The path of a professional speaker is a long and winding one. Every career is different and there’s no playbook for how to make it in this industry. But a lot can be learned from those who have succeeded that can help guide you in the right direction.
That’s why we spoke with 18 real-world professional speakers about the biggest things they wish they’d know when they started their careers.
Here’s what they had to say.
Your Input Directly Impacts Your Outcome
“Many people are working on becoming successful speakers while still working a full-time job, says Dr. Yoram Solomon, PHD. “Then they look for the silver bullet that will give them overnight success. But my question is this: are you willing to work one hour every night after you come back from your day job on building your speaking business? Many find it hard to make such a commitment. Then, in that case, are you willing to commit five hours every weekend to build your speaking business? Many find this even harder to commit to. After all, you do need your evenings and weekends to spend with your family and to rest.”
He continues, “Even if you did put in 10 hours per week, 50 weeks per year, that’s a total of 500 hours per year in building your speaking business. When I look at the work that I’ve put into it, the turning point for my business, when the phone started ringing on its own, when people I never heard of reached out to me and paid my full fee, occurred after I spent some 12,000 hours on building my business. I worked 80 hours a week for more than three years. By that math, if you spend 500 hours a year, it will take you 24 years to get there. So, how committed are you to building your speaking business?”
Trisha Miltimore at Passion Igniter backs up this tip wholeheartedly.
She explains, “Without question, the top tip I share with emerging speakers is this: do the work. Spend more time delivering content and less time thinking about your brand colors, marketing funnels, lead magnets, website, and pricing. These things are important, but nowhere near as essential as getting in front of people and crafting your skills as a speaker and content developer.”
Trisha continues, “Create your own events, both online and virtual, and start sharing your message as often as you can. The best content is always born from doing rather than thinking.”
Pick Your Keynote Topics Based on Your Passions and Personal Truths
“There are so many things that people can talk about,” says Richard Greenberg, CISSP. “But you should focus on a topic that you are passionate about. Passion will drive an excellent presentation. If you’re completely in your comfort zone, it’s nice. But you will not grow until you push yourself past that point.”
Jamie McMillan at Kick Ass Careers has had a similar experience, finding the most success coming from sharing personal truths.
Jamie explains, “My speaking career began to take off in 2014 but it wasn’t until 2018 that I began to open up about my own struggles with ADHD and mental health. I immediately recognized a huge difference in how I could connect to a young audience by speaking my truth and sharing my vulnerabilities. I recall wondering how many more lives I could have had a positive impact on had I been more honest and open sooner.”
Prioritize Your Marketing Over Your Presentation Skills
“My advice would be this: don’t invest a lot of time and money at first into improving your presentation skills,” says Jamie Mason Cohen, Resilience Speaker. “Instead, invest in finding out who the ideal customer is who can afford your services. Although it’s important, you’re not going to get hired because you are a good presenter. You’ll have a better chance of getting hired if you can provide a service that solves a problem right now and provides actionable take-aways that will tangibly make your customer’s company or their team more effective, efficient, or collaborative.”
This is a piece of advice that Aaron Linsdau, Polar Explorer, agrees with as well.
“If you’re an incredible marketer, you have a leg up,” explains Aaron. “If you’re not, you better learn outbound marketing or you’ll struggle. Getting a great demo video as quickly as possible is super important. That way you can easily share what you do. Be shameless in your self-promotion. Get testimonial videos from clients, even if it’s a local service club, about how great you are. Start your YouTube channel yesterday.”
Learn to Properly Price and Scale Your Services
“When I started out, I wish I had a better understanding of the going speaker fees for my target audience,” says Judi Schindler. “My goal was to offer an entertainment program for women’s business, social, charitable, and civic organizations as well as senior centers. I thought the going rate was $1,000 per booking. It was actually $300 to $500. So, I spent a great deal more money creating audio and visuals for the production — as well as on equipment — than the market warranted.”
She continues, “Speaker budgets are much higher for corporate audiences than they are for my target audience. Either I should have selected a different audience or produced a less expensive program.”
Adrienne Garland, CEO of She Leads Media, agrees.
She explains, “If I could tell myself something 10 years ago, when I launched my business, I would say to focus on two main things: pricing and scaling. Right out of the gate, I did what most people do and I created a business that built upon the skills I had acquired during my corporate career. That was good enough to create a six-figure business, but it was one that relied entirely on me, my skill set and my time. In essence, I created a job for myself, not a scalable business.”
This created an inevitable moment of needing to pivot. And it was a challenge.
Adrienne elaborates, “When I no longer had the capacity to serve more clients, I realized that I didn’t have enough capital built up in my business to be able to add additional staff members that could execute at my level. I ended up bringing on people who either didn’t have my same skill set or who needed to be trained, and I didn’t have the time or resources in my business in order to make that happen. I worked myself into stress and overwhelm, especially during the times when I held She Leads events and conferences. If I had created a business model that had a larger staff in mind from the start, I would have raised my rates early on and not taken on some of the clients, even though I loved working for each and every one of them. But in this case, love didn’t translate to profits”
Make Sure You’re Talking to a Decision-Maker
“One thing I wish I’d been told early on is to never accept a ‘no’ from someone who doesn’t have the authority to say ‘yes’,” says Deborah Gilboa, Resilience Expert and Keynote Speaker. “This one piece of advice will make you make sure you’re talking to an actual decision-maker, not just someone who would like to stop talking to you and get on with their to-do list!”
Write a Real Business Plan
“The one thing that helped me the most was the advice to write a business plan,” says Kristin Arnold. “Not for the bank, but for myself. It forced me to think through all the details of what it takes to run a business. I knew how to do training and facilitation, but I didn’t have a clue about what it takes to run a business!”
