The Path to Successful Speaking
I have been asked this question too many times to count, “How do I become a successful motivational speaker?” It’s not an easy question to answer, and there is certainly not a one-size-fits-all answer, no matter how many people try to tell (or sell you) on the fact that there is. There is no course to take, no degree to get, no instruction manual (at least not one universal – there are thousands self-published) that is the understood path to speaking successfully. If you want to become a teacher or a doctor, there is a blueprint to get you there. But not with speaking. Every speaker I know has taken a different road to get to where they are, and follows a unique business model.
For the intents and purposes of this post, I want to focus on the motivational keynote speaker. Why? Because this is the path I chose and know the most about, and because I can get more specific in my advice, which will serve you better. If you want to be a trainer, then some of this information might not apply. But it never hurts to be the trainer who is motivating and engaging.
Note: Before I throw out some bullet points of advice, let me emphasize that these are just opinions and things that worked for me. There is no right or wrong way to do this business. For every coach who insists that “this is what the meeting planners want”, I can point out three examples of speakers who proved them wrong. So hear my advice, filter it, and feel free to go prove me wrong.
How To Become a Successful Motivational Speaker
- Understand the definition.
Spend some time really thinking about what it means to be a motivational speaker – your definition, the client’s definition, the audience’s definition. Think about what a client might be looking for when going online to search for motivation for their people. Why are they putting the motivational speaker in the big slot (keynote, general session, etc.) in front of the entire group? What are they looking for that is DIFFERENT from what they look for when they book the breakout speakers? I will not define this for you – that’s the point. I want it to be your definition. But I want it to mean something to you, and I want you to be able to verbalize it. What makes your story and your information motivating? (Hint: Just because you think your content is interesting, or your story is good, doesn’t quite get it.)
Telling people what they should do is not the same as motivating them to WANT to do it.
- Be able to verbalize what you bring to the table.
Why should they pick you over hundreds of other speakers with stories just as good, if not better, than yours? If you think you are different from all the others, you’re wrong. There are a lot of really really really good speakers out there – speakers that the clients already know and trust. You can’t beat your competition on “better” – so don’t try. Just focus on being excited about what you bring to the table. But you have to know what that is, and be able to define it in sexy language, for them to know.
Don’t expect your client to see what makes you great, unless you can see it yourself and paint the picture for them.
- Have an UNFORGETTABLE speech.
No room for just okay. No room for good enough. Your speech must be amazing. Why? Because you’re being paid for it. Because it’s your product. Because the majority of your business will be word-of-mouth-referrals and only an unforgettable speech gets you there.
Steve Martin (the comedian) said it best when he said, ” It always amazes me how many comedians come to me asking how to get an agent. How to get a headshot. Seems to me that the first question they should ask is How can I be good?”
He’s right. Speakers are the same way. They already assume that their speech is great because people clap and occasionally stand up. Too many speakers are trying to sell a crappy product. The speech is your craft. Your music. The fastest way to the top is to treat it with the respect it deserves. I know speakers out there who are very confident about their speech while everybody else is laughing at them behind their back. I’m sure you do too. Think of all the speakers you’ve seen. How many would you really consider “one of the best you ever heard?” Yeah. Not many. I would say that one out of a hundred speakers is truly great, and 99 out of 100 think they are the great one. That math just doesn’t add up.
I will be the first to point the finger at myself. I never assume I’m the best they’ve ever seen. I’m always working on my craft – every note – as dedicated as the basketball player practicing jump shots in a dark gymnasium – or the musician still working out the notes even though he fills coliseums. If you want to see craft dedication, watch “This Is It” the documentary of Michael Jackson’s last show that never made it to the live stage. Watch how we labored over EVERY MOMENT, and he was flipping Michael Jackson. Enough said.
- Have a professional website that accurately shows what you do and how you do it.
The website is always the first (and sometimes last) place they go. Not only does the information need to be there, but it must make a connection and an impression on your buyer. It’s your billboard – the album cover for your band.
Don’t get so caught up in the slick graphics of your website, that you forget the common sense items like what you speak about, the value for the client, etc.
- Understand your teaching points.
You are not just here to tell your story. You are here to USE your story to teach me something – to impact my life. If you don’t know the problem you solve, or the pleasure you help them seek, and the ways to get there, then your speech isn’t finished. The speech is about them, not you.
There is nothing wrong with the speech that is all about you, if you make it all about me.
- Know how much you charge.
I’m not going to tell you how much to charge. I am going to tell you that if you haven’t ever given a speech, you’d better be very careful about how much you think you deserve. No amount of business knowledge will make up for the fact that you are required to deliver an amazing experience for the money. It’s what you’re being paid for. Decide what your fee is going to be and move on. Don’t question it until you are bringing that fee in consistently and your pipeline is full.
Too many speakers determine their fee based on what they think they are worth. While I am all about owning your worth, I am more about you positioning your fee according to your market and their perceived value of what you bring to their bottom line. Be careful of those coaches whispering in your ear that your fee is too low – they just might have a vested interest in that advice – meaning they just happen to be the ones who can make you six figures in six months. For a price. There are far more coaches out there promising this, than there are peers singing the praises of that coach’s advice.
- Don’t sell, serve.
If you expect to get on a phone and sell your speeches, you have a LONG road ahead. Cold calling is pretty ineffective for motivational keynote speakers when business is driven by word of mouth. The best marketing you can do is to speak everywhere that you can and collect emails from your audience and stay in touch. Be so good they can’t ignore you. (Another Steve Martin quote.) Don’t look for meeting planners, build communities of people who are familiar with your work. Serve before you sell. Build trust and rapport.
