So You Want to Be a Paid Speaker? Six Unforgettable Tips

how to be a paid speakerHere’s a question I’m asked quite often by consulting clients: “I want to do more speaking engagements. How can I get started?”

I usually answer with a question: “Do you want to do more speaking engagements, or do you want to learn how to get paid for doing speaking engagements?”

They usually want to get paid. Don’t we all?

Today, I’m going to save you $329 and give you the answers to that second question — how to become a paid speaker — for free. I’m giving you six unforgettable tips I’ve learned during my own journey so far as a paid speaker. Take ’em, leave ’em, tell me I suck and go grab a taco. Either way, it’s no difference to me. I just wish I’d had someone shake my proverbial wanna-be-a-speaker baby** sooner. Hence, I’m shaking yours.

**for anyone who feels like unsubscribing or leaving a comment as a reaction to my use of this colloquialism, click here.

Right. Here we go.

Speaking Career Tip #1: Ya gotta be someone worth being paid.

Kind of an asshole comment to start with isn’t it? Maybe. But think about the last time you were at a conference or meeting — whether you paid to attend or not — and you spent 45 minutes on Facebook instead of listening to the speaker because they sucked. I’m betting you would have thrown in a few dollars out of your pocket if that speaker could instantly suck less. So, don’t be the speaker that people wish would suck less.

I have a completely unfair advantage: my college degree is in theatre. I wrote, produced, directed, and starred in my own show as my honors thesis in college (Mating Rituals of the Wild Redneck and Other Southern Phenomena — and yes, it sucked). I used to be a working actor (not a waitress). I’ve worked with an acting coach. I’ve worked with a speaking coach (and still do). The thing is that you can have an unfair advantage over everyone else who wants to become a speaker, too. It’s called investing in your path.

  • Idea #1: Take a performance class. Enroll in public speaking classes. Take a theatre class at your community college or a local adult extension program. If you’re in Chicago or Los Angeles, head over to Second City and take an improv performance class (hell, fly in for one of their 3- or 5-day intensives even if you don’t live in those two cities).
  • Idea #2: Join Toastmasters. With chapters all over the world, Toastmasters has helped cultivate more confident speakers for decades. Find a chapter near you here.

Speaking Career Tip #2: Learn to hate slides.

If you adore slides filled with words, animations, and bulletpoints and you attend one of my presentations, I guarantee you’re going to leave disappointed. Why? Because slides, for the most part, suck. If someone can download your slide deck and get the same feeling and information they would have had they seen you live, you’re doing it wrong. Death By Powerpoint — it could be in every one of our obituaries. Don’t be the cause.

  • Idea #1: Abandon the slide ship. While honing your speaking skills, ditch the slides altogether. If you can’t hold an audience without them, you can’t hold an audience with them.
  • Idea #2: Punctuation, not sentences. When you can be trusted with slides in your presentations once again, use them as punctuation, not whole sentences. Comic relief, to prove a key point — get the gist? If I see a whole sentence on one of your slides, there had better be a damn good reason. I have one complete sentence on a single slide for my main keynote. It’s the only slide with a complete sentence on it. I also only have 15 slides for a one-hour keynote. They’re mostly images designed for transition and comic relief.

Speaking Career Tip #3: Get good at something.

I used to think I had to develop a brand new presentation for every talk I was asked to give. Not only is this way too much work — it’s unnecessary. My speaking career, on-stage presence, and audience reactions improved significantly when I focused on one or two key topics for all of my talks. I built those talks and became confident with the information and flow. Now I can make those BIG talks anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour long and use the time allotted like clay. I can sculpt my message to fit the audience without creating an entirely new talk. This confidence makes you a better speaker and one much more worth being paid than the one who gets lost in his or her unfamiliar talk. Know your shit — even people in the back row can feel that.

