Every speaker needs an audience. For your message to have impact, people have to hear it. Preferably, lots of people! But when you’re just getting off the ground, it isn’t obvious how to build an audience as a speaker. How do you know who will want to hear your message? What if nobody comes to your first talk? How will other people find out about you?
Whether you’ve never spoken before or have a few gigs under your belt, building an audience is probably on your mind. Today we’re breaking down three essential steps to building an audience as a speaker: narrowing your audience, networking, and content creation. While there’s more than three steps to the process, you can’t really get anywhere without those. Sure, they will look a little bit different for you depending on all the things that make your speaking business unique. But we can guarantee that every successful speaker used these three steps to get the audience they have today!
Step 1: Narrow your audience
Before you build up your audience, you have to narrow it down. I know this sounds counterintuitive, and it’s something a lot of speakers struggle with. But you can’t build an audience as a speaker if you don’t start small. Before you market yourself, you need a clear expectation of to whom you speak about what. After you prove you can follow through on that expectation, you can start pivoting to different audiences or broadening the one you have. So, to build your audience you have to figure out who exactly you want that audience to be. We reiterate this a lot–in fact, it’s what the S (for Select a problem to solve) in our SPEAK framework is all about.
Many speakers get stuck on the supposed universality of what they have to say. “I want to speak to EVERYONE!” They’re so passionate about their talk, they think the whole world needs (and wants) to hear their message. Here’s a hard truth: you’re not Tony Robbins; the world really doesn’t want to hear you (yet). But somewhere out there, a very specific group of people is perfectly suited to hearing you speak. You’ve got to focus on them.
If you’re still unsettled about shrinking your audience before you even have one, here’s the thing. You can always grow an audience that starts out small. In fact, having a small, engaged fanbase is a great platform on which to expand your reach. You know what you can’t expand from? A vague, broad audience that doesn’t even know who you are. The lane you pick at the beginning of your journey is not permanent, but it’s absolutely vital to pick a lane to get started. Here’s how.
Like we said, that big S in our SPEAK framework stands for “Select a problem to solve”. If you want an audience who actually cares about what you have to say, you have to solve a problem for them. You should be able to summarize your speaking business thus: I help GROUP to do TOPIC so they can SOLUTION. You can learn more about this in The Successful Speaker, but here’s the rundown of what we call the “Topic Trifecta”. You pick an industry that you have some sort of connection to. Then you choose an interest within that industry–something that there’s already some level of demand for. Whatever you do, you don’t want to speak to people who don’t realize they have a problem. Finally, you speak on a topic within that interest with integrity–you don’t have to be an expert, just be honest and confident about the qualifications and experience you do have.
That’s the basic strategy for narrowing down your audience. Of course in practice, it’s not quite so simple. Here’s how to approach one common situation when it comes to building an audience. Let’s say you’ve picked a group that you really, really want to target. Maybe you love speaking to students, or you know the lingo of a particular industry. Unfortunately, you realize that the group of people you want to speak to and the thing you want to speak about aren’t intuitively connected. You’re committed to a particular audience, but they don’t seem to understand (yet) that the problem you solve is relevant!
If you find yourself in this position, don’t give up on your target audience just yet! Try getting clever with how you pitch your topic. Maybe there is an overarching theme that your audience is excited about, into which you can sneakily integrate your message (we call this the “Trojan Horse” strategy). This strategy is especially useful if you’re talking to event planners who have a very specific set of topics in mind that they think their audience needs to hear about–even if they’re outdated or irrelevant. Learn to get your point across by using the language your audience uses. Eventually, as your message gains traction, you won’t have to be sneaky about it anymore.
So how do you reach your target audience once you’ve fixed your sights on them? How do you build an audience as a speaker who can solve a problem for a particular set of people, but those people haven’t heard of you yet? We’ll cover two of the most important strategies in the rest of today’s piece.
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Step 2: Network
As you hone in on your target audience you will have to leverage your network.Building your audience and building your network often go hand in hand as you connect with more and more people. We often focus on getting to know other speakers and potential clients when we cover networking tips. Here, we’ll lay out some networking advice specific to growing your audience.
Leveraging your network starts with identifying the people you already know who can help amplify your voice to your target audience. Word of Mouth is and always has been the most effective means to market yourself. And when you’re a speaker, marketing yourself is a 24/7 job! Start by making sure your friends and family know you speak for a living. Chances are, some of your existing connections are willing to pack in the front row at those early speaking engagements. If you’ve clearly communicated your message, they might bring a friend who already wants to hear it.
