There’s all sorts of advice on how to be a better speaker, but advice on how to be a professional speaker is pretty dismal. Here are 8 steps for building a sustainable business as a professional speaker.
I’ve been on the professional speaking circuit for the past 30 years. During that time I’ve developed an immense sense of gratitude to be fortunate enough to do what I love to do. Whatever else is going on professionally or personally, having the opportunity to regularly take to the stage has provided an unwavering center of gravity in my life.
Along the way I’ve also learned a thing or two about what makes the professional speaking industry tick and how to build a sustainable presence on the professional speaking circuit.
Trying to distill all of that learning into a few hundred words isn’t possible, but what I can do is help you to understand the cornerstones of a sustainable speaking business. Note that my emphasis is on sustainability. Landing a single professional speaking gig now and then is easy. Doing it year in year out for a few decades is something else altogether.
Fair warning at the outset, the eight points I’m about to share will be blunt and unapologetic, and I’m not going to focus on how to become a more effective speaker. I’ve helped many colleagues and friends navigate the speaking business. The one thing I’ve come to realize is that you cannot teach someone how to be authentic and engaging. I know that there are dozens of programs out there that claim to help you launch a speaking career. I’ve looked at them all. The vast majority focus on how to be a more effective speaker, not on the business of speaking.
I have a deep rooted dislike for programmatic or formulaic get-rich-speaking approaches that promise to make you a successful speaker over the course of just a few days, weeks, or even months. That’s because the foundational cornerstones of a speaking career involve things that take years and decades. Once you have these cornerstones in place you can spend a lifetime fine-tuning your stage presence and style, but that’s actually the easy part.
By the way, if you google any of he purported big money speakers who run workshops or seminars on how to get paid to speak you’ll come up empty handed. Nada. They’re peddling the worst sort of snake oil there is, made up of hype and hope. This isn’t about either, it’s about hard work.
I can tell you first hand from the professional speakers I’ve coached–from a prominent neuroscientist, to a professional athlete and heart transplant survivor, to the drummer for one of the world’s most successful rock bands–they’ve all put incredible time and energy into building their speaking careers. There just aren’t any shortcuts in this business.
So, with that said, here are the eight cornerstones. By the way, you eventually will need to have all eight of these in place. No shortcuts, remember?
1) Before you speak, write a book.
I really don’t care how compelling, engaging, or entertaining you think you are, unless you’ve just landed a plane on the Hudson you need a book as a calling card. Without a published book you’re simply not going to be taken seriously enough to warrant anything other than Kiwanis club gigs and fees. Your book is your calling card. It’s what gives you license to be listened to.
If that scared you off you’re really not going to like part B of this first piece of advice; keep writing books! You need to crank out a new book every 2-3 years in order to stay relevant, keep your material fresh, and demonstrate a commitment to your topic. You can’t feign knowledge and passion for a subject. If you’re getting paid to speak then you’d better invest in being at the bleeding edge of whatever it is you’re speaking about. Nothing does that like having to research and write a new book. Also, do yourself a really big favor and stop thinking that you’ll just have it ghost written. You might as well have your ghost writer be your ghost speaker.
2) Create a great video reel.
People I advise on professional speaking almost always push back on this. Yet, it is the single most important piece of marketing collateral you have. Unless you’re in the nightly news where people can see and hear you, they will have only one way to vet and compare you to other speakers–your video reel. Most aspiring speakers don’t like this because it’s a catch 22. How do you create a great speaking reel if you’re not doing a lot of big stage speaking? I get it, but that’s exactly why you need it. Not having a great speaking video reel means you’re not doing much great speaking. All I can say is get creative and get it done.
Don’t overproduce it with effects and images. People who are going to book you want to see you. Keep in mind that the venue your video is shot at will define the sort of venue people expect you to speak at. In other words, shoot yourself on a large stage, not a non-nondescript hotel room with low ceilings and a projector you’re constantly walking in front of; you know, the kind that’s best suited for shadow puppets.
3) Build solid relationships with the speakers bureaus.
