Defining What Separates You From Other Speakers with Vickie Sullivan

One red umbrella among many grey ones

How did Vickie Sullivan take a career as a political lobbyist and turn it into a business of helping speakers and becoming a speaker herself? 

By answering an ad to be a speaker agent, within 3 weeks, Vickie loved what she was doing. She learned that most speakers just wanted to share what they spoke about. Vickie took the opportunity to listen to the buyers who hired speakers and took that market intelligence to position her speakers better. She tripled one speaker’s business in the first year they worked together.

Other insights in this episode of The Business of Speaking:

  • People do not get hired to speak because their topic is so riveting. They get hired to speak, because that riveting topic is going to do something the buyer needs to do.
  • Public speaking is now considered a leadership skill.
  • To get an inside edge, in a crowded field, it starts with being strategic about branding and positioning. 
  • Pack the house – Who can you invite to one of your talks who is looking to hire you? 
  • The business of speaking is really about systems, as well as performance.
  • You stand out by blending in.

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Who is Vickie Sullivan?

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B firms.

Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, Vickie has helped thousands of brilliant, talented people outsmart their competition since 1987. Ms. Sullivan is a popular speaker throughout the U.S. and Canada on why buyers buy in lucrative markets and strategies that make thought leaders stand out in crowded markets. Her popular newsletter Tips, Trends and Tirades® is considered a respected global resource. (Want to know her inside story? Check out her background.)

Ms. Sullivan has served twice on the editorial board for Professional Speaker Magazine.  As contributing editor for from 2008 to their closure in 2015, Vickie’s columns on sales and branding appeared in this prominent community of 120,000 B2B service professionals.

Her articles have been published in other publications such as Presentations and USA Today magazines, as well as the Handbook of Business Strategy.

Ms. Sullivan also has been quoted in mainstream media such as Fortune.comThe New York Times and Investor’s Business Daily. Her work and views have appeared in books such as Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich, Secrets of Six-Figure Women by Barbara Stanney, and Getting Started in Consulting by Alan Weiss.

Ms. Sullivan’s groundbreaking work has earned her an appointment on the Women’s Leadership Board for the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, serving as Communication Chair on the Executive Committee from 2009 to 2011. As a former member of the mentoring committee, she has given four presentations there on personal branding, thought leadership and prominence.

A TEDster since 2013, Vickie also lent her expertise as a mentor to the SupporTED program for TED fellows in 2014-15. Based on her impact, she also was invited to participate in the 2015 and 2017 Collaboratorium conferences as an adviser on branding and thought leadership. In that venue her presentation on how to be a thought leader was ranked as one of the most popular.

The first in her family to graduate from college, Ms. Sullivan earned her bachelor’s degree in Journalism, Public Relations emphasis at the University of Oklahoma. She lives in Tempe, AZ with her husband Larry, her favorite geek.

Strategies are only as good as their results.

What happened after clients implement Vickie’s recommendations? Check out the rest of the story with these revealing, inspiring stories in Rave Reviews. And when you’re ready to put her strategies to work for you, contact us.


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Defining What Separates You From Other Speakers Show Image

Below is the full transcript from the show. Please note that there may be some errors as it was auto transcribed using (referral link that provides us with a 1-month Premium Pass

Tim McDonald 0:00
Welcome, everybody to the business of speaking show. My name is Tim McDonald and I am your host and I am joined today by my guest. Vicki, how are you doing Vicki?

Vickie Sullivan 0:10
Doing great doing great.

Tim McDonald 0:12
All right. Well, for those of you who have not tuned into the show before, this show is really an exploration of speakers and how they got to the stage. We don’t focus on what they talk about on the stage, but it’s more about what they’ve done to get to the stage and what they’ve learned since they’ve been on the stage. And that’s the main purpose of this. So whether you’re thinking about getting involved in speaking, whether you work for a company and or just doing presentations, getting out and talking with other groups of people, or if you’re, you know, really a beginning stage speaker or any were really along the path because if this year hasn’t taught us anything, we don’t know and can’t prepare for everything. So it could, it really can be for anybody. That is interested or in the speaking world? So, with that being said, Vicki, I really just I love the question to kind of start the conversation to hear your story of how you actually got involved with speaking.

