Both Sides of the NSA Member Experience: The Seasoned Veteran versus the Rookie

By Jeff Cohen, featuring an interview with Don Gabor

Two NSA members, one since 1991, the other a first-year attendee, sit adjacent at Fast Track and monthly NSA meetings. Despite differences in our experience, subject matter, and product lines, Don Gabor and I are witnessing the same speakers, networking activities, and Fast Track workshops.

As an NSA rookie, I set out to interview Don to get inside the head of a seasoned veteran and understand the similarities and differences between an experienced member versus someone just beginning the journey toward professional speaker.

The Seasoned Veteran Perspective- Don Gabor
An expert in “small talk,” Don Gabor is an author, professional speaker, and communication trainer, focused on helping clients who want better conversations with others and organizations that want employees with effective social skills. Best known for writing How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends, Don’s books and audiotapes have been translated into eight foreign languages. His extensive client list includes American Express, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Marriott Hotels, Merrill Lynch, MTV Networks, Shearman Sterling LLP, USA Today, and Viacom.

“Thanks to an invitation from Al Paranello, a former NSA president, I came to NSA in 1991 having already been a presenter, trainer, and author since 1981,” explains Don. “Having interacted primarily with trainers and teachers, I wanted to understand what it would take to build a profitable speaking business.”

Don began his NSA journey at Speakers University where he was captivated by two speakers, Tom Winninger, CSP and CPAE, and Warren Gresches, CPAE. “I watched Tom and Warren perform and could see that’s where I wanted to go.”

“I hit if off immediately with Warren and he became an early mentor for me,” shares Don. “I’ll never forget his advice on making it in this business- you want to be a speaker, you’ve got to go out and speak!” Warren quickly became a big influence for Don, as did Robert and Rande Davis Gedaliah, co-founders of Gedaliah Communications. “I’ll always remember Robert’s dramatic and memorable opening on martial arts as a metaphor for effective communication,” says Don. “I witnessed Robert apply teaching techniques to speaking and thought, if he can do it, so can I.”

Early on Don remembers feeling overwhelmed. “I’m a self-starter and take guidance well, but information overload made it difficult to focus,” recalls Don. “I kept trying new stuff hoping it would work right away, but the real trick is figuring out where to concentrate and how to utilize your time.”

Looking back on his early experiences, Don advises new NSA members not to follow everyone’s suggestions. “You have to pick and choose carefully,” warns Don. “Align with speakers who compliment your presentation style and approach to running the business.”

Over the years, the worst advice Don has heard involves how to write a book. “Many times I have listened to NSA speakers say you can write a 200-page book in two weeks and become an instant expert with credibility. You can’t be brilliant in one draft!” exudes Don. “Unfortunately, some members follow this advice and later discover that to create a professional product requires more than the first draft.”

At present, Don has two primary goals as an NSA member and Fast Track attendee. “First, I want to increase my income and expand my business,” reveals Don. “Second, I’m hoping Fast Track teaches me how to integrate products and training programs more effectively, sell more systems, and transform my business from presenting individual workshops into more of a consulting relationship business.”

Looking ahead, Don hopes the Fast Track program sets the new standard for what can be accomplished at NSA meetings. “Ron Karr and Bob Frare have done terrific jobs bringing quality speakers into Fast Track to benefit the members,” divulges Don. “I also hope we continue to attract more professionals who want to use speaking to both enhance their business and serve as a marketing tool within their industry.”

The Rookie Perspective – Jeff Cohen
Graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1995, with a dual degree in Psychology from the College of Arts and Sciences and Marketing from the Wharton School of Business, I sought solid corporate experience. I landed a job at American Express and spent the next eight years moving laterally from consulting to marketing to account management to Human Resources and vertically from analyst to manager to director. I also performed stand-up comedy regularly in New York City comedy clubs and relished both the spotlight and captive audience.

Given my love for performing and a desire to start my own business, I resigned from American Express with a birthday gift in hand from my wife, a one-year membership to the National Speaker’s Association. I attended my first NSA meeting in November 2003 and asked a simple question. “What is the first thing I should do as a professional speaker?” NSA members advised me to go back to American Express and get hired as a part-time consultant. “You’ll start earning income and realize that people are willing to pay you for your expertise.” I followed their advice, set up Bold Road Consulting and landed a consulting retainer with American Express. My company helps individuals achieve their human potential in relationships, career advancement, and personal development.

While the income removed the immediate financial pressure, I knew there was more to this business than getting rehired by American Express as a consultant. I signed up for Fast Track on Ron Karr’s advice that, “you’ll avoid some of the pitfalls and mistakes we made in starting our speaking businesses.”

So far, I have at times felt information overload as I attend meetings. I see so many accomplished speakers earning livings as authors, trainers, consultants, and coaches and it can seem difficult to determine where to focus. At the same time, I find the success of others inspiring because it highlights various paths to success. I find myself picking and choosing little pieces of everyone’s advice to form my own game plan.

Some of the best advice I have heard so far at Fast Track came from Francis Bologna, CPA. Francis explained that networking and marketing are absolute necessities to be successful in the professional speaking business. This advice really hit home for me at this early stage in my career and I have devoted increasingly greater time to both of these activities.

This year, my goal is to setup the infrastructure for a successful business. Following Mary Bryant’s advice to “polish the professional speaker,” I am creating professional-looking business cards, a website, and marketing materials. I am also expanding my consulting practice, having landed new clients in Brown Brothers Harriman and Gap. Finally, listening to Don and Warren’s advice to “get out and speak,” I recently presented a WorkTalk seminar on personal development and corporate strategies to position yourself for growth potential and business success. I also shared the stage with Deepak Chopra presenting on how to overcome stress and have the best year of your life. On the writing front, I’m also proud to have been named the dating and relationship expert on About.com with articles appearing at http://dating.about.com/

My ultimate goal in joining NSA and attending Fast Track is to do what I love while becoming an established, professional speaker. Over time, I also hope to expand my speaking repertoire to include human potential as it relates to career choices, marital happiness, and family relationships. I know that my continued affiliation with NSA and my strong desire to make it in this business, will lead to success.

The Rookie and the Veteran: Side-by-Side
Having interviewed Don and compared it to my own personal experience, I have realized that both veterans and rookies experience information overload, struggle to maximize their time, and work hard to focus their businesses in the right areas. Everyone is bombarded with advice and it can be difficult to weed through all the opinions to find the right personal strategy.

As a rookie, it’s comforting to know that Don started where I started, somebody watching other veterans, looking for tools and techniques to incorporate into his business. Over time, Don built his business and changed from a rookie seeking mentors to a veteran giving back to the new members. I too hope to grow my business to eventually become a mentor to others and be able to share my experiences with the next generation of NSA members. Until then, I’ll see you at the next NSA meeting.

Don Gabor can be reached via email at don@dongabor.com or via telephone at 718-768-0824. Jeff Cohen can be reached via email at jeff@boldroad.com or via telephone at 888-565-BOLD