Wednesday, August 28, 2013

3 Tips To Becoming A Professional Speaker

The phone has rung three times this week with inquiries from people who want to get paid to speak. "I want to be a speaker" or "How can I get paid to speak?" seems to be popping up in many conversations (with me, but also several of my peers are reporting a rising curiosity about the speaking business).

Recently I viewed an online video of a professional speaker teaching an eager audience how to get paid for their talks.  He had a packed room of attendees that all were interested in discovering their own path to professional speaking.  They asked a lot of questions and hung on his every word.  He is not the only person teaching classes on "How To Make Money Speaking".  But can one learn this complicated business from a course or does the journey need to have more customization?  I have found it often involves a lot of lessons from the School of Hard Knocks!

Over the years I've had conversations with many people who inquired about how to grow and cultivate a speaking career, but lately there is an increased desire for people to be paid for sharing their stories, thoughts, ideas and advice.   I am currently coaching two people who are entering the business and developing their own path toward being a paid professional speaker (and one of those who inquired this week is seeking a formal mentor... not just wanting to "pick my brain").

If someone has a desire to be a professional speaker (or to follow any dream) I think they should go for it.  While not everyone will find success, one has to try for their goals if they are serious about wanting to achieve them.  A speaking career does not from the sky, as it takes a lot of attention and intention.

The speaking business is not unique, but it is quirky.  Too often people assume they understand how it works because they have been at many conferences and watched "speakers".  However, things are not always the same on the inside as they appear on the outside.  How we define "speaker" also makes a difference, but most see anyone on stage in the same category (not true).  

Professional Speakers, Public Speaker, Industry Speakers, Celebrity Speakers, Content Speakers, Entertaining Speakers (Humorists), Workshop Speakers, Keynote Speakers, etc.... are all different in what they bring to an audience (and different people define each category differently).  The celebrities get paid very high fees to speak, and these amounts can be HUGE.  But the money is not the whole business.  There is a motivation behind why any speaker is selected, and that goes much deeper than the size of a fee.

Most conferences cannot afford the celebrities, but many still pay for those who present.  Some only pay for keynotes, and use free speakers for breakout sessions.  Others not pay any of the speakers they use.  The amount that is paid matches the value that the organizer expects to receive from that speaker, and what they desire them to bring to the event (celebrities are often seen as a draw to increase attendance, and thus they are paid for that value).

Bill Clinton has received over $700,000 for a single speech (earning over $13 million in speaking fees in 2011), and regularly gets over $250,000 for an appearance.  Wow, that is a big number... but how much do others get?  (The answer is: a lot less!!! If you were not the leader of the free world you should not expect to compete at those levels).

The realities of a speaking career are different for every speaker.  Celebrity speakers command big dollars, while others speak for free to promote their business, sell their products, etc...  Some of those who are speaking for no money are better speakers than some of the celebs.  There is no consistency, as each person's topic and skill levels vary -- and each event has different needs, expectations and budgets. 

The amount one is paid is not only about the content they deliver.  There is a weird mix of factors that are hard to define and cannot be quantified.  A speaker should never be viewed as a commodity item that is plugged into a conference agenda (and the best Meeting Planners invest a lot of time and effort in vetting the right speakers to set the tone for their events).  The speakers help weave the culture of a conference, and thus their contributions are important to the overall success of the event.

"Skill" is a subjective thing to define, but those who build outstanding speaking careers (with or without fame) are AWESOME at connecting with their audiences.  (Bill Clinton is an amazing speaker who captivates crowds of 100 or 50,000 with how he touches people individually with his words.... that, coupled with his fame, is why he is the highest earning speaking in the world).  If you want to be a speaker, make sure you understand that your involvement with the meeting is more than the hour you spend on stage!

Three Things To Do If You Want To Be Paid To Speak

1.  Learn the business.  This does not mean make assumptions by observing speakers.  Invest your time and money in understanding the different models of how people earn money as speakers (there are several).  Learn what it means to be a professional speaker and develop friendships with other speakers.  Do not stalk the celebrity speakers, with the hopes of being "discovered" (this rarely happens), as the celebrity business plan for speaking is different from yours (their phone rings because of their name, yours does not).