Vickie Sullivan 1:12
Well, back many, many years ago, over 30 years ago, when the when the earth was cooling and dinosaurs roamed the planet, I was transitioning out of a career in politics. I was a registered lobbyist here in the state of Arizona, I focused on health care and environmental ballot initiatives. And it was it was fun, but I was kind of done. So I thought I was going to go work at McDonald’s somewhere, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. And, again, they were not enforcing child labor laws. So I was very young, right. And I ran across an ad in a trade magazine to promote a speaker part time and I thought well, that will extend my savings and keep me off the Highline, you know, so I applied, I got the job. And I fell in love with speakers. I love those people. They were nice. They were trying to do good things in the world. And they needed help in marketing. I mean, they thought that all they had to do was just tell people what they talked about, and they were automatically going to get the gig and I’m like, Oh, no, no, no, no, you got to do some other stuff. And so within three weeks, I was working full time, I had a bevy of speakers. I was having the time of my life. I love every single one of them. And the rest they say is history.

Tim McDonald 2:42
So the first question that pops into my head is if you were three weeks into this and telling these speakers that it wasn’t just about sharing their message on stage, how did you know what it was?

Vickie Sullivan 2:54
Well, because I was getting up at 5am every morning on Arizona time called the East Coast. Because I was dialing for dollars, I was hired as an agent. Okay, so I was on the front lines talking to buyers, I heard the response, I heard, I was adjusting the pitch based upon the response that I was getting. I was an agent, they hired me to represent them and get them speaking engagements. And I did that until the late 90s. And it so I had a front row seat to the buyers, I had access to them. Some of them, you know, we really hit it off. So they would tell me stuff that they would not tell other people. And I was getting a ton of market intelligence that helped me promote my speakers better. And so and so when I tripled the the bookings of a speaker here in Phoenix that put me on the map. And so yeah, so it was all about shouting after that.

Tim McDonald 3:58
And how did that lead to And I know you do some speaking and you still, I believe help speakers. So, so how did that lead to you actually getting up on stage?

Vickie Sullivan 4:09
Well, I started speaking to to other speaking groups because I had market trends that I could share. I mean, I had, again, this truckload of priceless information that other speakers didn’t have, because they weren’t making the calls. I mean, seriously, I was dialing for dollars, many hours of the day until the end of the day. So I had six to seven hours per day of on the ground market intelligence. And so I extrapolated out from that some trends that I was saying, and said, Hey, here’s the topics that are hot. Here’s what buyers are looking for. And then I started, I started going in by market segment. I said, Okay, so if you’re a humor speaker, you can’t tell people how funny you are because everybody else is saying that. You got to tell them what that humor is going to do for their group. And that’s why and I was representing a humorous, and I got him bookings all over the place. Because I told the buyer, I said, Look, the guy’s funny, but you’ve heard that before. Let me tell you what you’re gonna do with that hammer. And they’re like, Whoa, I never thought about that. And I’m like, Well, I just did. They’re like, get him in here. And I’m like, great. So I look like me. Everybody wins, right? I mean, the speaker thinks I’m great. The buyer thinks I’m great. You know if the speaker did a great job, so no one died. It was fabulous. My answer to your short question, I started speaking to Enders industry groups back in 92. And, and I’ve given like four presentations at Harvard now. And I have given presentations to Ted fellows, not the big Ted not the mothership, but Ted fellows, you know, the the scientist and upcoming artists that are really trying to make a difference in the world. You know, that kind of thing.

Tim McDonald 6:00
Yeah. And so I’m just kind of curious, what are some of these things that you’ve learned? And have they changed since you first started doing it to where we are today?

Vickie Sullivan 6:10
Oh, my goodness, things have changed. Okay, understatement of the year, things have changed, okay? Absolutely, things have changed. But here’s what I learned. I learned that people do not get hired to speak, because their topic is so riveting. They get hired to speak, because that riveting topic is going to do something the buyer needs to do. Okay, and if you can link your topic and your expertise to something the buyer already knows they need you have the inside track. And it’s all about standing out because the biggest change in the speaking industry right now, and I’m gonna I could talk about this for three days, but I’m gonna do it for 10 seconds. Is there there are so many speakers flooding the market, especially now, especially now. Do you know, Tim, do you know that speaking, public speaking is now considered a leadership skill? So you now have a bunch of up and coming leaders flooding the Industry Association market, because it helps their career, their personal brand to be out there speaking. And these buyers with their cut budgets, especially now, thank you COVID. Right, everyone’s budget is cut. They’re looking for the cheapest speaker that’s not going to hurt them. Alright, so the marketplace is flooded, it’s flooded. Talent is a dime a dozen out there. You know, presentation.

