SuperCompetent Speaking: How to Become a Professional Speaker

Some things to consider before you leave that 9-to-5 job and segue into the world of professional speaking.

So, you’re considering the life of a professional speaker. Prepare yourself for an exciting career where you can travel as much as you’re home; continuously meet fascinating new people; and enhance the lives of total strangers with your words, experience, and enthusiasm. It’s an exciting, rewarding job. It’s been a significant part of my life for decades now, and I love my career now more than ever.

Unless you’re already famous or have a profound, life-changing experience to share, you’ll have a lot of work to do before you launch your speaking career in earnest. Here are some things to consider before you leave that 9-to-5 job and segue into the world of professional speaking:

  1. Get real-world experience before you quit the employment ranks. People always want to know “how I got started” as a professional speaker. You don’t really just “start.” I highly recommend you get some real-world training experience first. My first job in the training profession was as an employee with TRW Defense Systems. Understanding of the role of training vendors in a corporate setting is invaluable when you start approaching prospective clients, and you get paid while you learn. I then taught adjunct courses at the University of Colorado, which gave me skills in instructional design. You could teach a class at a Learning Annex, community college, university extension center, or Free University in your area. Next, I presented seminars around the country for CareerTrack, Inc., which gave me a broad understanding of the meetings industry and gave me extensive platform time in front of real learners.
  2. Get business training. I went to college and got my undergraduate and Master’s degrees in business. The biggest reason people fail when they break into the speaking business is they fail to understand it is a business. It takes marketing, accounting, technology, customer relations, systems, public relations, and financial savvy to make it work. You have to know how to market your services, relate to meeting planners and bureaus, create educational resources, and learn how to run a business. Most people in this profession fail not because they’re not good speakers but because they can’t get people to hire them. If nothing else, take some college business courses for no credit in the areas you lack skill.
  3. Get some platform time. Let me dispel one myth of the professional speaking business. Some people may tell you never to speak for free, which I believe is ridiculous. When I first started speaking, I would talk to anyone, anytime who would listen to me speak. You must get time on the platform! I had a nice collection of coffee mugs from all the rotary groups I visited. There are many service clubs in your area that are in desperate need of a speaker each meeting. They can’t pay you (or pay much), but the objectives in getting started in the business are to meet people and SPEAK. Alan Weiss says it beautifully in his book, “Money Talks”: “You’re better off speaking for free in front of potential customers than you are not speaking at all in front of no one.” Pick up a copy of your local business journal and turn to the “Calendar” section. You will see a list of groups and contact names for the local chapter meetings, and they always need speakers. Most of these local meetings only require 30 to 60 minutes of your time, and you can arrange your work schedule accordingly. These programs will allow you to practice and hone your speech before you try to sell it.
  4. Get your performances recorded. Whenever you present, even when you’re just practicing, record your presentation, even if you just use your phone. Or set up a digital camera on a tripod. Scrutinize and listen to your performance so you can catch unfavorable body language, negative expressions, filler words, verbal stumbles, bad habits such as jingling the change in your pockets, and even things like whether your fashion sense seems off. This will help you refine your performance and personal style over time.
  5. Get some clients before you stop moonlighting. I saw Guy Kawasaki (one of the masterminds behind Apple Computer) speak in L.A. many years ago. He said one of the successes of Apple was that it allowed its potential customers to test drive its computers. In the speaking business, you are the product, and you should allow people to “test drive” you, too. When they like you, they eventually will buy. When I first started out, I offered free “brown bag” luncheons to large corporate clients as a way to get my foot in the door. You don’t even have to quit your day job! Identify a company you’d like to work with, call the main number, ask for the person who handles employee training and development, call that person, introduce yourself, and ask, “Do you sometimes bring in outside trainers to give seminars?” Be honest. Tell your contact that you are “just starting out” in business and are offering a complimentary one-hour brown bag seminar as a way to introduce yourself and your expertise. It’s a good idea to work up a little brochure or flier on yourself first, so you have a piece of promotional literature to e-mail. Registering a business name and getting business cards printed up is a good idea while you “moonlight” in this fashion. After giving the presentation, ask for a testimonial on LinkedIn. Having these recommendations will be helpful when you start asking for money. After the client loves you, you’ll be asked back. Get enough of these…and bang…you have enough clientele to support you when you transition to full time.
  6. Get a mentor and some guidance. The National Speakers Association has local chapters around the country ( Each chapter operates a bit differently, but most of them offer some type of “Apprenticeship” or “Fast Track” program for people who are seriously interested in moving into a professional speaking career. For example, in the Denver area where I live, you can join the NSA/Colorado chapter as an Affiliate (not a professional member) and participate in the “Fast Track” program. Fast Trackers meet once a month to help people ramp up quickly in the competencies of platform mechanics, professional awareness and relationships, topic development, and sales and marketing. Many chapters also offer a “Coaching” program, which will pair you with an already-experienced professional speaker to work one-on-one with you for a year.
  7. Get a mastermind group. It is incredibly helpful to network with a group of people (even across the country) who are on the same journey you are. As you’re ramping up, you’ll want to exchange ideas with others who have the same aspirations. Having a mastermind group is like having a personal board of directors for your new company providing guidance and shortening your learning curve. An excellent resource is the National Speaker Association’s Academy for Professional Speaking, which is a community of experts who want to turn their passion and talent for public speaking into a successful career. The Academy accesses NSA’s vast universe of learning opportunities, friendship, participation, and growth. Best of all, it offers you the support of other aspiring speakers and additional seminars and educational opportunities, its own newsletter, and a networking directory of other national members.
  8. Get involved with a speaking group. Toastmasters and other community speaking groups are great places to learn how to relax into your role as a speaker, and pick up pointers on how to improve your pace, tone, body language, expressions, and all the other elements of personal style that attract people to you and make them want to listen what you have to say. They’ll also teach you how to organize your thoughts, prepare for your presentations, and speak cogently and professionally within a set time limit.
  9. Get deep expertise in your topic. It goes without saying that a professional speaks only on subjects in which they’re an expert. Most people start speaking only when they have a lifetime of experience in a particular industry or position or a deep expertise in a specific topic. If you haven’t made the jump to professional speaking yet, learn everything you can about your specialty. Join professional organizations and become active in them. Subscribe to professional magazines and newsletters, and read every word—even the editorials. Even after you start your speaking career, remember: Professionalism means staying current in your field, so keep learning. School’s never out for the professional speaker.
  10. Get on the platform as much as possible. Did I mention to take every opportunity to speak? Even if it’s at your child’s school career day, your church, service group, or an association to which you belong, get on the platform. Take advantage of the opportunities to get in front of other people at your speaking group. Every professional was an amateur at one time, and your amateur time is where you learn the ropes, hone your skills, and define your limits.

Follow these steps, and you’ll soon be on the road to being a genuine professional speaker. Make no mistake: It takes a lot of hard work to get to the top, but you can do it—and it’s worth the effort every step of the way.

It’s been my pleasure to write 50 editions of this SuperCompetent Speaking column over the years, and this is my last one. I hope you’ve learned as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it!

Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, is an expert in productivity. For more than 20 years, Stack has worked with business leaders to execute more efficiently, boost performance, and accelerate results in the workplace. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides productivity workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time. Stack is the bestselling author of six books, with more than 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, including her newest work, “Execution IS the Strategy” (March 2014). An expert in the field of performance and workplace issues, Stack has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.