Ryan Foland speaks with Laura Gassner Otting, an international speaker who talks about success and living life by your own standards, not those of others. She inspires audiences around the world to push past the doubt and indecision that hold them back—including those speakers who feel stuck on small stages.
In this candid and free flowing talk, Ryan and Laura discuss numerous topics, from how to use video effectively, to stand up comedy, to how to make meaningful connections with event organizers, audiences and other speakers to build your network and excel in your speaking career.
Listen to this podcast to find out:
- How to get on bigger stages
- Why video is an essential marketing tool, and how to get started
- Why watching stand-up might be a better way to learn about audience engagement than TED Talks
- The benefits of being able to speak off-the-cuff, and some tips on how to do it.
- How to bounce back when you make a mistake or get rejected.
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Laura Gassner Otting: Hey, this is Laura. I just talked to Ryan about how to get unstuck and make your speaking career limitless. Hope you enjoy it.
Ryan Foland: Ahoy everybody, and of course we're back, and this time we have someone who is a confidence catalyst, she is somebody who gets people unstuck. Her name is Laura Gassner Otting. Am I saying that correctly?
Laura Gassner Otting: Laura Gassner Otting.
Ryan Foland: Laura Gassner Otting. Now, I like to start the show mispronouncing stuff so the rest of the show you're all prepped and we can't be held accountable for it.
Laura Gassner Otting: That's alright, I always tell people I've been called worse.
Ryan Foland: Well, I'm excited to have you here today. I've got your book sitting in front of me which I've been diving into and through, and carrying around with me.
I'm excited to learn more about you as a person, your tips as a speaker, and how you've successfully made a good kind of mess for yourself with all this traction around the topics that you're speaking on and sharing to the world.
Welcome to the show.
Laura Gassner Otting: It's great to be here.
Ryan Foland: I'm assuming this is not something you are unfamiliar with, as far as the podcast goes, because when you get a book out, everybody wants to jump on it and have you on the show.
I appreciate you letting us steal some of your time here.
But before we dig in to all the nuggets of information you're going to deliver, I want to get everyone to know you a little bit more, and we do that through a single story from your past that you think, by itself, could represent who you are.
I know it's a tall order, but can you think of a story off the shelf, that gets us warmed up to what you're all about?
Laura Gassner Otting: Yes, so I'll share a story that's not in the book because hopefully people will read the book after this, and this will be like a special bonus for people that listen to this podcast.
When I was 22 years old, I worked in Bill Clinton's White House, that part is in the book, so that's not the big secret.
But when I got there as a volunteer, and I had been volunteering on the campaign, I dropped out of law school to join the campaign because I'd heard then-governor Bill Clinton talking about this idea of community service in exchange for college tuition and I thought,
"Oh my god, that needs to happen," this whole impassioned speech that “nothing that's wrong with America can't be fixed with what's right with America”, and I was like, "Yes, I'm in."
Ryan Foland: Nice.
Laura Gassner Otting: So I dropped out of law school, I joined the campaign, and along the way ended up meeting a guy who became the person who organized volunteers for the new administration.
I went to DC, I volunteered on the transition team, I went to the inauguration, and I walked into the White House at 12:01 on inauguration day and I began doing data entry for the Office of National Service, which would later become the office that created and built AmeriCorps.
I spent four weeks volunteering, doing data entry, hoping beyond hope that somebody would notice me, that I would get my shot, that somebody would see me. That was like the big ‘A-ha-please-let-it-be” moment.
And then one day as I was walking out of the office, I saw a list for blood donations and the guy who ran the office was a guy with the name of Eli Segal.
Now, Eli Segal ran the 1992 presidential campaign and he could have had any job he wanted when Bill Clinton was elected, including being like the ambassador to France, he could have like the cushiest job in the world.
But he was madly in love with this idea of national service and he just used to teach me "Always bet on youth."
And so his name was listed there as one of the four slots and there was a fourth slot that was open.
So, I wrote my name down and I went to go donate blood next to Eli Segal, thinking to myself, "I will have a trapped audience for at least 15 minutes, to plead my case."
Now, the thing about the story that's the sort of surprise twist is that I have this really unfortunate, unexciting, medical condition called vasovagal syncope which basically means I pass out when I do things like give blood.
Ryan Foland: Through the brown bag.
Laura Gassner Otting: Yeah, it's not so good. I have very low blood pressure.
So, I get on the table next to him and we're told to squeeze a little red ball and I'm not squeezing it because I'm hoping if I just bleed slowly then I won't have to get up off the table before he does.
And so we spent 15 minutes talking and he's like, "My name's Eli," and I am like, "Yeah, I know who you are," like, "Everybody in Democratic politics knows who you are."
But he was so humble and lovely, and we spent the entire time talking about how John Kennedy's PeaceCorps was a success from the minute it took off, announced in the Rose Garden and everybody loved it, whereas Lyndon Baines Johnson's War on Poverty was a failure even before it was signed into law.
And he wanted to know why, and he wanted to know if I could figure that out for him so that we didn't do the same thing with AmeriCorps. You know, small projects, low stakes, not a big deal.
I was like, "Okay, yeah, I'll do that." And then he finishes, he gets off the table, I finish, I get off the table, I proceed to pass out. He's already gone at that point.
And then as I'm leaving, a guy in the office was like, "You know, Eli is very busy and he's not going to be able to read that piece of research you do, you should give it to me and I'll summarize it for him and I'll put a cover memo on it."