Understand The Realities of Stage Presence
“The first time I went up on stage to speak, I wish I’d know that the speaker is the conductor,” says Valeria Pagano. “The speaker is the one who knows the subject. And the audience is rarely more experienced than the speaker in the topic at hand.”
She adds, “I also wish I’d been told that every speaker’s dream is an audience asking questions. But, in 90% of the cases, there is often a heavy silence following the sentence, ‘do you have any questions?’ That silence is typically a mixture of awe, dismay, and reflection from the audience. Don’t take it personally.”
Trust Your Instincts and Speak from the Heart
“My greatest lesson as a speaker happened when I decided to try and memorize a speech for a Toastmasters speech competition,” says Coach Michael Taylor. “Before the competition, I had never written out an entire speech and had never attempted to memorize one. I usually would write down a few bullet points and then ad-lib the rest. This style of speaking had won me several first place ribbons and it was the method I was most comfortable with. Because it was my very first contest, I thought memorizing the speech would be more effective and increase my chances of winning. I practiced and practiced at home until I had it all memorized and felt pretty confident the day of the contest.”
He continues, “When I was introduced, I walked up to the podium feeling pretty confident. The first few seconds started off perfect. I felt like I was in a groove and the first few sentences came across as planned. Then all of a sudden my mind went blank. I couldn’t remember my speech. I paused for a moment and took a deep breath but I still couldn’t remember my speech. Instead of panicking, I ad-libbed some content that had nothing to do with my speech but I was able to finish on a high note and complete it. From then on out, I committed to never using notes or trying to memorize a speech. I learned to trust my instincts and speak from my heart and it has paid huge dividends in my speaking career.”
Experience is Priceless
“Too many speakers encourage you to draw the line in the sand and only take gigs that pay X amount or more,” says Mark J. Lindquist. “This is crippling to a new speaker who needs to find their voice in front of a live audience. You need stage time. Take every gig you can get the first 3 to 5 years and you’ll soon rise above the rest because you know what works and what doesn’t.”
He adds, “You’re not a professional speaker when you first start out. You’re more like a comedian who needs to test material in front of a myriad of audiences to know what works.”
Clinton Young agrees wholeheartedly that experience is more important than big paydays at the beginning.
He explains, “Just like a world-class athlete, in order to become a World Class Speaker, you simply have to get the repetitions in. I coach my students to speak as often as possible — at least once or twice per week — and not to worry about getting paid in the beginning. Make sure you video record every single time you speak, even if it’s a small audience. This can be used for marketing purposes, to build credibility in your positioning online, and, most importantly, to be able to watch your ‘game film’. All world-class athletes watch their ‘game film’ and so should you. This will accelerate your awareness and growth and is imperative to becoming a world class speaker. To experience a quantum leap in your awareness, courage, and confidence as a speaker, hire a world-class speaker coach to watch your ‘game film’ with you. They will see things in your speaking that can turbo charge your growth — things that you just can’t see yet.”
Know That It’s Not About You
“I wish I had known that it was not about me,” says Sarah Gershman of Green Room Speakers. “When I first started speaking, I wasn’t as effective as I could’ve been because I viewed it as a performance. I was more focused on how the audience felt about me than on how I could help them. Once I turned my attention on helping the audience, I became less nervous, and I became a better speaker.”
Don’t Focus on Comparing Yourself to Others
“I find when people really focus on foundational elements they really thrive both personally and professionally,” says Lois Barth. “This includes shining bright, sharing their gifts, and making a difference. So, as a speaker, I’d say the biggest traps most of us fall into is the ‘Compare and Despair’ trap. What I mean by this is constantly looking over what someone else is doing on their platform. That’s a recipe for distraction, disappointment, and disaster. I fall prey to the same pattern. Therefore I must remind myself and other colleagues over and over to stay in their own lane. Do what you do best. Do what gives you the most joy, pleasure, and, of course, meets the goals and needs of the people you serve and is well matched with your expertise.”
Create a Clear Call-to-Action
“The biggest thing I wish I had known when I first started doing speaking gigs is to have a clear call-to-action before ever picking up the microphone,” says Baily Hancock, Collaboration Consultant, Workshop Facilitator, and Host of the Stop, Collaborate & Listen Podcast. “I’ve always used speaking, teaching, and being a guest on podcasts and panels as a way to market my business, but for the first year or so I only ever had a passive CTA like, ‘Follow me on Instagram or visit my website!’ And that’s fine, but it’s not going to enable people to connect with you directly via getting on your email list.”
She adds, “If you’re using speaking as a marketing tool, then it’s imperative that you have a clear, concise, and actionable CTA such as, ‘If you want to be featured as a guest on podcasts to grow your community, download my Podcast Pitch Email Template at www.PodcastPitch.me!’”
Make Sure Your Contracts are Airtight
Contracts are critically important for speakers. Just ask Ghislaine Labelle of Coaching Vision Action.
She explains, “What I wish I had known when I started out consists of making sure you have a formal contract, cancellation clause, and deposit policy in place prior to delivering a conference or workshop. When I started out I was hired by a client. My assistant had informed me that we had not received the formal, signed contract or the deposit. I didn’t insist on the deposit but eventually got the signed contract back. Ultimately, I never got paid for 3 days of delivery, hotel, and meal expenses!”
Ghislaine continues, “It turned out the client had pocketed my wages and I never got paid! I won in small claims court, but there was nothing we could do to collect the amount. That’s why it’s so important to make sure your contracts are perfect and that you stick to your process closely.”
For more information on how to create speaker contracts, check out our blog post on the topic.
If you’d like to learn how a customer relationship management platform can help optimize your sales process and help you book more gigs, get in touch with our dedicated support team or start a free trial of karmaSpeaker today.