As a speaker coach, and nurturer of speaking careers, I hear from people every day asking for help to become a paid speaker, a more successful paid speaker, a speaker who gets standing ovations, a speaker who breaks the mold and defies the categories, a speaker who changes the world. And I love it; it’s my job and my privilege to help some of these passionate visionaries become the best pros they can be.

After 30 years in the business, and nearly 20 of those at Public Words, I’ve seen enough speakers succeed and fail to understand the patterns of those successes and failures. Mostly I post about the secrets to success. But today I’m turning the kaleidoscope around to help you understand the patterns of failure that I see over and over again. Maybe you’ll get the picture in time to avoid making one of these classic mistakes. So here they are: the three secrets to public speaking failure. I’m going to pose them as questions, because that’s the way they typically come to me.

1.Can you get me represented by a speaker bureau? My heart always sinks when I hear this question, because I know what the speaker is looking for: a shortcut to success. The speaker believes that being listed on a speaker bureau web page means that the phone will start ringing and the gigs will start coming in faster than you can say “$20K plus travel.”

Here’s the problem with that. Just being listed on a bureau page is like hanging out your shingle as a lawyer in New York City. You’ve got to do it – it’s one of those table stakes now-I’m-a-real-speaker steps you must take – but by doing so you only become one of a huge number of people all competing for the same scarce invitations.

Here’s how the math works. A typical bureau might represent anywhere from hundreds to thousands of speakers. I spoke to a bureau not so long ago that had 18,000 speakers listed on its site.

Let’s say the bureau gets a request from a company to provide it a keynote speaker for an upcoming conference. The bureau will select 6 to 12 of its top, most in-demand speakers, the ones that everyone is talking about, the ones with buzz, the ones with a powerful social media presence, the ones in the free media, the ones making the news, the ones with a NY Times bestselling book – and it will send materials on all 12 to the conference organizer. So IF you are listed, and IF you are one of the top speakers the bureau represents, THEN your odds are still one in twelve. In other words, you need to get included in 12 selection sets to reasonably expect one gig.

So while getting represented by a bureau is a good step, it’s not sufficient.

2. Can you make me a great sizzle reel? This one is another depressing question. Sizzle reels are essential to public speaking success, of course.

(If you don’t know, a sizzle reel is an excerpt from at least one speech that shows you giving a fantastic presentation to the kind of group you want to be paid to speak to. Sizzle reels are in flux these days; they used to call for just one speech in its entirety on VHS tape, but now that they’ve gone online, they are moving to shorter, more varied content. More like a commercial showcasing your speaking talents. But some bureaus still require the old full speech format.)

But once again, the sizzle reel is not an end in itself. What you need to make the sizzle reel have any point is the right people seeing it. So, like any businessperson, you need to think about your audience first. Who is going to buy your speech? What would they need to know about you to close a sale? And how do you reach those people? Just putting a sizzle reel on a website is about as sure-fire a guarantor of success as putting out a YouTube video of your cat is guarantee of 10 million views.

Both of these fixations make the mistake of putting the emphasis in the wrong place. It’s like the naïve enthusiast who buys top-end golf clubs, expensive golf clothing, and a membership in a top club expecting to become a fabulous golfer overnight.

Anyone worth his or her golfing salt knows that the way to become a fabulous golfer is to work hard at the craft of golfing. The clothes and the clubs don’t matter until you’re good enough to make a difference with them.

3. My content is great; can you just help me with the delivery? OR, my delivery is great; can you just help me with the content? This question is truly depressing, because it usually masks insecurity – someone who doesn’t want to even consider his or her delivery, or content, because he or she already believes, deep down, that he or she is inadequate in this or that department.

What I’ve seen is that content and delivery are deeply and naturally interrelated. Often delivery issues stem from content that isn’t working. And the opposite is also true. It’s a matter of belief, ultimately. You have to believe in yourself in order to deliver great content, and you have to believe in the content in order to give a great delivery.

These questions (and others like them) mask one of two things: insecurity or impatience. You need to have enough passion for your cause to believe in yourself as the best spokesperson for it – or let someone else be that spokesperson. And you need to have enough passion to be patient for the time it takes to build a speaking career. If you have both those things, and you’re willing to work harder than anyone else, then success will be easy. I hope that’s you. And I hope it is.

We’ll be talking about the secrets to great content and delivery at our first Public Words Powerful Public Speaking conference in 6 years on April 22nd in Boston. Sign up here, and do so early to avoid disappointment – we’re deliberately limiting the size of the workshop in order to maximize personal attention.


  1. Nick –

    Great points as always…I think I asked most of these questions. you did a great job not letting me see your heart sink when I did. Reputation, references and word of mouth are the best marketing tools for a speaker. And there are not short cuts to this: Hard work, audience connection and results. like most, I remain on this exciting journey.

    1. Hi, Sean — great to hear from you. I don’t recall my heart sinking at all:-) But I thank you for your point about word of mouth — the best source for the next speech is the 300 (more or less) potential referrals in front of you — your current audience. As a coach, I constantly remind people of this, and the best way to inspire referrals is to get your audiences interacting, because that’s far more memorable than simply dumping data on them. As a speaker myself, I’ve sometimes done that well, and sometimes not so well. As you say, it’s a journey.

  2. Hi Nick

    Great post which I will share. As soon as a speaker discovers that I work with Speakers, I get asked “Can You Get Me Speaking Gigs?” Speaking is not as big in Australia as it is in the US but is definitely growing, particularly within networking groups as these have taken off in a big way over the past couple of years. Having a “sizzle reel” (love the term) helps in the process though, particularly if a potential buyer has never heard of the speaker. The first thing they say is “Have you got Video?” It’s the quality of these show reels that make or break, and some speakers really don’t really get that. Many of them try to do everything themselves , website, show reels etc., which generally results in a lacklustre platform. But definitely getting out there, honing your stuff and connecting with the audience. That’s what gets you repeat gigs.

  3. Nick, As the owner of a speakers bureau, I do indeed hear the first question–a lot. Your description of why relying only on bureaus is folly is right on the money. May I also offer a link to a piece I wrote last year to help emerging speakers better understand the role bureaus play in the surprisingly complex world of paid speaking. Perhaps those reading your blog will find it a useful complement to this conversation. For the Emerging Speaker: How to be a Bureau Hero:

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