"Okay," thinking, "That seems legit, that's fine, I'm a peon, I'm a nobody."
And then I walk a few more steps and a woman who works in the office is like, "You know what's going to happen, right?"
I was like, "No? Yes? Maybe? I don't know," I'm trying to act all sophisticated, even though I'd like just passed out and I was literally wearing my mother's suit with like the big giant Alexis Carrington shoulder pads, it was 1992.
And she's like, "He's going to screw you. He's totally going to steal your work." And I was like, "Oh, well, what am I going to do, I'm kind of stuck," like, "I have to do it."
So she's like, "No, here's what you're going to do, you're going to do the work, you're going to give it to him, but then you're also going to give it to Eli on the way out the door and say, 'You know, you're going to have this summarized for you, but I thought you might like the raw data.'" I was like, "Oh, okay."
So, then I went home and I did the research and I gave him the report a couple of days later and then I cried into my ramen soup, which was the only thing that I could afford at that moment, because I was a volunteer, I wasn't making any money, and I thought, "I'm going to get fired from the job I don't even yet have."
And then the next day I walked into the office and Eli was like, "So, I heard you passed out. Oh, and by the way, we're going to put you on payroll."
That's how I got my first job working in the White House.
Ryan Foland: Okay. So from that, I understand you to be brave beyond your own biological ability.
Laura Gassner Otting: Yes, I am stupid, beyond biological.
I am the person who jumps out of the airplane and then goes, "Wait, was there a parachute in that backpack?"
I firmly believe that there is an adventure around every corner if you just look hard enough, and I also firmly believe that failure is never finale, it's only fulcrum.
And that I do write about in the book.
I was giving a talk in Austin at Renaissance Weekend a couple of months ago and I was talking about how failure is not finale, and I look to the left and there's Commander Tim Kopra of NASA.
And Commander Tim Kopra of NASA has been on three spacewalks, and I was like, "So for you, sir, the failure is most definitely finale, but for the rest of us walking around on terra firma as long as there is breath in your body, we can grow and we can learn, and we can change, from failure."
I am just somebody who has always believed that there is never a dead end, there's never an end of the road, and if the road ends it's just because you're on the wrong road.
And that U-turns, and left turns, and right turns are what makes us interesting human beings, and frankly, what makes us compelling on stage.
Ryan Foland: This made me think of a cul de sac, like every dead end is really cul de sac, you just keep walking and all of a sudden, it kind of forces you on the turn back.
Laura Gassner Otting: Totally, absolutely.
And you know, some of us have a better turning radius than others. Some of us kind of like pop a tire on the sidewalk and some of us go smoothly through it so it looks like it was planned.
But on the 50 somewhat podcasts I've done in the last 6 weeks in the book launch, I've gotten so many people that are like,
"Well you've had this great, strategic career, tell us about them smart moves you've made to make sure that you're exactly where you need to be."
And I'm like, "Are you kidding me?"
I mean I literally rolled my eyes when Hoda on The Today Show said, "You look like you got your shit together," and I was like, "No. Not at all."
Ryan Foland: You're like, "It's a result of stupidity and bravery," and we call it maybe stupravery.
Laura Gassner Otting: It's moxie, baby, it is moxie. That's it.
Ryan Foland: I love that word, that is a great one, yes.
Laura Gassner Otting: In 20 years of doing executive recruiting for people at the top of their game, people who on paper look like they were just 100% firing on all cylinders all the time, what I learned was that it was the U-turns, and the left turns, and the right turns, and the cul de sacs, that made for the most interesting people and made for the best leaders. Because they are the ones who understood how hard decisions get made.
Ryan Foland: Hmm. Now sort of a step backwards into what drew you to drop your law books and run towards the White House.
Has there always been this like passionate nonprofit person within you?
Was that something that you were raised with, was your family super altruistic and philanthropic? How did you get that bug?
Laura Gassner Otting: My mother was a city councilwoman, I was growing up in Miami and my father was a physician.
So they were in the helping professions, and I think that that probably was part of how I was shaped.
I also came from, my great grandparents all came here through Ellis Island on boats and escaping for a better future.
I think there is something about the idea of community that immigrants bring with them, that it makes it hard to ignore other people around you.
It's funny though, because when I was in high school, I skipped kindergarten and so I was the youngest in my high school class and my father was a Republican, my mother was a Democrat— is—they both still are alive and still retain these political leanings.
And amazingly, they are still married, very happily, which is, after 50 years, pretty great.
The Reagan Republicans would probably consider Democrats today and the Carter Democrats were like so far off to the left at this point, I mean, everybody sort of moved.
But it really became a matter of, do you put social priorities above financial priorities or financial priorities above social priorities.
And my parents really agreed about, I'd say, 80% of the stuff in the middle, it was just where they prioritized that was different, but the stuff that they agreed upon was that those who have more, have a responsibility in some way to take care of those who have less.
And it was a question of whether that taking care of was a handout or a hand up, but it was still an expectation that we — I grew up with an enormous amount of privilege.
I'm Caucasian, I'm straight, I have 2 parents with college and beyond education, still married living under one roof. I mean, right there I'm already starting the marathon at mile 10.
I think there was this idea that there was a lot that was expected of us because we were given so much.
Ryan Foland: Yeah, did you have a big family? You say us, so how many brothers, sisters do you have?
