Ten Big-time Gaffes, Goofs, and Mistakes

Don't make these mistakes!

This is a list of the Ten Big-time Gaffes, Goofs, and Mistakes that oftentimes sabotage the careers of professional speakers. (Aspiring and emerging speakers tend to make more of these mistakes, of course. But even experienced speakers who have been in the industry for decades have been known to make a whopper of a screw-up on occasion.)

man stepping on banana peelIn listing this blunders, I’m not putting anyone down or making judgments. I freely (but not happily) admit that I’ve made most of the mistakes that I've listed here... as well as quite a few that I haven’t listed. Making mistakes is normal; it shows that you’re trying. (But that doesn’t mean that you should try to make mistakes!)

And I don’t claim that these are the most common blunders, or even that they’re the worst mistakes you can make. But I do know that if you can avoid falling into these ten traps, you’ll be way ahead of the game!

Of course, knowing about mistakes is a good start, but it would also be helpful to correct — or avoid — these Boneheaded Blunders. So along with each blunder, I've listed some "action steps" that will help you avoid these blunders. (Of course, avoiding these errors won't guarantee that your career will be successful, but it will certainly improve your chances of success!)


Whenever I've spoken to beginning speakers, I’ve always stressed one thing — “You are not speakers. You are business owners!”

It's not just the words... it's the mindset. When you're on the platform, you need to think like a speaker. And when you're off the platform (which is most of the time), you need to think like a businessperson and make business decisions!

For anyone who knows me, this one is a given. Through the years when I've spoken to beginning speakers, I’ve repeatedly stressed — “You are not speakers. You are business owners!”

Yet I’ve seen speakers make this blunder, time and time again. Speakers make it every time they make a decision based on emotion or passion, rather than on good old-fashioned business sense.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have passion, that you shouldn’t follow your heart. Passion is vital to your business. But did you catch that? I said “passion is vital to your business”! Passion is vital, but you can’t forget that, fundamentally, it’s a business.

So put your passion where it belongs — into your speeches and programs. But when it comes to your off-stage activities, remember — it’s a business!

So here are my recommended Action Steps to thwart this problem:

Action steps:

running up stairs1. At least once a day, look in the mirror and remind yourself “I am not a speaker. I am a businessperson.” (This sounds silly, but it works.)

2. Start reading business books and — this is the really important part — think about how you can apply what they’re talking about to your business. (There are lots of great business books out there, and everyone has their individual favorites. But one of the most frequently-mentioned books by all the people I’ve talked to is Michael Gerber’s The E-myth Revisited. If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend it.) Do you have a favorite business book? List it in the Comments below!

3. Start visiting the websites of successful professional speakers, seeing what you can learn about their businesses.

4. Make a list of your business assets. I’m not just talking about assets in a financial sense — what are your unique characteristics that you can use to promote your business? Is there some way you can use your skills and talents in your business? What about your education? Your hobbies? Your physical characteristics?


business plan imageA business plan — a written, working business plan — is the foundation of your business. Trying to run a business without a comprehensive business plan is like giving a speech without any preparation... it just won't work. As the old saying goes, "Fail to plan? Plan to fail!"

This follows automatically from Blunder #1. Can you imagine the owner of any business — whether a pizzeria, a real estate office, or a dry cleaning establishment — not having a business plan? Because you’re a professional speaker, you’re a business owner… and that means you must have a business plan.

Now I’m not talking about a formal business plan. You need one of those if you’re looking to borrow large sums of money or impress people. But the far more important form of “business plan” that I'm talking about, I call a "working business plan". It may not be pretty to look at, but it’s invaluable because it’s a written description of your plans.

Notice that I emphasize “written.” Why? The human mind is a marvelously flexible tool — and yet that flexibility can cause problems. When you plan something in your mind, it’s awfully easy to skip past a potential problem without ever “seeing” it. But when you write it down, it becomes much harder to ignore problems and challenges. It’s also easy to change your mind without realizing or (remembering) that you’re doing so. Changing your mind is a good business practice; thrashing around is not. Only if you have your plans written down can you tell the difference!

(It doesn’t really matter how you document your working business plans. Although using a word processor is probably the most popular approach, writing in longhand on a legal pad works too. The important thing is to have your plans written down.)

