You’re ready to start your solo business — you’re craving the freedom, the versatility, and the chance to put your passion into play — but you’re not quite sure where to start. You’ve come to the right place. In our So You Wanna Be a… series, we highlight entrepreneurs who’ve built successful businesses doing what they love.
This month, we’re chatting with three professional speakers — Jess Ekstrom of Headbands of Hope, Alexia Vernon of Alexia Vernon Empowerment, and Nicole Belanger of Nicole Belanger Media — to get their inside advice on how they got their speaking careers started.
So you wanna be a professional speaker? Here’s what you need to know…
Tell us exactly what a person in your role does.
Jess: When I was in college, I started a company called Headbands of Hope. For every headband purchased, one is given to a girl with cancer and $1 to childhood cancer research. I started getting calls from universities to come speak to their students about taking action in college. I signed on with an agency called CAMPUSPEAK and have been traveling around the country ever since speaking to students and some corporations as well.
Alexia: As a professional speaker, I have the opportunity to inspire and transform people with my message. From keynotes, to TED-style talks, to corporate trainings, to retreats, I get to create epic experiences that show people opportunities they never know existed, help them reframe limiting beliefs and behaviors, and transfer their insight into action.
Nicole: As a speaker, my role is to create a safe, enjoyable space for audiences to reflect, to help them learn something new about themselves or their work, and inspire them to act based on those newfound discoveries.
How did you get your start? What are other ways someone else can get started?
Alexia: I was somewhat thrust onto the speaking circuit in college after winning the Miss Junior America competition. After graduate school, I worked as a training and public speaking professor, and I began to use public speaking as a means for developing my coaching business prior to focusing on public speaking and speaking coaching as a business. For someone looking to get speaking gigs, I recommend pitching one's self for online opportunities (i.e., podcasts and tele-summits), self-producing webinars (where you make compelling offers to enroll in your upper-level programs), and applying to speak at industry events as well as building relationships with meeting planners and event organizers (and then submitting to speak).
Nicole: I consider my "start" to be my second TEDx talk in March 2014. I was actually a late addition to the roster, having originally been invited to give a "mini talk". The event organizer who reached out to me had gotten to know me through my work in the community, which gave her a sense of my experience, my personality, and my interests.
The most important piece of advice I can give to someone is this: do interesting things in your community or industry. This not only makes you more visible, but also gives you the essential material you need in order to have something interesting and valuable to talk about.
Also, let people know that you are available for speaking engagements! If you have a website, put together a simple speaking page that lists your the topics you are available to speak on and any past speaking engagements. Then, share it out regularly on social media!
Jess: Even though I didn't speak professionally in college, I tried to practice as much as I could. I gave campus tours and I also taught fitness classes. Almost every day I was getting up in front of hundreds of people and talking. That helped me become more comfortable and confident in my speaking. Even if you're not in school, I recommend finding a way to get in front of people, even if it's just raising your hand in a meeting.
Is there a certain kind of person that would thrive in your role?
Jess: When people think of motivational speakers, they probably think of someone who is really inspiring and internally reflective. That may be the case, but in order to get booked, you also have to be an entertainer. You could have a great story and an inspiring message, but if you can't deliver it in a way that captivates the audience and makes them laugh, then you won't get booked. It's not just about your story, it's about your delivery.
Nicole: I wouldn't say that you need to be an extrovert to be a speaker (some of the most compelling talks I've heard have been from introverts), but I would say that you need to be able to read the energy of a crowd and quickly respond to it. But, most importantly, you need to be willing to get up on that stage and speak honestly from the heart. Your willingness to be vulnerable is directly proportionate to the impact you will make on your audience.
What do people need before they can get started in your industry?
Nicole: Self-awareness. The reason that I was able to immediately jump on the TEDx opportunity by pitching a topic and a talk outline is that I had a keen understanding of my life story and the lessons that I have drawn from my experiences. I believe that compelling talks -- even the most technical -- center around stories, from which a speaker can then pull insights, lessons, and nuggets of information that will inspire and empower their audience.
Alexia: There are certainly some key materials that can help, including an effective speaker's page (editor’s note: here’s a great resource) on one's website -- ideally with a description of 3-4 talks/presentations, a speaking headshot, speaking footage, and testimonials from audiences. I also HIGHLY recommend becoming top notch both at sculpting one's content into a great talk (or keynote, training, etc.) and developing one's delivery skills.
