When you're starting out in business, the most effective and least expensive way to market yourself is by word of mouth-your mouth.

"Even if you can't afford to do any marketing," says Pamela Truax, co-author of Market Smarter, Not Harder, "you can promote your business by getting out and talking to people."

For Truax, the most important speaking opportunity is the "elevator speech"-what you say at mixers and networking opportunities when people ask what you do. Like any good speech, it requires preparation.

A successful self-introduction follows these steps:

  • Let the other person talk first. If you express interest in others, they'll be more receptive to what you say. You can then tailor your comments to their concerns.
  • Cite the benefits-to the listener-of your product or service. The most appealing benefits are saving time, money or effort.
  • Hand out your business card.
  • Prove your claim with statistics or a testimonial. "My product saved ABC Co. $25,000 in six months." "The director of sales at XYZ Co. credits my training program with improving her department's performance by 10 percent over a two-year period." Be specific, concrete and honest.

From start to finish, your self-introduction should last no more than a minute. Your goal is to inform and arouse interest, not to give an exhaustive (and exhausting) infomercial. Be prepared to say more if someone expresses interest.

Speaking Out

Speaking to clubs, civic groups and nonprofit organizations is another way to promote your business. Each time you speak, you meet potential customers, network with professionals, establish credibility and gain free publicity. (Clubs such as the Kiwanis, Rotary and Lions are always looking for good speakers.)

Rich Manuccia had been a personal fitness trainer for 13 years when his business coach convinced him to give public presentations to attract new clients. In the past two years, he has spoken to several different groups: Kiwanis clubs, weight-management groups at community hospitals, a health fair and even a gathering of nuns.

"Few of the speaking engagements paid me anything," Manuccia says, "but they put me in front of potential clients and referral sources. People are still contacting me as a result of those talks."

At a speaking engagement, follow these steps:

  • Be focused. Tell people how to do something-one thing.
  • Slant your subject toward your audience. Keep the basic content the same, but tweak it 10 percent (usually by adapting your examples and stories to your audience). Examples: "How to Lose Weight and Keep it Off-A Program for Professionals Who Travel" (or "for the Confirmed Couch Potato," etc.).
  • Be brief. Stay within the time limits your host suggests. If possible, speak for 15 to 20 minutes, then take questions from the floor.
  • Be simple and direct without being simplistic. Tell stories and give examples.
  • To get your speeches noticed, send press releases to local newspapers, trade journals and business publications.

Spread the Word

Once you feel confident about your presentation skills and your expertise in a particular field, consider speaking to professional organizations. Doing so has all the benefits of speaking to clubs and nonprofit organizations--and then some. It connects you with professionals in your field, establishes your credentials as an expert and generates free publicity.

Nancy Jensen, president of Medical Care Connections Inc. in San Diego, has built her medical public-relations company on the effectiveness of professional presentations in two ways.

First, she promotes the services of physicians and chiropractors by helping them give presentations to professionals in the workers' compensation field. "Insurance adjusters attend the seminars to keep up to date," says Jensen, "and in the process, become personally acquainted with the health-care provider who's giving the talk. These seminars are one of our most effective marketing tools."

Jensen also promotes her own business by speaking to professional organizations. As a result of a speech she made to a statewide convention of ambulatory-care-center administrators, she picked up a major new client. "It also gave me credibility and recognition as an expert," she says. "Now I get appointments with people who otherwise might not normally return my calls."

When you address a professional organization, you can speak longer--from 45 minutes to an hour--and in greater detail. Distribute handouts that highlight your central points, and be sure to include your name and phone number so people can contact you later. The same rules apply: Be focused, slant your talk to your audience and send out press releases.

You may not be able to afford a major marketing campaign, but you can't afford not to promote yourself and your business by speaking on your own behalf.

Learn More

For more help, check out these books:

This article originally appeared as "Speak Up" in the February 1998 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine.