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October 16, 2010 9:43 AM   Subscribe

I've discovered that I'm an excellent public speaker. How does one capitalize on that?

I gave a presentation recently at an industry conference. The attendees loved it so much they not only asked me to repeat it, they also awarded it the best presentation at the conference. I had people telling me it was "life changing" and "You should do this more often."

I had a similar event at another conference in the past (in collaboration with a couple other speakers) -- we were asked to repeat it at the conference and make it a webinar.

Apparently I'm good in front of groups. So what do I do with that? I wouldn't mind getting part of my income from public speaking. It's certainly more fun and rewarding than my day job.

Where do I start? Do I just keep submitting proposals and hope I get noticed? Or are there other ways I can self-promote without seeming like a conference whore?

(Anon to keep from my current employer.)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I would suggest Youtube and a cheap camera to start, that way people would see you in action, rather than a proposal on paper.
posted by wheelieman at 9:48 AM on October 16, 2010

I do some public speaking as a side gig. I am associated with a few professions where my "outsider" status gives me stuff to talk about that is somewhat outside the range of what people usually hear. So I work in rural areas with libraries [so I talk about the digital divide, most people in rural areas don't travel and do public speaking] and I am a woman who works in technology and has a digital divide focus [tech conferences are still overwhelmingly male and usually have the presumption that everyone is online]. I'm also good in front of a crowd and enjoy talking to people and talking about stuff.

In the library world, there are state library conferences every year. 50 states, a few regions, all of them need speakers. This is in addition to national level conferences. There are a lot of opportunities. Some of these gigs pay and some do not. Some of them don't pay but, like SXSW get you in to conferences that are valuable either in a money or a networking way. Some of them don't pay but you get a free trip to Hawaii.

For me, I made a few good presentations and word got around and people started contacting me to ask about other stuff. I developed a rate sheet [more of a sliding scale] and a landing page with information about me and made it easy to contact me from all of my various web presences. I have examples of my past talks online so people can say "can you come do THAT talk..." or I'll work out new talks for people. My rates are lowish which is good and bad news. Some people think I undercut other people's fees by being cheap. Other people think it's weird that you get paid for this stuff at all.

I try to be an easy person to work with. I have a few hard and fast rules but otherwise I can be very flexible. I am gracious and I always deliver what people ask for [good with time limits, good with communication, good with paperwork]. So I find the most helpful thing for me has been having and keeping a good reputation and being known for one or two things. So people think "oh let's get someone speaking about the digital divide... oh let's get Jessamyn" Even if you know about a lot of things, try to focus on one or two so that you're the go-to person for that.

And, as you already know, do a good job. Be engaging and interactive. Make sure people leave your presentations feeling like they know more than what they knew when they walked in, not that they were entertained for an hour or whatever. Once I felt that I had the "entertaining" part down, I really started focusing on [or worrying about] making sure I was also being educational. Best of luck, feel free to contact me via MeMail if you want to talk specifics.
posted by jessamyn at 9:55 AM on October 16, 2010 [14 favorites]

To be clear, you are to some degree, trying to become a conference whore, if you want to start making money from public speaking. That's okay, as long as you manage in it in a way where you're educating or enlightening people more than you're just feeding your own ego. As somebody who's spent too much time on the wrong side of that line (as opposed to Jessamyn) I can probably offer a few insights.

First, as Jessamyn pointed out: Specialize. Pick something unique that you can credibly speak about with authority. It should be either a topic that's uncommon enough that you can be the go-to person for that concept, or you should have a distinctive and provocative take on a more common topic. If you try to just talk about something ubiquitous (e.g. "social media is becoming very popular!", "many people in America don't like to pay taxes!", "lose five pounds!") you will be stuck in a soul-crushing rut of thankless speaking gigs, even if you do succeed in this new sideline. And you'll be making the world a worse place. This is a surprisingly easy route to fall in to, because there's a nearly bottomless demand for good speakers with nothing of importance to say, especially if they're willing to talk about a topic primarily for the money.

Honestly, some of this is because the personality type associated with being a good public speaker is also generally one that likes public acclaim or praise, so the ego stroke of hearing "good speech!" overrides the fact that the content is either obvious or exploitative.

But! I assume you want to speak well, and passionately, about meaningful things. In that case, hone your craft. Watch great presenters extensively to learn from, and if you use visual aids or slides to enhance your speaking, either hire the very best possible designers you can to help shape your visuals, or get professional education about how to make great presentations. (See the many related AskMe threads about that topic.)

Don't limit yourself to just watching some TED talks or Netflixing "Inconvenient Truth" to learn about great presentations. Watch some James Brown clips, or an episode of Oprah, or a great comedy routine, or a Sarah Palin speech, to see exactly how they're evoking feelings in their audience and making their points more resonant through smart use of storytelling, extensive research about their audiences, and dedicated practice.

Because, importantly, being a good public speaker is simply a raw material. You have an ability, but you're probably like an athlete with raw physical ability. Now you need to learn to master your sport, to take advantage of the ability.

