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Meet the modern traveling salesman: The corporate workshop speaker

November 13, 2014, 3:26 PM UTC
public speaking
Keep your cool in front of a crowd.
Photograph by Martin Barraud — Caiaimage/Getty Images

When Mark Schaefer was growing up in Pittsburgh, Pa., he became a traveling salesman of sorts. To make money, he hawked “anything you could find in the back of a comic book,” he says. “I sold Christmas cards door to door. I even sold packets of seeds door to door.”

He hustled, gave his pitch, and connected with customers. People responded and bought again.

Decades later, he’s doing something similar, though his sales territory has expanded. He’s on the road every week with his company, Schaefer Marketing Solutions, speaking with corporate audiences about digital marketing and social media. In October, according to his online schedule, he hit a pharmaceutical industry event in New Jersey, a social media event, and a wine industry marketing summit in California. He keynoted an ad industry conference in Arizona before looping back for another New Jersey gig.
“One of the things I love about corporate workshops is that I can have a big impact in a short period of time,” he says. “It’s very rewarding,” especially when he hears from someone who says “I use what I learn every single day.”

He’s one of the more successful members of an industry of speakers and workshop leaders that owes itself to a longstanding corporate habit. A company budgets money for training. The powers that be figure they’ll fly everyone to Phoenix (or Las Vegas). Then they realize they’ll need to entertain and instruct people once they’re there. So, naturally, they hire external motivational speakers and workshop leaders to talk about innovation or a host of other hot topics.

Being on the workshop circuit can be lucrative, and tiring. A good TED talk or bestselling book can open the door to speaking fees into the five-figures. However, it’s also an industry in flux, as companies are rethinking how people learn and what truly changes performance or causes information to stick.

Spend some time looking at speech and workshop offerings, and it’s hard not to be impressed with what these modern traveling salesmen do to fill corporate needs. John Sweeney, a former corporate real estate consultant, joined the Brave New Workshop Comedy Theater as a second career, and bought the organization in 1997. But these days, he spends 150 nights per year on the road leading corporate workshops on how to create an innovative culture by using the rules of improv: better listening, building on other people’s ideas, etc. His career was a practical one: “There are almost 15 improvisers on the planet who make more money than the poverty line,” says Sweeney. Companies pay him $20,000 for a speech.

At a big conference, you might find Jonah Berger talking about what makes content go viral, Amy Cuddy discussing “power poses,” or Ben Zander talking music and possibility. Then there are more pedestrian topics, such as time management, or Outlook tips.

It’s a crowded marketplace, and to stand out, you need a few things: the ability to tailor to your audience, and tricks to manage the room. “I think through the time slot, and think through what the energy level’s going to be,” says Schaefer. Caffeine keeps a morning slot humming. After lunch, every few minutes, “I’ve got to have something visual or something funny or even something physical to bring people back into the room.”

From the side of people hiring, there’s also much to be considered in an effort to avoid snake oil salesmen (and bad conference evaluations). Wise HR types check with others who have seen the speaker before. They have pre-meetings with the speakers to discuss expectations and goals. It doesn’t always work, but it ups the chances of success.

However, even the best speakers and workshop leaders have to deal with the limits of the human brain. Retention from any one-time event is limited; learning loss begins immediately. Michele McMahon, senior director of learning solutions at Harvard Business Publishing, compares workshop learning to buying a new car. “You drive it off the lot and all of a sudden it starts to decrease in value,” she says. In general, “You’ve had success if somebody is applying two to three things of what they’ve learned over two to three days.” People remember things more clearly when someone they care about (e.g. their direct bosses) reinforces those lessons, or when they use a technique daily.

But even as the explosion of independent conferences has created a thriving market for speakers, the corporate model of bringing people together for one-time events is changing. “Technology is finally delivering on the promise of being a medium you can really use effectively with organizations in developing talent,” says McMahon. Flying a thousand people to Phoenix is expensive and tough on the environment. There’s a huge opportunity cost in time taken away from regular responsibilities. She cites research that short modules delivered in sequence help retention far more than a one-off workshop.

Then again, these events aren’t only about teaching employees new tricks. In many cases, hiring a big name speaker, or hosting a workshop on a hot topic isn’t about achieving technical business goals. It’s about showing employees that they’re worth bringing in the best. Offering up Bill Clinton is one way to boost engagement. Since replacing a six-figure-earning employee can run into the six figures, even high speaker fees might seem justified. Companies do what they can to keep people in the fold, even if workshops and speeches aren’t always the best way to learn.