Speaking to Associations: What you Need to Know

Table of Contents

Introduction

Are you still figuring out your ideal speaking audience? Well-established on the stage, but ready to change things up? Have you considered speaking to associations? If you haven’t, maybe it’s time!

Associations are one of the seven major industries for speakers as listed in our founder Grant Baldwin’s book The Successful Speaker. The myriad meanings of the term “associations” might throw you for a loop at first glance…how is that even one industry? Don’t be fooled–associations have great potential for your speaking business. Today’s blog is here to dispel any confusion and get you on your path to speaking for associations of all kinds and–if you so choose–in a variety of fields. We’re covering a lot of ground today, in three main categories as follows. 

  1. Associations and the speaking industry.
  2. Tips for success speaking to associations.
  3. Getting booked and paid to speak to associations. 

Let’s dive in! 

1. Associations and the speaking industry. 

When it comes to the nitty gritty of what “associations” means, we’re generally talking about business or trade associations. This means any organizations of professionals built around a shared cause or field. If you’ve hung around TSL for a while, you’ve almost certainly heard of one such association: the National Speakers Association. (If you haven’t, bookmark this blog to read next. The NSA is a catalyst for networking, career building, and community for speakers, and we recommend becoming a member if you’re serious about speaking.) 

Similar membership-based associations exist for other types of entrepreneurs. And for corporate industries, even bigger associations exist in which entire companies have memberships. Just about every type of employer has an association (or more than one) available to join. And while membership dues can be steep, the benefits are manifold. Networking, professional development, continuing education, lobbying…the list goes on. 

You might be surprised how specifically niche associations can get between industry and geographical distinctions. This is great–it means more speaking opportunities for you! For example, a famous episode of The Office, “Dwight’s Speech,” takes place at a conference for the Northeastern Sales Association. (While Dwight’s speech turns out quite successfully, The Speaker Lab in no way endorses his methods!) As the Northeastern Sales Association suggests, most associations have a geographical hierarchy, with state chapters and national chapters if not local and regional chapters in between. For a better grasp of the topic, you can find a great explanatory overview of business associations here

So, what exactly does all of this mean for speakers? Why do we call associations–which exist for every industry imaginable–an industry of their own?

Here’s the fun part. Every association collects membership dues. And those membership fees, if they’re not being used for lobbying in Washington or website upkeep, often go towards events. At the very least, associations hold a major conference or trade show every year. Most organize a few smaller events, seminars, and trainings in the interim. You like delivering big glitzy keynotes? Associations need those. You like leading intense day-long workshops, with the leadership teams year after year? Associations need those too. If you’re sold on the idea, let’s get ready to find your niche and land some speaking gigs!

2. Carving out your niche when you speak to associations

Speaking to associations is well-suited to jumpstarting your speaking career locally and later scaling into a wider geography. Word of Mouth marketing helps you get off the ground with local business leaders (we’ll talk more about that in the third section). This in turn helps you create a strong network to launch from. And if you’re already an experienced speaker looking to pivot audiences, your speaker menu doubtless already includes hot topics within certain associations. 

So how do you carve out a niche as a speaker for associations? We’re so glad you asked!

In this field, you often have to wear two hats: specialist and generalist. Don’t get the wrong idea–we always recommend getting clear on the specific problem you solve rather than trying to “speak to everybody.” Whether you speak on leadership, DEI, or underwater basket weaving, this truth applies. At the same time, being able to go “big picture” is a great advantage in the world of associations. As many events are organized around industry-wide topics, you might easily have a mix of board members, managers, and employees in your audience. Not only that, but you can really scale your career speaking to associations by adapting your message to different industries and technical fields. 

Let’s say you speak about a broad topic, like innovation. You talk to leaders about fostering creativity and open-mindedness to encourage new ideas to spring forth. If you deliver a stellar talk at, say, an association of mechanical engineers, you probably mention a few ways innovation has improved the field of mechanical engineering. And maybe your background is in mechanical engineering so you’re perfectly content delivering talks only at mechanical engineering conferences. That could be a great niche, and you can totally own that niche. 

But what if you want to branch out? With the right background information and some honest research, you could deliver a similar talk to an association of electricians, or software engineers, or builders. And if you happen to mention that to the event planner who hired you to speak to mechanical engineers, they might recommend you to their friend who plans events for an association in a different industry. After all, especially if an association is in a particularly siloed field, it’s nigh impossible to find great speakers who are also experts in industry lingo. Being open to adapting your talk to different industries makes you a huge asset to event planners in this space! 

Understanding the nuances of different regions will come in handy too if you give talks at the same associations’ events in various parts of the country. Between the East Coast and the West Coast, everything from language to lunchtimes can vary quite a bit. Having this added understanding of context can make or break a keynote, so always take the time to ask!

Even if adaptability is part of your brand, the event planners might not be able to intuit that from your speaker bio. Communicate the flexibility of your topic or speaking offerings from the very first conversation with a potential lead. In this industry, references are the surest path to getting bigger audiences and higher-paying gigs. If you want to work with more than one association, willingness to adapt (and to travel) will serve you well. Event planners want to refer you. Referring incredible, trustworthy speakers gives them a career boost too! 

