In any field, but especially in business, being able to build genuine connections are an important skill, and that cannot be overstated. Connecting with clients on so many different levels is the lifeblood of business, and missing out on this might just put you in the position of missing out on a client as well. Maria Franzoni is a UK-based founder of the MFL speaking bureau and works with some of the biggest and best speakers and thought leaders. She joins John Livesay to discuss how to build and maintain these valuable connections that you have with your potential or existing clients.
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Building Genuine Connections With Maria Franzoni
Our guest is Maria Franzoni, who has her own company called Maria Franzoni Limited, MFL. It was formed after years of working in both business and speaker bureaus with the support and encouragement of some other people that founded the London Speaker Bureau. Her company is a group of experienced people who want to make a difference to an organization and go beyond the speaker booking to create real change and continued momentum for clients. She’s not in the business to business, but she’s in the human to human, H2H. She has more than a Speakers Bureau, she is an agent of change and does all kinds of workshops. She has her own podcast called Speaking Business. Maria, welcome to my show.
You make me sound good. I barely recognize myself.
Who is that amazing woman? I would like to know her. Speaking of getting to know you, I love to share and give a shout out to people who introduced me to wonderful people like you and our mutual friend, James Taylor, who you represented. He’s a phenomenal speaker on innovation and was kind enough to make this introduction. No matter what business you’re in, those relationships that you form and you give before you ask is in my mind the way to get people to want to introduce you to other people. Let’s start there, Maria. What’s your philosophy on connections and the importance of it?
My entire life has been about connections. That’s interesting that you say that. Ending up in the Speaker Bureau was perfect because it’s not something that I knew about when I started working. It didn’t exist. It certainly wasn’t on my radar. I collect people, I always have. If I meet somebody who’s interesting wherever they come from, whatever background, I make sure I keep hold of them and I keep in contact. LinkedIn to me is wonderful because it helps me keep hold of people, but I don’t keep in touch as often as I would like because you get busy. I try not to forget them and I try to pick up where I left off. I love connections. It’s wonderful. It’s hard because there’s so much noise and so much going on, but life’s about connections.
When someone takes the time to remember your birthday or acknowledge an accomplishment or a promotion, or if it’s a company and their stock price is up, if you make those little connections and take the time to make significant specific feedback, I find it is where the emotional connections grow. Do you have a story around someone doing that for you? Are you doing that for someone?
What’s wonderful is people remember you over a long period. A few years ago, I was in touch with a speaker and things didn’t develop, nothing came of our interactions, but he remembered me. He came back a few years later with an opportunity for us to work together, which is coming off in 2020. It’s an enormous opportunity and I’m going to be positive and say when it comes off rather than if. It will be the biggest deal of my entire life. All from a relationship that goes back a few years and we barely have been in touch over the last few years, but something resonated. That connection was strong. I might have to come back and tell you what it is when the deal is done, but I’m a little bit superstitious about mentioning details.
We don’t count the chickens until they’re hatched, as they say, but the energy around that is what fascinates me. Those seeds get planted a few years ago. Many of us are impatient. The analogy I use is if you’re baking a cake, you don’t keep opening and closing the oven door to see if it’s risen or not. It won’t rise. We plant a seed and we don’t keep digging it up to see if it’s sprouted. Yet we expect relationships to be producing right away and we get impatient when things aren’t happening as fast as we can. Do you have a philosophy around that or any advice for people reading about how we can trust the process a little more and not be impatient?
It’s funny you say that because I like to interview my podcasts speakers. I remember speaking to somebody who said, “It’s taken me several years to become an overnight success.” It’s similar to the music industry and I think it’s the same for me. I’ve been in the Speaker Bureau world for many years, but it’s taken me this long to have the confidence to say, “I know the business. I understand the business. I want to tell you about what’s going on.” Sometimes, it takes a lot longer than you realize. I don’t know who the clever person was that said, “What you think you can achieve in a year, you overestimate it.” I don’t know who said that, somebody very clever, but I think it’s true. There are lots of examples about that, but in terms of the speaking business and booking speakers, it is becoming last-minute much more so than it used to be. That’s a mistake. That’s not great for us, for the client or for the speaker. Having the longer lead time and allowing time to settle, to think, to plan it is much better than doing a short-term lead time.Integrity is the key to success. Click To Tweet
In my experience, good speakers are the ones that take the time to do a deep dive into preparation. If you’re given a month or less, you don’t have a lot of time to interview people that are going to be in the audience to find out what their particular challenges are that you can customize your talk to. Everybody’s scrambling then. That’s when problems can happen like, “We didn’t know you needed a lavalier mic. We have a handheld mic. Where are the slides?” All those little details because when you’re rushed, things can fall away. I want to ask you about your own story of origin. I dabbled in it a little bit at the introduction. Tell us about your encouragement from Tom and Brendan, who founded the London Speaker Bureau to start your own.
