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So, You Want to Become a Speaker?

Here are some things that I’ve learned along the way as I've steadily built up my speaking career.

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​Every week, I receive inquiries from people asking me about how to become a paid speaker. They note that they are “passionate” about speaking. Often, they’ve gotten their feet wet with a few engagements – enough to “catch the bug.” Now, they want more – a lot more.

“I’m just starting out,” they tell me, “and I really like it. How can I do more of it?” They often note, “Your work sounds interesting. Can you share how you got started?” What I observe as I unspool all of the threads that have led to where I am now, is that I can literally “see” their eyes glazing over.

The truth is that becoming and sustaining work as a paid speaker is hard work. Period. On top of that, there is no sure path to becoming one, especially a highly sought-after and well-paid one. 

That said, here are some things that I’ve learned along the way as I have steadily built up a speaking career over time:

1. Start speaking for free. Unless you’ve got celebrity status or you’re a world-renowned expert, you’re probably going to have to start out for free. This means digging for every possible opportunity to get on a stage (even if it’s a small one) to just get your voice out there. Here’s a short list of opportunities you can explore:

  • Industry conferences – Nearly every industry conference solicits proposals for breakout sessions. It’s hard work submitting these proposals, not to mention spendy (usually you’re having to foot the bill), but delivering these sessions can serve as an effective mechanism to get your voice heard.
  • Events – You can try reaching out to organizers of community events. Ask them if they need someone to lead a stretch as part of the kickoff. Or, perhaps they need an emcee? Or, if you’re like me, just show up and ask if they have any scheduled speakers who are “no shows.” You just have to ask. Or, as actor, director, writer and producer Elizabeth Banks once shared in an interview, “I raise my hand a lot.”
  • Volunteering – Volunteering is a great way to build relationships – and then later leverage these to ask for the chance to speak. I did a ton of volunteering through the American Heart Association. First, I served on a local AHA task force (which I later directed). Through the relationships I built over time, I then asked to speak on the Association’s behalf. This got me in front of audiences at a slew of organizations, including State Farm, PayPal, Bebe, PG&E, Marsh McLennan, Port of Oakland, and many others. 
  • Associations – There are lots of associations out there, many of which have local branches, that meet on a regular basis who are always looking to bring in a speaker. If you really want to win their hearts, then volunteer. For example, I served on the board of the Association of Talent Development’s Bay Area chapter. Not only did I develop lifelong friends, I also earned an entrée for future speaking opportunities.  

2. Leverage these free speaking engagements. Take pictures, hire a videographer (or ask a friend) to shoot video of you speaking. If the talk went well, ask the organizer to write a testimonial. In other words, build the “proof” that you’re a good speaker, so that others will want to hire you as one. You can also ask the organizer for recommendations and ideas for additional speaking opportunities. 

3. Your expertise or your unique story is your edge.Clarify yours. Shawn Achor is known for happiness. Brene Brown is known for vulnerability. What’s yours going to be? 

4. Build your platform. Posting on social media is a lot of work, but it is a great way to build your platform. Sometimes it’s helpful to just focus on one or two platforms. For example, Liz Kimball, rising influencer, has focused just on Instagram.  

5. Do a lot of whatever you do well. If you like writing, then do lots of it. Start a blog. Write articles on LinkedIn. Seth Godin, marketing guru, got his start as a blogger. If you’re like me and you prefer speaking over writing, then do as much speaking as you possibly can. 

6. Figure out what to charge. After you start breaking out of the free zone, then you’ll need to know what to charge. Not easy. When it comes to speaking, there is a crazy range. Basically, anywhere from zero to over 250K for one talk (not kidding). So, where to begin if you’re asked what your speaker fee is? You can just ask: “What’s your budget?” But, if you want some general guidelines, consider these, as suggested by Dorrie Clark in her HBR article “How Much Should You Charge for a Speech?”: 

  • If you’re brand new, the range is generally $500-$2500.
  • If you’re building your brand and perhaps have your first book out, the range is more like $5000-$10,000.
  • You’re getting more established, and perhaps have multiple books, now the range is generally $10,000-$20,000.
  • You’re the author of a bestseller or are extremely well known in your field, now you’re looking at a range of $20,000-$35,000.
  • If you’re a celebrity, well, none of these ranges apply. You get to charge a whole lot more. (Good for you!)

With every potential speaking engagement, these ranges are only marginally helpful. The range depends a lot on the field you’re in. If you’re in wellness (as I am), then the speaker fees are generally lower. Grrrr. If you’ve been asked to deliver a lunch n’ learn (something I did a lot of when I was getting started), you’ll be lucky if you get $500. If you’ve been asked by a nonprofit organization, then you’ll likely get pushed to accept a lower fee. 

As your demand goes up, then you can start to increase your speaker fee – even with nonprofits. A good practice is to keep track of the number of inquiries that come in (and the number that actually get booked). If you’re booking a lot, then you can definitely hike up your fee. 

7. When you do get the opportunity, do it well. So, you’ve finally gotten the ask. How do you make the most of it? Engage your listeners. Think less about what you’re going to say – and more about how it will be received by the attendees. I study other speakers and an earlier article of mine sums up some of the best practices I’ve observed over the years. See 10 Tips to Engage Your Audience.

8. Persevere. You have to keep trying and trying. Really. I often think about Thomas Edison who once said: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Need I say more? 

There is no one way to becoming a speaker. The hardest part will be finding your own unique path – and sticking to it. Eventually, this will pay off. Before long, aspirational speakers will be asking you for advice on how to get started.

Originally published on motioninfusion.com

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