So You Want My Job: Public Speaker

by Brett & Kate McKay on January 5, 2012 · 35 comments

in So You Want My Job

Photo by Alex Harris

Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

Do you love to listen to yourself talk? Wouldn’t you love to not only make other people listen to you, but to get paid bookoodles of money to do it, all while traveling the world? Such is the sweet, sweet life of the public speaker. I know this is a job that a lot of gents aspire to, so I’m really pleased that Alex Hunter graciously offered us a fascinating and comprehensive look behind the scenes of this line of work. You can read more of Alex’s musing on his blog; for a fee he’ll even read the entries out loud to you!

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc.).

I’m 32 years old and currently split my time between the middle-of-nowhere in England and Northern California. I was born in the US to British parents and have been fortunate enough to live all over the world. I started my career in the web world with an airline in Hong Kong before moving back to California. I worked my way through various jobs before landing the sweetest gig of my career, running digital marketing for a startup airline, Virgin America. After 2 years of doing that I was called up to the big leagues and asked to run the global digital strategy for the entire Virgin brand back in London. A couple of exhausting years later, I turned 30 and decided to take some time off and then go out on my own. And that’s where I am today: an angel investor, branding nerd, and career public speaker. I speak about marketing, branding and brand psychology, loyalty, the startup world, and travel. I officially love my job.

2. Public speaking seems like a job opportunity that only opens up once you’ve become successful at something else. Is public speaking something you’ve always wanted to do, or something that came along unexpectedly in your life?

Completely and totally unexpectedly. We were doing some cool things at Virgin at the time and a guy called Ryan Carson (a fellow American in the UK) was just starting to ramp up his outstanding conference company and, well, he took a chance on me. He asked me to speak at a small conference to talk about what Virgin what was working on. I was actually in New York on business at the time and flew in to London on the day of the conference. I got straight off the plane and onto the stage. I opened with a joke, it got good laughs, and I was completely hooked from then on.

3. Once you’ve become successful in something, how to you segue into public speaking? How do you go about getting the word out that you’re available and start getting your first bookings?

The easiest route is to get in touch with conference organizers via email and introduce yourself. Give them a quick sense of who you are, what you’ve done, a brief synopsis of what you’d talk about, how their audience would benefit from your expertise, etc. Oh and that you’re willing to talk for free! You’d be surprised how often this works as conferences are always looking for fresh, new speakers to include in their lineups. Getting that first gig is always the hardest but it gets much easier after that because an audience has heard you, reacted to you, tweeted about you. The word about you is now officially out.

4. When people invite you to speak, how do you know how much to charge for your rate? What is the average rate of pay for speakers?

The very first thing I do is determine if the event organizers are willing to pay anything at all. A lot of conference speakers are happy to speak for free for a number of reasons; their employer doesn’t allow them to take a fee, they’re just starting out in speaking, the value of the exposure to their company or product is worth doing the speech for free. That’s not the case for me as I don’t have a service or product to promote so I get no value from “free publicity.” After that, I take a look at everything from the size of the event, where it is in the world, how many days I’ll have to be away from home, the topic, and the industry.

To be completely honest, once you’re established, public speaking can be very lucrative. I know people who charge anywhere between $25-40k for a single appearance. Some former CEOs, politicians, retired athletes, and “celebrities” charge hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single appearance. But it takes years and years of speaking and a hell of a reputation before you can start charging that much. If you’re curious, browse some of the speaking bureau websites–they often have price ranges listed for each speaker. Oh and just to be clear, high fee does NOT equal great speaker. I’ve seen some lousy speakers who charge an absolute fortune on the back of their previous career or accomplishments.

5. Some speakers are represented by agencies that book gigs for them. Do you recommend this?

When I first started out speaking professionally (i.e. being paid to speak) I was doing everything myself. Finding gigs, responding to inquiries, negotiating, planning travel, invoicing, chasing payment, etc. It was time consuming and really frustrating, especially anything to do with money. I didn’t know what I should be charging, how to structure the contracts to protect myself, when to say no to a gig, or what to do if an event organizer didn’t pay. The latter happened often, surprisingly–I’m still owed a pretty sizable fee for a gig I did 2 years ago.

