A well-known shortcut to goal achievement is to enlist the help of a mentor — someone who’s already been down a path similar to yours who can help guide you.

One of the problems I faced when endeavoring to become a professional speaker was that I knew very little about the business side of speaking. I’ve been receiving abundant help on the art of speaking from Toastmasters International, but that organization doesn’t directly help people transition to a career in speaking — it isn’t designed for that purpose. And the National Speakers Association isn’t an option for me yet, since I’m not remotely qualified to join; the NSA is intended for people who are already speaking professionally. Plus there’s no NSA chapter in Las Vegas, so it would be of limited use to me anyway.

I’ve already read some books on the subject and found useful web resources, but there are still gaping holes in my knowledge. This is the type of situation where finding a mentor can save tremendous time and effort. I wanted to find someone who was already making a living speaking professionally and who’d be willing to show me the ropes, especially someone who could help gradually coach me as I transitioned from free to fee. So earlier this year I set a goal to find such a mentor, and I wanted it to be someone local so we could meet face to face.

In order for the mentoring relationship to work, I needed someone who was knowledgeable, experienced, willing, and available. I also wanted someone I could help in some way, so I wasn’t sucking like a vampire and giving little value in return. I wrote all of this down as part of my goal.

It took a few months, but I eventually found such a person. He’s a local professional speaker that I have tremendous respect for — I’ve seen him speak on multiple occasions. He speaks on topics that aren’t competitive to what I’d want to speak about, so there’s no risk for him to help me. And best of all, he needs a better web site, and he wants to get into blogging, so I can also mentor him and provide direct assistance in these areas.

After an email and a short phone call to discuss the idea, the two of us got together for about 2.5 hours last weekend. I came prepared with a list of questions about professional speaking, and I also brought a list of potential improvements for his web site, so these served as the agendas and kept us focused. We spent about half the time discussing each. That one conversation probably shaved months off my learning curve. I took copious notes, and the next day I was able to piece the information together to write out a long-term plan to transition into the world of paid professional speaking. It will be a huge amount of work to implement the plan, but at least I can see the path laid out, and I can envision that it’s likely to succeed.

We even discussed what kind of suit to wear when speaking and where to buy it. Somehow working in the computer gaming industry for a decade didn’t provide me with a wardrobe that easily adapts to professional speaking. 😉

I was able to provide him with many ideas to improve his web site, and I’ll be helping to implement them in the weeks ahead, including getting him started in blogging. I can’t even fathom how he’d have been able to figure it out on his own, but for me this is little trouble because it’s easy for me.

We get a lot of leverage by trading strength for strength, so I’m looking forward to seeing how much we can help each other in the weeks ahead.

As with any new venture, the devil is in the details. Just as software development can appear deceptively simple from the outside looking in, professional speaking is also far more complicated as you dig deeper into it… contracts, pre-event questionnaires, travel arrangements, back-of-room sales, speakers bureaus, content customization, rehearsal, visual aids, audio and video demos, pricing, and so on. Once you’re all setup in business, these details fade into the background, but to get to that point takes serious long-term effort as you lay one brick at a time. Sometimes when I look back on my games business, I’m amazed at all the little details I’ve had to attend to at one time or another.

To anyone else who finds themselves wanting to reach a goal but not being able to see the path clearly enough, I highly recommend finding a mentor. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to simply ask someone out of the blue that you don’t already know. First, try to build an informal relationship and get to know potential mentors to see if they have a need you can help fill. See if you like and respect the person and could get along well together. If everything looks good, then propose a co-mentoring relationship. Ease into it — start by offering to get together to discuss the idea, and see what comes of it.

Even if you can’t offer much in return, many people are happy to mentor others for the sheer joy of helping someone. But in such instances, I think the primary consideration for the mentor is whether you’ll actually apply their advice and put it to good use. If it’s clear you’re committed to your goal and earnestly want to learn what to do so you can take action, you’ll probably succeed in attracting a mentor — the mentor will be able to see that you’re serious, and they can expect that their contributions to your growth will produce results. But if you approach mentoring from a less mature standpoint, seeking advice more out of fear because you don’t trust your own judgment, you’ll probably meet with resistance from potential mentors. They can tell that their investment won’t make a difference and that their advice will only fall on deaf ears.

While I think remote mentoring can work, I personally don’t like it. I want the face to face interaction when it really matters. Phone conversations are OK, but you miss out on body language and facial expression. And email is simply not expressive enough. When I ask a question that isn’t likely to have a simple yes/no answer, I want to see the other person’s full physical reaction. Body language conveys volumes, especially coming from someone who speaks for a living. It’s been estimated that communication is 55% kinesthetic, 38% verbal, and 7% content. Not everyone agrees with these figures, but I think everyone would agree that having all three channels available is better than only one or two. Body language is especially good at revealing a person’s level of confidence in what they’re saying.