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.