This article is first in a series focused on the profession of professional speaking.
If you’ve always enjoyed presenting or been told you have a gift for engaging a room, you might want to consider professional speaking – either casually or more seriously. Professional speakers often pursue speaking as either their primary career or as a supplemental income option. Indeed, speaking “hobbyists” often have another job, business or primary income source and use speaking primarily as a business development or marketing tool. They’re not as focused on generating significant revenue from speaking. Instead, they use speaking events to generate lucrative leads for their primary business (e.g. consulting or training), or they may have a full time corporate job and view speaking as a means to enhance their credibility in an industry, enhance their bio or sell books they’ve authored. For “full time” speakers, speaking is their primary (or sole) income source so they tend to focus on generating higher speaking fees. As such, they’ll typically have a professional speaking business and website.
The great thing about professional speaking is whether you’re considering a full career transition, a tool for advancing your bio/career options or even a career alternative for down the road, speaking can prove to be an attractive alternative. So if you haven’t seriously considered speaking professionally, here are a few pros and cons to contemplate.
Here are some pros…
Speaking can be exhilarating
Most great speakers will tell you they LOVE speaking. It’s truly a unique high which is one of the reasons why even the most seasoned speakers will typically continue to speak pro bono occasionally. Professional speaker and author Ken Schmidt explains, “It’s tremendous fun to learn about a business or industry, then get up in front of their people and do my thing. It’s an awesome buzz to see people light up when I’m speaking and they’re clearly inspired.”
It’s traditionally quite lucrative
Certainly, fees will vary depending on the event, speaker experience level and other factors, but fees for a seasoned professional keynote speaker typically start at approximately $10,000 and run as high as six figures for celebrity speakers. VP Technology for eSpeakers.com shares, “For the speakers in the eSpeakers database, the average fee range is $7,100-$12,500.” Certainly, there are exceptions as many events will have a much lower speaker budget, but it’s quite common for speakers to charge thousands for a 45-60 minute speaking event. Even taking into account the additional time required for preparation, professional speaking can provide quite a lucrative career option.
Offers tons of flexibility
One of the most attractive features of professional speaking is that it’s not one size fits all. You might opt to casually cherry pick just a handful of speaking events a year or strive for consistent weekly engagements (or something in between). Since it’s an event based profession, you can decide how much or little you want to do. If you’re casually thinking about speaking as a new career option or income stream, you can easily dip your toe in the water by using a few engagements to hone your skills while still maintaining a full time job. Maybe you’re a new parent looking for a part time job or one that provides autonomy over your schedule? As a speaker, you can generally pick and choose your events, thereby controlling when you work and when you don’t. If you need to take the summer off to spend more time with family, you could certainly block your calendar for non local events during the summer months and use that time to focus more on marketing and business development. This might mean fewer speaking events over the course of the year, but depending on your lifestyle preferences, the trade off might be worth it!
Speaking can be a great networking tool
Speakers often attend important professional conferences or industry events (for free) and have the opportunity to hob nob with other industry experts, thought leaders and company executives. These contacts can be invaluable throughout the course of your career. Also, gaining prestige as a speaker at a well-known conference certainly can be a resume builder that can enhance your cache and credibility within an industry. Schmidt insists, “A great benefit is getting exposure to businesses in every industry and niche imaginable. I’m super curious so I love to visit trade shows, do factory/facility tours, see demonstrations, etc.”
Certainly, no profession is perfect, so here are a few cons to consider as well…
It’s not as easy as it looks
Becoming an amazing, high demand speaker isn’t a simple feat. Just because everyone loved your talk at the company picnic doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re ready for the big leagues. Certified Speaking Professional and Past President of the National Speakers Association, Lenora Billings-Harris explains, “Just as professional athletes make what they do look easy, professional speakers make speaking look easy, but there is much work behind what you see.” Similarly, just because you’re a great speaker doesn’t mean that you can easily translate that into highly paid speaking events. Many professional speakers absolutely love being on stage where they’re in their element, but hate all the work that’s often required to get there (e.g. business development, marketing, administrative details, etc.). Running a speaking business often requires more time focused on the business than actual speaking so be prepared.
For those speakers who travel extensively, this can definitely be a downside. Many high demand speakers (particularly those signed to speakers bureaus) will spend many nights away from home, and that can be stressful. Keynote speaker Heather Monahan recounts, “Many times I have taken a red-eye from the west coast to make a speaking engagement on the east coast the following morning.” While many speakers enjoy a great lifestyle, for those speakers with particularly heavy speaking schedules, it can take a toll. Keynote speaker Simon T. Bailey shares a poignant reflection, “The only con is after speaking 80-100 times a year for the last decade…I lost my family and a 25 year marriage…hence why this video went viral.”
The good news though is that you can choose to limit your schedule particularly if you’re booking events with clients directly. So, if you want to selectively choose higher paying events or limit travel to local events only (or those within a reasonable driving distance), that’s a viable strategy for minimizing workload. Keynote speaker and best selling author of 48 books, Dianna Booher reflects on how her approach has shifted over the years.
“When I started my speaking career three decades ago, I was quickly doing 100-110 engagements a year. That was because my fee was low – only $2,000/day. As my business grew, I raised my fees every 2-3 years and then hired and trained other lesser known speakers to present my content. Today, as a $15,000 keynoter, I take only the engagements and clients I wish to work with and spend most of my time writing books and doing executive coaching. At this point in my career, I do only 10-15 engagements a year.”
Requests to speak for free are common
Many clients/events simply have very limited budgets or as a general practice just don’t pay speakers. Major professional organization conferences are a great example where the keynote speaker might be paid tens of thousands for a 45-60 minute keynote, but the scores of workshop presenters are often not compensated (or might receive a nominal honorarium in addition to complimentary conference registration). In lieu of payment conference organizers (or other clients) often cite “exposure opportunities” as sufficient rationale for speaking for free. While those benefits can arguably be real and valuable (particularly during the earlier stages of a professional speaking career), it can be frustrating to regularly be confronted with expectations to speak for free. Keynote speaker and best selling author Carlos Gil reflects,
“The biggest con from my perspective is the expectation that I take time away from my business to go work for free, mostly while a conference organizer is selling tickets and monetizing my time. While exposure is useful when you’re just starting, exposure alone doesn’t pay the bills.” Most speakers agree that speaking for free can make sense at all stages of a speaking career, but being confronted with constant requests or expectations to speak for free can definitely create challenges.
For additional tips on how to get paid for speaking and common mistakes to avoid when starting a speaking business, stay tuned for the rest of the series.