Notice also that I say “plans”, plural. Your “business plan” is actually a whole bunch of plans. You need a plan describing how you’re going to make money. You need a plan describing how you’re going to spend money. You need a plan describing how you’re going to spend your time. You need a plan of action that describes what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it. You also need a description of what you (hopefully) will not need to do (a contingency plan).

You need a business summary and you need project summaries. You need policies; you need procedures. You need a history of your business, and you need long-term plans that peer into the far-distant future.

You not only need a set of plans, you need a vision or mission, and you need goals. (And you need to understand the difference between goals, plans, and visions.)

And all of these need to be written down, and reviewed and updated regularly.

Action steps:

running up stairs1. There’s really only one action step here — if you haven’t started your written working business plan, get started. Period. End of discussion. It’s the single most important thing you can do for your career. (If you don’t know where to start, the PSU part of Speaker Gym devotes an entire section to writing a business plan. Not a generic, one-size-fits-all business plan, but a business plan that's written specifically for you! Check the course listing and start developing your plan!)


There are two “commitment” blunders. The first is not staying focused on what you want to achieve.

I’ve seen many speakers fail… because in January they committed to becoming a world-famous keynoter, but in February they decided that they needed to write “the book” so that they could promote themselves. Then in March, with the book just started, they realized that they needed a web site — which in April morphed into a desire to have an e-commerce site. In May they decided that coaching / consulting was the way to go, but in June they remembered their book and so they threw themselves back into writing chapter one. And then in July they attended the annual convention of the National Speakers Association and they rededicated themselves to becoming master keynoters.

All of these goals are fine. And all of them are achievable. But they’re not all achievable at the same time, and flitting from one to another means that you never finish any of them!

Other aspiring speakers fail to commit to their speaking careers at all. Let’s say you have $1000. Do you ask yourself “Should I spend this $1000 on my speaking career, or should I spend this $1,000 on a new TV?” If so, you’re not committed to your career — just by asking the question! (The committed speaker will ask “On which part of my speaking career will I spend this $1,000?”)

Of course, you can’t spend every dime you make — or every minute of the day — on your speaking career. You need balance in your life. But you also need to recognize that every dime (or every minute) that you spend on something other than your career further delays the fulfillment of your dream.

Staying focused is a major problem for some speakers. It's natural for an entrepreneur to be passionate and enthusiastic about a lot of things; but unless you can focus your energy on the most important areas, you end up squandering your potential. Stay focused to become successful!

Action steps:

running up stairs1. What is the most important thing you want to achieve? What is your highest priority?

2. Write your answer to that question — in BIG letters — and post it where you’ll see it every day.

3. Because we tend to ignore what we’re used to seeing, rewrite your answer and post it in a different (but still very visible) place every few days.


When success eludes you, it’s so easy to give up… unless you’re committed. But if you’re committed to being a professional speaker — doing whatever it takes, for as long as it takes — then you will eventually succeed. But it won’t happen if you quit.

Actually, this blunder comes courtesy of speaking legend Patricia Fripp (CSP, CPAE, Cavett recipient, etc.). I was talking with Fripp one time, and I asked her “Why do so many aspiring speakers fail to make it?”

Fripp didn’t hesitate. “They quit too soon!”

Some aspiring speakers think that they’re going to have overnight success. While that’s possible, it’s rather unlikely. And even if you do achieve “instant” success, you’ll probably hit some potholes at one point or another in your career. When that happens, your overnight success vanishes… overnight.

When success eludes you, it’s so easy to give up… unless you’re committed. But if you’re committed to being a professional speaker — doing whatever it takes, for as long as it takes — then you will probably succeed... eventually.

But it won’t happen if you quit.

Action steps:

running up stairs1. Remind yourself of all the reasons why you want to be (or become) a professional speaker.

2. Write down how you would like to spend a typical day as a professional speaker. Clearly picturing it in your mind will help you to recommit to achieving your dreams.

3. Read biographies. (Or, even better, autobiographies.) Few successful people achieved overnight success. Reading about their commitment to their own successes will help fuel yours.


This affects quite a few speakers. They have a severe case of “I know I’m right!” and it doesn’t matter who disagrees with them or what reasons they offer — any advice falls on deaf ears. Commitment is good; stubbornness is not.

How do you know the difference? For one, consider the source of the advice. If that person is considerably more successful than you are, then you should carefully consider their advice, no matter how much you may disagree with it. (This doesn’t mean that you must follow their advice. But do give it careful consideration.)

