Debra Searle MVO, MBE, is the UK's most successful female adventure speaker, having given more than 1000 speeches across the world. She shot to fame 17 years ago after refusing to give up in a pairs rowing race across the Atlantic - despite her then-husband having been rescued from the boat.
Alex Staniforth is one of the UK's youngest adventure speakers, just 22. In the last three years he has made a name for himself that lets him live off his speaking fees, while planning future challenges.
Debra runs a website Your Speaking Career with an associated podcast Expert Speaking Made Simple. Last week Debra interviewed Alex: How To Make The Leap From Free Speaker To Fee Speaker With Adventurer Alex Staniforth.
I have picked out a few interesting highlights from the interview, but to get the full flavour of why Alex is such an engaging speaker, you need to listen to him talking to Debra Searle.
Why is paid speaking so important for adventurers?
It's one of the few flexible jobs you can do as adventurer where you can potentially earn enough to pay off your mortgage and fund your future adventures.
Debra has been a professional adventurer for 17 years. She says in the interview: “The question I get asked most from other adventurers is “how do I get sponsorship?” …. It’s hard to get sponsorship, as we all know.
To be able to fund some of your expeditions through your speaking work is a fantastic way to do it. And a lot less pressure, because you haven’t got to adhere to sponsors’ demands."
What does Alex's speaking model look like?
Alex never intended to have a speaking career. He had a stammer from when he first started to speak, along with epilepsy, and he was badly bullied. Left with little confidence or self esteem, the outdoors became his escape, where he could “discover my limits, discover my potential”.
In sharing his adventures, he found a passion for helping people to change their mindsets. The speaking became both a way to share and a way for him to overcome his own challenges.
Alex has spoken to over 8,500 people in the last three years. Half his work is corporate, half for schools. The average corporate audience is 200 to 300 people, his biggest audience ever around 500.
His school work includes both primary and high schools, with lots of special events and awards. Some are repeat customers, a school has recently booked him for the fifth time.
He does barely any marketing. Three quarters of his talks come from word of mouth, or repeat business.
How has Alex managed to stand out in a crowded market?
“I don’t know, I just do what I do. I still find it bizarre that I’m invited to speak and that I’m handing out awards.”
In just being who he is, Alex has three advantages that help him stand out.
1. Alex is young, just 22.
Clients assume he's the tech support guy, or else a start-up entrepreneur.
In a market where many corporate speakers are older, with more life experience, his youth helps him stand out. His age takes the audience by surprise, and gains him their attention.
"..speaking in schools, young people can relate so much better to somebody who’s walled the walk, who’s been in a similar place to them… In the corporate environment I find a lot of the people in the audience will often see their kids in me, because of the age… My age often brings a surprise to people… in some ways it’s worked out well."
2. Alex is at the forefront of a rising trend - talking honestly about mental health issues.
He is able to do it with disarming honesty.
"Just be human. Mental health, that’s something that’s affected me for five, six years now. It goes back to when I was a child in school suffering from anxiety. And it’s still something that I have to manage on a daily basis. It’s a growing problem in work places. In schools it’s an epidemic. What I’ve found, like with my stammer, people have a lot of respect for you being prepared to be open, just to say it how it is."
Listen to the interview for a more detailed discussion of how honest you can be with an audience, and how to know when you've gone too far.
3. Alex has a natural charm, and a great command of self-depreciating humour.
“Speakers should make fun of themselves, in a positive way.” This is particularly important when adventurers, trying to hold their own in front of a corporate audience, may try too hard to establish their own importance.
Listen to the interview to hear which motivational speaker Alex looks up to when it comes to masterful use of self-depreciating humour.
How did Alex get started?
Speaking was never an obvious career choice for Alex, given his childhood stammer. “There were many times that I literally hid in a toilet in school because I was so scared of speaking in class. I’ve smashed up phones in my house from the frustration of being unable to speak.”
His first ever talk was at a primary school in 2012. That was the year he carried the Olympic torch. He found speaking in public was easier than speaking on the phone, or speaking to one person. With that experience, he realised he had a knack for it. He then contacted other schools to offer himself as a speaker.