Jess: It's 100% necessary to have video footage of you speaking. Even if you speak for free at an event, rent some audio and recording equipment and film it. Even better, film testimonials of people at the end talking about how great you are. You can write all of your keynotes and messages down on paper, but it's rare anyone will actually book you unless they see you talk.
How do you currently seek out clients or customers? What are some ways you've considered seeking out clients or customers that you haven't tried yet?
Jess: I attend a lot of conferences to speak and network. I would say about 90% of my bookings come from personal connections I make at conferences or just daily life and the other 10% come from internet marketing. The best way to gain new clients is by recommendation and referrals. If you did a talk and the school or company gave you great feedback, ask if they wouldn't mind recommending you to another organization.
Nicole: Currently, I rely mostly on word-of-mouth for booking speaking engagements, as well as inquiries through my website's speaking page. I also keep a mental list of conferences that I would like to speak at. Every now and then, I visit their websites to see if they are taking speaker submissions. If there is a conference that I am particularly eager to participate in, I will personally email the organizer with a proposal of a talk that I would like to share at their event, specifically tailoring it to their audience's needs and interests. Remember -- you'll never get what you don't ask for!
How do you normally work with clients or customers?
Alexia: I have corporate clients who I present keynotes and trainings for, provide mentorship to entrepreneurs and thought leaders seeking to develop their speaking careers (through private coaching and masterminds-meet-transformational retreats, or MasterTreats), run several face-to-face communication and leadership development programs, and I have two digital speaking programs (and more coming!) including Your Spotlight Talk.
Nicole: Keynote talks and in-person workshops (the smallest I've done was 5 people and the largest was almost 200).
How did you decide how to set your pricing when you were starting out?
Alexia: I make all of my speaking decisions based on my business goals. If an opportunity is purely transactional, for example a keynote or corporate training, it's a multiple 4 or 5 figure fee (depending on the scope of work). If I am speaking and have the opportunity to enroll audience members in my own programs, then I make sure that the audience is the right fit and right size to say "yes" to my offer - and the fee I get becomes significantly less important.
Jess: At first I was really confused by how expensive speakers are. In my mind, people were paying huge sums of money for only an hour of their time. But one of my speaker friends explained it to me in that the client isn't just paying for the one hour you're speaking on stage. They're paying for every moment in your life that got you to that point. So now when I'm charging a client, I know that they're paying for all the lessons and stories I've been through in order for me to be a speaker, not just the time on stage.
Nicole: Oof, this was a tough one for me. As a woman and a former non-profit worker, I have had to overcome a number of limiting beliefs about my worth and my ability to earn money doing things that come naturally to me. I will never forget the first time I made four figures giving a talk -- I waited a whole week before cashing the cheque because I was convinced that they would somehow realize that they had made a mistake and ask for their money back! (They didn't.)
That aforementioned gig was my very first keynote talk. I hadn't yet established pricing, so I chose to ask them about their budget, and, once I had that information, named a price that I thought would be fair for all involved. Now that I have been speaking for a year, I have a handful of what I call "base talks" that I customize based on a client's needs, but if I am being asked to develop an entirely new talk on a different topic, I will take that into account when I give them my quote.
What are some great resources for people looking to learn more about your industry?
Alexia: I'm pretty fond of my programs, Your Spotlight Talk and Your Spotlight Workshop, wink wink. Through my action-oriented videos, templates and cheat sheets, group coaching calls and membership community, I enable anyone interested in speaking the opportunity to develop the know-how at a price point she can afford. Two of my favorite books are Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World's Top Minds and Transformational Speaking. They really get to the heart of how to not just speak, but to do it in a way that transforms lives.
Jess: I love watching TED and TEDx talks, just like the rest of the world. But think about the ones you really liked or the ones where you hung on every word. What about that talk resonated with you? Was it their personal stories? Their humor? Their audience engagement? If you can start to understand why you like certain speakers more than others, you can better learn the traits yourself.
Nicole: I highly recommend this phenomenal blog post from Scott Dinsmore, the Founder of Live Your Legend and a TEDx speaker whose talk was viewed over 1 million times: 3 Rules to Giving a TEDx Talk that Gets Over 1 Million Views.
What is something that someone getting started in your type of business would be surprised to hear?
Jess: Speaking isn't just about your story, your delivery or your messages. It's about solving a problem. After hearing your talk, what is the audience walking away with? What did you fix or change? You could have an awesome story about how you saved an elephant and rode it into the sunset, but if there's no application then you're not serving your audience. When you want to speak, don't just think about the topic, think about the issue you're solving.
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