It’s been said for decades that many people fear public speaking more than they fear death.
Personally, I suspect that information did not come from putting a gun to peoples’ heads and telling them to go speak in public…but that doesn’t mean a lot of people aren’t intimidated by the idea of speaking in public or creating a side (or main) career from doing so.
But the benefits outweigh the obstacles, if you have any talent for or interest in this potentially lucrative gig. Becoming a regular public speaker can help you sell more books, establish you as an authority in your field, grow your platform, and help boost your career in many ways.
Here’s how to get started, step by step.
Step 1: Decide Why You Are Speaking
Your reasons for booking speaking engagements will inform every other item in this process. Most public speakers get up on stage for one of three reasons:
- To sell books
- To advertise their consulting/coaching services
- To build a career as a speaker
In truth, most people are motivated by a little bit of all three, but that doesn’t matter.
The key is: What is your primary purpose for getting into speaking?
Are you trying to serve your audience? Gain new opportunities? Establish yourself as a thought leader? Sell more books? Leave your day job to travel the world speaking?
Think long and hard about this. Talk with your mentors and friends. Have this nailed down before moving forward so you don’t have to redo work.
Step 2: Outline Your Talk(s)
It’s possible to get speaking engagements by approaching a venue and saying “I’m a good speaker and pretty smart. What would you like me to talk about?”
But it’s really hard.
Most venues will want you to approach with “I’m a great speaker and pretty smart, and here’s the talk I’d like to present for you.”
That is, they want you to offer value ready to go—to show that you know what you’re talking about, you’re confident in your abilities, and that you know their program and audience well enough to have specific ideas of what you can bring to the table.
You don’t need to write the full talk to begin with, but devise one or more topics with basic outlines. Give them some catchy titles and be able to answer basic questions.
A few of the talks I’ve given or seen include:
- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Social Media for Your Business
- Travel Writing for Fun and Profit
- Build Your Online Platform in 12 Months
- Get it Done! How to Beat Procrastination and Write Your Book
It can help at this point to also think about the kinds of venues that would host your talks, but don’t worry about that too much for now.
Step 3: Join the Chamber of Commerce
Or the Elks Club. Or LeTip. Or Toastmasters. Or whatever interest group, service club, or networking organization you prefer that has people speak on a regular basis.
Once you go to a few meetings, you will be asked to give a presentation about whatever it is you’re an expert on. This presentation is the perfect way to test your public speaking mettle, and get some contacts for more serious gigs later on.
It’s also a great way to get feedback on what works in your content and delivery so that you can continuously refine and improve your speaking abilities.
Step 4: Set Up Your Online Presence
You will need a speaking page on your website or main social media outlet. Ideally, you’ll be on both (you don’t need to be on every social media network ever, but be active somewhere).
This page should include:
- A dynamic photo of you speaking
- Your name
- The names of one or two of your talks
- A description of what you speak about
- Your local area
This is where you send people when you approach them about speaking. It’s your lobby and front page, so make it slick and professional as all get-out.
Step 5: Book a Local Venue to Speak
Start emailing and making phone calls to places that host speakers.
If you’re selling books, hit up your local library, bookstores, coffee shops and bars to set up a reading.
If you’re building your coaching career, look to local meetups and conferences in your area.
If you want to speak for speaking’s sake, get started with listings of local upcoming events in general.
Expect a 3-4 month lag, minimum, between getting booked and actually speaking, so keep your calendar aligned for that kind of gap and time your approach accordingly if the event has specific dates.
Some venues will have specific guidelines for speaking proposals (just like publishers and agents have for writing submissions). Others you’ll just have to write with your basic details and what you can do for them.
You may have to approach a few dozen venues before you get one booked, but that’s okay. You wouldn’t be in this career if you were afraid of a little rejection.
Step 5.5: Repeat Step Five
Keep approaching local venues as you work through the rest of this list.
You should move on to Step 6 immediately after giving your first talk, but while you’re at that keep approaching local venues. This will build your experience, skill, and confidence as you’re working to step up the ladder.
Step 6: Speak at a Regional Conference
Identify a major regional conference or convention for your area of expertise.
This one’s easy to figure out if you’re building your career: go to the conference of your field. For writers, book a fan convention or writing conference. General speakers should identify conferences in their town and approach them with tailored presentation ideas.
Booking regional conferences works just like the local venues, only you’ll be competing with more people for better slots.
Make certain your online presence is sharp. Add a list of engagements you’ve already succeeded with. Include testimonials from people who attended.
As with the local venues, you’re going to hear a lot more “nos” than “yeses” to begin with. Don’t worry, though. The tipping point for that comes after surprisingly few yes answers.
Step 7: Set Up Your Film Crew
As you’re honing your skills at the local and regional level, start thinking about “making the show” and graduating to those national events with the big speaking paydays.
To get booked at that level, you will need a demo reel. So, while you’re still polishing yourself on these beginning tiers, figure out how you’re going to get filmed.
Options I’ve seen work include:
- Having a buddy come film your talks
- Hiring professionals to film your talks
- Asking conference organizers to film your talks
- Getting three to four people to use their phones, and choosing the best angles from among them
The important part is that you get your talks recorded, then use professional help to turn the raw footage into 5-10 minutes of your best moments, plus a handful of 30-second to 1-minute clips of you being absolutely awesome.
Once you have these, put them up on your site and social media. You will link to them when pitching from that day onward.
Step 8: Book 12 Speaking Gigs
Once you have your film clips up, set a goal of booking 12 speaking gigs in the next year. That means approaching a minimum of 60 venues, so make a list early and propose often.
When you’re making your list of potential venues, mix up the types and scopes.
When I identify potential places, I use a mix of the following:
- Local and regional places I’ve already spoken (they’re the easiest to get a “yes” from)
- Local and regional venues I still haven’t spoken at
- Major national venues on my wish list
- Regional conferences tangentially related to my areas
- Charities and nonprofits that can use my expertise
Do whatever it takes to make that goal happen for you. If it takes 13 months, that’s okay. But life’s more fun if you can manage it in 9.
Steps 9 and onward—booking ever more and ever more influential gigs and raising your profile—have everything to do with what you decided in Step 1.
Keep in mind that even medium-level keynote speakers are paid thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for a one-hour talk. But we’ll talk about those possibilities and details another time.
For now, get started with Step 1. Figure out your “why” and let the rest flow from there.
For more ways to boost your audience and get more speaking gigs, read on:
- 5 Reasons You Absolutely Need an Author Press Kit
- Author Business Cards: Why You Need Them and How to Make Them
- How to Write an Outreach Email (plus a bonus email template)
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