Spotlight on Dietitian Speaker Cathy Leman
Cathy Leman has been in the business of changing lives ever since she stepped onto the scene as a dietitian speaker. Now that she’s survived cancer, she brings an even more personal touch to the transformative power of presenting.
AC: You have one of the best Unique Speaking Platforms I’ve seen. Tell our readers how you describe yourself.
CL: As a breast cancer survivor and dietitian, I teach breast cancer survivors what they need to know about nutrition to rebuild their health after treatment. My goal is to end food confusion, overwhelm, and fear so that listeners can gain peace of mind and confidence about their wellbeing after going through the traumatic experience that I, too, experienced from the trenches. My specialty within that is post-treatment survivors of hormonally-driven breast cancer, although I’ll bring my message to any breast cancer survivor group.
AC: You’re the first Dietitian Speaker I’ve come across with that specific focus. It’s really amazing. How did you get started speaking and how has it evolved over time for you?
CL: I started public speaking in my internship – in your internship to become a dietitian, you have to do a lot of presentations. And I used to be terrified to speak in front of people. But for some reason, I just gained this appreciation for it when I was in my internship. In one of my final presentations, our program director was sitting in on the the talk, as was her husband. And afterwards he said to me, “You know, you’re a natural speaker. You should do more.” And I thought that was really kind, but it really didn’t resonate with me – I mean I didn’t run out and start looking for speaking opportunities
After I finished my internship, I started doing subcontractor work for a wellness company here in the Chicago area. I started doing lots of speaking in front of groups and corporations doing worksite wellness education. And I love that. It was so much fun.
When I started speaking at corporations, doing cooking demonstrations with nutrition education alongside. I was terrified, but I learned really quickly that I enjoyed it. I like teaching people and seeing the light bulb go on.
Then just by collaborating with other dietitians I had more opportunities come about. I spoke at FNCE [The Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics Food and Nutrition Conference and Exhibition] twice with other dietitians, and then just the opportunities from being in my community. This is all pre-breast cancer, by the way.
Post-breast cancer my niche has become very, very specific, to your point that you’ve not spoken with anyone else who speaks to this specific audience. Before my cancer I spoke, as I mentioned, in corporate wellness. I would do education on cancer prevention, using nutrition and diet and lifestyle to help reduce risk. But it’s a whole different focus from when you actually walk that path.
The first time I had an opportunity to speak in the cancer space after my own cancer was frankly terrifying, but it was also exciting. I still hadn’t quite stepped into that place in my mind where I was embracing the cancer survivor that I’ve become because I was feeling like, no, no, that’s not me… I’m a dietitian. I’m an athlete. So it was really meaningful to bring those parts of me together.
It took me a few years to realize that I wanted to work with this community, so these speaking opportunities that I’m starting to cultivate are fairly recent. I’m growing by reaching out beyond my normal comfort level and being in the dirt with people who are really struggling with the challenges where I can provide a solution. I’ve grown so very much that I’ve turned a painful situation into a purposeful situation.
AC: I think it’s great that you’re able to bring your personal experience to your speaking events to shed a different light on your topics. Hearing from someone with a personal background you have a different level of trust in them.
CL: I hear that frequently. One person said to me, “There’s a difference between hearing information from someone as a professional versus someone who’s walked the same path.” You just receive the information differently – it’s another level of connectedness. I’m giddy any time I can connect with an audience like that, so that comment amped up my desire to really connect in a way that we are so engaged in so many different levels. You know, you hear it and feel it, you implement it. I think it’s multifactorial that when you’re connected in that way.
AC: Thank you for sharing that. One of the things I love about this field is how you can really find a small little niche and populations to work with like you have. It’s really cool talking with Dietitian Speakers who’ve found their niche.
CL: It really does help you focus your message as you become really comfortable and well-versed and familiar with all of the research that supports the challenges that your audience has. You can give them the in-depth information but put it in a context so it’s not overwhelming.
I determined this is the population that I want to work with, where there’s an appreciation of my personal story and other relatable stories from my clients. It’s led me to actually tone down the level of information I give. My audiences want the information, but they also want to know how to apply it in their daily life. I think for dietitians in general – I can speak for myself for sure – there’s a tendency to try to give so much information because we know so much. But having been there I know that’s too overwhelming, like drinking from a fire hose. I’ve learned how to pull back on that instinct.
AC: You’ve tapped into a theme – many of the dietitian speakers I’ve interviewed emphasize needing to rein in that desire to blast people with ALL the words. What else do you look for in a speaker when you’re in the audience?
CL: Oh my gosh, I think this is one of the reasons that I love to speak so much – because I know how I respond to really great speakers! I hear someone who is a wonderful speaker and they can change people’s lives! That’s one of the things that makes a great speaker – someone who’s so inspirational and action-oriented and very big on people taking action from what they hear from the speaker – that makes someone just terrific.
