I can’t tell if the speaking industry has grown, or if I’m just more closely connected with speakers these days, but either way, it’s an exciting time for those of us who have been working hard to gain experience and knowledge to share with the masses.
One of the great things about booking a speaking gig and developing a speaking career is that you can get your message in front of new people, teams, and decision makers. If you’re good, this boosts your reputation and makes people trust that you know what you’re doing. That, in turn, leads to new clients and new speaking opportunities.
But many speakers are focusing on that benefit of speaking way too much rather than digging deeper into the true value of speaking: To help someone do, achieve, or understand something better than they did before you took the stage.
Ask yourself the following five questions before you write a speech or send a pitch to book a speaking gig. They require some heavy lifting in the research department—but they’ll pay off in big ways because you’ll be able to deliver what your audience needs, where they need it. And ideally, you will make some new friends and colleagues along the way. Let’s get started.
1. What Are My Core Competencies?
I’m not trying to burst anyone’s bubble here, but if you don’t have anything interesting to say, then you probably shouldn’t say it. It’s like what your mom always told you about saying nice things (but for professionals).
Now, that doesn’t mean you have to wait until you have something completely earth shattering to share before you try to book a speaking gig. This is something that held me back for years. I always thought to myself, “But what if this has already been said before? What if my ideas aren’t innovative?”
Michael Port helped me understand that your ideas don’t need to be new, or even particularly different. You simply have to have a unique way of sharing these ideas, which you already do: You yourself are unique. Your experiences are unique. Your outlook on why they matter is unique.
Instead, you do have to identify what exactly you want to say. Don’t look at anyone else. Look inward. Look at yourself. Stand in front of the mirror if you have to, and consider these questions:
- How is has my experience helped someone?
- What are people always asking me to explain?
- Why do people want to work with me/hire me?
- What’s the best part about my job?
- When am I feeling the most inspired?
Ideally, by answering or at least thinking about these questions, you’ll start to find a throughline. A Red Thread, as Tamsen Webster says. And then you’ll know where to focus your speaking efforts.
2. Who Can I Help?
Some of my best friends and colleagues are killing it at the speaking game. And while they all speak about different topics and to different audiences, they have one thing in common: They care deeply about understanding and servicing their audiences.
In a recent episode of The Managing Editor Show, my co-host Elisa Doucette and I interviewed Ann Handley. While she was talking mostly about being the world’s first Chief Content Officer and how she creates and extracts effective content from people and teams, she also got on the subject of speaking. She said that with both writing and speaking, you need to understand who your audience is and what motivates them.
As her assistant for many years, I admitted that when she first asked me to find out this sort of information for her to prepare for gigs, I didn’t get it. I thought every speaker gave the same speech over and over again. That’s what they did. But she assured me that’s not what she does. She tries to understand her audience’s problems so that she can research and provide specific and relevant examples. This genuinely helps audiences because it puts her teachings into the context of their own industry and opens their eyes to solutions.
Then, as they’re working through future problems, they remember how she approached the challenge and uncovered some tangible ideas of ways to make it better.
It’s so simple. When you help people, they like you more. And who doesn’t want to be liked?
3. Where Can I Reach People?
Okay, you know what you bring to the table, and you know what your audience needs help with. Now, where are these people? And what’s the best way to get in front of them?
Part of this depends on your goals. Are you trying to book a speaking gig that will help you inspire people, teach people, or give people a hands-on experience? Or maybe it’s a combination? That will help you understand whether to focus on keynotes, breakouts, or workshops. (The truth is you can do all of them, but not all at once.)
Once you’ve figured out where you want to focus, start by looking at other speakers who target the same or a similar audience. Research where they’ve spoken in the past, and add those events to your list.
Next, see if there are any industry-related bureaus or boards that pique your interest. If you can speak to and impress a regional group, chances are high that you’ll be able to book another region in the same industry and provide the same value. This gives you the opportunity to build your experience while reaching a variety of large groups.
Finally, you can get some great experience speaking to students and young professionals, especially in your local community. Find the organizations that cater to this group. Students are eager to learn, so they’re sure to ask the hard questions, which will, in turn, encourage you to take a deeper look at your material. Plus, you will surely leave a mark on these impressionable minds. That mark can lead to mentorships, internships, and may help you down the line. (As they get jobs, they can refer you to their bosses for business.)
4. How Can My Pitch Stand Out?
Now that you know what makes you unique, who you want to reach, and where they are, the next part should be easy. The keys here are similar to what makes any pitch great, but there are some nuances specifically for speaking you should consider.
First of all, personalize every single pitch. If you’ve done your research (like I told you to above!), you’ll be able to share exactly how your unique experiences can help the event’s audience in a way that another speaker cannot. Start with this. It shows the organizer that you’ve taken the time to understand their event and its particular goals.
Next, you’ll need to show proof that you’re worth your weight. This should come in the form of a speaker reel and one-sheet. The reel gives the organizer a chance to see you in action. The one-sheet provides all the relevant details like your bio, fees, and testimonials from other events.
No one wants to hire someone unless they are sure that person can deliver, which is why sharing this proof of success right off the bat is important. If you can get a reference from a past speaker or colleague, even better.
Finally, there’s the secret sauce. And unfortunately, I can’t tell you what this is because it’s different for everyone. But I encourage you to think back to your core competencies and what makes you different. Your you-ness is what you’ll want to leverage to make your pitch stand out. Make it abundantly clear to the organizer.
Are you a video blogger? Maybe make a personalized video for the event organizer on why you should speak at their event. Are you a writer? Maybe send a hand-written note in the mail with personalized prose. Are you a social media expert? Maybe do a little light stalking to find that you and the event organizer own the same dog breed and attach a photo to your pitch.
Get a little crazy with your pitch if you have to. Whatever you do, make it memorable.
5. How Can I Say Thank You?
Now, I won’t even begin to go into the actual practice, preparation, and delivery of your speech. There are plenty of resources, companies, and individuals who specialize specifically in speech preparation and presentation, including the aforementioned Michael Port and his Heroic Public Speaking event (which I attended last fall). But let’s talk about what happens after the event.
Thanking the event organizers for having you and the audience for listening to you is a hugely overlooked opportunity to make your mark. In a world where anyone with an idea and a personality can take the stage, remember that you’re not doing events any favors by showing up. The organizers and audiences are doing you a favor by hiring and listening to you. Don’t take that relationship for granted.
In addition to thanking the audience and the organizers as soon as you take the stage, consider sending a hand-written note or a small gift to the person who booked you when you get back from the gig. Use this as an opportunity to show your personality as well by making it fun. It’s also a great time to ask the organizer for a testimonial to add to your speaking site or one-sheet.
As for the audience, offer a free download, resource, or template before you leave the stage as a token of your appreciation. And don’t gate it if you’re feeling super helpful! Their trust is more important than anything else.
This may seem like you’re trying to kiss butts, and it’s true. These thank you’s will likely help you stay in the awesome corner of your organizers’ and audiences’ minds. But as long as you’re genuine in your grace, no one will fault you for being appreciative.
What other questions would you ask yourself to prepare for a stellar speech? As someone who is breaking into the speaking industry myself, I’m all ears!