I am often asked by clients and prospective clients about what it takes to succeed in the ever-more-competitive world of professional speaking.  My short answer is always that, even more than talent, what you need to succeed is the ability to work harder than your competition.  Those who show toughness and hang in there, I’ve found, are the ones that succeed.

But recently I was reading about emotional intelligence and reflecting how important the attributes of EQ are for public speakers.  And that led me to consider that the question in the first paragraph deserves a longer answer.  So here are the five personal characteristics, drawn from the research on EQ, that professional speakers need to be successful.

First, the drive to succeed.  This drive is what causes you to rehearse your speech and improve your craft relentlessly, to work harder than the competition, and to keep going when everyone else has given up.  So it remains the first and most important characteristic.  Without it, you won’t have what it takes to beat the odds.

Second, self-knowledge.  An awareness of your strengths and weaknesses are essential for mastering any skill, and public speaking is no exception.  That means being prepared to hear the tough criticism and to embrace the critics.  And it also means knowing what you are good at.  I meet just as many people who are uncomfortable with their excellence as people who are unwilling to face their shortcomings.  Self-knowledge means awareness of both.

Third, self-discipline.  Being able to manage your moods, your work, and your ups and downs are all essential to surviving and thriving in the difficult life of a professional speaker.  I’ve seen speakers lash out at A/V people because their adrenaline was surging and the A/V person was the nearest human at hand.  And I’ve seen speakers handle extremely difficult situations with grace and restraint.  Guess which speakers get invited back?

Fourth, social graces.  Knowing how to deal with a wide variety of people and situations is essential, because professional speakers rarely have the same day twice.  The client, the room, and the audience are always changing, and you have to be ready for all sorts of people and settings.

Finally, empathy.  You need empathy to relate to your audiences, of course, but also to connect with your clients, the meeting planners and speaker bureaus, organizations and companies that you need to deal with.  The variety and speed of interaction is dizzying for new professional speakers, until they get used to it.  If you’re going to succeed, empathy is absolutely key to responding appropriately and sensitively to the huge numbers of people you’ll be dealing with.

So there’s the longer answer to the question of what does it take to succeed as a professional speaker.  Notice that talent is not on the list.  I assume that is a given, or you wouldn’t even be asking the question, and attempting the journey, but if you’re uncertain about your talent, then by all means join a Toastmasters club and start competing, see how far you get and gauge the reactions of your judges.  You’ll soon get a sense of how your talent stacks up against the others in the organization.  And then you’ll be ready to begin.



  1. When I first started speaking full-time in 2001, a mentor said something along the lines of, “You think your new job is being a speaker. That’s not completely true. You’re actually going to have to be a salesperson.”

    He went on to say that it’s rarely the best speakers who get on stages. It’s the ones who sell the best. If I’ve learned anything over these years in the business, it’s that the mentor was more correct than I realized. The “work harder” part of your advice is right on, and I would suggest that it’s more on our willingness to work diligently at selling than what most new speakers realize.

    1. Andy, this is a great realization; thanks for sharing it. For anyone early in their speaking careers, Andy’s comment is pure gold.

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