Skills experts

have done a great job of making sure people can speak well and that they are articulate and they are eloquent. So now you got to stand out It’s harder to stand out. And if you get that inside edge, and that’s a strategic issue, that’s a strategic branding and positioning issue, you’re going to get more work than someone who just pops up and says, Hey, I speak on change management,


You know, bang on the cut it. That’s just not going to cut it right now. No.

Tim McDonald 8:23
So, if I’m listening as somebody who’s starting to get into this, you’re watching my world right?

Vickie Sullivan 8:32
Now, and that’s not true at all. I mean, if it’s in your heart, if you have a message burning in your heart to say, there’s a reason for that. There’s something your heart knows that you don’t. Okay, so you got pay attention. But this is a business, okay? If you’re going to be in the business of speaking, this is not you standing up, given a great speech, and then you get business for the rest of your life. No. Okay. That’s how our granddaughter grandfathers It their grandmothers did it. That’s not how we’re doing it right now. Okay. No. So you got to get more strategic. The days of bootstrapping is over. Oh my gosh, you know, back again, back when the earth was cooling, right, you could work on your speeches and be really, really good. And then just show up. Oh, and you’re the girl back soda fountain getting discovered? No, no more. Okay, there’s two, the markets too flooded. Okay, the markets too flooded. There’s too much competition. It’s now a business. And you’ve got you’ve got PR firms that are being hired and there and you got people throwing money at it. So yeah, no, you got to treat this as a business and you got to do a business analysis. You got to be really cold hearted with yourself and you need to say okay, what am what is feasible? What in the marketplace? What is the marketplace really gonna give me, okay. And compare that with what I want, okay, and what I need in order to be fulfilled and happy. Okay. And then you got to really ask yourself the question, What am I willing to do to get it? And let me tell you something that’s outside your comfort zone. I guarantee you, it is outside your comfort zone. It is a you think, you know, you don’t know. It’s outside. It’s all outside up there. So you need to cowboy up and decide.

Hmm, yes, sir.

Tim McDonald 10:36
So, I know and you mentioned like the business is speaking, right? Yeah. I even admit, I was guilty of thinking this when, you know, I was first starting that, you know, people just come to me and, you know, I prepare a talk and that’s it. And then I get up on stage and my job is done. Yeah. What have you learned about the business speaking, that most people aren’t thinking about? When they get into speaking,

Vickie Sullivan 11:01
it’s all about leverage. It’s all about leverage. If you have an opportunity, you need to see that opportunity as a hub. Okay? And you got to look at that speech as, okay, this is an opportunity to showcase my talent, and what I want to say, How can I use that opportunity to the utmost, okay, you can’t depend on the audience to give you business. You’ve got to look at and I call this pack in the house. You know, some people will let you invite guests. Okay, who do you need to invite that might already be looking for speakers, and if they saw you in action, they would love you. Okay, who sitting on the fence, for example. So what I learned is, and I’m a systems person, right, I’m a market analyst by training. I’m a Systems person. So I look at what are the systems involved. The, the business of speaking is really about systems, you know, as well as performance. And the biggest mistakes people make is they think it’s all based on performance. Now, there’s a grain of truth in that. If you’re not good, get out. Okay, cuz there’s too many good people that are good out there. All right. So it is a craft, and it is a performance and you have, we are in the experience economy where if people don’t have a great experience with you, if they don’t have a bunch of aha is popping out of their head, you’re out. Okay? So no doubt you need that. The problem is, that’s the ticket to get in. It’s not a differentiator. And that’s the biggest thing people need to know about the business of speaking is your talent is a foregone conclusion. You have to have it, it is not a differentiator, okay, because too many other people have it

Tim McDonald 12:59
and so we What, you know, what are some of the ways you know, cuz I, in my mind, I’m going through some of the things that I’m thinking about, but I’d love to hear it from you sure. What are some of those ways that you kind of differentiate yourself from others outside of just what you’re talking about on the stage?

