Updated: Oct 14, 2020
"Kevin, I want to do what you do." I hear that all the time, and it's no surprise because I LOVE what I do. I've been speaking in front of audiences since I was in high school in the early 1600s. That's over three years, and in all I have presented to over a million people and 16 dogs. I know this to be true because I have my speaking calendars going all the way back to the beginning. I still have my hand-chiseled cave wall writings, logs, calendars (complete with travel notes) from back in the late 1980s. In all this time, one of the most frequent questions people ask me is, "How did you get in my house?" But even more people ask me how to become a professional speaker.
"I want to do what you do!" is exactly what I said to the motivational speaker who inspired me when I was in high school. Mark Scharenbroich remains one of my all-time favorite speakers (he's still very successfully in the business – check him out at NiceBike.com) and has, over the years, become a friend, trusted mentor, and colleague. When I approached him after one of his school assemblies, he took the time to listen to my interest in professional speaking, and he gave me this piece of excellent advice: "You don't have to wait to do this. Start now." And so I did. Yes, my professional speaking career began in high school, and I have never looked back.
I would guess that just about every audience-pleasing keynote speaker gets asked often for tips on how to break into the speaking business. The question comes from teenagers and adults of all ages and professions. I enjoy talking with people about their passions, and I've found myself in many conversations with aspiring speakers. They always want to know how they can get started, and I never have a clear path to offer. As Mark advised my teenage self, you've got just to get started. How? Well, how starts with the why. So I start asking the questions.
I start by by saying, "Think about who is most important to you in your life. If you had just five minutes to say anything that you held most valuable, what would you say?" Those five minutes should be the heart of your message. And as much as possible, share it through stories.
I also ask:
What do you love?
What are you most passionate about?
Why do you want to be a professional speaker?
What expertise or insight do you have (or are you developing) that you know will interest and benefit people?
Do you wish to do this full time?
What do you believe your qualifications are?
What is your story?
To what kinds of audiences do you want to speak? What ages/demographics?
What kinds of programs or speeches do you want to give? Keynote speeches for corporate audiences? School assemblies or convocations for elementary, middle, and high schools? Programs for college students? Is there a specific group, a niche that you would like to reach?
Are you going to finish your doughnut?
These questions move our conversation in a direction where I can begin to offer some more concrete insight and advice.
Start with your speech. Write it. Practice it. Hone it. Get to know it better than you know yourself.
Get in front of people. If you're just starting, you can begin by offering to donate your presentation to local businesses or nonprofits, churches, schools, PTO gatherings, Lion's Club, Kiwanis, Rotary, Scouting and secret Illuminati meetings. Just about anywhere and to anyone who could benefit from hearing your message.
If you're uncomfortable putting yourself out there in this way, you can stop right here. The speaking business isn't for you if you're unwilling to talk about yourself and the value you have to offer audiences.
But it should not be too difficult to "sell" a presentation when the cost is zero dollars. You just have to let them know how it will benefit them. It's OK to let them know you're just starting out. When you've done a few speeches in this way, you can begin to collect some positive reviews, which will be important when you want to start asking for a fee.
Find a speaking coach. It doesn't have to be a professional speaker. A performing arts professional (or talented amateur) can help a lot because speaking has much in common with theatre.
Watch other speakers, anywhere and whenever you can. Find them online. Stalk them on YouTube, subscribe to their blogs, listen to their podcasts, follow them on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and whatever the latest social media craze may be. Take notes on what you like and don't like about what you see. Find a few speakers who have the kind of presentation skills you want to master, and watch, listen, and study. But don't try to be too much like them. Be you! One of my greatest pleasures as a keynote speaker is upending audiences' expectations. As a keynote speaker, I am purposely unconventional, and (I hope) delightfully so (my marketing guy made me write that). Funny keynote speakers are my personal favorite, but there are many stellar presenters for whom comedy is the least of their strengths. So be you.
There are, of course, some great books about the speaking business. Some of my favorites are:
Speak and Grow Rich by Dottie Walters
Paid to Speak by Kevin Snyder
Speak for A Living by Anne Bruce
Own the Microphone: How 50 of the World's Best Professional Speakers Launched Their Careers (And How You Can, Too!) by Bridgett McGowen.
Create a specific social media presence with, if possible, the same name for each platform. Consider your name or something that ties into your message. Shape your brand.
Have you written a book? Consider doing so, as authorship helps demonstrate commitment and credibility. Begin writing a book (it does not have to be lengthy) about the topic and ideas that inspire your passion.
Finally, my best piece of advice is to enroll in the National Speaker's Association's (NSA) academy for new speakers, the Cavett Institute. There you'll get up-to-date advice and instruction on what it takes to make a living as a speaker.
After Mark Scharenbroich encouraged me to start my speaking career while I was still in high school, he actually – to my surprise – followed up with me to ask what steps I had taken and how it was going. That made a massive difference to me. To have someone I deeply respected and admired offer encouragement pushed me to step boldly forward and begin my life as a speaker.
I will conclude these ramblings with some of the same words of encouragement that anyone would do well to take to heart.
Believe in your message. If you believe that what you have to say is important and can affect people's lives, then you are meant to do this.
Find places that want to hear you speak and then make it happen. Again, even if it is for free. Audiences talk to each other, and word of mouth will be among he best forms of advertising you'll ever have.
And most importantly, be kind to yourself! There may never me a tougher critic about what you do than yourself.