he did a Q&A session. He was so great to the A/V team. We just loved having so much… Who can we get that’s just like him for next year?”

Alison Levine:
Now, you’ve hooked up that agent and they’re going to get more business. But just please keep in mind that every time you say no, every time you say… When the meeting planner says, “Please dress in business attire,” and you go, “I don’t dress in business attire. My thing is I wear ripped up jeans and high tops and a baseball hat. That’s my thing. That’s what I’m going to wear.” Okay, you be you, but you may have just cost an agent some business. So please think about that. Please keep that in mind. Of course killing it on stage is part of that too. That’s how you get… If you’re crappy on stage, you might lose business for that agent too. But my point is just being great on stage is not necessarily enough to make sure that that agent gets more business.

Michael Port:
Yeah, it seems to me that being great on stage is par for the course.

Alison Levine:
That’s expected. That’s a given. You kill it on stage like that should just be a given.

Michael Port:
Yeah, it’s your job.

Alison Levine:
That is your job a hundred percent. And you have to assume every speaker at this conference is going to kill it on stage. Every single speaker is going to kill it on stage. What am I going to do to separate myself from the pack since everybody’s getting a standing ovation or everybody’s the best speaker they’ve ever heard and everybody’s a 10 out of 10 on stage? What am I going to do to separate myself and make myself stand out?

Michael Port:
Yeah. So do you do work to try to find opportunities for other Keppler speakers and do you work to try to develop or produce spin-offs to get back over for Kepler to work the deal for you?

Alison Levine:
Yes. If the agent is from another bureau, I recommend one of their exclusive speakers to this client so that I can make sure that the business stays with them. And that’s things that co-brokering, for people that aren’t familiar with co-brokering that is when a bureau books a speaker that is exclusive with another bureau. So when another bureau books me whether it’s executive speakers or Premiere, or BigSpeak or Gotham or whoever it is, when they book me, they have to split their commission with Keppler.

Alison Levine:
So right off the bat they’re not getting paid their whole commission. So can you imagine then if the spin-off business from that event goes to Keppler instead of back to them? So I want to make sure the business goes back to them. When I send my little thank-you note to the client afterward, I copy the agent and I say, “Thank you so much. It was such a great experience, blah, blah, blah. I appreciate the opportunity. Hey, if you ever have another event where I can be of service in the future, please reach out to Jane Johnson. She’s CC’d on this email. Jane Johnson with ABC Speakers. She will make sure that she can make this happen. And by the way, I was just thinking another great speaker for you guys next year might be, Jenny whoever.” I’m just making up names at this point.

Alison Levine:
Jennifer Kern and Jenny Smith from ABC Speakers can send you more information on her as well. And so I try to tee somebody up. And I’ve had agents say to me like, “Oh my god. I’ve been pitching this client, speakers for six years and they’ve never ever taken any of my advice.” And then they booked you, and then I’ll suggest a speaker and they’ll book at that speaker right away.

Alison Levine:
So clients really love hearing suggestions from other speakers because they know that you’ve got no skin in the game, and that you’re not making a commission off of this, and that you’re truly recommending a speaker because you think that speaker would be a great fit for them. That said you’ve got to recommend a speaker who would truly be a great fit not just your really good friend because you want your good friend to have this. It’s like the content, the style, everything, the messaging has to be a fit for that conference. So make sure you’re making thoughtful suggestions. But you want to make sure that you are teeing things up for this bureau agent because when you say no to a client, it can really affect that person’s bank account, that agent’s bank account.

Michael Port:
Yeah, sure it can.

Alison Levine:
And it seems so little to be like, “Oh, no. You know what I’ve got to book a flight right after so I can’t stay for your lunch.” Stay for the lunch if you can. Those things really make a difference and they’re thinking, “Wow, she’s the only one that was willing to stay.” The other speakers they all killed it on stage too, but none of them were willing to come to the lunch. And it’s hard, it’s hard to do when you’re doing 100 speeches a year because you do have to make it. You do have to plan your flight to get to the next event, so it’s not always possible to stay for the lunch or stay after and do selfies for a full hour or whatever because sometimes you literally have to race off to get to another event.

Alison Levine:
But when possible, do not race out of the room after you’re done with your speech. Stay there, schmooze people. Another good thing to do is when you get off stage, and you know people are going to come talk to you, stand next to somebody important. Stand next to the meeting planner. Stand next to the CEO so that when people come up to you and they go, “Oh my god. I’ve been coming this event for 20 years. This was the best speech I’ve ever heard,” you want someone else to hear that.

Michael Port:
Thanks for listening to Steal the Show. I’m your host, Michael Port. We record our episodes at 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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