It’s interesting because I have run my own business in the past. I came into the Speaker Bureau world a bit later. I wasn’t a spring chicken. I’d had a couple of careers before that and I fell upon the Speaker Bureau world. Because I’d had my own business before, I had strong ideas about how things should be done. Tom and Brendan were fantastic in that they allowed me to put my views and make changes in the organization, but London Speaker has grown fast. As it gets bigger and bigger, you can’t keep tweaking and changing. I’m a reformed and former management consultant. As a manager/consultant, you’re always looking to improve, always looking to change.
My team is used to it. It’s never going to stop. You have to keep improving. I was also doing that internally with the London Speaker Bureau. It got to the stage like, “I want to do this. I think the business can do this.” It was, “I’d like to go out on my own.” Tom and Brendan said, “Don’t do that. Don’t compete with us.” It was flattering. They said, “Instead, start your own office and remain part of our network.” My team and my office run independently. We can do what we like. We wanted to start a podcast, so we did. We want to do training for speakers, so we do. We’re also part of the entire London Speaker group of companies. We’re involved board-level with meetings, communications and with all of the team. We all collaborate and assist each other. I’ve got the benefit of being local, but having that global reach, which I couldn’t have on my own. London Speaker has got 25 offices around the world. That’s useful in terms of having a global roster.
It sounds like you’ve got the best of both worlds. You’ve got the structure and the connections of an established brand while starting your own brand that allows you to be agile and turn on a dime. Without a lot of bureaucracy stopping you or slowing you down and a bunch of people having to hem and haw and approve budgets. You’re like, “This feels like the right thing to do.” You mentioned your podcast, it’s called Speaking Business. Tell us what the number one thing that you love most about it is?
It’s so much fun. You must find that too as well. I always find out something different and new. The guests on my podcast are all speakers that we book through the Bureau. It’s my way of saying thank you. We have a good chat and I always discover something that I didn’t know. Some of the speakers I’ve been working with for many years. They’ll tell you something like, “Maria, I was sacked from my first job.” I thought, “Can I put that out on air? Is that okay?” or things like, “I’ve got a license to fire a cannon and I’ve got my own cannon at home.” I’m like, “Really?” The things you find out like, “I was homeless.”
In fact, on my latest podcast, both of us were crying because it was such an emotional revelation. I love the human bit, the human to human that you touched on. The original reason to do it was I wanted to show people, and the strapline at that time and I’ve changed it slightly now, is to get to know the person behind the mic, the person who is the speaker behind the mic, to know them better. It wasn’t about understanding in a short period of time, extrapolating some of their great knowledge because they are fantastic minds and brains. That’s why this business is exciting, but also to find out a little bit about them as well as people.
You touched on something that’s important for everyone reading, and that is this concept of being vulnerable. It’s important. That’s how we connect to people. I talk about all the time letting go of the need to be a perfectionist and being a little too slick that the audience can’t relate to you. If you’re talking about storytelling, confidence, you never had a bump in the road, you were never laid off and you don’t know what that feels like, then people can have a difficult time relating to you, “Easy for you to be confident, you’ve never had a challenge.” When I shared my story of being laid off after several years of Condé Nast in my TEDx Talk, of all the things that I talk about in the keynote and you love when people say, “I learned this or I’ve got this out of it.”
A lot of people resonate with this human thing that we all get knocked down. How fast did we get back up? Do we lose our identity when we lose our job? All those issues that allow them to look inside and realize, “We’re all human.” This concept of getting to know the person behind the mic is fascinating because a lot of people are interested to know what it’s like on the road as a speaker. Where else are you going? Where did you speak before here? Don’t you find that people are curious to know what a speaker’s life is? It’s not something that a lot of people do that you run into.You must embrace uncertainty. Click To Tweet
People think it’s glamorous and it’s not always because you haven’t always got a choice of where the event’s going to be and how easy the travel’s going to be or not. Unless you are somebody who has a full-time role and is speaking four times a year and therefore is selective, a lot of speakers are speaking a lot more than that. It’s not always as glamorous. I’ve got speakers who will go out on a Sunday night and they’ll be traveling to several different countries and then coming back. It’s exhausting because when you’re on stage, you are giving 100% energy and it’s incredibly draining. Sometimes people don’t realize how fit you have to be in order to keep the pace up.