Vickie Sullivan 13:16
Well, let me let me use an ancient history example. Okay. And it was back to the humerus that I was representing. Okay, so I’m his agent, I’m dialing for dollars. I’m cold calling. Okay. And this is back before the internet back before social media, again, Earth cooling. All right. So I’m calling buyers up. And just getting to them was the thing, right? I had to call like, seven, eight to 10 times in order to reach him. But when I reached him, I was loaded for bear. And so I would say and they The first thing they would say to me, is, I’m not looking for a humorist. And I said, well, who are you looking for? And they say, well, we’re going to have some regulatory people here. We’re going to have some politicians here. I said, Well, yeah, because you’re a highly regulated industry. And they’re like, da, that’s why we try to tell all these dying humorist. And I said, Well, here’s the deal. I said, you need my speaker, not because he’s funny. But because he’s going to help people change their perspective. And their response to the news, the politician and regulators are going to give them he changes the response and the perception. Now he’s going to do it with humor. So people laugh. But while they’re laughing, they’re also learning. And when they’re learning, they’re changing how they respond to stuff. And so they’re going to hear, you know, blah, blah from the politician. And then they’re going to hear from my guy who’s going to help them see that situation differently in a way that’s going to help them and board buyers love that. They’re like, Oh, I never thought about that. No. Like, yeah, I get it. And the reason why buyers never thought about that is because too many humorist would go in and say, I’m a humorous I am so funny. Let me tell you all the groups that have laughed at my jokes. That doesn’t help the buyer. But you have to know it. You have to know what that what else they’re doing. I once I found out that a lot of these associations that I were calling had politicians and regulatory and industry people there. Everybody likes industry people, okay, but if you’re a motivational speaker, your most people would say, Okay, I understand, say a by and I’m like, Oh, hold up. No, no, I’m not done. Here’s how my Motivational Speaker Yeah, he’s motivational, but here’s how he fits. You see what I’m saying? So you differentiate yourself, you stand out by blending in It’s kind of it’s kind of weird. I understand it’s kind of weird, but you stand out by trying to fit into something that they already have in their head, but makes it better. When if you make it better than they’re like, Oh, this is going to make something I already want better. Never thought of that. This is a great idea. Now, they love you, because you’ve just provided value. You see what I’m saying? But too many speakers have a rant about this and get off sort of got too many speakers get so they fall in love with their topic to such a degree, that they believe that if their enthusiasm and passion for that topic is going to be enough for the buyer, but what they don’t understand is everybody’s passionate about their topic and they are flooding the buyer. The buyer has one slot in 20 speakers that would fit the bill. How do they change How do they choose? They’re gonna choose subjectively. And it’s not an end. So yeah, so so new speakers need to get real. You know, it’s not about the passion. It’s not about the topic. It’s really about what your contribution is in an ecosystem.

Tim McDonald 17:20
And I know you spent plenty of time, just like you mentioned, dialing 710 times before you actually had that conversation. Right? You probably had that many conversations. If you’re talking to if you’re talking to somebody now who’s just getting started, how do they start? knowing who to call, who to get in touch with? You know, um, you know, the questions to ask, I mean, sure, what, what advice do you have for somebody just kind of starting this process?

Vickie Sullivan 17:47
Well, first off, I tell people, I tell when I work with beginning speakers, I usually work with people who are successful in their area, and they’re now ready to leverage that success and go speaking Okay, so I’m not working with someone who just woke up one day and said, I got nothing. So I’m going to be a speaker, they have a track record of success. Okay? And so that the market is flooded with those people. Okay, I call them corporate refugees, you know, they’ve they fled the corporate war torn area, and now they’re in a new planet called speaker planet, right? So here they are. And I pop up and say, let me guide you, you know, there’s pothole over here. You don’t want to step into that, you know, that kind of stuff, right? And what I tell them is, look at where your credibility lies. Sometimes there’s opportunities in play hidden in plain sight. So it’s all about again, it’s all about leverage, right? How can we leverage your goodwill? How can we leverage your success in creating opportunities? Now, cold calling is an art as much as it is a science and a lot of new speakers assume they Have to cold call. And I’m like, hold up. Before we start burning up the telephone lines, let’s not let’s step back, let’s look at the low hanging fruit, the opportunities that are hidden in plain sight, and here’s how here’s why they’re hidden. Okay? They’re hidden, because the speaker because the people the speaker knows, they don’t know what to do with that speaker. So they may applaud the transitioning to speaking, but they don’t understand how that topic is going to fit their agenda. So all they’re going to do is cheer him on from the cheap seats because they love them. They like them. They think they’re great, but they’re not going to hire them. So what I do is I take all that love all up in there, and I turn it into speaking gigs. And that’s how you get started. Because once you get speaking gigs, here’s what you do next. Again, pack the house, invite people who need to hear you speak in order to make a difference. You see, again, leverage.

