How I Landed My First Paid Speaking Gig and You Can Too

It was 2005 and I knew I was being called to be a speaker. In fact, I had known for about 7 years that I would be a speaker. Nope! I didn’t have all the details. I didn’t know where to start, who I needed to talk to or exactly what I needed to do to get started, but I did know two things: I wanted to change the workplace and I wanted to see people succeed.

I was in the midst of writing my first book There Is More Inside: Personal Essentials to Living A Power-Packed Life. As I recall, I didn’t even have a website, yet. It was Summer 2005 and a friend asked me for a favor: “Will you come and speak to a group of HR (human resources) professionals? I’m responsible for booking speakers and I need a speaker for an upcoming meeting.”

Without intentionally exerting any energy, my heart rate increased and I had so many thoughts running through my mind that they disrupted my normal thought pattern. Have you ever had that happen to you? You’re so surprised by an opportunity that you don’t know what to think, do or if you are even capable of meeting the expectation? At that time, I wasn’t a proven speaker and I certainly wasn’t ready to step on stage in such short notice.

With a healthy balance of doubt and curiosity, I said, “Sure. What do you want me to talk about?”

“Anything,” he responded.

“Anything?” I thought.

For what felt like days, I debated within myself: “What should I talk about? Who will be there? How do I decide what to talk about?”

My first book was about discovering who you are and finding the confidence and courage to be personally accountable for creating what you want. That just didn’t seem to be a great topic for a group of policy-following HR professionals. Although I wasn’t going to get paid and didn’t have the experience to know how to process what I could possibly get out of this gig, at the very least, I wanted the audience to like my presentation—and like me. It wasn’t just me, right? Don’t you want to be liked and appreciated?

I decided to be true to myself. I spoke on the topic, “How to Find Your Passion.”

It turned out that I was completely wrong about HR professionals. Everyone started buzzing about the content. After the applause had ended, a line started forming. People were saying how inspired they were by the content and how much this message was needed in the workplace.

At the time, unbeknownst to me, the head of HR for the State of Delaware was in the room. He approached me and said, “Great speech. I have two statewide conferences coming up for support staff. There will be about 300 people at event. I’d like for you to address how to present with confidence. How much will it cost to book you for both conferences?”

“Wow!” I thought. “They must really mean what they are saying,” Do you ever feel like people are just appeasing you? You know, they don’t want you to feel bad so they tell you how great you are, but never take your follow-up call. Well, despite the buzz I didn’t absorb it as honest feedback.

For me, in this context, the truth to admiration and appreciation is the answer to this question: “Are you going to hire me to speak for your organization?” 

After that offer, I felt a surge of confidence in the chatter so I calmly asked, “When are the conferences? How long do you want me to speak?” He gave me the dates and said 45 minutes each. Without hesitation I said, “I have to check my calendar, but thirty-five hundred ($3,500) per conference.”

He shockingly said, “3500 per conference! You’re not worth $3,500.” Without knowing how to demonstrate my value, I responded with a smile, “You may not be willing to pay me 3500, but I’m worth 3500.”

Clearly, wanting me to keynote his conferences, he retorted, “I can pay you $1,000 per conference for 45 minutes.” It didn’t take me long to make that decision. I had just spoken for 30 minutes and got paid $0. He’s offering me $1,000 for 45 minutes, plus I quickly assessed that if I revved up my efforts, I could have my book done before the conference.

I boldly asked, “I have a book coming out around that time. “Can I sale it after I speak?” He enthusiastically said, “Yes!” I had just negotiated my first speaking contract and gave birth to my full-time speaking career.  

From coaching over 300 speakers in the last five years, many of them spend years investing their time and money speaking for free or for minimum compensation. My philosophy is this: be careful of setting a standard of devaluing your mission and message. Over time, not only will you be speaking for free, you’ll start to question yourself and the value you bring. This can severely impact your self-esteem.

The lessons I share with upcoming speakers is this:

·     Be Yourself. Many speakers, authors and other professionals, including employees struggle with knowing and really believing in themselves and their message. Do your homework and just present your message; don’t try to prove that your message is right or how great you are.

·     Be Honest With Yourself. Recognize that if you are not being booked, you may need a coach to help you develop your brand, speech and speaking abilities. Your presentation has to be so good that you are memorable!

·     Brand Your Business. I’ve discovered that for most of my clients, there is an internal battle of wanting to craft and communicate an authentic, valuable message and trying to figure out what’s most popular in the marketplace. Don’t bounce around trying to be everything to everyone; believe in and evolve with your message as the market and workplace changes.

·     Be Dynamic. Give your audience a compelling reason to want to hear you speak again. You have to work on your presence, presentation and performance. Be magnetic, innovative and energizing. When you do, someone in the audience will ask, “Are you available to speak at my event?”

© 2018 S. Renee Smith-Larry All rights reserved. S. Renee helps professionals around the world increase their income and influence by becoming more likable, marketable and credible. As a nationally recognized self-esteem, branding and communications expert, speaker and coach, she also is the bestselling author of 5 Steps to Assertiveness: How to Communicate with Confidence and Get What You WantThe Bridge to Your BrandOur Hearts Wonder, There Is More Inside and Co-Author of Self-Esteem for Dummies. For booking information call 888-588-0423 or visit www.srenee.com.

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