That’s important because you almost have to make a game out of it like, “How can I find something healthy to eat at this airport because there are lots of bad choices. If I get sick, I can’t do my next speaking gig. How do I take care of my voice?” All of those things that people don’t think about are part of the issue. I gave a talk and for people who are reading and wondering about the speaking industry in the world is you oftentimes have multiple audiences to please. It’s not just the person who hired you. For example, there was a private equity company that bought this video company that makes videos for the police to wear body cameras. They wanted to buy that company and improve their sales so they could turn around and sell it in 2 to 3 years.
The private equity company not only bought the video company, but they also hired a sales training company. The sales training company reached out to me to explore having me come to be the keynote speaker. At first, I was confused. I’m like, “Who’s my audience? Is it your company, the sales training? Am I speaking to sales trainers?” “You’re speaking to this video company that the private equity company hired.” I was like, “Let me wrap my head around this.” They’re like, “Okay.” The awareness of how the business operates from your management consulting background. Private equity companies buy companies that are doing well and they want to make them grow even faster so they can sell them. Part of that is let’s get a speaker in here and you think, “This ecosystem.”
I was working with the people who I was interacting with, the sales training team. They meet us in the ballroom at 7:00 AM. We do a mic check, all that good stuff. As I’m walking in, the vice president of sales of the video company recognizes my face and says, “I’m going to be introducing you.” I’m talking to him and meanwhile, the woman from the sales training company comes out to look for me. He grabbed me before I could walk in the ballroom. No worries. I walk in and then, “I’m so and so from the private equity company. I’m the one that followed you on LinkedIn and I’m the one that told the sales training company to hire you.” I’m like, “I’ve got a lot of people to keep happy.” Can you speak to that? How do you advise your speakers that are fortunate enough to be in your world?
As part of the briefing that we do because we get involved in the briefings with the speakers and we normally do it on the phone because often the speakers and clients are not in the same country, sometimes not even in the same time zone. One of the questions I always ask is, what does success look like? Make it as simple as possible so the speaker knows. That forms part of the briefing notes. It’s written on the briefing notes. It even goes on their travel summary as a reminder, “This is what success looks like. This is what the client has bought.” This is more often than not, what they’ve told me when they’d given me the brief to suggest the speaker and what I’ve told the speaker isn’t what they bought or what they want. The result is something different. Often, it’s much simpler than the original brief.
To go back to that example I gave this talk to, the description of what success would look like would be the sales team would start turning their case studies into case stories, which is what I teach. They’re going to start using storytelling instead of facts. The private equity gentleman sent me a short email. He said, “Everyone’s talking about storytelling now, mission accomplished.” I thought, “That’s it, isn’t it?” That is what success looks like when the client says mission accomplished.
It’s such a simple question, but it’s hard often for the client to answer. Once you’ve got total clarity, this is what you need to deliver.
Sometimes, what I often do if someone is struggling to define what success looks like is I describe previous clients I’ve spoken to and say, “Here’s what it looked like for Redfin. Here’s what it looked like for Coldwell Banker. Here’s what it looked like for Coca-Cola. Here’s what Honeywell said.” It starts their mind going, “I got it.” Sometimes I think you as the bureau executive and sometimes the speakers, we have to help the clients define that. One of the tips I have found is in fact to give them some examples if they don’t know instantly. You’re assisting them in creating the best event especially if they’re not quite sure yet what that would be. Let’s talk a little bit about some of the other services you do. You have masterclasses and leadership development. Tell us how that started, who that’s for and how it helps?When you make strong connections, people remember you over a long period of time. Click To Tweet
That started because we have some amazing experts who have great expertise and who feel that they go in, they deliver a speech and they think, “I could do an awful lot more. I could help that company achieve more,” because the speech will do on an amount. It’s not going to cause a change across the whole organization. Sometimes, because they’re buying an expensive speaker, that speaker is going to change the organization in a 45-minute speech. That’s not going to happen. You have to have some follow-up.
It started with speakers, but also with our own desire to have a long relationship with clients, to understand much more about the business. If you do that, you can then preempt what they might be looking to do next. When you meet a speaker or see somebody, an expert and you think, “That particular person would be perfect for this organization. They’ve gone through that. They can take it to the next stage,” you can be thinking ahead and a great resource for them. Instead of a client coming to you once or twice a year for their conference, I’m thinking, “Let’s look at our internal development. Let’s look at our board meetings. Let’s look at our executives. Let’s look at our away days.” That’s a much more satisfying and enjoyable relationship.
