How do you go from being an occasional public speaker to being a professional speaker? In this article, we aim to provide advice on how to become a pro in the world of public speaking, to help you understand where you are, and most importantly, outline the steps that will take your public speaking career to the next level.
Don’t expect to leap from being an occasional public speaker to becoming a professional. You will go down a long, sometimes winding road before you reach your destination. And even then, the journey is not over if you want to remain a professional speaker.
1. Know your worth
Money is a good indicator of a speaker’s level of professionalism, however, it is not the be-all and end-all. Though most professional speakers do get paid, and can afford to say no to gigs that don’t pay, money is not the only measure of being a professional. Some great public speakers may not have had any paid gigs, but they can deliver just as insightful talks as well-paid keynote speakers. But if you are interested in being paid for speaking, when can you start setting fees?
It’s difficult to say no to an unpaid opportunity when you have just one or two invitations a year. Not that you should pass on these opportunities, they will help you build a reputation and refine and practice your talk. But once you are confident that your expertise and contribution are relevant, you need to start asking for a fee. This will probably coincide with organisers approaching you more often, and you having to choose between two or more events. In this case the highest bidder gets to bring you on stage — or do they?
Public speaking is not just about the wants of the person delivering the talk, it’s mainly about the impact on the audience, community, industry, and society in general. Speakers committed to making a difference will often take on engagements that do not pay if they think they can make a significant impact. If you fear that agreeing to speak for free will affect your reputation and make organisers value you less, don’t. You should be transparent and explain why you choose to speak at an event without a fee. This radiates self-confidence, strong personal values, and a commitment to make a contribution where it matters most. Being selective is key: only accept unpaid opportunities when you know there’s no other way, or you want to gift your time to the organizer (for instance for a charitable organization), and your input will be valuable.
2. Impact beyond the stage
Whether you represent a company and build the entire talk around an organisation, its practices and approaches, or you simply want to share your knowledge with peers, your speaking career should be about more than delivering an engaging talk and having the audience’s attention for a brief time.
Professional speakers are those whose talks create ripple effects that go beyond the few minutes spent on stage. In sharing their knowledge and expertise, they educate others. This means leaving the audience intrigued, more knowledgeable, but also giving them the tools to apply what they’ve learnt.
If you think of yourself as an educator, and develop your talks with this in mind, you will always manage to do more than just communicate relevant information. You will give people not just the knowledge but the know-how too, and your audience will leave with the feeling they can put what they have learned into practice. Before developing your talk, ask yourself whether what you say will generate conversations in conference hallways and office meetings thereafter.
3. Online presence
If you don’t have an online presence, do you even exist as a professional in today’s world? This is especially true in the case of public speakers.
Whether through a personal website or signing up on a platform like SpeakersHub, or preferably both, putting some time into building your online presence is probably the safest and most necessary investment you’ll ever make.
Professional speaking is an international affair. Let’s face it, you can only do so much public speaking in your local community. For most professional speakers, the reality of the job involves travelling nationwide or even worldwide, inspiring people from different backgrounds. To make it easier for those people to reach you and for you to reach them, the great world wide web is the most effective meeting place.
Secondly, having a robust online presence is an opportunity for you to communicate what you bring to events. You can make yourself known to more people than ever before, and should therefore dedicate time and energy to creating a convincing profile. Think about what makes you different, and write your bio in a genuine and unique tone of voice that reflects that. Attach professional headshots and short videos of previous talks to give the event organisers a good idea of your capabilities.
Lastly, when it comes to speaker profiles, more is more. Don’t limit yourself to just a personal website, because the chances of someone stumbling upon it are fairly low. Instead, create profiles on speaker platforms such as SpeakerHub and redirect organisers to your website from there.
Once you’ve put in the hard work, you can start reaping the rewards as opportunities present themselves without you actively seeking them. Instead of reaching out to event organisers yourself, your online presence and reputation will be doing the talking for you. But you will need to put in the work initially, and then continue to put in the work to maintain and build your online presence.
4. Continuous learning
Lifelong learning is part and parcel of any professional’s life, and public speaking is no exception. You will need dedication to continuously expand your expertise and knowledge. A public speaker's influence is not just a result of rhetorical talent, but also of the hard work that goes into the research that enables them to bring something new to their message each time. Research is just as important as more obvious skill requirements, such as stage presence and communication prowess.
In most industries, a talk delivered ten years ago will no longer be relevant. As a professional speaker, you have to move with the times and continue learning so you can keep teaching others. Keeping up with relevant industry topics and challenges is essential if you want your contribution to be valuable.
If you look back on your public speaking career, you should be able to see that you’ve come a long way, improving and learning from your mistakes. The commitment to continuous learning sets apart those who will remain relevant over many years. No stage is the final stage in a professional speaker’s career. Each stage is but a stepping stone to the next. Part of being a professional in attitude is recognizing that self-betterment never stops.
5. Positive audience feedback
For professional speakers keeping their audiences engaged is a big part of the influence process. Effective speakers can quickly gauge audience reactions and respond to them. They observe their listeners and are able to adapt their discourse accordingly. In essence, they learn from the audience as much as the audience learns from them, and that attention to their needs has the side-effect of improving the rate of audience feedback.
But feedback from audiences doesn’t stop when the speaker has left the stage. If you manage to make an impact on your audience, they will take your advice and apply it to their lives. The success of your talk is not only measured by the amount of applause at the end, it also lies in the way in which the talk opens up new discussions in a field, raises questions, and challenges old views on a topic.
Conclusion: Are we there yet?
Considering all these aspects seems like a slow, time-consuming process — and it is. When starting out it will be years before you can safely say you have mastered all aspects of public speaking, if at all, and those years will involve a lot of hard work. It may get easier with time, but the learning never stops. But that’s what we love about trying to be the best we can be, isn’t it?