Nobody dreams of becoming a professional speaker. People dream of being the president or astronaut or owning a restaurant or swimming with manatees, but nobody ever says, “When I grow up, I want to talk a lot.” You don’t even know it’s a possible job until you hear that somebody else got paid to speak somewhere, and that’s when it hits you. The thought process goes something like this:
“You got paid to talk?!?! Well I can do that! I’ve been talking since I was 2. I’m a professional talker! Sign me up!”
And basically, it really is that simple. Once you are on the stage, you’re not likely to get kicked off of it. Plus you’ve already got a contract, so you’re going to get paid whether the words you say are interesting or not. And there’s a good chance you already know how to string words together in coherent sentences and then say them out loud. Since that’s the only technical skill involved in speaking, you have every reason to believe that you’d be great at it – especially since I’m certain you’ve heard people that were terrible at it.
But getting to the platform is the hard part. I’ve been a professional keynote speaker for a decade now. I had no intention of doing this when I graduated from college with a degree in English and secondary education, but I’ve managed to turn it into a career that has so far (fingers crossed) been more successful every year. And if you want to do what I’ve done, here are a few things you need to know.
Your Primary Job is Marketing, Not Speaking
The speaking part is the easy part; convincing people to hire you is the real challenge. There are approximately 48 billion “speakers” trying to get work these days, and your main challenge is convincing others that you are worth paying attention to. If you focus exclusively on perfecting your message, you will have a wonderful speech that nobody will hear. If you focus exclusively on marketing yourself, you will have a career whether or not you’re any good at it. (That’s why you’ve heard some terrible speakers.) I’m not saying this is a good thing necessarily; I’m simply saying that if you aren’t committed to the marketing side of your speaking business, you will not have much of a business.
You Need a Video
Notice I didn’t say that you need a good video. My first demo video was filmed in front of exactly zero people. I wanted a good backdrop, so I found a place in town and snuck in while nobody else was around. Don’t get me wrong; you will eventually need a good video, but you can start with a mediocre one. Without a video, though, you will almost certainly never get work unless the people who hire you know you personally.
Your Delivery Matters More Than Your Content
I have now just offended most of the professional speakers I know, but I’m OK with that. People often talk about the quality of their content, but the truth is that everybody has content. (Notice how busy the Internet seems lately?) What makes people stand out is the ability to deliver that message in an engaging way. Or, to put in a happier tone: if you’re fun or energetic or dramatic or charismatic, you can get paid while you slowly figure out what exactly is it you should be talking about.
You Need To Practice Until You’re Bored
Your marketing might get you some initial jobs, but you won’t get any referrals if your actual presentation is awful. And the main reason a presentation is awful is because the person delivering it didn’t put in enough preparation. Speeches evolve over time, but the core messages evolve much less quickly; and I still practice my core messages periodically when I’m in the car or walking around my neighborhood. The best speakers can get lost somewhere in the middle of their presentation and freestyle their way back to the main thread without anyone noticing that that’s what happened.
There’s more to know, of course – what your website needs to have, what color underwear to wear, how to handle groupies – but we’ll save those for another article.