Giving a speech is a high-adrenaline, people-oriented, immediate-gratification event.  The ranks of professional speakers tend to be filled with extroverts, not surprisingly. Their reasons for opting for a life on the road vary from a need to be loved by large crowds to a passion for changing the world for the better – with all the possible reasons on the selfish-selfless spectrum in between.

The people who succeed on this path tend to have all the best qualities of extroverts without too many of the failings.  They’re hard-working, resilient, grateful, smart, driven, and competitive.  They’re not usually narcissistic, needy, insecure, or lacking a personal compass.

So far so good.  But one of the ironies, perhaps, of public speaking success is that you not only have to be good on the stage, but you also have to be good behind the scenes at the same time.  What do I mean by that?

For every keynote speech the typical speaker gets, he or she has been considered and passed over by 9 other opportunities.  So, of course, you have to be resilient.  But more importantly, you have to do the long, slow, painstaking work of establishing a brand, a community, and a marketing plan to bring the former to the latter.

The skills involved in accomplishing this other task are very similar to the twin requirements for an author not only to write a great book but also to market that book to an increasingly overwhelmed, distracted, and shrinking reading public.  You have to figure out what the key elements of your message are, decide who should hear them, and plan how to reach those people in ways that are sufficiently compelling.

In the case of the speaker, it’s absolutely essential to have a group of like-minded people who talk you up and put you forward as a great keynoter in one venue after another.  They’re going to be animated by the ideas you espouse and that they’re keen on as well, but they also have to have a strong sense that you’re the best spokesperson for those ideas.  When the opportunity comes, then, they’ll be the ones who say, “Hire Jane, because she understands the debate about X better than anyone.”  Or perhaps, “Hire Jane because she gets us, our particular interests, better than anyone.”

Too many speakers hope for a viral tweet or video or blog post that will put their name in front of the public and make the rest easy.  And that does happen once in a great while, but as a strategy, wish fulfillment leaves a good deal to be desired.  It may not come your way, waiting for it is no fun, and you might as well be doing something useful while you’re waiting.

But the deeper reason not to count on the viral is the very nature of that sort of publicity itself.  What do you recall about the last viral tweet, video, or post you saw?  Exactly.  The truth is that people move on from the viral as fast as they glom on to it, and that’s not helpful to you, the successful speaker.

What you want is sustained attention, not very occasional bursts of interest.  That’s a much slower, more deliberate process, which involves starting an authentic conversation with a public that cares about the same thing that you do, and that you (and that slice of the public) are willing to engage in for a long, long time.




  1. Good morning Nick

    “Whole duck or no dinner” is a phrase I grew up with, which means “all in or not at all”, no half measures. It is about “sustained attention” on your audience and their needs.

    You highlight the long game for every speaker so well. A “flash on the pan” burns out quickly and true stars burn brightly beyond their time.

    May I wish you and yours a very happy and peaceful Easter Holiday.

    Kindest regards

  2. Great post Nick, on the money. The old saying holds true – it takes seven years to become an overnight success in speaking.

    I know it is not the point of this post, but I particularly liked how you laid out how you could better position yourself so that others refer you more effectively, “‘Hire Jane, because she understands the debate about X better than anyone.’ Or perhaps, ‘Hire Jane because she gets us, our particular interests, better than anyone.'” Those are very different than, “He/She was a great speaker!”

    Keep up the good posts-

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