USA Memory Champion and sought after public speaker Ron White talks about his career. You can find Ron at www.ronwhitetraining.com on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview. @memorytraining
What do you do for a living?
I’m a professional speaker. I speak at conferences and conventions on the topic of how better memory will help you in business. Things like remembering names and faces, giving speeches without notes, memorizing chapters of books, building relationships with your customers by remembering key (data) about them, that kind of thing.
Well, what the customer sees is they see me walk on a stage and give a 60-minute speech and think that’s the product. And I think that’s what everybody thinks a speaker does but really that’s the easy part. The main part is the marketing.
I’ve been doing this 21 years now and for the first ten years I was just beating up the telephone, calling companies saying, ‘hey, can I speak to your organization, can I speak for you?’ There was a lot of cold calls and selling for years until I built up a name.
Now these days a lot of it is just getting on that stage and speaking but any person or company that wants to grow can’t just stay there. So I write a lot of blogs and articles and I continue to keep my name out there.
Overall it’s writing blogs, writing articles, it’s creating new products whether it be CD’s for books and then, of course, giving the speeches which is the fun part.
What’s a typical workweek look like?
Well in December a typical workweek looks like me typing up scripts, writing blogs, articles, creating new products, brainstorming, marketing plans, that kind of stuff because there’s not many speeches in December. A month like September, October, jam-packed; that looks like me getting on an airplane flying to a speech.
For example, here was how September looked for me. September the 6th I gave a speech in Indianapolis. So on the 5th I flew up there, woke up in Indianapolis on the 6th, gave my speech and came home. The next week I got on an airplane and I flew to New York. So I arrived the evening of the 11th and on the 12th I spoke in New York and then on the 13th I got on a plane and I headed to Rome, Italy where I spoke in Italy on the 14th. Then from Italy I took a train to Germany and I spoke in Germany on the 20th. From there I got on an airplane and flew home. I landed at home on Saturday and then Sunday I flew to Arizona for a speech on Monday. I got back home on Monday night and then Tuesday I left for Europe. I gave a speech there and then directly from Europe I left and I went to Africa for a week and gave conferences in Africa and then I came back home again.
In a four-week period I was in the USA for three days and I was home one day. So it just all depends. December I’m going to be home the whole month and in September I was in the United States for one day.
The positives about being a speaker are that in that four or five week stretch I got to see Italy and Germany and England and Nigeria and Ghana. That’s the positive, you get to see the world. The negative is you’re traveling all the time.
How did you get started in this?
Well I was 18 years old and I took a class because I thought it would help me with my memory. I liked it and I ended up asking the company if I could go to work for them.
It wasn’t something that I pursued it just was a couple of chance introductions and it sounded interesting to me and so I decided to do it. Nothing I sought after for sure.
What do you like about what you do?
I like to travel, I like to see the world. I’ve been to probably 40 or 50 countries now. I get to do something that comes very natural to me and that’s speaking on a stage in front of people and they pay me for it.
Before I had this job I rolled burritos at Taco Bueno. If you can get up on a stage and you are confident and you are fun you can do this.
That’s enjoyable and the field that I’m in, the field of memory, is a fun challenge. But even if I wasn’t a memory speaker, if I was speaking about sales, leadership, or motivation I could still enjoy the travel to an extent and I’d still enjoy doing something that is a fun way to make a living. I’m not doing something that’s dull.
What are some things that you dislike about it?
I dislike the travel, that’s what I love about it but it’s also what I hate about it. That, I think, can be controlled. Ten years ago I was just broke in Dallas, Fort Worth, Texas and I told myself, you know what, I’m going to be an international speaker, I’m going to travel the world, see the world and get paid to do it and that’s what I did.
It was by design. Now I’m trying to design it the other way. I’m trying to reverse it and go back to just sticking around in Texas. And I’m not saying I regret all the travel I did I’m just at a different stage in my life. But the traveling does get to you. That’s probably the biggest drawback.
How do you make money or how are you compensated in this career?