Laura Gassner Otting: Just one. I had an older sister who was 16 months older than me and then my older cousin actually moved into our house in high school and grew up with us, so I have one biological sister but really two sisters.
Ryan Foland: Gotcha.
Now, were you the type of person as a kid that you could have easily looked back and said, "Oh, there's no doubt that I would have ended up on stage using my voice to communicate what I've written".
Sometimes we know, sometimes we don't, but were there any early indications?
Laura Gassner Otting: Not even a thread, no.
I think that, again, I could look back right now and say, "Oh well, I was in a high school debate, it was really clear that..." no, none of it was clear.
I mean, I am the most accidental speaker you will ever find.
In fact, I went to law school because I thought I was going to run for office. I thought I was going to be the first female senator from the great state of Florida. I grew up in Miami, I thought that that was going to be it.
(P.S. there still have not been any female senators from the great state of Florida.)
Ryan Foland: There is still a spot ready for you.
Laura Gassner Otting: There's still a spot, I can go back at any time. It would be the biggest carpetbagging move ever. I haven't lived in Florida in 30 years, but there is still time.
I thought that that's what I was going to do because when I was growing up, the people who were leaders were elected officials, that seemed like that's what I would do.
And when I got to law school I realized that I didn't want to be a lawyer, and in fact I shifted my focus from asking this question of, "How can I help, how can I be the solution?" to, "What needs to happen, how do we get the right people in the right places so that the right things happen?"
And it was like a lightning bolt moment.
I was in law school and I did not want to be there, and so I did what anybody does in a moment of like self-loathing, I dated somebody who was terrible for me.
And I dated this guy who drove an IROC-Z, that tells you right there a little bit about him.
Apologies to any of your listeners who drive or did drive—
Ryan Foland: They're not offended, they had a good giggle regardless.
Laura Gassner Otting: They had a good thing going on for a while, they were listening to their heavy metal, they were doing it right.
And this guy was adorable, right, he was exactly the guy you would picture in the IROC-Z.
I used to ride my bike to campus, and one day it was raining and he was like, "I'll give you a ride home, we'll stick your bike in the back of my car, in my IROC. And I just wanted to stop by this guy's office, he's running for president."
I said, "Governor who, from where?" Not a chance, right?
At that point George H.W. Bush had just won Desert Storm, he had like a 91% approval rating. Nobody had heard of this unknown, young governor from this tiny state of Arkansas.
There was not a chance he was going to win. And it was before the Internet, so if you wanted to get information for somebody running for office, you would literally have to go to like their local headquarters in some local strip mall, and so that's what we did.
We walk into the strip mall office and there in the corner is this little teeny, black and white TV, like an 8-inch TV with then brown-haired Bill Clinton giving this impaction talk about service.
It was like in that moment this lightning bolt hit me and I said, "That needs to happen, we need to get him elected. How can we get him elected?" And I started volunteering on the campaign.
And the next thing I knew I was traveling all over the country, eating cold pizza and sleeping on high school gymnasium floors, and putting on rallies for 36K people, having landed in the city three days earlier.
And that got the attention of the national office and they offered me a great gig. It was like all the ramen you could eat and all the idealism you can stomach. I did political advance.
And I loved it, I thought it was great, I, in that heartbeat moment, went from saying, "I'm going to be in the spotlight," to, "What I really want to do is put the right people in the right positions so that they can make change happen."
And I gave my TEDx about this, 30 years later, about this idea of asking different questions so we can really solve problems.
And I ended up in the White House, worked there for four years, helped create AmeriCorps, pretty amazing experience. The biggest yadda, yadda, yadda of any story I’ll ever tell, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Four years go by and I turn to Eli and I say, "Well, I'm ready to go back on the campaign trail and get Bill reelected."
And he says, "Well, now you're too old to eat cold pizza and sleep on high school gymnasium floors, and you should talk to my friend Arnie Miller who runs Isaacson Miller, biggest search firm in the country that does specifically nonprofit work, and you can hide out in a nonprofit for four years and then come back and do something big on the Gore campaign."
And I said, "Great." Five days later I sat down with Arnie and he said, "You don't want to work in a nonprofit, you want to come work for me, I'll teach everything you need to know about leadership."
I went, "Okay. Your job is in Boston, the boy I'm dating now, who by the way doesn't drive in IROC-Z, is going to be moving to Boston, I'll take the job...What do you do?"
And so I became a headhunter.
I spent four years working for him, learning from the best and the brightest how to do this work.
And then I had this moment of rage where I realized I wasn't part of the solution, that there was a better and smarter and more profitable and more integrity, and more authenticity-filled way to do the work.
Once I realized I wasn't part of the solution, that only left me in the camp of being part of the problem.
And so I launched my own firm, I spent 15 years running that, and again, just putting the right people in the right places. I was so happy on stage left, in fact, I do a ton of political fundraising.
There's a picture of me standing stage left with our congressperson in the distance blurred, you can see me in stark relief, and I'm just so full of joy that she's just killing it on the stage, like that's where I love to be.
But then I sold that firm to my team and a few weeks later, at this moment, this crisis of identity that I had where I didn't know who I was when I was no longer handing over my business card, "I'm Laura Gessner Otting, CEO of this thing." ...Who am I?
I just started blogging. I would just write stuff on lauragassnerotting.com and I just started putting blog posts up.
