Top 7 Things Nobody Tells You About Speaking

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If you are just starting out as a professional public speaker, it may be a struggle to not know what you don’t know. On a recent episode of The Speaker Lab podcast, Jane Atkinson, founder and creator of The Speaker Launcher, and author of The Wealthy Speaker 2.0, talked to Grant Baldwin about some of those unknown unknowns. (Have a listen to the episode here!) We’ve compiled a list of the top 7 “unknown unknowns” that can help you with your speaking business.

Ready to learn the top 7 things nobody tells you about speaking? Read on!

Unknown #1: finding a valuable speaking bureau or agent is extremely difficult

A lot of aspiring speakers think that they have to have an agent or speaking bureau before they can really build their speaking business. In addition, some well-established speakers worry they’re doing something wrong because they aren’t booking most of their gigs through an agent or speaking bureau. The truth, though, as Atkinson recounts, is that finding an agent or a bureau to book gigs for you is “one of the most difficult finds in the industry.”

As Atkinson puts it, finding an agent to work with is “a marriage…It’s such a hard thing to find.” Many agents or bureaus want to take your money, but don’t have your best interests in mind. What Atkinson recommended doing instead is to delegate much of the administration (researching leads to reach out to, etc.) to a virtual assistant, and to do the pitching and selling yourself. As the speaker, you know best what value you can provide. Why rely on someone who knows you much less well to do that for you, especially just starting out as a professional speaker.

“I find that for a lot of, especially newer speakers, they immediately start going, how do I get in with a bureau? Or how do I get in with an agent?” Atkinson said. “The thing that I oftentimes tell them is that if you can’t book yourself, a bureau or an agent’s not gonna be interested in booking you.”

Even if you end up on a website of a speaking bureau, you are typically one of hundreds, if not thousands, of speakers on the site, Atkinson said. This rarely translates to any business for you as a speaker.

(Want to learn more about speaking agents? check out our post, “Should you hire a speaking agent?” here.)

Unknown #2: being a speaker is hard to scale, and can be very unglamorous

As Grant Baldwin put it in the conversation with Atkinson, in his busiest year, he did 70 gigs. But, he added, “the challenge of speaking is it doesn’t scale very well. You’re one person in one place at one time speaking to one audience.” He recounted that one time he had to speak to a pharmaceutical group, and a blizzard hit the city where he was speaking. So even though Baldwin spoke for just an hour, he ended up being stuck there for three nights.

“You’re just trapped and there’s nothing you can do,” Baldwin said. “Understand that that’s the glamorous side of the job that nobody sees. You’re trapped in a hotel, in a blizzard, and there’s nothing you can do about it and you can’t get home, you know?”

Unknown #3: you should build your business through referrals

A majority of many speakers’ business is through repeat clients, word of mouth, and referrals. Speaking is all about momentum, and developing that business through referrals and word of mouth is difficult to replicate.

You will likely find that the more you speak, the more business you will be able able to acquire. If a speaker is not getting two to three referrals from each of their gigs, then his or her presentation should be evaluated to see if it is doing the job.

As Grant Baldwin put it, you should constantly be asking yourself as a speaker, “Are there potential decision makers that are in the audience?” While every speaker takes some random gigs here and there just to fill in the calendar, Baldwin said, “if the, the majority of your calendar is filled with people [you] don’t really wanna speak to, it’s just hard to build a business on that.”

Unknown #4: be easy to work with, especially if you’re not a celebrity

You may not have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro blindfolded in shorts. Or landed a plane in the Hudson River. Or survived cancer. If you’ve just lived a pretty normal average life, and don’t have some crazy story that gets my foot in the door, you can still be a professional speaker!

But if you don’t have celebrity status, you do need to be really, really good on stage and also be really, really easy to work with. And if you’re amazing on stage, but you’re a pain in the butt to work with (unorganized, sloppy, don’t follow up) event organizers won’t want to hire you.