Well there’s a couple of different ways that you can make money as a speaker. The first way is how I did it for the first ten years. And that is I spoke for free. What I’d do is I’d call local Dallas/Fort Worth companies, car dealerships, real estate offices, mortgage companies and I’d ask them when they had their weekly sales meeting and they’d say Tuesday or Wednesday or whatever and I’d say, “hey, can I come out for 30 minutes and give you a free presentation on how better memory will improve your sales?”
They’d have me out and I’d go speak for free and then at the end sell tickets to a seminar or sell CD’s. That is a great, great way for a speaker to get their feet wet and start to speaking and making money. Unfortunately most speakers won’t do it because they don’t see themselves as sales people, they see themselves as speakers. And that’s why most speakers don’t make it; you are a salesperson.
So that’s the number one way to make a living and I did it for ten years. As I became a better speaker and became more well-known I was able to start charging for my speeches which, of course, I do now.
I still, depending upon the venue and the speech, will sell CD’s at the end of my speech and sometimes you can go speak at a conference to 500 people and then at the end sell your CD’s or books as well as get paid to speak. Maybe you’ll get $7000, $10,000 to speak and then you’ll sell your CD’s at the end and sell another $10,000 in CD’s.
Some people who host seminars though have gotten wise to this and they realize, you know what, these speakers need me more than I need them. There’s a million speakers out there, there’s not many people out there who can put 300 people in a conference room and some of the promoters now say to the speakers, “not only are we not going to pay you to speak, you can sell your CD’s but we’re going to split the sales 50/50”. And a lot of the speakers, especially the ones who don’t have a good reputation where they can just charge $10,000 to speak, they’re over a barrel and they have to do it. There are a lot of events like that around now where you’ll go speak at a conference and the promoter will split your sales with you 50/50.
How much money do you make?
Well, again that all depends on the month. I charge $10,000 a speech. I don’t always get that. I recently gave a speech in London where I spoke for free, Donald Trump was a speaker that spoke after me and I sold $25,000 worth of stuff after I spoke for free.
I’ll tell you this, in 2006 I brought in $250,000 and my income has increased every year since 2006.
Essentially I’ll charge $10,000 per speech, some will pay it and some will say that we can’t pay you the full $10,000. To which I’ll say well how about $7500 but you let me sell CD’s?
It’s a good income opportunity.
How much money did you make starting out?
Oh, it was awful. I was 18 years old and my first year I made $7000. I’ll say that again, $7000. That was my gross income for that year but keep in mind I was 18. I had no discipline really, I was working three days a week and I was going to college two days a week I saw it more as a part-time job.
With that said, even when I did get serious about it I think for the first seven or eight years I probably never made more than $30,000. $25,000 to $30,000 the first seven years I did this.
What education or skills are required or needed to do this career?
I have no college degree. Before I had this job I rolled burritos at Taco Bueno. If you can get up on a stage and you are confident and you are fun you can do this. But that’s something that people really overlook. They think, I’ve got so much knowledge, so much value to share I’m going to be a speaker. Well you have to be fun, and this is why I speak so much, my speech is fun. I’m up there telling jokes, they’re laughing, I say 50% entertainment is in jokes and 50% education and I get more speaking jobs than the people who give 90% education because here’s the sad truth, people want to be entertained more than they want to be educated. That’s the truth. But that doesn’t mean I don’t give tremendous value.
Let me go back to your question. A college education is not required unless you want to go to work for somebody who promotes speakers and they require you to have it but most speakers are self-employed. People are not going to hire you to speak at their conference because you have a degree. People are going to hire you to speak at their conference if you hold their attention, if you’re fun, and if you give value. And because of that you just you need become an expert on whatever topic you speak about. If you speak to a leadership or sales or team building or whatever it is, solidify yourself as an expert in that field. You don’t need certificates or degrees to be an expert you just simply need to know your stuff.
One of the easiest ways to position yourself as an expert is to start writing blogs and to start writing books even if it’s just eBooks. When I walk into a prospective customer instead of handing them a business card I say, ‘hey, here’s my book consider me for your conference’. They look at my book and know I must be an authority on what I speak about.