And Tamson Webster, who is the executive producer of TEDx Cambridge, who I happen to know because my son, who at the time was 13, four years earlier when he was nine did a TEDx talk for her, which we can also talk about.
She says to me, "You know, I read that recent blog post you wrote about solving big problems and asking the right questions, you should consider doing a TEDx."
And I went, "No f-n way. No way, that terrifies me.” I hung up the phone.
And my older son says, "Hey Mom, [laughs] don't you always tell me I should do things that scare me?"
And, "Don't you always tell me that if it doesn't challenge me it doesn't change me?"
And, "Don't you always tell me that life starts on the other side of the fear?"
And I was like, "Yeah."
And he goes, "So what gives, Mom. "
Six weeks later, I'm on the TEDx stage, no notes, no net, 11 and a half minutes that I crushed.
And then three seconds I forgot what I was going to say next, and then 28 seconds that were pretty good.
And then that got some attention, which led people to call me and offer me money to come speak for their audiences.
I was like, "Wait, what? This is a job? What are you talking about?"
Ryan Foland: Thank you, son, for pushing me where the fear starts and the money starts to boil over.
Laura Gassner Otting: There you go.
I don't know how you combine the stories of like, "Brave beyond my physical ability," and, "Wait, what? This is a job?"
But I think that sometimes you do you have to do the thing that scares you because I do think that if your goals don't maybe make you just a little bit nauseated, they're not big enough.
Ryan Foland: I like that.
And one of the things you'd mentioned just prior to this is the fact that this is some sort of an accident.
And I almost think, looking and listening, it's like a calculated accident because you're putting yourself in these situations, you sort of take two steps forward and you take these little steps in a direction and then you're still, your eyes are open, your ears are open, whether it's a 9-inch TV screen or not, you're still on the prowl.
So, I would love to know tips from an accidental speaker when it comes to speaking.
Because I believe that you probably have some of the best advice because you're not “classically trained” since you were three years old to do this, and that's inspiring for people who accidentally stumble upon what might be an opportunity to take advantage of the stage.
So what would be your advice as an accidental speaker as part of this process, looking back retrospectively?
Laura Gassner Otting: Oh, boy. I think that what I got wrong in the beginning was thinking that the way people speak on the TEDx stage was the way that you speak.
Ryan Foland: Okay.
Laura Gassner Otting: I thought that that was how super accomplished people spoke, and were earnest and didactic, and it was, "I'm going to tell you the story."
And I thought that that's like, that voice was success.
And what I have come to learn is that there is a difference between speaking and performing. That speaking can be lots of things, it can be teaching, it can be workshops, it can be standing behind a lecturn, it could be standing behind a podium where you're basically reading a script. You're speaking, you're up there, and maybe you've got it memorized, maybe you're just sort of talking.
But there's the chasm between that and performing, which is like getting on stage and leaving it all out there, like bringing an audience through an emotional experience with you where you shock them, you delight them, you surprise them, you entertain them, you scare them, you thrill them.
All of that is such a different thing, and that demands such a level of commitment and vulnerability that is exhausting.
I wear like a fitness band on stage and sometimes I'll get off stage and I'll get a little buzz on my phone, it'll be like, "You've tracked a workout".
Because it automatically tracks when my heart rate is elevated for more than 15 minutes.
And a lot of that is like purposefully moving around the stage and waiting for the bits.
When I would watch a TEDx, you see them speaking at this rate that's very slow and you're like, "Okay, well that must be the way people speak."
And it turns out that when I speak like that, I just sound boring. That's not that interesting to listen to for 45 minutes, and it's not that emotional.
But when I speak with the passion and the verb and the zest and the moxie that I have, it's hard for people to keep up with the torrent of words coming out of my mouth if I don't commit to the pauses.
So I can speak just as fast as I normally speak, cocktail conversation me is much better on stage than college classroom me, when I speak at the rate that I speak.
But then I give people pauses to catch up— it's much more effective.
And so the biggest tip that I would give new speakers is not to watch a whole bunch of TEDx Talks, but to actually watch stand up comedy.
Because in stand up comedy they have to commit to the bit and they have to use pauses and they have to speak in a conversational and casual tone of voice and they have to drop in little lines throughout that seem like little throwaway lines, but then they call back to them later in ways that you feel like you're in on the joke.
And when you're in on the joke, you really want to be part of it, you really want to like take whatever the speaker saying and bring it into your life because you were part of a secret.
And everybody wants to be part of something.
So stand-up comedy to me has taught me an incredible amount of how to just get on stage and how to just live into my story, and be fully into it, and be goofy, and be vulnerable, and pause and wait, and then after I've set a laugh line, turn my head a little way and make a face and get another laugh line, and then turn back the other way and make a side comment and get a third laugh line. And how do you get the continue, the first, the second, the third out of each one point. That's also from stand-up comedy.
Ryan Foland: It sounds like the combination between patience and persistence.
You've got this, that timing is a huge part of comedy, and I don't think that we often make the same type of importance on that timing when it comes to the stage.
I'm a big fan of the pause, my fourth TEDx Talk I talked all about the pause, whether it's in a regular conversation or not.
Because, just like when you're talking with someone, you have to allow the space for people to think, and sometimes that pause is scary, so people just jam right through it and it becomes 45 minutes of a long monologue.