That’s why we went on to do that. It’s a different thing to offer education if you like, development and offer a keynote speech. I brought in a specialist. I brought in Mary Tillson onto my team, who was one of my clients many years ago. She was my client at American Express, in-charge of talent and executive development. Now she’s part of our team helping clients who want to put speakers and experts in to deliver, etc. She helps support that. She helps to scope it and helps to support the speakers in their preparation of the sessions.
One of the things people are looking for is a return on investment and how we can continue what we’ve learned here from this event, so the people don’t go back to their daily lives and forget all the learnings and the energy around it and keep it going. It’s amazing how you can be brought in to help us learn how to tell better stories, for example. When I was speaking to Blue Cross Blue Shield during the workshop, there are some people saying, “We also need help with storytelling as a management tool. We’ve got Millennials and then we’ve got some people who are ready for retirement and they’re not communicating properly. How can you help us with that?”
You uncover other things that people need and the fact that you continue that relationship with clients is fantastic. It’s something that I don’t see a lot of and I wanted to give it a special shout out to everyone. A lot of people who are reading might want to know what the 2 or 3 hot things that you see clients are seeking now. Is it about the future? Is it leadership? Is it help us make better sales? Are all of those things or other things that you see people looking to have speakers come to talk about?
I suppose the big one and it’s been around for a while. We’ve had a lot of it certainly in the UK. It’s dealing with uncertainty. How do we deal with uncertainty? How do we continue to be successful? How do we continue to grow? How do we lead? How do we keep going? We’ve had a lot of uncertainty. I think we still have some. That’s been a big one. That covers a lot of other areas. In order to deal with that, people say, “I need an expert. What’s going on in the future? I need an expert. Tell me about the AI situation. I want somebody to tell them about cyber risks. I want somebody to tell me about technology. Tell me about how I’m going to create higher performance when people don’t know.” It’s all underpinning that big thing. We’ve been through this whole Brexit situation and many people said, “The speaker bookings are going to go down because of uncertainty.” Over the few years that we’ve been going through Brexit, we have increased year on year because uncertainty means, “Help. Give me an expert.”
I talk about this in terms of embracing disruption mentally. It’s great to know that there’ll be driverless trucks eventually and what technology is coming, but there’s an emotional concept around it that I feel storytelling helps us through all the change. When people realize, “Is there going to be a need for my job, whether I’m in sales, customer service or whatever else is going on?” That I tell people now more than ever, the emotional storytelling connection, the AI still is not able to do that yet. AI is not great at empathy. It’s not great at making people feel listened to. When you realize that those are skills you have and can develop like any other skills. I’m happy to hear you say that because this concept of soft skills can make us strong through uncertainty.
If you’re realizing that you need to develop those, then people are like, “Oh.” I saw it myself with Gensler, which is the world’s largest architecture firm had me speak to their team about how to win more business through storytelling. They said, “It used to be enough to go in and show our designs. Now, we have to use virtual reality goggles so people can experience the design and that’s still not enough. We were told that a client said between you and two other firms and we’re going to hire the people we like the most because it’s a five-year project to renovate this airport.” They realized, “What? Get John in here. We’re architects. What do we know about likability? How do we do that in a presentation no less? How do we make ourselves likable?” I kept saying, “Tell your story so people can remember it.” That whole premise of everything is being disrupted. You’re being disrupted at a technical level. You have to have new tools, but you also need new tools as a person and communicator to embrace this disruption. You see this all the time between speakers. Clients say, “You’re going to give them maybe 2 or 3 options.” I bet you hear 9 times out of 10, we’re going to hire the speaker that’s the easiest to work with that we like.As you get bigger and bigger, you can't keep tweaking and changing what you do. Click To Tweet
The likeability thing is huge. One of the programs I always refer to when I’m talking about speakers, I like to match it to music. I’m a big fan of Simon Cowell. Simon Cowell often says, “You have that likability factor. You are likable.” Being likable is important. Going back to what you were saying about stories, if I can tell a good story about a speaker, the client will remember that speaker. A lot of speakers don’t have great stories that I can tell. If they do, they’re memorable. I remember them. We’ve got 4,500 speakers on our roster. I am not going to remember everybody. I remember the good stories.