Tim McDonald 20:04
It’s all about leverage. Yes.

Vickie Sullivan 20:06
Leverage. It’s all about the leverage. Yep.

Tim McDonald 20:10
And I loved I loved what you shared about the low hanging fruit because I think that’s, you know, so many of us are so used to seeing that, that we don’t realize that it’s there all the time.

Vickie Sullivan 20:21
Well, yeah. And also, they assume, see, a lot of us assume that people know what we’re doing. And, and I gotta tell you, my dad taught me this. My dad was a crusty old redneck God rest his soul, worked on the railroad his whole life. And he never understood my business or what he did what I did. And you know, yeah, a couple of years before he died, he said to me, he said, You know what, still don’t know what you do. But I know you’re good at it. And that’s how buyers or people who love us see our speaking business. Sometimes they don’t know anything about it, but they know we’re good. We got to bridge that gap. And you’ll be surprised how many speaking engagements are hidden, again in plain sight. Because now you got someone who’s willing to go to the decision maker and say, Hey, I know Billy Bob over here. And I think he’s worth he’s worth a shot, given. He’s worth a conversation. And if you get that conversation with a buyer, that’s worth 50 phone call calls right there.

Tim McDonald 21:31
I love it. I love it. Well, one question before we kind of wrap up here. If you’re giving one piece of advice to somebody thinking about getting involved in speaking, what would it be? be strategic.

Vickie Sullivan 21:45
Okay, be strategic. Don’t, don’t just go off their half you know, full of vim and vigor and go off halfway, okay. You need to be strategic. You need to be cold hearted with your I’m very realistic and say, What do I think the market will give me? Okay, and Is that enough? Okay, and what am I willing to do? outside my comfort zone to get it? Because you’re going outside your comfort zone? I can guarantee it.

Tim McDonald 22:20
Awesome. Well, Vicki, tell people how they can find you. How can they learn more about what you do and and ways that you help them?

Vickie Sullivan 22:30
Oh, sure. Well, for speakers who are contemplating a speaking business, a speaking career, I do market assessments. And I I love those things in it in the market assessments do three things. One, they assess the market feasibility again, they compare what is the market going to give you versus what you say you want and Is that enough? Okay. The second thing it’s going to do is tell you based upon your particular situation, What are you going to have to do? To get what you just said? You want it? Do you have the internal resources for that? What you know, where’s, where’s the breakdowns? Okay, where is this in? What areas is going to be so far out of your comfort zone? That you’re not going to do it? Okay? Wouldn’t it be nice to know that information before you spend a bunch of money on a video or website or whatever? I mean, please. Then third thing I look at is risk. Okay, are you gonna have to bet the farm to pull this off? Or is this kind of a slam doc. So this is more of a looking at all the moving parts, both in the marketplace and in your specific situation? And say, just how risky is this? You know, there’s some situations that are riskier than others. And you need to know the risk going in, at least I would want to know, you know, I would like to know the risk going in. And I want to know where that risk is, because that’s like one of those roadside bombs, you know, that could go off as you’re going down the road, you want to know where that is for you go down the road. Okay. So that’s what we talked about. So I do a lot of market assessments for people who are contemplating, you know, people who have a lot of options, again, their successes successful in their area, and they want to know, and speakings on some of the things they they’re looking at. It’s, it’s good, if you’re strategic, it’s worth an investment to check it out before you start spending money on websites and speaker directories and all that other kind of stuff. Absolutely. And you can reach me at my website, which is Vicky VI, Ck iE go there ton of free stuff, don’t have to give me your name. Just look at it, visit, do whatever you want. But if but look at the market assessment and and see if that works for you.

Tim McDonald 24:52
Well, thank you so much for sharing that knowledge with us. And I want to just thank everybody for watching right now. One thing that we do is we end the broadcast on YouTube and Vickie agrees to stay with me and I get to ask her one additional question that we only provide as exclusive content to our email subscribers.

Vickie Sullivan 25:13
So I am sir. I love the sound effects, some tea people.

Tim McDonald 25:23
So go over to business dot speaking and you can just join our community it doesn’t cost anything. Sign up for our weekly newsletter and you will be getting that exclusive content and all the beans that Vicky’s about this bill. So thank you for for tuning in. And Vicki, thank you for joining us today.

Vickie Sullivan 25:42
Oh, you bet. It was fun.

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