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The glamorous life of a professional speaker

Multiple attributions to this quote

I was amused by John K. Coyle's article "What it's really like to be a public speaker" (Strategy+Business, June 19, 2019. He writes:

There might be better jobs out there, but I doubt it. Think about all of the highlights in an average public speaking gig. You take an all-expenses-paid trip to a luxurious resort or hotel — often at the beach or in one of the world’s coolest cities. Usually, there is a reception the evening before the speaking event, and you’re introduced to the host organization’s leaders and event sponsors — all inevitably interesting people who open up to you about their lives. You have some fine wine and a great meal, more conversation, and then finally return to your hotel room, where there is often a welcome gift waiting for you. Unlike with consulting and many other road-warrior gigs, you don’t have to stay up late preparing materials for your talk, because you know the material cold.

For 25 years, I did paid public-speaking on the side from my day job. From 1992 to 2017, I spoke at 110 conferences (some multiple years) and did consulting for 75 school districts and education agencies. 95+% were paid gigs. In good years, I made the equivalent of 50% of my school salary in just the 30 or so days I was on the road. Each year when I renegotiated my contract with my public school district, I asked for more days off rather than a higher salary. It seemed to me a win-win, and I eventually wound up with about a 180 day contract (and a very empowered staff).

Like my professional writing work, my professional speaking career was not intentional. I was asked to speak at conferences, I am guessing, because people foolishly thought that since I could write (books, articles, columns, etc.) I could also speak. I think did a fair job and received a good deal of positive feedback so my ego was fed and not just my bank account. And to be honest, I hoped my messages to librarians, teachers, and administrators suggested positive ideas that bettered the lives of students. I took the work seriously and worked hard at becoming an ever-improving presenter.

Some of the "perks" that Coyle mentions above, were indeed a part of my speaking experience. I did get to wonderful places like Sydney and Cairo and Beijing and Nairobi and Cartagena and Tallin (just to mention a few) and I believe I spoke in every state in the US except four. Many times I was able to add on a few days to be a tourist in the exotic place to which someone else had paid me to travel. I would probably never hiked Kilimanjaro or explored Angkor Wat or rafted the Snake River had these adventures not been added to a speaking gig. I loved my Platinum frequent flyer status. Swank hotels I did not find appealing except for the Shangri La in Bangkok. Were I a billionaire, I might just live there. I don't remember the fine wines Coyle mentioned, but then perhaps he was not speaking at library and school tech conferences.

As glam as some of the jobs might seem, the bulk of the work I did was right here in the good old USA. A typical trip would consist of leaving work in my school district about noon to catch a 4pm flight that would get me to the city where I would speak about 8 or 9 pm. I'd need to be up and ready and down to the conference venue by 7 am to check the AV stuff, meet the host, etc. I'd give my talk(s) and head to the airport for a late afternoon flight, arriving back in Minneapolis usually after 10pm. After a 2 hour drive home, hit the sack, and be ready for the next day at the real job. Most speaking work required hours of customized preparation to fit conference themes and organizer goals in advance of the conference as well, so many of my weekends were less than recreational.

Over the years I sometimes thought about ditching the day job and speaking full time. But I never really felt I had the chutzpah needed to make a real career of it. I've never felt comfortable self-promoting - feeling there is a little snake-oil salesman in all keynote speakers/consultants. (Sometime the more snake oil, the bigger the speaker.) I prided myself that my talks were always grounded in the genuine experiences of my work as a technology and library director. I wasn't all theory and prognostication. Were I to leave the regular job, I would lose what kept me grounded and authentic. I also liked that steady paycheck and now I am happy to have a pension. I really had the best of both worlds - speaker and regular Joe employee.

I don't get asked to speak anymore. The world has moved on and younger, brighter, and more energetic people now inspire and inform and entertain today's practicing educators. And that is the way it should be. I am hugely grateful for the opportunities I was given over the years. But it is also pretty nice to be a "has been." My vacations are vacations and my weekends are my own.

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