The gap between having a message and getting on stage seems large at first glance, but it’s not that daunting. When I was starting off in my speaking career I thought there was a series of magical steps that if you got right, you would automatically be guaranteed a speaking engagement. Problem was, I was reading lots of professional speaking books about how to get booked as a speaker that were giving advice for people who had already been in the space for around 5 years while I was just getting my feet wet. The good news is that it’s not very complicated to get booked if we look at getting your message out to the world in a different way.
Turns out most of us have had a topic and audience at some point in our lives. Let’s say an acquaintance asks if you want to talk to their friends about an experience (topic) you had. Is that considered a speaking engagement? Well, not by your definition, but it is. That event has the same ingredients as would larger events that hire professional speakers for thousands of dollars. Breaking that down, what needs to happen for your friend to be interested in having you speak? Well, a few things:
1. You need a topic
2. You need a date when you will present
3. The person planning the event needs enough confidence in you to present
Those five ingredients exist in small free engagements to thousand-person events. You could think of this analogously to the difference between a six-year-old basketball game and the NBA. There are a series of things that need to happen for a basketball game to take place, there must be a court, players, following rules, and a ref. Those same ingredients whether there are six-year old’s playing or multimillionaires in the NBA- the same principle exists in speaking- same five pieces, but larger scale.
Step 1: Topic
So what do you plan to talk about?
Why do you go to a sports game, live band, performance, or lecture? Well, chances are there is something you want from the experience, maybe it’s to laugh, advice for a part of your life, or to forget about your problems for a few hours. People only go to those events because the presenters have something that the audience wants (unless you have mandatory lectures in high school). That is why it’s key to know what topic plan presents that other people are interested in. Explicitly, that means if you have a message that is only unique to you, you will not be asked to speak. You must have a message (content) that the audience wants to hear.
A lot of times, you can start in the other order where you think of the audience you want to speak to, then figure out what topics are important to them, then create your topics around that.
When starting out speaking in more just the recreational format, you need materials that list your topics to get booked. Essentially, you can think of this as a menu in a restaurant of what you specialize in. For instance, here is a snapshot of my speaking site. You can see the full list here.
Learn from Other Speakers
A lot of people getting into the world of speaking would probably be overwhelmed with creating topics like the one above- but don’t sweat it. What might be easier for you is finding speakers who have a similar message to you and check out their topics page on their website. If there is anything you like from that list, that would be a good starting point for your first draft. However, if you are still struggling to find speakers with your message, try Googling ‘speaker bureaus’ (websites that have lists of professional speakers), click on the different topics on those sites and check out the speakers listed. Following those steps should help you in navigating ‘how to get booked as a speaker’.
Step 2: Date to Present
When do you plan to speak?
Most of the time, the person who is coordinating the event dictates this, other times, the speaker dictates the time. Sometimes this can be planned the day before, to a few years in advance (yes, there are events that will book speakers years into the future). Now, the date is tricky because sometimes you will be asked to speak longer and shorter than you are used to. When you are presented with those situations you will need to learn how to expand or contract your content.
Typically, a booking progress goes like this:
- You or the event planner will start a conversation about an event (2 years – 2 months before presentation).
- You and the event planner agree on topic (2 years – 2 months before presentation).
- Event planner decides or talks with their speaker committee (for larger events, there are usually people who vote on their favorite speakers for an event and the speaker with the most votes get booked by democratic ruling). (1 year 11 months – 6 weeks before presentation).
- You and event planner sign on contract and terms and do payment). (1 year 11 months – 6 weeks before presentation).
- You practice and work on material. (1 month beforehand).
- (optional) The event planner and yourself meet to double check you are on the right path in terms of content for the event.
- You present.
If you continue down the speaking path, you will eventually get to a point where you are getting booked well in advance just like a doctor’s or license renewal appointment. You can see my speaking calendar to get an idea of what I am talking about.
Step 3: Build Event Planner Confidence
Why should an event planner book you versus someone else?
This step determines the professionals from the people just starting out. As you master this step, you can go from charging a few hundred bucks to thousands of dollars for a talk.
For this step, you need to have information that helps the event planner evaluate if they are going to bring you in for an event. Keep in mind, whoever the event planner brings in to speak, they are taking a risk. If the speaker does bad, the event planner is to blame for making their audience upset. However, if the speaker does well, the event planner becomes the shining star who put together an amazing schedule. Hence, they are looking for specific things to ensure they are picking the right speaker to mitigate their risk. Also, the larger the event, the more research they will do on the speaker.
