I had a chance to talk to Danielle Benson, the founder of the Inspired Speaker Academy. Danielle trains speakers to communicate with authentic confidence from the boardroom to the world stage. We’re going to talk about how to go from book to speaker.
I like those flowers behind you. Tell us about you.
Thank you. These are silk flowers because I have a black thumb and it’s really depressing being surrounded by flowers that are dying. The reason I love them and the reason I keep them in frame is I grew up in South Africa, which has lots of pros and cons, but the garden that we had was so beautiful. And I spent so much time there and there was so much sunshine. And sometimes in Vancouver – where I live – in the middle of winter, it gets a little bit dreary. It gets a little bit gray. And so I have these flowers, these all grew in the garden where I grew up. So I have them a little reminder of what it’s like to be in the sunshine when I’m not necessarily in the sunshine myself.-
So I want to talk about you. There are so many public speaking experts in the world saying this is the way to do it… These are the rules. You come at it from a slightly different angle. Can you tell us a little about that?
Yeah. I’m not big on rules. I’m a bit of a rebel in that sense. A lot of public speakers, there’s a lot of different ways people teach public speaking, and the way that I come at it is very much from an authentic expression perspective. I trained as an actor for 20 years. So I have that background in the emotionality and stagecraft as well, of course. And there are some rules, but not as many as you might think, as long as you know how to break them and why to break them. I’ve got a very solid grounding in stagecraft, but more important to me is the way that each speaker can be completely different.
A lot of public speaking training focuses on what to say, on the speech craft. And that is important, but we’re very unbalanced in that. So many people spend so much time getting word perfect and they completely ignore the delivery or they spend maybe 5% of their time on that delivery.
And for me, it’s the authentic emotional expression. It’s not what you say. It’s how you say it. Because if you don’t say something in a way that is real and authentic and genuine, no one’s going to hear what you say anyway. So it doesn’t matter how perfect your words are because no one’s listening. And so yes, what you say is important, but how you say it and saying it in a way that is authentic to you, that is on brand that is going to capture people’s attention and stand out for me, that is the most important way. And you don’t get that by following the rules. You don’t find your special magic by following a formula.
And a lot of the kind of pop psychology and public speaking training out there is based on this idea that we are imitating human behavior. So humans do this. So you must do this. And humans do that. So you must do this. You are human, you don’t need to imitate authentic human behavior. You can just be human. And yes, there are a lot of things that get in the way of that. Like when we’re nervous or when we’re judging ourselves, there are a lot of blocks that prevent us from being our authentic selves.
A lot of the work that I do is based on the work of a lady named Kristin Linklater and her pedagogy is all about removing the blocks, so that you can let your authentic self through. You do need to know how the voice body instrument works. But once you understand how the instrument works, you get to play your music, which is completely different from everybody else’s music. So instead of following rules and becoming just like everybody else, it’s about removing the blocks and letting yourself out into the world. That’s, that’s the biggest difference I think.
That's beautiful. I love that. And so I can see how you can help authors in lots of ways, but today we're going to just talk about from book to speaker. I guess my first question is, would you say that an author has to write a specific book or is it once you've written a book, you can take that book and let it help you get to the stage?
There are so many different ways to incorporate, and like you said, we’re not going to talk about all of them but public speaking comes in at every part of the process. It could be doing readings, for example. And that’s not really what we’re talking about today, but it does come in at lots of different areas. Lots of different levels.
If we’re speaking about taking a book and then using that book to launch a speaking career, that is one particular avenue. It doesn’t need to be any kind of book. I mean, typically it’s either a non-fiction book that is educational in nature or inspirational in nature. And so we’re onstage speaking because we have a program or we want to book more speaking engagements. And so the book was written with that end goal in mind, but not always, sometimes it’s a memoir. Sometimes it’s a fictional story that really grips people. And you realize that there is a movement that can be started from this.
Some authors will use fiction to create movements, to get people to look at things in a different way. So, no, I wouldn’t say that there’s any rules around that. There are definitely patterns. Typically, most non-fiction writers will also be speakers because that’s kind of part of their business plan, but it’s definitely not a limitation.
Excellent. Well, I never thought of fiction to movement. I love that. I can actually think of some authors who do that. Let's stick with non-fiction. I'm a non-fiction author. I'm a memoir author. I've got my book. I've got my book in hand. Is that it? Is that all I need or are there other materials you might suggest I create?
If only. Gone are the days where you could just create the product and everyone will come to you. We have such a noisy marketplace now. I wish that just the book would be enough, the book and your passion, and you’re good.
