I’ve never met a public speaker who wasn’t trying to make good on a failed dream. Speakers are humble and use failure as a tool to teach others.
Some of us are writers. Some of us are musicians. Most of us are artists, performers or athletes who are also trying to be parents, spouses and responsible members of society. We could not capitalize on our primary dream without sacrificing too much. However, we’ve learned some lessons, hacked the system, and we are trying to pass on our knowledge to the next generation of visionaries.
So that’s the first step in being a public speaker. Admitting that you are not perfect, but out of your personal and career-related mistakes, something better emerged.
Next up, you need to reconcile failure with the fact that you are, indeed, an expert. Before you get on that stage, you need to know your stuff. I don’t mean that you worked in an industry and have a few tricks up your sleeve. You must be a specialist in something because everyone will want to call you an imposter, including your fragile inner voice. The only way to fight the skeptics and cynics is with deep, undisputed domain expertise.
However, it is not enough to be smart and clever. You must have something uniquely valuable to say. You need to have a grand thesis that gets you out of bed in the morning. Expertise without the big idea is, quite simply, boring. It is the human form of Google. Teach junior college or mentor a bunch of kids. Be a minister, a counselor, or a volunteer at a local museum. Get off the stage because there is no space for data without emotion.
Okay, let’s say you do have domain expertise and a grand thesis. There’s another step in the process. It is called marketing, and it sucks, but it is a required step that shows an audience that you possess information that will change their lives. You have to market yourself like it’s your full-time job because it is a full-time job.
At least 50% of your time should be dedicated to creating content that adds value to the world. You can click here to learn how to create a blogging strategy — complete with newsletters, email blasts, tweets, podcasts, etc. — that truly works. But now you are in a double-bind that twists up most public speakers. Who buys the cow if they can get the milk for free on a blog? Why would someone pay you to speak if he or she can read your free blog and watch you on YouTube?
Well, they might not pay you.
Most public speakers do not earn anything during the first three years of business. You will spend 50% of your time creating content, and the other 50% will be a mix of frenetic activities. You’ll be networking with people who might hire you to speak. You should attend conferences to watch other successful speakers on stage. Hone your craft and work with a speaker coach. Research your industry and send out speaking proposals. You should also network with other domain experts who might mentor you and introduce you to influential event planners.
Every year of those first three years gets a little easier. You might be offered free opportunities to speak. Say yes. Then someone might offer to pay for your travel expenses. Say yes. Then you might be asked if you consult, which is just another opportunity to stand up in front of people and tell stories. Say yes if you can swing it without spending too much time doing actual work or creating a curriculum guide.
During those first three years, don’t waste any time. Write an e-book. If you’re brave, write a regular book if you can. Find friends in the mainstream press and get quoted by real reporters. Attend Toastmasters. Volunteer outside of your industry because it makes you a better person and helps you stop obsessing about your speaking business.
Also, don’t forget that, throughout all of this, you have to love your audience. It is something that Ita Olsen taught me, and she’s right. You cannot be sarcastic. You cannot talk down to people. Although you’re there to teach them, you cannot act as if they need to be taught. While only 12% of your audience might be ready to hear your message, you need to believe that 100% of the audience will have their lives changed if they meet you.
As a public speaker, you are a musician. Your voice is an instrument. If you do not love your audience, they know. They hear it in your voice and tone. So while you are working on building your business and wondering why nobody will pay you, don’t get cynical or sound angry. Remember that you are enduring the same “public speaker boot camp” as some of the great speakers and leaders of the late 20th and early 21st-century speaking circuit.
Humility. Domain expertise. Grand thesis. Marketing plan. Hard work. Love. These are the essential elements that will get you through boot camp and bring you to a happy place in your career. Good luck, and I hope to see you on stage sometime in the next three years.