If you're interested in becoming a paid public speaker, here are some things you should know about the industry first.

by Ben Casnocha


A few friends have told me they want to get on the speaking circuit. While I do some paid speaking on the side, I’m not a “professional speaker.” But as always with this blog, lack of qualification doesn’t stop me from offering thoughts!

Here are some assorted nuggets for those looking to pursue public speaking in a professional capacity:

1. Wanting to do paid speaking is similar to wanting to write a book: it sounds like paradise until you become familiar with how the industry works

My friend Penelope Trunk wrote a great post called “5 Reasons why you don’t need to write a book.” Many authors echo her advice. A similar dynamic holds in the speaking industry. To outsiders, it sounds glamorous—you get paid a bunch of money, flown first-class to an exotic city, speak in front of thousands of people. For the top tier it’s like this. But most start at “free” and, over several years, work their way up to $2,500, then $5,000, then $7,500 and maybe $10,000 or $15,000 a speech if you’re good but still relatively unknown. Your clients will mostly be in small towns, and your mode of transit will be regional jets that fly once a day.

2. Paid speaking rarely exists on its own

If you write a book, speaking is the natural follow-up. Or if you have some other product to sell, speaking works in tandem. Or if you are a consultant, speaking can help drive business to your consultancy. The point is, it’s unusual to do paid speaking on its own; it’s usually a single product in a portfolio of products and services.

3. It doesn’t scale

You can only be in one place at one time. This creates a ceiling on how much money you can make. If money is driving you, this should represent the greatest drawback.

4. The best speakers “do” something by day

People who speak for a living (i.e., full-time) don’t do anything else day to day which makes them less credible and interesting. They are usually “motivational speakers.” Standing on stage and issuing opinions is not very hard. By contrast, if you’re a professor, or run a business or otherwise have a professional job that requires you to interact with the world on a regular basis and then allows you to draw upon such real-world experience in your speaking, you are more credible.

5. There are speaking bureaus and agents

Here’s how most work: They field phone calls from event planners looking for speakers and then, in reactive fashion, propose a few speakers from their database. The event planner will pick one, and the bureau will handle some of the ensuing logistics. In return for it all, they take 15 to 25 percent commission off the speaker’s gross fee. (As a speaker, you don’t pay the bureau unless they book you.) It’s easier to get listed with a speaking bureau than be represented by a literary agent, but it’s not a slam-dunk. Bureaus receive 15 speaking proposals a day, and only choose to “represent” (i.e., list on website and reactively offer to event planners) a small portion of those. Note that some bureaus represent speakers exclusively. Others will represent you non-exclusively, meaning that you can work with other bureaus or book engagements yourself. Unlike literary agents (with whom you have a high likelihood of selling a book), with a speaking agent, there’s no guarantee you’ll be booked for anything. Literally all it means is you show up on their website.

6. Before you can do paid speaking, you gotta do free speaking

Unless you have some extraordinary professional experience that will make you instantly in-demand on stage, you must establish a track record of inspiring or provoking audiences successfully. Then, slowly but surely, you can begin asking for expense reimbursement and then charging for the keynote itself. Like anything, it takes time to work your way up the ladder. Subjugate your ego. Volunteer yourself at schools. Gather friends in a conference room and do your spiel. Are you in it for the long term?

7. The thrill of being on stage

I don’t mean to be too negative. There is an undeniable thrill of being on stage, the center of attention, with 60 minutes to articulate your ideas and messages. An in-person presentation can move people in ways text cannot. The skills you learn—how to establish a kinesthetic connection with an audience, how to craft slides that are visually appealing, how to organize ideas, how to field questions—are hugely valuable. Plus, it’s fun!

8. Toastmasters

I’ve never been, but I have friends who swear by Toastmasters as the single best way to improve your public speaking.

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