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How to Get Started as a Public Speaker

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Would you be willing to give public speeches for free, or for a low fee, just to have the chance to get in front of your ideal customers? Several of my clients who are now highly paid professional speakers began by putting on brief programs for local businesspeople after work. The people you see talking for TED and TEDx are not being paid -- they are doing it mostly for the exposure. 

A friend of mine gives two-hour workshops on how to recover from grief. The attendees pay nothing, and churches and civic organizations offer him space near his home. He promotes his events via ads in the free community newspaper, on bulletin boards around town and most of all, in flyers that the church or civic organization hosting the event distributes. At the end of the two hours, many people feel a bond with him, and he invites them to enroll in his comprehensive paid program. He’s making six figures by speaking for free.

If you would like to get in on this act, there are some things you should know to avoid wasting your time -- and to easily attract people to you and your business.

1. Who do you want in the room?

The answer to that question will help you find out if public speaking is likely to pay off for you. It begins with Business 101: Do you know who your ideal customers are?

If you know that your ideal customer is, say, a businessperson between 35 and 55 years old, a woman with children under 12, a person of a certain ethnic group, someone wealthy enough to pay you to do their taxes or a person from any other category, you can figure out where those people are.

As you figure out who your ideal customer is (called an “avatar” among us marketing types), you will begin to understand their habits, preferences, perspectives and behaviors. It will become easier to track them down.

2. Where are these people?

Can you identify where your customers congregate? When you are first putting yourself out there as a speaker, ask the person who brings in the speakers (called the “meeting planner”) as much as you can about the audience. Don’t assume! Speak to groups that are mostly comprised of your avatars.

It will not help you to speak at a local garden club if your ideal customer is a male in his 30s. Sure, there might be one guy in the room, and yes, in theory, “people are people,” but so many new speakers skip this step and find themselves dismayed in front of a bunch of elderly folks when their topic is high-risk investments, or a room full of hip young people when they were really looking for established homeowners.

First, ask your best existing customers what they do for fun and if they belong to any groups or organizations. Lucky for you, people love to talk about themselves. Either send a survey or chat when they come into your place of business. Next, keep in mind that if you are in a business you love, you are likely more similar to your customers than it may appear. What do you like? Where do you like to go? Do you already belong to any groups or clubs that might be interested in helping you share your message?

Finally, do some research. Go to the largest Barnes and Noble in your region and in the magazine section, pick up the ones that you believe would appeal most to your ideal customer. Buy those issues, look through them to see if you’re right and if you are, go on the magazine’s website and get your hands on an “advertising packet” -- sometimes called a “rate card.” This will show you the demographic research that publication has invested a huge amount of money in to help them and their advertisers identify precisely who is reading their magazine. If that description matches your ideal customer, then flip through the issue again, this time asking yourself, “Where would I find this person today?” and “What interests is this magazine serving that I hadn’t thought about?” 

3. How will you get in front of them?

How are you going to get in front of your avatars to pitch them without seeming to be pitching them? Most of your success will come from proving to them that you’re a nice, smart, approachable, knowledgeable person who just happens to have the solution to one of their problems. 

4. Why would a place want you to come in and speak?

Many clubs, groups and charities bring in speakers to give something to their existing members and attract more. Like my friend the grief counselor. Think about it: Why would a church let him take their room for two hours once a month to deliver a grief program to their brethren and to total strangers? 

For one, it makes the church look benevolent and compassionate and helps to show it is not insular. It gives the clergy support in counseling people who are bereaved. It gets people who may need solace and religious comfort through their doors, and those people may join the church because of this service. It also allows their brethren one more chance to build relationships, and relationships are what brings people into any kind of group in the first place -- and what keeps them there.

The benefits to the church are equal to or greater than those my friend gets. You need to find places that need you as much as you need them, whether it is to fill their monthly “guest speaker” slot or other benefits they will accrue. 

Don’t just think about clubs and churches, though. Anywhere your avatars gather is an ideal spot, even if the venue (the location where a speech is presented) is not traditionally associated with speaking.

Consider these ideas: A nutritionist, a sports medicine doctor or a relationship expert could speak at a gym or a spa; a financial advisor or tax accountant could speak during the lunch hour at a restaurant downtown; a contractor, handyman or electrician could speak at a privately owned hardware store or lumber yard; a life coach or self-improvement expert could speak at a tea shop or a boutique grocer.

Do any of those spark ideas in your mind? You may have to pitch several venues and adapt your message to suit their needs, but if you can provide a free and novel way for them to attract more business while you are attracting more yourself, it will be a win-win.

If this article has gotten you salivating, come to my upcoming free webinar called “How to Get Paid to Give Speeches” for lots more ideas, whether you plan to speak for free or for a fee. We’ll cover how to prepare a speech, how to successfully approach meeting planners and how to know what to say to get people excited about what you’ve got to share.