Next, look into your soul and consider whether your conclusions result from your objections, or your objections result from your conclusions. In other words, have you already made up your mind? Are you coming up with any reason you can to justify what you’ve already decided? Or are you genuinely open to changing your mind?

Where do you find good advice? If possible, join (or form) a mastermind group. Your mastermind group will usually (but not always) be composed of other professional speakers at about your level of experience. Your group can be an invaluable source of good advice.

You should also start forming alliances with other professionals that you’ll meet through professional associations. For example, you might want to join the National Speakers Association. If you’re a trainer, you might want to check into The Association for Talent Development (ATD), formerly known as the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD). Toastmasters International is an invaluable organization for honing your platform skills. And of course, almost every industry has one or more industry-specific organizations; you should certainly investigate them.

Of course, you don’t have to get your advice face-to-face. You can read books or research the Internet. But as I cautioned before, carefully consider the source of the advice before you consider the advice itself.

Action steps:

running up stairs

  1. Try to join (or form) a mastermind group of several professional speakers at a similar level of experience.
  2. Look into the qualifications required to join NSA and/or ATD. If you think they’d be beneficial to you, join and become active.
  3. Look for local chapters of national organizations. They can provide more frequent (and more convenient) meetings.
  4. Continue reading business books in general.
  5. Business resources specifically created for professional speakers are harder to find, but this makes them even more valuable. When you find a source of good pro-speaker-wisdom, tap into it!


Sadly, some speakers think that, because they’re speakers, they don’t need to know how to write. They’re wrong. Whether you’re writing material for your website, writing copy for your brochure, or even writing an email to someone, knowing how to write effective copy is an invaluable skill.

Of course, you’re not going to protest “I’m not in sales!” You know better. You’re selling yourself and your programs with everything you write.

Nevertheless, some speakers refuse to recognize the importance of writing effective sales copy. They think that because they can write materials that are relatively free of grammar errors and misspelled words, that’s enough. It isn’t.

(Actually, proper grammar and spelling can be damaging to effective sales writing. “For whom are you writing?” is grammatically correct, but in most situations, it sounds stilted and turns the reader off. “Who are you writing for?” is usually much better… despite the “forbidden” dangling participle and the who/whom problem.)

Effective sales copywriting does one thing. It sells. And that’s exactly what you need to make your business — and your career — succeed.

Of course, you may have better things to do with your time than to learn how to be a great sales copywriter. In that case, it’s simple — you need to hire a great sales copywriter. But again, not everyone who’s a great writer is a great sales copywriter. Be sure you hire someone who knows how to sell with words.

Here’s the bottom line — Effective copywriting is invaluable to the success of your business. Either learn how to write your own, or hire someone to do it for you.

Action steps:

running up stairsTo learn how to write your own killer sales copy:

1. Learn to recognize the difference between information that’s not particularly important to your readers (“I received my doctorate in advanced basket weaving from Yale….”) and statements that are important or advantageous to your readers (“You can make more money by….”).

2. Increase your vocabulary, with an emphasis on powerful adjectives (“essential” is better than “important”, “towering” beats “tall”) and action words. (Notice that the first four of these action steps start with action verbs — learn, increase, watch, practice.) Develop a list of your favorites.

3. Watch for effective marketing copy in your mail and your e-mail. Keep a file of the best examples you can find and study them. Why are they effective?

4. Practice writing persuasively. Have your Mastermind group critique your efforts.

5. Definitely consider taking a sales copywriting course. It can be one of the best investments you can make.

To find and hire a great sales copywriter:

1. Ask your business associates and Masterminders for recommendations.

2. Be on the lookout for sales copywriters. Just because someone is a gifted writer doesn’t mean that they can write effective sales copy.

3. And just because someone says they’re a great sales copywriter doesn’t mean that they are. Ask to see some of their work, and analyze it for its effectiveness.

4. If you spot some great sales copy, try to find out who wrote the copy. (This may not be possible. Some speakers who have discovered a great copywriter may be reluctant to share this invaluable resource with others. But it doesn’t hurt to ask.)


