How to Get Public Speaking Gigs

Updated on June 12, 2017
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Heidi Thorne is an author and business speaker specializing in sales and marketing topics for coaches, consultants, and solopreneurs.

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If you're an author or consultant, no doubt you've heard that public speaking can help build your reputation and sales. That is true. Though some online business coaching programs make it sound easy, getting speaking gigs, especially paid ones, can be a significant sales effort in itself.

Let's take a look at some of the common ways in which speaking engagements are found and booked these days.

Associations

Associations of all types—chambers of commerce, business networking groups, civic groups such as Rotary and Lions Club, industry associations, etc.—are always looking for speakers to present at their meetings, conferences, events, and conventions.

However, it may be difficult to break into the association arena. These days, many associations first look to their membership to fill their speaker rosters. Why? Because they can usually offer these folks a free event ticket or other perks as a "payment" of sorts. This helps them save on event budgets while giving recognition to good members. If you're a member of one of these groups, this is an opportunity.

The bad news is that this may not offer attendees and members fresh material and outsider perspective on topics. It also makes it very difficult for "outsiders" to get engagements. So expect to do a significant amount of networking to make association connections for speaking opportunities.

What Will It Take: Connect with the person that oversees booking public speakers to find out the group's booking policies and procedures. In many associations, who to contact may change from year to year. So update these connections regularly.

Membership in associations of associations (not a misprint) could also be considered (e.g., ASAE: American Society of Association Executives). Some offer special programs for association suppliers (including speakers). But it can be VERY expensive.

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Referrals

Getting referred to an event organizer for potential speaking opportunities is the goal. The referring party has done the heavy lifting by making the introduction to a decision maker in an organization. These referrals don't happen overnight. They're built from years of making connections and establishing a speaking reputation.

Event organizers often attend many events themselves (both online and offline). Usually, they're going for the education or value that the event provides. But while they're there, they can be scoping out new potential speakers. In this way, getting one speaking gig can lead to additional bookings. I have received invitations and referrals to speak over the years (including paid ones) from event attendees.

What Will It Take: Active networking, both online and offline, with people who are likely to have connections for speaking engagements in your topic area. Many people may know of groups who book speakers. But not all of those opportunities may be right for you.

Get your public speaking "story" straight so that when you network, you can give people a clear idea of the speaking opportunities that are ideal for you.

Speaker Bureaus

I've had people ask me about speaker bureaus. Bureaus can cater to a certain types of speakers, topics, or geographical areas. Like agents for book writers, bureaus can be very selective in whom they represent. Some bureaus will only take on celebrity level speakers or those who have a high appeal to rich corporate markets. Why? Because there's no money for them in representing speakers who can only draw low speaking fees.

Bureaus will take a percentage of speaker's fees and may charge retainer fees as well. This also discourages low fee speakers from signing on with them.

What Will It Take: Becoming a sought-after speaker in your topic area. Bureaus need a speaker they can "sell." Also, if signing on with a bureau, be prepared to pay them commissions and retainers for their services, which can be significant.

Speaker Directories

Like their bureau cousins, speaker directories' mission is to connect speakers with event organizers. However, very little active representation is offered to speakers, save for getting a listing on a website.

These directories may be for-free or for-fee for either or both speakers and event organizers. However, the fees charged are minuscule when compared to bureaus. Sometimes the opportunities are small in terms of value and dollar value, too, since the events may be cash strapped and looking for anyone who will speak for low or no fee.

What Will It Take: Not much, although it depends on the directory. Do a Google search for speaker directories and choose one that fits your topic, goals, and budget.

Colleges, Universities, and Schools

When I hear suggested that colleges, especially community colleges, are great opportunities for speakers to be hired as either part-time teachers or guest lecturers, I want to laugh out loud! I'm not suggesting it's impossible. But I am saying that the world has changed and this is less of a possibility than in the past.