Lesson learned. But for the last year I’ve been represented by a London-based agency called JLA (JLA.co.uk) who are awesome. They were recommended to me by a friend who is also represented by them. They take care of everything for me: finding gigs, negotiating on my behalf, all the contractual work, taking care of logistics, etc. They pay me directly, too, so I never have to worry about not getting paid.

6. How does getting representation work—do you reach out to them or do they reach out to you?

I got in touch with JLA, mentioning my friend’s recommendation, and we arranged to meet at their office. The meeting was mainly to see if my speaking style, content, etc would be a good fit for their client base and whether I felt they would be a good fit for the market I was going after. It’s been a fantastic relationship since Day 1.

All that said, I’ve been approached a number of times by other agencies who either want to represent me or want to feature me on their site. The latter happens often as agencies work together to cross-promote speakers. So it can work in both directions, but the key is to find an agent or agency that you can have a good, honest, open working relationship with and who really understands your style and content.

7. How many speaking engagements do you do a year?

My busiest year was 2010 when I did close to 30 engagements all over the world and racked up 103,000 miles of travel. I pulled back dramatically in 2011 so I could spend time with my newborn son. Right now I do about 1-2 paid events a month. That includes everything from full-day workshops to keynote speeches to MC’ing events for private organizations.

8. What do you think are the keys of being a successful public speaker?

You have to know your stuff. Inside and out. And I don’t just mean your subject matter, I mean your material. You have to know every slide, every transition, every image. That way you can present without notes or prompts which makes you seem conversational but knowledgeable– which is what all good speakers should be aiming for. It’s also super important to have simple, clean slides. In my most recent keynotes, over 80% of my slides only have one line OR graphic/chart on them. That way you’re not asking the audience to listen to you AND read an essay at the same time. Speaking of essays, avoid reading from a prepared script–so many people trip up on this one. They spend hours and hours writing out every word of their speech and then stand up and recite it verbatim. Snoozefest. It’s also lazy and a disservice to your audience and to you as a speaker. Finally, have fun! Relax, enjoy, go a little nuts and march around the stage–people will dig your energy and enthusiasm.

9. What is the best part of your job?

The people. I can’t think of many jobs where I would get to meet such a broad range of people in such a short space of time. And I’m not just talking about job roles or even industries, I’m talking about entirely different cultures. Whenever I go to an event I make it a point to hang out with as many people attending the event as possible, and I’ve made some great friends as a result. Another great thing about my job is that I’m exposed to a broad variety of new subjects. Each time I speak I spend several days researching the industry, the country, the attending companies, etc and since I speak at trade events for industries I know absolutely nothing about, several times a year I get to learn an entirely new subject. They have all been, without exception, fascinating.

10. What is the worst part of your job?

Apart from being away from home, I would say the worst part is the unpredictable nature of the speaking industry. You never know when your next event is going to be, so it can make it quite hard to plan around, both financially and logistically. It’s hard to factor in speaking work to your annual budget because while events pop up throughout the year, it would be a mistake to assume you’ll get a certain number of events during a given period. I’ve been doing this professionally for 2 years now and haven’t seen any patterns to how and when events come my way.

11. What is the work/family/life balance like for you?

It’s a series of extremes. Since I work from home I get to spend a lot of time with my wife and 15 month old son. But speaking frequently takes me all over the world, and I’m certainly grateful for that, but being away from my family really sucks. It got so bad that I started trying to figure out the shortest possible amount of time I could be away. So I’d fly from San Francisco to Singapore for 20 hours or back to London for a day and a half. Not healthy or fun. But I’ve been working on that and try to bring my wife and son with me when I visit new places or just turn the gig down if I think I’ll be gone for too long. On the flip side, the income means I can focus on other projects (my latest project is here www.plonkr.net) and not have to worry too much about paying the bills, as long as the speaking events come in reasonably regularly.

12. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

People are often surprised to hear that I’m paid a fee to speak at events. They assume that my expenses (travel, accommodation, etc) are covered but that the only people who are paid to speak are celebrities and ex-politicians. They’re even more surprised when I tell them the upper fee range that some people in the industry are commanding. But the world of professional public speaking is absolutely open to anyone who is knowledgeable and passionate about their subject. If you can relay your thoughts with enthusiasm and clarity, people will pay good money to hear what you have to say.

13. Any other advice, tips, commentary or anecdotes you’d like to share?

A couple of years ago I wrote down 10 tips for being an engaging public speaker. I live by these and they’ve served me well so far. You can find them here: http://thinkvitamin.com/web-industry/10-kick-ass-presentation-techniques/ To ultimately be successful as a public speaker, you need to be an entertainer AND educator. You have to hold hundreds of people’s attention for 30-60 minutes while giving them interesting, useful information to go home with. I won’t lie, it’s exhausting. But a hell of a lot of fun.

 

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dan Smith January 5, 2012 at 8:57 pm

After 15 years in the Navy, and having been mentored and having mentored Sailors and Christians, I’ve decided to start working on speaking engagements. I figured I would start with churches in my area and go from there. Does that sound like a reasonable plan?

2 Craiger January 5, 2012 at 9:36 pm

If you are want to get public speaking experience, you certainly have to start somewhere and there’s nothing wrong with your plan. Start somewhere and diversify. My job has given me the opportunity for hundreds of public speaking gigs which includes technical presentations, live television, high profile gigs with US Congressman, and perhaps the most challenging, the unfriendly or hostile audience.

My key recommendations:

1) Make eye contact with your audience. Long enough so they see you’re talking to them but not too long to be uncomfortable.

2) My biggest pet peave is somebody reading from a script verbatim which includes, yes, them reading their name from the script. People want to be spoken too, not read too.

3) Relax, relax, relax. If you’re nervous, your audience will be nervous.

4) Avoid the annoying habits……like continuously snapping your fingers while you’re talking. Once is fine, non-stop for 10 minutes is annoying.

5) No matter how hard you try or how well you do, somebody will always complain about how you did.

Good Luck.

3 Craiger January 5, 2012 at 9:37 pm

Another suggestion, video tape yourself and play it back to critique how you did. I still use this technique.

4 Chris Brown January 5, 2012 at 11:50 pm

After 20 something years, Tony Robbins still ends EVERY day with sitting down with his team and reviewing what he could have improved on and what he could have done better.

I saw him in November and he’s a phenomenal speaker, absolutely the best in the world – and the guy still critiques himself/gets critiqued. Discipline is super important.

5 Alex Hunter January 6, 2012 at 4:04 am

Thanks for the comments, guys.

@Craiger, those are great tips, thanks for sharing! Point 5 is particularly true, you can’t let those people get to you, especially if you have a different presenting style.

@Chris the first thing I do when I get off stage is check Twitter and see what the feedback on my speech was like. I keep every single tweet so I can patch up the areas where the audience felt I wasn’t up to par. It’s hugely important.

6 D.K. January 6, 2012 at 7:57 am

I went to the website and viewed some of the clip. I was turned off by the profanity. Quite unimpressive!

7 Phillip January 6, 2012 at 8:42 am

The Beach! :)

8 Tim January 6, 2012 at 9:14 am

I’ve been in public speaking for nearly 13 years now (at least 3 times each week). There is always something new to learn, always a twinge of nervousness, always a little bit of insecurity (did I do my best?), and always a thrill when you know the audience truly receives the message you are bringing. I am a pastor…although sometimes I feel like a preaching machine with 3 term-papers due every week.

9 Dan Smithbe January 6, 2012 at 9:31 am

@Craiger, thank you for the advice. I appreciate it very much. Most of those ideas are incorporated in the instructor duty I now do for the Navy, so I’ve already got some experience in it. Let’s see if it transfers over!

10 Alex Hunter January 6, 2012 at 9:48 am

@D.K. Don’t worry, I don’t always swear. In that instance it was appropriate for the audience.