There are no limits to how prepared you can be. So I would not use that as an obstacle. Don’t be like, well, I don’t have this, so I can’t do it yet. I would just start straightaway, start where you’re at and build it as you go, because there are so many things you can have almost definitely, to have some sort of social media presence. If you don’t have a social media presence, you need to have a very strong network because someone’s going to give you the speaking gigs. So you either get that through social media marketing, through online stuff, or like old-school publicity or through a publisher, or you do it through your personal network.
So there has to be some sort of network in place offline or online. Online is definitely much more common these days and easier. There’s a lower bar to online marketing. So you have to have some sort of way of letting people know that you do what you do.
Things that will definitely help you as you build and as you become more credible and as you want to potentially charge money for speaking things like a sizzle reel would be extremely beneficial. So, some videos, some professionally edited, ideally professionally shot as well. Video of you speaking, it could be a minute or two, just like a highlight reel of what it’s like to see you as a speaker so that people know what they’re getting. Definitely some sort of description. Do you do keynotes? Do you do workshops? What kind of content are you offering for the people who would like you to come and speak.
If you charge that doesn’t need to be on your website, but you should know what that is, and it should be part of your proposal package. So there’s those kinds of things, those support materials and marketing materials that you need. You don’t need anything to get started, but as you go, you will build things that help you in the process.
People will ask, where can I look you up? And so you’ll build a website and you’ll build a YouTube channel, little snippets of you speaking. You’ll build your proposal as you start to send out speaker proposals. There are lots of things that you can have. And I would say, start with where you’re at, because what you need and what you think you need are often different. So let that come organically. As people ask for things, as you go. Or I need to approach this person. What would I need to approach this person. Build it as you go and build it from the need, not from what you think in your head. Because it might be different.
That’s really great advice. When somebody asks for something, build it, but don't do things imagining what people might be asking you for. That really will limit the amount of work you're going to need to do.
Good point. You said something about speaking for free. And so I really want to ask you when you're preparing speakers for stage, some speakers are speaking for free and some are paid speakers. Can you just touch on the difference? When should I be free? What quality of speaking do I need to have in order to charge to speak.
You’ve got to be really learning to be paying. It depends on why you’re speaking. So why you’re speaking in general and why you’re speaking at this specific event. If you really need a high profile speaking gig that you’re going to leverage, you’re going to get video from it. You’ve got a marketing plan in place, and this one high profile gig is going to make or break your career. It might be worth paying for; there are some speaking gigs that you pay to enter because they are of a certain profile. There are situations where that might be appropriate. Most of the time, you’re not paying to speak. We’re either speaking for free or someone is paying you.
And again, this depends on why you’re doing it. So right at the beginning, if you have zero experience and you don’t know where you want to get to eventually, but right now, you just want to speak to get the experience. I would do that for free because there’s a lot less pressure on you. You can make a fool of yourself and you don’t feel so bad because they’re not paying you. You also might want to speak for free if there’s some sort of high exposure opportunity where none of the speakers are being paid and it’s a charity event or, or a sales event. So if you are selling your book or if you are selling a program, you’re probably not getting paid for that because the idea is that you’re getting paid in sales. And so those are the opportunities where you would speak for free.
Do make sure you leverage those. So repurpose your content. If you’re speaking, get it recorded, get the transcripts, use those as blog posts and articles and snippets for your marketing. Like really make sure that you are leveraging that so that you are getting your money back in as many ways as possible. And hopefully you’re selling from stage as well.
If you’re being paid to speak, there’s often the kind of expectation that it’s a keynote or you are a special guest and you are there to provide value only. And so you’re not promoting yourself in the same way. You might still be promoting yourself and that like, Hey, I’m an author or this is my message, or this is my movement. Join me, but you’re not selling from stage. At least if you are, it’s a much softer sale, like positioning yourself.
It’s more about positioning yourself. So, I mean, you’re not really selling, and in those situations you want to make sure you get compensated for your time. So it depends; when in doubt, ask or do some research and look at the event itself, talk to the other speakers. Anyone who’s been there before, but most importantly; for you, think about “what is my purpose here?” If this is something that is a cause for me, and I don’t care if I get paid, it’s more important that the message gets out there. That’s important to know so that if they don’t offer to pay you, if they don’t have it in the budget, you can negotiate around that because it’s more important for you to get your message out there.
But if this is something that you are trying to build as a career, and you need to be speaking, make sure that you’re leveraging it as a business opportunity. Then you need to have that in mind too. So you have to know what your business plan is as a speaker, a speaker author. What is the purpose of it? And how does it relate to your book? Is your book part of how you get people to the talk or how you get people to the book. There’s lots of different angles. So you need to know, I can’t really answer that without having more context.
