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So You Want to Be a Professional Speaker

Now that I’ve been speaking as a paid professional for several years, a lot of people ask me how to become a speaker.   By no means am I an expert on this topic and there are plenty of people and organizations that provide services and content specifically to help aspiring speakers (see partial list below.)  But I have learned a few things  about how the business works and so I thought I’d share what I know about becoming a professional speaker.

Bear in mind that my experience is as a business speaker — someone who speaks to corporations and business organizations on business topics.  Moreover, I am a content-based speaker, not a motivational speaker, entertainer, or performer — I’m guessing the paths to those roles is very different.  And finally I started out not being well-known.  If you already enjoy fame (as a social media maven, established author, or celebrated business leader), then you probably don’t need to work nearly as hard or as long as I have to establish myself as a credible, sought-after speaker.

But if you’re a consultant, coach, writer, or other businessperson who aspires to inspire and teach businesspeople from a stage and get paid to do so, then I recommend the following 9 steps to become a professional speaker:

  1. Identify a specific topic(s) — Think of your topic as your product. You must “sell” a specific thing — and that thing must be differentiated and relevant.  (Point #2 below addresses the relevance point.)  You can’t just be an executive coach who talks about overcoming challenges that executives face or a marketing consultant who talks about industry trends.  Get specific — what is your unique perspective?  What distinctive point of view do you want to share?  What specific approach are you advocating?  Make sure you clearly articulate what your specific topic is and why it’s important.  If you want to speak on multiple topics, make sure each is clearly articulated.
  2. Target a specific type of audience — Again, adopt a product marketing approach and think about who your “product” is for. Just as brands can’t be all things to all people, speakers can’t appeal to all kinds of target audiences. Figure out the type of person/group or segment of the market that your message is going to resonate with the most and set your sights on speaking to groups or companies that comprise those people.
  3. Establish your expertise through thought leadership content — Develop and publish content (articles, podcasts, videos, books, infographics, webinars, workbooks, etc.) that conveys your expertise. Audiences want to hear from experts in their fields; one way you demonstrate that you are an expert is through the content you produce.  Developing content will also help when you prepare your actual presentation, as you can re-purpose and re-apply existing content.  And it’s not enough to produce great content — you also must get it in front of your target audience.  I’ve done this by writing bylined articles for publications that my target audience reads, optimizing my content SEO as much as possible, getting my blog syndicated, and hiring a PR firm.
  4. Get help — Engage coaches and service providers, attend workshops and classes, and ask colleagues for input, feedback, and help with networking. Whether it’s content development, presentation delivery, or business development and marketing, no speaker is an island, and no speaker is so good that they don’t need help.  I used to be amazed at how many well-established speakers still attend National Speakers Association seminars, participate in mastermind groups, and work with coaches and consultants.  But I’ve come to realize that
    speaking is a craftClick To Tweet, and just like any other craft (music, dance, art, etc.), you must continue to hone your knowledge and keep your skills sharp if you want to stay at the top of your game.
  5. Do your own outreach — Speaking is no different from any other kind of product or service you might offer. When you’re starting out, you must actively engage in business development and marketing in order to get gigs.  Don’t waste your time, though, doing outbound marketing to speaker bureaus.  Speaker bureaus operate like recruiting firms — they work for their corporate clients, not for you, so they are only be interested in you if their clients are.   When you’re first starting out, you need to use a marketing “pull” strategy (i.e., create demand in the market) to get bureaus’ attention.  Once you’re established, speaker bureaus may help with  “push” marketing (i.e., proactively promote you to their clients.)
  6. Speak a lot, for free if necessary — As a new speaker, the most important thing you can do is to speak as much as you can. Not only will this help you gain exposure, but also it will help you hone your craft per #4 above.  And the more gigs you do, the more opportunities you have to get endorsements and video of you speaking (see #7 below.)  So, pursue lots of opportunities and don’t turn down engagements because they seem too small or low profile.  You never know who might be in the audience — and you want to build a list of engagements  that you can share with prospective clients.  Also if you’re a new speaker, you should be willing to do no-fee or low-fee engagements.  The value you will get out of most opportunities is enough to make it worth your time.
  7. Get video and endorsements — Arrange to get a video recording of every engagement you do because prospective clients want to see you in action. If at first you have to set up your own camera or ask a friend help you, do it — any video is better than no video.  See if you can negotiate with your client for them to provide a video recording.  Oftentimes, clients are more than happy to do this, especially if you are willing to accept a reduced fee and/or allow them to use the recording themselves.  At some point, you’ll want to hire your own video production resource to record your sessions and/or produce  your speaker intro video.  Doing so won’t be cheap, but you need to have good video to share with prospective clients.  Also try to get endorsements from your clients and attendees after every engagement you do.  These are additional powerful assets to promote you to prospective clients.
  8. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse…and get feedback — The best speakers make the job look easy, but the truth is, most speakers — even the most experienced ones — still diligently rehearse their talks. A presentation involves so many aspects — your spoken word, visuals/content, timing, body language, use of the stage, volume and intonation, etc.  You can’t expect to just wing it and get all of these right.  So practice — by yourself and videotape yourself so you can see how you really perform — and practice in front of others to get their feedback.
  9. Be patient and persevere — Above all, you need patience and perseverance to become a professional speaker.  I started out speaking for free when I was an executive at Sony Electronics 15 years ago.  Thirteen years ago I resigned from my corporate job and started my own consulting practice, where I continued to speak for free as a business development tactic.  Only five years ago did I start getting paid decent fees as a speaker and only in the last three years has my speaking business really blossomed.

So, it takes time.  You have to really want to do this — and you have to be willing to put in the hard work, the hours, and the money to make it happen.  But if becoming a professional speaker is your passion, then everything you put into it is so worth it.  That’s how I feel.

I know many of my readers are successful professional speakers and in many cases know way more than I do about this business, so I hope people will use the Comments to provide tips and advice.  I would love to learn from you and I know others would too.

Finally, here are just a few resources for aspiring speakers that I’ve found helpful in my speaking career:

related:

prepare for a presentation with these three questions
what you need to know about writing and publishing a book
presentations with punch

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  • Christina Loh

    Thanks so much for sharing! My Universe is converging. I recently spoke at an International Women’s Day event for Accenture. I really enjoyed doing it and I received a ton of positive feedback. I’ve been thinking about finding more opportunities to speak – do something more of what I have fun doing and give back to my community. Your article is a nice nudge to do more more than just think about it.

    • deniseleeyohn

      so glad to hear this, christina — i can only imagine what an influential speaker you are! — denise