Having your own domain name and a web site that describes your speaking programs in glowing terms is good — but “good” just isn’t good enough anymore. In fact, when it comes to the Internet, “good” is barely adequate.

woman using computerTo describe the Internet as a “business miracle” is not hyperbole. Using the Internet (which includes your own websites, the ever-changing social media scene, and "old fashioned" email), you can prospect for clients like never before. You can deliver product instantly. You can deliver products that would have been regarded as science fiction just a few years ago. You can personalize your marketing activities. You can help people around the world, 365 days a year, without going near an airport.

What about you? Are you using the Internet to its fullest? Or are you coasting along, deluding yourself that you don’t need to be all that heavily into technology? Are you saying “I’m a speaker, and I make my income from the platform, not from the Internet”? After all, where trainers are waking up to the potentials of the Internet, keynoters won’t be affected. Right?

Wrong. That’s exactly what bookstores said, just a few years ago. “After all, people want to thumb through a book, look at its cover, feel its weight. Online book sales will never catch on.” And then Amazon.com and ebooks turned the book publishing world upside down.

What about you? Is your speaking business centered on the Internet? If not, you’re a dinosaur, wondering what all the excitement is about. And unless you intend to retire within the next several years, you have two choices — start treating the Internet like the unprecedented marketing and operational opportunity it is… or find another line of work.

It’s just that simple.

Action steps:

running up stairs1. Find (hire, sire, or marry) a competent web geek. Expertise in HTML5 and CSS 3 are a must; javascript, php, and sql are helpful; WordPress or Drupal are a definite plus.

2. Learn enough about the Internet yourself so that you can talk intelligently to your web geek. (You don't have to be a geek, but you need to be able to communicate with one.)

3. Start moving your business toward doing much of your operations — including prospecting, marketing, product sales, and relationship management — on the Internet.


Are you depriving your audience members of the resources they want or need? If you don’t provide people with something that they can purchase if they want to, you’re being selfish and inconsiderate!

A few years ago I was talking to an emerging speaker. He had everything going for him — he had a killer topic (home safety / security), a commanding speaking voice, and decent platform skills. In fact, he was in demand — but as a free speaker, and he wanted to know how he could start making money at his craft.

“That’s easy!” I replied. “You need to start selling product.” He looked down his nose at me (no mean feat, since he was several inches shorter than me) and icily replied “I don’t want to sell product. I want to be a speaker.”

I wished him well, but as far as I know he’s back working at Home Depot — his speaking career just never got off the ground. And it’s a shame, because it was all because of his bad attitude.

Why do I describe his attitude as “bad”? Look at it this way — some of his audience members probably wanted to buy resources from him, and he declared, in effect, that he didn’t want to provide any resources to them. He chose not to serve the needs of his audience. That’s selfish. And that’s a bad attitude.

What about you? Are you depriving your audience members of the resources they want or need? They may want to buy something from you for a variety of reasons. They may want to review the topic you’ve just spoken on. They may want to study it in more depth. They may simply want “a piece of you” as a memento of an enjoyable event.

Why they want to buy something from you is irrelevant. Here’s what’s important —

If you don’t provide your audience members with something that they can purchase if they want to, you’re being selfish and inconsiderate!

(Of course, another important reason to sell product is to provide yourself with an alternate source of income. That’s no small concern right there.)

Of course, many speakers don't share this attitude — they're actually quite eager to sell product. They make this blunder, not because they don’t want to sell product, but because they never get around to developing any product. Their problem lies in the product that they choose to develop.

Some products are easier and quicker to develop than others, so my advice is not to start with something that’s labor-intensive and takes a long time to develop (like a book). Instead, start with something that you can turn out relatively quickly and cheaply (such as audio or video downloads or special reports), and build from there.

Another possibility is OPP — Other People's Products. There are many products — possibly from established professional speakers — that you can acquire wholesale and sell retail. Granted, you don't make much money; but a little money is better than no money at all!

But the important thing is to start developing and selling product. Now. You owe it to yourself and you owe it your customers.

Action steps:

running up stairs1. Think about what informational resources your audience members might want to buy. Special reports? DVDs? Then pick one and produce it. When you can, produce another and — voila! — you’ll soon have a product tree.

2. Browse through a catalog of gifts and incentives and see if your audience members would like any of those non-informational resources (imprinted with your name, of course). Coffee mugs? T-shirts? If you spot something that’s appropriate, buy a starter set and offer them to your audiences. You may not make much money from these, but look at it this way — people are paying you to display your advertising for you. Such a deal!


