Categorized | Advice, Job Hunting

How to Be a Speaker

Posted on 09 April 2009

Do You Have What It Takes To Turn Pro as a Speaker?

You know if you’re good. You can tell immediately from the applause and audience feedback. One person says yours was the “best speech I ever heard.” Another says, “You touched my life.” You’re asked how much you charge for a speech. Should you go pro?

Don’t underestimate how hard it will be. Currently, 4,000 members of the Tempe, Ariz.-based National Speakers Association (NSA) and countless others are trying to capture the market for motivational, educational and entertaining speeches and seminars. Minimum requirements include confidence and a thick skin, training, marketing skills and knowledge of the industry.

“Anyone getting into it who doesn’t realize the cost, personal commitment, hard work and years of perfecting the craft is making a mistake,” says Patricia Ball, former NSA president and a professional speaker from St. Louis.

Ms. Ball says speakers must have three major areas of expertise they can address and be well-informed on each. Speakers also need “platform experience” and possibly voice or dance lessons. “What we do is essentially a business,” she says. “You need to know about advertising, how to write a yearly plan and how to keep a budget.”

A professional actress who once appeared in stage plays and commercials, Ms. Ball was performing in a one-woman show when a business owner asked her afterwards: “Do you have anything you could put together that would help my company?” That started the actress on a new career path. To perfect her speaking ability, she decided to give 60 free speeches. After about the 30th speech, meeting planners were inquiring about her fees. That was 30 years ago, and Ms. Ball has been speaking professionally ever since.

Professional speaking is a growth industry, with the number of NSA members up 30% in the past 10 years. The number of meetings also is growing. Meeting Professionals International, a Dallas organization, estimates this total will increase by 9% in 2001. Moreover, speakers are branching out and offering consulting, facilitation and coaching as part of their services. Yet succeeding in this field isn’t as easy as it looks, says Mark Sanborn, a Highlands Ranch, Colo.-based speaker for the past 15 years. “The beginning speaker thinks it’s easy because it looks easy,” he says. If you’re considering becoming a professional presenter, the following steps will help you make the right decision:

Understand why you want to speak.

You may know what you want to say and that you enjoy speaking. More important, however, is knowing why you want to speak publicly.

“Some people get into this business because they like the attention. The same people are deflated when they get off the platform,” says Vincent Poscente, a motivational speaker from Dallas and author of “InVINCEable Principles” (Invinceability Series, 1999).

Mr. Poscente had trained for the Olympics and been Canada’s fastest skier. On the day before the competition, he took a fall. As he says, “There are zero calls for a skier who won 15th place. I raced in the Olympic games but I didn’t win.” He turned this seeming negative into a positive by crafting a message about peak performance and the journey of life.

The biggest benefit he gets from speaking is an immediate sense of contribution. “It isn’t just the message to the audience,” says Mr. Poscente, “but the ripple effect of [having] people go home and implement it.”

Pay your dues.

Dues paying for the professional speaker means honing a craft over a long period through training and practice. Robert Tucker, president of The Innovation Resource in Santa Barbara, Calif., and a speaker, advises aspiring presenters to join Toastmasters, a speaking organization based in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.

He began his career as a journalist writing articles and books on innovation and future trends. While promoting his first book, he spoke to scores of service clubs, joining Toastmasters in Glendale, Calif., to perfect his speaking style.

His advice for the novice orator: “Speak, speak, speak. Speak at every opportunity you get.” Practice to the point where meeting planners feel you “under charged and over delivered.” Meeting planners confer with each other and word will spread about you. “It’s a small town [across] America and you’re only as good as your reputation,” says Mr. Tucker.

After 20 years of paying dues, he’s known internationally as a futurist and innovation expert. The home overlooking the ocean in Santa Barbara he just purchased is “a house built with words,” he says.

Start speaking part time.

Unless you invested wisely, don’t depend immediately on a speaker’s income. Business cycles will affect your engagements, with the slowest times around the Christmas holidays and most of the summer.