11 Tim January 6, 2012 at 10:00 am

Alex, how do you determine when profanity is “appropriate for the audience”? Just curious…I’ve never heard that type of reasoning before.

12 Alex Hunter January 6, 2012 at 10:13 am

@Tim it’s absolutely a calculated risk on my part. I would say I swear at less than 5% of the events I speak at. In this particular case it was the 4th or 5th time I’d spoken at the event and the swearing precedent had been set long before I ever spoke there. It seemed to resonate with the audience, no one complained, and people were entertained. But again, calculated risk, not my usual thing.

13 adam January 6, 2012 at 10:23 am

This may have inspired me to look up the local toastmasters and maybe the Dale Carnegie High Impact Presentation course (I can sign up through work). I never thought about it until now, but I am constantly creating presentations and giving talks for work, just on a smaller scale. We have a term for it here: Powerpoint Ranger.

I have no fear of public speaking, and when I know my material I can get pretty passionate about it, maybe its something I should look in to.

One question though regarding content:
Do you speak specifically about stuff you already know, or do you look to see what people are wanting to learn about and then research and develop a speech/presentation? How difficult is that vs. talking about something you are already pretty familiar with?

14 Alex Hunter January 6, 2012 at 10:34 am

@Adam so glad you’re in spired. Toastmasters are a great organization and any speaking practice is good for your confidence.

Re: your question, it’s a great one. I would say it’s a 50-50 split between talking what I know about and having to tailor/research to suit a particular audience. I have bits I’ll go back to time and again because they work well or are general enough to be applicable to a broad audience but it’s important to tailor the content to the audience. With some time and effort it’s not difficult to research the audience and their industry, learn what you need to know, and tailor your presentation accordingly.

15 Thomas Black January 6, 2012 at 10:43 am

Love the post, I’m grateful for Alex’s comments, especially #8.
I had to laugh at #7. 30 a year? Try doing somewhere between 80-150 a year and still accomplishing the knowledge passion and skill depicted in #8. That is the public speaking portion of being a pastor.
Oh and #13? Thanks for the link.
Also yes it is exhausting and a heck of a lot of fun.

16 adam January 6, 2012 at 10:49 am

Alex:
To follow up on that question, when you’re looking for a speaking engagement, or some event is looking for a speaker, is the content usually pre-determined for that particular job? For example, if an event is looking for someone to talk about… cyber security, do they go to a bureau searching by topic and then find a speaker who has that knowledge? Or do they look for a popular person who is familiar with similar topics and ask them if they could develop the new speech for their event?

In other words, should someone interested in this line of work start by developing and giving a number of presentations that they can list as potential topics for future engagements? Or should you say ‘I’m interested in speaking, what are you looking for and I’ll learn it”?

Thanks,
Adam

17 Alex Hunter January 6, 2012 at 11:10 am

@adam Definitely the former (“tart by developing and giving a number of presentations that they can list as potential topics for future engagements”). You need to show you’re a subject matter expert and can talk knowledgeably about the topic. The client is going to know the types of things they’re looking for, the agency won’t. So you need to provide the agency with a few example talk topics that you’re comfortable speaking about. Does that help?

18 Russ Wood January 6, 2012 at 11:20 am

After nearly a quarter century of being a radio personality who avoided the “Ronnie Radio Delivery” and just as long emceeing, speaking, and performing on only a local / regional level, I find myself intrigued by that next step after reading your piece. For years I’ve just smiled and thanked folks who’ve asked me “Why don’t you go big?”. After reading this, I’m asking myself the same question. Thank You.

19 adam January 6, 2012 at 11:50 am

@Alex,
Yeah, that’s pretty much what I figured. So do you ever just sit down and think “I’m interested in something completely different from my typical subjects and I want to create a presentation I can speak to about it”?

Like say you’re good on web stuff. But on the side you’re interested in… cancer or diabetes research. Do you do that, or is it wise to stay within your niche?