Laura Gassner Otting: There is nothing louder than the deafening silence of 3K people waiting for your next word.
The sound of that, you can hear them breathing, you hear your steps across the stage, you hear the clutter of your earring against the mic, you hear when somebody gets a text, "Ting."
And you hear the tape recorder in the back of your own head going, "Why is that person looking at me? Why is that person standing up? Are they going to the bathroom or are they leaving?"
There so much that's happening in the silence of you walking from one end of that tiny little red dot to the other end of the tiny little red dot. To go from the space where you talk about problems to the space where you talk about solutions.
And I swear I've never heard anything as loud as that silence.
Ryan Foland: Yeah.
Could you share some insights to some of your preparation process, either when it's right before you're going on stage, how you get into the right mental attitude?
Or even from the preparation, are you more of an impromptu, off-the-cuff or just since you know everything so intensely, are you just taking chapters from your book?
How do you formulate that prep process?
Laura Gassner Otting: Well it's interesting, I just spoke at three events in Canada at The Art of Leadership for Women, in Calgary, Vancouver, and Toronto.
And there were five speakers and four of us 45 minutes. Forty five minutes following each other, then a 15 minute break and then the big headliner, which in two of them were Malala and one was Robin Roberts.
So you know, don't screw up, right.
And in fact, when the organizer asked me to be part of it I was like, "Oh that's great," and then, two weeks later he's like, "Good news, Malala signed on as the keynote," and I was like, "Oh no, what am I going to do?"
I called my speaking coaches Michael and Amy Port, from Heroic Public Speaking and I was like, "We've got to get me real better real fast because Malala don't play, I've got to get this right."
Ryan Foland: My game is going to be stepped up whether I like it or not, so let's get on the stairmaster.
Laura Gassner Otting: Yeah, I mean you can't open for Malala and Robin Roberts without being legit.
So I decided to use slides for the first time in my life and I debuted the slides in Switzerland two weeks earlier at this University conference where I was asked to speak and my slides didn't work.
That was terrifying and afterwards a guy came up to me and he was like, "That was amazing," he's like, "You had all those technical difficulties, your slides didn't work and then you just kept on going as if you didn't need them." And I didn't have the heart to tell him I normally don't use them.
I looked amazing just because the slides didn't work.
So the first time I used the slides for real it was in front of 2K people in Calgary, so sort of terrifying.
But I was pretty good in that talk, I give myself like a B+. I think I would look back five years from now and be like, "Oh, that was definitely like a solid C."
But for what I know and what I'm capable of doing right now, you know, I got a lot of applause, people were pretty happy, I got a bunch of applause throughout, it was good.
Ryan Foland: And you're grading on the curve too, so you're good.
Laura Gassner Otting: Totally.
It was interesting because what I found was that I was a little bit nervous about what slide was coming next, because I didn't know you could put it in presenter mode so you could actually see what was coming next.
And then the next day in Vancouver, once I was more comfortable with it, I had a little bit more courage to be a little more off-the-cuff in my story.
So my stories, you know, I tell stories as you can tell, I am lively and I am funny, I'm not worried about making a fool of myself on stage because we're all fools at some point, that's part of getting people to buy into my message of living a limitless life is to show them that you can be vulnerable and that you're not perfect.
It actually works out well when I make sort of a side joke.
And what I found was that by using the slides as punch lines I was able to be much more physical, and being much more physical allowed me to live in my body more and be freer and open and like a little bit more of me then I would normally be.
It's not the whole like, "You’ve got to be authentic on stage," but I think we all have a milieu in which we're good.
Some people are more didactic and that's their thing, they get up and they talk about case studies; some people show slides and they talk about a bunch of scientific stuff.
My slides are big, bright pictures, or they are black slides with one word on them.
I mean, there's not a lot of text. In the 45-minute talk I think there's like 30 words total.
Ryan Foland: You're not killing your audience members with death by PowerPoint, is what you're saying?
Laura Gassner Otting: Well, I mean they can't read the PowerPoint and still listen to you, and I've got a huge ego — I want them to keep listening to me.
It’s, I'm on stage, it's Beyonce, come on. I want them to pay attention to me.
But what I found about that, which was interesting and which relates back to your question, is that what I learned is that I am not a script person. I'm not the person who is going to walk three steps over here and nail this line, and then walk five steps over there and then, "This is the word that I'm going to emphasize."
I really know the arc of my story and like an accordion, I can expand it, or reduce it.
Before I got on stage in Vancouver, they were running about seven minutes behind and I was like, "I am supposed to speak for 45 minutes, you want me to go 38?"
The guy was like, "Can you?" I was like, "Yes, I'm a professional, that's what we do."
So I just took a story out and the whole thing still works perfectly fine, it just doesn't have that one story, and if I need to expand it, I put an extra story in, or whatever they need me to do.
And so for me, what I find is that I am most confident on stage when I know the bones and the outline of my talk.
Here's the hook, here's the common problem that we want to solve, here's what you think is getting in the way but really, actually it's this.
Now here's the big idea that you can't shake, right? This is Tamsen Webster's Red Thread. It follows that idea and then inside of each one of them, I can just tell stories. I know when I get up there and I say,
"Well, so the problem is that we're listening to all these other people, we need to screw the Joneses."
And then rather than saying, "And by screw the Joneses, here's what I mean..."
