I’m a professional keynote speaker, speaking 25 or so times a year across the U.S. and around the world. My subjects are the same subjects I write about on Inc.com and in my books, and on which I consult: customer service, the customer experience, company culture, millennials as customers. Here are 13 or so secrets (or, at least, “13 things that work for me”) re: having a successful career as a professional keynote speaker.
PART I: MONEY AND PRACTICAL/PERSONAL ADVICE
- Don’t speak for free. You don’t become a professional speaker by speaking for free. All that speaking for free will bring you are more opportunities to speak for free. (This cycle is called “dying from exposure.”) Here’s how I see it: Why should an event pay for the bagel spread in the hallway outside your speech but not pay for the main event: you? They should pay a fair fee to bring you in to speak, and you should offer them excellent value for their money by informing and inspiring the audience at the event.
- Do speak for free when preparing new material. When I’m working up something completely new, I often test it out by guest lecturing in the college classroom of a professor friend (and thus giving him the night off). There’s no stress for me, I am free to experiment, and I don’t really deserve to be paid for the opportunity. (Of course, I also would encourage you to speak pro bono if it’s a cause/organization that you believe in and that can’t afford you.)
- Always bring a “leave-behind” for every audience member to learn from at home after the speech. I bring a little card to give out called “the world according to Micah” featuring 5 of my key points. At every event, before the hall fills up, I go around the room placing one on every seat. (This no doubt sounds like unglamorous work, but for me it beats hanging out being tempted by the pastries, and in larger venues, I do draft someone to help me.)
- Even better, get the event organizers to buy a book for each attendee. This is the ultimate leave-behind: your message, in depth, has a chance to go home with every attendee, and for those who actually read it, it may get lodged deeply in their brain. (But don’t have the event buy books in lieu of paying you. You’re getting maybe a dollar a book (depending on your publisher). So while this is great for spreading your message, it’s not going to make you money. So you’re, again, not being a professional (see point 1).
- Speak all over the world. It’s a great big world, almost everyone is nice, and they really need to hear what you have to say. (I’m just guessing that last point since I haven’t heard your message, but I stand by the first two.)
- Bring your family if you’re speaking somewhere exotic (or just awesome). Most of the time the travel is the drudgery part of speaking, and bringing the family along doesn’t make sense. But when it does make sense, do everything you can to make a family vacation out of it. For example: this year I gave a keynote speech in New Zealand and was able to bring my Lord Of The Rings-obsessed kid with me to see all the Tolkien-related movie sites and sets. Another time, the whole family came with me to Ireland and we stayed in an actual castle where that keynote was given, and so forth. If you bring your family to the great locales, it gives the family a highlight they can look back on together with you, and they’ll then resent your solo absences less in the future. (Because, really, they don’t want to join you when the venue is an industrial park in suburban podunk. They’re cool with staying home for that one.)
PART II: STAGECRAFT AND SUCH
- Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. But:
- Don’t memorize verbatim what you’re going to say. Know the outline of the story you’re going to tell very, very well, but don’t have every line scripted precisely and memorized. This way, you won’t ever be mad at yourself for “forgetting a line” since there’s no such thing, and you’ll sound more authentic because you’ll be, quite literally, less scripted.
- Make your own slides, or have them made by someone as creative and quirky as you are yourself. (You are creative and quirky, right? Thought so.) Don’t ever use those premade PowerPoint templates designed by engineers at Microsoft (not that I have anything against engineers at Microsoft-here in Seattle, that likely means the guy driving my kids home from archery practice-I just don’t want them designing the look of my slides). And, even if you design them yourself, no wordy, bullet-point-heavy slides. Please. Also:No stock photos (or, more to the point, no photos that “look stock”: no perfectly-coiffed, improbably perky, just-slightly-grizzled models brainstorming around a boardroom table and so forth. Please.)
- Don’t be stagey, no matter what you learned in drama class or “keynote speaker bootcamp.” No melodramatic hand motions, careful enunciation and pregnant pauses, none of that. We are in the reality-TV/handheld videocam era and nobody wants someone onstage seeming Shakespearean or Tony Orlandoesque. Unless you are performing Shakespeare or are (the thought Dawns on me), Tony Orlando himself.
BONUS: SOME FINAL POINTERS
- Assume your audience is intelligent. But:
- Don’t assume they are as up to date on (or as interested in) the latest theories, controversies, and buzzwords of your subject as you are. When you are an expert on your subject, it’s really easy for you to assume that everyone else is as well. They probably aren’t.
- Don’t assume your audience automatically agrees with you, that what you’re saying is “common sense.” If it were so, you wouldn’t need to be up there on stage. You need to take them on a journey from skepticism to belief to inspiration. Take the time to prove your point, then prove it again.