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I work in the speaking industry. Here’s why a refreshing viewpoint is everything

Trusting your gut and spotting that unique brand can lead you to compelling voices, writes the author.

I work in the speaking industry. Here’s why a refreshing viewpoint is everything
[Photo: Pressmaster/Pexels]
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Early in my career, the majority of the speakers I was assigned to book fell into the $5,000-$20,000 range. And at first, bookings were hard to come by. This was for a variety of reasons, but for starters, selling a speaker has a lot to do with having relationships of trust with event sponsors. Because I was new to the industry, I didn’t have those relationships. As much as I knew that this would resolve itself with time, there was one thing I noticed that I could fix immediately.

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As I spoke with potential event sponsors on the phone, I realized that they were all looking for something fairly specific—but on occasion, I didn’t represent speakers who were a perfect match for their programs. In those cases, I was faced with either trying to force-fit one of the speakers I did represent or taking the time to try to find someone who was a better fit. Typically that meant finding a person who wasn’t represented by a speaking agency and probably had never even considered the possibility of being a speaker.

I was once contacted by an event sponsor from a private girls school in Tennessee who wanted someone young to give a talk about community-building. I must have pitched every speaker on my roster three times—the Pulitzer Prize-nominated author who worked in dog rescue, the founder of an education nonprofit, and a woman who ran a wellness initiative, to name a few. These were all high-profile individuals who had paid speaking experience and could have talked about community-building. But none of them got the event sponsor excited. I knew this buyer was probably speaking with other agencies and I didn’t want to lose the chance to deliver for a buyer who I was hoping would become a long-term client. Nor did I want to let the commission slip through my fingers. So, I did what most people do when they don’t have the answer to something—I hopped on Google.

An hour or so into reading random articles about community-building, I stumbled upon a fascinating piece written by a young beekeeper. The article touched on the way that bees form communities and how they are members of hives with intricate power structures and methods of communication with one dominant female force—the queen—at the helm. The author, Jill, appeared to be perfect for my buyer. She was in her twenties, seemed passionate, and even if she didn’t know it—her article was specific to bees—she had a unique angle on community-building.

On the downside, from what I could glean online, Jill had no prior public speaking experience—save her classroom presentations in college. Her article, as good as it was, wasn’t published by a well-known media outlet—and worse than that, I had no idea if I could even reach her. This was a time-sensitive booking and all I had to contact her was the email address listed on her website. I had no way to know how long it might take to get a response, I had no idea if she’d be interested and available, and I also had no idea if the event sponsor would be as excited about her as I was.

I knew that the best approach would be to first see if the event sponsor would be interested in Jill. But this approach had inherent risk. Jill was not my client. In fact, she had never heard of me or spoken to me before. I had no idea if she would have interest in giving a lecture, let alone a lecture in Tennessee on a specific date. And if I were to sell her to my buyer and then couldn’t deliver because Jill declined, I’d be nowhere.

I took the gamble anyway and pitched Jill for the event. The event sponsor was excited after reading the article and wrote an offer for $15,000—plus travel expenses—for Jill to come to campus, give a keynote speech, and visit a few classes. While this was great, Jill had no clue that I had just sold her to a client and spun her article into a speech topic about community-building.

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I wrote Jill a short but to-the-point message and sent it to the email address on her website. It went something like this:

I read your most recent article, and I represent speakers for paid speaking opportunities around the world. I was inspired by your story, and shared your work with one of my clients. They would like to invite you to give a presentation on their campus. They can offer you a speaking fee of $15,000. Please call me at the number below if you are interested.

One Great Speech

Jill called my office 20 minutes later a little shell-shocked and guarded—but excited. She accepted the engagement and two months later visited the school in Tennessee. She talked about the importance of bees and their communities—relating it to forming communities based around everything from friendship to shared beliefs, from neighborhoods to schools. But she primarily talked about bees.

It was a fresh angle on community-building. One she was well-versed in and passionate about. She had a great time, the audience was engaged, and the sponsor was thrilled with her visit. It’s important to note that Jill only had to add a little bit of non-bee-related information to her speech to make her 45-minute keynote address relevant to the needs of this particular event sponsor. The girls in the audience learned primarily about bees but left with a strong message about community.

I learned two important lessons here pertaining to me as an agent: I would have better luck finding the perfect fit than trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

There are many experts out there who aren’t even aware that they have a message they can get paid to share. Going forward, I made it my mission to find the perfect speakers for event sponsors even if that meant reaching beyond the clients who were signed exclusively to my agency. But there are also a couple of lessons here that pertain to you as a potential paid speaker: No matter how unlikely you might think it is that someone will pay you to speak, don’t be afraid to put your hat in the ring. The most essential key to success in the paid speaking industry is simply “showing up.” In other words, the one way to ensure that you never make money as a paid speaker is by never putting yourself out there. The simple act of putting yourself on the menu is the single biggest step you can take toward finding success as a paid speaker and changing your life—both professionally and financially.

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Story triumphs over everything. And finding your lane—what I think about as personal brand development—is another key to success in the paid speaking industry. If Jill wanted to earn money as a paid speaker, she had to stop narrowly defining herself as a beekeeper and instead brand herself as an expert with a fascinating and unique spin on community-building.


Excerpted from One Great Speech by James Marshall Reilly, published by Sourcebooks. Copyright © 2020 by James Marshall Reilly. Reprinted with permission. All other rights reserved. 

James Marshall Reilly is a speaking and literary consultant who has spent over a decade in the paid speaking industry. He has represented more than 100 exclusive speakers and booked more than 1,000 events. As a speaker himself, he has given keynote presentations at Microsoft, Viacom, and MIT, among others.