Many years ago, community colleges may have been less discriminating when hiring their adjunct (part time) faculty. I both benefitted and got annoyed by that practice. I was able to secure some terrific teaching opportunities through networking connections. But when I took courses which were taught by less than competent "walk on" type instructors, I felt I wasted both my time and money. My favorite was a graphic design instructor who said we'd learn more from just playing around on the computer, than in the class.

Today, this is not the case. Landing part time teaching opportunities at colleges, even for continuing education classes, is a competitive business. Plus, now there are stricter requirements for hiring, including background checks, credit checks, and extensive interviewing processes. Educational standards may also be a lot stricter at many schools, making it imperative for them to thoroughly screen their faculty candidates. Add to this that if you are speaking to help promote your consulting or other business, you will be prohibited from doing so.

So if you see a book or article that suggests you can easily ply your silver-tongued speaking skills for pay in academia, realize that you're looking at a historical relic or an uninformed source.

What Will It Take: Being eligible to teach in your topic area. That may mean having certain types of degrees or training. Be prepared for a long and strenuous interview process that could last for months. For example, I recently applied for a business teaching position at one of our local colleges and heard back from the school 13 months later. This, coupled with the fact that you are not allowed to actively promote yourself and your business, makes this opportunity one that requires very careful consideration.

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Social Media

I've heard suggested that speakers should reach out to event organizers through social media channels, particularly LinkedIn. Can it work? Possibly. But it could require a significant investment of research and effort to find the right people. And, let's be honest, how do you feel about people who connect with you on social media to sell their services or ingratiate themselves into your business? I thought so. Use with caution and keep all outreach efforts professional.

What Will It Take: Outreach to event organizers on social channels is akin to cold calling. Be prepared for playing a numbers game since many of these people are already bombarded with these speaker requests. Only make genuine, relevant connections on social media.

Selling from the Stage

These events are usually hosted by a noted individual or organization who invites other speakers to present. The speakers pay for the privilege to present and sell from the stage. They also benefit from any pre-event promotions. Speakers pay the organizer in the form of cash payments, paying an exhibit fee, sponsorship, and/or promotional consideration.

What Will It Take: Watch for announcements on social media, email marketing, and networking updates. While some bigger events may have a national presence, these can also be done with locals. However, carefully assess the potential audience, sales opportunities, and other benefits before investing since the investment could run into the hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.

Hosting Your Own Event

Some speakers who have just given up on the possibility of scoring speaking gigs have turned to hosting their own events. For those speakers who have a topic that appeals to individuals, as opposed to corporate or association audiences, this may be one of the only options for gaining speaking opportunities. And while these speakers can retain all the event revenues, they also have to pay all the very high costs of hosting an event which could run into the thousands of dollars.

What Will It Take: Cash! Do a thorough marketing, cost, and profit analysis BEFORE ever attempting anything of this scale. It could cost you thousands in meeting room fees, event insurance (yes, you need it), food and beverage, advertising, and so much more. Consider hiring a VERY experienced event planner (not your friend who plans great parties!) to help you navigate these risky and expensive waters.

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Being a Podcast Guest or Online Presenter

Today, virtual "public" speaking can provide opportunities to reach a wide variety of target audiences. This can be done by becoming a podcast guest or signing on to online course education portals (e.g., Udemy).

What Will It Take: To become a guest on a podcast, first listen to and follow the show to see if you are a good fit. If yes, research each podcast for procedures on how to become a guest since it varies from host to host. For other online education, you may be the one producing the presentation; other sites may be just looking for presenters. There are so many virtual venues, it would be difficult to address all of them here. Do your own online research and keep your eyes open on social media since many opportunities of this type are likely to be promoted there.

Being the Go-To Expert

The days of "professional" speakers, those who could talk on multiple topics and often served as "entertainment" at events, are becoming history. Today, events are looking for experts in particular fields and topics. Building your reputation as the go-to expert is a way to cut through the clutter, reduce the hard sell to get speaking gigs, and build speaking referrals.

What Will It Take: Actually becoming an expert!

