Stuck at a Plateau? Four Ways to Catapult Your Business

By Jane Atkinson

Speakers aren’t supposed to need help.  They are the people everyone else goes to for help.  But let’s face it, every once in a while, you get stuck.  It’s inevitable. 
No one can blame you if you’ve hit a rough patch after working like a dog for 5, 12 or even 20 years.   This business is mentally, emotionally and physically demanding.  The travel alone would knock the stuffing out of most people, so it’s natural for peaks and valleys to occur. 
Here are some signs that you might be stuck.
1.     Your business hasn’t grown in the past 12 months.
2.     Your speech has not changed in the last 12 months.
3.     Your spin-off rates have dropped.
4.     Your level of enthusiasm for the business or your speech has tapered off.
5.     Even if business is still coming in, all you can think about is doing something different or taking a break.
Do any of those sound familiar?   
So how do you go about getting unstuck
Step 1: Diagnose the Problem.  Stop doing what you are doing and take time to sit down and truly assess where you are.  Allow yourself to get quiet and really listen and observe.  Many speakers simply don’t want to say the words out loud, “I’m going through a hard time.”
If you have staff, ask for their input.  They can often see things that you can’t and may give you a bird’s eye view of your business.  Ask yourself these questions: What is really going on in my business?   What is it that I am not seeing?
We also need to acknowledge that when a personal crisis like divorce or family illness takes place, we might have to put the business on the side burner temporarily.  Only you know where your priority needs to be.  One of my clients who was going through a divorce found himself getting the best ratings and standing ovations of his career.  He had learned to channel his emotional turmoil into passion on the platform and it worked like a charm.
Every bump in the road that we hit may be an opportunity to catapult to the next level. 
Step 2: Focus.  In my experience, one common issue leads to a speaker struggling – lack of focus.  Typically it’s a lack of focus around their expertise or they may not have “picked a lane” yet.  Some of the speakers who have the hardest time with this are those who have been around awhile.  The key is understanding that what worked in the marketplace 10 years ago does not work today.
Ten years ago you could have six or seven topics and people would book you because you were a good speaker.  Not any more. And although being a generalist might pay the bills initially, you will be no further ahead five years down the road.  You will not be the recognized expert on any subject.  Your fees will also suffer because clients don’t pay high fees for generalists – they pay high fees for experts.
There is no room for fear when it comes to getting focused around your expertise.  You have to be able to wean yourself away from business that is no longer in your lane or you will be stuck being a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. 
Brian Palmer of National Speakers Bureau says, “clients no longer want to hire speakers, they want to hire smart people, who happen to speak”.
Step 3:  Recognize Boredom.  When you can do your speech in your sleep or have the potential to start “phoning it in,” you could be bored.  If you’ve been delivering the same material for any length of time, this is a potential hazard for you.
Like Madonna (the pop star, not the religious figure), speakers have to continually reinvent themselves.  We need to grow with our speech and discover new material.  Our careers may have us changing lanes several times or developing a new on-ramp to our existing lane.
I find writing is one of the best ways to stay plugged into our business and develop new material.  When I’m continually in an “investigative” mode, it forces me to examine and re-examine my material.
So what can you do to light a spark under your speech?
1.     Refocus on the audience.  Engage with them in new ways.  Do your pre-gig work differently.  Meet with the key decision makers, executives or Boards of Directors for a pre-session at no charge.  If you wouldn’t normally stay for an awards dinner, then stay. Go back to the basics.  Challenge yourself to look at every speech as your first ever.  What did you do back then that you no longer do?
2.     Take any story you’ve been telling for more than 24 months and either change it or throw it out.  Make it more exciting and challenging for you to tell or, better yet, throw it out.
3.     Write an article on a new area that pertains to your lane.  Find something that interests you, but that you don’t know much about.
4.     Listen to the market.  What have they been consistently requesting of you that you haven’t delivered?
5.     Bring in an expert.  Mark Sanborn used a presentations coach several years ago when he got stuck in a rut, and still uses things he learned from that coach today.  If you need help, ask around and find a coach who has your required expertise and clicks with you.
6.     Take time off.  If you need some time to recharge your batteries then take it.  A burnt out speaker is no good for anyone, especially the client.  Like Nike says, just do it!
Joe Calloway says he’s an expert on ruts.  He is continually finding new ways to re-invent himself.  Joe says “if you’re not doing something that scares the pants off you in your speech, then you probably won’t get out of the rut – you’re just tweaking.  The key to creating value for the client is getting better on the platform.  We want them to say ‘we’ve never seen that before’ or ‘that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!’”
Recently, I saw a speaker that I’d heard 15 years ago.  He was funny, charming, captivating and the audience liked him, but he told the same stories I’d heard back then.  I found it to be quite incongruent with his message of business innovation.  Today’s audiences are sophisticated and expect more of you.  Challenge yourself to be fresh and innovative.
Even speakers who talk about their own life experiences (such as climbing Mt. Everest or winning at the Olympics) can find new language and ways to spin the story.  They can also find new ways to make it about the audience and not themselves.  Art Berg, who passed away in 2002, was a great example.  His own personal story of moving from a paralyzing automobile accident to becoming hugely successful in many areas of life was indeed unique to him.  Despite that he found a way to make the audience – even though they weren’t in wheelchairs – believe that they too could achieve the impossible in their own lives.  He made it about them, and not himself.
Step 4: Create a Vision.  While you are stuck in a rut is the perfect time to develop your five-year vision.  Allow yourself to think big and write down everything that you want in your life five years from now.  Rich Fettke, who was my personal coach for several years, taught me how to do this and I’ve marveled every time a new vision comes to fruition.  Duh!  Maybe Napoleon Hill was onto something with that “what you believe you can achieve” thing?
Think about how a month in your life looks five years from now.  How many speaking engagements do you deliver?  Who is in that perfect audience?  How much are you paid?  What is the impact of your message?  How much do you travel?  What do you do in your free time?  How do your home and office look and who is in them?  Where do you and your family vacation?  Be very clear and specific.  Focusing on what you want as opposed to what you do not want is the fastest way out of a rut.
Bottom Line.  When you walk the hallways of an NSA convention, allow yourself to be real and tell the truth about what’s going on in your business.  The more real and vulnerable you are, the more you will model that for others and soon we’ll all be checking our egos and puffed up chests at the door.
If you can be honest about recognizing where you are in your business, re-energize your material and focus on where you want to go, you’ll be on the way to catapulting your business and taking it to entirely new heights.