  • Idea #1: Pick one theme. A talk, whether 15 minutes or an hour long, can effectively cover ONE theme. Pick a ditch to die in. Don’t believe me? Go watch 10 TED talks and then come tell me I’m wrong. Great speakers send their audiences away with ONE POWERFUL MESSAGE. What will yours be?
  • Idea #2: Pick two to three supporting points. Ideas are worth fuckall. Give your audience two or three things they can do today to carry out your ONE POWERFUL MESSAGE. Audiences love being empowered. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking recombinant DNA or talking to people about the power of unpopular.

Speaking Career Tip #4: Connect with other paid speakers.

Crazy, huh? Suggesting that you align yourself with people in the field you want to dominate. I know. I’m full of shit. But I learn so much from the people in my world who are doing the things I want to do and commanding the types of fees I want to be able to roll off my tongue. Watch their talks on YouTube and Vimeo. See them live when you can. Being a paid speaker is the same as being a paid performer. We get better when we surround ourselves with those who make us take our game to a level of kickass we never imagined possible.

  • Idea #1: Pay a certain someone. Is there someone you admire in your industry whose talks you love? Hire them for an hour of their time. Ask about their fees — both when starting out and now. Talk to them about events they love to speak at (and those they don’t).
  • Idea #2: Contact a speaker’s bureau. Yes, these folks are busy booking their clients.But you might just happen upon a generous one like I did. I talked to them about rates, what I needed in my cache to be as “bookable” as possible, and how I could make it a no-brainer for a bureau to want to work with me. Today, I have a non-exclusive speakers bureau that I work with, and I’m doing the work they need me to do so I can be a better asset in their arsenal.

Speaking Career Tip #5: Yeah, I know you want a TEDx talk…

TEDx is everywhere. Here in the Denver/Boulder area, I know of at least 10 TEDx-branded events. Tons of people think scoring  talk at one of these events is the golden ticket to a paid speaking career. For some, it is. But for most, it’s not in the slightest. Why? Because your talk sucked. You didn’t give the event the preparation its due. You didn’t prepare, rehearse, and invest in the experience. The only reason my TEDx talk went the way it did, was because I had performance experience coupled with a two-month journey unlike no other invested in that talk. I had a speaking coach. I rehearsed endlessly. Until you can own a TEDx talk and invest in the process, put the ego aside and keep honing your skills. Being the person who gave a mediocre TEDx talk will do nothing to advance your goal of earning more paid speaking gigs.

<rant>Here’s where I’ll also implore TEDx event organizers to band together to create stronger events not more events. We have plenty of TEDx events and really need fewer with more committed organizers who are interested in bettering their communities through powerful ideas and not just having “TEDx organizer” attached to their CV in some way. </rant>

  • Idea #1: Skip the TEDx talk. It’s not the place to “hone” your skills.
  • Idea #2: Skip the TEDx talk. It’s not the place to “hone” your skills.

Speaking Career Tip #6: There comes a time when you need to get paid.

I know there are plenty of events out there that don’t pay speakers. By and large, I no longer speak at these events unless there is significant upside in lieu of compensation or a pre-existing relationship that makes the event a no-brainer. Is this arrogance? To some, maybe. There comes a time, however, when you need to get paid for the value you bring to an event.

Your value as a speaker comes from everything above: honing your chops and becoming someone that people feel is worth paying.

To become a paid speaker, you’ll need a few things: (1) A one-sheet. This includes you bio, a photo, topics you speak on, testimonials from folks who have hired you, links to video clips, and how people can book you. Mine is a web page. (2)  A demo reel. Here’s mine. As you’re honing your chops, be sure to get footage from your speaking events. Make sure you’re mic’d-up. The better the footage, the better your reel will be. Demo reels are  how organizers for bigger events review speaker choices — and your reel might be your only chance to make an impression. Also, I recommend uploading your reel to Vimeo. The video quality by far surpasses YouTube. Embed this video on your site or speaker’s bureau site. Save YouTube versions for the search engines.