Lou Heckler, a Gainesville, Fla., humorous motivational speaker for more than 21 years, jumped into the business after 15 years in commercial broadcasting. He cautions others to avoid his early mistake by keeping their full-time jobs while building speaking businesses part time. Rookie speakers should practice constantly and tell meeting planners they’re available to speak during lunch, evenings, weekends or “anytime if I have notice,” he says.

Success will depend on more than being a good speaker.

Professional speakers contend that speaking is the easy part. The hard part is selling a product — you.

Marlene Chism, president of ICARE Presentations in Springfield, Mo., worked a factory line job, won bodybuilding championships, graduated summa cum laude from college, joined Toastmasters and experienced speaking success. She was uncertain about her career future when a friend asked what she would do if she had no limits or excuses.

“I said that I would be a dancer or a choreographer,” says Ms. Chism. “She said, ‘That’s not going to happen. You’re 32 years old. You live in Springfield and you haven’t taken much dance.’ She asked what my second choice would be and I blurted, ‘to be a professional speaker’. ”

In the business for three years now, Ms. Chism speaks nationally in the field of communications and is integrating dance into some presentations. Beginners often make the mistake of “thinking that all it takes is being a good speaker,” she says. “You must understand business, marketing and sales. It’s not about the gig today, it’s about the opportunity tomorrow.”

Novice speakers should join Toastmasters and attend NSA meetings, practice speaking, refine their topic and be willing to learn. They also should realize that at first, speaking for pay is “a hobby that pays for itself,” she says.

Decide what topic you wish to present.

Another typical rookie blunder is trying to speak on every topic an audience wants. Beginners will say, “You want a speech on stress? I can speak about stress! You want to hear something on goals. I can talk about goals!”

“It isn’t about having seven topics, it’s about having one, ” says Mark LeBlanc, a La Jolla, Calif., author of “Growing Your Business” (Milt Adams, 2000) and a speaker for 19 years. Mr. LeBlanc, former owner of a graphics and printing company in Minneapolis, speaks about small-business success. For the first 10 years, he spoke part time as a way of sharing his ideas about business ownership with others.

“You have to figure out what you want to speak on. It has to be something you want to speak about and something near and dear to your heart, not, ‘What’s the hot topic of the 2000s?’ ” he says. People in it for the long haul should “find a particular area they can sink their teeth into,” Mr. LeBlanc says.

Be realistic about the industry.

Some aspiring speakers have stars in their eyes about the money, glamour and travel involved. Juanell Teague, a Dallas-based business coach to the speaking industry, suggests taking a closer look. Speaking “takes a tremendous amount of energy and it drains you,” says Ms. Teague, president of People Plus Inc. “It’s a different lifestyle. You’ll be away from family a lot.” Consider your children’s ages and your family situation and decide how long you can be away.

“Don’t go into it thinking it won’t be a strain on your marriage,” says Mr. Heckler. “You’ll be gone a lot. You’ll be giving your energy to other people at the other end of an airplane ride. You need to develop an incredible capacity for loneliness. Even in front of a room of 1,000 people you feel alone.”

You won’t make much money at first either. Ms. Teague, who developed a manual to help speakers understand fee progression, says setting fees is the biggest mystery in the field. “The first level is zero. You speak for free,” she says. “The second step is between $100 and $850 and so on.”

Don’t expect a speaker’s bureau to do all the legwork.

Many presenters believe their careers will take off and they won’t have to market themselves if they sign on with a speaker’s bureau. Not so, says Michele Lemmons-Poscente, chief executive officer and president of the International Speaker’s Bureau in Dallas. “A bureau won’t make your career,” she says. “Bureaus typically don’t start working with you until you are someone.”

What makes you “someone” to a bureau? Your fees are one indicator. “A speaker needs to be charging the kind of money to be able to give 25% to a bureau,” says Mike Stoll, president of the All-Star Agency in Fairfax, Va. Before contacting a bureau, you should earn $3,500 a speech and have a professional video, Mr. Stoll recommends.

Ask yourself the right questions before starting out.

Mr. Sanborn parlayed a background in sales and marketing into a professional speaking career. He advises speaking hopefuls to ask themselves three questions:

  • What is my message?

  • Who will pay me to hear it?

  • How will they find out about me?

If you can answer these questions and are willing to pay your dues, you may be ready to step to the podium.

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