Find people who are at your level or a few steps above your experience.  Learn from them, but also help them achieve success. Create a mastermind group and make real friendships with those who are working in the business.  The best way to do this is to get involved with the National Speakers Association.  While you may not qualify for membership right away, understand what it takes to join and make that your first goal.  Attend local and national NSA events with the purpose of building relationships and learning about the business of speaking.  Do not expect any gigs to come from your involvement, but know that the knowledge and connections will come in very handy down the road.

Study what other speakers do to promote themselves.  Do not copy their work, but get inspiration from their success.  If you do not have speaker friends, then invest in paying a coach or mentor.  Avoid the ones who talk about fame and big money (unless you are already famous or know how to get famous), and respect that they are professionals who should be compensated for their knowledge.  Asking to "pick their brain" is the same as calling and saying "Can I have free consulting?".

There is a lot written about the business of speaking, some of it is even good.  Make the topic a priority and learn all you can.  If not you will repeat the same mistakes that others have made for decades and get frustrated that you are not finding the level of success you desire.

2.   Go speak.  Talking about speaking, and studying others, is not the same as getting real experience.  Look for local clubs and other organizations where you can deliver your talks.  Do not worry about getting paid.... if you are good, that will follow.  Too many "experts" think they should command high fees before they have crafted their personal style and stage presence.  Speaking is more than facts and statistics.  The power that a great speaker has comes from the way he or she tells the stories that support their content.  Content alone is not king.  If audiences only wanted content they could log read a White Paper on the internet.  People who listen to speakers crave a mix of valuable information and the speakers ability to captivate their soul.

I have read that it takes over 300 "professional level speeches" to reach Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 Hours Theory" experience level as a speaker.  A "professional level" speech can be many things, but my definition is that you were invited to speak for a keynote or breakout session (does not matter if you were paid or not) to a crowd of more than 25 people.  This event is not internal for the company where you work, and you did not organize the event yourself (and is not at your Toastmasters Club).  Once you have given 300 talks at this level, you will know for sure if you are good or not.  People are often polite and say "nice speech" to those who are not that great, but if you have delivered 300 talks (and are good at it) you will find business coming to you.

3.  Be awesome.  You cannot fake being a good speaker.  Audiences know the difference between someone who is experienced and invested time to prepare their presentation.  You should never present without planning your speech and practicing for hours.  The amount of time you rehearse will depend on your level of skill and the material you are presenting, but I never go on stage without preparation.  

People can sense a speaker who is "winging it", relying on personality and charm, or hiding behind graphs, charts, stats, and quotes.  Too many people who take the stage assume they are "just fine" in their ability to speak - and that leaves audiences coming up short in their experience.  Being asked to give a speech is an honor, and should never be taken lightly.  The presentation is about the audience (not the speaker) and he or she should be dedicated to having an impact on those who are listening.  It is called "Giving A Speech", and thus you should always remember that your talk is a "gift" to the audience.

When I advise people to be "AWESOME" I get funny looks, as we do not live in a society that encourages people to work hard to improve themselves to the point of unequaled excellence.  But that is what you should try to do in this long journey.  I have seen speakers begin their talk by saying that they are not a very good speaker, but just a person there to share (they hope being self deprecating will endear them to the crowd).  That message tells the audience that they have not committed to this talk, nor do they care about if they are any good (as the talk is about the speaker, not the audience).  If you are not as good as you can be, then make it a priority to improve, but do not tell the audience you suck.  Never cheat the crowd out of your potential.  

The best speakers I know are always looking at video of their presentations and seeking ways to improve after each talk.  They hire speech coaches and ask for feedback from those qualified to give an evaluation that will candidly share ideas to help them reach a higher level.  You should not be the same person the platform at your 15th presentation as you will be at your 300th.  If you are, then you are not making improvement a priority.  Strive to become AWESOME and you will be better right from the start.

Have A Great Day

thom singer

****If you are seeking a mentor to help you learn about the speaking business, I may have some slots available (I can only work with a few people at any given time) or I can refer you to some amazing coaches that understand the business and will challenge you to excel.  Contact me thom (at) for more information.


Ken Piddington said...

Great post...I appreciate the "free consulting". I've been getting asked to speak a lot more. It has actually gotten to the point where I've had to start turning down opportunities. Some have been small paid opportunities so I've been starting to consider how to make this more of a reality so this post was perfect timing....Thanks again for the great article...Best Ken

Anonymous said...

Be awesome? Really? Are you awesome?

Dr. Marc Tinsley said...

To Anonymous.

1. Be awesome. Really.

2. Thom is awesome.

Thom Singer said...

Marc... thanks!