How to Propel Your Speaking Career

Six tips from expert speakers.
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As you may have already learned, building a successful speaking business is no easy feat. While bystanders may think that all it takes is some good-looking slides and a dose of charisma, as the experts can tell you, having a successful speaking career requires vision, strategy, rehearsal—and sometimes even help from CIA agents.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to getting your speaking career off the ground, there are some tried-and-true techniques that most speakers have learned during their careers and mastered for success. Take it from these men and women: with the right tips and tools, you can change how people think, feel and act for the better—and build a business in the process.

1. Write a book (and yes, self-publishing counts).

As many speakers will tell you, having a well-written, thoughtful book can be a big help in landing quality speaking gigs. And while some may warn against self-publishing your book, it’s still a viable approach, if done the right way.

If you do decide to embark on the self-pub route, the key is to have a book that doesn’t look self-published. As Jon Goodman, author of Viralnomics: How to Get People to Want to Talk About You, says, “People shouldn’t see your design; they should feel your design. If you’ve done that, you’ve done a good job.” From there, it’s all about smart marketing; since you won’t have a publisher doing the marketing for you, it’s on you to design and execute your marketing strategy.

According to Goodman, your book should have three things upon launch: social proof, i.e., a number of Amazon reviews; an “intangible,” e.g., a quote from a renowned expert in the field, say a New York Times bestselling author; and lastly a good book (which may seem obvious, but…).

Ideally, Goodman says, you will have initiated your marketing efforts four to six months before your book launch, which will require joining interest groups of your book’s target audience, both online and offline and showing your value to them before you ask them to buy your book. “If you try to promote your book when it comes out, you’re four to six months too late. You need to know way beforehand who your book is for and you need to go where those people are, integrate yourself into those communities, adding value, bringing it back into your community.”

2. Find the right speaking topic.

Now, this may sound like the easiest part of starting your speaking career, but you should devote a significant amount of time and energy deciding on your speaking topic. That’s because, according to writer and speaker Jason Connell, “the singular most important sales and marketing decision that you will make is the topic that you speak on.”

Connell suggests that the key to a solid speaking topic (and building a successful speaking business) is to harness your life story. “Everyone has some gift and you need to harness that in favor of other people. In doing so, you will get results.” To figure out your unique story, Connell suggests that you ask yourself two questions:

  • What am I the most passionate about in the world?
  • What is the singular most important piece of advice you can give to anyone else in the world?

Once you answer those questions, then it’s time to gauge interest. When you contact potential venues, ensure you’re asking the right question. Connell warns against asking the generic question, “Are you interested in this topic?” Instead, he says, you should ask “Have you hired speakers on this topic in the past three years?” If the answer is yes (and you get a yes five times from five different places), then you should feel confident in pursuing your topic.

3. Hone the six-word intro.

Being able to clearly and succinctly answer the (dreaded) question, “So, what do you do?” is crucial to establishing your credibility as a speaker. Clay Hebert, speaker and founder of Crowdfunding Hacks, offers two handy formulas for a powerful answer to that question. The first formula looks like this: “I help/connect/inspire [insert your client] [insert whatever you help them do].” Depending on where you’re speaking, you can customize this formula to the type of audience. So for example, if you’re doing a gig in Brooklyn, you’d say “I inspire creatives to fund their projects.” Hebert warns that you should avoid using any buzzwords like “synergy” or “methodology.” Instead, be straightforward and direct, which people will immediately appreciate.

That formula not working for you? Hebert offers an alternative: “I’m X for Y,” e.g., “I’m a personal trainer for productivity.” Whichever approach you choose, both offer a way to engage in a dialogue. The listener now has the freedom to take the conversation wherever they want to, maybe even to wanting to hear more about your speaking expertise (and a potential gig offer).

4. Borrow persuasion techniques from CIA agents.

Being a successful speaker means being persuasive, and who better to borrow techniques of persuasion than from CIA agents, hostage negotiators and con artists. Persuasiveness coach Sharí Alexander argues that the first step to being persuasive is understanding your goal. “Influence is communication with a goal,” she says.

Ask yourself, what is it that you want to happen by the end of the speech? What is it that you want your audience to think/feel/do differently by the end? And lastly, what do you want for your business from this speech? Maybe you want them to refer you for another speech or hiring you as as a coach. Or maybe that’s buying your book or signing up for your program. The point is, you need to understand the purpose of your speech.

Alexander also suggests that when it comes to putting together your talk, keep in mind the hourglass technique. While speakers tend to focus on the middle of their speech—where the bulk of your content is—they miss out on the two most persuasive parts of your speech: the beginning and the end. Think about what type of mindset you want your audience to have at the beginning and end of your speech. We tend to remember what happens at the beginning and end of an experience with more detail, clarity and emotional complexity than the middle, so design your speech with this in mind.

5. Don’t be afraid to call yourself a professional—and act like it.

Joey Coleman, founder of Design Symphony, says that the key to taking your speaking business from part time to full time is acting like a professional. For one, he says, always introduce yourself as a professional speaker (subtle message: I get paid to speak). While this may seem obvious, it’s critical to establishing yourself.

Secondly, start thinking about yourself as a business. Coleman suggests that every time you give a speech, recognize that you have three audiences: the people sitting in the chairs listening to your message, the event coordinator who booked you to speak, and the people sponsoring the event. By considering all three of these targets, you can position yourself in a way that appeals to the people who can help push your speaking business to the next level.

6. Rehearse.

Top-ranked keynote speaker and best-selling author Michael Port argues that it’s time for you to start thinking of yourself as a performer. Your speech is a performance, and as such it requires serious rehearsal time. Just as you would take lots of time to write a killer speech, Port says that you should also devote a significant amount of time and effort to the actual performance.

While you may be concerned that rehearsals will lead to stale speeches (and bored audiences), Port says that the key is to “match rehearsal with improvisation, producing authentic spontaneity.” Embrace your own unique style and amplify it. In doing so, you will be able to connect with your audience in the most open and honest way possible.

These tips were originally recorded in a live webinar by Hurdlr here.

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