People ask me all the time how they can get started on a public speaking career. Perhaps they’ve seen someone give a keynote speech at a conference and they think to themselves, “I could do that. Better.” Or perhaps they’ve heard that there’s a lot of money to be made – at least, per hour – giving those big-conference keynotes. Or, most likely, they are passionate about an idea and want to spread the word faster than standing at the water cooler telling a couple of other people about their passion.
That’s where a speaking career most often begins – with an idea.
All those other things may follow, and all are potentially important aspects of a speaking career. But the idea is where you need to start. Following hard on the heels of the idea is the audience with whom you want to share the idea. The two are closely related. Ideas beget audiences and audiences beget ideas. Neither can exist without the other. So you have to figure out both, almost at the same time, but we start with the idea because that’s where the passion resides, and you need passion to take you the distance.
I spent the day recently with a wonderful client who was exploring how he might develop a successful, sustained paid speaking career. We began to talk ideas.
Now, this client proposed at least three related ideas, and at least three potential audiences. He wanted to do all of them. Not because he was megalomaniacal, or grandiose, or ego-driven. But because he was genuinely passionate about his overall idea, deeply believed in its importance, and very much wanted to share it with the world.
Those are good impulses. But it was my job to help him choose one idea and one audience, as counterintuitive as that sounds. Wouldn’t that narrow his potential impact, scope, and revenue?
No. It’s the way the world works, today. We are information-addled, over-busy digital creatures today, and when you want to get our attention, you have to narrow down your message, your brand, and your persona into a crisp, graspable bite-size chunk that we can get quickly. No half-baked, multi-faceted, renaissance personas need apply. They just won’t get traction.
What worked in Ben Franklin’s era won’t work today.
So your first job, if you want to make an impact on this world, now, is to choose your idea and your audience and make them both specific enough that they scare you a little. That’s where you need to start.
Of course, if you become wildly successful, you can extend your brand and branch out into new territory. But while you’re getting traction, keep choosing. Narrow it down. Pick one idea and one audience.
It doesn’t so much matter what the idea is. The beauty of our interconnected world is, whatever you’re passionate about, if you start talking about it, eventually you’re going to connect with an audience who cares about it as much as you do. That audience already exists.
Whatever your idea is, make sure it includes a change that you believe your audience needs to make. Why? Because the essence of a good story is change. So you’re going to need to think hard about how you want that change to take place.
If you’re having trouble coming up with an idea that excites you, start with some self-reflection. We often ask clients to tell us their life stories when we first start working together. Usually the theme becomes clear pretty quickly.
Try writing a brief bio for yourself. For each stage of your life or each job, try to come up with one lesson you learned. Identify the reasons you moved from one job or place to the next. See if a change theme starts to emerge.
If you’re struggling to choose between several different ideas, go with your passion. What gets you the most excited? What could you stay up all night talking about? What scares you the most? Remember, you’re going to devote a lot of time to this idea—you’re going to need to care about it.
Don’t try to choose the message you think will sell, at least at first. If you care about it, your passion will do the selling.
The idea. The passion. The audience. That’s where a speaking career begins.