After her 25-year career as a radio personality ended, Catherine had to figure out what was next for her. She leveraged her skillset into a successful coaching and speaking business, where she empowers others to craft powerful content and deliver it well.
Tell us a little about your background…
People who knew me as a kid were stunned when I wound up on the radio. I was kind of a geeky, wall-flower kid growing up in Glenview, Illinois – the last person you’d expect to pursue that kind of career. And in fact, it came as a surprise to me too.
I started at Valparaiso University as a nursing major. (People who know me now think that sounds bizarre.) When a guy at school said, “You have a great voice; you should be on the radio,” I actually thought he was mocking me. But I auditioned for a show on the campus station because I had a crush on the guy. I got an air shift; he didn’t. End of potential romance— beginning of a great career.
Nursing turned out to be, well, not the best fit for me. At least that’s what the faculty of the College of Nursing said. I liked that radio stuff, though. So I changed schools, changed majors— and got a degree in Communication Arts & Sciences from Western Illinois University.
I spent 25 years in broadcasting. Early on, I gypsied around the country working in smaller markets. Once I landed back home at Chicago’s WLS, I put down roots. I did the morning show with Larry Lujack and then Fred Winston. When the station changed to a talk format, I became a talk show host.
Shortly after I transitioned from Morning Show Side-chick to Talk Show Host, I met my husband. On a blind date. Set up by our hairdresser. I blew her off the first couple times she tried to introduce us. I was so over men in general. If I never went on another date it would be fine with me.
Then I spent a delightful weekend with old friends, came home feeling much more optimistic, listened to yet another voicemail nagging me to call Frank. And I actually went ahead and called him. We went out to dinner that night—Labor Day, 1990.
I spent a few weeks after that telling friends, “He’s a nice guy. But he’s not my type.” “I really like him, but he’s not my type.” “I mean, he’s a great guy, but he’s definitely not my type.”
Then I figured out the problem wasn’t Frank. It was my type. So I decided to change my type. We got engaged three months to the day after we met, and got married in August 1991. A perfect talk show host wedding: I did my monologue and took some calls.
Seriously, after our vows, we invited guests to share insights about marriage, words of wisdom, lessons from their own experiences. It was lovely. And there were a few good stories about the bride from the radio folks there. Along with Donna from Razzle-Dazzle describing how she’d begged me to go out with Frank, and how happy she was that she’d been persistent.
Frank and I spend some time with my brother and his family – they’ve always lived here in the Chicago area. And my sister Rebecca moved back here a couple years ago with her husband and kids. It’s been a delight to be in the same city as Rebecca for the first time since we shared a bedroom in Glenview growing up.
When did you start to think about making a change?
I was at Chicago’s WLS Radio for 18 years before somebody woke up one day and said, “I don’t think she’s that good.” I should have started charting a new direction for myself when they blew me out of WLS in 1997. Or even before that. Instead, I was stuck in the old direction. I’d never done anything but radio, I’d been in the business since I got out of college, and I couldn’t imagine myself, at the age of 44, doing anything else. I was convinced I had no marketable skills. “If I’m not Catherine Johns from WLS,” I thought, “then who the hell am I?”
I wound up with one more radio gig—doing the morning show at WJMK with John Landecker. And it was fine. A little bit like Wendy in the Land of the Lost Boys, but I loved John – and the rest of the boys too. So it was fine.
And when that gig caved in, it was pretty clear that radio wasn’t going to work for me anymore. And this time, I did chart a new direction.
How did you figure out which way to go?
I stopped thinking I had no marketable skills and started looking at my skills in a new way. I’d been thinking: I’m a radio personality. I can do news, I can do traffic reports, I can do interviews, but nobody outside radio would want that.
When I speak to people in transition, I call my process “chunking up and chunking down.”
Chunking up: What’s bigger than radio? Or what is radio a subset of? Broadcasting, maybe? But it could be even bigger than that. What I came to was this. I’m a performer. I’ve been performing on the radio for 25 years, but I could perform in some other arena.
Chunking down: If I can’t offer news, traffic, and interviews outside of radio, what are the smaller skills that add up to “do the news, do the traffic, do the interviews”? What I really do is this: I gather information, distill it, package it in an engaging way, and deliver it with pizzazz. And I do all that while balancing a bunch of egos (including mine) in a small glass room. Those are skills that could be useful outside of a radio station.