That was really great. You know, it strikes me: I might be an author. I've just published a book and now I want to speak, it would be unreasonable to think that all of a sudden with no speaking experience and not really being known that I would get paid speaking gigs.
So if I wanted to start out what might be the next step? What might you suggest?
Yeah. I've got a nonfiction book. Maybe I have a business and I'm trying to figure out where should I speak in my community or should I be applying to speaking? What's the first step?
Okay. So yeah, I would start small. My advice to speakers is to always start at your comfort level and then build it out slowly. I know a lot of people jump to the deep end, sink or swim. That can cause a trauma response if you’re not careful. And I don’t believe in that kind of growth. I think we should push ourselves consistently in small ways. And that is how we improve.
And if it’s just once off, you just want to do a Ted talk and you never want to speak again. That’s one thing. Then you get speaking training, you really prepare for that and you do it amazingly well and you record it and you leverage that for the rest of your life and you never speak again. But if speaking is part of your career goal, then you do want to build slowly.
So start with free networking events. There’s so many writers events where, if you’re a writer, you’re probably already part of some writers’ groups where people read aloud. So that’s the first step, just getting used to speaking in that very, very safe space. Go to lots of speaking clubs. I run a speaking club. There are speaking clubs all over, online and offline. Do both. Focus on where you want to go. So if you want to be speaking online, primarily, if you have an online course that you’re going to be promoting, then speak online more. If you want to be speaking on stage, because eventually you want to be speaking in person in front of large audiences on stage: practice more on stage.
So you need to know where you’re going. Start small start, free, low pressure. Give yourself permission to fail a lot and measure yourself and improve one thing every time. And that will build the most confidence, actually the quickest weirdly. You’re going to build your confidence much more quickly by taking smaller steps. Very, very consciously.
Thank you. That was lots of really good information. So you help people become better speakers. I'm wondering if we can talk a little bit about that. What are some of the learned behaviors, they have to unlearn. If you could just pick a couple of them and just give a sense, maybe a top three. That would be great.
So the biggest mistake that I see, and especially from writers is wanting to get everything word perfect. When they’re speaking on stage, if you’re reading, that’s something else; we’re not talking about reading your work in public right now, because that is a different thing. If you are speaking about your work, you’re on a panel, you’re speaking from stage to sell, or you’re speaking in a media opportunity. The words you say are important, but they’re not that important. And I find that a lot of writers will spend so much time crafting the perfect answer or the perfect sentence that when they get to speak, they’re robbed of all personality and all life.
When they’re speaking, there is a certain vocal tone that comes in when we’ve memorized something, when we’re reading something and we can hear it. It’s extremely obvious to your listener when something is over rehearsed or over-prepared, and that disconnects your audience from you. There’s no trust anymore. They’re not feeling like they’re speaking to a human being or listening to a human being. So don’t be scared to make mistakes.
That’s the first thing: don’t spend so much time on the writing. You don’t become a better speaker by writing; you become a better speaker by speaking. So practice the speaking part, paraphrase, talk to your dog, talk to your plants, talk to your fake plants. Just practice the speaking part and do less of the planning part because a lot of people luxuriate in the planning because it feels safe. You’re not going to become better by planning to speak. You’re going to become better by speaking. So that’s the first thing.
The second thing is, a lot of people don’t know how to breathe, and there are so many things I could say about breath. I have three day workshops on breathing, but the most important thing is to remember, to breathe, to breathe deeply and to breathe through your mouth when you’re speaking in public, I know that most of us have been taught to breathe through our nose, and that is useful in many situations.
But when we’re speaking, when we’re looking for authentic expression and energy and excitement, we need to be breathing through our mouth as much as possible and deeper into the body. So if you get nervous and you’re breathing into your shoulders, you’re going to come across in a certain way and allowing yourself to breathe deeply into the belly, into the lower torso, breathing in through your mouth will relax you enough that you can speak and you can remember what to say, because I know people are terrified of forgetting what to say. So breathing deeply and breathing as often as you can, not being stingy with the breath, but being very generous with the breath will help you to relax in a way that still allows you to be energized and still allows you to be excited.
And then the last one is, as soon as I tell people to breathe, they’re like, well, yeah, but I don’t want my audience to wait for me to breathe. And so, my third biggest don’t is… don’t try and fill all the silences with sound. As speakers, it’s not about speaking all the time and making sure that people can hear that I’m making words all the time. It’s not about production. It’s not about filling all the silences.
Let yourself pause, let yourself breathe, give your audience time to catch up. There’s nothing wrong with pausing. There’s nothing wrong with taking time to breathe. It allows your words to live in the air between you and your audience. And it allows them to absorb what you’re saying. And it allows you to reconnect with your body, to reconnect with your emotions and to let your brain get some oxygen. So you can remember what to say.
So those, those would be my top three. There are so many but those would be my top three.
And as you were talking about the breathing, it was like, oh, yeah breathe. But the third point about not having to fill in every space, I know that I'm guilty of this. I can speak very quickly and I guess the thought is, the material is easy, everyone knows it. I know it. Therefore, everyone knows it. And I don't want to waste their time. If you're standing on stage, and you're speaking, you're probably speaking about something that other people don't know as well as you do. They need those spaces to digest what you're saying, and it's so easy to forget that, isn't it?
Well, it’s an attitude shift too, right? Because I think a lot of speakers, especially author speakers because they’re used to being behind the book as it were, and not necessarily in the public eye. When you get to be speaking in front of people, the imposter syndrome kicks in and we don’t want to be boring. ‘I don’t wanna waste people’s time.’ And if you’re going to go with that attitude just don’t do it. You’re up there. They’ve possibly paid to see you speak.
It is your job to honour that and honour the fact that they have given you their attention, and to use that attention wisely. Not to waste it by trying to get through it as quickly as possible.
Because if you feel like ‘I’m boring, I don’t want to waste their time. Who am I? This is really easy stuff. I’m just going to get off stage.’ You’ve wasted whatever time you’ve been up on stage. And they may as well, they would probably prefer you weren’t there. So if you’re going to be there, do it, whatever you do, do it fully. If you’re going to be on stage speaking, enjoy it, honour the message that you have, honour the fact that the audience has given you their time and their attention and do not waste it by feeling self-conscious or rushing through your material.
So where writers want to luxuriate in the planning and the writing and being word perfect, that'd be allowing the audience to luxuriate in the talk and the information being passed on.
And we listen to words slower than we read them. So remember that when you’re speaking to your audience. They need time to process what you’re saying and if we speak and if you’re super excited and you’re speaking quickly, if you’re connected and you’re breathing deeply, it’s probably fine.
But if you are nerve driven and you are anxious and you are trying to speak as quickly as possible to fill in all the gaps, then your audience isn’t having the time to really absorb what they’re hearing. And so you need to honour the words that you’re using as well. Even if they’re not words that you’ve written, the words that you’re speaking still need to honour the message.
Do you teach online or do people have to show up?
I do both, during COVID I’m only online. I do occasionally teach offline as well, and I will be once COVID is over, I will be hosting larger events maybe once or twice a year. But most of my training is online. These days, I’m amazed at how much we can do. Before pandemic, I was so adamant that I could only work with people in person, because what I do is very physical. It’s very energy based. So I’m teaching people how to use certain muscles to breathe. And we’re talking about projection and how your sound echoes in a room and how on earth was I going to do that online?
But the technology is so good now. And I don’t think I would have been able to do this even five years ago, but now we have the technology. The video conferencing is so good. The sound quality is so good that I am actually able to help people with things like how relaxed their shoulders are and where they’re breathing into their bodies and whether or not they’re filling the room with their sound online. That’s really amazing.
So I teach entirely online now. I do live events and I do a lot of prerecorded trainings that people can do at home. Do it at your own pace trainings. And I also offer a lot of live events because there is no substitute for speaking in front of people, even if it is online, there’s still a lot of exchange that happens.
Excellent. So where do we contact you? How can people reach?
Check me out. There’s a whole bunch of links in the doobly-doo too. I’m sure. But, my website is theinspiredspeaker.com and check me out on Facebook and YouTube as well. There’s at least one community event every month. Sometimes it’s an open house where speakers can drop in and use that as a platform to promote themselves. So if you are an author and you have a book to promote, come out to open house, because it’s free.
I also offer practice labs. I have a free trial for my membership program, which is a training portal, and we do many workshops, and we do all sorts of things. And I do challenges as well. I’ll do a lot of speaking on video challenges because that is very important at the moment. So I do a lot of that too. So there’s a different thing, something different going on all the time.
It depends on when you’re watching this. So just check me out at theinspiredspeaker.com. Also check out the Facebook group because I do events so often that you might want to check out something that is kind of more in real time than a website, but I do my best to let people know. And you can always contact me as well. On my website, there’s an option to book a free call with me just to sit down and chat about your voice and your plans and whether or not you would like to work with me, or if I have anything to offer because every person is different. And so I do offer that as well.
You have so much to offer. I know you have some, as you said, free challenges and a community and I will make sure all of those links go in the description. So check them out there.
Danielle, thank you so much. That's an amazing head start to going from book to speaking gigs, whether you want to launch a speaking career or whether you just want to get your book out there and connect with people. Thank you so much.
Find Danielle at
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