Last updated on October 16th, 2018 at 10:47 am
Top speaker, Kelli Vrla refers to herself as a “Greek Road Warrior.” She prides herself on instantly connecting with her audiences using humor, wit, and practical information. And she’s been doing it for 30 years!
Is your big dream to be a top motivational speaker?
This article is professional speaker interview number eleven (and the last) of my series “11 Top Women Motivational Speakers Share Their Best Advice” featuring motivational speaker, Kelli Vrla.
For my “what it takes to be a motivational speaker” series, I cornered eleven of the most powerful women speakers, and I got them to share their best secrets on what catapulted them into public speaking stardom.
Each speechmaker in this series shares their best speaker business success advice. It’s important to learn the new rules of speaker success–if this is your big dream! Today’s interviewee has survived the corporate speaker trenches. It doesn’t hurt that she’s Greek.
I asked my speaker interviewees to each answer ten questions. Since their answers are so informative, I’ve broken each speaker and their responses down into individual pages because once I put their answers together here, it was too large of an article (10,000 words) to load on a device like a smartphone.
Kelli Vrla, CSP is a member of the National Speakers Association and serves on the board of the NSA-North Texas division. Since her radio days at ABC, Kelli has successfully helped people enhance personal and professional skills. You can read Kelli’s full bio on her website, here.
The Top Motivational Speaker Interviews – Interview #11 of 11:
Q-1: What made you want to be a motivational speaker?
A-1: Being very Greek, I love to eat, talk, and laugh. Instead of ethos, logos, and pathos, it’s Eat-those, Talk-os, and Laff-os.
I was inspired at an early age to love great and funny performance art. My cousins and I used to hold our relatives’ hostage and do variety shows in our garage “theater” at reunions. I loved connecting with just the right word or phrase to get them to nod, laugh or elbow each other because we hit a nerve.
I worked as a broadcast sales exec in radio in Dallas, Texas. I was a junkie for motivational speaker audios and seminars. I listened to the cassettes until they literally wore them out. I sold my sales manager on letting me go to seminars on the condition I would teach the staff a few nuggets of what I learned.
I thought the world of the speakers who showed me new ways of looking at things, how to set and each milestone goals, and how to realistically deal better with life’s challenges.
I credit my positive mindset to those speakers.
Q-2: From the time you decided to become a motivational speaker, how long did it take for you to start making a living at it?
A-2: Short answer:
“Making a living” is a relative term if you consider 10 Ramen Noodle soups for a dollar as living large!
If you mean, when did I make a living from only speaking—the first year I jumped out of radio and into stand-up. Then I gave myself a “raise” and crossed over to corporate speaking while weaning myself from my stand-up tour schedule. The raise started at only $100 more per day. Whoo! Whoo! The big time!
I’d love to say I started my trust fund early. Halfway through my radio career, I left a cushy 401K job and hit the road as a stand-up comic. In hindsight—what was I thinking? I had been sneaking into open mics around town, and I’d won a couple of joke contests. It was a whirlwind 3 ½ years, traveling, doing 7 shows a week for around $250. My radio professionalism helped get me bookings, as some comics were late to gigs or just didn’t show at all–that’s when you’d get “promoted.”
The club owner comes to you 5 minutes before showtime and says, “Hey, um, Joey’s not going to make it tonight—can you fill his 45 minutes?” Gulp! Command performances were good if you could “work the crowd”—and spontaneous “funny filler” became my hallmark. It was sink-or-swim Bootcamp, and I treaded water as fast as I could.
In the comedy (and speaking) business good news travels fast, and bad news travels faster—my 2nd year in the business, a club owner told me actress and famous stand-up comedian, Phyllis Diller, had picked me from a slew of videos to open for her Southwest tour.
It was surreal and an honor. Many of my audiences today are too young even to know that Phyllis and comedian, Joan Rivers were trailblazers for women in comedy. She did 380 jokes in 55 minutes–every show—every night. Every punchline hit every 12 seconds—like clockwork—and sounded as if she just thought of it. Perfect timing and delivery: I learned so much from watching and visiting with her.
Although I loved stand-up, it didn’t fulfill the lightbulb moments I got from my motivational speakers. I preferred my audiences to be soberer, so they could remember my key points and optimize their lives. Comedy clubs were places to unwind and escape the self-improvement world.
So, I set my sights on speaking to corporate groups. I had experience training my teams, working in various radio entities, like ABC and CBS. Other industries asked me to train their teams. A few groups asked me to roast their executives.
I heard about the National Speakers Association and found my local Dallas, Texas chapter and joined that day. I met a lot of crazy people—who were just as insane about stuff as me. I’d found my ‘people,’ and as scary as we might seem to the outside world; I was finally home. I was asked to serve on the board as “new blood.” I attended my first national conference and Susan Abar-Lowery, a co-board member, signed me up for an audition with a national seminar company.
They hired me to be one of their contractors on the spot and gave me my first six days of business. I had 30 days to learn the course curriculum. I added many topics to my portfolio, and I was delivering up to 21 days a month. It was a grueling schedule—similar to stand-up—yet I was being paid to hone my craft almost every day of the month!
I have to stay diligent to make sure the speaker bureaus DON’T label me a comedienne or comic—as that lends only towards an entertainer.
I’m an “Irritational Speaker” – meaty content with a festive and fun delivery.
Q-3: Name 3 things you are really great at as a motivational speaker.
A-3: 1. Reading the room and coming up with quick-witted summaries of what’s going on in a room/event/corporation.
2. Creative ways to connect and bring a message home to a group.
3. Being “IN” the moment
Q-4: What was your biggest mistake in the business of being a paid public speaker?
A-4: There have been many:
I’d say not being as aware of the whole speaker business picture early on. I feel like I missed the early boat on repurposing product, capturing video, getting my happy clients to write a glowing referral in the heat of the moment after a standing ovation, learning more about the passive income side for when I get too old or cranky to travel this much.
Q-5: What was the one thing you did right when you started as a motivational speaker?
A-5: I always got back with people very quickly—returning calls and emails. Many would say, I was the first to respond. I still feel I can always learn more—every day, every client, every presentation.
Q-6: What do you think is the hardest thing about having a motivational speaking career?
A-6: To understand that luck and timing play a huge part in how your career unfolds. There is NO substitute for great platform skills—to always try to push the envelope in cranking up your performance each time you present is paramount to survival.
Q-7: What is your favorite type of audience?
A-7: Open-minded people who come to learn nuggets to help them in their lives.
Quieter crowds are a little tough to perform for, as you’re never really sure what they’re thinking. I had a group of actuaries–they calculate when you’re going to die for insurance groups—I thought they’d done the math and decided my expiration time was just before the end of my speech–and I was surprised to be asked back three times because they were so low-key during my event.
I enjoy a group that’s ready to have fun while they learn. Women’s groups can create an electric frenzy that’s contagious and wonderful! Love to do dance breaks and flash mobs with any group that’s ready to have a blast while learning great tips!
Q-8: The motivational speaker business can be stressful. What do you do to stay sane?
A-8: I talk to me a bunch! These Bluetooth headsets are heaven sent! I can walk around practicing my speech or just having an “Inside Voice” debate, and no one’s the wiser!
I also workout a ton; I’m on track for my first Half Ironman this year, so I work a lot of my stress out on the swim-bike-run course doing around 15 hours of training a week. I am too tired at week’s end to be stressed.
I have a touch-base group of go-to friends and colleagues. We can catch up, share war stories and support each other with calls, texts, meet-ups, etc. So much of our time is spent as satellites on the road; it’s important to stay grounded and connected with a precious few who know your strengths and limitations and can honestly call you on your stuff and help hold you accountable to your goals
Q-9: Motivational speaking takes a tremendous amount of work; how do you balance your personal life with your speaking career?
A-9: I treat every trip as a mini-vacation. I try to find out as much as possible about the places I visit, and I ask people what not to miss as a visitor. It’s a bonus if there’s a triathlon in the area when I’ll be there.
Some of my groups have cyclists, runners, and swimmers, so it’s been fun to get a group activity going when I come in early.
I also try to plan meet-ups with friends and family when I know I’ll be in their neighborhoods.
Q-10: What advice would you give to women who have decided their big dream is to be a motivational speaker?
A-10: Find your niche.
Know your stuff.
Always strive to learn more.
Join networks like National Speakers Association.
Major in the minors (details).
Have a generous heart when asked for advice!
It’s A Wrap!
I believe that women motivational speakers are worthy of recognition and celebration. I much appreciate Kelli’s time and assistance in getting her answers to me about her public speaking business and her work-life balance advice.
I hope that every motivational speaker dreamer reading this series of interviews from these eleven great speakers will see that there is not one hard and fast path to your public speaker dream. Everyone who interviewed for this series is a motivational keynote speaker, but every one of us got to the top of our profession differently.
There’s room for all of us.
Thanks again, Marilyn! And all the other women motivational speakers who agreed to be a part of this interview series!
Kelly Swanson is an award-winning storyteller, motivational speaker, published author and TV personality who is passionate about helping women harness the power of their stories to connect, influence, and get the results they dream of accomplishing. Laughing the whole way, Kelly teaches women how to master the art of connection through the power of strategic storytelling. You can find her on The Fashion Hero show airing Fall of 2017 on Amazon Prime or on her website MotivationalSpeakerKellySwanson.com.
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