Also someone who doesn’t read from their notes or their slides only. There’s nothing that disconnects from an audience more than reading the slides. I love someone who really connects with the audience on a personal level. I mean, there are different types of presentations, you may be going to something strictly for education where it’s kind of cut and dry, black and white. And that’s fine. Maybe there’s not as much a need to connect with the audience. But I always feel like there is some way to connect with your audience, whether it’s from your personal experience with the subject matter or just the way that you can relate the information to your audience because you’re involved and they’re engaged in that. And that’s where the change happens.
AC: Another theme! Anyone who’s been following along with the Speaker Spotlights knows it’s funny because every time I ask anybody that question, everyone always says, “Don’t read from your slides,” and “Connect with the audience.”
CL: I mean, there’s nothing wrong with having slides and maybe you can read the caption and draw people’s attention to it, but then you need to move from that and elaborate on it or tell a story about it or even into how it fits with the overall topic. But I’m thinking of a couple times I’ve listened to a speaker read their presentation of the slides and think, are you kidding me?
AC: This is my biggest takeaway from every speaker I’ve talked with. The slides can’t overpower the speaker.
CL: Exactly. Slides themselves aren’t the whole issue. Sometimes you’re nervous. Or speaking is not your first choice of activity. Maybe someone has to speak as a professional obligation, and the slides make them feel safer. And I think that’s normal because you want to make sure you’re sharing your important points with people, but it would be better to practice more, do more rehearsing, so you don’t have to rely on the slides to support you.
AC: All great advice. What about the transition from being a free speaker to getting paid? Any advice on that? Can you describe how that went for you so newer speakers can learn about the process?
CL: Speaking was never my only career option or my only business model. I always spoke in addition to my private practice, and I also ran a private personal training studio in addition to the corporate wellness piece. So there were three arms in my business. Initially when you start out, of course, you speak for free or close to it. I remember my very first local professional speaking gig, I was paid thirty-five dollars. The drive was close to three hours there and back, and I was on site for easily an hour and a half… and then all the preparation that I put in… and I was very excited because I was getting paid for it!
As I presented more in the community, more people would ask, “Can you volunteer your time to speak for us?” I realized I could fill all my time speaking for free but that just didn’t fit with how much time I have and my revenue goals. So I started being very strategic about if I would speak for free.Of course there are other forms of payment besides monetary payment. I just started getting very strategic about that.
Now that I’ve transitioned into the cancer space, I’ve done three speaking engagements. My first one was paid and the next two were for one organization where they paid my expenses and travel, gave me a great recommendation, video footage from the event. So that was helpful. The one that’s coming up is not hugely paid, but it’s in front of my ideal clients and I’m excited for that opportunity. You’ve got to figure out if an opportunity is moving you in the direction that you want to go.
Figuring out what your rate is can be tricky. But I always say to dietitians, why wouldn’t you be paid for your time and your expertise? There’s a lot of mindset there where you feel being a dietitian is helping people. And if that’s what you want to do as a volunteer, great. Nothing wrong with that. But if it’s part of your business model, then absolutely you’ve got to figure out how that fits.
AC: Any advice on how to figure it out?
Don’t undervalue yourself and don’t underestimate your power – speaking can be transformational! What companies pay for in a corporate wellness environment or what professional organizations pay for in the speaker is transformation. Recognize how your words and your knowledge and your message can transform your audience. There is value and power in that, so never lose sight of that.
But that doesn’t mean never speaking for free. You never know where one opportunity will lead to something else. I’m thinking of two situations where a free event led to something paid. Once was at a local bookstore a number of years ago to help a dietitian colleague promote her book. Someone in the audience brought me into her company as a corporate wellness speaker, and I had that account for years.
Another time I spoke at a big food service conference, unpaid, and someone in the audience brought me in to speak to her organization. That became a long-term partnership as well. So my advice is to look at all the opportunities from a broad perspective rather than just “Is it paid or unpaid?” and broaden your idea of “payment” to other benefits, such as contacts or testimonials or exposure or practice with your message or getting in front of your perfect audience. You can’t spend all your time doing free talks, of course. But since you never know what an opportunity will bring, it’s okay to say yes if it’s something that feels right to you and checks the boxes of what you’re looking for.
I still have people contact me to speak, quote/unquote for free, even just a couple of weeks ago. Someone with a local cancer survivors’ chapter. It’s not related to breast cancer, and I love that I’m on their radar, but I had to say that just doesn’t fit for me right now. I do always like to give them help in finding someone else, though, because I want them to find a qualified speaker rather than someone who’s random and may not be able to give the correct information from a nutrition perspective. I always direct them to the EatRight.org website or I’ll direct them to one of the local colleges that have a nutrition program. Often students are more than willing to speak for free for the experience.
AC: Good point. Student volunteer right here! Before we close, any encouragement for the newer and aspiring dietitian speakers out there?
CL: When you speak, or post something, you never know who you’re going to touch and it can be life changing for them. And that’s really, really exciting.
AC: Thank you Cathy. Great inspiration and a great note to end on.
To hire Cathy to speak at your next engagement visit her website at cathyleman.com.