Below are a few things to help event planners with the decision-making process (how to get booked as a speaker):
This was very common about a decade ago for speaking where a speaker who put their bio, pictures, and top topics on one piece of paper for event planners. Typically for smaller events, this is requested but not for larger ones. To give you an idea of how common this is when I started speaking in corporate, out of 500 event planner conversations about 10 asked for a ‘one sheet’. However, if you are just starting you might want to create one since you probably don’t have video footage. I included one below for when I first started speaking. Keep in mind, at the point I had this one sheet, I probably did less than 5 paid speaking engagements (TEDx doesn’t pay by the way). In other words, everyone starts somewhere.
Websites are becoming more and more common for speakers. If you are just starting out in the world of speaking, it’s a great thing to have and can substitute for a one-sheet. Lucky for people today, you can throw up a REALLY nice website for less than $100 in just a weekend. If you are ever overwhelmed on how to do this, there are hundreds of YouTube tutorials on how to launch websites or you can hire someone off of Upwork or Fiverr for a couple of hundred bucks to set up. Now, when it comes to a speaker website, there are usually a few areas that you need to cover, most shouldn’t be a surprise if you started from the beginning of this article: bio, topics, videos, and a way to contact the speaker.
Those are the most basic elements to a speaker website. In other words, when you are just starting out, you could throw a 1-pager website together and include a few pictures, and include your topics. However, in the beginning, the two most difficult things to get will be video footage and pictures.
Note, there are many great inexpensive website builders that are great for speakers: WordPress, Weebly, Wix, and Squarespace are a few. I personally use WordPress, but feel free to check out the others to get a good idea of what is out there. Also, make sure to avoid falling into the trap of hiring a developer when you are just starting out and dropping $3k or so. The goal is to get something up and if things are going well, you can invest some speaking fee money into your new website.
When you just start, you probably won’t have much footage because it’s a chicken and egg problem, you need nice footage to get on nice stages, but you need footage from being on stage.
Sometimes you need to get creative in making your path on how to get booked as a speaker.
When I was starting out, I went to empty lecture halls at my university (UC Berkeley), and have a friend record me on stage talking about my subject for a few minutes. It was enough footage for the event planners to get a feel of how my speaking style was like and my mannerism). After doing this a few times in the same day, we put together a demo reel (a video advertising what you do as a speaker; don’t worry about that at this point, that is for a bit later down the road). I didn’t get to speak until I had these pieces together, so I suggest in order to get early footage, go down to a school, church, event center, or better yet hotel and record yourself speaking. Even though, there is no one in the audience (50/50) most people can’t tell unless you show them no one is there.
I recorded my first demo footage in this classroom which I also took computer science classes in. If you search online, I am sure you can find some footage of it in a past demo I did.
Again, another chicken and egg problem here because event planners are curious about whether you have spoken on stages before. If you never have, then I would suggest getting a photographer on a platform like Thumbtack for a few hundred dollars and taking some nice headshots. Please avoid ones where you are holding a microphone or model posing. Ideally, you want this semi-casual, and not Christmas card nice. After you book your first few engagements, make sure to have a photographer there where you can start having your pictures taken in front of an audience. The key is getting the audience and the speaker in the same shot so the event planner can see that you know how to handle audiences. Below is a picture that was taken of me speaking at a conference in Europe. I wasn’t paid for this opportunity, but I know the footage and pictures would be great for my brand so I went.
Also, for those of you thinking that is a super cool setup, it was in a basketball gym where the event planners put chairs on the actual court and hung a large box from the ceiling to project a 4-sided presentation. I blacked out the ceiling so you can’t see the basketball hoop 😊.
Step 4: Audience
If you did the first 3 steps done right, then the audience will be there. However, in how to get booked as a speaker there are speakers who have to promote an event to get people to come and there are others where an event planner is in charge of getting people to come to the event. For this article, the content created here is mainly for events that have someone who is organizing an event.
Note there are different categories areas that need speakers who hold events consistently: associations, corporations, colleges, schools, churches, non-profit organizations. They all have different audiences and knowing who they are can help you put together a great presentation.
Now, that you understand the basic framework of what it takes to go from message to speaker, you will be able to make that step towards fulfilling your aspirations by being able to spread your message to the world. The good news today is that it has never been easier! Let’s get speaking!
Bonus: Having Conversations – How to Get Booked As a Speaker
The number of conversations you have with event planners who are holding events, the more likely you are to be booked.
However, to get to those conversations something needs to happen, the event planner finds you or you find them. Looking through various pieces of advice, speaking gurus recommend public relationships strategies, publishing a book, building a solid search engine optimization strategy, networking, emailing, calling, having a massive social media following or having booking agents book you. So, which one is right? They all are if they at ending up with event planners becoming aware of your message. Hence, that means if you decide to have a massive social media following, but none of your following goes to events, there is no way you can get booked.
It all comes down to how do you maximize the number of conversations you have with event planners.