Becoming a professional (or semi-professional) public speaker is essentially like working your way up any performance hierarchy. This is like working clubs or the chitlin circuit is for musicians — you pay your dues with gigs that either have shitty pay, crappy conditions, rough audiences, or all three. In most disciplines, the pinnacle of financial opportunity for speaking is actually the nadir of satisfaction: The corporate speaking gig. Do you have a topic that would possibly be of interest to companies who want to pay a speaker to show up at their annual corporate retreat? Then start offering to do those gigs, for either low or no pay (though you should always make them pay for at least travel or accommodations), just to build up your references or clip file.

If you're sticking to the conference circuit, then you won't (often) be getting paid at first to present, with many conference organizers wanting you to be thankful just for getting free admission to the show. Stick to local shows if you can, or get them to help pay for travel and hotels, so you're not taking a loss each time you speak. Yes, you should absolutely pitch early and often to conferences, and if you're rejected, as for specific (and honest) feedback from the conference organizers about what they were looking for that you didn't have. Thank them for their time.

Regardless of what audience you shoot for, have a web page to promote yourself as a serious, professional speaker. Includes links to YouTube videos of your prior presentations, SlideShare versions of your slides (if appropriate) and a calendar of both past and future appearances. A blurb from a company that booked you saying "Anonymous showed up on time, delivered a professional and inspiring speech that our audience found very valuable, and was a pleasure to work with" will have 100x as much value for your speaking career as any applause or back-patting you get when you walk off stage.

Be disciplined and serious about your craft. I try to never, ever do the same presentation twice, and have pretty much nothing but contempt for the people (and there are many) who go from town to town delivering the same presentation over and over for a fixed fee. Learn about your audience, and incorporate them into your presentations with far more than an introductory joke or passing reference to their employer.

Once you have booked a few gigs and learned about the process of pitching yourself, identify your strengths and weaknesses. Set firm rules for what kinds of gigs you'll take. Do you ever take a gig that doesn't cover expenses? If you speak for no pay, under what conditions, and for what size audience, of what influence? If a gig does pay, for whom or under what circumstances would you not work?

Finally, think deeply about who your talent could serve. Often times many good causes or important organizations suffer merely because they don't have an articulate and compelling advocate to act as their voice. You have this (relatively) rare ability, which will only become more valuable as you hone your skills. Perhaps, if you don't know the way you want to use your voice yet, the best way to be rewarded for your skill is to donate it to the service of a mission that doesn't have a compelling voice of its own.
posted by anildash at 10:25 AM on October 16, 2010 [11 favorites]

Sorry, went off topic a bit with the broader stuff there, but to return to the simple focus of "how do I get gigs?", you can start by identifying the events you'd like to speak at, seeing if they have satellite events or other events from the same organizers that you can participate in, and by learning about the general operations of the events industry so that you can see the role speakers play in that industry as compared to the primary customers — sponsors and attendees.

Don't be shy about contacting other speakers and asking them either for tips or for introductions as appropriate.
posted by anildash at 10:30 AM on October 16, 2010

You can check out speakers' bureaus, organizations that essentially act as brokers for groups looking for speakers on just about any topic.

In Canada, there's Speaker's Spotlight. Even if you don't join, you can see what the competition is like and what speakers charge for their gigs. (Here it's about $2500-$25K per talk, in the US it's $5000-$100K+). Of course we are talking professional speaking here, not your run of the mill presentation talk.
posted by storybored at 12:03 PM on October 16, 2010

I too have felt myself have magnetic control over crowds (ok that may be ego speaking) and wonder if I could make a living, or at least a hobby out of it. When I was younger I always did public speaking in the form of Debate and IE (that's interpretive events) in High School and college, and did performance Magic for a few years on stage as a hobby. I also got active in my local political party and found there are tons of opportunities to get up in front of a crowd and say something that may actually make a difference. I got elected as a delegate to the 2004 Boston DNC on the strength of one good 5 minute speech (extemporaneous). As a result I got to do a bunch of radio and television interviews and got meet a bunch of politico's (including seeing Obama give his break out Red-White-Blue America speech live, in person). But then after college and abandoning my Magic hobby I stopped all public performance/speaking all together and became somewhat disenchanted with politics.

I am thinking about getting back into raw public speaking and the advice I got was to check out Toastmasters International (Another Speaker's Bureaus I guess you could call it) as a way of getting back into practicing and honing my skills. I've never actually gone but they seem pretty interesting.

But also, from my little vignette, there are tons of opportunities to both watch and participate in public speaking all around you:
Politics (Union, Local Party, and if you get known elected politics)
Forensics (Anyone can judge local High School and College level debate/oratory)
Hobby (Magic, Stand Up, Entertainment)
Media (Radio Shows, Local Cabal "Current Event" Round tables, etc)

not just the corporate talk events others are suggesting.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 12:13 PM on October 16, 2010

Oh, also Ten Steps to Becoming a Professional Speaker.

Toastmasters International

and then there are books:

Money Talks

Speak and Grow Rich

The Six Figure Speaker

The only downside of which is that they don't have anything on the latest social media tools for promotion and marketing.
posted by storybored at 12:26 PM on October 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Keep in mind there is a significant difference between an authority who speaks well about their area of expertise, and your generic public speaker. The former are rare and highly sought-after, and the latter are a dime per dozen (c.f. late-night infomercials).
posted by randomstriker at 2:07 PM on October 16, 2010

Well, I'm a lecture agent. You can Memail me.
posted by bq at 2:42 PM on October 16, 2010

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