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Women Becoming Successful Keynote Public Speakers, with Barbara Corcoran

Barbara Corcoran’s credentials include straight D’s in high school and college and twenty jobs by the time she turned twenty-three. It was her next job that would make her one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the country when she took a $1000 loan to start The Corcoran Group. As one of the “Sharks” on ABC’s hit TV show Shark Tank, Barbara has ponied up her own money and invested in more than twenty-two businesses, competing to make those deals for all to see, then shepherding them to success. Barbara is also a successful inspirational speaker who travels the world talking about entrepreneurship, women in business and success.

I don’t know of any other forum, not even TV, that gives you such tremendous confidence as when people put their hands together and smile and clap – or give you a standing ovation.

SPEAKING.COM: What advice would you give people who won’t do public speaking because of their insecurities?

CORCORAN: You have no idea the power you are giving away. In the case of public speaking, when you’ve overcome your fear, you not only leave feeling like, “Oh, I can give a speech,” but you’ve come away taller for everything else you do in your life, because you’ve slayed a dragon. We all get confidence from reaching high and overcoming our fears. It’s just like sports – you break your own record and boy, does that help your ego into the next race!

I don’t know of any other forum, not even TV, that gives you such tremendous confidence as when people put their hands together and smile and clap – or give you a standing ovation.

SPEAKING.COM: What are some of the benefits of public speaking?

CORCORAN: One of the things you get from public speaking is brand recognition. You do your employees and company a favor – you put your company on the map when you become more visible. You gain credibility when people are familiar with your name.

You also gain social media followers and build your online branding. Social media explodes when the crowd likes you. They start following you, they become your fan base, and if you want to do any kind of commercial endorsement work (which I do a lot of), the number of followers and the type of engagements you do, count a lot. So if I’ve engaged the crowd, they stay with me on social media. What other single thing can you do in business or for yourself that gives you so much passion? I don’t know a single thing.

If you’re good at your business, you have the potential to be a phenomenal public speaker, because you know what you’re doing and all you have to do is figure out a way to convey it in a way that’s interesting to the crowd.

What’s also great about public speaking is you get an immediate report card – genuine feedback. You can always tell how well you did in a speech by the questions that the crowd asks and how many there are. When you sit there and your moderator, host, or sponsor says, “Alright. Barbara’s got 15 minutes for questions. What questions do you have?”, that next 15 minutes in my mind is the report card. If I’ve got 20 people in line dying to ask a question, I know I touched that audience. I really pay attention to that barometer because interest is a question: more interest = tell us more.

Everybody usually has a hard time with public speaking, but somehow, men will do a lousy job, and actually get up and do it again. Whereas I know so many women that did some public speaking… didn’t think they did a good job, and were far more self-critical than the guy I just saw speak who was way more boring, but thought he did a great job.


SPEAKING.COM: Why do you think there are fewer women than men on the speaking circuit?

CORCORAN: First, I think there are fewer interesting women offering themselves on the speaking circuit. I checked out different speaking websites this morning. On one, six out of 20 people featured were categorized as “inspirational and motivational.” But when I actually looked at what the “inspirational and motivational” women speakers did for a living, there were three in politics and one was a conservationist.

Then I thought, “Mmm, let’s see what kind of juicy menu we have here if I want to hire a guy.” I had an actor, two politicians, a soccer coach, a violinist, Martin Luther King’s son, a Naval captain, entrepreneur, basketball owner, basketball coach, a performer, a tennis star, a pro football player, and a team owner. Who would you rather hire? The conservationist and three other women who talk politics? There was such a rich tapestry of offerings for men under “Inspiration/Motivation,” and such a narrow field for the women. There are more men offering interesting backgrounds at different vantage points, whereas the women that are offering themselves fall into a very narrow profile.

Secondly, I don’t think women are as aggressive as men. I mean the kind of aggressiveness that gets you up on a box, talking. It’s like a “Rocky” kind of a thing: “I’m getting up, I’m coming at you.” I think public speaking is an extremely aggressive sport and I say that only because every time I’m going up or walking through the crowd, to the beat of the music, I feel like Rocky – I’m pumping myself up. I’m definitely feeling aggressive – that I’m going up there and I’m going to bang it into the park. I’m determined.

That’s not that common a female trait, because women like to please more than they like to conquer; it’s their nature, I think. The nature of what women aspire to is different than what men do. Men are accustomed to being aggressive while women apologize for it and that lack of desire to be aggressive gets in the way of speaking.

Another reason you see more men in those main keynote slots has to do with the fact that everybody – male and female – usually has a hard time with public speaking, but somehow, men will do a lousy job, and actually get up and do it again. Whereas I know so many women that did some public speaking, “got it over with” or embarrassed by it, didn’t think they did a good job, and were far more self-critical than the guy I just saw speak who was twice as boring and thought he did a great job.

I think women are more self-critical, so they don’t give themselves a break to say, “Wow, that was pretty good.” Nor do they give themselves the running space to get good at it by practicing. It’s a shame, because it cuts a lot of people off at the get-go who could grow into really good speakers.

I was 23 when I gave my very first speech. I was invited to speak about the real estate market in mid-town Manhattan, to 300 city bankers. And I lost my voice. I thought I was the only one in the world to ever lose a voice, but I found out afterwards, everybody loses their voice at some point. But when they asked me to sit down, I was mortified, and like many other people I thought I would never do this again. I’m wondering in hindsight, if I had been a man at 23 if I would’ve thought, “I wasn’t so bad.” I may have had a different conclusion. But lucky for me, I’m an aggressive woman by nature, and I don’t like to fail. So I volunteered to teach a real estate course at NYU at night, and thank God I did, because that taught me to speak in public.

