What is it like to be a public speaker? People often ask me what it is like to be a keynote speaker (they often use the words “motivational speaker” which immediately makes me cringe and brings about a deja vu to an old Chris Farley SNL routine, “In a van! Down by the river!” - but I digress). I have a quip at the ready for this question - “It is awesome - basically I get paid to travel the world and go to parties.”
The truth of the matter - part 1. Well, everything above is true - I do get paid to go to parties. There might be better jobs out there (but I doubt it…) and here’s why. After you *get a speaking gig (the hard part) life is amazing. You take an all-expense paid trip to a luxurious resort or hotel - often at the beach or in Mexico, NYC, Miami or LA. After the flight, you are picked up in large black SUV and whisked to the hotel. Usually, there is a reception the evening before and you are introduced to the CEO, CMO, sponsors - all inevitably interesting people who open up to you about their lives. You have some fine wine and a great meal, more conversation and then finally head to bed, where there is often a welcome gift waiting for you. The next morning you head down for A/V check which is usually handled by a team of professionals so that it only takes a few minutes. You have no prep because you know the material cold. Then, when it is your time, you get a grand introduction, take the stage, and (hopefully) pull the audience deep into your stories and frameworks, the noise of applause still ringing in your ears as you exit stage left. Next there is a long line of people eager to talk to you, to shower you with compliments, to buy your book and to tell you a little about themselves. Afterward, time allowing, you go to yet another reception and dinner and people approach you all evening long to share their stories and how what you said affected them. The senior executives, one by one, make time to thank you and converse about high level business strategy or amazing personal stories. After collecting your hotel points, you are whisked to the airport in another SUV, fly home collecting your airline miles, and then return to your daily commute to the couch - because you work for yourself and your time is your own. When not traveling for a talk you balance your time by nesting at home and/or connecting with friends and family, or using your points and miles to travel the world, meeting new people, interviewing the world’s top experts to gather cutting-edge information and the latest research, reading case studies and books, and collecting new stories from your adventures to put in the next book or talk. Oh, and every single thing you do, with the exception of 1/2 your rent, and groceries, is tax deductible. As my accountant / attorney told me, “your profession is the least audited of any category - less than 1/10th of a percent, because your whole life is tax deductible.”
The truth of the matter part 2. *Speaking gigs are not easy to get - it is a very, very tough business. 80% of my speaking gigs come from someone who saw me speak themselves. These are not “referrals,” they were there! So, getting started in a business like this is very, very hard. It is the classic chicken / egg, cart / horse equation. In order to get speaking you have to get speaking… and how the hell do you do that? Well, first of all, you have to be a rock solid subject matter expert with real credentials, and you have to keep your knowledge up-to-date. Then, you have to be able to take your expertise and develop it into a great talk (or talks) on relevant topics with enough storytelling to keep it engaging. You also have to have this elusive thing called “presence” a combination of how you carry yourself, how you project your voice, where and how you move, the use of hand gestures, smiles… the list goes on. Without “presence,” no matter how great the content, you will not get the call for the next talk. But even having all of that most certainly is not enough to get the word out on the street to bring in the next opportunities. Unless you are famous, speaker bureaus are useless - I’m listed with at least 50 and less than 5% of my talks come through them. Instead, it is a networking sport full of potential rejection - usually in the form of the sound of “crickets” - someone sees you talk, tells you how great it was, wants to bring you to their company or event, they then they say when asked, “no I don’t have a card, but I’ll drop you an email” and then you never hear from them… ever… It is socially exhausting - every event I work the room from the moment I arrive until I leave. I never bow out early, I offer to speak privately to any and every sponsor or executive the organizing committee wants me to meet. You are ON the whole time. After back-to-back gigs I sleep like the dead sometimes for 12 hours or more. The follow-up trail is never-ending. I get so many emails a day that require personal responses that it is a full time job just trying to keep up. When someone shares a personal story you can’t not respond though sometimes I’m running months behind. And… I have help - my business partner Monica does a vast majority of the business correspondence - each gig requires dozens and dozens of touchpoints. When someone is paying low-to-mid 5 figures for an hour of your time, they want more than an hour of your time. As I always joke, “the best part of working with me is that you don’t have to work with me - you get to work with Monica.” First there is the original touchpoint or inquiry, then the follow up, then meeting scheduling / rescheduling, getting on the phone for the sales pitch, having a follow up call with the exec sponsor, working thru corporate vendor set-up systems (which require extensive hoop-jumping) and then a few more calls and emails regarding logistics, flights, time, agenda etc. Then you have the wrangling over price (I never get involved if I can avoid it - Monica handles this) and then the contract, invoicing, handouts and worksheets for printouts, A/V requirements, introduction talking points, mailing of books to the location, travel arrangements, and then after the gig, the follow up on payment (50% up front) and tabulation and invoicing for expenses, and then of course the quickbooks, insurance, taxes and all the other things that keep a business solvent. I do very little of that, though I still do my own travel. I also manage the website, while Monica arranges and sends our semi monthly newsletter and other marketing materials, hires freelancers, and manages our CRM system. I write the books, turn my expertise into written or video content… and so on. There are so many bright shiny objects to chase that you always feel a few steps behind.
The balance: Could I coast and work a very light schedule - yes - maybe for a while, but instead I often work very very long hours for weeks or months on end. However, it is my choice and if I want to up-and-go to Jamaica for the weekend (like I am this weekend) then I do. Also there are natural off-peak periods during the main holidays, 4th of July, mid August and other times where there are lulls where you can plan ahead to do things. But during the main season months it is nearly impossible to commit to any sort of travel, event or even family visit more than 2 weeks out because the opportunity cost of missing a gig or two is so very high. I think there is also a hidden danger of getting too full of yourself. I’ve met a few successful speakers (who will go unnamed) that I think fail to realize the people who loved your talk are the ONLY ones to actually come and give you feedback. If that is the only feedback you listen to, your ego and hubris can explode. Also, I think there are a lot of “fake it to make it” players out there - so don’t fall into the trap of thinking that everyone who holds themselves out as a successful high-paid speaker is actually making it. They might be struggling more than you know. The bookings can be erratic and unpredictable. Feast or famine. If you can’t handle occasional uncertainty, this may not be for you. For the last couple of years I’ve had north of 60 paid gigs a year, and I do my share of complimentary keynotes as well for non-profits, schools etc…
Should you be a keynote speaker? Yes, yes you should (unless you don’t like leaving home). I firmly believe it might be one of the best lifestyles out there - traveling the world at someone else’s expense, meeting amazing, interesting, successful people, collecting their stories, and getting paid really well to do it, all on your own time… I get to choose what to do, what not to do, no one says what or where I have to go, and there are no paparazzi to hassle you. It, at its essential core, is a form of freedom that few other jobs provide. And here’s a little secret, I love it so much, I would pay to do it, but somehow new events keep emerging, the pipeline for the year is full (I did 16 gigs in the first 5 weeks of the year!) and international travel to Rio, Santiago, Cancun, Shanghai and Portugal are on the horizon. If you feel the urge to share your story, if you have great presence and are a great storyteller, and you have deep expertise in something useful to a business, find a TEDx near you and pitch it - that’s how I got started. If you want to know more, feel free to drop me an email or sign up for our newsletter.
PS: click here to find out how I prep for my TEDx talks
PPS: If you are serious about becoming a paid speaker, you might want to check out the Speaker School for Women.