It’s starting to be a common call here at MillsWyck Communications.  “How can I become a professional speaker?” or maybe the more tentative, “Do you think anyone would pay me to speak?”  Usually it’s a person with an amazing story that’s been told repeatedly they should go “on tour”.  Sometimes it’s someone with stars in their eyes who believes it’s an easy way to make a living.  Rarely does the inquiry come with a realistic view of what it takes to make the stage for a price that makes it worthwhile.

I have lots of follow-up questions for the prospective professional speaker, like:
  • What do you mean by professional speaker?
  • Why do you want to be a professional speaker?
  • Do you have a need to make money soon?
  • Do you know anyone who is doing what you want to do?
In addition to those probing questions, there are three basic questions I tell people they must answer to be ready to ask for and receive paid speaking engagements.


1.)  What are you going to say?

Unless your last name is Clinton or Bush or Zuckerburg, your first name is LeBron or Oprah, you have two first names like Elton John, a title like King or Princess, or you landed an airplane in a river or a lander on the moon, chances are people are going to want your message to have something to say to the audience rather than the simple fact that you are you or have a (great) story.  Finding this message is hard.  I like to get clients to cull it down to one, simple sentence.  It usually takes us hours to discover.

  1. Client examples:
    • Little things make a big difference (customer service)
    • Make the first easy pass (simplicity)
    • Ordinary people do extraordinary things every day (inspiring others)
    • Championship teams embrace a culture of change (overcoming obstacles)
2.)  Who are you going to say it to?

Just because you have a great story or a great idea does not mean that an audience will want to hear you relate your wisdom.  The more specific you can get about who you are speaking to, the more you can market and book speaking engagements successfully.  “All humanity” is a bad target market.  People who have had adversity is likewise too vague.

The follow-up question to knowing your target audience is this: Are these people all in the same room at the same time?  If you’re trying to speak to developers using Java through SASS, then the answer is probably yes.  If the target is people who have faced cancer, then they probably aren’t all at the same conference at the same time.  That makes marketing more difficult.

Client examples:

  • Engineering and Construction owners and managers
  • Youth who aspire to play a role in politics
  • Agile programmers and managers
  • Leaders and executives facing large-scale change
3.)  Who is going to pay you to say it?

This is the reality check for a lot of great people with great messages.  The most common example is people who want to inspire youth to stay off drugs or find their purpose in life or a great cause like animal rights or educating the homeless so they can be productive members of society.  The problem in most of these cases is the audience is not likely to pay a cent to hear your message.  Youth aren’t lining up with wallets open to hear people inspire them to become wonderful adults.  Adults may pay to have the youth in their life hear such a message, but we’ve got a gap between who hears the message and who pays for the message.  Identifying the buyer is critical for any business, and none more criticial than speaking.

Client examples:

  • (very common) The corporate sponsor of a large-scale event (division meeting, customer conference, trade show/expo)
  • Team leads and managers with a specific need (everything from college coaches to a sales manager to a church or civic organization)
  • Meeting planners (hired by some entity to handle the hiring of a speaker)


These questions are necessary, but not sufficient.  You’ll also need a presence (most likely a web presence) to show your legitimacy.  You’ll need a method (email, direct mail, cold call) to contact your buyers. You’ll have to have a sample video to demonstrate competence (people are not going to hire a speaker sight unseen).  You’ll probably need some method for collecting names and prospects to have a constant prospect list.  You’ll need a system for following up to close the deal.  And you’ll need a rate sheet everyone can understand so you can get paid.  There are a LOT of variables and nuances.  The de facto leader in educating and implementing the business of speaking is the National Speaker’s Association.  You can spend tens of thousands of dollars with their members putting a system in place.  Many are worth their fees, and then some.  But at its core, speaking is just another business.  You must have a worthy product presented to people who have a need and the ability to pay.  You must overcome obstacles and strike quickly when opportunity arises.  Nothing in this article is proprietary or worthy of you spending any money.  You don’t need a consultant to get started.  You just need a message and an audience.  Some sales skill helps, too.

There are other questions that you’ll need answers to before considering a career as a professional speaker, but they aren’t critical for a starting strategy:
  • Should I ever speak for free? Why or why not?
  • What about speaker’s bureaus?
  • Do I need a book? A collateral product?
  • Should I also consult? Train? Coach?
  • What is your fee? Do you have a special rate for nonprofits?


And if anyone is shocked when they find out you make thousands of dollars for “just talking an hour” – explain to them what it took to make the stage.  It’s a rewarding business, but the work and preparation required to get to the big stage limits the competition.

Probably the best thing to do is… start.


Communication matters, what are YOU saying?

This article was published in the November Edition of our monthly speaking tips email newsletter, Communication Matters. Have speaking tips like these delivered straight to your inbox every month. Sign up today to receive our newsletter and receive our FREE eBook, “Twelve Tips that will Save You from Making a Bad Presentation.”  You can unsubscribe at any time.


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