“How do I become a public speaker?”
This is a question that frequents my inbox. So often, in fact, that I decided a blog on this topic would be well utilized by inquiring minds and aspiring speakers. Let me begin with sharing a bit about my own background and how I became a public speaker, and then we’ll move into questions I ask others, and the advice I tend to give from my own experiences and observations.
I started doing public speaking in the 1980’s . . . when I was in elementary school. I was part of a club called 4-H, an organization for youth designed to “assist in development and empowerment through hands on learning activities within the areas of science, healthy living and food security” (All of these years I’ve actually had no clue what 4-H’s definition was until I just googled it www.4-h.org). One activity that I took a liking to was the public speaking contest that took place every year at our town’s county fair. I took it seriously, and was motivated by my parents, who instructed me to write my speeches down on index cards, and then recite, recite, recite until they were memorized. One of the years that I participated, I won the first place ribbon and 5 dollars (that was a lot in the 1980’s). Winning helped ignite my passion for educating audiences and making them laugh. From my experiences in 4-H, I started to join all the clubs at my school that allowed me to work on speaking in front of people.
At the end of my sophomore year in college I became a peer educator with an eating disorder education and prevention group on campus. I immersed myself in this group and over the years became the coordinator and script writer. My work landed me a graduate assistant position with the University Health Center in the sexuality and alcohol/drug prevention department. Working with both of these groups led me to joining a speaker’s bureau where I participated in panels that were asked to attend classrooms and community events to educate audiences on LGBTQ issues.
After two master of art degrees and four years of graduate school I moved into a full-time position as a health and sexuality educator. After six years of working for this nonprofit I moved into self-employment as a fulltime speaker, educator and writer. It has been a long journey for me. A challenging journey that has had its fair amount of stressors, but I am most fulfilled in this line of work and can understand why other people also want to begin on their own public speaking careers and paths.
When I receive inquiries about becoming a public speaker, the first questions that I always toss back include:
- Why do you want to be a public speaker?
- What are your goals and intentions behind this work?
- And most importantly, what is your niche?
Let’s now look more closely as to why I ask these three questions:
Why do you want to be a public speaker? As I noted in my memoir, Second Son, public speaking is the number one fear among humans. Many people shudder at the idea of having to stand in front of an audience and speak, let alone speak on a topic related to sexual orientation or gender identity which in some audiences may be seen as “controversial.”
So what is it that drives you to do this work? If you think you have to do it because no one else is doing it, but you are dreading it, then take heart in knowing there are others out there doing the work and they will be found. If you have found that you have a knack for public speaking and receive feedback that makes you want to continue then keep going! Ways to start building a larger network is to volunteer your time both as an individual and as part of a speaker’s bureau. We all have to start from somewhere and volunteering is one of the best ways to build both experience and recognition.
Next, what are your goals and intentions behind this work? If your goal is to become a multi-millionaire paid to travel around the world and speak, then you may want to reassess what it means to be a public speaker and what they are actually paid. Don’t get me wrong, there are some speakers out there that have a large asking price and receive it, but that percentage is VERY small. For most, careers grow slowly and build overtime. I suggest setting goals that may include how many speaking appearances you’d like per month, or year, and start working toward those goals. To build on appearances you’ll have to make yourself present, hit the pavement (both online and in the real world) and network.
Lastly, what is your niche? This is the most important question to ask yourself. What is it that makes you stand out from others doing this work? What makes you unique and why would an organization want to pick you over a competitor? In defining your niche, it is important not to put other people down through criticism or defensiveness. Marketing yourself is not about attacking others only to build yourself up, it is about showing your talents, approach and insight. This niche will also help define where your skills lay within a category. A good speaker will not take on requests that fall outside where their knowledge base is developed. For example, if someone were to contact me to inquire about a presentation regarding race, culture and class, I would be doing both them and myself a disservice by agreeing to the request. I am very aware of my limits and my responsibilities. When I’m approached on a topic that doesn’t fall within my skillset, I turn it down but also give referrals. Being able to give referrals will help build your network, trust me.
If you do not have training, experience, or credentials to be speaking broadly on certain topics, but you do have personal experience and a personal story. Then advertise that you have a personal story, but do not start to advertise that you can do trainings on the broader topic. Again, ethically, without proper education and training, this is doing a disservice and potentially spreading wrong, misleading or harmful information.
You will be booked if people respond well to your qualities and offerings. The qualities I have found valuable in a public speaker include: charisma, rhythm that allows energy to move up and down without being stuck in one place too long, taking a non-defensive approach to answering questions, using a calm and assertive voice, and developing a tough skin for both the constructive and not-so constructive criticism. Some of these qualities come naturally to people, others you need to work on and continue to refine throughout your career.
Ryan Sallans – learn more about my work at www.ryansallans.com