This post is the second in an occasional series about professional speaking careers.

I often get asked about how to become a successful (i.e. sustained) professional (i.e., paid) speaker. My response, from many years of working with people to establish, to ramp up, and to sustain professional speaking careers, is that there are five essential building blocks. People try to get by without one of the five, and inevitably suffer as a result. Don’t imagine that you can beat the odds – embrace all five or labor endlessly in obscurity.

Here’s what you’ll need:

1.Your Idea

I occasionally get inquiries from people who are motivated by money, or the desire for fame, or the thrill of speaking in front of an audience. Perhaps they’ve received early success and praise for speaking, and they want more of the same. The adrenaline rush – if you like that sort of thing – you get in front of an audience is similar to the feeling of starting down a double black diamond run with a slope full of untouched powder in front of you. So you might want more of the same.

But thought leadership – which is what we’re talking about – begins with a thought, an idea, a passionate desire to change the world in some way. That passion is important because it will sustain you through the hard work and slow times that everyone works through before you get to the fun part – the speaking invites, the fan emails, the accolades from around the world. No one escapes paying their dues in one way or another. It’s just that if you really care about the idea, you’ll enjoy paying those dues rather than resenting the cost.

2.Your Speech

Why give a speech? Because the in-person, move-the-audience-to-action speech is still the most powerful way to get people actually, really doing something different. It’s not the most efficient; a viral video reaches many more people faster. But most of us watch that video and then forget it. We rarely change our lives because of something like that. A speech, on the other hand, can lead to action and life-changing consequences. So speeches have a kind of power that the written word alone – or even the filmed word – doesn’t have. It’s why we still go to musical performances even though it’s arguably much easier to download the music and listen to it on earbuds.

But you need to think of that speech not as your information but rather as a solution for a problem the audience has. It’s the audience that will own (your) speech ultimately, and that shift in thinking begins the serious creation of a powerful keynote speech that moves (individual) mountains.

3.Your Presence

Once you’ve written a powerful speech, you need to learn how to deliver it powerfully. A great message alone is not enough to make a great communicator. Non-verbal communication is just as important — particularly when you’re delivering a speech. When you get up on that stage, you’re competing for every audience member’s attention with the person sitting next to them, the breakfast buffet down the hall, and worst of all, the smart phone in their pocket.

Welcome to a lifetime of work on personal stagecraft, presence, and authenticity.

4.Your Book

A well-written book published by a traditional publishing house is still the required entrance ticket to the professional public speaking business, and the publishing process is mysterious and tricky to navigate. You’re in for a one- to two-year journey at the least. Writing a book is a lot of work; selling a book is even harder. For that, see building block number five.

5.Your Community

Just because you’ve got a good idea, a book as proof that you’re serious, a well-written speech, and the charisma to deliver your speech well, doesn’t mean the world will necessarily pay attention. In order to build a sustainable business as a speaker, you need an active community of fans and fellow enthusiasts. Nowadays, the good news is that you get to use social media to start building that community. That’s also the bad news, because that work never ends. But making a name for yourself this way will create ongoing, organic demand for you as a speaker.

Those are the five building blocks of a successful public speaking career. You need them all; skipping any single one will leave you in the cold, nose against the windowpane, envying the successful speakers, wondering what’s wrong. So get started on your journey, knowing all the stops you’re going to need to make along the way.

And good luck!

4 Comments

  1. That’s a helpful post, Nick.

    Something that wasn’t obvious to me when I started 15 years ago was that a person can make a very rewarding career in speaking without having to strictly be a keynote speaker. Most of my speaking is in half-day or full-day workshops, though keynotes have been an increasing percentage. But when it comes to breaking into the profession, starting as a subcontractor for a training firm can create cash flow, develop technique, and allow someone to test if this is for them.

    I can’t imagine a more rewarding career at this point, and I know for a fact I never would have earned as much money in a corporate job. There are many paths to succeeding in the profession, but near the top of the list needs to be listening to the advice of Dr. Nick Morgan. 🙂

    You make me better. Thanks, Nick.

    1. Thanks so much, Andy — it’s a really good reminder that keynotes aren’t the only speeches worth giving. The half-day or full-day workshop is the right vehicle for many people starting out, as you say. My focus in the post was on the keynote career.

  2. Nick, first off, thank you for all the great advice on your website. I’m just beginning my public speaking career after spending this year developing my 1 +1 = 2 MANY healthy decisions program. So far I’ve booked several engagements after a couple weeks of marketing.

    My story centers on my experiences with drunk driving, suicide, and coping with the loss of my best friend. Is there a market for speakers with this message of making healthy decisions? I see most public speakers are focused on businesses, which makes sense for their message and the financial aspect. But my message isn’t suited for businesses, is it?

    Thank you,
    Daniel

    1. Thanks, Daniel —

      The issue to focus on is what is the problem the business audience has for which your expertise is the solution. Once you know that, you know how to develop your audience. Business audiences deal everyday with stress, health and safety decisions, and the like. Perhaps you might find a way in there.

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