Interview: Vickie Sullivan – Branding Queen

Vickie Sullivan Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as a top market strategist for experts. Specializing in branding for high-fee professional speaker markets, she has launched thousands of thought leaders since 1987. Vickie’s groundbreaking work has earned her an appointment on the Women’s Leadership Board for the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. In that capacity, she presented three times to the Harvard student body on personal branding and prominence.

On Saturday she presented to a somewhat less august institution than Harvard. She rocked the house at the meeting of the Northern California Chapter of the National Speakers Association. Her presentation, Brand It And They Will Come: Build a High-Fee Brand When You Are Not Famous, was short on fluff and long on street-wise detail to help the average $1,000 – $5,000 speaker in the audience stand out from the crowd.

An era of practicality

With meeting expenditure down, even as the number of meetings are trending higher, clients are doing more with less. Unlike the go-go days of the boom period, we are now living in an era of practicality. Executives are micromanaging meetings down to the level of choosing the theme and seating arrangements. They are sending interns to do first-round interviews with prospective speakers. Many speakers are not only competing with each other for gigs, they are competing with the authors, bloggers and social media mavens who will speak for free in order to pimp their books and consulting programs.

So what’s a novice speaker to do?

First, lose the obsession with presentation skills. Being able to present well is table stakes. Next, realize meeting organizers divide the world into speakers who are nice to have and those they gotta have. In order to fall into the latter camp the information you offer has to overlap with the buyers perceived needs and beat out the other options being considered for the meeting agenda. You have to stand out from the crowd by uniquely branding yourself. Getting hired requires you create a vivid picture in the client’s mind of what they will get when you speak at their event. Craft your brand in a way that appeals to the buyers emotions and creates an image of you in a category of one. Vicki goes into more detail on the importance of differentiation in this Special Report on her website:

If branding is the promise you make to the market, then differentiation is the stage you use to deliver on your promise.

The Three Keys to a High-Fee Brand

One: A Successful Story

Your compelling story is only useful to the extent it teaches others. Sports hero’s have a problem on the speaking circuit if their motivational stories don’t connect with the couch potatoes in the audience. We can connect with the audience by telling stories that break with the expected and bring opposites into play, compare unexpected things or roles or reveal a Eureka moment. Vickie’s website has an article on writing Stories That Create The Emotional Drive To Buy.

Two: A Point of View

Build a point of view around hot issues. Focus on a Big Idea. Make the invisible visible. Tell people things they’ve not heard before. Three options that help build a unique point of view:

  1. Predict the Future – what can we expect that will impact the audience’s world in unexpected ways? In my world, I’m seeing a growing backchannel of communication using PDA’s and social media to converse about the speaker while they are still onstage.
  2. Sound the Alarm – what does the audience need to know that will save their skins? Again, in my own world, too much information is being crammed into presentations by subject matter experts. Someone else in the audience today shared how middle managers in Silicon Valley technology companies are addicted to the corporate crack of repeatedly launching projects to boost their career without realizing they are burning everyone out with their 7×24 demands. She realized she could develop a compelling point of view by sounding the alarm about this destructive behavior.
  3. Call The Game – what are people doing that’s having an impact they don’t understand? In the corporate world it’s often the belief that 33 PowerPoint slides are needed where three would be more effective at getting the message across. I can call the game by showing presenters how they can speak less and say more.

Three: Compelling Content

Vickie writes that compelling content creates constant curiosity:

Curiosity is our radar system. It gives us early warning to change and opens the door for innovation. All of us use this emotion to be inventive and fulfilled. The media and the marketplace use curiosity to search for the latest thinking, a fresh perspective that jumpstarts conversations and originality. Help your market get what they don’t have, and watch buyers run to you to learn more.

Softly Softly

As dynamic and challenging as we need to be to brand ourselves, Vickie warns against alienating clients. Before you hit them upside the head with frightening predictions or ring the alarm bells, she advises that you start by stating something everyone can agree with. Then focus in and add a unique twist before explaining why you are proposing a credible alternative to the status quo.

Vickie Unplugged

After the event ended, I wanted to hear more from Vickie, so I asked her to explain how the era of practicality impacts speakers and why she believes it’s important that we keep an air of mystery about what we do. To hear what she told me, click on the podcast icon below.

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Thanks for this post. I couldn’t attend the meeting, so this is very helpful. Thanks again!

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