After working for the Hong Kong government, Priscilla Chan decided to test her courage and character when she started her own business. As she spearheads Speakers Connect, Priscilla encourages speakers to spend time and passion on what they want to talk about. What speakers need to remember is that they shouldn’t sound mechanical when giving their pitch. Clients will listen if your research is tailor-made for them, which will in turn make you sound human instead of a robot. These are some of the relationship secrets that will translate to a successful pitch.
Today’s guest is Priscilla Chan, the founder of Speakers Connect, which is a speaking bureau based in Hong Kong. She has an amazing story of how she worked for the Hong Kong government and quit that job to start her own business. Not only that, but she had to start a business that nobody really understood what that business was. They only understand it in America and Australia but not in Hong Kong. She was quite the pioneer eight years ago and continues to be very successful doing it. She said, “The pain of staying stuck in a job that you don’t love is worse than the fear you have of trying something new.” She took that leap of faith in herself. She said, ”Running your own business really is a test of your own character; what kind of values and integrity and how do you communicate with people.” What she looks for in a good speaker, and I think this is true in any situation, is someone who’s got passion, expertise and customization of what they’re talking about. Enjoy the episode.
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Relationship Secrets from Hong Kong with Priscilla Chan
Today, I’m honored to have Priscilla Chan who’s the Founder and Director of Speakers Connect, which is based in Hong Kong. She has such a fascinating story of how she works with speakers from around the world and clients around the world. She really has an insight into how she decided she was going to do this business after working for the Hong Kong government for years and decided she was going to go out on her own. In addition to that, she writes a blog on technology and startups. Priscilla, welcome to the show.
Thank you for having me.
It’s an honor. We met through our mutual friend, Freddie Ravel. I always find that some of the best people I meet come from introductions. Do you find to be true for you, Priscilla?
Yes. I think it’s also because you feel the trust that the friend actually introduced both of you to each other. I also find that actually speakers are always very helpful. They like to introduce people to each other and they help each other out. I really enjoy working with speakers.
Before we get into what you’re doing now with speakers, let’s go back to your own story of origin, I like to call it. I know you went to the University of Hong Kong and got your MBA there. Did you ever have a thought while you were working on your degree that you would eventually have your own business?
It’s actually a process. After I graduated from my first degree also from Hong Kong U, I started to work for the Hong Kong government. It’s a good training for me because Hong Kong used to be a British Colony. Even after the British left Hong Kong, the civil service system is actually quite the same. We actually follow the British Civil Service. Being a government official in the Hong Kong government, I actually have been posted to different departments and different positions every two to three years. The exposure was very good. Every now and then, I was exposed to totally different and unrelated positions. I learned a lot from my previous experience. Just after sometime I find that this is interesting. I got many different experiences, but sometimes this is something that I really like. Sometimes that may not be something that I think is the most suitable for myself. This is not up to me to choose because we follow the rotation program. Whether you like it or not, you’re going to be there for two to three years and then you proceed to the next position.
At one point, I was posted to the secretariat for organizing international events hosted by the Hong Kong government. I find that this is interesting. I have very little sleep. I sleep maybe two to three hours closer to the event day. My energy level was actually better than when I was going to a 9 to 5 job, which is basically just handling more documents or maybe working on Excel files most of the time. This is what I like. I like to see things happen and I like to see good ideas spread. I started to think whether in the coming further years I still want to work in the government or I want to do something that I feel more passionate about. Then, I started to do research and find that there’s something called speakers bureau as a business. In Asia, this is quite new at that time. I started to think whether I can do it. I decided to maybe before my next promotion, I’d quit the government job and started my own business.
Having said that, it’s a very long journey. The learning curve was very steep because working for the government means that I basically do not have any business training. The decision-making process is totally different when you are basically using the money to buy services versus when you are actually the person who is selling the service. The first two years was actually quite miserable.
The key that you said to me really jumps out is your energy level was completely different even with less sleep when you were doing something you were passionate about versus the 9 to 5 when you had all the rest in the world but it was drudgery. I think that’s such a great litmus test for everyone to take away and say, “If you’re not energetic and passionate about what you’re doing, it’s time to take a stock of your life. Either change your job or change your approach to it.” That seems to be such a nice a-ha moment for you.
