If you’ve attended conferences and tech seminars and thought, "Hey, I could do that," after hearing an IT expert pontificate on a new technology or trend, there are a few things you should know before embarking on a public speaking career.
First, public speaking is hard work that requires a specific set of skills and traits: organization, a sense of humor, an affinity for travel, a polished marketing portfolio, and salesmanship. And, of course, an interest and desire to stand up in front of dozens, hundreds, or sometimes thousands of peers and give a knowledgeable speech.
Those who decide to forge ahead need to be prepared to do quite a bit of homework. Luckily, there are organizations and companies focused on helping those who want to take on the role. And if you do have the skills, public speaking can prove to be a lucrative career path.
The experts' advice
“Professional speaking is a big business,” said Maureen Brooks, 20-year veteran of the speakers bureau business and president of Denver-based Brooks International Speakers Bureau. “And the people who are successful are the ones who not only have incredible information, but are great presenters. It’s not that much different from being an actor.”
The first tip Brooks offered sounds basic, but it addresses the first mistake people often make when considering a public speaking career. Brooks said many people believe that just because they have a lot of knowledge on a particular subject, they also have the ability to impart it.
“It takes years,” she said, and requires practicing a speech hundreds, maybe even a thousand times, to perfect delivery. Even after you've accumulated all the necessary skills, the biggest task will always be writing the speech or talk itself.
“My biggest piece of advice is to make sure the speech is organized,” said Brooks. “And it has to be customized to your audience. It has to be informative and presented in an order your audience can understand. And your audience has to have learned something they can use when they walk out the door.”
Learning what a particular audience wants and needs is just one of several tasks every speaker tackles. Most public speakers require a coach and speechwriter at the start to get their skills up to par. Then it’s practice, practice, practice, according to the experts.
Additional job requirements to consider include:
- Customizing the topic to your audience.
- Knowing or learning how to weave humor into your presentations.
- Joining professional speaker associations for networking.
- Initiating and maintaining good media relations.
Issues and pitfalls
You must also consider the issue of travel, or rather the constant travel that public speaking requires.
“It’s a killer,” shared Brooks. “Sometimes you fly in, give your speech, and fly out the same day.” What helps with both the travel demands, and the job itself, is having a good sense of humor, she added.
“No one wants to sit [at a conference] for an hour and not smile,” she said. She observes that often the technologists most convinced that they can be professional speakers are the ones who don’t have a funny bone in their body. They make the mistake of trying to interject stand-up comedy and fail miserably.
“You need some great stories,” advised Brooks. “But don’t try to do one-liners when it’s not who you are.”
If all the advice and warnings haven’t thwarted your urge to do public speaking, the experts also provide insight on how to embark on the career path.
For the true novice, the Toastmasters club helps members hone their communication skills by practicing speaking to groups and working with others in a supportive environment.
A typical Toastmasters club is made up of 20 to 30 people who meet once a week for about an hour. Each meeting gives everyone an opportunity to practice:
- Conducting meetings: Meetings usually begin with a short business session that helps members learn basic meeting procedures.
- Giving impromptu speeches: Members present one- to two-minute impromptu speeches on assigned topics.
- Presenting prepared speeches: Three or more members present speeches based on projects from the Toastmasters International Communication and Leadership Program manuals. Projects cover such topics as speech organization, voice, language, gestures, and persuasion.
- Offering constructive evaluation: Every prepared speaker is assigned an evaluator who points out speech strengths and offers suggestions for improvement.
The next step
For those ready to take the next step in exploring a career in professional speaking, the National Speakers Association (NSA) recently launched the Academy for Professional Speaking.
The program was developed to fill the gap between Toastmasters and the NSA, a professional association devoted to improving the competencies of experts who are already speaking professionally.
“This new program will give individuals an opportunity to evaluate this business and shorten their learning curve very rapidly,” explained NSA executive vice president Stacy Teschner, CAE. “The Academy promises to help cultivate new speakers who will enter the profession with a strong understanding of the ethics and skills they will need to become important contributors to successful meetings.”
Annual tuition is $495, which includes a subscription to a quarterly newsletter and registration for the annual Cavett Institute. The Institute distills and presents real-world lessons learned by successful professional speakers.
As a training ground for the speaking profession, the Academy for Professional Speaking helps members with the following information:
- How speakers get paid engagements
- Strategies for sustaining a profitable speaking business
- Key components of a speaker's marketing plan
- Sample business documents used by successful speaking professionals
- How the marketplace chooses professional speakers
- How well you are meeting the needs of the marketplace—pertinent information to help you succeed in business
Participation is a big factor
In addition to leveraging the benefits of speaker organizations like Toastmasters, the Academy, and the National Speakers Association, you’ll need to participate in numerous speaking engagements to build your reputation on the circuit. This often proves to be a startling revelation to many CIOs and other tech executives who believe their stellar careers should provide them easy entrance into the public speaking world.
“But when he [the CIO] gets into the speaking world, unless he’s done something really big like run Hewlett Packard or change the world, he doesn’t carry much weight because no one knows his name. It takes years and years of pulling it together to make it into a business,” said Brooks.
One way onto the speaker circuit is to become a reliable source for the media. For example, CXO Media, the umbrella organization for publications like CIO Magazine, draws speakers for its executive seminars from editorial sources for its articles. The advantage is that the press clippings can help establish you as a valued industry expert.
Working with a professional speakers bureau can also be extremely advantageous. Since they already have clientele looking to hire a speaker for an event, they can match you up with the right venue.
To take of advantage of this route, you do need to be a successful professional speaker. As Brooks explained, “We don’t create speaking careers, the speaker already has one.”
To be considered by a speakers bureau, you need to develop some polished marketing materials. Keppler Associates, a leading speakers bureau out of Arlington, VA, requires that potential speakers submit an extensive press kit and demo video for evaluation. The press kit must include:
- Current biography and photo
- Topic list/outlines
- Articles published about you
- Copies of your published books (or book covers)
- Letters of recommendation from previous audiences
- Promotional videotape 4-5 minutes in length in front of a live audience
- Fee schedule
Career help doesn’t come free
Don’t expect your material to be evaluated for free. According to Brooks, speakers bureaus get between 50 and 60 unsolicited videotapes a week from individuals hoping to break into the business. They can charge $500 to review your marketing materials and provide you with a written assessment and a 20-minute phone review.
Once you pass this weeding-out stage, there’s still more work ahead to prove you’re truly speakers bureau material. At Brooks International, the company runs a live speakers showcase on a regular basis for its clients.
“The presentations aren’t customized for the clients, but it gives them a chance to observe the speaker’s style in person instead of on videotape,” explained Brooks. Every speaker who wants to participate gets 15 minutes at the podium to demonstrate his or her charisma and knowledge. Brooks said there are always some novices who beg for a chance to join the showcase, but when put up against professionals, fail miserably because they haven't honed their presentation skills.
Brooks won’t book a speaker that she hasn’t personally seen perform. She related a situation in which she sent out a fraud expert from the FBI with stellar credentials without first seeing him in action.
“I won’t do that again,” she said. “He just totally froze. He obviously was not a professional speaker.” Not only did the speaking engagement fail, the mistake cost Brooks a huge client.
All the work can prove lucrative
Public speaking isn’t as easy as most professionals make it look, but all the hard work and practice can pay off. According to Brooks, speakers at breakout sessions at conferences, seminars, and tradeshows can earn between $2,000 and $10,000 for a half-day session. Not bad for a few hours of public effort.
So if you want to move your passion and talent for IT into the public speaking arena, be prepared. It’s a long practice road. Unless you’re willing to invest the time, the experts advise that you don’t quit your day job.