Here’s an example of what I think is a good story. When Anthem Insurance hired me, they said, “We’ve got nurses and MBAs. None of them want to be perceived as salespeople and yet we need them to start selling our data.” I said, “Ask them to be storytellers, not salespeople.” Light bulb, great. I said, “What’s going on after my talk?” We’re going to do an improv session where the audience is going to shout out objections and see how they handle it in the role-play situation.” I said, “What if I stayed after the keynote and helped them during that improv? I could whisper in their ear if they got stuck.”
“Nobody offered that. That’d be amazing.” During the process they said, “Can you be in my ear all the time when I’m in the field? You are the Pitch Whisperer.” That’s a little story now that people go, “I remember, you’re different.” It’s like, “They love that,” and that’s a story that you can tell. “Is that something you want to do? He’s done it before. He’s combining improv and sales training. What? How does that work?” Those little stories like that, they don’t have to be long. They have to be memorable. That’s what I love about storytelling. Is it memorable and magnetic?
The other thing to add to that is nobody has to remember your name. They have to remember the story. They’ll remember Pitch Whisperer and that is easier. They’ve got an image in their head. It’s easier to remember and that’s important for speakers to have that because there are many speakers out there. I’ve been in this business for many years. When I started, we were looking for experts to speak. We call it the speaker circuit. In other words, you can book this person to speak and pay them. That’s what it means. It’s not a real circuit. They’re not going round and round. On the circuit many years ago, there were few speakers in each of the categories, each of the topics and you were looking for them. Now, I think I get approached twenty times a day. That’s just my office and me.
Imagine the difference between a warm introduction versus a cold call and the same thing with your relationships with your clients that know, trust and like you. They said, “If Maria says James Taylor or another speaker is good, we believe her. You’ve de-risked our own anxiety about whether that person’s going to show up and do a good job or not.” That’s what people don’t realize. You and I talked about the importance of a speaker having great footage of themselves in a crowd so that people go, “That’s what we have. He can nail that.” Also, the images a speaker uses because you and I have a love of photography and design. I tell people the kiss of death is to read from a slide. You see many people who are not professional speakers, whether it’s executives of the company talking to their team before you get up to speak and you’re like, “You’re boring them to death.” Let’s talk about the big picture of the importance of visuals, whether it’s a video or an image that you’re using on your deck.
Video these days is more important than ever from a client’s point of view because they’re too busy to go out and see the speaker live. Back in the old days, you would go and see a speaker live and think, “I’ll book them for my next event.” You can’t do that now. The next best thing is video. You have to have a video. It’s absolutely essential. Does it have to show an audience? I don’t necessarily believe it does. Clients are sophisticated. They’re quite switched on. They can see if somebody can communicate a message, how they convey themselves. With regard to using visuals, it depends on you. If you’re a good storyteller, you can paint the pictures. A good storyteller can create better visuals in your head than you will ever see. I love that because then that’s unique to you. If you’re going to have visuals and it helps the audience to stay with you, that’s wonderful. It’s all about helping the audience to stay with you. That’s what it’s all about. I also like the use of video during speeches if it’s appropriate.
Do you have any last thoughts or suggestions, books you love, quotes you like that you want to leave us with?
I’m going to give you two quotes from one particular speaker. They were the best bits of advice I have ever had and I still use them now. I hope I remember both of them and getting them both correctly. One of them was, “Do what you say you’re going to do because it’s quite rare.” That was one of the best bits of advice and the speaker is Philip Hesketh, so that you know who he is. He’s an expert in persuasion and influence. The other thing he said which is brilliant is, “The rules of selling are ABC, always be selling.” I didn’t say always be closing. He says, “Always be selling.” People have to remember that this is a business. Always be selling.The life of a speaker is not always glamourous. Click To Tweet
That old philosophy, Always Be Closing, ABC, I put a twist on that at the end of my workshops and I say it’s ABK, which is Always Be Kind. People love that. I say, “Put it on a Post-it Note in your car if you have road rage in traffic. Put it by your phone.” The things we say to ourselves are much meaner than we would ever say to anybody else. How can we possibly be kind to other people we work with, let alone our clients, if we’re not starting with this ourselves? A lot of salespeople struggle with the image of, “People don’t like salespeople or lawyers.”
They’re seen as pushy. If you reframe that to ABK, it’s a nice little memorable takeaway that people like, “I’m using that,” or people will come up to me like, “ABK.” It’s a fun little thing. Those little memorable sound bites whether you’re giving a talk, being interviewed on television, it’s important to figure out who you are and what your brand stands for. Maria, you have nailed that in many ways. It’s been an honor getting to know you more, hearing your story, sharing your particular vision of being a human to human agent of change. It’s been an honor. Thank you so much.
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