I started thinking about speaking to actual live-in-the-flesh audiences. And it was suggested that my real gift was training: small groups, interactive, purposeful. I’d been living in a broadcasting bubble for a quarter-century; I knew nothing about corporate training. I thought training had to do with weights. Or dogs. But I was about to learn a lot.
That transition from radio to Learning & Development was not the last, by any means. After a couple of corporate gigs—and a detour into a completely different business—I decided the best use of my talent is working on my own with entrepreneurs and independent professionals. (And yes, I had help making that decision too in the form of pink slips from employers.)
Not surprisingly, people who hire trainers don’t have a whole lot of interest in someone who’s never been a trainer before. I heard a number of nos. It took me nearly a year before I landed a job with Rogen, a boutique communication consulting firm (which has since closed). They were perfect for me because they actually went out of their way not to hire typical trainers. They were looking for someone who could command a room, and they saw that in me.
What is your next act?
I launched my own communication coaching business, called Catherine Johns, in 2011 at age 58. My clients are mostly business owners and independent professionals who want to get more clients, have more impact, and of course, make more money. And they know they need to be better in face-to-face situations to make that happen.
Social media, email marketing, SEO, they all play a role. But most small businesses still get their customers and clients the old-fashioned way. By talking to them.
Some of my clients are focused on networking—mastering their “elevator speech” and some pithy, potent, persuasive answers to the dreaded casual question, “What do you do?” And some want to take their place at the front of the room with a client, attracting talk of their own. I help them develop powerful content and the presence to deliver it well.
The biggest challenge people face in terms of crafting what they say is, they talk too much about themselves and not enough about the people they intend to serve. The blahblah is bad for their business. And I’m an expert in cutting through it and helping them hone their message.
As for speaking, it’s a physical skill with learnable components. Yes, some people are naturals, the way Serena Williams is a natural on the tennis court. And, Serena’s a good example because she’s also had expert coaching and she works hard at her game. It all shows in her many tournament titles.
But even a person who doesn’t have Serena’s innate talent can become a decent tennis player and have fun playing the game.
Speaking is like that. Anyone can learn the skills and with practice get reasonably good at it.
I work with individual clients in person or via Skype. I also do several workshops every year, in addition to private coaching. In any of those settings, we focus on both content and delivery. And on building confidence in the ability to stand up and speak out
Sometimes people describe themselves as bad speakers because, they say, they get nervous in front on an audience. Truth is, some of the best speakers I know get nervous. The goal isn’t to stop being nervous. It’s to channel the energy and use it to connect with your audience.
The main thing an audience wants from you is you. Speakers make a mistake when they think it’s all about their ideas or their information or their opinion. They get caught up in their content and forget about the connection they should be creating with their listeners.
I spoke at a Park Ridge Chamber meeting not long ago; as people did their 15-second introductions, two stood out. Personal chef Vahé Mekhitarian of Menu For You and Amy Landolt of Northshore Acupuncture Center attracted a lot of attention. Not coincidentally I’ve worked with both of them to make their message more punchy and deliver it with pizzazz.
IT experts are notoriously not very dynamic speakers. And yet, Karen Sanders knocked it out of the park talking technology at a business conference after we did some coaching on her content and her delivery.
And I’m confident hypnotist Erika Flint of Cascade Hypnosis Center is about to do the same at a national hypnosis conference where most of the speakers are older and more experienced than she is. But she’s the one who decided to put in a remarkable performance. And we’re wrapping up a coaching engagement to get her ready to shine.
In addition to coaching, of course, I do a good deal of speaking myself. I typically speak about Presence, and how to have a more powerful one. Or about speaking to grow a business—creating the right content, making it more persuasive, and knowing when to zip it. I also sometimes do programs about business communication, networking, and generating referrals.
And I walk my talk: Most of my clients come from speaking engagements and networking meetings where they’ve heard what I have to say. And they know they need my help to make the most of their own opportunities.