There are hundreds of speakers bureaus, but only a dozen or so represent the overwhelming majority of gigs booked. By the way, speakers bureaus book well over 90% of all gigs with a net speakers fee of over $15,000. So, unless you’re aspiring to less, getting to know the bureaus and having them pitch you is critical to building a serious speaking platform. Speakers bureaus build deep relationships with event organizers. But they also go back to speakers who they know will deliver results by knocking it out of the park every time. Event organizers trust their recommendations. Even if you do go direct and try to book your own gigs, you do not want to be negotiating your own fees. Nothing is more awkward or ineffective. Working with a bureau avoids that. Yes, they take a cut Yes, its worth it.
4) Once you book a gig it’s gospel–there’s no backing out.
In twenty years and thousands of gigs I’ve only once had to cancel due to a fall that immobilized me for a solid week. I’ve traveled to gigs while I’ve had pneumonia, I’ve postponed funerals, missed countless social obligations, even sacrificed a few relationships because of the insane schedule I keep. When an event is built around you and you have a few hundred or a few thousand people expecting you to show up, as well as an event organizer whose job depends on putting on a show with you as the main attraction, there is no way out. None. Sounds harsh, right? It is, but don’t forget that you have been given the privilege of doing something so few people will have the opportunity to do. Be grateful Respect the obligation If you don’t like it, don’t speak.
5) Build a brand that’s uniquely yours.
What are you? Why are you better able than anyone else to pull this off? What’s your narrative? Pedigree? Battle wound? The biggest single challenge facing the overwhelming mass of want-to-be speakers is that they do not have a unique identity and brand. I’ll give you a hint on branding, unless you’ve climbed the world’s seven tallest peaks or just landed a few gold medals in the Olympics your brand is not that of a motivational speaker. Be specific in what and who you are. You are creating a product that needs to stand out on a shelf with hundreds of others. Reinforce that brand with the speakers bureaus and your tribe regularly and relentlessly.
6) Really, really love what you do and be grateful for it.
Okay, I know this one sounds trite. It’s not. In fact it’s without a doubt the most important cornerstone of a sustainable speaking career. When I say love what you do I mean wake up every day in anticipation of your next gig. Treat each gig, the people who are paying for you to be there, and your audience with the respect you’d reserve for the most important people in your life. Sure you’ve worked hard to get to this point but lots of people have worked hard and don’t get the opportunity to be paid to stand up on a stage and be listened to. Never stop being grateful for that privilege.
7) Get ready to deal with lots of rejection.
The professional speaking business is overflowing with speakers. For every gig you land there will be at least 4-8 that show an interest but who–to use the catch phrase popular in the industry–“went in another direction!” Unlike any other case where you’re bidding for a job, you will rarely if ever know why you weren’t chosen. It’s one thing to be turned down for reasons you can address, another altogether to be told nothing. It’s like playing darts with a blindfold on and only being told if you hit a bullseye or not. For all you know your darts could all be stuck in the ceiling or laying on the floor.
8) Never, ever, ever stop learning.
For me one of the most valuable aspects of being a professional speaker is that I am constantly being forced outside of my comfort zone to learn about new industries and innovations. I can’t imagine being a professional speaker with out also being as fully immersed in the evolution of technology and business through my writing, research, and consulting. Constantly being exposed to new trends, innovation, and investments through my business allows me to speak with credibility and authority. So, if you think that you can just speak without simultaneously being at the cutting edge of whatever you’re speaking about, well, good luck with that. Unlike Don Henley, you can’t show up and just keep singing Hotel California. (Yeah, I’m envious too. That’s life.)
If any of that scares you off then maybe this just isn’t your gig. Nothing at all wrong with that. It’s better that you know now what sort of investment and commitment you’ll be signing up for rather than bemoan the many sacrifices later. I’ve come across far too many people who think that they should somehow just be able to jump onto the professional speaking circuit as though they were getting in line to catch a bus.
If you’re all-in despite what I’ve just described then make a full-throttle commitment to learn everything you can about your craft and to stay the course for the long-term. That’s the irony of speaking professionally, while you’re on stage for just 30-60 minutes, there’s an enormous amount of effort that goes into building your brand and track record, and that takes years.
The good news–no, the great news–is that if you invest the time land this gig the personal and professional payback is enormous. There’s no greater joy than being able to do something you truly love to do, to share that love with others, and to continue learning and growing through it.
Never stop being grateful for that.
This article was originally published on Inc.
Image credit: Pixabay
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Tom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.