The Best Jobs in the World: Public Speaker

I am writing a series called The Best Jobs in the World. This series is dedicated to people who have rare or interesting jobs. My aim is to give options, hope, or motivation for people who do not feel the need to get a nine-to-five. 

Dr. Todd Dewett is a two-time global bestselling author through Lynda.com at LinkedIn. He is a TEDx speaker, Inc. Magazine Top 100 leadership speaker, and a former award-winning management professor. Widely quoted in the New York Times to Forbes. His home on the web is www.drdewett.com.

EC: Dr. Dewett, how did you get into leadership speaking?

Dr. Dewett: It all started during my last career as a management professor. I was enjoying being a dorky academician – teaching classes and writing boring papers for academic journals. I taught mostly leadership-related courses to MBA students at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

I loved the school and my role and imagined I would retire at 75 years old when I passed out during a lecture. However, after two or three years in the classroom, my phone started to ring. Former students began to call. They asked me to speak to different groups and at different meetings. This grew every year. I did it for free thinking it was a great service to the community and fun networking for me. Then about two years into speaking around the community, someone offered to pay me a small amount – I was flabbergasted, but accepted the fee. The rest is history.

I started taking the business seriously. Gigs started happening all over the country, and eventually after ten years in the classroom I had to retire to focus on speaking and popular writing full-time.

EC: Are you forming new leaders or simply making leaders better?

Dr. Dewett: Both. My most common audience is mid-level to senior leaders, but about 20% of the time it is a crop of new leaders. Both are similar for me because my academic (PhD in Management from Texas A&M) and my professional experience (Andersen, Ernst & Young, lots of consulting) has me focused on very simple but very powerful messages about relationships and life at work.

For young leaders it might be the first time they heard these messages. For senior leaders, they always need a convincing refresher.

EC: So what do you miss about the world of academia?

Dr. Dewett: I miss satisfying the intellectual itch. For the intellectually curious and motivated, conducting research and writing papers can be very satisfying. However, ultimately, the thing I loved the most and miss the most are my students.

Helping them, watching them grow, seeing them feel inspired – that’s what lit my fire and eventually drove me to embrace speaking full-time.

EC: What are your personal goals for the near future?

Dr. Dewett: I always hope to grow as a speaker: better stories, bigger clients and fees, bigger geographical reach. I know how to do that and take small steps each year. The bigger goal is to move from good to great as a writer.

My latest book has sold thousands, but I’ve yet to have a book become a bestseller – yet! In addition, producing live shows in major markets is a long-term goal. Right now, I do one-off gigs for clients at their locations. With a big enough platform, I would be able to produce my own event and attract people to fill the seats.

EC: I look up to Elon Musk as an inspirational figure. Who inspires you?

Dr. Dewett: There are many. I love people who take risks and put themselves out there. My favorite categories of people are artists and entrepreneurs. They tend to be the ones who push boundaries and shape new ideas. So I feel inspired by Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, but I’m equally inspired by the struggling musician playing at the local coffee house.

EC: Are you able to incorporate family into your business?

Dr. Dewett: Right now only a little in the form of using family members as key players in the stories I use for speaking and writing. I hope to have more of an opportunity to include others in support roles down the line, but honestly I believe very seriously in people finding their own path.

If I had a great opportunity, for example, for one of my boys to work with me and they did not want to because they wished to pursue something else for which they had passion – that’s cool with me. You must chase your own dream.

EC: We’ve talked a little bit about your books; did that start at the same time as the public speaking?

Dr. Dewett: Yes, basically. One of the tools of the trade for professional speaking is having a book. I’ve done a few and have many more to come. To be frank, for most writers, few ever have books purchased and fewer still have books that are actually read. The very best/lucky sell some as I have, a smaller group becomes best-sellers.

Your book success, however, does not matter. To be hired to speak you must have one. It is expected, just as a college degree is expected for most professional jobs.

EC: What’s the hardest part of your profession?

Dr. Dewett: Figuring out a productive approach to sales and marketing. I’m asked about this all the time. “How do you get gigs?” they ask. People think there must be some marketing practice or secret list of event planners to call. Nothing could be further from the truth. Over 95% of my business is referral. You get hired, stand in front of a crowd, slay them and then later your phone rings because someone in the audience needs you to speak to their event or they told someone about you.

I’ve done close to 1,000 professional gigs and nearly all are referrals. Yes, social media and networking help a little, but the key is simple: stand in front of a group and move them to laugh, think, and cry. Your phone will ring.

EC: Can anyone become a public speaker, let alone a leadership speaker?

Dr. Dewett: Anyone can try, just as is the case with being a writer, a comedian, or any artistic role. Speaking is not for most people.

Oddly, in Western society we don’t spend adequate time during early education creating great communicators. That’s odd given how much we know about the relationship between great communication and success in life. On the other hand, speaking is a skill that can be studied and learned. You can become better over time. Like anything else it takes time and practice.

With a strong effort you can move forward but your initial foundation does matter. A poor speaker can become competent, but becoming a professional is extremely difficult.

EC: If you had a magic wand, what would you change about your job?

Dr. Dewett: The quality of air travel. It’s unavoidable if you’re a speaker. Yes, video speaking opportunities are increasing, but for good professional speakers the best gigs by far are still live in-person, thus planes are involved. Too slow, too unreliable, too uncomfortable, but it’s part of the job.

EC: You shocked me the first time I had your class with all your tattoos. Will you be supportive of your sons if they decide to get ink when they turn 18?

Dr. Dewett: Maybe. It depends on who they are. I get this one a lot so I have a thoughtful if simple response. If they are a good person with character, hard-working, and racking up nice accolades on route to clear early career success – cool (assuming it is a socially acceptable tattoo of course). If, however, they are a slacker, questionable work-ethic, and seem to be achieving little or striving for little, then no!

Tattoos still have a stigma. It is small today, but it is still evident. If you’re a real go-getter overachiever, most won’t care about your tattoo. If you’re an underachiever, it will be evidence to those around you that you are not kicking butt. Not really fair, but that’s reality.

EC: Who is your favorite band/artist right now?

Dr. Dewett: My favorites are always the classic rock monsters: AC/DC and the like. I also enjoy lots of early punk from the mid-70s through the early 80s, with a fondness for the pop-punk explosion in the 90s as well (e.g., Greenday). My tastes tend to be wide though. I also love the singer songwriters (e.g., Sara Bareilles), alternative rock (e.g., White Stripes), and a good bit of modern country as well.

EC: At the time, I was the youngest person in your final classes. What’s the biggest cultural gap you notice between your age group and millenials? Any similarities?

Dr. Dewett: I’m no millenial expert, but the work/play balance seems to be one issue. I’m wired to work too much and many millenials are wired to care about enjoying life through leisure. Frankly, I think that orientation makes a lot of sense. We spend too much time working! On the other hand, I think we share something older generations don’t seem to care about as much:a desire for purpose in our careers. I teach and preach about purpose in careers a lot. I think that was lost on my father’s generation, but millenials seem to get it. That gives me hope.

EC: What group would you really like to speak to that you haven’t yet?

Dr. Dewett: I want to speak to a huge group from Apple!

EC: You’re on notice Apple. Would you ever go back to a “traditional” job?

Dr. Dewett: Not a chance. Once you find a little success as an entrepreneur it gets in your blood. I hope to be an advisor and helper to those with traditional jobs for the remainder of my career, but don’t look for me to become an “employee” again any time soon.

EC: Thank you, Dr. Dewett!

Dr. Dewett: Thank you!

Stay tuned for the next interview in my series The Best Jobs in the World.

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