Everybody actually can feel it if you are honest to yourself. Sometimes we may not want to admit it. Maybe we have fear of the unknown. Giving up a very stable salary and just jumping into something that you do not know whether it would be sustainable or not. It’s challenging even making the decision itself and just trying to do it. At one point, I find that I’m basically unemployable leaving the government job because the private sector may not necessarily think that this is something relevant for them. At that point, I just think I have to make it work. At the end of the day, follow your heart. It’s cliché to say but it’s quite real as well. If you feel that every day you’re going to work and you do not feel this is really who you should be, it’s actually quite painful as well.
Not following your heart and your passion can be just as painful as staying. You think, “If I’m going to stay in a safe job, I’ll feel okay.” You’re actually going to feel just as much pain as you will with dealing with the fears of the unknown of a new career. I think that’s a really interesting point to make that everybody has to take that leap of faith in themselves, make it work and figure this out. Let’s take a little bit of a deeper dive on this experience you had from going from being someone who was buying things, working for the government, to now having to sell yourself and your agency to companies to get to hire you and the speakers you represent. What was the biggest challenge you faced trying to figure out how to do that?
Running a business is basically a test for your own self to start with. Your character, your values, how you make decisions, how you deal with people is all around a test. Over time, you try different things and you get better. For me in particular, from a government background, I do not have the business decision-making process in my system originally. What I particularly had to learn at that time is, “Now I’m actually on the other side of the table and it’s slightly different.” I have to learn it, to learn how to communicate. Not exactly sell but essentially also selling my speakers, selling my services, but more how to communicate the service to the clients and let them know. If I have a conference and I’m looking for speakers, rather than I go to ten people and ask whether you’re good, and everybody would tell you that they are good, now you can actually go to a bureau and because we know the speakers, we can actually maybe give you some advice. I look at it that way. Having said that to start with, a speakers bureau or other business, I think the business itself is like another copy of you. How good the business is how good you are doing actually.
It’s almost like the business is a mirror of your values and your belief systems. It’s like, “Who am I attracting into my world? What kind of clients am I attracting?” In your case, not only clients that are going to use your agency and your bureau to find speakers but, “What kind of speakers am I representing? Do they represent my values and beliefs?” It all just starts to be a big reflection back to you is what I’m hearing.
I think it’s all decision-making, who you work with, how you deal with people. I think it’s very important. The respect, and whether you can be frank and honest with each other, those are important in doing business. Also, just in being a human being.
That’s interesting you said that because when I listen to people give a pitch to get their startup funded for example, they’ll say, “Please tell these people to be a human and not a robot.” So many people think like, “I’m giving a pitch now. I have to be formal and not be myself.” I loved your opinion on this, Priscilla, I find that the best speakers are those people who are authentic and human while on stage. It’s a little trickier than it might seem to be that relaxed and confident and vulnerable. If you can be, “I’ve worked very hard to do that for my own self. The more I do it, the more the audience connects with me.” Whether you’re talking to somebody one-on-one or you’re talking to a big crowd as a speaker, I think that the willingness to be human is the secret to being successful.
From time to time, I have people who actually would like to become a speaker asking, “What are the hot topics now?” I can definitely let them know what are the hot topics now, say for instance, technology, AI. But if you are not really in that arena, this is not your business. It’s more important to look inside to see what is the important messages, the uniqueness, the story that you can share with the audience. That is even more important.
For example, the whole concept of artificial intelligence and whether or not that’s going to take over jobs, robots and things and people have that big fear. I talk about how I’ve helped somebody in artificial intelligence that’s competing against IBM Watson come up with a way to take a very complicated concept and explain it in a way that’s still a story. What I did with him was I said, “You’re talking about structured data and unstructured data. Unless you really understand artificial intelligence, nobody knows what that means. Let’s talk about it in terms of an ice berg. There’s the tip of the ice berg, that’s what’s above the water. That’s the structured data. Below is the unstructured data.” Just that visual image when he was giving a pitch suddenly made it more compelling and understandable right away. I said, “What’s your big, unique difference whether you’re pitching against IBM Watson or anybody else?” He said, “We understand verbs and IBM Watson doesn’t.” I said, “Okay. The story is you come home, you see your wife crying. You don’t know if it’s tears of joy or if it’s tears of sadness or just because she’s frustrated you left your socks on the floor again.” Until you understand why somebody is upset, you can’t really respond to it.
