Aug 17 2013

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How to Really Make Money as a Speaker

Why Speaking is the Key to More Revenue for Your Business

I spent some time this week responding to e-mails from aspiring speakers. I started down the road to becoming a speaker in 2002. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. I didn’t understand the realities of professional speaking. I just knew that I wanted to share my experiences and expertise to help others improve their lives. I invested eight years learning about the business though. Today, I run a speaker bureau and also provide a suite of services for professional speakers. And I also still speak to audiences sharing my experiences and expertise.

I commonly get e-mails from speakers who want someone to do all the booking work for them. Most of them have never successfully booked themselves. Here’s the dirty little secret in the speaking business: speaker bureaus are not interested in a speaker until the speaker no longer needs them. It’s nothing personal; it’s just that bureaus work on commission. In the beginning, speakers make very small fees. It takes a ton of work to get a newbie speaker a single paid speaking engagement. If I have only so many hours in the day, I’m going to spend them searching for hiring organizations that have larger speaker budgets so I net a handsome commission. Larger budgets mean that I’m going to be placing advanced speakers who earn larger fees.


Professional speaker Scott Huse engaging audience members with a group activity at an International Association of Administrative Professionals Conference

It is the dream of so many aspiring speakers to make a living speaking. Let me be clear: professional speaking is not a dream. It’s a business — a tough, expensive business. I submit to you that it has a higher failure rate than restaurants or even magazines. I’ve learned to sort out the aspiring speakers and evaluate who is likely to succeed. They come in two types generally: those who are fed by being on the platform and those who feel called to share their expertise or experience.

The latter may not always be great speakers today but they have a good foundation to build on. They have a message that can improve someone’s condition. The first group needs the applause and will burn up in the caustic atmosphere of audience and client feedback. Not every speech gets a standing ovation. In fact, most don’t. It doesn’t mean the speaker wasn’t successful and met the client’s objectives. And all audience members don’t think every speaker is great and don’t mind telling the speaker that. And being normal humans, speakers take criticism hard.

Pursuing professional speaking as a business is as much about sales and marketing as it is about developing a good keynote or program.

Pursuing professional speaking as a business is as much about sales and marketing as it is about developing a good keynote or program. If you’ve ever sold anything, you know it’s a numbers game — how many no’s does it take to get to a yes? Most people who want to get into the speaking business have never sold anything. They are unprepared for the rejection that comes with sales. It takes a speaker a long time to really identify their most-profitable target client and craft the right way to start a conversation that leads to a booking. That includes a lot of mistakes — and rejection — to refine the winning sales approach.

When you combine how difficult it is to get a chance to even speak for free with the tough feedback and the rejection of being in sales, you can see why few speakers make it. And it takes about five years to make paycheck-replacement income. There is a lot of speaking for free and very small fees in the beginning. To compound the challenge, no one can book a speaker until the speaker understands how to market and book themselves. Speakers need to discover and define who they’ve earned the right to speak to and what they have to teach that people are willing to pay for. There are many great speakers who have no idea how to do that, so they are not booked very often — or at all. There are a lot of average speakers who know exactly how to market themselves and are booked all the time.

Most aspiring speakers reach out to me so that I can discover them. After a few questions or clicks on their websites, I realize they don’t have what they need for me to ever submit them to my client. They don’t have a list of topics and complete descriptions, a one sheet (a speaker marketing piece), a website with audio or video or a live program, or even a professional e-mail address. That is why I added a suite of marketing tools to my publishing company services. I could tell them what they needed but then they’d have to go figure out where to get those things. I focused my business on the needs of professionals who use the spoken word to drive their career.

Here’s what is far more realistic: using speaking to brand yourself and your business. There are many opportunities to speak to organizations and audiences that can drive sales to your company without speaking for money.

Only a tiny fraction of aspiring speakers become full-time pros. Here’s what is far more realistic: using speaking to brand yourself and your business. There are many opportunities to speak to organizations and audiences that can drive sales to your company without speaking for money. I love it when a subject matter expert actively seeks out breakout sessions at industry conferences where they can showcase their expertise. Those audiences often include prospective clients. That can open the door to business opportunities worth ten or even a hundred times what the speaker on the conference main stage was paid to speak.

Even if you speak for no money to market your company, it pays to treat it like a full-time professional speaking role. That means recording and posting your live speeches, having a professional one-sheet, investing in a website and professional photos, and blogging on your topic. Building your personal brand will take you even farther. Whether you work for a company or own it, positioning yourself as a subject matter expert will help you get in front of audiences who can hire you and drive more profitability to your company’s bottom line. And in today’s world, expertise is what your customers are willing to pay more for.

About Carrie


Carrie Perrien Smith MBA is a training, communication, and publishing industry veteran. Since running screaming from her corporate training and communications career over eleven years ago, she’s not only become a speaker but runs a professional speaker bureau and a publishing company that primarily serves the needs of speakers who write and writers who speak. She is also the host of Business: Engaged! radio show for business owners on Blogtalkradio. Her most recent book is called Currency: Striking Networking Gold in a Relationship Economy. If her free time, she is a community activist, home improvement junkie, and singer in a party band called Paper Jam. You can learn more about Carrie and her company, Soar with Eagles at www.soarhigher.com.

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