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How to Grow Your Speaking Career

Many of you have been wondering what it takes to get paid for speaking and how the market has changed. Do you need a book? An agent? Or something else to launch your speaking career? To illuminate, we spoke with our lecture agent partner, Tom Neilssen, principal of BrightSight Speakers and speakers representative to Gretchen Rubin, Pedro Dominguez, and Jake Wood among many others, to bring you all the answers.

First, is a speaking career right for you?

What does it take to become a speaker? What criteria do agents like you and other gatekeepers in the speaking circuit look for?

A number of varied factors go into performing successfully as a speaker, but the question I always look to answer is: does this individual have what it takes? Do they have the intelligence to continue to put forth great ideas, to be or become a great speaker in style and substance? Do they have the knowledge and the background to stand out in their particular area of expertise?

How does someone become a speaker in the first place?

Some individuals are pulled in by demand as they have some existing celebrity or recognition. They can be former politicians, best-selling authors, successful business executives, or sports stars. Others feel compelled to share their message. If there’s a specific and hungry audience with whom their message resonates, even if they start small, the connections they make and word of mouth can bring more attention to their area of expertise and the insights they have to share.

How does speaking tie in with publishing? Do you need a book to be a successful speaker, and does the book come first or second?

Not necessarily, but it can certainly be helpful. Not all speakers are authors, though most of the speakers we represent are. Sometimes a successful speaking career can lead to a book, as publishers love to see proof of concept and an audience that’s already clamoring for your ideas. More often, though, it’s the other way around, with organizations interested in hosting a speaker after having become familiar with their book(s).

So, is it worth it? How much can one make from a speaking career on a monthly or annual basis?

There’s a spectrum, of course, and it ranges from zero to millions, and everything in-between. Celebrities can make a lot quickly, but often not over the longer term. A successful best-selling business author, with 5 books over a 15 year period can achieve $250,000-$2,500,000 a year on average (…but that’s the top tier. As in many businesses, the top 1% of speakers take 90% of the revenues).

Are there any drawbacks to a speaking career? What are some inconvenient truths someone considering speaking should know about the industry?

This is not a linear business; as we’ve seen, world events (9/11, Covid) can have major impacts on industries across the board, and speaking is certainly one of those with ups and downs. Customer demand changes, regularly, even without the influence of global events. Don’t assume that one good year means you’ll have 10 good years. I usually advise new speakers to put aside 50% of their earnings in a rainy day fund. Those who haven’t heeded my advice and went out and bought a big new house or the fancy car they always wanted eventually felt the economic pain of those decisions at some point. Even the best speakers and agents can’t create business out of thin air.

So, despite the challenges, you’re intrigued. Speaking sounds like a rewarding and potentially lucrative avenue to pursue. How do you get started?

How would you instruct newcomers to build an attractive speaking profile?

The very first thing you need to do is succinctly define the following: who are you? What do you speak about? And why should someone be interested in you/your message now, at this point in time? Who is your audience, those who will most benefit from your message?

If you’re just venturing into the speaking world, you likely won’t have an agent. How should unrepresented speakers create opportunities for themselves?

Beginners should start by looking to secure unpaid speaking slots at local Rotary Clubs, Toastmasters, Chamber of Commerces, and other local and state associations (where company executives are). From there, they can then spread out to neighboring towns, and with success there, move to social media, Twitter, and uploading speech video clips to YouTube. As an agent, I strongly recommend having an experienced professional in your corner who understands the overall market and your value in it. Potential customers often won’t feel comfortable sharing feedback on a pitch, like telling a speaker directly that their rate is too low or too high. Thus, the speaker doesn’t get to learn what their natural rate should be, or that their pitch is too gimmicky, or that they need to target a different audience.

How do you advise they approach negotiations with hosting organizations?

Like I said, as an agent, I’m naturally biased: I truly believe that finding a good agent who will support you over the long-term is the best, most efficient way to support your career and enter into conversation with hosting organizations. That said, there are plenty of successful speakers who’ve created their own marketing office and made it their 24-hour job to secure engagements.

Sometimes, when a speaker is first establishing themselves as a thought leader, they’ll speak for free. At what point should a speaker start charging a fee?

While it’s of course frustrating to give away your time and energy for free, in order to generate the kind of experience and proof of concept that organizations are willing to pay for, many speakers have to start slow. You’ll know it’s time to start charging a fee when there’s organic demand and organizations are asking for you, or when you’ve successfully spoken for respected, well-known organizations who are willing to vouch for you.

You’re committed to speaking, and you want to know how to continue moving forward.

Should I find a speaking agent? What kind of support do lecture firms offer speakers?

This often depends on the agency. We look to support our speakers over the longer term, providing advice and counsel where needed, as well as consistently marketing them to the global customer base we work with. Of course, we handle all the negotiations, contracting, dealing with the vendor issues, collecting payment, arranging for the speaker’s travel, etc.

How can one best position oneself for speaking representation?

Preparing to find an agent is a lot like preparing to be a successful breakout speaker; be ready to clearly and concisely explain who you are, what your area of expertise is, and what your track record is. Also, often getting introduced by another speaker at that agency, or by your literary agent, can help you break through the noise—speaker agents receive numerous requests everyday and can’t effectively respond to all, so you’ll want to be sure to leverage any connections you have. I also highly recommend that you prepare a short, professional yet approachable video to showcase your communication skills. In the end, it’s all about being a great speaker.

What should new speakers know about the current market? What trends are you seeing in the speaking world right now?

From what I’ve been seeing, future events will be more hybrid—part in-person audience, part virtual. Sometimes the speakers will have the opportunity to present virtually, sometimes in-person. What we don’t know yet is if the speakers who were popular pre-Covid will be popular post-Covid. There’s not enough data to say how we’ll come out of this downturn. Past downturns have sometimes dramatically changed who was in demand, so speaking-hopefuls should pay close attention to what their audience’s new needs might be.

What topics are you seeing as most popular/most requested?

At the moment, DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) is top of mind for most organizations. Themes or topics that are regularly requested regardless of current events are leadership, managing and dealing with change, and future trends.