In 2013, I heard there was an event called Social Media Day taking place in Miami.
The event venue wasn’t far from me, and it was free to attend. I decided on a whim to go to Social Media Day and see who I could meet, and to maybe learn something at the same time.
The event was pretty much as I’d expected: more tailored for the luddites who knew next to nothing about social media than anything advanced for experienced users. Most of the attendees weren’t yet doing much with social media, so there wasn’t a high level of networking value for me either. The speakers were of entry-level quality.
I left the event thinking that I should have been presenting at Social Media Day rather than sitting in the audience. I feel that way often when I hear people giving presentations.
There was one session I attended that left an impression, but not for the content itself.
A woman named Michelle Villalobos did a session on personal branding. Personal branding was just becoming a hot thing at that time. The room was packed. People lined the walls all around the room.
Michelle’s content was entry-level stuff, but it seemed the audience appreciated it. One thing I remembered about Michelle was her mentioning during her talk how her main business, at least at that time, was being paid to speak at conferences and other events.
A year-plus later, as I was looking to segue from basketball to business, one of my interests was professional speaking. Problem was, I didn’t know where or how to get into such an industry, and I also didn’t quite know what expertise I had to speak on, aside from playing basketball for a living.
I googled events and conferences and saw that most of them did have speakers who came and delivered presentations on myriad topics.
I started emailing and calling event’s contact numbers; I had some initial conversations but nothing solid came from them. I came to the conclusion that, since there were people who speak for a living, someone out there could probably shed some light on me re simply getting started.
Then I remembered Michelle.
I went to her website and emailed, telling her about my speaking ambitions. We arranged a call a few days later. It just so happened that Michelle had an event called the “Superstar Speaker Series” coming up a month later in Miami.
The event was a bust.
Michelle’s event, held in a Coral Gables hotel conference hall, was a knock-off of a Tony Robbins conference, replete with music and dancing in between sessions. There were about 85 attendees. Michelle had done at least a decent job of building her brand; she had a handful of disciples in the room who clearly had been to her events before. These people sucked up everything Michelle had to say; most of them were 30s and 40s female entrepreneurs. I should have done more research before I signed up for the event and paid $300 for a ticket.
Michelle had this rule that anyone who rose to speak, ask or answer a question was required to name their brand after stating their name — like, John Doe, The King Of Blogging! followed by their question or comment.
This was Michelle’s way of teaching us to believe in and get used to speaking our brands out loud.
Everyone went along with it enthusiastically, though, bringing attention to their accomplishments. There was one woman who’d been on Shark Tank (her product had not been funded by any of the Sharks, but still). There were other random personal branding wannabes whose titles I don’t remember; basically a room of many Michelles-in-training.
I chuckle now at how not-impressed I was with all these business professionals with their brands and titles all figured out and packaged, next to me, the basketball player who (at the time) had nothing but a bunch of YouTube videos. I couldn’t have explained what was off about many of these people, but it was something.
These women all wanted to be Michelle, which, by itself, wasn’t a bad thing.
The bad thing was that Michelle wasn’t good.
As she introduced this knowledge about branding, Michelle made a point of explaining how she had tripled her income by betting on herself (she didn’t say exactly how she’d done so), how so many people wanted to book her to speak then, and how all experts write books (to this day, Michelle has written zero books— I looked).
And what Michelle claimed to be teaching — how to become a speaker (remember the name of the event: Superstar Speaker Series)— was not being taught, at all.
There was a workbook handed out on Day 1 of the 3-day event that covered a bunch of basic branding stuff — creating accounts on all social media platforms; having photos of yourself on your website; googling yourself and seeing what information was out there about you; the value of blogging to build your expertise — in other words, stuff that I’d been doing for damn near ten years already.
It’s not even that I “already knew” everything Michelle said. It’s that, over three days, she never gave even ten minutes to anything regarding professional speaking.
She’d sold me a ticket on the heels of me asking her about the speaking biz. The event had the word Speaker in the title. And there was literally nothing on speaking.
I was so clueless about the speaking business, and business in general, though, that I still sat through the entire event, believing that something might get revealed that would be useful to me.
That didn’t happen.
Near the end of the last day of the event, Michelle delivered her final call to action: each of us needed to get clear on what we were going to do next, now that we’d invested in this event. For the entrepreneurs, Michelle was leaning towards each of us planning our own events, setting a date, and beginning to plan it.
Michelle’s last act was to move about the room and spend a minute or two with each attendee, making sure that each of us had some concrete ideas to leave with.
How nice of her.
When she got to my seat, Michelle looked weary and tired, like she might put her head down and fall asleep right there at the table. Dancing in heels for three days is hard work.
I told Michelle that I wasn’t quite sure what I could do with what she’d taught that weekend. She asked me why I had attended her event. I told her it was so I could learn to become a professional speaker.
Michelle looked at me like as if I’d told her I was pregnant with twins, and she was the father. And she wasn’t in the mood for jokes.
With a you-can’t-be-serious, deadpan look, she said, “You haven’t spoken all weekend.”
She was right: I hadn’t raised my hand to ask or answer a question all weekend. I didn’t know that was a requirement for being an expert on a topic or speaking at events (it’s not, and it isn’t).
Michelle asked about my background and, before moving on to help the next attendee, she suggested that I, being an athlete, focus on speaking to sports teams at colleges.
Yeah, I needed to spend $300 and three days to learn that speaking to college sports teams was a possible lane for me, the pro athlete.
A couple of months later, I met a friend of Michelle’s who taught me more in 3 hours than Michelle had taught me in 3 days.
My book will have a whole chapter on that encounter.
The lesson learned from this: most salespeople don’t give a fuck about your needs, just whether or not they can sell you their products — whether that product is exactly what you need, or not.
Finding the right mentor is the key difference not in success vs failure, but in how long it takes you to achieve that success, or to realize you’re in the wrong spot. My book Work On Your Game: Using The Pro Athlete Mindset To Dominate In Sports, Business and Life, coming February 22, will explain exactly how to find the right ones and stay away from the Michelles of the world. Preorder it now and get the bonuses.