I often get asked by already-pro speakers, and near-pro speakers, how to take their speaking game higher.  They ask me questions like: How do I kick-start my career?  What will be that easy path to success?  What are the secrets to cracking the nut of getting all the highly-paid speeches you can handle?  Ah, if I had a dollar for every time those questions were asked, why, I’d have over a thousand dollars. . . .

So here are the answers, free for all, and you’re not going to like them.  In fact, you’re probably going to hate this tough career love for speakers, but you ignore it at your peril.

Here goes…

1.If you don’t set goals, you’ll never get there.

I’ll start gently.  “I just want speaking gigs,” people say to me, “But I’m not greedy.”  As if that humble attitude made a difference.  Here’s the tough love:  let go of the emotional baggage and get practical.  Sit down with a spreadsheet and ask yourself, exactly how many speeches do I want to give next year?  Pick the goal honestly and realistically.  Deals will vary, but how much on average do I want to make per speech?  And finally, so that’s my gross, what are my expenses?  Can I afford to be a speaker next year?  If the answer is yes, then go for it.  If the answer is no, then you need a supplementary income, lower expenses, higher gross, or a loan.  Or a different line of work.

2.You will live and die by your speaker ratings and feedback, but if you change your approach because of a negative review, you will surely die. What other people think about you doesn’t matter – especially the negative stuff. Rather, listen to the overall audience feedback on what you’re doing right, and then keep doing more of that – to a point.  Caveat:  on the whole, audiences give useless specific feedback.  They don’t know what makes a good speech, and they only remember bits and pieces.  They will almost always vote for humor and fluff over hard, life-changing messages.  Especially large audiences.  So you have to learn to take away from audiences the signs that do matter.  Do they mob the stage after the speech, to shake your hand, ask a question, or get an autograph?  Or do they slink away without a word?  The former is good feedback.  The latter is bad.  Pay attention to the former.  Do more of what you did in the speech that time.

Your goal is to find your voice and speak your truth.  Period.  Sure, there’s some showmanship involved.  It’s a craft as well as a passion.  Do learn the craft.  But first comes your voice and truth.

3.You have much less control over your career success than you think.  There are fads, moments, and trends in public speaking like anything else.  Your speech topic may wax and wane in the kind of box office it does.  You’ve got to stick to your truth and passion through both the waxing and the waning.  If you chase fads, you’ll never build up a base of success that will ultimately serve you in good and bad times.

4.You’re going to fail a lot before you’re successful. This is where the craft comes in, especially. Your stories are never as interesting to others as they are to you.  You’re going to say and do the wrong things.  You’re going to react like the proverbial speaking deer in the presentation headlights when something catastrophic happens, oh, the first dozen times.  Part of becoming a successful speaker is scar tissue from embarrassments, goofs, bad choices, and technological meltdowns.

5.Your speech is not a set of slides, or a kind of software, or a gimmick of any kind. A great speech is voice and truth, not stuff, slides, or magic tricks. Speakers get together and talk about pointers and clickers, Prezi and PowerPoint, laveliers and wireless mics, and it’s all fascinating bullshit.  You find your speech first, then worry about the packaging.

6.There is never any substitute for the actual work of rehearsal.  I’m amazed by speakers who tell me, “I thought through the speech in my head in the car on the way to the conference.  That’s all the rehearsal I need.”  In rehearsal you find out all the most important things, like where you’re going to put your body when you say what, because as much as we’re in love with our ideas and our minds, it’s our bodies that rule the day.  Especially for speeches.  They are performance art.  Yes, they are ideas first, but they only exist as performances.

7.You have to be prepared to let go of a favorite joke, story, and even speech and develop a new one.  Especially today, but it has always been true that a speech is the product of a speaker, an audience, a topic – and a moment in time.  You can’t expect to go on giving the same successful speech forever, or even for a tiny part of forever.  Kill your darlings!  RIP your jokes!  Make up new stuff!

8.Even worse, your career itself will end.  Ideas have their time, as do voices.  One of the greatest actors of the twentieth century, Richard Burton, seems over the top and mannered today.  Styles change, audiences react differently, and the zeitgeist moves on.  Right now, we’re in an angry era, speaking from a vantage point of the US, but it seems to be true around the world as well.  That tells me two things:  niceness isn’t fashionable right now, and it will be once again.

9.You’re going to worry about the wrong things.  In spite of all this advice you’re going to finish your coffee, put down your ipad or phone, and start to worry about your next gig.  You’re going to think about the technology, the flight connections, and swapping out that one slide for that other slide.  You’re not going to sit down and re-think the speech, amping up the honesty, vulnerability, and raw insight.  That’s what you should do, but you’re not going to do it.

10.Social media will make your life miserable, but you can’t live without it. You need social media to create buzz, unless you’re regularly starring opposite Scarlett Johansson in big budget Hollywood movies. And even then….Well, you need it, but it is going to kill your joy.  There will always be someone on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram with a better gig, audience, or venue than you, and you’re going to suffer as a result.  I’d tell you to ignore that whole miasma, but you’re not going to, so I’ll save my breath.

Good luck.

I do want to help, really, so we’re offering once again our one-day workshop, Powerful Public Speaking, in Boston on October 24th. Everything you need to know to create and deliver a great speech.  Join us – spaces are limited!

10 Comments

  1. Wonderful insights Nick! Even as someone who isn’t pursuing a. Paid speaking career these points are so true. In shifting from the “expert” speaker to a leader and plenary my entire approach needed to change. People want to be entertained more than educated and it’s a true skill to do both if you want to make change happen.

  2. Nick, I enjoy reading your work (loved Power Cues), and this is one of my favorite posts to date. The line that resonates with me is “…niceness isn’t fashionable right now and it will be once again.” I had the pleasure of meeting you years ago, and aside from your sharp mind, I recall how kind a respectful you were. There is a lot of wisdom in this post, and I plan to read it more than once! Thank you!

  3. Nick, thank you for smacking me dead between the eyes with your article. It is much appreciated and I received it (appreciatively) when it was shared by Joe Calloway. I’ve got a schedule of big (for me, anyway) speaking events coming up. You’ve just inspired me to improve myself for my future clients.

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