10 Things They Don’t Tell You About Speaking

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Some people think being a speaker is super glamorous. Some think it’s super intimidating. Well, it’s a little bit of both. Like many nontraditional professional fields, speaking is rife with misconceptions (we cover a few of those here). When you’re researching how to start a speaking business, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the information available on the internet. Starting a new entrepreneurial adventure comes with lots of questions, and speaking is no exception.

Our entire mission at The Speaker Lab is educating you about that adventure and empowering you to succeed. We know from experience what happens if you only focus on the first few things that come to mind–or to Google–when you think about speaking. Inevitably, important factors can fall through the cracks. That’s why today we’re covering what they don’t tell you about speaking–the surprises that would-be speakers often encounter when they’re launching their business. They aren’t exactly secrets of the trade, but they aren’t self-evident either!

These are just a few of the most important realities that new speakers aren’t necessarily aware of. Some of these might come out of left field, and others might seem more obvious depending on your perspective. We’ve divided these ten facts and tips into three key categories that encompass the full spectrum of your speaking business. They are:

  1. Launching your speaking business. Four things they don’t tell you about starting and growing your speaking business. 
  2. On the stage. Three things they don’t tell you about preparing for and succeeding at your speaking engagements.
  3. Marketing and networking. Three things they don’t tell you about making speaking connections and promoting yourself. 

So let’s get to it!

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1. Launching your Speaking Business

    1. You can’t speak to everybody. No matter how universal your message is, you have to narrow down a niche audience before you get started. All the super-successful celebrity speakers who seem like they speak to everybody? They started out by focusing on one specific group of people. Narrowing your audience is essential to building the foundations of your speaking business and will actually help you get more gigs early on in your career. Picking a lane isn’t permanent–you can always expand and pivot as your taste or the market changes. By zeroing in on one group, you will more easily distinguish yourself from the competition and build up your reputation as an expert. We cover this with more specificity here.
    2. You don’t need a crazy life story to speak. Something that holds back a lot of would-be speakers is how “boring” their life is. If you don’t have an Olympic medal or near-death experience, why would anybody want to listen to you? Rest assured, you don’t need to have climbed Mount Everest to be a good speaker. The key to engaging people with your personal story is authenticity and honesty. If you are who you say you are and talk about what you are qualified to talk about, you’ll build trust and credibility with any audience. That way, your stories about everyday moments will be just as inspirational and impactful. 
    3. Speaking is difficult to scale. If you’re expecting your speaking business to take off and bring in the big bucks in just a few months, it’s time for a reality check. Speaking is a difficult business to scale. Doing so takes time, lots of systems, and lots of sacrifices too. You are only one person and you can only speak in one place at one time. At the start of your career when you aren’t making very much per gig, you might have to travel constantly to make the revenue you need. And as any seasoned speaker will tell you, living out of a suitcase isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Creating reasonable goals, scaling your business, and reaching the point where you’re both successful and get time for yourself and your family usually takes at least 2-3 years. Don’t let it discourage you, but adjust your expectations. 
    4. The fear never really goes away. Some speakers think they need to wait until they overcome stage fright to go on stage. Or they think their business is a failure if two years in, they still have a month or two every year without any gigs. Unfortunately that nervousness, that fear of failure, that cycle between good months and bad months is just par for the course in speaking. Speaking isn’t like a 40 hr/week day job with insurance and two weeks paid vacation. There is a lot of uncertainty, and with that uncertainty naturally comes a rational level of fear. And as for stage fright, well even Brené Brown struggles with it! There is no shame in acknowledging your fears. The key is managing and confronting them, rather than getting rid of them!