  • Idea #1: Don’t be afraid to quote a rate. You have value and you charge what you charge. The only caveats are that your rates should be in line with industry standards (see Tip #4 on how to research) and you’d better have the testimonials to back it up.
  • Idea #2: Be flexible without being a pansy. My non-negotiables are paid travel and expenses. Most everything from there, I’m flexible on if its an event I’d truly like to be a part of . To become a paid speaker, you have to charge. This means the time will come when you no longer do events where the organizers don’t pay speakers. Remember when you started doing what you do and you still got paid for it? Yeah. Speaking is no different.

And here’s a bonus tip: always get everything in writing. I had a situation just yesterday where a conference that I’m really looking forward to speaking at threw a major curveball at me that I wasn’t comfortable with. The good news? I have a fully executed speaker’s agreement that prevents it from being an issue at what is now the 11th hour.

Speaking as a part of your career can be a ton of fun. If you want to become a paid speaker, however, it’s not a destination or checkmark on your bucket list. Just like anything else in business (and life), you have to invest in always becoming better. That’s why I continue to make revisions to my talks. Work with my speaking coach on making my presentation better. And yes — I’m even taking a couple of 3- and 5-day intensive courses later this year to further hone my performance chops.

And it’s funny — the talks I gave this time last year were good. Audiences liked them, conference organizers liked them. But until I was faced with the call to take command of my shit with the offer to speak at TEDxBoulder 2012, I hadn’t truly invested.

Today, I continue to invest. So — get yourself a head start and start investing. Few people are natural performers and even the greats have had some helping hands along the way. Humility is also something people in the back row can see. They also like it. A lot.

74 replies
  1. ryancox
    ryancox says:

    I loved this post Erika. This is definitely a bookmark and refer back to kind of post. You laid out one hell of an awesome game plan. Go you and thank you.

  2. singlemommaTSJ
    singlemommaTSJ says:

    “Tell me I suck and go grab a taco.” That, sister, is the quote of the day.
    Investing in your path as an unfair advantage — an idea to take to the bank. Doesn’t luck favor people who work their asses off?
    Why have I not watched your TEDx talk yet? Don’t kick my ass. I’m a creampuff.

      • singlemommaTSJ
        singlemommaTSJ says:

        Erika Napoletano singlemommaTSJ 
        True! But I like to say that I come from the Taunt and Run School of Combat. 🙂

    • kaydeeaye
      kaydeeaye says:

      singlemommaTSJ You *need* to watch her TEDx talk . . . I’ve watched it three times this week, and showed it to a few friends! Definitely worth 19 minutes of your day (but I think you already know that!)

  3. SteveCongdon
    SteveCongdon says:

    Hey there, Daddyo! One of your best posts. To me, the most valuable tip here is to make the investment. You also do a terrific job of being yourself and not a robot. That comes through in your presentation, your brand, your site…yadda yadda… Good stuff!

  4. burgessct
    burgessct says:

    Investing!   Amen Erika, w/o investment you are *hoping* – this isn’t baseball where you only have to hold the audience 33% of the time to be recognized as *good*.  
    Great piece agree with all your points (yea, I’m a suck-up) 
    Keep us honest!

  5. DanWaldschmidt
    DanWaldschmidt says:

    redheadwriting, you just wrote the best post ever about “getting paid” to speak.  YES. YES. YES. YES. YES.  
    It’s not about being a “good talker”, it’s theater with a purpose.  It’s about creating an experience.  
    I find that it takes 1-2 hours of preparation for every 5 minutes that I am on stage.  That extra prep not only builds more confidence, it prepares me to adapt and engage with the audience as my primary goal — not remembering my lines…
    You are awesome.  There’s a reason for that.  You hone your craft.  (And I’m glad we’re friends…)

  6. Carrie Drephal
    Carrie Drephal says:

    Strange that you should post this just a day after I have someone ask me that exact question at lunch. Well played Erika Napoletano, well played! And thanks, I’ve already forwarded the blog.

