As an author on the subject of presenting and speaking, I’m frequently asked how one goes about becoming a professional speaker.* Sometimes the word “motivational” is used in place of professional, which usually indicates that this is merely a wish rather than a dream with any substance. This may seem harsh, but allow me to explain.
Most people on planet Earth over the age of 2 years can actually speak, meaning that they have the ability to communicate by stringing a few words or sentences together. That’s in excess of 5 billion people. But a minuscule percentage of those 5 billion + folks actually get paid for delivering even one speech in their entire lives. There must be literally tens of thousands of people who have at some stage entertained this idea. Yet, the Global Speakers Federation has less than 7000 members at the time of writing. Less than 10% of these are Certified Speaking Professionals (a designation awarded to professional speakers who have met certain strict criteria). Assuming that this Federation (representing the official speaker associations of 11 countries) only represents 10% of all professional speakers – which is a conservative estimate, then the global industry would consist of around 70,000 speakers. This would by definition exclude teachers, lecturers and religious orators. I would guess that the most common of these may be – the “motivational speaker”.
So what makes someone a speaker? A great voice? Sought after expertise? Superior communication skills? An ability to structure and deliver a good speech on a particular topic? The answer is all of these, but the starting point would be someone who is an expert in their field. The ability to structure and then deliver a great speech would be second. Practice would be high on the list too. A good voice is a bonus. So let’s hone in on the most important thing.
In order to become a subject expert you need to study or develop experience and expertise in particular area or field. The more niche that field, the more of an expert you will be perceived to be. The more it can be aligned to creating productivity or profit, the higher the fee you can expect to command as you will be more likely to find a market for your speech. For example, if you spoke on the topic of “mining equipment” or “safety” you may be one of many experts in that field. However, if your niche was “Crane Operators: Reducing Accidents and Dramatically Increasing Productivity” – even though your market is limited, you may find yourself in high demand because… you guessed it: No one else speaks on this topic in the whole wide world except you, and the topic is very important!
In 1991 a memorable cowboy movie was released called City Slickers. starring Jack Palance (Curly) and Billy Crystal (Mitch). During an outride, whilst having a general discussion about life, Curly suggests to Mitch
“D’ya know what the secret of life is?”
“No, what?” asks Mitch.
“This.” replies Curly raising his right index finger.
“One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean squat!” (actually, he used an expletive here…)
“That’ great, but what’s the one thing?”
“That” replies Curly “is what you gotta figure out.”
[Pause here to think a bit, please!]
It takes no more than 6 months of intensive study to become a credible expert on most subjects. But then you’d be putting in 8-10 hours a day, 6 days a week. Author Malcolm Gladwell asserts in Outliers that to develop a skill to world class standard (like for instance mastering a musical instrument) requires about 10,000 hours of practice. It’s possible, but it requires a level of dedication that most people are either unable or unwilling to commit to.
My 10 year old daughter takes piano lessons and is showing a flair for the instrument. She practices 10-12 minutes a day, 5 days a week. Unless she rapidly disciplines herself to raise that to half an hour and ultimately 2 hours a day, 7 days a week, she may become a good piano player, but the title of “world’s greatest concert pianist” will be beyond her grasp.
So – how does one become a professional speaker – in other words *a speaker who gets booked regularly for a fee?
There are 3 key steps.
- Become a subject expert, preferably in a narrow niche. Alternatively, be the first in that field.
- Learn how to structure an interesting speech around your topic.
- Become very good on the platform.
All this takes time, dedication and practice. If you want to be an even better speaker, learn how to use your voice optimally, learn how to run a professional speaking business, commit to ongoing and never ending personal education as a speaker – and start speaking to audiences regularly.
That’s how the professionals do it, and if you want to be one, you need to do the same. The starting point to becoming a “Professional Speaker” is ultimately about finding your “One Thing.”