So things like that are more valuable than degrees.
What would you say is most challenging about what you do?
Getting the business, getting the speeches. That’s without question. There’s something called the NSA, it’s the National Speakers Association. The NSA is full of people who are dynamic speakers but they just aren’t good marketers. The hardest part about this business is being a good marketer, being able to get the speeches. So you’ve got to learn how to build an email list, how to make cold calls, how to advertise, how to market. That’s the hardest part of it.
What would you say is most rewarding?
Helping people and educating people, seeing the light bulbs go off in their head is great. It’s also great to be able to make an income where you can help out your friends and your family if they need help and that’s an awesome feeling.
What advise would you offer to someone considering this career?
I’d say just do it! Just dive in and start speaking. I remember I was 27 years old and I was talking to somebody who was in their early 60’s and she said, I want to finish my master’s degree in two years and by the time I’m 65 I want to be out there speaking. And I looked at her and I said, you know what, I’m 27 and I apologize but I’ve got to go right now because I’ve got a speech in the morning and I don’t have a degree.
And she just looked at me dumbfounded. It shook her paradigm. She needed to get a degree, she needed to do this and this and then she was going to be speaking within three years and I was 27 without a degree and I had a speech the next morning.
My advice would be to start writing articles, start writing blogs, start writing eBooks on your topic that you want to speak as to (list) yourself as an expert and then if it’s something that applies to businesses call your local businesses, your car dealerships, your real estate officers, your mortgage companies, your stock brokers and say, hey, do you have a staff meeting or a sales meeting once a week? Can I come in there for free and give a free 30-minute workshop?
A lot of them are going to tell you, yeah, come on in. Then my next suggestion is have something to sell at the end even if it’s just a $20, $30, $40 CD/book or package.
But get your feet wet and get started tomorrow. Write articles, write blogs, put content out there and then at the very least start speaking for free in your local area.
How much time do you take off?
It’s hard to say. For example, this week is the week of the World Series. In June, July, August I was getting speaking requests for this week and next week. I declined all speaking requests. I was turning down speeches that were going to pay me $7000, $8000 and $9000 but I was declining all of them because this is the week of the World Series and there was a chance the Texas Rangers might be in the World Series.
So I not only chose this week as a week off I lost maybe $10,000 or $15,000 because of my belief in the Rangers. I remember in 2011 I basically did nothing except speak.
A speaker could take off three or four months of the year if they wanted.
What is a common misconception that people have about what you do?
I think a common misconception is that if you’re a good speaker the speeches will just come.
That if you have a good product and you’re a good speaker well then you’re going to be busy. That’s not the truth. It’s more important to be a good marketer and a good salesperson. Marketing and selling is more important than being a good speaker. If you’re not a marketer or you’re not a salesperson you will fail unless you have a partner or somebody who can do the marketing and sales for you. But if you’re just a great charismatic speaker you’re going to fail this business without marketing and sales.
What are your goals and dreams for the future?
I want to travel less. I want to sell more CD’s and DVD’s and books online. I’d love to walk by my CD’s and books at stores like Barnes & Nobles and stuff like that. That’s my biggest goal and dream for the future, clear up more of my time where I can still travel but when I do it’s on my terms and for fun.
What else would you like people to know about what you do?
It’s very rewarding and you can get paid well. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to charge $10,000 for about a year now. You’ve got to put in a lot of work and write blogs and articles and content and putting it out there. Also being honest will pay dividends in your career. For example, somebody recently called me, they booked me for a speech and I charged them, I think, $7000 to speak and then two weeks later I was talking to somebody who booked speeches for me and I said, yeah, I just got back from Denver, I spoke to this XYZ company and they said, you’re kidding? I called XYZ Company and tried to get you there and they said no!
Basically what happens was they hung up the phone with that speaker’s agent, they Googled me, contacted me directly and got a lower fee. And when I found that out I went home, wrote a check for 25% and took it over to the agent and paid them. I didn’t have to do that. The agent was so appreciative and it was just honest and it builds that relationship and that’s going to go a long way in this business.