For many leaders, thought leaders, and experts, public speaking is an attractive opportunity to both share expertise and create an additional revenue stream. So how can you get started? Unfortunately, there’s no clear, one-size-fits-all process for breaking into the business. However, there are a few strategies you can take to build your personal brand and your network that will help you open doors to paid speaking gigs (and other opportunities, as well).
Find Your Niche
The first step toward paid public speaking gigs is knowing what, exactly, you want to speak about. What is your expertise? What’s your unique angle or perspective, and what value can you provide to audiences?
Be specific here. In broad terms, you may be an expert in company culture, but that’s not exactly unique. Are you an expert on building company culture from the ground up? On maintaining company culture in a rapidly scaling business? On turning around toxic company cultures? In my case, while I could present myself as an expert in leadership communication, that’s not what makes me stand out as a potential speaker. My niche, more specifically, is using data analytics to improve the way leaders communicate. It’s more focused and more unique, and that makes it more marketable.
Create a Talk (or Two)
Once you’ve nailed down your niche, it’s a good idea to create a small “vault” of talks that you can have ready to go with very little notice. Identify two or three key systems, insights, lessons, etc. that you can share with audiences, and use those to build your “stump speeches.” Obviously, you’ll tailor every talk to the individual audience, but when you can pitch specific talks rather than more general topics—and when you can be ready to go quickly—you’ll find you’re much more marketable.
As you create these talks, take the opportunity to hone your communication skills.
Work with a speechwriter and/or a coach or take advantage of a communication development platform to build clear, engaging, and memorable talks and sharpen your delivery skills. The more prep work you put in ahead of time, the more confident and capable you’ll be of doing your expertise justice on stage.
Build Your Platform
In order to be in demand as a speaker, it’s important to build “social credit” by establishing yourself broadly as an expert in your field, and specifically in the niche you’ve already identified. A large following and broad body of thought leadership work will do two things to give you a leg up in the search for paid speaking gigs: first, it will show decision makers that you’re the real deal—you know what you’re talking about, and you know how to tell your stories in a way that will get audience’s attention. Second, it will prove that people want to hear from you. The thousands of newsletter subscribers or commenters on your recent articles or social media followers are evidence that people are interested in what you have to say, meaning your name on an event program will draw crowds.
You may have already started doing this work as part of your business or personal marketing, and that’s great. If you’re just getting started, or if you’re looking to level up, here are a few recommendations for getting your expertise and your name out there:
- Written thought leadership: blog regularly on your own website and/or on a platform on Medium, and share your insights on LinkedIn and in a newsletter.
- Contributed expertise: seek opportunities to appear on podcasts or be interviewed for articles related to your niche, borrowing from other experts’ credibility to help build your own.
- Unpaid speaking gigs: the right unpaid gigs (at chambers of commerce, rotary clubs, etc.) can be fantastic opportunities to build your network while you hone your talks and your communication skills. Be sure to film these, both so you can review and improve your performance and so you can share the videos with your audience.
As you work on building your brand, be sure remind your audience occasionally that you’re available for speaking opportunities by dropping a note at the end of your blog posts or emails.
Leverage Your Social Proof as You Seek Paid Opportunities
Once you’ve built some momentum as an expert in your field, you can start leveraging that credibility to identify relevant, paid opportunities and pitch yourself as a speaker. In general, there are three ways to approach this, and I’d recommend combining all three rather than limiting yourself to one.
First, look for industry association events and conferences whose audiences will be interested in your unique angle, and reach out to the organizers with information on your talk and links to some of your best social proof.
Second, seek referrals from your colleagues, friends, and network. Catch up with industry peers and clients who might know of great opportunities and be happy to vouch for you with the organizers.
And finally, seek bureau representation. If you can get into a speaker’s bureau, you’ll have an agent who can help identify opportunities, pitch your talks, and negotiate on your behalf. Bureaus are competitive, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t succeed right away. Continue to build your reputation (and your speaking reel), and keep trying.
As you start to see interest in paid gigs, it’s time to start thinking about pricing. Fuqua School of Business’s Dorie Clark recently published an in-depth breakdown of how to charge for a speech in Harvard Business Review, but here are her basic rules of thumb for appropriate pricing:
- Newbie speakers might earn $500–$2,500 for a talk.
- Beginning speakers, or those just establishing a brand with their first book, might earn $5,000–$10,000.
- Those with several books and other forms of “social proof” might draw $10,000–$20,000.
- Those who are very well-known in their field, such as best-selling authors, can bring in $20,000–$35,000 per talk.
Success in becoming a paid speaker boils down to your ability to establish yourself as a sought-after, trusted expert in your specific field. It’s not easy—it requires a good deal of persistence and hustle—but the experience is well worth the effort.
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