Public speaking is a great way to increase exposure to your brand and your message. Why do so many entrepreneurs resist stepping into the spotlight? I’ve heard every reason—and every excuse—imaginable.

I don't have the time...
I get nervous in front of crowds...
I don't know how to find speaking opportunities...
It takes too long to pay off...

Christine Cunneen, CEO of Hire Image, a provider of background screening, drug testing, and employment verification services, credits her public speaking appearances as a crucial component of her business success. Although she is a busy entrepreneur, she finds time for regular speaking engagements. She equates public speaking with farming, reminding us that it takes time to sow the seeds. "When I speak," she says, "I plant the seeds that will help my business grow. Although we have added numerous clients because of my speaking engagements, many do not happen right away." Cunneen follows up with her audience by sending informative newsletters and maintains that many of them eventually have a need for her company's services.

"We added a large university a year after they heard me speak at a conference, and six months later it referred us to another large client," she says. "Another example is the employment attorney who attended one of my speaking engagements and now refers me to attorneys who post questions on a discussion forum he belongs to."

But it takes confidence to get in front of an audience. If you don't feel ready to take center-stage, try beginning with a few less-threatening ways to launch your speaking career.

Create a webinar or teleseminar. Keep it virtual, and you won't have to face your audience but you can still get great exposure – and experience. 

Sit on a panel. You might also consider sitting on a panel at an industry event or local round-table. You know your industry well, so you will be able to answer questions and offer valuable insight with ease. As an added benefit you can learn more about what your audience is interested in learning and utilize that knowledge to generate a speech or two of your own.

Being on a panel is a great way to establish yourself as an expert; even so, it’s not all about you. Although one goal in public speaking is to increase your brand visibility, your primary goal is to connect with your audience and leave them with value.  Since our emotional response is what makes us remember our experiences and remain connected to them long after the experience itself has passed, it's important to deliver your message with authenticity and emotional impact. Use stories and metaphors to increase the emotional impact of your message. Fluxuate your tone, use limited-but-expressive gestures, and maintain eye contact with members of your audience.

Stay local. When you are ready to find speaking opportunities in your community, Laura Stack, president of the National Speakers Association, suggests you pick up a copy of your local Business Journal and turn to the calendar section. "You will see a list of groups and contact names just waiting for you to speak. There are many local associations, chambers, and service clubs in your area that need a speaker at each meeting," Stack says. Determine your topic by coming up with three great tips in your particular area of expertise, (social media, customer service, financial services, technology, etc.).  Next, tailor your tips to make them relevant and helpful to that particular audience. "Give value in your speech," she warns, "not just an advertisement for your company."

Soon you will be ready to take your speeches on the road! Danny Astoria of Ericho Communications suggests beginning with a basic Google search to find industry conferences relevant to your area of expertise.

"Conferences are a great chance to build your brand because most of them will have active PR campaigns promoting the conference, giving your business that extra exposure," Astoria says. He then suggests that you submit a speaker-application and follow up on your application via telephone in a week's time.

Also contact your local library, bookstores, womens groups, chambers, churches, and non-profit groups. Again, find a way to tie your message into theirs—or perhaps to a high-profile news story or public event. If it's national breast cancer awareness month, for example, and you are a small marketing agency, you could create a speech about cause marketing strategies and success stories. Get creative, watch the headlines and study the websites of the organizations that you are about to approach.

As all of these experts will testify, it may take a while to see the financial benefits of public speaking, but it's well worth it. And, there is a lot of personal value in it for you as well. You will learn and grow. You will feel good about touching the lives of others. Remember, you are a creative entrepreneur who has learned many lessons.  Why hesitate to share those lessons? Why let uncertainty stop you?

"Don't be afraid to pick up the phone," Astoria advises. "Make a call or compose an e-mail and hit send. You won't ever know what opportunities are out there for you unless you reach out."