Several years ago I was giving an educational presentation to the National Speakers Association. After it was over, a young lady came up to me, stars in her eyes, and proclaimed that I had just given a presentation that had changed her life. She gave me her business card as she thanked me for the wisdom I had given her. That’s when I make The Big Blunder….

I lost her card. I filed it someplace where I’d be sure to remember it… and it’s probably still there. Years later, I remember her, but I have no idea how to get in touch with her. And that means I have no way of reaching her or helping her.

That’s why it’s vital that you maintain the contact information of the people who like you and like your message. (This is called your “list” by marketing types.) Not keeping my list is one of the biggest blunders I’ve made in my speaking career. I’d rather you didn’t make this mistake as well.

Now in their zeal, some speakers go overboard and eagerly hoard the contact information of anyone-and-everyone they meet (or didn’t meet). They also brag to other speakers by saying things like “I’ve got a zillion people on my list!”

I’m not impressed. To me, the pertinent question is “How many of those people know who you are? Or care?” Now these overzealous speakers respond, in essence, that any name is a good name because it might eventually lead to business.

Maybe. Personally, I think it’s a waste of time. I want my list (and, yes, I am building and maintaining my list now. I learn from my mistakes) to be restricted to the names of people who know and remember me. If that means that my list isn’t the biggest, I can live with that.

But I’ll admit I could be wrong in this. You should follow whichever philosophy makes sense to you. But whatever you do, you must build and maintain your list!

Action steps:

running up stairs

  1. Develop a computer database to keep track of your contacts. (You’ve got to do it on a computer. You’ll soon have too many names to process manually.)
  2. Whenever you meet a qualified (by your standards) person, get their contact information and enter it into your database.
  3. Find a reason to keep in touch with the people on your list at least a couple of times a year. Absence can make the heart grow fonder, but it can also cause people to forget who you are.


one red item among white itemsThe best thing you can do for your career is to stand out from the crowd. And the best way to do that is to be yourself.

If you try to emulate someone else, the most you can hope for is to be a pale imitation. Yet meeting planners don’t hire pale imitations. And while it’s commendable to observe another speaker’s strengths, it’s important that you use that knowledge to build your own strengths. Usurping their strengths is stealing, and it doesn’t do you any good anyway.

(And speaking of stealing, using someone else’s material —their content and/or their style — without their approval and permission is just plain wrong. Resist the temptation. Develop your own steak and your own sizzle.)

So whatever you do, be yourself!

But don’t use this blunder as an excuse not to improve yourself. You owe it to your audience to provide them with the best content, using your best delivery. You owe it to yourself to market your programs the best way you can, and to run your business to the best of your ability.

Don’t do a poor job, and then excuse yourself with “I’m just being me” or “That’s just how I am” or “I’m not good at marketing.” Being unique doesn’t justify being anything less than terrific.

Be yourself… but be the best “you” that you can possibly be! You deserve nothing less.

Action steps:

running up stairs

  1. Make a list of your unusual or unique qualities… good and bad. What differentiates you from other speakers? (You started doing this as an action step to Blunder #1. Keep it up.)
  2. Which of your “merely” unusual qualities can be combined into something unique? Paul Potts is famous as the phone salesman-opera singer — two unusual qualities that form an extraordinary combination.
  3. Which of your desirable uniquenesses can you best capitalize on? Figure out how you can do that.
  4. Which of your undesirable uniquenesses can you turn to your advantage? As the old saying goes, if you’ve got lemons, make lemonade!
  5. If you’ve got undesirable uniquenesses that you can’t turn to your advantage, how can you best compensate for them?
  6. Do you have a uniqueness that you can develop into a brand? Branding is taking your uniqueness to the extreme!

This is certainly not a comprehensive list, but it does list some of the more serious — and common — errors that pro speakers make. I’ve based some of this list on the blunders that I’ve observed other speakers making over the years, but many of these blunders come from my own experience. And — despite my best efforts — I continue to make mistakes.

But I try to minimize my Boneheaded Blunders, and you should also. If this little list keeps you from making just one blunder, it’ll save you months (or years) of lost effort and gobs of money.

And that’ll make me very happy.

So take risks, and don’t be afraid of making mistakes. But try to learn from other people’s mistakes and not make the Boneheaded Blunders that other people have already made. It’s a waste of your valuable time and money.

I wish you few mistakes and every success in your speaking career!

Jim Barber
Speaker Gym / Pro Speaker U