Disclaimer: Both the publisher and author have used their best efforts in preparation of this information. No representations or warranties for its contents, either expressed or implied, are offered or allowed and both parties disclaim any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for your particular purpose. The advice and strategies presented herein may not be suitable for you, your situation or business. Consult with a professional advisor where and when appropriate. Neither the publisher nor author shall be liable for any loss of profit or any other damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential or punitive, arising from or relating to your reliance on this information.

Questions & Answers

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    • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

      Heidi Thorne 

      13 months ago from Chicago Area

      Blond, great questions!

      If the group of speakers is being coordinated through one person or organization (such as the Tony Robbins example), then there's less of the power struggle. But when there's a "committee" of speakers who want to come together for an event, it can be chaotic. Either everyone wants control (as you note) OR no one wants control and nobody wants to do anything to promote or organize the effort. What a mess. Better to have someone in a leadership role.

      One of the other things you note--and which I, too, have observed--is that when there's a very full agenda of speakers, it becomes overwhelming for attendees. Even if they've had a positive experience, attendees may not implement anything they've learned because there was no depth of discussion and they mentally had to shift gears all day. Sometimes I wonder if that's intentional since that might keep people coming back for more? Hmm...

      For writing and publishing, I'd have to ask what type of attendees would be at the event and what is the purpose of the event? Then I might be able to share some more informed insight or experience. Let me know and we can continue the discussion.

      Thank you for sharing your experience and questions! Have a great day!

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 

      13 months ago from Brazil

      Heidi, you've covered both what to do and what not to do, which is helpful.

      I can see the pitfalls of trying to organize one yourself, but what about as a group? Is it a case of too many speakers wanting control?

      I recently was doing some online research about a Tony Robbins' (organized talk) in Fiji. He had so many different speakers, my head was spinning trying to remember what each person was going to be talking about. He had nutritionists, financial advice, therapists and a multitude of other "specialists".

      With regards to the field of writing and publishing, what type of speakers do you think would be a good fit to give an audience a well-rounded presentation?

    • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

      Heidi Thorne 

      13 months ago from Chicago Area

      Hi purl3agony! Glad you found it helpful. Thanks so much for stopping by and have a beautiful day!

    • purl3agony profile image

      Donna Herron 

      13 months ago from USA

      Hi Heidi - I had heard of speaker bureaus but a lot of the other resources that you mention are new to me. Thanks for sharing this extensive list and the pros and cons of each.

    • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

      Heidi Thorne 

      13 months ago from Chicago Area

      Well, billybuc, at least you have the clarity and commitment to say no. I, too, have a presence in the local networking scene. But some of the opportunities just don't work for me. Thanks for sharing your experience with us, as always! Have a delightful Sunday!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      13 months ago from Olympia, WA

      And then there's the whole "I DON'T WANT TO DO IT" thing, which I'm currently embracing. LOL I'm pretty well-known in this city from my years of teaching and working with community leaders, so getting a speaking gig would not be that difficult. I simply don't want to do it. :)

    • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

      Heidi Thorne 

      13 months ago from Chicago Area

      Flourish, I'll admit that a career of speaking can be grueling, even if it's just done locally. These days I'm more discriminating in the invitations I consider and accept. Thanks for the kind words and hope you're having a delightful weekend!

    • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

      Heidi Thorne 

      13 months ago from Chicago Area

      Hi AliciaC! Glad you found it helpful. Thanks for stopping by and have a lovely day!

    • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

      Heidi Thorne 

      13 months ago from Chicago Area

      Thanks, Larry, for kind words. Have a great day!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      13 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for sharing more of your extensive knowledge, Heidi. Your articles are always very useful.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      13 months ago from USA

      I used to lead a local cat nonprofit and had a number of invites for speaking appearances (mostly at Rotary clubs and women's groups, for example). I can't imagine doing that regularly. It took a lot of time. Kudos to anyone who has the energy and can connect it to their business or make a business out of it. The speakers directories seems like a near-sham. You provide great or advice for people in this area.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      13 months ago from Oklahoma

      Good advice.

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