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.

The Part Where My Friend Pees in the Backseat

prefontaine erika napoletanoLast week ripped me out of my protective outer Colorado coating and back into the world of SoCal. Having spent an entire month there last year (while running/hiding from recent life events), I was excited to get back. I had been invited to speak at the Entrepreneur Magazine Growth Conference on Wednesday so let’s get on with the business of a week-long recap and some key takeaways.

When businesses get it right

2011 was a year filled with businesses that got it wrong. AirBNB. Netflix. (Insert your own epic cluster here.) From turning on the evening news to the front page headlines of any major newspaper, we’re a culture (and a sad one) that focuses more on the foibles than those who are doing something right. This year marked the 4th year that The UPS Store sponsored Entrepreneur Magazine’s Growth Conference. Having been a customer on and off  – more out of convenience than brand loyalty – I was interested to see what the sponsorship looked like up close.

And it looked stellar. So let’s talk about how, first, the partnership makes sense, and secondly, how the UPS Store gained a new customer out of the experience.

The Partnership: Franchising is a significant part of the entrepreneurial culture. While some might scoff at what they perceive as the inherent laziness of taking someone else’s business concept and running with it, most franchisees will differ with you all the way to the bank. It takes just as much oomph to launch, build, and sustain a successful franchise as it does to launch, build, and sustain a one-off business. And that’s the main reason that having The UPS Store as the event’s title sponsor makes sense. I wish more businesses would look at this partnership and use it as a model for how to get involved with your customers – and peers – without coming across as a our-name-is-in-big-print-so-buy-our-stuff bunch of jackasses (which are the majority of convention sponsorships I see).

  • Peer-to-Peer: The event tapped into the knowledge and experience of numerous SoCal area franchisees. They shared their successes and motivations with an audience of over 850 people who were hungry for that type of information. A perfect fit.
  • Class: Everything about the conference was class. The main stage, the signage, the digital displays that announced each room’s session. Pure class. For an event that’s 100% free to attendees (including a catered lunch – no sammiches here), the UPS Store and Entrepreneur Magazine did one helluva job demonstrating that neither are fly-by-night operations or business-in-a-box solutions. Whatever you thought about franchise business models, The UPS Store blew conceptions out of the water.
  • No Hard Sell: Everyone pretty much knows what The UPS Store does. We get it. Shipping. They began as Mailboxes Etc. back in the day, the place we all went to ship a box, buy a box to ship something in, and when it was relevant, make a few photocopies. Instead of beating everyone at the conference over the head with who they are and what they do, they reinforced the why. They did this brilliantly through their sponsorship of not only the conference, but Entrepreneur’s “Entrepreneur of the Year” awards, celebrating three incredible businesspeople carving their own way in their respective industries.

So how did they score a new customer through the event? I’m a single woman who owns a business, which means that I have a PO box and work out of my home 70% of the time. It also means that a simple records search can tell people where I live. Which is creeptastic. Weird things show up in my mail, any yahoo could land on my doorstep. And you can’t list a PO box as a valid business address with the Colorado Secretary of State – so what’s an entrepreneur to do? Well, that’s coming to an end this week, as I’m headed to The UPS Store to get a business address – and one that’s not my home. I only heard the service alluded to once, but it was enough for me to go: yeah, I need to get that shit taken care of. So I am. And unlike my PO box, I can CALL and see if there’s mail in my box before I go. Which would – and will – save me a crapload of blank trips every year.

It was a Wednesday well-spent, and a shout out to my Wednesday evening compadres who will invariably agree with me that sangria mixes with absolutely nothing.

Sidebar: I was asked – and kindly – by the Entrepreneur Magazine staff to clean-up my presentation for this conference. I don’t have a problem doing that, and I’d been great all day about avoiding the-fbomb. Well, in my second session of the day, I let one fly. And immediately, the fire alarm in the convention center sounded. I guess that will teach me.

Back to business…

Attending, much less speaking at, conferences is rough business. It’s physically and emotionally draining and it’s a huge rally to get yourself going when one (even a day-long conference) has come to a close. The rest of my week involved business as usual as well as taking care of some housekeeping and thank yous for book #2, all the while dealing with the impending launch of book #1 and SXSW Interactive looming in the not-so-distant-distance. I headed up to Studio City to stay with my friend an co-author on book #2 and even got to catch up with one of my graphic designers, Lindsay Goldner, over a meal featuring pasta made from little baby zebras in a cream sauce. Which leads me to the business of business.

There’s a question I ask in every session I’m invited to present: Why are you in business? The answers vary and sometimes there’s someone who gets it right. The answer isn’t to live, because it’s what we love or to make money. (“To make money” is the most common answer, by the way.) The answer is because our customers let us be in business. Never forget that your customers are the reason you get to do what you love – and that’s why speaking engagements and travel are my favorite part of this gig I’ve got going on. I get to meet the people who let me do what I love everyday, from those who work for me and with me to those who just stop by this site and consider my posts to be time well-spent.

Never forget to thank your customers. And never forget that not all customers spend money. Many simply spend their time – and asset we’d all do better at appreciating as even more valuable than the almighty dollar. Which brings me to the part where my co-author on book #2 and I drive all over Los Angeles and Newport Beach to hand-deliver thank yous to the people who contributed to that book.

The part where my friend pees in the backseat on the 405 freeway

For any of you who have lived in the Los Angeles area (as I did from 2002-2005), you understand how the region redefines the epic fucktardery of traffic in general. We were blazing along the 405 — I might have been exceeding the speed limit — when my friend Wendie expresses that she has to pee. Given that we’re on the 405, exiting at 4pm on a Friday is simply nonsense. We’re 1 hour from her house – I ask if she can hold it. Fast forward to a situation where she climbs over the seat into the back and finds a Nalgene bottle holding my then-hot-now-cold tea from the morning. The car gets silent. I’m terrified of potholes (I’m sure she is as well). Within minutes, she’s back in the front seat and we’re serenaded with the gentle sloshing coming from a bottle on the floor board of the backseat all the way back to Studio City.

The lesson here? There’s a lot of shit that happens along the way from where we are to where we need to go. No one started the day planning to pee in a Nalgene bottle in the backseat of a Lexus. Shit – and in this case, pee – happens. Deal with it as best you can and get on with your business. Move forward. Because moving on is bullshit. Moving on implies that we have to forget in order to progress, when in fact, we’re probably better served by bringing our experiences with us to help shape the next ones.

And finally, coming home

Saturday evening, I landed at DIA just in time for the Broncos to blow the playoffs. Truth be told, I missed my puppycats (which is what I call my collective of 2 dogs and 2 cats). I’ve lived in Alabama, Missouri, Illinois, Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, Japan, California, Nevada, and now Colorado. No matter how long I’m gone or where I travel, I get excited about coming home to my little nondescript house in East Denver. So I was excited. I spent the evening on the sofa. I made some puree for a homemade tomato curry bisque (which turned out FUCKING AWESOME – sorry to shout). And after a whirlwind week, I slept for 10 hours.

In my bed.

In my house.

In Colorado.

And on Sunday, I woke up excited. Because I’d built a life that gives me the gift of doing it all again very soon. See image at top of post. Remember. Apply love liberally, in all that you do. We only have one chance to own this motherfucker of a ride called life, and well, yeah. Own it.