Four Ways to Get Started as a Professional Speaker

3b76fb2This post by Dorie Clark originally appeared at LinkedIn.

Last April, my book Reinventing You was released from Harvard Business Review Press. In the intervening year, I’ve had the opportunity to speak about it more than 70 times on three continents. As a result, I’m now getting multiple requests per week for advice about how to build a successful speaking practice (because of the volume, I’ve actually started to provide paid coaching sessions on the topic). Here are four of my best tips for getting started as a professional speaker.

Book Your First Gigs. No one wants to take an expensive risk on an untested speaker, so understand that the majority of your talks in the early days will be free. Start by tapping groups that need a high volume of speakers, like your local Rotary Club or Chamber of Commerce, to get experience. Then, ask your friends and clients to set you up with “warm introductions” to groups they’re affiliated with – alumni groups or professional associations. Some of the larger ones will begin to pay small honorariums. This isn’t a huge money maker, but it can be good exposure early in your career, and they’ll usually allow you to either sell books after the event (if you have one) or, in the best circumstances, will make a bulk purchase for all their attendees.

Get a Professional Video. Reputable organizations aren’t going to book you – certainly not for money – if they haven’t seen evidence of your speaking skills. If you want to break into the big time, you need to have at least one, and hopefully a few, videos showing you addressing a professional crowd. (This is a video of my Authors@Google talk, which has been really helpful as a way of demonstrating my content and speaking style.) Sometimes you’ll get lucky and the conference organizers will film the event (this is a major appeal of TEDx conferences), giving you a high-quality calling card. If you won’t be speaking for any venues that film your talk, however, you can usually ask permission to bring in your own crew. As the price of top-quality, HD video equipment has come down, you can now likely get a very good product by hiring MFA students in filmmaking, rather than a fancy professional outfit (though that’s often a worthy investment if you can afford it). Then, you can upload and display your talk on your website so conference organizers will be able to check you out. (Fortunately, thanks to YouTube, you no longer have to produce DVDs and mail them out, saving you thousands of dollars.)

Understand the Role of Speakers Bureaus. Many people, including those who should know better (including literary agents and publishers), often treat having a relationship with a speakers bureau as the be-all and end-all. That’s the result of a deep misunderstanding – that if you are represented by a bureau, they’ll handle all your marketing and get you a steady stream of gigs. In a few very cases, that may be true. Certainly, if you’re a major celebrity with a high fee, they’ll be touting you plenty. But if you’re just starting out, you’re not going to be their top marketing priority. They’ll gladly book you if someone asks for you, but if you sit back and wait for them to do your marketing, you’ll be waiting a very long time. You have to work hard and get your name out there through other methods – such as content creation – so that people will, in fact, start asking for you.

Attract Buyers to You. You can certainly do a bit of outbound marketing, reaching out to organizations and asking if they’d like to have you come speak. This works quite well if you have a pre-existing connection or “warm lead,” as discussed above. If you’re essentially cold calling, however, it’s likely that your success rate will be quite low; you’ll have to evaluate if it’s really worth your time. Instead, I’d recommend developing intellectual property – articles, podcasts, blog posts, videos, etc. – that demonstrate your expertise and make conference organizers or meeting planners want to seek you out, specifically. You’re always in a far better position to name your terms, and get the value you deserve, if someone has come to you, rather than you approaching them and asking for the gig.

As your reputation grows and more people have read the content you’ve created and seen you speak, you’ll begin to get invitations for larger national conferences and to speak at corporate events – and this is where they have actual money to pay speakers. But recognize this usually develops over a multi-year process; you won’t go from zero to $20,000 per talk overnight. For more information about building a strong speaking practice, check out my Forbes posts on How to Become a Successful Professional Speaker and 3 Things Every Aspiring Professional Speaker Needs to Know.

In the comments section below, please share your best strategies for building a professional speaking business.

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter.