When aspiring speakers ask me for advice, they almost always say something like, “I’m ready to speak more. Now I just need to find a speakers bureau who can book me” or “my talks are already great, I just need to hire someone to find the speaking gigs for me.”
But this plan—thinking you need a speaking agent, or marketing coach, or whatever, to help you get bookings has the equation 100% backwards.
This is a lesson I learned the hard way when I was getting started as a motivational speaker nearly 25 years ago.
Here’s an analogy.
Let’s say you recently played basketball for the first time, and you really enjoyed it.
So you play a few more times. You think, “Wow, this is super fun! I want to play this all the time.”
You’re well aware that some people play basketball professionally, which leads you to think, “How great is that? They get paid to play. I am going to do that.” And you decide you want to play in the NBA.
Now you just need to figure out how to get drafted.
You’ve heard that athletes have agents who announce their availability for the draft, take bids from interested teams, and negotiate the athlete’s contract.
So you think, “That’s it! All I need to do to become a professional basketball player is to find an agent, right?”
Well, no. That’s just not how it works.
An agent can certainly help you get in the room with the right people, make sure the contract benefits you, and finalize the deals.
BUT the player is the one who has to:
A. Go out and become one of the world’s best basketball players through years of training, and then
B. Play well enough in tryouts or college ball to get noticed by NBA scouts
The same model applies to speakers.
So when amateur speakers think they only need a “speaking agent” (or “personal assistant” or “speakers bureau” or “marketing consultant”) to start booking speaking engagements, it makes just as much sense as an amateur basketball player saying “All I need is an agent and then I can play in the NBA.”
The reason you are not currently an NBA player has nothing to do with the fact that you don’t have an agent yet. And even if you were somehow able to sign with an agent, you’d really be no closer to getting in the NBA.
My point is that you have to do the work.
You have to go out and find the speaking gigs.
You have to practice in front of live audiences over and over until you are a world-class speaker.
Please hear me on this: There is no shortcut.
There are no gatekeepers.
There is no “secret strategy”.
And no one can do this work for you.
Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something. Don’t let them take advantage of you and your credit card.
Both the good news and the bad news here is that the only thing currently standing between you and going pro as a motivational speaker is hustle—hustle only you can do.
Where to find your first audience
So now begins your search for events.
Start by asking your contacts.
A mass email or general Facebook announcement is not enough here.
Of course, you can and should announce your new speaking career on Facebook, but don’t count on that moving the needle.
Start with individual, customized emails, Facebook DMs, and LinkedIn messages to everyone you know. I mean everyone. You never know who might have connections with companies or organizations that might benefit from hearing your talk.
Ask them to look at your new website, and ask if they can refer you to people with whom you could share your insights.
Tell them you’ll speak to any group, any age, any audience size, any time.
Once everyone you know is aware that you’re an aspiring professional speaker, you can move on to the next step: cold-outreach.
Start compiling a list (and never stop adding to it) of every organization you can think of that might have meetings or events that will be in need of guest speakers.
The best options are organizations you have a personal connection with, which could mean you know someone in the group or that your story/background relates to that group itself. But in the beginning, don’t rule any group out.
Here are four categories of groups that are likely in your local area that you should consider putting on your list and reaching out to.
1. Local businesses
How can your talk help them?
Will it motivate their team?
Will it teach them something that will help add to their bottom line?
Will it improve their communication?
Small businesses, large businesses, doesn’t matter. Ten employees in the break room? Great. Five people in the conference room? It will be one step closer to you being a world-class speaker.
2. Non-profit and non-governmental organizations
Every non-profit in your community has events where you could speak.
For example, I’m an Eagle Scout and I have spoken at many Boy Scout camps, scout ceremonies, and troop meetings.
I’ve also spoken to local youth service organizations, sports camps, retreats, fundraisers, walk-a-thon type events, outdoor ceremonies, you name it. These events are a great place to practice your speaking skills while positively impacting your community.
Look up your local Boys and Girls clubs, Big Brothers Big Sisters, YMCA, Salvation Army, and 4-H. There are probably hundreds of non-profits within driving distance. Your message can inspire them to help more people.
Do you know any teachers or people in education?
There are most likely dozens of elementary, middle, and high schools within driving distance of your home.
Start with individual classrooms. Many teachers would welcome you to come to speak in their classroom.
High schools and middle schools have school-wide assemblies, which can be great once your platform skills are strong. But don’t forget about club meetings, sports team practices, leadership group events, PTA meetings, and award banquets.
4. Religious or activist organizations
Are you active in your church, mosque, or synagogue?
I come from a Christian background, so when I was starting out, I spoke to Bible studies in people’s homes, youth group retreats, and Sunday school classrooms. Even small churches and religious organizations have many home meetings, committees, and fellowship groups that all have their own weekly events where you could speak.
If you are not religious or don’t feel your talk would suit a religious audience, think about what your values are and look for groups which share those values.
For example, are you concerned about climate change? Look for local environmental groups.
Are you passionate about sports? Look for local little league teams or sports fan clubs.
Do you have an inspiring story? Share it at support and recovery groups.
Do you teach something enriching or educational? Senior living centres and community centres would love to host you.
Be creative, and find groups of people who share your values.
About that “Secret Shortcut” you’re looking for
Here’s a hard truth you won’t want to hear and probably won’t believe: If your inbox isn’t blowing up with speaking requests, it’s because your speeches just aren’t as good as they need to be.
But they will be.
To get there, you need to practice in front of many, many live audiences.
Getting started in this career is not easy. But there’s no reason to over-complicate it.
Just make a demo video and start cold calling.
Get on stage in front of literally any group—anywhere, any size—who will listen to you.
Hone your presentation skills.
Get better at creating great content.
Become adept at adapting to your audiences.
Imagine these are your reps—your free throws in the empty gym after everyone else has gone home.
I won’t lie: This part is not fun. Which is why everyone wants to find a shortcut around it.
But the truth is you can’t become a pro-speaker without putting yourself out there and offering loads of pro-bono talks for small audiences, any more than you can become a pro-basketball player without the endless free throws in an empty gym.
This is a game of numbers and volume and pure hustle.
How much volume? Let’s say your outreach has a 1% success rate. (Mine was much lower in the beginning, but let’s assume you’re better at pitching than I was).
So it takes a hundred phone calls or emails to book one engagement. Multiply that by the number of speeches you want to give in a year. 10? 10 x 100 = 1,000. Fifty? 50 x 100 is 5,000. That’s how much outreach you’ll need to make in the next twelve months.
Look, I know this part is hard. But if you want to make it in this business, you must be nothing short of relentless.
The interesting part is that most people who read the above will not believe me.
They’ll finish reading this article and instead of doing the work, they’ll hit the back button on their browser and return to searching for a marketing secret, or agent, or coach, or shortcut to skip over all the awkward cold calls and exhausting pro-bono speeches. Most people just aren’t willing to put in the work and the hustle.
And that’s why most people will never become pro-speakers.
Don’t be most people.
More advice from Josh Sundquist on how to become a motivational speaker.