I just say, "We need to screw the Joneses," and then I walk over the other side of the stage and I say, "My job puts me on the road a lot," and I just go right into the story of that, but I've dropped all of the transitions in between the stories, because that feels like a lecture as opposed to taking somebody on this journey with you.
Ryan Foland: Yeah, I heard somebody say once, "People don't care about your story, they care about how they see themselves in your story."
And then when you are storytelling you're giving people a chance to be part of it and relate to it as opposed to just factually doing the fact, fact, fact.
Laura Gassner Otting: Absolutely, so I used to tell the story in a way where I would say, "On the first day of school my children were bickering with each other so much they didn't let me get that one important picture, the proof that I am the best in the world, the first day of school photo," and then I would say, "And so here's what I did."
I'd say that and then I stop, I look around, I go, "You know, you've got that picture? Those matching outfits are amazing, aren't they?” And people laugh.
And so I stop and I interact in a way where the audience is like, "Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, oh yeah, I know that picture." Like they can see themselves in it.
Whereas if you just talk and tell them, they don't get a chance to see it themselves. This is the pause, it's a two way conversation, their part is just silent and you have to give them time to say their part, and also to imagine it, and to see themselves in it.
And I think that stand-up comedy has helped me to learn how to allow people to find their own purchase in each of the stories in a way where they're like, "Yes, that's right."
Ryan Foland: Finding their own purchase. That's great.
I like how we've gone from passing out and giving blood to the exact opposite where you are nothing but energized and the furthest person in the room from passing out because you've got people engaging on what you're saying and how you're saying it.
I want to now take a step back to the bigger picture because you've got these opportunities like this TEDx Talk and you were speaking in Switzerland and then you're in Canada.
From your own experience, how have you best found the ability to have these opportunities on stage?
Is it really a method or is it another sort of accidental combination? Is it with your book?
How would you see your overall success in getting on these stages, especially just even recently?
What is your secret or your method behind your accidental madness, maybe?
Laura Gassner Otting: Yeah, I would say that, I will tell you — so last week, Robin Roberts tweeted about my book. You saw this, she tweeted about it, put it on social media on Instagram on Facebook, everywhere, to like millions of people.
And I pick my 14-year-old son up that afternoon and I feel exceptionally cool because my 14-year-old son follows me on social media. I feel that any success I have in my life, the fact that a 14-year-old is actually following me on social media, and a 14-year-old who's related to me that's pretty much, I mean I could be under the oak tree with Oprah and this will be the pinnacle of my success.
Ryan Foland: Yeah, who cares that you didn't get that big picture, the first picture, like the fact that your son is now following you, that means you're the coolest mom ever, you're good.
Laura Gassner Otting: I mean, I'm good.
We get in the car and he's like, "That was kind of a big deal, huh?"
And I was like, "Yeah, I didn't ask her, she just got the book from the MC of the event and read it and liked it and posted it. I mean, that was crazy.”
And he's like, "You do realize that there are a lot of other books that are better than yours, right?"
And I was like, "Yeah."
He said, "I know that you're working really hard, you're busting your butt, but you know that there are other authors who have written better books who are busting their butt just as much and you've gotten lucky?"
And he's right, there is nothing about my book that's so incredibly special and there's nothing about what I'm doing that's so incredibly special, but it's a combination of both plus a zeitgeist moment right, where people are really thinking about purpose and meaning and you know,
"What is it all, is this all I am meant for?”
in this moment of angst that we're having in this country and in the world, where we're thinking about our values, what we stand for.
And so I think there's that, and then I think you make your own luck.
I think it's things like being on stage and saying to the MC, "Do you want me to go eight minutes less so that you can get this time back?" and him saying, "Oh my god, thank you so much."
And then being willing to give my inscribed book to Robin Roberts when she gets off stage, right?
It's showing up, my publicist said, "We've never seen a grassroots campaign like yours, street team campaign like yours that's been so successful. What did you do?"
I said, "I think I just showed up for people for the last 40 years of my life, and when I asked them for something they showed up back." I think that's part of what it is.
And so along the same lines with speaking, I'd look to people whom I deeply, deeply respect and I said, "Tell me how you did it. Who are you? Where did you get to? Who did you know? Who can you introduce me to? What am I doing wrong?"
There's a woman by the name of Carey Lohrenz who was the US Navy's first female F14 Tomcat fighter pilot: incredible badass!
Wrote a book on which she is standing in a leather dress, beautiful woman, called "Fearless Leadership." I mean, you think I have moxie—she is moxie.
I reached out to her and I was like, "You and I happened to sort of kind of know each other through this group of speakers, is there any way you might blurb my book?" And she said, "Sure," like within two minutes, I was floored.
She calls me up three days later, she is like, "Can we talk about your book?"
And then she proceeds to hand me my ass in the nicest possible way, telling my book is really good but it's not really great, and I am too smart for it just to be good.
And then proceeds to spend 45 minutes on the phone with me and help me figure out exactly what's wrong so that it was great.
And so I think it's listening to other people who have walked the path and who know and who can say things like, "If this is what you want this book to do for you, then it's only good, it's not great.
And if you want it to do that for you, it's got to be great."
So I became a student, once that I did that TEDx Talk and then I got offered to be flown somewhere and be paid money to speak, I was like, "If I'm going to be a professional, I’d better be a professional."