My first book, Show Up and Shine: Simple Steps to Boost Your Confidence and Charisma, focused on personal and professional presence. Writing it was an assignment from Suzanne Evans and Larry Winget in their Hell Yeah Star program in 2013. It was quite a challenge—and a huge blessing to get it done. Having a book is a definite plus if you want to be hired as a speaker. It’s also a way to boost your income through back-of-the-room sales.
I intend to write another book based on my conviction that most business people need to be more pithy, potent, and persuasive when they talk about their value. And that’s true whether they’re promoting themselves to prospective clients or would-be employers. Declaring my intention here is a way to hold my own feet to the fire and make the next book a reality this year.
How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?
Starting over is a challenge. But it wasn’t as if I had a choice. So, hard or not, I just plunged.
I connected with the professional association for people in learning and development, now called the Association for Talent Development. Went to a few meetings, met some very nice people, and learned as much as I could from them.
The group offered a basic course in training and development for subject matter experts who knew their stuff but didn’t necessarily know how to teach it to someone else. I signed up.
I took another quick course in adult learning. And I started studying NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming), which is all about language and learning and personal growth.
How supportive were your family and friends?
I’m blessed with a husband who supports me no matter what I do for a living. And others were certainly supportive. Worried for me, I think, but supportive.
One thing I did notice in my post-WLS days: The initial phone calls, lunch invitations and expressions of concern die down after a couple of weeks. Everybody else keeps going to work. And it does get lonely if you’re the one who’s sitting at home wondering who to call and where to apply next.
It’s really important to stay active. Reach out to everyone who might have a lead or information that will help you. Get dressed and get out of the house. Go to meetings – professional associations and networking groups – and make new connections.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
You know, a lot of accidental entrepreneurs think about giving up and getting a job because it’s just so hard to build a business from scratch. And they don’t have the skills they need to make it happen. I have to say, getting a job doesn’t seem like an option for me. So I’ve just kept going.
And I’ve sought coaches and mentors who can help me do it. It was clear to me pretty quickly that I didn’t know everything I needed to know about building a business. And that, much like the men back in my dating days, prospective clients were not just going to show up at my door.
I needed a strategy for finding those clients, engaging them, and creating a desire for my services. And I needed help to make that happen.
I’ve participated in programs with business coaches, speaking coaches, and a mindset mentor for good measure. All of them have helped immensely. I did a web-based Professional Speaker Course with Kevin Hogan and Command any Room with Kristin Thompson. Then I went all in and signed up for a six-month course that included an aptly named boot camp, Suzanne Evans and Larry Winget’s Hell Yeah! Star Program. I’m still soaking up their wisdom as part of their SPEAK organization.
Creating a speaking business is about more than stage skills, though. There’s always that pesky business part to attend to. Suzanne’s 10K Club was a huge help. And I’m in a mastermind group now with Andrea Bullard.
So I’ve invested time and money in myself, my business, and my future. People who aren’t willing to make that investment diminish their chances for successful reinvention.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I discovered that I needed to do some personal work to go with the professional development. Big challenge: developing the growth mindset that Dr. Carol Dweck teaches about instead of the fixed mindset that I had.
My impulse is to give up if I’m not good at something – because it’s embarrassing, I made a fool of myself, I feel like a failure, whatever. I’ve worked to develop a different attitude: focusing on the learning and the accomplishment so I can stick with it until I get good. And then get even better.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Be open to possibilities you may never have considered before. Talk to people who’ve gone through a career transition, learn from their experience.
Get help to develop the skills you need. Whether it’s technical ability or sales skills or basic business bookkeeping, there are so many resources available. Take advantage of them.
And be willing to pay for them. It’s possible to create a next act without breaking the bank, but bootstrapping only goes so far. The people who refuse to spend money on their own development don’t accomplish as much as they might. Penny-pinching is a way to stay stuck.
Don’t let fear stop you. No shame in feeling fear; it is scary to be starting over in midlife. But take action in spite of the fear and don’t wait for the fear to go away before you do something.
What advice do you have for those interested in public speaking?
Talk to as many people as you can and learn as much as you can. Go to conferences, read books, work with mentors.
If you want to speak, speak. I know, that sounds obvious. What I mean is: Don’t wait for the big gigs to come rolling in. Get out there and give a talk to your women’s group or Rotary Club or Chamber of Commerce, any place you can find an audience. The more groups you talk to, the better you’ll get at it. So you’ll be ready for those bigger gigs when you get them.
