How to transition from being a free speaker to a paid professional

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How to transition from being a free speaker to a paid professional by Mildred Delgado

Most speakers, when they start out, spend a lot of time speaking for free. Whether this is on stages, as webinar guests, or as interviewees on podcasts, the majority of the engagements will be pro bono, as you build your credibility and speaking skills. 

Speaking can feel great when you walk off the stage with audience applause ringing in your ears, or end the stream with dozens of positive comments in the chat — all while talking about subjects you love. 

At some point you will likely be looking at your finances and realizing that it is time to make the transition to being paid to share your expertise. 

Here are some ideas on how to become a paid speaker:

1. Address an issue where people will pay to hear your insights

You may have great stories to tell, but an audience wants to learn something or be inspired. You need to be solving a problem they have. 

Part of the reason TED talks are so popular is that they each cover a very specific topic that no one else is talking about. 

There are far too many generic “motivational” speakers today. Too many to even begin to compete with. 

So if you establish yourself as a long tail speaker in a specific field in which you are knowledgeable, you are more likely to be in demand as a speaker. 

long tail speaker

The more specific the field, the less competition you will have. 

When you develop content for your speech, you should always be thinking about how it can solve something or answer a question for your audience. In this way you are sure to satisfy and get called back for other talks.

2. Pull together marketing materials that build your credibility

How you represent yourself online can signal to the event organizer whether you are a pro or an amateur and whether you have the experience and expertise or not. 

If you want to get paid to speak, the organizer will need to feel that you are a sure bet—that you are an expert who knows what you are doing and should be paid for your time. 

While there are no foolproof hacks that will build your credibility instantly, there are a variety of things you can do to establish authority, avoid invalidating yourself, and showcase your experience. 

Having the right marketing tools and materials ready to go will help you establish credibility, and transition from being a free speaker to a paid pro. 

Read below for ideas on which marketing materials you can put in place to help you promote yourself as a speaker and build your credibility. 

A. List yourself on SpeakerHub

The search functions on SpeakerHub can help get you found. By filling in your specific topics, expertise, fields of interest, languages, keywords, locations you are available for, and clearly stating your fees, event organizers will be able to match your credentials to their event. 

The more easily they can find you, the more likely they are to contact you. 

One of the benefits of having your pricing listed on your profile is that when you send potential clients to your SpeakerHub profile, they can instantly see that you do not speak for free. It resolves any ambiguity and sets the precedent that you expect to be paid for your talk. 

B. Have a website

You absolutely must have a website promoting your paid speaking. 

You don't need to have a lot of content, but at a minimum you should have your headshot and bio, summaries of the keynotes you've done, testimonials, videos, and a contact form with details on how to book you. You could also host your livestreams on your website.

If you have a lot of engagements, also include a speaking calendar.

Want to know more on this topic? Read this:  World of Speakers E.11: Lauren Pibworth | Your speaker website 

C. Create a speaker demo reel

People are unlikely to pay you to speak at their event unless they have seen you in action. 

Tom Salomon, a marketing blogger at 1Day2Write and Next Coursework suggests having a video covering one of your streams, especially if the audience is good. You can then use the footage for a promo video.

Want more on this topic? Read this next: Want to get paid more for your speaking gigs? Here is how to make a great demo video.

D. Testimonials and recommendations 

If people tell you that they loved your talk, you should ask them if they would be willing to write you a testimonial. 

Testimonials are a good way for people to gain confidence in your speaking performance. 

It can be really valuable to form good relationships with audience members who approach you after enjoying your talk.

3. Customize each talk to the specific audience

As a paid speaker, you may also need to adjust your style to suit the formalities of speaking to businesses, for example.

Ensure that you structure your speech in a professional way, adapting it to your audience. 

While a box-standard, well-rehearsed and practiced talk has its place for some events, most event organizers are looking for something specific to their event and their audience. 

If you want to give talks that impact your audiences, are memorable, and get you hired to come back, you are going to need to adapt your talk specifically for the people who are going to be listening to you. 

Feel free to use any specialist terms and professional jargon that the audience is sure to understand, but steer clear of anything that some may not understand. If in doubt, leave it out.

Learn how to reach more people and speak for a broader audience. 

Your audience will usually appreciate a casual, unscripted feeling to your speech, so try not to deliver a scripted word-for-word speech. 

Know your content well enough that you can swap and change stories and segments as need be. If a specific concern or topic comes up, being able to adjust your presentation will make your presentation more engaging and beneficial to the audience. 

For more on how to customize your talk to your audience, international speaking expert Rebekah Radice shares ideas in this episode of the World of Speakers podcast. Listen to the episode here “World of Speakers E.34: Audience-centred presentations”.

4. Decide on your base fee

How do you figure out how much to ask for? 

Your fee isn't just for the time you spend speaking, it's for everything you go through to get to that point: investing in video editing and presentation software for example, and the time you spend creating and perfecting your presentation. 

But how much should you charge? 

Should you just wait and see what the event organizer suggests? 

Coming in with a clear idea of what would make doing the talk profitable for both you and the event organizer will help ensure everyone wins. 

What you need to figure out is your baseline fee: how much you will need per session for your business to succeed.