To maximize word of mouth networking, it’s often helpful to narrow your audience to a particular geographic niche. News will travel fast, and it will be easier for audience members to refer friends to your upcoming gigs if they are mostly local. Set a goal for how many gigs you want to do in a particular area and focus on getting in deep with that audience. Once you have saturated your local market, you can use your flourishing fanbase in X city to market yourself for gigs further afield.
Regardless of where you are speaking, every new audience is an opportunity for expansion. Whenever you speak, do some self-reflection to determine how you network. Think about the people you’re speaking to. Do you want more audiences like this? Do you want repeat gigs in this industry? If the answer is yes, it’s time to network! Research the audience beforehand. Remind them that you speak for a living (they might not realize this!) during your talk. And take time to get to know them afterward.
It’s always worth it to spend time with your audience members. Just hanging out for ten minutes after your talk lays the groundwork for social media followers, referrals, and even future clients. You never know if someone in the back row is the decision-maker for a similar group of people who need a speaker. Always give the impression that you have nothing more important to do than connect with people at your speaking event. Even if nobody takes advantage of it, your openness and willingness to sacrifice your own time for others will leave a favorable impression. Audience members value empathy and connection above all, so being personable and relatable will go a long way here.
When you’re building your speaker audience through networking with audience members, you have to be ready to pivot your pitch. An audience member might be organizing an event that overlaps with your topic or interest, but doesn’t fit the same mold as the event they attended. If you regularly do motivational keynotes for CEOs, an audience member might invite you to deliver a corporate workshop for their managers. You will have to significantly rehash your delivery and slightly adapt your message for a smaller group of people who aren’t CEOs. Hey–look at these challenges as an opportunity! One such corporate workshop could open up an entirely new audience for you if you craft your message appropriately.
Staying in tune with your audience through networking will help you follow the market if your original topic goes out of vogue. If the attention of your audience shifts and you don’t shift to meet it, you will lose that audience. When you can pivot successfully, you will maintain your former audience when their needs change and successfully break into new audiences.
Step 3: Create Content
We wouldn’t be doing you justice without a section on how to build and grow an audience through your online efforts. The final key for how to build an audience as a speaker is content creation. Content creation serves a multitude of roles for your speaking business. It establishes your expertise, provides you with valuable data on what resonates, and organically grows your audience.
We often reiterate that your most important digital assets, your website and demo video, serve the potential client first. But with content creation, you can focus on your audience. And building an audience through content as a speaker will indirectly attract event planners who are looking for a thought leader in a particular field. Being a committed content creator will also empower audience members to talk to you. Whether it’s in person after your talk or in the comments section of your instagram, content creation is a great springboard for meaningful interactions.
When it comes to what platforms you use for content, it’s really up to personal preference (and a little research into your target audience’s needs). If you have a knack for writing, blogging or even publishing a book are great options. To bolster a really fun and relatable personal brand, you might post regularly on Instagram stories. A platform where your voice is heard, like a podcast or YouTube channel, is a great way for people to familiarize themselves with you before they even see you. Your speaking audience could include people who won’t see you until you come to an event in their city years down the line!
Even if writing isn’t your strong suit, an email newsletter is another great way to grow and maintain an audience with content. Fortunately, we have an entire blog on how to build and grow your email list here. As for other content creation strategies, we have had some amazing guests on the podcast cover just about every area. For Writing, check out Episode 209 (with best-selling author Ann Handley). For YouTube, Episode 214 (featuring veteran YouTuber Thomas Frank). For social media, Episode 195 (thanks to brand strategist Michael Barber).
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With these three steps, you’ll be well on your way to building an audience for your message. We’ve covered the specifics of these steps on the TSL podcast, so make sure to follow those links for even more strategies for success. We also highly recommend grabbing your copy of The Successful Speaker to see how narrowing your audience fits into the broader strategy of launching your speaking business!
While the task of building an audience never really ends, it will get easier after time. Being able to walk away from a gig is one of the best yardsticks for gauging your confidence in your audience is. Sure, at the start of your speaking career you might have to take anything you can get–living indoors costs money, and excellent speaking requires lots of practice. As you build an audience as a speaker, you eventually have to send the message that you’re not well-suited to other audiences. This will reassure event planners that you have a well-defined niche and make you more attractive to clients within your industry!