His first big business talk was for the Chester Business Club. He came across the club when he was looking for Everest sponsorship, and they offered sponsorship money in return for a talk. One member, Brigadier John Thomson then coached Alex on how to give an impactful presentation. “I had a standing ovation. It was one of the most memorable talks I have ever given.”
How has Alex paid for his adventures?
In his teens, Alex made two attempts on Everest. In 2014 he was stopped by the avalanche that took 16 lives. He was at base camp when it happened. In 2015 he was stopped by the earthquake, he was trapped was on the mountain for two days. Both trips were funded by corporate sponsorship.
"I’ve come from a pretty average background, I’m just an ordinary person trying to achieve extraordinary things. It was all funded by a lot of fundraising, a lot of time sending emails, whilst washing pots in the local pub. The usual way.
I’m really fortunate now that speaking plays a really big part in my career and it’s helped me to fund the challenges I’ve done since."
Has speaking been an easy journey?
Alex is clear that his climb through the speaker world has had ups and downs. Two things stand out as he talks about his journey.
1. He is on an ongoing mission to improve his skills.
Alex learned a huge amount by filming himself and going through it with a paid speaking coach. “I was mortified but you have to bite your lip.. That really sharpened my presentation skills. That investment has earned me more money.”
Every talk he does, he asks for feedback, from his mentors and from the audience.
Listen to the interview for more detail on what kind of speaking training Alex has done and how he found mentors and coaches.
2. He has given speeches that didn't go well - but he's never given up on himself.
Alex was on Everest in spring 2015, when the terrible Nepal earthquake struck. He was trapped on the mountain for two days. Back at base camp, three of his team mates died.
“I got home feeling like, why was I spared? Getting back to speaking that summer was horrendous. Every talk, I couldn’t speak. My stammer was just so het up. I think it was the rawness, the emotion and the trauma... I very nearly binned it.”
Listen to the interview for the story of how a talk for the FA, to 100 young footballers, helped him find his way past the trauma.
How did Alex shift from free speaker to paid speaker?
The Chester Business Club speech helped him set his initial fee. "When you’ve been paid that much for something… it changes the mindset. You’re offering a service, you’re delivering something that benefits people. Why shouldn’t you charge for it?"
Since then he has charged for all his business talks. He still does some charity talks for free but he is always looking for return from each event. “Those were useful in terms of experience, in practising skills.”
As Debra pointed out, “It’s a mind-set shift. Once you’ve made the shift - you are a professional speaker - then it becomes a lot more comfortable to say, this is how much I charge.”
Alex agrees. “It can feel uncomfortable. How can I be worth that much? But you have to get advice. You have to compare yourself to other people who are offering a similar thing.”
[To get an idea of what speakers earn, and how fees are worked out, listen to Expert Speaking Made Simple episode 4 How Much Do Public Speakers Make?]
How does alex integrate his speaking and his adventures?
Last summer Alex spent 72 days running, cycling, and even kayaking, to reach the highest point in every county in the UK. He managed to fit some school talks into his itinerary. "I was kayaking over the Isle of White, turning up at a primary school, speaking to a 100 kids, then biking off."
He sees the talks and the adventures as complimenting each other. “The more challenges I do, the more story I will have to share.
“I have to do the adventures to have content to share in the first place. Although of course that’s not just why I do it…. I use them to inspire people directly. And to raise money for causes.” Alex has now raised over £85,000 for a variety of causes.
"I hope to keep on doing this… to keep on inspiring people for as long as possible.”
What does Alex see as future difficulties in his speaking?
- His advantage of youthful surprise will slowly fade away. “Something I need to think about is how I can continue to grow my speaking career as I get older and as I become more ‘in the crowd’.”
- As he gets more in demand, it gets harder to keep each speech sounding spontaneous. He already has 17 talks booked for 2018. “I think less is more. I’m trying to do less engagements because I find it a challenge to keep things fresh. It takes up a lot of time and energy, speaking.”