I paid for training, I want to Heroic Public Speaking, I sat with great speakers that we know like Scott Stratten, Ron Tite, Mitch Joel, Carey Lohrenz and Alison Levine and really listened to them and watched them, studied them. Not just the content, but the way that they did the work.
And then I spent time unpacking with them, "Well you did this here and you went there and then you walked over to here, how did you, why did you do that?"
And in doing that, I not only raised my game to learn how to do it better, they also believed in me and saw that I wasn't just about, "I want to get a laugh line right, I want to get the bit right," but I actually care about getting the subject matter right.
And because of that they felt comfortable introducing me to their friends and people who are organizing conferences and their speaking agents and their bureaus because they knew that I was real.
I had somebody, about a week after the book came out, who tattooed the cover art of the book on her arm because she believed so much in the mission, that she wanted to remember it every single day.
Ryan Foland: Wow.
Laura Gassner Otting: That's insane!
That's crazy, and that to me told me so much that it's not just that we have to get the laugh lines and the bits and the callbacks and all the performance stuff right, we have to get our subject matter right too.
Because people are really listening to what we have to say and they're changing their lives based on it. They are quitting their jobs or divorcing their spouses, they are launching new businesses, they are traveling around the world, they're making changes based on the things that we say— and we have to get it right.
I think not just sitting behind my computer and making social media connections, but actually really taking the time to, if I'm in a city where I know that somebody lives who is a speaker, reach out to them and sit down and talk to them.
And then really seeing how seriously I take this, allowed them to say, "Yeah, I'm not alone," because the speaking world is so lonely, we're on the road all the time, we're basically CEOs of our own businesses and we're by ourselves.
And to have a compatriot I think really helps develop those relationships, and I think relationships is what this business is all about.
Ryan Foland: What's nice about that is it's attainable for those who take it that seriously and make those moves.
And I've talked with a number of people who ask the same question, "How do I get more stage time?" And oftentimes the answer includes building those key relationships.
One thing that I've had people ask follow up questions to is, "Well, how do you find the bravery," or, "How do you approach these people?"
Sometimes it feels like they're untouchable.
So do you have any advice for people who want to say, reach out to you or want to reach out to somebody else but they don't necessarily know you, they don't have a connection, they haven't trained with you?
Do you have any tips on outreach, like ideally if someone were to do XYZ, what would get your attention, what would come across as authentic?
Laura Gassner Otting: Yeah, it's such a good question.
I, all the time on stage, tell people to reach out to me, and I'll speak in front of thousands of people and maybe one will reach out to me.
And it's so interesting because I'm like, "I'm literally asking you to call me," and people don't.
By the way, anybody who's listening, I am on all the socials, @heylgo, please reach out to me, and I'll be surprised if people do but I would love it. It's sort of along the lines of when somebody contacts you after you speak and they are like, "Could, just possibly, could you maybe, would you sign my book?"
And you're like, "You're asking me to sign, like you bought my book? Like, yes, I'd love to sign your book, I'd be honored to sign your book." So ask, right.
When I was looking for blurbs for my book, I was so interested that the A-listers that I went to were like, "Yeah, I'll take a look at it."
And the B-listers were like, "I don't know, I'm too busy, I couldn't possibly."
And I talked to a friend of mine and I was like, "God, it's so fascinating that the A-listers have been so warm."
And he said, "Well, how do you think they got to be A-listers?" I was like, "Oh, that's really good."
So I think, I'm excited about your book, I hope that makes me an A-lister, I don't really know.
But I think just approach them, what's the worst that can happen? Someone will say no. It doesn't cost you anything, your pants aren't going to light on fire, nobody's going to see, it's not like you're going to be showing up to third grade without your underwear.
You will be fine if somebody says no, it will not be the worst thing.
An amazing TED Talk by a guy named Jia Jiang is all about rejection. He talks about how for 100 days straight he put himself in a position where he knew that he would be rejected.
He'd go to McDonald's and get a Big Mac and a Coke and he would go up afterwards and he's like, "I'm refilling my coke, can I get a refill on my Big Mac too?" They were like, "That's not how it works."
Or he’d go up to a random stranger on the street and ask to borrow $100.
But the idea that rejection is not actually going to kill you is a really wonderful thing for speakers to learn because there's a lot of rejection in speaking.
So that's the first thing, is like just ask.
The second is, one of the things that I did early on is I got myself on any stage I could possibly get myself on, especially if it was like a pretty stage.
I found local camera crews and I hired them to film me.
And here's the thing, people are like, "Oh, I'm not ready yet, my talk is not ready, it's not perfect, I can't have people film me, I am not ready for a sizzle reel."
What I would say is your sizzle reel is not your talk, it's just a whole bunch of edits of snippets of your talk, so you don't actually have to have a good talk, you just have to have like 6 or 7 or 8 snippets that you can nail in different outfits and you'll be golden.
If you can do something like that, you can put together the beginnings of a sizzle reel that you can then send to people and it will have some information about who you are, the content that you speak about and you'll look super legit. Like I've only been speaking for a few years and people think I've been in this game for 20 years because I look legit.
I look legit because I would go to a place to speak where they asked me to speak once before lunch and once after lunch, and between, I changed my outfit.
Ryan Foland: Nice.
Laura Gassner Otting: I look as if I was at two different speaking events. But you got to smoke and mirrors your way to looking like you've been on bigger stages to get on bigger stages.
It's like when I wanted to be a babysitter when I was 11 and people say, "Well if you had any experience..."
