Speaking Gigs 101 for Writers, Authors, and You Too

Updated: Nov 23


From Toastmasters to speakers bureaus with income along the way


Extrovert or introvert. Enthusiastic amateur or noted expert. Informal and intimate or polished and charismatic. Regardless of temperament or approach, if you have something of value to share with others and can put together a solid program for delivering it, you can start making money as a speaker.


Before you write this off as not for you, I want to call your attention to some specific things in the above paragraph:


Regardless of temperament. Public speaking doesn’t have to come easy or naturally to you. If you can get to a place of your voice not quivering (too much); where you can speak at a pace, volume, and clarity level for others to understand you (most of the time); and you can smile, make eye contact, and take questions with composure (decently enough), you can start.


Something of value. This is wide open. Value can be general or specific; entertainment, inspiration, knowledge, nostalgia; a breezy survey or a deep dive; how-to, interactive, lecture, or any useful format of choice. I’d wager good money that you have something of value to share right now with others. If you’re stumped, try this article’s brainstorming technique (#8).


A solid program. This is most critical for beginners. You want your first time out to be solid — it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should be on the better side of good enough. Those who hire speakers for programs are talkers themselves, and they love to spread the word good or bad. If your debut passes muster, it will likely lead to other invites from their network. This is your ideal — word-of-mouth marketing that does the work for you. The opposite is true too. If you do a mediocre job, flail, wing it, that will be a huge ding to overcome. You’ll be starting your speaking career in the red.


You can start making money. That’s right, you can start. And build from there. Put effort into getting better with practice to improve your skills and command higher fees as you go. But get paid on your journey to better.

 

What Is a Program?

Let’s back up. A program refers to any public or private function where you’re in front of a room full (or a handful or a stadium full) of people presenting on a particular topic. That’s a 30- to 90-minute talk, Q&A session, a lecture, a class, a seminar, a slideshow, a video presentation, a virtual presentation, a workshop, a demonstration. (More on the specifics of Author Events here.)


Why Add Speaking as an Income Stream?

Keep reading. Don’t give up on this idea yet. Becoming some degree of a public speaker comes with valuable benefits besides the extra money:

  • Development of a highly prized and useful skill

  • Greater social confidence, poise, and flexibility

  • Knowing yourself and your topic better

  • Public interaction and feedback

  • Built-in networking opportunities

  • Multiple business development aspects (covered below)

Who Needs and Pays for Speakers?

  • Libraries

  • Historical societies

  • Clubs (private and hobby-based)

  • Professional societies

  • Alumni associations

  • Fraternal organizations

  • Retirement communities and senior centers

  • Adult education centers

  • Schools (from pre-K to grad schools to trade/vocational schools)

  • Conventions

  • Conferences

  • Corporations (seminars, lunch & learns, etc.)

  • Ladies Who Lunch and ROMEOS (Retired Old Men Eating Out)

  • Many more

What Do I Speak About?

Anything! Really. But review this list of popular, evergreen topics to help locate the topics you can begin speaking about.

  • Nostalgia/history

  • Utility, life hacks, how-to

  • Books and writing

  • Local and regional

  • Career and business

  • Skills upgrade/technology

  • Dating, relationships, parenting

  • What you care about (hobbies, passions, causes)

  • What you know about and others don’t (work, hobbies, passions, causes)

What If I’m Not Ready to Start?

If you think — know — you don’t meet the minimum requirements outlined in the beginning, you’re still ready to start. Toastmasters, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is an international nonprofit with chapters everywhere that are the undisputed number one place to learn and practice public speaking in a supportive setting. There are over 16,000 chapters in 145 countries. It costs $20 to join and $45 every six months for one-hour weekly meetings.


If you need this, don’t think twice. Do it. It is very likely the biggest bang for your leadership-valuable skill-personal development buck anywhere. They have a system for your success, it’s amazing, and the culture is encouraging, nurturing, and safe.


Pro Tips for Getting Started

Much of this list comes from an earlier article on the income streams of a local knowledge business:

  • Begin your speaking career with one superb stock program you can easily customize for different audiences and grow from there.

  • Debut with a solid program as discussed above.

  • Consider all the ways to dress up your program: playing music that relates to your topic as the crowd is settling in, props, artifacts to pass around, slideshow or video, cross-promotional giveaways from local businesses, and your own swag (postcards, bookmarks, etc.).

  • Ask the crowd for things at the end of your program: to sign up for your mailing list, to permit a crowd photo for your social media purposes, to invite them to snap a photo for their social media, to ask for referrals for other speaking engagements.

  • Maximize the networking opportunities that being in front of a captivated audience gives you.

  • Consider travel time when pricing a program that may last only 45 to 90 minutes.

  • Consider reducing your fee if you have a book that you want to sell and sign after the program, especially if a big crowd is expected.

  • Consider speaking for free if you’re just getting started and need testimonials, or if you have something else to gain from a particular crowd: referrals, potential clients, book sales, etc.

  • Keep raising your rates as you get better and busier.

Business Development Benefits

So, what else can you reasonably expect from pursuing a speaking route? You can start enjoying such things as these, many from the beginning:

  • Networking opportunities, new connections

  • Names for your email list

  • Social media followers

  • PR, exposure, visibility

  • Referrals and testimonials

  • Other speaking gigs

  • Articles by the press, media interviews

  • Sales (if you have books or products to sell after the program or online)

  • Clients (freelancing, consulting, coaching)

Where You’re Headed

Once you have a speaking sideline underway, you may discover you are or have become quite good at it. You like doing it and are getting more comfortable and effective all the time. You’re getting as many requests as you can handle and have to limit the time you spend afterward because you’re crowded with audience members wanting your personal attention. You keep raising your rates and the size of your audience keeps going up. At this point, you’re ready to look into speakers bureaus, places those hiring professional speakers at $500, $5,000, and $50,000 a pop turn to nab a surefire hit for their event.


Even if you’re not there yet, take a look at some of their websites to get a sense of what’s down the road:

As you’ll see, there’s quite a range in this world — academics, journalists, scientists, motivational speakers… and professional athletes, politicians, movie stars, household names. As an intermediary step, find the local and regional speakers bureaus near you to gain experience and comfort in this world.

 

Let’s recap

  • You should seriously consider whether starting a speaking income stream may be right for you.

  • You can get started making money as soon as you can deliver a reasonably solid program to some group, somewhere, on some topic.

  • Review popular, evergreen topics and brainstorm on what you might speak about.

  • Consider who needs speakers and where you’ll first pitch your program.

  • Remember that it’s a journey. Just begin and make money as you continue to improve.

  • If you’re not yet at the solid program step, join Toastmasters and they’ll help you get there — best self-development bang for the buck anywhere.

  • Work on all the ways you can enhance your program.

  • Ask your audience for things.

  • Review the business benefits of speaking and make sure your programs encourage these rewards.

  • Spend some time on speakers bureau websites to see the big game that’s available down the road for exceptional speakers.