As Grant Baldwin put it, the easier you can be to work with, “the more organizers and event planners would want to work with [you]…So if somebody emails you a date and wants to know if you’re available, you should be back to them 24 hours and let them know…even if you’re on a plane!”

You cannot even do a hundred speaking gigs a year if you’re unorganized. So integrating speed into your systems through technology is key. Be aware of the event organizers’ time and where you fit as a tiny little cog in their job. This will pay off as you book more and more gigs.

Unknown #5: sometimes you should turn down business

Atkinson and Baldwin went on to describe when you might actually want to turn down business. As a speaker, it’s important to recognize that your business is not just about the art of stagecraft but also about running it like a business. This means knowing when to turn down business, understanding the value of what you bring to the table, and having the confidence to stand your ground with your fees.

Peter Leg, a multimillionaire, once said that decisions made out of fear are typically not the best. It’s common for speakers to get so busy that they don’t take the time to strategize where their business is going, but this is essential for success.

Allow yourself the opportunity to recognize the cyclical nature of the industry and the fear that creeps in when things are slow. However, it’s important to remember that there is always an opportunity for more business, and having confidence in yourself and your abilities will help you succeed.

Unknown #6: Be part of a group

Joining a professional group is a great way to build a community and network with other people, Baldwin and Atkinson agreed. For example, if you are a speaker who focuses on leadership, look for a group where you can discuss your views and find synergy with others. Joining the National Speakers Association or the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers (CAPS) in Canada is highly recommended, as they have been great resources for their members.

When meeting people in a professional group, you should be able to learn a bit about their business model and have the opportunity to work together and potentially even help each other out with leads. If you are already working in the industry, it’s important to remember that you may not get the business, because someone else may be a better fit. When this happens, simply chalk it up as a loss and move on to the next opportunity.

Additionally, when asking yourself where the business comes from, it’s likely that other speakers have referred you business. Therefore, it is important to foster relationships with other speakers and be able to refer them business as well. Being a part of a community and building relationships is particularly important for the lonely business of public speaking. Being on the road so often can be a lonely situation, so having a community of people to relate to is invaluable. Even if you may not be able to come back to speak at an event for a couple of years, introducing another great speaker as a referral can make connections and future opportunities.

(Want to learn more about the National Speakers Association or the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers (CAPS)? Check out our article on the top speaker conferences!)

Unknown #7: Triple down on what works (e.g. Mel Robbins’ five second rule)

If you’ve had three, or four audiences in a row that really dig your message, why start developing something new? To use an idea from the marketer Frank Kern, triple down on what works. The same thing applies if you have tried some sort of marketing campaign that was very effective. Triple down on that rather than trying to fix the campaign that did not work.

Here is an example. Mel Robbins has popularized the idea of the five second rule, i.e. “If you have an instinct to act on a goal, you must physically move within 5 seconds or your brain will kill it.” It is all about getting off the mark, taking action, getting over your fears, just going and doing something. As Jane Atkinson put it on The Speaker Lab Podcast, “because she formulated that idea, everything changed for her.”

“It’s a sticky idea. It’s a good idea,” Atkinson went on. “And now she’s building a massive platform. all because of that one idea. I’m not saying you have to have an idea that’s that brilliant because they come along once in a while. But I will say that becoming known for one thing is really, really helpful.”

Getting feedback when preparing a talk or idea is essential in order to know if it resonates with the audience or if it needs tweaking. It is also important to be self-aware and notice what resonates with an audience and double down on that. You can do this by paying attention to what event planners want and what clicks with the audience.

When something works, you should triple down on it. This means that if a speaker does an event that is successful, they should look for more like it. For example, if the successful event was put on for a group of realtors, you as a speaker should find realtor associations in each state and research opportunities to speak there.


So you’ve now got a starting place with this list of the top 7 unknown unknowns of starting a speaking business. The next step would be to research each of these unknowns and figure out how to effectively address them. Depending on the type of speaking business you are starting, you may need to look for different types of resources. You can start by checking out our blog post on how to find paid speaking opportunities in any industry. Happy speaking!

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