Who says that most people fear public speaking more than death? It seems to me that more and more people want to be professional speakers. Whenever I meet someone and tell them that my husband and I own a speakers bureau, it inevitably turns out they have always had a secret desire to be a speaker, or they know the perfect person for our roster. We are approached by over 1,000 speakers a year looking for representation, but we agree to take on only a small handful.
It’s easy to become a speaker (there are no barriers to entry or qualifications required). What is difficult is being a successful speaker, and having a speaking career that is enduring and sustainable over time. There are many who never make it, and then there are those who have what it takes. There are certain guidelines, I believe, that are crucial to becoming an extraordinary speaker. Consider the following: WHY?
I think the first thing you need to understand is why you want to be a speaker. Is it for the lifestyle (can you handle a lot of travelling?), is it the money (no guarantee of a regular pay cheque), is it to help others (are you qualified?). One of our most popular speakers, Simon Sinek, is the author of Start With Why, which clearly outlines the importance of finding your purpose. Start With Why has become a phenomenal success and the TED Talk it inspired has been watched more than14 million times. Simon now speaks to audiences worldwide.
Why you? Do you stand out? I am continuously shocked by simply how many speakers there are out there. The competition is fierce. You need to be noticed and provide differentiation from the rest. One way is if you are an expert – not at many things, but at one or two related topics. For instance, when clients want a speaker who can speak about entrepreneurship, they immediately think of booking a “Dragon” from CBC’s Dragons’ Den. Arlene Dickinson is a well-known entrepreneur expert and easily stands apart from other speakers on the same topic. Barbara Stegemann, a celebrated entrepreneur, also comes to mind (interestingly, she got her start on Dragons’ Den and went on to become the “Top Game Changer” in the history of the show). Similarly, when a client asks for a speaker who can speak about science, we immediately think of Chris Hadfield or Bob McDonald.
Now, what if you don’t have a bestselling book or television show? And what if you have never been the commander of the International Space Station? There is still hope! If you know why you want to be a speaker, you will identify your market correctly. And if you are an expert in your field, the content should be fascinating to your audience. Once all the nuts and bolts are taken care of (you speak with confidence, make eye contact with the audience, don’t read from notes, your visuals are appropriate, etc.), there are more guidelines that make a speaker great:
Stories: A fantastic storyteller can draw the audience in and impart content in a way that will be remembered forever. Olympian Marnie McBean recounts the stories she shares with Olympic athletes to inspire them to perform at their best.
Humour: There’s nothing like a good laugh! Creating laughter with your audience creates a connection, even a level of trust. If the humour is connected with a story and lesson, the audience is more likely to remember it. One thing is for sure: they will remember how they felt at your presentation. One of our most hilarious corporate comedians/emcees is James Cunningham, who started as a comedian, then began hosting events and is now Host of Food Network Canada’s Eat St. Something to keep in mind: not everyone is naturally funny. If you aren’t funny, please don’t try to be!
Customization: It is absolutely crucial that you understand the needs of your audience. It’s a negative experience (for the speaker and the audience) to have the wrong speaker at an event. Do your homework and fully understand what the organization truly wants and needs from you. What does the organizer want the audience to leave knowing and feeling? If you find that the fit is not right (based on your “Why” and your expertise), bow out gracefully. And if it is the right fit, customize your talk accordingly. How much you customize is up to you.
One strong note of caution: do not plagiarize content from other speakers. If you use their stories or material in any way, always reference that speaker. There is nothing worse than when I hear the same story over and over.
One last piece of advice: there are no shortcuts. You must practice, practice, and then keep on practicing. Whenever you have the chance to try out your content, you should do it – even if you aren’t being paid. Have yourself videotaped and review that material, and have someone else review it, too. Watch other speakers – speakers who are fantastic – both online and also in person. Learn from them but develop your own style. Once you truly believe you’re ready, you will need a video excerpt of one of your speeches (of excellent quality, in front of a live audience, 5-7 minutes). This is your most important marketing tool. You can email this clip to potential clients.
After all this practicing, you just might have what it takes. Please remember me: I may be in one of your audiences and approach you after a speech!