4 OF 4 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW TO BECOME A PROFESSIONAL SPEAKER
How to be perceived as a professional and why it matters.
When working through a bureau or agency, professionalism is an important key for a speaker to be successful in this industry. It seems like this goes without saying, but you’d be surprised at the gamut of professionalism one sees in this field. I’ve seen a level of professionalism as poor as a speakers backing out of a contracted and mutually agreed upon agenda while onsite at the event; other speakers professionalism lacks in something as simple but important as failing to have high-quality headshot; there are those speakers who just don’t return calls or respond to emails in anything resembling a timely manner when agencies are actively pitching them; and then there are speakers who have it all together — a killer website, compelling intro, quality headshot, complete bio, active social media presences, an incredible team, and so on. Agencies take notice and a speaker’s level of professionalism impacts how often they are pitched and booked.
Here’s why professionalism matters so much: Speakers rely on agents to actively pitch them to sponsors. The majority of the time if an agent is speaking with a sponsor it’s because they have a long-standing relationship. I started out in this industry almost twenty years ago and many of the agents I worked with then are still agents today. That means, the same way they have a nearly twenty-year relationship with me, they have a twenty-plus year relationship with event sponsors who book speakers. So, when an agent sends a speaker to an event the agent is sending a speaker to someone who’s been a recurring client of theirs for years and years. Someone who has literally been paying their bill and the agency’s bills. Each interaction an agent has with that sponsor is either going to reinforce the relationship or chip away at it.
Here’s where a speaker’s professionalism comes into play. If you suck at being professional, an agent is not going to continue to pitch you to their clients because if they do you’ll be a poor reflection of them and chip away at the strength of their relationship, and possibly end up costing the agent a long-standing or future recurring client. Don’t mess with an agent or agency’s money.
Here’s how not to suck.
Do what Kindra Hall does. Every. Single. Thing. Or be prepared like Bakari Sellers. Or build a team who are as professional and on-point as Issa Rae’s team. Or be as committed and passionate as Tarana Burke. Or all of the above. Simply put, put the effort in to present yourself in the most professional light. And go beyond “presenting” yourself and actually be professional.
Kindra is a consummate professional. She’s pleasant to work with, responsive, prepared, an excellent speaker, and she makes the entire process easy for agents and for sponsors. Having worked on the speaker management side of the industry, I know that’s not easy to pull off, especially when speaking isn’t the only thing a speaker does, but she puts the effort in and makes it a priority.
So, what does she do?
She has a badass website. The layout is clean, the language is concise, the message is clear. If you want to be taken seriously as a speaker, you need a clean and solid online presence. Get you website.
If I were you, I would use Kindra’s website as a template.
SHE MAKES THINGS EASY
Be prepared and make it easy to pitch you. If you’re looking to be a professional speaker there are a few must-haves:
Speech topic(s): A speech topic is both the topic or topics you speak on in title form and a blurb about each topic.
For example, consider April Rinne, the Global Authority on the New Economy, Disruptive Innovation and the Future of Work. These are her speech topics:
The New Economy: What’s It All About?
The sharing economy, collaborative economy, digital economy, on-demand economy, access economy… these terms are in the media daily and yet what do they mean for companies, individuals, governments, and the future? A renowned expert on emerging digital technologies and the new economy in all its forms, Rinne unpacks the headlines and hype, decoding crucial terminology, highlighting new forms of disruptive innovation, and identifying underlying trends to help leaders across industries forge a successful path forward. Touching on major shifts from centralized institutions to decentralized networks, to business models based on access rather than ownership, and on how to build trust in new ways, Rinne serves as a hands-on guide to the new economy, helping organizations translate uncertain change into economic opportunity.
The Future of Work: Preparing for What Lies Ahead
Almost every aspect of the way we work is changing as the world shifts from lifetime employment to freelance work arrangements, and as new technologies portend to displace jobs at an unprecedented rate. Today, in the U.S. alone, 34% of the workforce is already freelance, a number that is expected to rise to 50% by 2030. Drivers and retail clerks, two of the largest professions worldwide, are among the most at-risk for technological disruption as driverless cars and self-serve tablets become the norm. Tackling the complexity of the future of work in terms of its impact on companies, workers, and policymakers, Rinne reveals the trends behind the stats, helping stakeholders across industries prepare for the evolving nature of work. Breaking down complex shifts and interweaving powerful experiences with hard-hitting facts, Rinne shares how we can maximize the benefits of the future of work and ensure that new technologies augment rather than replace human potential, ultimately providing a playbook so that organizations and individuals can become predictive and proactive rather than reactive and stay two steps ahead of the competition.
Finding Your Path: New Perspectives on Global Citizenship
As “globalization” becomes an increasingly divisive topic worldwide, Rinne emphasizes why we need the voices of global citizens now more than ever. Highlighting the difference between globalization and global citizenship, Rinne inspires the next generation to become citizens of the world who are thoughtful about complex issues such as cultural diversity, migration, poverty and more. Drawing on her motto, “global access, global perspective,” and extensive personal and professional experiences traveling to over 95 countries and working on six continents (to date), Rinne empowers young leaders to carve a professional path with purpose and meaning, revealing emerging trends in the worlds of business and travel that make it easier — and more accessible — to be a global citizen than ever before.
