Manner of Speaking: Get Paid to Speak

Manner of Speaking: Get Paid to Speak

How to get started on the path to professional speaking.

By Jane Atkinson

You’ve just walked off the platform after winning the International Speech Contest. The crowd is going wild in a standing ovation. People rush to congratulate you and tell you how amazing you are and how much you have inspired them. You think to yourself: “This is so cool! Imagine if I could do this for a living!”

Many Toastmasters have thought about speaking professionally but have been confused about how to start. If you are married, then having your spouse’s support is, of course, crucial. And it’s a bonus if their employment includes benefits, lessening the financial pressure on you. There are a number of other issues to think about, as well:

Who will pay? First, you need to consider whether someone will pay for the information or expertise you have to offer. Chances are that you have spoken in front of some larger audiences or have won some competitions. Evaluators are singing your praises. Having people offer kudos after your speech is great for the self-confidence, but when they want to hire you to speak to their organization, that’s when you know you’re onto something.

Whether your topic is motivational, inspirational or based on a business expertise, you need to do your homework to make sure it is one that the marketplace values – and, more importantly, will pay to hear.

Although content is immensely important, style is usually what differentiates you from the crowd and will move your fee up the ladder quickly. Consider your style: Is your technique, your presentation, strong enough to make you a pro? Ask professional speakers who are making a good living, prospective clients or a mentor to help assess your distinctiveness. What makes you unique?

Once you’ve done your research and know you are ready, here are some tips to help you get started down the path of professional speaking:

Making freebies count. Get out and speak to anyone who will listen - for free – for a set period of time. The best way to turn a free speech into paid engagements is to ask the audience for help from the platform. I call it the “help me” speech. It’s two lines that you place right before the closing of your speech. It goes something like this: “As you can see, I am passionate about this topic. If you know of any company or association who could benefit from this material, please hand me your business card following my speech.” That’s it. Then use those business cards to follow up and build a database for future marketing.

I remember my first job as an agent in the speaking industry. The speaker I was representing handed me a stack of cards she had acquired through her “help me” speech. I spent three months working through that pile, and the resulting speaking engagements filled her schedule for the next three years.

The killer speech. A killer speech is the best form of marketing – no flashy brochure, no innovative postcard, no cutesy giveaway – can top it. Audiences will remember a great speech that motivated or moved them. Because you are a Toastmaster, I realize I’m probably preaching to the choir on this one! But if you focus more time and energy on having a great speech in the first three years of your professional career, you will increase your odds of success dramatically.

The credibility factor. Put together a bio that will establish you as an expert in your field (include education, work history, companies you have spoken for or consulted with, books/articles you have written, etc.). It should establish why clients should hire you over all the other speakers they might consider. When you go to the marketplace, you’ll want to position yourself as an expert first and a speaker second. My colleague Brian Palmer, from the National Speakers Bureau in Chicago, says, “Clients don’t want to hire speakers; they want to hire smart people who happen to speak.”

Marketing materials. In order to get booked, you’ll need to start developing materials to promote your services. A Web site is your first priority. Print materials may not be necessary, depending on your market. Many speakers start with a basic Web site that allows visitors to see exactly what they do, who they do it for and how they do it. Always test your marketing materials with prospective clients before launching them. Ask them this question: “Would this piece make you want to hire me?”

Hang out with other pros. Many Toastmasters clubs have professional speakers as members. Find people who are earning a good living in the speaking industry and ask them to mentor you. Uncover the top habits of successful professional speakers. Many Toastmasters also join the National Speakers Association.

Setting your fee. Establish a speaking fee and post it on the wall of your office. You don’t want to be pulling a number out of the air every time you have a conversation with a prospective client. In order to set a fee, do some market research. Ask other speakers for advice – and ask clients too. Remember, the client is paying for the 20 years of experience that goes into your speech, not the 60 minutes that you actually speak.

Fees are truly a state of mind. I once worked for a successful motivational speaker. When I started working with him, he was earning $2,500 per speech. We decided to aim for $10,000 per speech. While he agreed at the time, I found out five years later that he thought I was dreaming. But he set his mind on the goal and there was no stopping him. Today, his fee has doubled again and he speaks 80 times per year.

Strategy. Put together a sales and marketing strategy. Define your target market, start making the calls and send your Web site link or materials to people who could hire you. The key to your success is going to be consistency and clarity around what you are offering. Touching the same group of people four times a year could pay off handsomely down the road.

Match, don’t sell. When talking to prospective clients, your goal is to see if your service matches their needs. It helps to have some sales skills, but knowing that you won’t always be right for every client can alleviate some jitters you might have about cold calling. Be clear on the value you offer before picking up the phone.

A good technique to help you keep focused is to post a list of the values you bring to organizations. An example goes as follows:

  • I provide a strategy for increasing sales.
  • My strategy covers three areas that are integral to selling success: Authenticity, integrity and value.
  • My average client’s ROI (return on investment) is a 25 percent increase in customer loyalty.

Starting any new business is a tricky venture, and small business skills, like strategic planning and cash flow management, are required. But knowing that you have a killer speech and a valuable message to offer the world, and marketing that message correctly, will help you move down the path of becoming a handsomely paid professional speaker. And, perhaps, some day your spouse will say, “I’m so glad you became a speaker!” 

Jane Atkinson has worked as a business manager for several high-profile speakers, including Golden Gavel recipient Peter Legge, and she was Vice President at International Speakers Bureau in Dallas. She’s the author of the book, The Wealthy Speaker: The Proven Formula for Building Your Successful Speaking Business. Reach her at