I'm like, "Well no, because you haven't hired me yet. If you hire me I'll have some experience and then you can hire me as somebody who has experience."
But I think you have to kind of fake it a little bit with the stages you've been on in order to get yourself on. To speak for free and to invest some money early on in getting that recorded, film, film, film.
Ryan Foland: Yeah, and I don't even see it as really being fake, I see it as just being smart about documenting earlier than you would ever think.
And it is one of the hardest things to get a good picture of you speaking on stage because if you think about it, you're talking and like 99% of your mouth movements make you look like just weird.
So the more at-bats and just documenting that process.
Even if it’s a friend with a cell phone, I love this idea of documenting, changing outfits, maximizing the stage time that you get because it is, it's a total catch-22, nobody wants to hire you unless they see you on a big stage, but it's hard to get on the big stages if you haven't been there.
Laura Gassner Otting: Right, and here's the thing, I've seen people who are making the most ridiculous faces on stage and these are people who speak in front of tens of thousands of people every week.
What I see them do in social media is they'll post a picture of themselves making a ridiculous face, and they will be like, "Caption this” contest.
And what does that show you, it's like, "Oh, he's on lots of stages," you don't think, "Oh, look at the weird face he is making."
Nobody thinks that, they think, "Oh that's hilarious, he is so accomplished that he can laugh at himself."
Ryan Foland: Yes, and at the end of the day, I think if we were to wrap it all up, the inability to laugh at yourself, and if you take yourself too seriously you're going to get stuck on that stupid plus bravery standpoint as opposed to just understanding that you do have a limitless amount of opportunity. Case in point, your book, which really just kind of breaks down these different core components that you have to sit and look at.
I think that the principles you talk about in your book, I think can very much be applied. You could probably slap the word speaker underneath it, limitless speaker.
Laura Gassner Otting: That's the next book.
Ryan Foland: That's the next book, yeah. Hey Laura, this has been refreshing because it's really sometimes the best advice that's staring us right in the face that we need somebody to explain, "Look, look, it's right there."
If you're looking for your keys and you look everywhere, but they're right in front of you.
Laura Gassner Otting: What's your tip to call someone—call them.
Ryan Foland: Yeah, and sometimes that's all they need. So for those people that are in the audience and the speaker legitimately says, "Reach out to me," their e-mail is there for a reason, ask them a question, compliment them on their talk, just start that conversation because otherwise, it's just like not capturing video or images of the presentation that you gave.
If it doesn't even start will it even exist. You've got to start it.
Laura Gassner Otting: Right, and if you get bad video, so you can still use that to watch the film after, you can watch what you didn't do good.
I find that sometimes I come up with lines and I say things differently because the way I write the talk and the way I speak the talk are two totally different things, and I'll be like, "Oh that really worked, but I don't remember what I said."
But if you have it recorded you can go back and capture it.
Ryan Foland: Totally, all worthwhile stuff. Well, I believe these are all things that help you get unstuck and I see why they call you "the confidence catalyst."
So you'd mentioned your handle online, tell people more time where to find you and then where they can get your book and then we're going to wrap this thing up and go out there and get unstuck from what's sticking us.
Laura Gassner Otting: Yes so people can find me on all the socials @heylgo.
I'm at heylgo.com, I like to keep it really simple.
Ryan Foland: What is the Hey LGO, is it like hey let go, or like what is it?
Laura Gassner Otting: No, Laura Gassner Otting, it's just my initials, it's like hey, and people have always called me LGO, so it's like, Hey, LGO.
Ryan Foland: Got it, okay.
Laura Gassner Otting: It's pretty easy, yeah my friends call me LGO and it's funny because in my Amazon reviews, you'll see people that are like, "LGO, blah, blah, blah, blah," and these are people I don't even know, so it's becoming a thing now, I'm just going to be like Madonna.
Ryan Foland: Well if you don't know LGO, now you know, yo. We got it.
Laura Gassner Otting: Exactly, you got it.
And the book, "Limitless: How to Ignore Everybody, Carve Your Own Path, and Live Your Best Life" is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, 800-CEO-Reads and anywhere fine books are sold.
Ryan Foland: Love it. Well hey, this has been a lot of fun and it just again reinforces that you don't have to get stuck. It's probably you that's stuck you just got to unstick yourself and realize that there's limitless amounts of possibility out there, especially from the stage.
So Laura, from all of the World of Speakers, on behalf of everyone listening, thank you so much, this was a lot of fun.
Laura Gassner Otting: This was great, thank you so much.
Ryan Foland: All right. Everybody, if you liked this episode which I'm sure you will have, here's your chance — did you like it? You can review it, you can reach out to Laura and say, "Hey, great job."
You can tweet us up, you can communicate, this is your chance to actually do something.
And leave a review if you like it, follow us where it is to be followed and hey, this has been fun, so for all of you out there, next time you're giving blood or next time that you have the moment of your life in front of you, just draw the blood, squeeze the ball. If you pass out you'll still wake up.
Alright, thanks Laura, we'll talk to you soon.
Laura Gassner Otting: Thank you.
A bit about World of Speakers
World of Speakers is a bi-weekly podcast that helps people find their own voice, and teaches them how to use their voice to develop a speaking business.
We cover topics like: what works versus what doesn't, ideas on how to give memorable presentations, speaking tips, and ideas on how to build a speaking business.
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