This should go without saying but get some professional headshots. Agents literally send a picture of you to a sponsor when pitching you. If you have a low-quality headshot they’re going to think you don’t have the money to get a professional headshot, which means you’re not speaking often, which means you’re not a good speaker, which means they shouldn’t trust you as a speaker, and eventually you’ll lose the event. Get professional headshots.
A Pitch Bio
Your pitch bio should be roughly 250 to 500 words, no more. Write it up. Post it on your website. This isn’t a bio that drones on about your accomplishments. This is a bio that sells you as a speaker. It should include your gimmick, your accomplishments, and how audiences can expect to experience you and/or what they’ll take away from your visit.
Draft an introduction you want folks to use when introducing you at an event. This is a great way to tell the audience (through the person introducing you) what you’re currently up to, what projects you’re working on, and so on. The person introducing you would be happy to brag about you.
A sponsor reached out to me and wanted to book Bakari Sellers. He was on CNN every other day around this time. Prior to that request, the agency had never booked Bakari. I did some digging around, found his email and asked him if he speaks and if so what’s his fee and travel requirements. Within 5 minutes he responds with his fee, travel requirements, headshot, and bio.
Be prepared and be responsive. As soon as we received his response, I told a colleague and she sent an email to everyone on our team. “Bakari’s on top of it. Here are his requirements. We emailed him 5 minutes ago. He’s fast!” Everyone took that message to mean, “If you have to pick between two people who speak on similar topics, and one of them is somewhat flakey and the other is Bakari, you should go with Bakari.”
When starting out as a speaker it can be tempting to ask anyone and everyone for help. Your friends can quickly become your “assistant.” Your spouse can become your “manager.” Your children can become your assistant. Occasionally, however, because of the long-established dynamic of those relationships the seriousness and professionalism required to be well represented by people with whom you have a long-standing personal relationship with can end up hurting your career as a speaker.
There are speakers out there that have personal relationships, be it they see friends, family, or spouses, and their dynamic and professionalism are through the roof.
I’m not sure of the relationship between Issa Rae and her team, but whether it is a long-standing personal relationship or employee-employer dynamic, they are on point! Build a team like Issa’s.
They’re prepared, responsive, they protect Issa’s time while also being accommodating to the sponsor, they have foresight when it comes to logistics, contracting, and the list goes on.
How do you build a team like Issa? Here’s what I imagine she did.
First, I imagine she set clear expectations with her team. Clear expectation can be two-fold:
- She let folks know what she expects of them and how she expects to be represented, and
- She let people know that she’s only committed to having the best people on her team, which means that at different stages of her career she’s going to bring new people on board and let go of some people. So, no one can or should expect to stay on just because they’re friends.
Second, I imagine she got clear about her professional intentions and shared it with her team. In my head, she sat with her team and said, “This is the vision I have for my life….. The way my career is going to support that is by…. When I engage with anyone, be it you, a fan, a sponsor, anyone, this is the experience I’m intending they have of me…. and I’m letting you know because my hope is, and request is, that you all will commit to creating that with me.”
Third, and final, I think she genuinely is cool with her people. I think they get along. I think they care about Issa beyond a check. The things they paid attention to wasn’t just because it was something from the higher-ups, but rather because they’re looking out for someone they know. They were looking out for a friend.
When #MeToo took off and blanketed every social media platform with bravery and solidarity of survivors of sexual assault, I knew Tarana Burke would be a sought-after speaker. I read she started the MeToo movement more than ten years ago. What I wasn’t ready for was how passionate she was and is about bringing survivors experience to the forefront. Tarana’s passion for what she’s doing and what she gets to do through speaking comes through in nearly every interaction with her. This is not a gimmick or schtick for Tarana that she uses to grab the attention of audiences. MeToo is what Tarana believes in. It’s what she is passionate about — and it’s infectious. You can’t help but want to be around her and hear her speak about what to do next. You can’t help but be inspired by her graciousness and humility while also being empowered by the fact that someone who was relatively unknown dedicated their life to something that matters and now the tides of her work are topping those who held positions of power and influence all around the country. I know if she makes me feel that way, then she’s going to make sponsors and a sponsor’s audience feel the same. Because of her passion, I want to send Tarana everywhere.
I hear people say it all the time, “Oh, I would love to get paid just to speak.” The implication being that the job of a professional speaker is easy for the amount of money they receive. In the overwhelming majority of the cases, a speaker’s words can make all the difference and the amount they are paid pales in comparison to the impact they have. A person can hear one thing a speaker says and decide a completely new direction for themselves, their family, and their community. Speakers help companies inspire sales teams — sales teams who help keep our economy alive and the engines of a free marketing running. Speakers inspire college students to be bold and dream big. And in the case of an event I worked with Laverne Cox, speakers make it possible for a mom to introduce her trans-daughter to her hero, which served as a reminder that she mattered too. Other speakers help raise loads of money for nonprofit organization making it possible for them to continue to do the work they do serving underserved communities. This may seem hokey, but it’s true. Professional speakers don’t get paid to “just” speak. They show up, they’re prepared, they’re passionate, and they’re intentional because they know that their words matters.
So, be passionate, build a solid team to support you in your work, be prepared and responsive. Simply, be professional.