So You Want to Get on the Speaking Circuit…

A few friends have told me they want to get on the speaking circuit. While I do some paid speaking on the side, I’m not a “professional speaker.” As always with this blog, lack of qualification doesn’t stop me from offering thoughts! Here are some assorted nuggets for those looking to pursue public speaking in a professional capacity:

1. Wanting to do paid speaking is similar to wanting to write a book: it sounds like paradise until you become familiar with how the industry works. My friend Penelope Trunk wrote a great post called 5 Reasons why you don’t need to write a book. Many authors echo her advice. A similar dynamic holds in the speaking industry. To outsiders it sounds glamorous — you get paid a bunch of money, flown first class to an exotic city, speak in front of thousands of people. For the top tier it’s like this. But most start at “free” and over several years work their way up to $2,500, then $5,000, then $7,500, and maybe $10 or $15k a speech if you’re good but still relatively unknown. Your clients will mostly be in small towns and your mode of transit will be regional jets that fly once a day.

2. Paid speaking rarely exists on its own. If you write a book, speaking is the natural follow-on. Or if you have some other product to sell, speaking works in tandem. Or if you are a consultant, speaking can help drive business to your consultancy. The point is it’s unusual to do paid speaking on its own — it’s usually a single product in a portfolio of products and services.

3. It doesn’t scale. You don’t scale. You can only be in one place at one time. This creates a ceiling on how much money you can make. If money is driving you, this should represent the greatest drawback.

4. The best speakers “do” something by day. People who speak for a living (ie, full time) don’t do anything else day to day which makes them less credible and interesting. They are usually “motivational speakers.” Standing on stage and issuing opinions is not very hard. By contrast, if you’re a professor, or run a business, or otherwise have a professional job that requires you to interact with the world on a regular basis, and then allows you to draw upon such real world experience in your speaking, you are more credible.

5. There are speaking bureaus and agents. Here’s how most work. They field phone calls from event planners looking for speakers and then, in reactive fashion, propose a few speakers from their database. The event planner will pick one and the Bureau will handle some of the ensuing logistics. In return for it all they take 15-25% commission off the speaker’s gross fee. (As a speaker you don’t pay the bureau unless they book you.) It’s easier to get listed with a speaking bureau than be represented by a literary agent, but it’s not a slam-dunk. Bureaus receive 15 speaking proposals a day and only choose to “represent” (ie, list on web site and reactively offer to event planners) a small portion of those. Note that some bureaus represent speakers exclusively. Others will represent you non-exclusively, meaning that you can work with other bureaus or book engagements yourself. Unlike literary agents (with whom you have a high likelihood of selling a book) with a speaking agent there’s no guarantee you’ll be booked for anything. Literally all it means is you show up on their web site.

6. Before you can do paid speaking, you gotta do free speaking. Unless you have some extraordinary professional experience that will make you instantly in demand on stage, you must establish a track record of inspiring or provoking audiences successfully. Then, slowly but surely, you can begin asking for expense reimbursement and then charging for the keynote itself. Like anything it takes time to work your way up the ladder. Subjugate your ego. Volunteer yourself at schools. Gather friends in a conference room and do your spiel. Are you in it for the long term?

7. The thrill of being on stage. I don’t mean to be too negative. There is an undeniable thrill of being on-stage, the center of attention, with 60 minutes to articulate your ideas and messages. An in-person presentation can move people in ways text cannot. The skills you learn — how to establish a kinesthetic connection with an audience, how to craft slides that are visually appealing, how to organize ideas, how to field questions — are hugely valuable. Plus, it’s fun!

8. Toastmasters. I’ve never been, but I have friends who swear by Toastmasters as the single best way to improve your public speaking.

10 Responses to So You Want to Get on the Speaking Circuit…

  1. Sam Davidson says:

    Great advice, Ben. I second all of it.

  2. Great post, Ben. If any of your readers are ready to walk down the path, I encourage them to devour two books…

    Speak and Grow Rich, Dottie and Lily Walters

    The Wealthy Speaker, Jane Atkinson

    Rhett

  3. Krishna says:

    You make it seem real tough Ben… Guess there should be some easy-ways-out for the wannabes.

    How about being an Ex-Somebody or at least a close mate early on in life?

    The list is long – Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, Colin Powell, Tony Blair, (soon Sarah Palin?)… all getting paid in Millions of $$ without ever having to experience the speaking trenches. Hell, they have a backstop too. Even if they don’t rock at the lectern, they wind up at equally (if not more) lucrative something like Private Equity. Colin Powell is a strategic limited partner with private equity firm KPCB, so is Al Gore.

  4. I’m among the privileged people who has heard Ben speak. If he’s in your town, go see him. The Ben you read on this blog is just as interesting as the one you’ll see in person.

  5. Shama Hyder says:

    Hi Ben,

    Meaning to connect and comment for a while. = )

    1) We have a very good mutual friend-Pam Slim.

    2) We are both young entrepreneurs/bloggers! = )

    In terms of speaking (and I do a lot of it), I think #4 is right on. If all you do is speak-then it’s just style and no substance over time.

    I think a TRUE speaker needs a day job/biz.

  6. John Spence says:

    Ben, I have been a professional trainer/speaker for nearly 15 years now…I have had so many people say, “Wow, I’d love to do what you do for a living — what does it take to become a professional speaker” that I took the time to write a very detailed and honest overview on my blog of precisely what it takes to be a highly successful professional speakers/executive trainer. For any of you that are interested, please visit this link and hopefully we’ll get some of the answers you’re looking for:

    http://johnspence.com/blog/?p=21

    As always, a joy to read your blogs Ben, keep up the fantastic work – John Spence

  7. Another Pam Slim connection! I guess it figures, since I came here via Ramit’s site.

    Loved the right-on, firm-but-kind truth of this piece, along with the telling of it. I imagine you’re quite an engaging speaker; between the advice, the writing style and, if I may be so design-snobby/petty, the excellent cover design on your book, it’s clear that you “get” it.

    It’s funny you wrap up with the thrill of being onstage. There’s a definite common thread that runs between public speaking and performing, and if you’ve got that itch, you’ve got to be up there in front of people, sharing and connecting, to scratch it.

    Oh–and Toastmasters is truly awesome for helping people with speaking skills. It can’t turn everyone into an exceptional–or professional–speaker, but if you’re naturally inclined, it’s a terrific, low cost way to exercise that muscle.

  8. ss says:

    Nice post. I have never had the desire to be a professional speaker but teaching a night class at your local college might be a good entry point for those who do (I have no desire to do this either). You pass on your knowledge, you get to be the center of attention, travel time is reduced, you get paid (very little but some). Of course you have to do some grading but at least you get to keep the day job too.

  9. Swan says:

    The ongoing improvement of technology is helping speakers build a larger portfolio of offerings around their live in-person speaking engagements. Unfortunately, most bureaus and speakers do not have the scale to set-up and manage technology. A firm was recently created to help: http://SpeakerInteractive.com

  10. John says:

    I disagree with your “doesn’t scale” point. As the demand for your speeches goes up, the price you paid will go up, and there’s no hard ceiling. If my speeches cured cancer there’s no telling how much I could charge.

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