2. On the Stage

    1. Be animated. Surprisingly, many professional speakers with great content just aren’t animated on stage. Body language is just as important–if not more–than the words you’re saying. If you don’t animate your words and stories with warm, confident body language, your audience will mistrust you or check out. Practicing not just the words, but also the warmth and energy of your talk is essential.
    2. Your audience doesn’t think you’re a full time speaker. This plays into our next section on marketing and networking, but also affects the content of your presentation. That’s right–your audience often assumes that your speech–even if it’s amazing–is a one-off. They think you’re someone with a day job who happened to pick up this speaking gig because it was a topic they cared about. You have to tell your audience you do this for a living. You have to be tactful–reference relevant engagements you’ve done in the past or tell a funny story related to speaking. Once you start letting your audience know, your talk itself becomes a lead generation event. 
    3. Prepare for emergencies. While a straight up emergency might not happen during any of your speaking engagements, an inconvenience or two (or three) most assuredly will. And when you’re in the thick of it, it can be hard to tell the difference. Keep the realm of inconveniences in mind when you rehearse, pack your bags, do a prep call with your event planner, and get ready to go on stage. Not sure what we’re talking about? Here are some ideas:
      • Technology advances further and further every day. And yet, they still haven’t figured out how to keep the projector from disconnecting right before your talk. Charge your laptop and bring extras of everything in case something goes missing. If you have slides, always bring a backup on a flash drive (not on the cloud!), even if you triple-check that the client has it on file. Rehearse with your slides in presenter mode just like you would onstage. Invest in an extra clip-on mic, slide clicker, and any other small technology. Tech failures can happen to anyone, so it’s best to be prepared!
      • Rehearse in the outfit you plan to wear. If it’s constricting, hard to move, or risks flashing the audience as you walk up to the stage, ditch it. If you’re not used to wearing a suit or high heels, everyone will be able to tell. There are plenty of options for looking classy and comfortable at the same time. 
      • Keep your luggage stocked with nourishing food and snacks (and, of course, water). Travel delays could cause you to miss breakfast. Sometimes you’re offered a meal but it’s still best to decline and grab a protein bar–a big plate of pasta twenty minutes before your talk is rarely a good idea. 
      • Socialize wisely. While we always recommend taking advantage of networking opportunities during your event, be wise about it. If you’re sipping wine till 1 AM at a cocktail hour, delivering a keynote at 8 AM might not go so well. Delivering a great talk is the best way to market yourself, so don’t sacrifice performance on the altar of networking!

3. Marketing and Networking

  1. Your digital assets target your client first. When you’re starting a speaking business, there are two key pieces to your online presence: your demo video and your website. When you create them, keep in mind that the point isn’t to attract the sorts of people who will be listening to your talk. Too many times, speakers orient their online persona to their audience members. But who sees your website and demo video first? The decision makers–event planners who hire you to speak in front of your audience. Keep your website and demo video client-focused so they don’t have to search around for why you’re worth hiring! Focus on establishing your expertise and demonstrating your experience to create that essential first impression with potential clients. Trying to engage your audience online as well as in person? Social media, blogs, and email newsletters are great avenues for connecting with them without detracting from your client-facing assets. 
  2. Speaking bureaus manage demand, they don’t create it. A lot of speakers make the mistake of thinking they need to get in with a bureau to get their name out there. In fact, the opposite is true. Bureaus are looking out for their best interests, so they only want to work with speakers who can prove they will create business for them. Work on establishing your speaking business and marketing assets before you decide if you need a bureau. Bureaus do come in handy if you are struggling to stay on top of audience trends or feel pulled in different directions. If you would like to work with a bureau someday, start by networking with other speakers who are part of bureaus. Not only will you have an “insider” connection at your desired bureau, but seasoned bureau speakers can give you advice as to when it’s a good idea to pursue that avenue. 
  3. Other speakers aren’t your competition. Because speaking is a “solopreneur” type of job, it’s all too tempting to view every other speaker as a rival. But the truth is, nobody can speak 365 days a year–and like we said above, most speakers can’t speak to everybody. Befriending other speakers has a lot of benefits, both in the personal and professional spheres. Few people–even your own family–will be able to sympathize with the exhaustion and loneliness that strike during long periods of traveling for gigs. Other speakers can! Their encouragement might be just what you need when you’re tired of hotel rooms and just want to be home with your family. And when it comes to getting more gigs, the absolute best way to do so is through referrals from other speakers. Get in the habit of referring speakers you know to gigs you can’t take, or aren’t a good fit for. Speakers are a friendly bunch–you’ll start getting referrals yourself and maintain a good reputation in the business.

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Of course, there are other “unknown facts” about speaking we could include that might not be self-evident. We’ve distilled what we think are the most important things they don’t tell you about speaking that might not pop up during your first couple google searches. If you want to dig even deeper into what they don’t tell you about speaking, we have a great podcast here that covers these ten points and many more.


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How to Prepare For a Speech: 7 Practical Tips
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