I can honestly say that every speech I give, I feel like I get stronger and I do a better job. But it doesn’t happen unless you’re practicing and I don’t think women give themselves the runway to get better, because they expect so much of themselves from the get-go and if they don’t deliver, they’re very hard on themselves.

One final point about this topic, I asked my husband, Bill, who’s a real tough guy, an FBI agent who owned his agency and was a businessman when he was younger. I don’t know if I liked his answer, but one thing I know about Bill, he’s direct and when he said it, I agreed with him. He said, “You know why men don’t like to hire women speakers? Because they remind us of our mothers, and we don’t want to really hear our mothers tell us how to do anything anymore.”

I think there is an overtone of that, because when I stand in front of a crowd, I can immediately feel how much they’re on my side and how much they’re not. There’s a remarkable difference in the reception I feel from women versus men. Nowadays I almost always have an all-male group with a few token women in the crowd. The reason for that is I keep increasing my fees, so the people who can pay the big fees are male audiences: bigger ringers, big prices, big sponsors. I can tell you, the guys are not on my side when I stand up there. I can feel it right through my bones; I have to prove myself. They’re like sizing me up in a different way than if I was a guy. But that gets my energy up. I’m out to slay the dragon, and I do it every time – I get them to love me.

I just realized I was trapped. I couldn’t get promoted, so I promoted myself, which is an act of courage because you’re afraid of losing what you got…

SPEAKING.COM: How can women gain more headline public speaking slots?

CORCORAN: Number one, you have to get up there. You have to volunteer for any old thing you’re asked to speak at or anything you can push yourself into, because there’s no other way to get good at it.

I think women are comfortable volunteering as a resource or saying “yes” if they’re asked to be part of a panel. In the great majority of the associations I speak to, when I see the panels, there’s a much higher percentage of women. But there was a conscious time when I was asked to be on a panel and I had just decided that day to start saying, “No, but if you need me for a keynote, I’m available.”

Nobody bid on it at first. But little by little, I started getting a keynote here and a keynote there – once I refused the panels. Now, I don’t mean to sound like I’m a snob, like I think I’m better than the other women on the panel. I just realized I was trapped. I couldn’t get promoted, so I promoted myself, which is an act of courage because you’re afraid of losing what you got, but you could always turn around three months and start saying yes again.

But I didn’t have to turn around and say yes. I started getting keynotes – motivational keynotes which is what I do best. So, I think women have to ask for the order and just like men are better at asking for raises than women are – I know because I’ve hired, fired, and managed thousands of people in my lifetime already – it’s similar in the public speaking circuit. You have to ask for a raise. You have to want more money, ask for it, and get up as a motivational speaker, a business expert, somebody in the limelight, the main dog versus one of many, and I don’t think women really do it.

I remember I started increasing my fee though I’m still very conservative. I increased it to see if and how many people dropped off. Some people drop off when they have to pay more, but guess what? The one person who pays the higher fee just made up for the possible fewer overall bookings. So, I think you have to be courageous and keep increasing your fee, but I think it’s smart to do it gradually so that you don’t cut off your nose despite your face.

These were business people who built big companies and have a lot of money. Nobody else wrote an email or objected? That was mind-blowing to me. I was the only one that stood up for myself? I was triply thankful and I remember patting myself on the shoulder.

SPEAKING.COM: Speaking of being more aggressive and having “tenacity” … We heard that initially you received a call from Mark Burnett’s assistant informing you that you had not been cast on Shark Tank, but you were able to change Mark’s mind. How did you do that?

CORCORAN: A bit of back story: Actually, I was hired by Shark Tank and Mark Burnett’s Studio sent a contract which I signed. I wasn’t dealing directly with Mark, but one of his assistants.

It had been like any interview process with a lot of hoop jumping: I gave tons of documentation, financial information that I could afford to invest, that I would invest, and I made the wrongful assumption I had the job. The minute the contract came, I signed it and sent it right back overnight express. So what happened? What went awry? I’ll never know.

But I did get a call a few days before I was supposed to go to Hollywood from one of his assistants, the same one that initiated the contact in the first place. She told me that they had changed their mind and had hired somebody else, but they would consider me as a fallback. That’s it. That was the message. How insulting. A fallback? I’d rather be dead than be a fallback. I was really crestfallen. So I sat down and got the help of two other women that were in my office – Gail, my assistant who’s still with me, and Carol, who is a writer – and I wrote a boiling email that got results!

I heard from his assistant that afternoon. She said, “Don’t do anything. I think this might turn it around. Stay tuned.” By the next morning, he invited me out to compete for the seat.

Later on, after I’d gotten the job and was on set, my executive producer Clay Newbill came up to me and said, “I just want to tell you when we hired all the sharks we sent out contracts to a lot of people and then we made the final cut but you were the only one that objected.” I couldn’t believe that. These were business people who built big companies and have a lot of money. Nobody else wrote an email or objected? That was mind-blowing to me. I was the only one that stood up for myself? I was triply thankful and I remember patting myself on the shoulder.

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  • Barbara Corcoran Barbara Corcoran’s credentials include straight D’s in high school and college and twenty jobs by the time she turned twenty-three. It was her next job that would make her one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the country when she took a $1000 loan to start The Corcoran Group. As one of the “Sharks” on ... more


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