Michael Parrish DuDell


How to Systematically Build a Speaking Career: Relationships are the Universal Currency

Key Takeaways

On relationships:

I really believe that relationships are the universal currency. I mean really the universal currency. That's in business and in life.

Nothing I've ever gotten, no client I've ever worked with, no opportunity that's ever come before me has been from anything but relationships. It's  1000% relationships. Luckily, I like relationships. I'm a relationship guy and I love people and being around people.

On thought leadership:

I think meaningful conversation is perhaps the most important tool for learning. That's how I learned. That's the kind of conversation I want to facilitate. But being a "thought leader" is really specific to the individual and it does have to feel completely authentic and completely on brand. I'm never going to be the guy that says, "Here are the 10 things you need to…”

I'm never going to be the guy that oversells. That's b.s. I mean there aren't the top 10 things you need to know. It's specific to the human being. It's not that easy. I mean in today's world we're looking for the listification of success and I don't think that has anything to do with success, though. I think it's mentality. I think it's the way you think. I think it's through teams that you have. I think it's how you handle human beings. That stuff is never going to fit neatly in a top 10 list, and I'm not going to put it out.

"Speaking is my secret sauce":

Speaking leads to consulting, which leads to other opportunities. When I work with a brand or an organization or a company, I don't think of it as a one-off deal. I think of me going and talking to you about something, some keynote speech is going to be the one-off relationship.

Again, it's all about relationships, and for me, I like those to be as rich and as full as possible. I'm always trying to figure out how do we continue to work together? How do we work together in a different, new, interesting way? Does it make sense?

I don't even take every speaking gig. I take most speaking gigs, but I don't take every one if it doesn't align with something I believe in and if it doesn't make sense in the grander scheme of what I'm trying to build and what they're trying to build. I think thinking of it as one piece is really important, if that makes sense.

For me, my thing is speaking. If I'm talking, then I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, whether that's on camera, whether that's to an audience. Speaking is my secret sauce. There's no better way for me to get a consulting client than to speak for them and in front of them. Often, if it's a company that I want to work with and they've offered me to come in and do a lunch-and-learn, free of charge. I will waive my speaking fee because I know that if they see me speak and we get a chance to know each other, I'm going to be a lot more likely to end up working with them and having a longer relationship.

I recognized after I would speak that they would say, "Hey, it's really interesting what you said, but we don't really know how to do it." It started with marketing for Millennials. I would do this talk about how you can sort of position yourself in a better way in front of Millennials. People would come up afterwards and say, "You spoke for 45 minutes. That was really interesting. You gave me some great takeaways, but now what? How do we implement? What's the strategy?"

I realized very quickly, "Wait a second. There's more work to be done here." It's not just about delivering the message. It's about creating services that allow businesses and allow individuals to work a little bit smarter and to be a little bit more specific in how they position or create content or market or brand.

For me, I didn't set out to be a consultant, quite frankly. I just realized when I would speak to people that they wanted to work with me in a different way, and as an entrepreneur, you see an opportunity and you create something for that.

On telling transformation stories:

Everyone loves a transformation story, and my transformation story is extreme. That was something they resonated with and I built that into whenever you hear me talk now, the first five minutes, you see a picture of me in a unitard, which is how I led with that story and you hear the story, because to me, that now is—if you don't know that about me, the rest of the stuff isn't as impactful. That is who I am and that is my background and that is my history. To leave that out of something is completely ridiculous. I regret not talking about it before. I'm happy I finally did.

I think it was more I was afraid that people would hear that [I was an actor] and would not take me seriously. That's something that's very important to me. I mean, again, going back to follow your ship. I have to have credibility when I walk in a room. It's crucial. I didn't want that to jeopardize my credibility. I realize now that that actually, in some strange way, helps people find me relatable, because almost everyone has a story where they say, "I'm doing this thing that isn't it. I took this leap and it ended up working out for me," and that's, I think, inspiring for people to hear.

On personal branding:

I love personal branding and I  think that anybody that says personal branding doesn't matter is crazy. I think personal branding does matter. Now how in depth you get with that is different. For somebody that works in a company who maybe doesn't want to be an entrepreneur, doesn't want to be front and center, personal branding is going to be a little less important than somebody who is doing what you and I are doing, which is trying to be front and center and trying to sort of—for me, it's about facilitating a conversation. I realized a long time ago that I would much rather be the person asking the questions and moving the conversation forward than I would be the person who's always the expert. That's sort of boring to me. I want to have a bigger conversation.

With that said, I recognize that a brand is so powerful. Let's take the word personal out of it. Brand, as we all know, is crucial, right? If you buy Coke instead of Pepsi, you buy Kleenex instead of whatever their competitor is because you have a relationship with that brand whether you acknowledge it or not. The same can be true for people. I think when you have a personal brand, it needs to be focused. It needs to be authentic. It needs to be clear, but most importantly, it needs to be consistent. I see a lot of people out there and this is a different philosophy, but a lot of people in our world share a lot about their lives. There's a lot of full disclosure, "I'm going to tell you everything about me." That's not really—I don't think that's always the smartest move. I think like any brand, you have to be focused in how you present yourself.

When I present myself to the world, I'm not being dishonest, but I am showing a very specific shade of myself because that's what people expect and that's what people enjoy, and that is a part of the consistency of my brand. I think it's crucial. I do a lot of work behind-the-scenes to make sure that my brand is in line with what it is I'm trying to get out in the world.

What does it mean to speak like a pro?

I hate this answer because it's such a hot topic right now, so I'm just going to preface it with I hate it, but it really is, really is 100% storytelling. It really is 100% storytelling. It doesn't matter if I'm talking about marketing or branding or whatever. If you don't have incredible stories and you're not able to share those stories in incredible ways, you will never be a pro. People won't listen to you.

I go to conferences all the time where I see people speak. They're reading off pages. They're not engaging. They're clearly over rehearsed and their entire speech goes unheard because people are bored, nervous for them. It's 1000% about connecting and telling the story.

Top Tips:

The first thing is you just take every gig. Every gig. I don't care if it's for 10 people. I don't care if it doesn't pay. You don't want to lose money on it, so if someone is not offering travel and it depends on what your budget is, but you just take as many gigs as possible. When you do that, you just practice, practice, practice. For me, it's all about reading the audience, and the only way I learned to read an audience as an actor, but also just practicing a lot. When I do a speech, I don't have it written down and memorized. I have a very specific place that I'm going and a lot of different stories that can relate to those places.

Start to really focus on what your message is. At the beginning, I was talking about Millennials. I was talking about content. I was talking about the leadership. I was talking about personal branding, marketing. That's tough because you end up going into a room and you can get a little discombobulated and you don't really understand how to position yourself, though. I would really focus on four or five, at the most, talks, points, subjects, and then slowly try to fine-tune from there. These days I talk mainly about small business. I talk mainly about entrepreneurship and about how companies can be more entrepreneurial, but sometimes I do content. Sometimes I don't.

Learn what setup works for you as far as the kind of speaker you are. Some people do better with scripts. Some people do better without scripts. Try it different ways. Figure out what is the best way for you to prepare. The worst thing you can do is not prepare. A lot of people think, "Oh, I'm just going to put bullet points together and wait till I get up there." No way! I don't care who you are. There are certain things—even though my speeches are sort of malleable, I rehearse each version a million times. I do certain things in my speeches. Again, I'm being a strategic person. When I start, for instance, I always start with a joke and it's always a joke that I haven't prepared and it's always a topical joke based on something I've seen at the conference.

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