20 Matt January 6, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Timely read- just starting an education llc and have begun booking speaking opportunities at schools and education conferences. Good luck with continued success, Alex.

21 Dennard January 6, 2012 at 10:52 pm

I enjoyed this interview. Public speaking is something That I discovered a love for while I was in college. I am a teacher and plan to be a college professor eventually. So being the best speaker I can be is definitely to my advantage.

22 zeus January 6, 2012 at 11:55 pm

If you’re good at public speaking you can be good at anything.

23 Pagg Supplement # January 7, 2012 at 5:50 pm

very nice article i like it.health tips are so good.i am 24 year younger boy and most time spend on google.

24 JohnnyD January 8, 2012 at 1:39 pm

I want to be a public speaker in the future, so this was a great article to read. Thanks :)

25 Aaron January 9, 2012 at 2:19 am

I almost spat my coffee out when he said busy was 30 speaking engagements in one year. In my previous life I was a course counsellor for universities in Australia and performed over 100 speaking engagements a year weekly and some months daily from February to September speaking from any where from thirty minutes to an hour two or three times a day.

I absolutely loved it but the pay, regretably, was crap, and I had to move on. One thing he didn’t mention was that the work can be incredibly exhausting, you have to be ‘on’ all the time, keeping your articulate and interesting meter in the red constantly and getting sick, which you do often from meeting so many people, is disastrous. flu shots are a must.

26 Alex Hunter January 11, 2012 at 1:44 pm

@Aaron that’s great info and I agree about it being exhausting. Re: busy vs “busy”, 30 is “busy” for me because it’s all over the world and it’s only part of what I do for a living. I’m lucky though because it does pay incredibly well.

But yeah, there are definitely some occupational hazards involved!

27 Chuck Rylant January 14, 2012 at 8:58 am

There is another compensation model that is often more profitable where speakers forgo a speakers fee and instead sell “books and tapes” at the back of the room. This model allows speakers to use their speeches as a way to obtain customers and then do less speaking gigs and continue to sell various products, services and coaching from the web.

28 John January 15, 2012 at 2:24 am

Just a suggestion: “Cute” 404 pages on a website are really annoying, any they’re especially annoying when following the website’s own link to a 404 page that states somehow I screwed up by going to a bad link.

29 DomenKert January 15, 2012 at 5:41 pm

Interesting read. Thank you.

30 Darren Poke January 29, 2012 at 5:28 am

Fantastic post Alex, thanks for sharing your insights. I’m looking at ramping up the public speaking component of my business in the next year or so and you definitely gave me some great ideas.

Thanks again.

31 Nathan Thomas November 27, 2012 at 3:05 pm

Good day Alex,

My name is Nathan Thomas! I loved your blog! I just returned from Brazil playing professional basketball and I have a passion for speaking to and empowering people! I have spoken at churches and charity events thus far and I am looking to get paid to speak also! I have a very strong following from people I have met around the world and I would like some help to get started! What agency would you recommend! I live here in Tampa, Florida!

32 Jenn January 11, 2013 at 11:38 am

I liked the tips on getting into public speaking and on engaging your audience but it always seems so hard to me. I’ve seen some amazing speakers like Tony Robbins and Dr. Gurner and they always seem to connect so naturally.
Do you have any tips for people who are more shy?

33 Oben February 25, 2013 at 12:19 pm

I am already speaking very well in public and people are already appreciating it.

However, the way forward is what I am seeking.How do I get to look for jobs.
How do I get some documntation to allow me search jo: I need your help with my way forward.
It is a good site.

34 adam March 7, 2014 at 9:24 am

This is quite interesting! What area of study or degree should I obtain while in college that could lead to becoming a public speaker? My interest is piqued by public relations, but I wonder if it’s different. Either way, if public relations or something else I need to study in college, please let me know as soon as possible

35 Michael April 10, 2014 at 5:47 am

This is real insightful.

I have been teaching for the last 10 years and iam in my planing stages of starting a public speaking business in Uganda especially training public speaking to the ages 8-15 years. Any advice?

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