Many people attend lectures at events and think: “I could do better than that” or “I have an amazing story to share” and they might be right. What they don’t realize is the ability to give a good presentation is different that earning the reputation required to be invited to give it. I write and speak for a living and get asked often how the business works. Here are the answers:
1. Create demand. The world has a surplus of people who think they can do a good job speaking to crowds or who have interesting life experiences. This means the market is a demand market, not a supply market (Writing books or making music functions the same way). Unless your particular story has great appeal, say perhaps because you won five gold medals at a recent Olympics, or you’ve been on a spate of talk shows lately, there is no general demand for you. This has little to do with your ability. You might be a great expert in your field and the best speaker in this galaxy, but it will require many people seeing you speak, assuming you are good, for the reputation of your abilities to spread. This can take years. It did for me. Plan to put in the time.
There is no magical “speaker circuit” waiting for you to jump on so they can pay you (the term speaker circuit comes from the 1800s when there was far less competition for entertainment). Certainly, if your fame is high enough there will be many large events that want you to participate in them, but their interest in you will have to be earned.
Speaker bureaus or agents aren’t a magic answer as they are smart people. They want easy work. They strongly prefer to represent people who are well known in their field, or generally famous, since it’s less work for them to market those people to events and they can get higher fees for them (as agents are paid on commission). It’s nothing personal, it’s a business. They want to represent people who are easy to sell.
It’s easier for a speaker bureau to want to represent you if you already have your own following: a group of people interested in your work, whatever it is. The same thing is true for book publishers: there’s less work to do for sales and marketing if a group of people already wants things you produce.
My story of creating demand is simple. I quit my job in 2003 to try and write books. A straightforward way to promote a book is to give presentations about it. I reached out to organizations I knew from my prior career and asked if I could come and speak, for free, about the book. I gave dozens of free lectures. My first book sold well (selling books is harder than writing them) and so did the second. Soon I was invited to speak at places, and eventually the demand was high enough that I was paid to be a speaker and bureaus would reach out to me. This blog helped people discover my work, and connected people who attended my lectures to my books, and people who read my books to my lectures. 1400 posts, 100s of lectures, and seven books later you have what you see today.
2. People are interested in speakers for reasons other than their speaking ability. Speakers are often hired because of their story, or the value of their name, not because of their speaking talents. When someone wins the Nobel Prize, they’re asked to speak at many events, even though the Nobel Prize is awarded for reasons that have nothing to do with eloquence. This is counterintuitive, as it means people are paid to speak not for their speaking skills, but for people’s interest in their knowledge or personality. It’s unfair, but we are not a rational species. More people will come to hear Lady-Ga-Ga give a talk about the life story of Scott Berkun, than will ever come to hear Scott Berkun talk about Scott Berkun. It’s how the world works.
3. To grow interest in your work start in your profession, your school, your neighborhood, or anywhere you have credibility. Most cities have local industry groups that often have events where speakers are needed. You don’t instantly generate demand. You grow demand, starting with a niche (perhaps your profession) where you are known and respected, and grow from there. This also means you won’t be paid for awhile. Pay comes with demand. If no one is asking you to speak anywhere, why would you expect to be paid? You have to do some selling before you can do any earning. Invest in a great website with an email mailing list so there is a way people can sign up once to follow you (Social media works too, but a mailing list has no intermediary, unlike Twitter, Facebook or other services).
4. Seek out 3 events you are qualified to speak at and introduce yourself. Organizers struggle to find good speakers. If you pick events in your community, you may even know some of the organizers. Study their event. Look at the topics, styles and speakers they tend to have. Then pitch them on a specific talk that would fit their event, with a specific title and description. Briefly (one short paragraph) list why you are qualified to speak and include a short video of you speaking at a similar event. Make it easy for them to give you a chance (don’t skip the ‘study their event’ part). If you get turned down, ask what experience you’d need to be accepted next time. Look for Ignite or Pecha Kucha events, where many speakers are needed for a single event, as first chances may be easier to find. Bonus points for events that create high quality videos of speakers, as this is marketing material you can use.
If you can’t find events you think you could speak at, you have two choices: give up or start your own. The latter is much more interesting. Create a better event where talented people like you who don’t fit well elsewhere can shine.
5. Do whatever necessary to be an active speaker. The more often you speak, the better you will get and the more speakers and organizers you will meet. If you’re active, and good, they’ll start reaching out to you. If all else fails, post a ten-minute lecture of yours on Youtube every week. There is no excuse for not being active and gaining more experience. Ask friends and speakers you admire for feedback and work to improve. The truth may be you are not as talented as you think and need to grow your skills. That’s ok. The sooner you sort this out the better.
6. In your field, how is your work known? If your work is well known, requests to speak will follow and be easier to ask for. I’ve written popular books about creativity, management and communication, which has led to demand for me to appear and speak in those fields. I know nothing about being a lawyer or a doctor, which is why I’m rarely invited to speak at the events those professions have.
7. Building an audience is easier than ever in history. Between a blog (free), a youtube account (free), facebook and twitter feeds (free) and cell phone with a video camera (free-ish as you already have one), you can start right now showing your abilities and building interest in your ideas and talents. Start with your friends and family and invite them to share. If you produce consistently you’ll generate new fans on your own. But because building an audience is easy, this means you’re competing on the quality of your website and youtube videos, since cost of entry is so low.
How much are you investing in marketing your work? If not much, the world isn’t the problem – your lack of investment in your own talent is the problem. People can’t find you if you aren’t trying hard to be found. If when people find your your website isn’t professionally done, or your videos have terrible sound and lighting, they’ll look elsewhere. If you really believe in what you’re doing, you have to invest the time and believe it will pay off. Your best advantage in marketing is your community and network who, if properly motivated, can help spread word of your talents.
8. Your fees are based on the market. If no one is asking you to speak, don’t worry about rates. It’s irrelevant. If you are getting asked to speak, the pay range is anywhere from $0 to $100,000 for a single lecture. There are too many variables to give a simple number. Some events only pay travel costs (e.g. TED) or a free ticket to the event. For a select few truly famous people some events pay a years salary for the average American for a 60 minute lecture. Speakers, like many forms of talent, are paid for their value, not their time. You can ask the organizer what the average fee is for the other speakers at the event and use that as a baseline for what you’d like to be paid.
9. Most events don’t pay anyone. This forces (even famous) speakers to decide if the exposure of the event is worth not being paid (most appearances on television or radio, including premier prime time talk and news programs, are unpaid, yet most famous people gladly appear). Some events pay all speakers the same fee, others pay the keynote speakers, who perhaps have a larger role in the event, more than others. TED and other high profile events often don’t pay anyone anything, only covering travel or a free pass to the event. There are too many events for different situations for there to be a singular standard. In the end, how much demand there is for you determines what fees you will feel ok walking away from. If you are thinking long term, the opportunity to speak to any big crowd, even if it’s for less than you want, is likely a win.
For more on the business of public speaking:
- See How much to charge for speaking
- read Why Speakers earn $30,000 an hour, a free excerpt from my bestseller, Confessions of a Public Speaker.
[note: this is heavily modified excerpt of my previous post, how to become a motivational speaker]