Public speaking tends to be a love-or-hate pursuit. Some professionals loathe the prospect, wishing it weren’t required of them. Others dream of developing a paid speaking career on the side. If you fall into the latter category, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, speaking bureaus won’t help you until you reach a certain threshold of price and popularity. So focus instead on inbound marketing techniques. Ask contacts who already know and like you to recommend you as a speaker. And create content that will attract potential clients to you. Also be willing to speak for free. The more experience you have, the more chances you’ll have to hone your style and become excellent onstage (and worthy of being paid). And free talks, if well chosen, can still be valuable for you for other reasons, such as networking and exposure to potential clients.
Public speaking tends to be a love-or-hate pursuit. Some professionals loathe the prospect, wishing it weren’t required of them. Others — and I hear from many – dream of developing a paid speaking career on the side.
Indeed, the economics can be enticing. Top speakers in the corporate world often command $20,000-$35,000 for one-hour keynotes, and I’ve developed a healthy six-figure side business doing so. Business celebrities like Malcolm Gladwell bring in far more (back in 2008, it was widely reported that he received $80,000 for one engagement, and he’s now listed as booking talks in the $100,000 to $1,000,000 range). But even relative beginners can earn $5,000 for an engagement – if, that is, they can get booked.
If you’re interested in developing a paid speaking business, here are a few key points to keep in mind:
Bureaus won’t help you. Almost invariably, one of the first questions aspiring speakers ask is how to find a speakers’ bureau to help them book engagements. Unfortunately, that’s the wrong question. A speakers’ bureau – which assembles a database of speakers whom it represents, some exclusively and some nonexclusively – is generally hired by corporations or associations to help them find and book speakers for events. I’ve worked with a few, and they can be helpful.
But here’s the truth: until you can bring in engagements on your own, they are not remotely interested in you. They make their payroll through commissions (often a hefty 25%) booking the Hillary Clintons and Colin Powells of the world, not by placing you with a $5,000 engagement. Some newbies view bureaus as a panacea – that once you’re chosen to be represented (which means that your picture is placed on their website), opportunities will magically fall into your lap. That simply doesn’t happen.
You and Your Team Series
Even if you’re able to work with bureaus, until you reach a certain threshold of price and popularity, they’re not going to expend any energy marketing you. That means you need to do the work. So if a speakers’ bureau isn’t going to help you find your first gigs, how do you find them yourself? The answer is, you don’t.
Market yourself indirectly. You actually have far more cachet when you avoid marketing yourself directly as a speaker. As Michael Parrish DuDell, author of Shark Tank: Jump Start Your Business, notes, the very act of marketing yourself diminishes your perceived credibility.
“Part of the allure of bringing in a noted speaker is that they are already established in their own field,” he says. “By going and selling yourself as a speaker, you’re discounting the value proposition of what you do. That’s so backwards and crazy, but that’s the reality.” He found outbound marketing to be utterly ineffective and stopped trying years ago. Instead, the secret is to use “inbound marketing” techniques — that is, attracting potential clients to you. You can do this in two ways:
- First, you can ask contacts who already know and like you to recommend you as a speaker. For instance, a client might recommend you as a speaker for the professional association she belongs to, or a friend who spoke at a conference last year may suggest you to the organizers. Make sure that you have a high-quality video of you speaking, as well as a list of your topics, as those are the first things any organizer will ask to see.
- Second, you can create content that will attract potential clients to you. For instance, I once wrote a web article for the Harvard Business Review about how to plan your professional development for the year. That article caught the attention of a professional association that asked if I could do a (paid) webinar on the topic, which I ran live for more than 600 attendees, exposing me to an entirely new audience.
Be willing to speak for free. It’s annoying, but almost inevitable: before you land your first paid speaking engagement, you’ll likely have to give many free ones. In some ways, it’s a healthy process: the more experience you have, the more chances you’ll have to hone your style and become excellent onstage (and worthy of being paid). And free talks, if well chosen, can still be valuable for you for other reasons, such as networking and exposure to potential clients.
Dan Schawbel, author of Promote Yourself, recalls one early free speaking gig at a college in Massachusetts. Nearly three years later, one of the attendees – who had by then graduated – got a job at a technology company that needed a speaker. She remembered Schawbel’s talk and suggested him. He earned nearly $6,000 and it became his first paid talk.
The process of building a paid speaking career doesn’t happen overnight – in fact, as with Schawbel, it may take several years. But if you speak to the right audiences for free to build momentum, and simultaneously work to cultivate credibility through referrals and content creation, you’ll be well on your way.