How Do You Measure Success?

March 27, 2006  

In life, we often use numbers to measure success. Our salary. The number of dollars in our savings account. In some cases, success is measured by a 5 digit number — your zip code (remember Beverley Hills 90210?). In the business world, revenues and profits rule. More numbers.

I just returned home after being on the road, pretty much non-stop since January 7th. Let me provide you with some numbers from my travels. During the past 80 days, I drove 5,000 miles, flew 10,000 miles, traveled through 15 states, was interviewed on 10 radio shows, appeared on 6 television shows, gave 20 presentations, and sold hundreds of books.

After each speech, I would offer books for sale. What I found interesting was to “measure” the percentage of people in the audience who bought books. For some presenters, this might be THE measure of success of their speech. On overage, I would sell to 30% of the audience. So if 50 people attended, I might sell 15 books. From my perspective, this seemed a bit low, but I had no benchmark. That is, until I read an article recently about “back of room book sales.” The statistics quoted were 12% of an audience buy books, unless it is an after dinner speech, in which case it drops to 6%. Interesting.

But is this really a measure of success?

I had an interesting experience earlier this week. On Monday I gave two back-to-back presentations for a large corporation located in the Chicago suburbs. Each small audience was at the room’s capacity of 35 people. My sister, who lives in the Chicago area, was in the back of the room for both sessions. From her perspective, my second speech blew them away. The audience was engaged, interactive, and laughing. She felt my delivery was perfect. I felt the same way. The first session seemed lethargic. The audience didn’t seem as engaged. They rarely laughed, and the energy level, for whatever reason, appeared to be low.

From these “qualitative” measures, the second session was a success. But was it? Although I sold my 30% at the first session, I did not sell a single copy at the second session! So which was more successful? The funny thing with measures is that there are many factors that affect them. Most attendees did not come with cash in hand; many who bought books needed to run to a nearby ATM machine to get money. The first session was over lunch, so maybe people were equally engaged – just preoccupied with eating. Or maybe people after the second session wanted to buy books but they needed to leave quickly to get back to work.

So, which was more successful? The bottom line: rather than measuring my success by specific measures such as books sold or laughs per minute (yes, comedians use that measure), I choose to look at each speech, every conversation, every interaction as an opportunity to learn. After each session I looked at what worked and what didn’t work. To me, it is about getting the message out and improving my ability to communicate that message. Numbers are too hard to control, and they create too much stress. My client, who was in the back of the room for both sessions, felt they were equally successful. I choose that to be my measure of success. How do you measure success?

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5 Responses to “How Do You Measure Success?”

  1. Phil Gerbyshak on March 27th, 2006 9:53 pm

    Very interesting about the results you’ve seen. It’s especially curious that only 12% of people buy books from speakers. Kudos to you for surpassing this. I almost always buy books from the speaker, as after I’ve made a personal connection, the book is a way to continue the conversation.

  2. Stephen Shapiro on March 28th, 2006 2:53 pm

    Phil, I agree. I always buy a book after I hear someone speak.

    As far as “surpassing” the 12% figure…numbers can be misleading. My audiences for this tour have been under 100 people. So 30% is not a huge amount of books. I know if I spoke to 1,000 people, I would be thrilled to hit 12%. It’s all relative. And that’s why I don’t worry about the numbers too much. Hopefully you’ll be in one of my audiences…so that I can count on at least one sale :-)

  3. Michael Burrows on April 13th, 2006 11:54 am

    I am impressed by your clarity of thinking and by the corresponding ability to relate it. In my view, success comes through clarity of communication whether that involves numerical facets, through the spoken or written word, or even by non-verbal means. The issue is an interesting one and science, for instance, depends on the necessity of clarity of communication when conveying ideas. If the recipient of a complex concept can relate to your ideas you have suceeded irrespective of whether numbers are used or not. Would you agree?

  4. ellenweber on April 28th, 2006 11:06 am

    You’ve helped us to reflect on success from a wonderfully new angle — thanks. To measure it is the key — so that we can build on past mistakes and create new stepping stones as you suggested here…

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