I’ve been making my living as a keynote speaker for the past eleven years. I like my job. It’s allowed me to visit dozens of cities and countries I might otherwise never have seen. It affords more flexibility than almost any other career I can imagine. (Careers with more flexibility include ‘part-time sock collector,’ which you can do pretty much whenever you want, and ‘princess,’ which I would do in a heartbeat if I could just ingratiate myself into the right royal family.) It’s provided me with a good living. And it gives me the opportunity to think up solutions to problems, then share those solutions with tens of thousands of others every year. There’s a lot to recommend it.
Which I why I assume so many people ask me how to do it themselves. It’s a fair question, since it’s a weird job. There’s no application process, and virtually no one (except for the possible exception of the children of keynote speakers) has ever planned to become a keynote speaker. I certainly didn’t, and most of the speakers I know also stumbled their way into what turns out to be a very rewarding career.
But that’s not to say it’s a matter of luck. There are several reasons why some speakers are more successful than others. So whether you’re looking to dabble in professional speaking, create a lucrative side job you can fit around your other professional obligations, or turn this into a full-time profession, here are some things you should consider:
What You Say Is Less Important Than How You Say It
This advice generally irritates people, because most of the people who’ve approached me about becoming a professional speaker do so because they have a story they want to share, or experience they think others could benefit from. I have no doubt that they’re right; but unfortunately, that’s true of every professional speaker. Whatever area of speaking you want to focus on – leadership, overcoming adversity, ethics, diversity, generational issues, futurism, or anything else – there are currently thousands of people talking about the same thing. Which means how you deliver your message will ultimately be a bigger differentiator than the message itself. It’s the same as if you wanted to open a restaurant. All restaurants serve food, so what becomes important are the other things you do (ambience, price point, waiters in mascot costumes, whatever) that distinguish you from your competition.
The Primary Job of a Speaker Is Marketing, Not Speaking
This is becoming more and more true of every industry, actually. One of the upshots of the Internet is that all of us are now required to market what we do more than we’ve ever had to before, because there is now more competition than there ever has been. This is especially true of industries like speaking, where there is literally no barrier to entry. (Can you put words into a coherent order? Congratulations, you’re a speaker!) The speakers who are successful are generally the ones who understand that and who do whatever it takes – networking, blogging, advertising, etc. – to get themselves noticed more than their competition.
You Should Expect To Spend Some Money
It’s true that speaking doesn’t have the same fixed costs as other industries – you don’t need to buy a building or take out a business loan – but it’s still a business. And just like any business, it requires some investment. A website is a must, as is a decent demo video. You’ll end up finding any number of computer programs and apps that are useful (newsletter services, social media schedulers, etc.) and it’s generally worth the money to pay for the premium version than squeak by with the free sample. You’d be appalled to learn how much money it costs to have your book placed in an airport bookstore – oh yeah, those spots are all paid for by the authors – but people do it because they’ve decided it’s worth the money. I’m not saying you have to start big (I certainly didn’t), but it’ll be difficult to make it very far if you refuse to pour some of your profits back into your speaking business.
There’s more, of course, but how you feel about the above will largely determine whether or not speaking is something you want to bother with in the first place. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go talk to myself. Oh, that’s another thing you’ll do a lot – talk to yourself. I do most of my practicing on long walks. Sure, people give me weird looks, but at least nobody asks me for money.