As a professional speaker, I get asked how one gets into this field so often that I’m providing some of the answers as a public service. There’s no need to bore you with my qualifications to convince you I know what I’m talking about (if you’re interested, you can check them out here). I’ll just get started with some of my best tips, directly from Chapter Two of my eBook, Fast Track to Professional Speaking.
Since you’re reading this, you probably think you have the potential to be a professional speaker, i.e., you’ve got an aptitude for speaking and a decent message; but like everybody else, you need a little help getting started. I hope this helps.
What do I need to become a professional speaker?
I’m not going to sugarcoat this, and I don’t want to discourage you. The truth is, however, that there are a few basic things you absolutely must have on your side to pursue a career as a successful speaker.
- A valuable, compelling, unique message to share—one that groups will be willing to pay good money to hear
- The ability to learn good presentation skills—because nobody intentionally hires boring speakers
- Willingness to go into some less-than-perfect situations and even fail a few times—every pro speaker who has been at it awhile has some scar tissue and war stories
- Determination to overcome the tangle of obstacles that you’ll no doubt encounter on your journey to your dream
I didn’t say it can’t be fun, but anybody who thinks they’re going to decide on Monday to be a professional speaker by Friday just isn’t being realistic.
What kind of professional speakers are there?
Except for celebrities and people who have wildly dramatic and colorful life stories, most successful speakers fall into one of three general categories. If your topic falls into one of them, then you have a MARKETABLE topic and half the battle is won!
These speakers have methods and insights that can improve an association or company’s bottom line, efficiency, ethics, diversity, or any of a number of other areas good organizations strive to improve. They also might hit more touchy-feely topics like emotional health in the workplace and keeping employees mentally and physically fit.
These are the people who inspire. A lot of the time, these individuals have their own story about overcoming adversity and know how to deliver it. They’ll teach you how to face your challenges and reach your maximum potential.
An entertainer’s objective is to energize and refresh their audience. They make people feel good—with or without a “take-away” message.
Obviously, there are plenty of hybrids, and I’m a good example because I’m a comedic motivational speaker, so I entertain as I motivate. There are business speakers who inspire, and entertainers who educate, and on and on. But, again, two things ALL successful speakers have in common are that they have a compelling message and a fantastic delivery.
How do I come up with a unique, compelling message?
First, your message is going to be unique because YOU are unique, your life experience is unique, and your outlook is unlike anybody else’s. Heck, your face and body are unique! You can’t HELP but be unique.
As for compelling, don’t worry—that doesn’t mean you have to be famous, or an astronaut, or that you escaped from Somali pirates, or you took your Fortune 500 company from near bankruptcy to the top of the stock exchange. Sure, those are all great entries into the speaking profession, but you don’t have to have something terribly dramatic happen to you to become a motivational speaker.
Hundreds of people make a great living as a speaker because they know something most people don’t—and how to share it in an interesting and entertaining way.
It might be how to manage people/time/resources, how to sell certain products, how to improve peoples’ communications skills, or (like me) how to use humor to entertain, inspire, and motivate people to do their very best at whatever it is they do.
People who want to speak professionally come from every walk of life and from both ends of the readiness scale when it comes to deciding on a topic. Some people know exactly what they’re going to speak about because they’ve got a lot of experience doing one thing, while others might be good at a number of things and not know which one to focus on.
A few might be at a loss when it comes to a topic, but have a gut feeling that could be great speakers if they just found the right one. Most speakers have more than one topic, and some business speakers have dozens.
If you want to be a professional speaker who gets paid to speak for corporate and association gatherings, your message has to be something those groups want to hear and are willing to pay for. Nobody hires experts in South American butterflies or flower arrangement unless you’ve got a compelling story to go along with it. Turn your story into a message that is motivating and inspiring.
How do I start a career as a professional speaker?
Do some research.
Regardless of which category of speaker you fall into, you need to know what the people who will be booking you are looking for in order to be successful. Start by going online and educating yourself as to what topics other speakers are using for some ideas.
First, check out a few speaker bureau websites and see who’s on their rosters. Here are the names of a few I work with on a regular basis just to get you started:
- Premiere Speakers Bureau
- Speak, Inc.
- Eagles Talent Connection
- The Goodman Speakers Bureau
- Keppler Speakers
- The Speaker Exchange Agency
- The Speaker Agency
Once you’ve done that, you need to figure out which bureaus will be receptive to what you have to offer. Your best resource for doing that is going to be the International Association of Speakers Bureaus. Just visit the website, choose “Find A Member,” leave all the boxes blank and click “Continue.” Just like that you’ll have at your fingertips the website of every member of the association—which means pretty much any bureau worth working with in the U.S.
Oh, and don’t be intimidated by the stars you see on their home page—Suze Orman, Sir Richard Branson, Joe Torre—because they always showcase their heavy hitters to impress. When you dig into categories, you’ll find dozens of speakers you’ve never heard of who speak for modest fees.
Although, it’s not a bad idea to research those heavy hitters for a little insight. Watching experienced and well-established professional speakers in their element will help you learn more about successful habits in the industry. Take notes about their message, performance, how they engage with their audience, and how their audience responds to their delivery.
Write your speech.
You can write an hour-long speech if you want, but you’ll probably get more opportunities to speak for 30 minutes than 60. Your choice. I cover all that in another segment of my eBook called “Creating a Killer Speech.” But right now, you want to know how to become a professional speaker, so on to the final step.
As often as you can and whenever anybody will give you the opportunity to get in front of a group. No matter how small it is, get out there and speak. And don’t worry about getting paid for it. That’s like somebody buying a guitar and walking into a club and saying, “I just bought this guitar, so will you pay me while I sit here and learn how to play it?” Hmm. Not likely.
You get good at it, then maybe they’ll pay you. You might say, well, I can’t play a guitar, but I can SPEAK. My tongue moves, I can utter a grammatical sentence, I’m always the life of the party, and hey—I’m not that bad looking. Surely, I can speak professionally.
I don’t want to pop your bubble there, Sparky, but until you go on stage in front of a couple of hundred people, you don’t have a CLUE how it’s going to turn out. You’ve got a lot to learn, and you can only learn by doing it.
Once you put yourself out there, you’ll begin to get a clearer picture of how your unique skill set can pay off in a lucrative, enjoyable, and personally satisfying career as a professional speaker.
Go get ‘em, Tiger!