Last year, I made it one of my goals to speak at as many conferences as I could - which was a pretty big deal for me, because last year, I was still scared to death of public speaking!

But I did it. I powered through, and wound up speaking at 7 conferences - even keynoting a conference of 3,200 people. It was a huge day for me, and I can't even begin to tell you what an impact my speaking and publishing goals have had on my brand.

So what if you're in the same boat? What if, like me, you want to raise your profile by taking on speaking gigs?

Public speaking, especially paid public speaking, is the dream of many an entrepreneur. To get in front of a targeted, captive audience and lay the thought leadership on thick, resulting in captivated prospects who want to do business with you... that's where you can make a major difference in the growth of your business and your professional brand.

As my experiences have proven to me, when you land regular speaking engagements, people talk about you. They spread your message and are even clamoring to do business with you. Public speaking is where the magic happens. I can't promise that it'll be easy to land your own speaking spots, but I can help cut your learning curve. Here are 3 ways you can get more speaking gigs and a slice of that pie:

1. Proof of expertise is critical

If someone asked you to prove your expertise on a particular topic for a speaking engagement, what would you present to them? How would you prove that what you have to say is relevant and value-packed for a particular audience, industry or niche?

Awards, testimonials and years of operation don't really cut it in a world where so much information is made available on the web.

Leverage your blog

For me and many others, blogging is a tried-and-true method for building authority around your professional brand. Hopefully, you're already producing content that people love, as that can be one of the best proof-of-expertise tools you have.

"As a conference producer looking to choose the best speakers for our event, the first place I go is the prospective speaker's blog." says Joe Pulizzi, founder of Content Marketing Institute. "A consistently delivered blog is proof of both dedication and passion to the industry."

Create a video

If you're trying to land speaking engagements with little to no prior experience, then create a video example. If you have some previous engagements under your belt, then put together a compilation reel with highlights.

For larger conferences, you'll have a difficult time getting booked as many planners won't spend time on a speaker without seeing them speak in some capacity. The video is intended to not only show proof of expertise but to show your ability to work and feed an audience - to grab their attention and keep them riveted, even if it's a small group.

Create a speaking page

If you want to be a speaker, make it easy for people to understand what you offer and how they can hire you. Create a website or add a speaking page that provides details on upcoming presentations, video highlights from previous talks, edited clips and the all-important call to action.

2. Create a roadmap and know your destinations

You're not going to come out of the gate landing a speaking gig at SXSW. If a conference of that magnitude is your goal though, that's perfectly OK. You just need to map out how to get there.

Also keep in mind that those large events often don't pay speakers. The events draw in such large numbers that many speakers are happy to gain the exposure and continue to build on their brand while contributing to the growth of their industry.

Start small and look for paid speaking engagements with target industry associations. That could be events for healthcare, automotive, telecom, legal, and so on. You don't necessarily have to talk about their industry; you just need to bring something of value that will help them operate within their industry.

That's what attendees come to hear.

For example, if you know the ins and outs of paid social advertising you could work with CPG manufacturers to teach them how to launch a new food product using sponsored posts and paid ad placements on Facebook.

These types of industry events will be easier to land and you'll grow as a speaker with each event. As you improve and build your portfolio you'll continuously step up your game toward the bigger shows, following that roadmap to your end goal.

3. Speak for free

When you're first starting out, one of the best ways to get a leg up is to speak for free. Best-selling author and public speaker Gary Vaynerchuck says his best tip for speaking is "speak for free. I spoke for free for years before I landed my first paying speaking gig."

Speaking for free gives you the necessary expertise to be good enough to not only charge for speaking later, but to land the large venues. You may not get a payout for the engagement, but speaking for free is about playing the long game. People talk about you, learn from you, and eventually want to do business with you.

If you have time in your schedule, send a note out to all of your local contacts and let them know you're available and have time to speak. Do the same by contacting key-players for local mid- to large-size businesses. Ask them what topics they most want to hear about, then send them a one-sheet telling them all about you as a speaker with an offer to speak to their group for free. Experiment with what kinds of messages get you a response so that you can hone your pitch to be as effective as possible.

The world of paid speaking isn't out of reach for entrepreneurs, and there's no secret society to gain access to the largest stages. You certainly don't need to pay large sums for speaking agent services as long as you're willing to do the legwork and make the connections on your own. When you do start landing more speaking gigs the results will be stunning - as I'm learning, getting paid to travel and share your passions with others never gets old.

How did you land your first speaking engagement? Have any other tips for new speakers who are just getting started? Share your story in the comments below: