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About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.

Written by: LMiller  |  August 01, 2005

When Applause Just Isn’t Enough: How To Get More Clients From Giving Speeches

Originally published for

By now, it’s old news. Experts know that speaking at conferences and conventions builds a platform of credibility, visibility and “brandability.”

The Assumption: That giving a great speech to the right audience will automatically ensure a steady stream of clients.

The Reality: Getting applause and getting clients are very different things.

Getting applause doesn’t mean that you’ll get clients. There’s a difference between an attendee thinking “Oh, what a nice speech” and “We have to GOT to bring them into our organization!”

The above distinction begs a few key questions: Why do so many great speeches not generate more clients? Is speaking just for “brand-building” Is it impossible to get clients without “pitching from the podium?”

Many experts have given up on speaking as a lead-generating tool. They either resign themselves to speak only to develop credibility or use the “speaking can’t generate clients” argument to demand speaking fees (which they can’t get for the reasons listed below). The issue isn’t about realistic expectations – speaking will give you whatever you want. It’s very possible (and lucrative) to get clients without pitching.

The problem is focus. We pay so much attention to giving a great speech that we don’t see the speech for what it really is: a focal point for other outcomes. Below are three of the most common ways experts shoot themselves in the foot every time they open their mouths.


Why is speaking such an effective lead-generating tool? Because it allows experts the opportunity to differentiate their work from their colleagues and competitors.

Even better: This differentiation occurs in a high trust environment. The audience assumes the expert is a credible source of information even before a word is ever spoken. That assumption makes audiences more receptive to the idea that this credible person can help them individually. (Unlike the typical sales situation, where credibility is not assumed and the “audience” can be more skeptical.)

So what do many experts do? They blow this great opportunity by providing content that is a mile wide and an inch deep. They provide a large laundry list of ideas that don’t question current thinking, that don’t give the audience a fresh perspective…complete with quotes from other authors of best-selling books. Result: the audience is not attracted to “think” with you. There is no reason to remember you after the applause dies down. It’s off to the next concurrent session…or lunch.

Key Strategy: Narrow Your Focus, Broaden Your Appeal.

Experts who try to be everything to everybody will attract no one. Instead of cramming three days of content into one hour, create immediate attraction with an overall “manifesto” that sets up a specific point of view. Then follow up with specific insights that can be applied in many situations.

Example: Instead of listing 25 solutions on stress management, create a “grace under pressure” manifesto with specific insights on reframing situations.


Especially in the conference and convention market, good speaking skills are expected. Even “free” speakers are expected to be entertaining (or at least not boring)! What separates experts now: the signature style™, a way of communicating that sets you apart from other speakers. Again, potential clients are looking for the “fit”. Speaking allows attendees to not only check out your point of view, it also helps potential clients make decisions about the experience of working with you. Your style conveys what kind of experience they could have.

How you illustrate your points is the best venue to show your style. Do you use stories? Metaphors? Examples? Does your humor let the audience know that you take your work, but not yourself, seriously? A pro uses all of the tools in the toolbox. Tell-tale signs of an amateur communicator: your stories ramble and are “slow”. Your explanations go from explaining to “preaching and teaching”. Your choice of stories focuses on you, crossing the line between confidence and arrogance. And humor is no where to be found.

Key Strategy: Stories Are Strategic

Avoid the “how great I am” angle; make the client or other party the “star”. Better yet, make yourself the butt of the joke. Cut the details down to only what’s relevant; this will make room for your natural humor to shine through. Use a metaphor instead of a story if you have to explain the point after making it. Metaphors create instant word pictures and don’t take up as much time as stories.


Speaking is like any other tool — its effectiveness depends on how you use it. Many experts use speaking in a vacuum, thinking that every speech will create clients.

The Reality: Not all audiences are created equal. Program planners are depending more and more on experts who are willing to waive any speaking fees. Therefore, the case for “good exposure” is being bandied about in every conversation. It is up to the expert to decide when to accept and when to decline a speaking opportunity.

Another reality check: a qualified audience doesn’t guarantee sales. Experts who have a systematic approach to interact with that audience before and after the speech have a better chance of getting clients. Why?

Because attendees are not focused on “shopping” for additional help during the speech. They are focused on getting take-away value. Give the insights and show your credibility during the speech, and the attendee will give you permission to continue the conversation. Or better yet, permission to take a “baby step,” a low risk service or product that will show direct application of your work to the client’s problem.

Key Strategy: Don’t Assume That Every Speaking Opportunity Is A Good One.

Make sure that the demographics are in your favor and that you have access to the group before and after the speech. Springboard beyond this one-time exposure by offering something customized to the audience in exchange for business cards/email addresses. For the more serious “but not yet ready” folks: create a low-risk “trial” that will allow the prospect to see a direct application of your work. Make sure you don’t pitch your services during this session!

Example: A low fee, one-time only coaching or consulting session.


Given the above obstacles, is there light at the end of the tunnel? Good news: there are many tools at our disposal that will attract and convert clients from every speech. Below are three outcomes you need to attract clients and the tools you have to overcome the odds.

The first outcome is to generate initial interest. You want to attract by curiosity. Your intelligent distinctions and rhetorical questions alert the audience to the value of thinking with you. The tools at your disposal: an introduction that lists specific outcomes from your work; an opening story or statement that reflects your manifesto; and the nuggets of wisdom in the body of your speech.

The second outcome is to answer the internal questions. There are two questions every audience member has about the speaker. First, the audience wants to know if you work with people like them. Examples and stories about your clients will show attendees that you can work with them, too. Second, participants want to know if you are as good as you appear. Focused content with great distinctions will prove your competence.

The third outcome is the direct application of your expertise. This outcome is the “closer” to many sales. Potential clients must know that your expertise will provide specific solutions to fit their specific need. They may like your stories; they may think you are smart; but without knowing how to use your expertise, many attendees will put off buying from you. Best tools to avoid this pitfall: any interactive exercise or rhetorical questions. And of course, your baby steps provide individual attention to those who are serious.

Public speaking is a very powerful tool. Too many experts sell it short. They blame the “audience” for not buying, or blame the tool itself.

The Bottom Line: The podium is a platform. What happens on that platform drives the outcomes. What happens before and after appearing on that platform drives the outcomes. The outcome is up to the expert, not the audience.

Filed Under: Speaking

About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.