      • RJ Foster
        RJ Foster says:

        Erika Napoletano As the person who posed that exact question at lunch, I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate the insights, and enjoy the way you present them.  I’m definitely going to explore the idea of meeting with an expert I admire.  Step 1, find a way to get to Boulder (from WI) for an hour.  Hmmm.

  7. Philip D Mann
    Philip D Mann says:

    Great post.  I am glad that you mentioned both Toastmasters and improv classes both exist in pretty much every metro area, and I have done and encourage both.  I simply caution people to remember that neither is a silver bullet and neither will substitute for a lack of message.
    Best advice: Contacting paid speakers.  In any field, find out how people that are doing what you want to do got there.  Learn from the insights of others, and grow much faster than you will if you have to make all of the mistakes yourself.

  8. JonDakota
    JonDakota says:

    Thanks for mentioning Toastmasters, I joined 3 months ago and had to put my hands in my pockets the first speech because they were shaking…  Fast forward 3 months and I just gave a very short “subject matter expert” talk at my local Chamber to about 20 business owners and received great feed back.  I give most of the credit to Toastmasters, but your bitchslap has played no small part!!

    Keep up the great work!!!!

  9. RochelleMitchel
    RochelleMitchel says:

    My only advice (after 22 years of public speaking) – babies will not die when you get on that stage. Perspective people! Hone your ideas, make them clear and don’t take any of this crap too seriously.

  10. vagabondstudio
    vagabondstudio says:

    I follow you specifically for gems like this! I’m terrified of public speaking. 
    Ter.ri.fied. I do it anyway, on a small scale. As of this summer (after Spring semester ends), I have several ‘investment’ events lined up in order to be a better speaker. Until then, I regularly volunteer to engage audiences on campus and within the community. 
    You made me smile a bit though – I wasn’t aware of your background, and my biggest ‘go get ’em’ supporter is a theater professor here at Kennesaw State. Poor lady couldn’t even get me on stage three years ago, but she didn’t give up!

  11. KellyTwigger
    KellyTwigger says:

    It’s uncanny how you manage to always talk about the exact thing I am thinking about that day.  I was just on the phone with my business coach discussing a plan for making this happen when your post came through.  Utterly fab advice that I’ll start implementing immediately.  I love to speak, get great reactions, but I don’t get PAID.  That’s the next goal!  
    Thanks for the fab tips, as always.  And for regularly making me laugh.

  12. brentstromme
    brentstromme says:

    Thank you, Erika Napoletano, your post hit just the right spot (hoo-wah!) today. I’ve spoken at numerous events for free in exchange for “great exposure”, but now feel exposed enough to move into the paying arena. Any suggestions/recommendations regarding which speaker’s bureau to possibly contact? Again, thanks for breathing life into me and others that follow you!

  13. johnheaney
    johnheaney says:

    Erika, you have an uncanny knack to write specifically about the topics that I’m facing in my own business or actively planning. Where do I send my check for all the consulting you deliver right to my inbox? 
    Oh, and death to PowerPoint.

  14. toddschnick
    toddschnick says:

    outstanding stuff. evernoted for future reference. my powerpoints contain either just one word… or a gapingvoid cartoon…

  15. Theresa Ortega
    Theresa Ortega says:

    Your advice freaking ROCKS. Death to Powerpoint, don’t know how many
    times I’ve said it. More often than not, I use my trusty portable white
    board when I need to show a few things. Looks like today is your
    mind-reading day, and you always make me crack up. THANK YOU, Erika!

  16. anitahovey
    anitahovey says:

    Great advice. I’m already part way there… no PowerPoint… I use and my slides are punctuation, not word for word. I’m focusing on one thing pretty well… now what I need is a speaking coach. I like the idea of taking performance classes too. I might look into that.

  17. ajjuliano
    ajjuliano says:

    Great advice. I always say “your calendar will tell you what your fee should be.” In other words, the more frequently you get asked, the more likely you can/should start asking to be paid. If your calendar isn’t full, get better. If it is, you can start charging for your time.