Then, we took that concept of understanding verbs into an actual case study of a brand like Nike, for example, hiring and using this. Right now, they can just see if their social media is trending positively or negatively, but not why. Once you understand why, then you know how to respond to it just like you would a person. That’s what got him the funding. If that’s a hot topic of artificial intelligence, I think you need to have some experience of working with people in the field and being able to talk about it in terms of everyone can understand and not keep it so cerebral and unique to just experts.
Sometimes how I look at my speakers is actually they are the translators, translating something that people do not understand into something that they can understand.
For example, for me, one of the things I like to say when I give a keynote to an audience is one of the things that’s never going to be outsourced to a computer is trust and the relationships you have with people. While your particular job, if you’re an X-ray technician, a radiologist, that might be done by a computer because it can be done faster and more accurately maybe. But the relationship, that bedside manner as a person in healthcare, that is never going to go away. If you have some sad news to give somebody, that you have a tumor or whatever it is, you still want that to come from a doctor, in my opinion, and not a computer, right?
I think that’s the big takeaway for people who might be afraid of artificial intelligence, because that’s a hot topic now, taking over everything or artificial intelligence creating additional artificial intelligence. What won’t ever go away is how we started the interview, it’s all about relationships and the trust that you build with people and get introduced that way. When you really realize that that’s what you bring to any situation, and not necessarily all of your knowledge but your essence, your personality, your values and your ability to emotionally connect with people. That’s what I hear you saying is really the secret sauce.
Yes, we are in the people business.
Can you tell us what it was like to get your first few clients to say that they would hire you to find them a speaker? How did you decide what industry you’re going to go after first?
We tried many different things at the very beginning because comparatively in Asia, speakers bureau is still quite a young concept. I remember in the early days, we did organize events, showcases to recruit the potential clients and come to see the speakers live speaking. Every time when I open the event I would ask, “How many of you actually have heard of this term called speakers bureau? Out of 100 people there for instance, maybe five hands would actually raise. It’s actually quite new. I would try to explain to them, “We’re like a model agency but not for models. We are for speakers but sometimes our speakers are quite good looking as well.” That’s how we explain the concept to our clients, but it’s quite a long way.
You told a story. You gave an analogy that people that could go, “Now, I understand.” That’s such a great example of a good pitch.
At the very beginning, we tried different things. We just see what actually would work because we cannot really just copy from the US or just copy from Australia. The market is different. Language is also another thing that we have to pay attention to because in Asia there are so many languages being spoken in different countries. It’s very different in the US or in Australia. English, basically you go everywhere, is one language. From the frontend to the top management, you can have one language. Asia is a totally different story. We have to handle that differently as well.
Do you have an example of some of the challenges? When you have a speaker come from the US to speak in Asia, do they typically have a translator there?
Depending which country they are speaking. In Hong Kong, we do not necessarily need a translator but if it is in Japan for instance or in South Korea or in China, sometimes you may need an interpreter for the presentation. Also, depending whether it’s for the senior management or for the frontend staff, it would be different as well. Sometimes, for example, for insurance companies or real estate agents, for frontend, you may actually need the local language rather than speaking English.
When you work with these big companies like IBM, Nike and Pepsi Co, do you work with their US corporate headquarters or do you work with the people who are in charge of Asia?
We have both. Sometimes it would be the regional headquarters contacting us. Sometimes it would actually be from their headquarters. It really depends on different scenarios.
Do you find that if a speaker does a good job in one country for a company that then they would like to have him come speak to their team in another country?
Yes, they do. It’s also an easier decision to sell to the management as well. It happens, yes.
