How To Become A Successful Professional Speaker

If you want to learn about building a successful professional speaking career, talking to Chris Widener is a good place to start. The professional speaking industry operates on two tracks: the celebrities, like Olympic medal winners or famous politicians, who can come in and immediately command top dollar because of their name recognition; and regular people, who have “built their clientele out over years of learning how to market themselves and provide good content,” says Widener.

For the past 25 years, he’s charted the latter course, working his way from “free speeches to high schools and summer camps,” up to his current rate of $20,000 per talk. The professional speaking industry isn’t easy to break into; numbers have swelled since the National Speakers Association was founded in 1973. “I’d guess that 95% of all professional speakers make less than $10,000 per speech,” says Widener. “I’d say the sweet spot for most speakers is $6000, plus or minus – probably $4500 – $7500.” Still, it’s an alluring way to earn a living, particularly if you can generate enough volume.

The industry took a hit during the 2008 recession, both because of overall corporate cutbacks and because businesses feared that big conventions with speakers might make for bad PR in an era of austerity. Widener believes the market for speakers is picking back up, but stresses the importance of framing your value properly: “Sometimes someone will say, ‘Why should I pay you $20,000 to give a speech?’” he says. “I’ll ask, ‘How many people will be there?’ If there are 500 salespeople, and if I give them one technique and they can sell one more unit this year, all of a sudden the question is, ‘Would you trade a $20,000 speech for $5 million in increased revenue?’”

In a recent interview, Widener shared his tips for building a successful public speaking career. Here are his top insights.

Speakers Bureaus Are Nice – But Not Mandatory. Some aspiring speakers think that winning speakers bureau representation will be their ticket to big fees and constant bookings. Widener says that’s unlikely. “One of the first things you learn is that bureaus don’t want you until you don’t need them,” he says. “I get booked by some bureaus, I like them and know most of them, but bureaus are becoming less relevant.” In the pre-Internet world, it was complicated and mysterious to figure out how to contact a particular author or speaker and get them to come to your convention; now, anyone can Google them and email them directly. Though some bureaus still have strong corporate relationships, there’s a lot less need for a middleman. So don’t focus too much on securing a bureau relationship; you can start to build your business without one.

Develop Multiple Revenue Streams. Widener certainly makes money from his keynote speeches, but that’s not the only way. In addition to his corporate work, he’ll also speak – often for free – at large multilevel marketing conferences where he sells a variety of products he’s created, including sets of CDs and DVDs, e-books, and hard copy books. He’ll email a one-page order form to conference organizers and request that they place a copy on everyone’s seat. “With about 10 minutes left in the speech, I’ll say, ‘I want to let you know about some great materials; all you have to do is fill out this form and turn it in to me at the end. We’ll ship it to you in a week.” Typically, he says, 20-35% of the audience will make a purchase. “I’ve spoken to 3000 people and sold $140,000 in product after a speech,” he says.

Create Copious Content. One early secret of Widener’s success was writing – all the time. “When the Internet opened up, everybody had a website, but nobody had content,” he recalls. “I wrote 450 articles on success and business and I gave it away for free. At the bottom, the articles would give my bio, and I was able to build a list of 100,000 people really quickly and started self-publishing my own books.”

Leverage Social Media. Widener has also been aggressive in developing a presence on social media networks. “Between various Facebook and Twitter accounts, I have almost 900,000 [followers].” He’s grown his base through a combination of attracting followers organically via content marketing and paid online marketing. “I regularly use Facebook marketing to build my list,” he says. “Right now, I spend $15 a day and I might get 75-125 new fans a day.” He cites one colleague who spent big on Facebook ads and saw serious returns: “I know a guy who built a 600,000 person list for $50,000 in three months.” Despite the eye-popping numbers, “This wasn’t a list bought illegally; he just bought Facebook ads and said, ‘Are you interested in this? Become a fan.’”

Your Fee Represents Your Resume. It’s the perennial rookie question: how do I know what to charge? Says Widener, “Every time my resume has increased, I look and say, ‘Why would anybody believe my resume if I only charge this much?’ I raise my fee if it doesn’t match my resume.” If you’ve written a book (especially a bestseller), started writing for a prestigious publication, joined the faculty of a respected institution, been on television, or have spoken at prominent events, you might want to re-evaluate what you’re charging.

The Money Can Usually Be Found. Companies or associations – even large, well-financed ones – will often declare that they don’t have sufficient funds to hire you. But it’s simply a matter of thinking creatively, says Widener. Associations may have an “education budget” that’s separate from their speakers budget; if you can have them allocate a portion of that to buying your books and products, you can sometimes make even more money. Another possibility is that association members may be able to step up to sponsor your talk. “Associations may not have the money set aside,” he says, “but they’ll go to two of their big companies and say, ‘We have $5000 for a speaker but he charges $15,000. Would you sponsor the closing luncheon?” Then, the company CEOs can introduce the speaker and have the opportunity to address the crowd.

Professional speaking is a competitive field, but one with immense rewards. If you stay focused on providing value, and explaining how the companies and associations that hire you can benefit from it, you can develop an enviable career. Have you spoken for money – or do you aspire to? What strategies have you found effective?

This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on June 10, 2013.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.