    • Erika Napoletano
      Erika Napoletano says:

      ajjuliano See, I don’t agree with this. My calendar certainly wasn’t full before I started charging for my time. I think  it has to do with the caliber of event, audience size, attendance, ticket rate, and your street cred. Just my two cents. Is my schedule “full” now? Not by a long shot. But when I’m on the road and speaking, I’m getting paid for over 90% of my engagements. And the other 10% is by choice — especially in my local community for small groups.

  18. Marie Angell
    Marie Angell says:

    Thanks, Erika. You mentioned improv intensives. Are there other intensive that would be good someone (I mention no names) who wants to start honing content and presentation on the path to paid?

  19. Walker Thornton
    Walker Thornton says:

    Spooky timing. I just looked at a Call for Speakers and tried to figure out if I have the creds for it. And, coming from a conference this weekend where a couple of the speakers just sucked, bluntly put, I can see more clearly all that you’re saying…and visualize myself in front of the room. Love the idea of studying other experts in the field–fabulous suggestion.

  20. Carrie Drephal
    Carrie Drephal says:

    Sitting in a presentation right now. I swear the person behind me is snoring and I checked out by slide 2. I’m going to get this guy’s business card JUST so I can send him a link to this blog post.

  21. skooloflife
    skooloflife says:

    Love love love what you said about slides.  Too many bullet points have caused people to sound like idiots.  I’m a hardcore presentation Zen guy. Every time I sit down to prep for  talk break open that book

  22. missvickihughes
    missvickihughes says:

    Great points. Love Toastmasters. I’m looking for some intensive speaking classes (several day events) what do you suggest? I’ve been speaking publicly, for many years, but looking to ratchet things up for an upcoming project. I appreciate your thoughts 🙂

      • missvickihughes
        missvickihughes says:

        Erika Napoletano missvickihughes
        I’m in the gulf coast, so, NOLA is closest big city, but Pensacola or Mobile, AL are closer 🙂

        • Erika Napoletano
          Erika Napoletano says:

          missvickihughes Have you checked out any of the universities in the NOLA area to see if they have adult extension programs or improv programs? No matter what stage you’re at, those 2 things could help significantly — boost your real estate value 🙂

        • missvickihughes
          missvickihughes says:

          Erika Napoletano missvickihughes Good ideas…we actually have a really great local theater group,  right here in Fairhope, AL…..I may look into doing a little improv too 🙂 Great suggestion, thanks 🙂

  23. Andrea T.H.W.
    Andrea T.H.W. says:

    Very interesting post Erika. Public speaking is really one of the things which should be practiced by everyone as it brings so many benefits, just like Dale Carnegie said. Self confidence, self esteem, money, etc. And these tips are great, all good but especially the one on slides. A lot of speakers use them but if they become the focus of the performance then there is not much use of having a real person on the stage.

    Thumbs up! 🙂

  24. ginidietrich
    ginidietrich says:

    This is all excellent advice, Erika! You’re right – you have to invest the time in getting better. I do a lot of Vistage speaking, which doesn’t pay what I get for other opportunities, but helps immensely with making me comfortable with new content, helps me understand what’s going on in real businesses, and charges me with hard questions that I have to be able to answer.
    May I add another bonus tip? Get your fee upfront! Make that a non-negotiable and then include your paid travel and expenses in the writing you put in your bonus tip. I’m still chasing money from a keynote I gave in Norway last March. Get it upfront!

    • Erika Napoletano
      Erika Napoletano says:

      ginidietrich Amen on the up-front-fee. And to add to this, make sure you have post-conference payment terms (if you’re going to defer payment until after your gig) in your contract. Mine? Net 5. FIVE.

  25. Char Abbott
    Char Abbott says:

    I swear you wrote that for me..saving me $329 so I can go invest in some public speaking classes! Ha! : )
    I so love your stuff! Thanks Erica for all of the help. BEST DAMN MONEY I SPENT SO FAR THIS YEAR!

  26. Lisa Gerber
    Lisa Gerber says:

    I’m still laughing so hard from the Flickr photo I couldn’t read the rest of the post through my tears. What were you saying? 
    In all seriousness, Love the pick one theme and one to two takeaways. I’m working on a presentation this afternoon and just went back up to the top to define those. Now threading that in. Perfect help. I’m still doing freebies because I have to build up my speaking resume to get the paid gigs. My strategy has been to connect with colleagues and friends who organize events and work that to my advantage. The expenses to do those speaking engagements gets filed under “investment” along with the speaking coach. You have to spend money to make it!

  27. VerbalSwagger
    VerbalSwagger says:

    Hi Ms. Erika,
    I’m new to your world. Love what you wrote. I happen to be speaking in Boulder next week (June 22nd) if you’re around and want to meet a colleague that adores what you wrote do let me know. I’m also a fellow TEDx-er I promise no one fell asleep (lol). Hope to swap hugs and possibilities

  28. writeahead
    writeahead says:

    I read and re-read this post all the time because hot damn, I want to get paid for all the speaking and interviews I do. Best I’ve achieved so far is about $130 and a Starbucks gift card.
    Today I was thinking OMG – how am I going to get a demo reel or some examples? And then I realized I’m an idiot. I have a live web cast recording, a webinar, and several podcasts scattered all over the internet that make up a really great sampling of how I speak. All I have to do is get someone to film me at my next speaking event in September and, barring any incidents, I should have a pretty damn good portfolio.
    Feeling inspired!

  29. danpennington
    danpennington says:

    Two pieces here that really need to be driven home…kill your slide deck. I see people audibly groan when a speaker boots up his projector. I know Nancy Duarte can teach us how to do this better, but almost no one is Nancy Duarte. And two, be known for something. I don’t know how many speakers I watch who have great technique but almost nothing to say.
    Content wins. Great content destroys. Great content and solid connection makes you arock star

    • Erika Napoletano
      Erika Napoletano says:

      danpennington Rule of thumb: if you can’t give the talk without the slide deck, you have no business giving the talk WITH the slide deck. Slides should be sprinkles on your content sundae…always 🙂

  30. dvs2ruth
    dvs2ruth says:

    So, being new here I’m taken by the amount of encouragement and positive support that is offered. I’ve done small workshops and presentations and I’ve even done the notorious Tedx Talk. There’s always a better approach to how we do things and I’m constantly trying to grow that approach…but I’m faced with pushback all the time. Why? Because my topic isn’t about motivating the average individual, my topic is about reaching that at-risk population, the gangbangers, parolees, substance abusers etc. The unfortunate reality is that many of my colleagues in social services are apathetic…so I get a large group of followers who believe in the message because they believe in a better tomorrow and I get a group that doesn’t want to hear it because they’d have to admit they’re coasting and doing the bare minimum to maintain and justify their own jobs. In small town USA that’s a tough barrier!

  31. AmyBallantyne
    AmyBallantyne says:

    This is an AMAZING article!!! Thank you for the detail. I love how you are giving the best tips here!!! Toastmasters is one of many things I absolutely agree with you on! Every speaker should attend a group for the free feedback alone. Another great tool I found is a course by Brian Tracy. He is an authentic trainer and has been a speaker for more than 20 years. I love the stories he shares and the mistakes he opens up about. I wrote a more detailed review which you can check out here:

    Thank you so much!!

  32. LGJ
    LGJ says:

    Excellent tips. Any thoughts on when an organization doesn’t pay. I received 1/2 upfront but HR said “he forgot his check book”. My invoice said payment due on day of event. The next day when I attempted to follow through, the group disappeared. Any thoughts.

    • Erika Napoletano
      Erika Napoletano says:

      Well, I hate to say you’ve been duped, but you’ve probably been duped. Make events pay you any balance due the day prior to your appearance. I don’t go on stage without the final balance in my bank account.


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