Written by Dana Brownlee as a Forbes Contributor
In my previous post, “Tired Of Speaking For Free? Here’s How To Get Paid To Speak,” I tackled the thorny issue of how to secure paid speaking engagements, but getting paid engagements presumes the speaker is worth the big bucks and not all are. Easily commanding five figures per talk, the best speakers have taken their craft to the next level. Here are a few nuggets of advice for novice professional speakers seeking to do just that.
Tip #1 – Distinguish yourself through content focus or speaking style/approach
Given the low barriers to entry for the speaking profession, virtually everyone seems to think they’re professional speaker material and half of those may decide to give it a whirl. With so much competition out there it’s imperative to distinguish yourself – set yourself apart from the pack either through your content focus or delivery style/approach. To clarify, simply being engaging and dynamic isn’t a distinguishing quality. That’s expected for a top-notch speaker, but if you happen to incorporate an instrumental piece into your presentation, for example, that’s different (and memorable).
Typically, speakers distinguish themselves with their content focus. As a social media thought leader and speaker, Carlos Gil touts the importance of developing a unique pitch for conference organizers or other potential clients. “It’s best to research what already exists in the market and create something that feels original,” insists Gil. As an example, years ago when he pitched himself for a speaking slot at a major industry conference, he intentionally avoided pitching talks on more prevalent social media platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn and instead opted to focus his talk on Snapchat (lesser known at the time) because he wanted to distinguish himself in a crowded field of social media experts. VP Technology, eSpeakers Dave Reed adds, “Avoid the temptation to speak on “anything” just because you’re good on stage and you can. Speakers who choose a very narrow lane for their brand tend to get successful faster. Pick a specific problem you solve and become the known go-to person for that.”
Another way to distinguish yourself is through delivery style or approach. For me, this has been one of my most distinguishing qualities. Typically, when I get rave reviews from organizers or participants, they comment first on the energy in the room and next about the practical nature of my content and recommendations. One of my personal pet peeves is those presentations where you feel lathered up during the presentation, but when you get back to your desk, you don’t have actionable tips you can use to enhance your situation. As a result, I’ve adopted an approach that focuses on providing really practical, easy to implement techniques and tips. What does that look like? If I’m advising them on how to manage rambling discussion in a meeting, I don’t just suggest a technique. I also hold up the time tracker, show them how it works during the talk and tell them where they can buy it. They love it, and it makes my talks a bit different from others’.Today In: Leadership
Tip #2 – Make sure you’re a true expert who has done it, not just read about it
There is no substitution for speaking from first-hand experience – period, hard stop! Unfortunately, too many speakers are skilled orators and tempted to speak on topics that aren’t truly their area of expertise, and audiences can tell. Anyone can rattle off bullet points on a slide. What makes a speaker truly compelling is their personal stories, examples, and anecdotes. Audiences relate to a speaker through similar experiences, and they can tell if you’re just a chapter ahead of them in the book. They want to hear from people who are true experts on their topic. This doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers — of course not. For most complicated issues there is no single answer or single way to view the issue so they’re not expecting perfection, but they do want someone with deep expertise having done the work themselves.
Even more disturbing is how often people approach me who are interested in speaking for a living but have a deer in headlights look when I ask about their topic or area of expertise. While style and speaking ability are certainly important, the best speakers are drawn to the profession because they have something truly compelling to say! If you aren’t bursting at the seams with something truly compelling to share with a group, you’re probably not ready for professional speaking.
Tip #3 – Focus your message on their problem, not your expertise
Yes, you need to be an expert, but don’t lead with that. The only reason I started writing articles and giving presentations on managing difficult bosses was that the #1 question I’d get at the end of my talks (irrespective of the topic) was something along the lines of, “But, how do I use this technique if my boss is the one who is the problem?” It was clear to me that managing difficult bosses was a pain point for most of my audiences, so I immediately started developing content focused in that area (based on my own personal experiences and later my own research). So while it’s great to be an authority in an area, it’s important that the message clearly focuses on their problem, their issue, their challenge. Then, the speaker’s expertise can swoop in to solve that problem. Developing case study scenarios that illuminate the problem can be an effective tactic for making sure you’re leading with their problem. The shift in focus from a speaker expertise perspective to an audience’s problem perspective can easily mean the difference between having them sitting on the edge of their seats or playing Candy Crush on their phones while making a grocery list during your talk.
Tip #4 – Customize your talks as much as possible
Most speakers have a handful of talks that they offer as their standard presentations and that’s perfectly fine, but it’s also important to take the time to understand each specific audience and tailor the message to best connect with them. Certified Speaking Professional and past president of the National Speakers Association Lenora Billings-Harris insists, “Clients want you to treat them as though they are the most important. Focusing on the engagement by interviewing the client more than once, conducting research on the organization and then tailoring that information to the audience show you made the time to learn their needs.” While it’s tempting to simply regurgitate the same talk to vastly different audiences, doing so can be very risky. In a worst-case scenario, audiences will sense that you’re out of touch with them and turn on you. Years ago I attended a dinner meeting for a project management organization, and the speaker clearly knew very little about the discipline of project management. As a result, he made some flippant comments that were somewhat offensive to the audience. I could literally feel the room turn on him in that moment. For the rest of the talk, the tension in the room was palpable. I’m sure he regretted not doing his homework on the ride home.
The good news is that tailoring a talk doesn’t require becoming an expert in every industry, company or organization. It is important though to familiarize yourself enough so that you’re speaking their language so to speak and using relevant references and terminology. For example, do they refer to customers, clients, patients, patrons, users or constituents? Using the correct terms helps them relate to your message. If you have a case study or an example, share it with the event organizer in advance and ask them to suggest rewording to make it more relevant for their audience. Don’t assume you understand how your topic might manifest in their environment. I often speak on the topic of managing difficult bosses and was surprised during an oral health summit when someone asked how to address a domineering boss (dentist) who barked orders during surgery while the patient was awake? It definitely wasn’t the typical office environment I was used to referencing, but it was clearly relevant for her line of work. The more time you invest in getting to know the audience and tailoring your content to speak to them, the better your message will connect.
Tip #5 – Create a high energy, highly interactive experience
There’s not much worse than a boring, dry talk! I always hate those presentations that I leave thinking to myself, “Well, that’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back!” One way to ward off that reaction is to provide high-value content that they can use immediately, Another way is to provide a high energy experience that engages them throughout the process. Speakers have different techniques for creating a high energy experience, so find one that feels authentic for you – and work it! Some presenters come into pumping music, others tell jokes throughout, others are great storytellers or have very animated presentation styles. In my sessions, I tend to walk the audience constantly which helps to keep them engaged throughout, and I generally like to have them moving in some way every 15 minutes or so. Sometimes, they’re moving to talk to their neighbor or complete a quick group activity. Other times, they’re doing an improv style ice breaker, responding to a question that I’ve posed by raising hands, or maybe lining themselves up to indicate their leadership style tendency. My overall goal though is to ensure that they’re not sitting there like a bump on a log listening to me talk for 45-60 minutes. I’ve always felt that the best presentations are more about the audience than the speaker so finding ways to invite the audience to participate, not just consume can be the key to creating a highly interactive experience. Consequently, many speakers that excel at this are leadership speakers.