Let’s say an event organizer offers to pay you $2K to speak. This seems fantastic at first. $2K feels like a lot of money for a few minutes spent on stage. However, once you factor in your costs, you may be left with a very small fraction of it.

Here are just a few things to take into consideration:

  1. Your tax rate (for example: 20%)

  2. Benefits for you and your family (for example: 25%)

  3. Speaker bureau or agency fees, booking agent’s fee, assistant’s salary, etc. (for example: 20%)

  4. Additional costs for things like video editing and presentation software, online platform subscriptions, and travel costs where relevant (for example: 10%)
     

There goes 75% of the fee, meaning you will be left with $500. Still, $500 for an hour of work seems like a lot. 

But for most speakers, it is more than just an hour of work. 

If you add in the time it takes to:

  1. Organize, which could include everything from applying to the event to emailing back and forth with the organizer 

  2. Research the audience and customize the content for them 

  3. Change or edit your slides and supporting content 

  4. Promote the event on social media, getting involved with the online community and making connections. 

  5. Practice and run through the presentation before the event

  6. Set up your space. Getting to the venue with enough time in advance of the presentation (there can be a lot of variance here depending on if it is a live or online event) 

  7. Respond to messages, questions and comments post-event on social media or email, also networking after the live event.

There are a few variables in the above list depending on what you plan on offering to the event organizer. Perhaps you already know the event organizer, and the planning took a total of 5 minutes,  you sign into the webinar platform 15 minutes before the start, offer your tried and true talk for 30 minutes, answer 10 minutes of questions, and send the invoice out all within an hour? Then $500 is a pretty great fee. However, this is not really the case for most speakers. 

Working out a rate per session that has all the additional costs built-in will leave you with an appropriate amount of funds. Use this rate as the minimum fee you will speak for.

The minimum fee is not a session rate that you blindly stick to, but when you are in a discussion with the event organizer, it should give you a figure that you can use as a base for your offer. 

Want to learn more about setting your baseline fee? Read this article for a guide on how to set your fees.

5. Act like a pro

It’s essential that once you are on stage you act like a pro. Your audience will only take you seriously if you take yourself seriously.

That doesn’t mean that you need to be serious throughout your talk. It simply means that you act in a professional manner. You should remain focused on the topic at hand, deliver it with precision, and engage the audience with various tactics. 

These tactics can range from storytelling, to polls, to humour.

“Think of a story from your life that has good entertainment value but can also teach your audience something about your topic through a concrete example.”
~Alex Winks, a business writer at Write My X and Brit Student

It won't go over well if you just talk to people about ways they can improve their lives, unless you share your own experiences and stories. 

On some occasions you may even be able to weave into your talk something that happened earlier that day, like parking your car, as long as it tells a story and adds interest to reinforce a point you are making.

Once you get off the stage, it is even more important to act professionally. Ensure you have a systematic way to get feedback from your audience. You should then use this feedback to improve your presentation.

Other than that, post-event you can post about your talk on social media and start conversations with maybe a few of the attendees, sharing snippets from the presentation may help with that. 

Want to explore storytelling further? Check out these articles:

6. Refine your visuals

Some people are auditory learners, while others are visual learners. It is important to cater to all types that might be present in the audience. 

Visuals help people retain information because it is easier for many people to bring up the visual from their semantic memory. 

So it is important to remember the purpose of visuals. They aren’t there to help you — they are there for your audience. 

You need to make your visual aids appealing and professional. The visuals should not be text heavy, otherwise the audience will be so busy reading that they will miss out on what you have to say. Rather, a mixture of images and small captions will do the trick of keeping the audience engaged as well as helping them retain the information. 

7. Play to social media

Even at a live event, there are times that audience members will be distracted, interacting with their phones and other devices — this is a given. So why not use this to your advantage? Use the power of social media to promote yourself. 

Be sure to include some attention-grabbing one-liners in your speech that your audience can easily share online. You can put them up on the screen when you get to that part so it’s easier for audience members to share your message on social media.

You can even create a special hashtag, keeping your event in mind, and include that in your presentation. This will help get the word out. 

8. End strongly

If the audience isn't sure whether you've finished talking or are just pausing, it can create confusion resulting in awkward silence or scattered applause. In a virtual event, attendees may even mistake your tepid ending for technical issues. 

Be sure to end on a high note, with a comprehensive wrap up of all that you talked about, but also either with a clear message/lesson for the audience. Or simply give them something to ponder over, so that once your talk is over, they are thinking over what you have said for many days. 

That's why you shouldn't end with a slide that simply says “thank you”. Instead, come up with a strong and clear ending that will aim to motivate every audience member to stand up and applaud you. 

Conclusion

As an experienced speaker now seeking paid speaking roles, stick with what’s been working for you in your previous speaking experience while adding in some of the techniques and advice found here. Don’t be afraid to charge a fee that makes it worthwhile for you whilst still fitting the budgets of event organizers in your field. Good luck in your professional speaking career.

About the author:

Mildred Delgado, a marketing strategist for Academic Brits and PhD Kingdom, works with entrepreneurs and start-ups to help them learn to market themselves. She enjoys helping individuals earn more money for doing what they love. Mildred also creates written content for Origin Writings.

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