As you start speaking to unfamiliar industries or geographies, turn again to your friend the event planner. When you set your sights on a new association to target, ask for tips, trending topics, and insight into the inner workings of the industry. Connect with additional experts in person or on social media to fill you in on the ins and outs of the industry. These connections could lead you to more speaking gigs even years down the road. Even if not, it’s still building your network, which is never a bad thing. 

Before we move on to actually getting paid speaking gigs for associations, a quick clarification is in order. These guidelines don’t just apply to keynote speakers! You can carve out a niche delivering workshops to all sorts of associations. Many corporate trainings, for example, can be adapted to the same diverse audiences we discussed above. You can even go straight for the by offering your services to the internal hierarchy of associations. Change “customers” to “members” and you could easily turn a customer satisfaction workshop into a presentation on membership satisfaction for a variety of associations. 

3. Getting booked and paid to speak to associations. 

If you haven’t spoken to associations before, you might be at a loss where to start with your marketing and lead generation. As you’ve probably figured out by now, networking and references are the keys to success in this field of speaking. So how do you get your foot in the door? 

What’s the starting point that we recommend if you have no idea where to begin? Your local chamber of commerce. Chambers of commerce are business associations for a particular town, city, or county. They represent the interests of local business owners and often hold events, similarly to larger associations. Unlike larger associations, they often have very tight budgets. As you first figure out how to launch a speaking business, some unpaid gigs can offer you something incredibly valuable in non-monetary terms.

It’s true, local chambers of commerce might not be able to pay you much. But they can get you in front of local business leaders and new clientele. Seeking out gigs with chambers of commerce in your area and chatting with the audience can give you a feel for what topics are in high demand in different industries. As you connect with local business owners, ask what associations they are part of. If you impressed them with your presentation, they will happily connect you to regional chapters in which they are involved. Nonprofit speaker Connie Albers did a podcast episode with us where she talks at length about speaking to chambers of commerce. Listen to it right here to learn more!

Your strategy will probably look a little different if you are trying to branch out from the corporate world. If you love your corporate field and want to switch from sitting in the audience to speaking at conferences, you can easily build off of your proven expertise as a speaker. In fact, TSL alum and coach Erick Rheam did just that! You can listen to his story of going from the seats to the stage here

If you haven’t already attended conferences during your corporate career, ask around. Talk to your professional connections, clients, friends, and colleagues about associations they are or have been members of. For example, if an old manager has moved on to a different industry, invite them to coffee and ask if their new company has membership in associations. We tend to scream it from the housetops, but word of mouth marketing is always the most sustainable and successful strategy. 

We’ll finish off with a couple tips that apply to any and all speaking businesses that focus on associations. 

Having a demo video that displays recent footage of you on stage is an invaluable asset. Event planners for associations often have to run their choice of speaker by their boss or board leadership. Even if you delivered the perfect elevator pitch to them on the phone, they can’t show that to the CEO who just wants a speaker with demonstrable expertise. A 2-3 minute demo video that your event planner can show their boss, board, or whomever is key. Many speakers mistakenly think that talking into a camera about their speaking business is enough for a demo video. Decision-makers don’t want to see that–they want to know how you speak to an audience. Those chambers of commerce gigs are a great opportunity to get video footage and professional photos for your website

You can leverage the geographic structure of associations to your advantage. Local chapters of associations and their events at the local level probably will not pay as well as larger conferences. However, if you don’t have to travel far, you can consider lowering your speaking fees–the experience and the reference might well be worth it. Similarly, if you are traveling to speak in a far-away place, see what other smaller gigs you can book while you’re there.

For example, let’s say you’re speaking at the national conference of Association X in Nashville. If it’s a big conference, you probably booked it many months in advance. In the interim, you can look into local Nashville associations that align with your niche. Booking multiple small gigs in one city also helps offset travel expenses when none of them can pay a lot, but all of them can pay a little. Different speakers have different barometers for whether they prefer lots of lower-paying engagements or a few really lucrative opportunities. It’s up to you to find the balance that works for you. The upshot is that there is no one “mold” for speaking to associations–it’s an area with lots of opportunity and lots of freedom! 

Finally, the best marketing strategy for any kind of speaking business is simple. Deliver a great talk. Not a flashy website, not a paid ad strategy, and not a viral TikTok video. If you don’t create and deliver an incredible talk, the rest of your speaking strategy will crumble. 

Conclusion

We’ve done our best to cover how to get booked and paid to speak for associations, but we can only really scratch the surface. A couple years ago, we recorded an incredibly insightful podcast episode on this topic with Katrina Davis, an event planner for the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives. If you want to hear what really goes through an association event planner’s mind, you’ll want to listen! 

While this piece mainly deals with business associations, many other niches work similarly. If you are interested in speaking to nonprofit or political audiences, for example, most nationwide organizations have local, grassroots chapters and bigger national conferences. You can apply the same strategy, with one caveat–even at the national level, nonprofits probably don’t pay as much as booming industries. The podcast we mentioned with Connie Albers covers a lot of these scenarios too, so go listen if you haven’t already. 

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