And don’t hold out for the big speaker fees. One of my mentors, Suzanne Evans, says she made her first million dollars speaking for free—because she’s so damn good at selling from the stage. Don’t be afraid to take those non-paying opportunities; use them to attract clients or customers.
I followed my own advice about not waiting for the big gigs to come rolling in. As I transitioned into full-time speaking and coaching, I did a lot of pro bono speaking to polish my skills at Chambers and other business networking groups. Then I started getting small honoraria. Now my fees are in the $3-6,000 range and I intend to move up from here.
And, I still do some speak-to-sell work. Instead of a speaker fee, in this model, you make money on the back end by offering a workshop or coaching program or product. It’s riskier; you have to be good at selling from the stage to make it work. But it’s potentially much more lucrative than speaking for a fee. I have colleagues who make thousands of dollars by speaking and making an offer.
What resources do you recommend?
Well, naturally I’m going to recommend Show Up and Shine: Simple Steps to Boost Your Confidence and Charisma – by, yes, me. It’s for women who want to make a bigger splash in the world by developing their personal and professional Presence. And it’s on Amazon in paperback, audio, and Kindle versions.
Also: The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles and Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work by Steven Pressfield. They both deal with getting serious about your creative work and making a living from it.
Garr Reynolds’s books about speaking are quite good: Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery and The Naked Presenter: Delivering Powerful Presentations With or Without Slides.
For broader business coaching, a few resources I especially like are Suzanne Evans, Bonita Richter, and Profit Seduction.
I’ve found Brené Brown’s books helpful in terms of inner work. Here in Chicago, Mary Senn is a good resource for that. Mary’s an Evanston, Illinois therapist who runs retreats based on Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.
And Lisa Kaplin does some wonderful coaching for women. Lisa’s life coaching focuses on growing confidence, dealing with transitions, and playing full out at home and at work.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
My mission is to make this next act even more successful. Bigger speaking gigs for bigger fees. And of course, continuing to coach entrepreneurs who know that better communication skills will help them prosper.
Contact Catherine Johns at firstname.lastname@example.org
I agree that the most important thing about public speaking is selling YOU. When your audience is drawn to YOU the ‘selling’ is so much easier. I spoke for free for a lot of years that paid off in ways I never expected….bigger and different types of gigs that pay well.
Thank you for sharing your journey and I am going to check out your book.
Thanks, Carol. Yes, speaking for free can be the foundation of a very successful business.
I’ll look forward to your reaction to Show Up and Shine.
And I’m going to check out your post, too. Yes, I DO have trouble finishing what I started.
This was so interesting to read, although I admit, I felt tired, wow, kudos for high energy and optimism. 🙂 This really got me thinking, I’ve never really considered public speaking. Thank you.
Speaking is so much fun, Donna. There’s a lot to learn – I’m at a mastermind right now, learning more about the business of speaking with Larry Winget and his buddies. I recommend his work if you want to pursue speaking – like him on Facebook for starters and you’ll get a lot of insight.
I LOVE that you refer to my optimism. I’ve worked hard to teach myself to be more optimistic. It makes life a lot easier!
Glad you enjoyed the article.
Very inspiring! And thanks for the resources… I’m going to check them out.
Stacey, let me know how it goes when you do.
Catherine, I’ve watched you reinvent yourself. Kudos to you for making it. Thanks for sharing your story and all these resources.
Reinvention continues, doesn’t it, Gail? Thanks for being a supportive witness!
Wow…quite the inspiring life! How wonderful………..thanks for sharing it with us. I am def going to put your book on my summer reading list!
Thanks, Ellen – I’m so glad you dug my story. Let me know what you put into action after you read Show Up and Shine, will you?
I love this story. So inspiring.
Thanks, Dawn. Good to know my story had some impact.
I recommend Show Up & Shine to my clients who want to improve their public speaking and I recommend your coaching…and particularly your newsletter. All of it matches your style: Clever & succinct!
Looking forward to your next book and continued re-invention.
You are the best, Karen! It was such an interesting exercise, writing this post. You may have noticed, it’s not that succinct. Good to stretch once in a while, yes?
Thanks for pointing your clients toward me as a resource.