You and I in a previous conversation had really an interesting answer to the question of, what do you think makes a good speaker? Would you mind sharing what your criteria is for what a good speaker is based on your experience of what makes the client happy?
Firstly, you have to have a thorough understanding of the topic that you talk about. You have to have passion on that particular topic. You’re talking about it constantly, if you are not passionate about it, you are bored very quickly yourself. That’s very important. Particularly, more and more often speakers having just one presentation and go to every client with that particular single presentation doesn’t work anymore. We actually prefer speakers who would do the research and customize their presentation for the client. You can actually have the same framework but the examples you are using or what is the implication. I think the speakers should do the research and actually tailor-made for the clients for their particular interest. Whether their clients actually are facing some issues or they have a particular area that they would like to focus on, I think that we should be very clear about that. With the presentation, you help them to work out what they want to achieve.
To me, what I hear is the secret formula is passion plus expertise plus customization equals a great speaker that gives a good outcome that makes you look good to your client. To me, that’s the job of the speakers, to not only make the client happy but to make you happy and make you look good to that client. When that happens, then that client is going to continue to use you for other speakers. That’s how I approach my relationships with a speakers bureau like you. My job is to make you look good to whoever has entrusted you with finding the right person for them. I think that mindset really translates into a great partnership with you and your speakers, yes?
Yes. If the speaker can do a good job to meet the client’s needs and actually answer the questions, the burning questions that they have and the other things actually take care of themselves. I think respect of the client’s time, that the audience may be twenty people, may be 100 people, may be 1,000 people, they actually spend that one hour with you. The respect that they invested time in you and what you invest in that to give them, that’s very important. If we can actually think through that, the outcome would actually be good.
One of the ways you can show respect, and I know how important that is in the Asian cultures, is doing your due diligence and research and customizing your talk and learning their acronyms or their buzz words in that particular industry. For example, Nike, I used to call them for advertising when I sold ads at Condé Nast. Now, they have taken this concept of customization to a whole new level. Certain stores allow you to go on a computer in the store and pick the color of your shoe laces and have certain things set on your shoe so no one has your exact shoe. They realized that part of technology is giving customers customization. The irony of that is if you wanted to talk on that topic, then you obviously have to customize your talk to talk on that topic to Nike or anyone else. It’s a fascinating full circle of why customization is so important as your speaker because it’s so important to the clients that they need to do that for their customers even if they’re a big company like Nike.
I think more and more so with the advancement of the technology in every aspects. With data, with 3D printing, this is going to happen. The younger generations who are going to be our clients in making decisions, they’ll get used to this mindset as well. We have to be prepared.
Do you have any thoughts or suggestions that you want to give the listeners on being a successful entrepreneur besides the passion and overcoming the fear that you’ve mentioned?
I cannot claim that I’m successful yet. I’m not sure whether everybody is suitable to be an entrepreneur. I think some actually prefer to work in an employee environment. They prefer to work for somebody. If you take Steve Jobs or if you take Richard Branson, really famous entrepreneurs, I’m quite sure they cannot work for anybody else apart from themselves. If you listen to yourself whether you can actually face challenges when things are slow and you put a lot of effort in it and you still do not see anything. Whether you can actually still have the trust and confidence in yourself and just kept carrying on until you make it and make good decisions at difficult times or when there is dispute with your partners, with your colleagues, how you communicate your point of view across and get the support. When to make decisions to go ahead, when to make decisions to actually live it. I think those are actually important when you want to be successful in business, and I’m still learning.
I think it’s a lifelong process actually, at least for me. I really love the fact that you said you have to keep trusting yourself even when something hasn’t popped up. With the sales career that I have as a background, things are not always linear and the expectation that it’s going to go straight up all the time doesn’t happen whether you are working at a big company or for yourself. To get comfortable as you said, trusting the process, I almost look at it like you plant a seed in the ground and you go, “How come it hasn’t sprouted yet?” If you dig up the seed, then you stop the process. You just have to keep planting and watering the seed and trust the process in your own career that all those seeds will in fact produce enough to continue to make you successful and along the way, not taking out any fear or anxiety on the people you work with as part of your own internal stuff of being frustrated that the things aren’t happening as fast as you may want them too. That’s some really great life lessons about business, but also I think just in general how you approached life. Now, it’s so melded that the concept of, “This is who I am at work and this is who I am when I’m not at work,” is much less than it used to be now. It’s all just who are you all the time. When you can get that authenticity going across, then it’s really what people respond to. That’s what I found, do you agree?