If you want to be a motivational speaker, then go start motivating people! Don’t wait for an audience or a client. You have an audience – sitting right there on the internet! You will never run out of people to touch! Prove to me it’s your burning desire. Blog about it. Send videos. Reach the world with your message. Thanks to YouTube and Facebook and other social media channels, it doesn’t cost you anything. If your heart is burning to change the world, then what’s stopping you? Follow that passion, share your message, and if the world wants it, the business will come to you.
- Know how to sell and negotiate.
Once you have that potential buyer on the phone, you need to know what you’re doing. You can claim your fee and walk away if they don’t have it -it’s your call. But you can also find ways to get them to spend more money, trade value if they don’t have your full fee, utilize other budgets, etc. You must also know what your time is worth to you. How much value does exposure have for you at this point in your business? We all have different reasons for taking the jobs we do – reasons based on our own unique business models. Only you can decide how your model will look.
For me, setting my fee has very little to do with how good I think I am, or how much I feel I am worth. I have already worked out my internal worth and self-esteem issues. My fee is determined by understanding my market, their perception of my value in my area of expertise, my competition, how I want to be positioned, my other streams of revenue, what kind of work I want to do, what kind of groups I want to be in front of, where I want to travel, how much I want to travel, industries I want exposure in, other services I want to sell to that room of buyers, where I want to be this time next year, the direction I want to take my brand in the future, and how much I really want that job in front of me. To name a few. This is my business, and while I love to learn from the advice of others, nobody is going to dictate to me how much a speaker should charge, or what is “high enough.” I know plenty of broke speakers at high fees, and lots of wealthy speakers at low fees. Nobody else gets to determine when you are under-valuing yourself but you and your trusted advisers.
When is it time to raise your fee? The best piece of advice I ever chose to follow was from someone who said that you should raise your fee when you are consistently getting your current fee. I agree with that advice UNLESS you have positioned yourself incorrectly in your market and chose a fee that just doesn’t make sense.
- Have a plan to let people know you are here, any way that you know how.
None of us has a magic plan to get business, despite what the coaches whisper. We’re all just trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. And at the end of the day, we’re still not sure. But you need a plan anyway. Who are the people you want to reach? Where do they play? How can you get in front of them? What will you do tomorrow? It’s going to feel weird and clunky for a while until you start getting some traction. And even then, you still may not be sure where your next job is coming from. That’s the nature of this business. But not planning at all, and waiting for your phone to ring, or hoping you can get someone successful to “notice you” is a pretty sure way to stop your business cold. Come up with a plan. Work the plan. At the end of the year, review what worked and what didn’t, and come up with a new plan.
When I look back fifteen years to the beginning of my speaking business, I see that my success didn’t come from doing big things, or all the right things. It came from getting up every day and doing the only things I knew to do.
- Surround yourself with successful people who did what you want to do and be willing to pay for what you are not good at doing.
Joining the National Speakers Association was the smartest thing I ever did for my business. Cultivating relationships and learning from successful speakers in that association was the second smartest. Become a sponge of learning. Soak up all the advice you can, even though it’s going to contradict. Just like you go to a mechanic when something is broken on your car, or a doctor when you are sick, don’t be afraid to find experts who know what you don’t know. If you can’t write a good speech, stop trying, and get a coach who can help you. (Hint, hint.) Spend your money wisely and don’t let vanity factor into your buying decisions. Choose your coaches wisely. Ask around, check up on your coaches by reaching out to THEIR clients.
Don’t walk into a room looking for the people you need to know and what you want from them. Walk into a room with the goal of making friends, sharing knowledge and encouraging others in their walk. Keep this perspective, and you will never be disappointed.
I find it interesting that as speakers we shout the value in charging what you’re worth, then shout the value in giving away free advice to help each other rise together. Sometimes it’s hard to find the balance between the two. While I want to help and encourage other speakers, don’t I also deserve to be paid for my work here too? Which one wins out? That’s not for me to answer, but I do think it is for you to consider when you’re asking other speakers to be your mentor and pick their brain. Sometimes when I reach out to another speaker for help, I am quick to assume I’m the only one asking, and feel slighted when they don’t respond – making a quick assumption that because they didn’t answer, they don’t care about giving back. I need to work on that. Let’s be careful about taking advantage of the business someone has built by asking them to give it away.
- Stay strong and grounded in your vision, but willing to be flexible.
This one’s tough. You have to find the balance between what you want to do, and what will sell. Sometimes we have these crazy dreams that don’t make sense to everybody else. Sometimes they don’t make sense because they just won’t work. But sometimes you can see what nobody else could. Be very careful with your dream. Allow it to take a different shape, but don’t let anybody kill it.
When I first started my business, I had this beautiful unique strange vision of what my speech was supposed to look like. But when I looked around at the other speakers and their business models, I saw how weird mine was. So I buried it. Biggest mistake I’ve made in my business. I hid the one thing that was probably the very thing that would propel me to the spotlight of the industry. Or not. Who knows? And I’ll never know unless I try. So now I’m throwing off the way that has always worked, and shooting for the way that has no guarantee. Not sure if I will fly or crash. But at least I won’t always wonder, “What if?” And, who knows, perhaps the ones who told me it won’t sell, will be the very ones standing in line to buy a ticket.
I’m pretty sure every amazing invention started out as someone’s crazy idea.
So there you go. Surely that’s enough advice to get you started as you plan your path to being a successful motivational speaker. As soon as you say you’re a motivational speaker, you are one. So own it. But saying it doesn’t make it successful. It’s time to get to work on that dream of yours.
When you come to the speech writing portion of your business and find your speech falling flat, you know where to find me.