How to get started as a professional (paid) speaker

Sheila Scarborough speaks at ICTT India 2013 in Kovalam Kerala
Speaking at an international travel technology conference in Kerala, India in 2013. I had just finished threading a microphone wire through my top in front of a room full of mostly men – be ready for anything as a speaker.

Although I’ve been a speaker on social media for tourism for years, I vividly remember getting started and the things that made me scratch my head.

When someone asked in a LinkedIn Group about becoming a pro speaker, this is the advice that I shared….

What Do You Speak About?

First I had to decide what sort of expertise I had that would translate into a 45 – 60 minute presentation. Sounds obvious, but it helps to start out with a few sample presentation titles, brief descriptions for them, and maybe some draft slide decks.

You have to be able to answer the question, “What do you speak about?” and then send the conference organizer a session title, description, bio, and head shot photo. Be prepared.

For example, I currently focus on social media for a specific industry, but when I started out I was doing more general social media how-to workshops (LinkedIn was and still is a favorite topic.) One of my early talks in 2008 was about better travel blogging, another was the impact of social media on small business.

Sample title for a business breakfast club: “Follow the Bouncing Blog Post: How the Web 2.0 World Communicates.” Sounds kinda quaint today, doesn’t it?

WHY Are You Speaking? What’s the Goal?

You also need to think through what you want your speaking to do for you personally and/or for your business.

Do you want people to hire you or buy your book because they were inspired by one of your presentations? The direct linkage can be tough to make, since no one likes hearing someone sell from the stage.

Speaking helps your visibility and your credibility, but it’s probably not going to be an immediate sales machine unless you sell weight-loss solutions or other “magic answers” to people’s problems.

It’s a long game to build awareness and reputation. I remember a line of enthusiastic people getting one of my business cards after an early presentation, and I naively assumed that they’d all be emailing me the next day to hire me or buy our Tourism Currents online course in social media.


People get back home after a conference and they get busy with their regular lives, so you must have a process for follow-up and landing the actual business.

Building Experience

Just like a writer or artist, you need a portfolio, so start out building experience and getting testimonials from speaking to small local groups….probably for free at first, but if someone asks what you charge, better have thought through some price points!

I was caught flat-footed when someone first asked me my keynote speech rate; I had to call a more experienced friend to see what she charged. Here’s a helpful Forbes piece on speaker fees.

Build experience and credibility with smaller meetings, but be bold and pitch larger events, too, about about 9 – 12 months out from the event date. My first two big ones were SXSW Interactive and BlogHer, which have a standardized speaker proposal process.

Go to event websites and look for “Call for Speakers” sorts of links. Get in early with a fantastic, compelling pitch.

Speaker Page and Sales Info

Make sure you have photos and video from those gigs, because you also need to start populating a Speaker Page on your website with examples of past work, sample video, sample slide deck(s) plus testimonials, upcoming gigs, pricing arrangements, and contact information.

Here is my own Speaker page.

Get some video made as soon as you can; people need to be able to see you in action. You can post a full presentation plus maybe a clip or two that’s a short highlight from one of your sessions.

Tip: If there’s an event that wants you to speak, and it fits your goals, but they have a very limited budget, ask about waiving your speaker fee in exchange for professional video of your presentation. If they have a videographer onsite anyway, it’s a simple way to get good footage.

Some speakers also create a “one-sheet” sales handout to summarize their speaker offerings and explain why a meeting organizer might want to hire them.

Women – Get On the Podium!

It bothers me that so many conference marketing materials feature a sea of male faces as presenters.

Too many women don’t assert themselves and confidently ask to be in the speaker lineup, and that’s why so many lineups are full of guys who do ask. Do not wait to be anointed from on high because it’s not going to happen. That’s the classic problem of women being “good girls” and waiting patiently to be recognized for their expertise.

Your success depends on YOU, not someone else’s agenda or timeline.

If you find out about a great event but discover that you’ve missed the proposal deadline, dig around to find a contact and ask to be considered anyway. Maybe they still have openings, or you might be able to fill in for someone who drops out.

Get advice, ideas, and encouragement from Denise Graveline’s blog, The Eloquent Woman.

For further reading, Hubspot’s INBOUND conference just published an excellent how-to post about landing speaking gigs. Check for a local Toastmasters in your area for more practice, and don’t miss the National Speakers Association #NSAchat on Twitter every Tuesday night.

Do you have questions about becoming a speaker, or advice to give others? Fire away in the comments below!

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About Sheila Scarborough

I'm a writer and speaker specializing in tourism, travel and social media. Co-founder of Tourism Currents (training in social media for tourism) and the Perceptive Travel Blog.
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9 Responses to How to get started as a professional (paid) speaker

  1. Nisha says:

    Great post Sheila!
    I also remember that incident of threading the microphone wire thru your top. 🙂
    Happened with me few months back, had to lift my top & ask the male support to fix the wire. 😛

    And I learnt a great lesson from you. 🙂
    Nisha´s last [post] ..Happy Mother’s Day!

  2. Thanks, Nisha! There was nothing to do that day but laugh and carry on….

  3. Great advice for this gal who still getting going. Thank you, Sheila!

  4. Thanks, Glenda – I’m so inspired by your motivational speaking career – dynamite stuff!

  5. Lois Creamer says:

    Great read Sheila! Too many think speaking is an easy business. Not so!

  6. Suzie Cheel says:

    Great post Sheila, and lots of food for thought. I must get my book written and keep building my list i can see. You have confirmed that speaking is no pushover. Thank you
    Suzie Cheel´s last [post] ..21 Tips To Follow Your Dreams

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