Yes. I think there’s more so for entrepreneurs because your character actually shows in your business, in how you deal with people, even on your website some of your character actually would show. Another thing is I find that eight years into the business, I actually become a calmer person. When things are good, I would tell myself, “Be calm because you know that sometimes things would be slow.” When things are slow, you still keep calm and just keep doing what you should be doing. It’s kind of like waves. It’s never a constant, but it’s just up and down. It’s actually quite normal. If you can understand that then you would have less pressure on yourself and you just keep focusing on what you should be doing.
I’m a big believer that whatever we focus on, we get more of. If we focus on scarcity and fear, we get more of that. If we focus on trust and confidence, we get more of that. Getting off the self-esteem roller coasters is one of my big missions and purposes as a speaker is to help as many people as I can. Stop looking outside of themselves for their self-esteem. In sales, you could say, “My numbers are up, I feel good about myself. My numbers are down, now I feel bad about myself.” You’ll exhaust yourself going up and down that roller coaster all the time. There are other ways to stay motivated and focused without feeling bad about yourself because you didn’t hit a specific number and a specific week or month. As an entrepreneur, you certainly have modeled for us how to do that and hopefully more people who will listen to this will have that same resonance of, “I do that. I only feel good if things are perfect and things are really never ever perfect. I might as well stop waiting for everything to be perfect and just decide I’m happy and I’m on purpose and I’m passionate about what I’m doing and it’s all going to work out if I keep doing that.”
Another thing is actually about problem solving. Nothing would be just be there and very neatly presented to you. There would always be something that you have to tackle with. You just find a way, “If this doesn’t work, then what? Then I try another way to do it.” I still remember in the first two years, not on day one, we had the first deal that we can actually sign the contract. Things were quite slow at the very beginning. I remember at that time, on top of promoting the services that we had, I just do whatever I can to actually have some income for the company. I also did events planning for clients. I also actually even go to teach some younger adults on various topics just to keep the income coming in the first two years until we actually rely on the business, we can actually sustain ourselves. I know many people do that in their early years just to sustain the business. If you have that mentality, you will find a way to do it.
Basically, I hear what you’re saying is do whatever it takes to keep the lights on as you grow your core business. Priscilla, you’ve been a great guest. We want to let everybody around the world know about you who listens to this podcast in 60 different countries. If you want to have Priscilla find you a great speaker and if you’re a big company, go to SpeakersConnect.com. How else can we support you, Priscilla? Is there anything else that you want to promote or tell us about, how we can follow you on social media or anything?
You can find me on LinkedIn, @PriscillaChan. Also during my leisure time, I write mainly in Chinese for the time being, sometimes in English as well on technology and also on startups. I talk about the impact of the new technology and the impact on society and also on business mainly because I work with so many futurist and technology speakers. I find that writing is a good way for me to, apart from serving my clients, but also to spread some of the interesting ideas to my readers and for general interest. I enjoy that a lot as well.
It’s all about embracing new technology. Like Blockchain currency for example, I’m getting very involved with ICOs and helping people with their pitch to have a good business model to use cryptocurrency as a new tool to help people grow businesses. It’s an exciting time that we live in. If you embrace learning all of it, then you can be part of the story.
It’s more about having an open mind. A lot of things, even for policy makers, you may still have to fear that Uber is coming to town so how about the taxis? Self-driving car is going to be quite popular. How do we make the regulation whether we’ll be a very closed economy or we embrace it. More and more I find that people actually have a more open mind and they embrace change, that new technology actually will do better in the long run because it’s coming anyhow. You’re either left behind or you’re just try to pick as soon as you can.
You’ve been a wonderful guest, Priscilla. It’s been an honor interviewing you. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and your insights with us.
Thank you so much for having me today.
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