After working for a successful speakers bureau for over a decade, I’m frequently asked, “How can I become a keynote speaker?” I get this from everybody: friends, family, acquaintances, businesspeople sitting in the airport lounge, random people waiting in line for morning coffee. People hear what Michelle Obama or Malcolm Gladwell earn to give a speech and wonder, how can I get that job?
While it’s true top keynote speakers make beaucoup bucks and get to travel to exotic cities, the profession is not for everyone. Being on the road for long periods can be grueling, the pressure to over-deliver for each audience can be crushing and the workload can be inconsistent. It can also be a very rewarding career, having the joy of helping individuals and groups, while also practicing something you love.
So, if keynote speaking still sounds like a dream job to you, then these are the four questions you should ask yourself. Take all the time you need to answer and, don’t worry, you won’t be graded on grammar.
1. What is your motivation?
If you want to become a keynote speaker for the big bucks and frequent flyer miles, don’t go into keynote speaking. The people who thrive in the speaking business are not in it for the paycheck alone. Yes, they like the money, but their real motivation is to help other people.
Professional keynote speakers are givers. They love to share their business insights, lessons learned from extreme situations and failures, and new takeaways gleaned from research. They might also have a passion for entertaining, a mission to educate or an inspiration to uplift people.
If you don’t have that, beware. Audiences can sense when speakers are there for a payout and those speakers don’t have long or happy careers.
2. Do you have something exceptional to say?
Every successful keynote speaker has something worth hearing. Look at their bios and you’ll see they were first successful in their areas of expertise or learned from some exceptional experience. Audiences aren’t paying a speaker just because they are fun to watch; audiences pay to hear something exceptional—something they can’t hear anywhere else.
For example, here are some notable keynote speakers my company has worked with and how they were successful before they became speakers. [Full disclosure: These keynote speakers have not asked to be included in this article and I have only included them because they are well-known in the speaking world].
Marc Randolph was the first CEO and co-founder of Netflix before starting his career as a keynote speaker. Molly Bloom was a successful entrepreneur of an underground poker game and wrote the bestselling book “Molly’s Game” about her experience, before reaching out to audiences. Robyn Benincasa became an Adventure Racing World Champion and earned a Guinness World Record before turning her attention to the stage. The best-selling author of “Atomic Habits,” James Clear, was a successful thought leader on personal performance and habits before TV and Fortune 500 companies wanted to hear him talk.
3. Are you a skilled presenter?
The people who excel in keynote speaking do a great job of presenting. Having something exceptional to say will get you in the door, but it won’t keep you in the room if you can’t deliver. Speaking is more than reading from a slick PowerPoint. The best presentations are part storytelling, part comedy and part teaching.
Entertaining and educating an audience is a skill. It takes years to hone. Some keynote speakers honed their craft while presenting to company boards, arguing before judges or teaching at universities. Others are just natural performers. And most work really hard to make it look seamless.
If you don’t have the experience, speak as much as you can. Speak anywhere that will have you, no matter if you get paid or not. Just like comedians working small clubs, this is a great way to build your presentation skills and reputation as a presenter. Ask local business groups or associations.
You might also hire a speaking coach to give you feedback and develop your storytelling skills, or join a speaking group like Toastmasters to make you feel more comfortable presenting.
4. Are you marketing yourself?
Many people great presenters fail to see their careers take off because they don’t know how to market themselves. You might have something to say, but if no one knows who you are, then they aren’t going to call you to speak. When you start to speak, you might succeed by word of mouth, but to make speaking a career, you need to develop your marketing skills.
Keynote speakers need to have online visibility. At a minimum, have a website with your bio, descriptions of your talks and video samples of yourself speaking to different audiences. Also, include a one-sheet you can send to speakers bureaus and organizations that includes a quick bio and talk descriptions.
In addition to your website, be active on social media and in creating content for your field. Actively post about subjects related to your talks to show your current expertise in the field. Likewise, create content in your subject area. Write white papers for your website, frequently blog about new insights and contribute columns to publications in your field.
You can also join groups like the National Speakers Association and 3 Ring Circus for more visibility.
As you can see, keynote speaking isn’t just about travel perks and paychecks for a 45-minute talk. Behind that 45-minute talk is years of practice, a lifetime of experience and a full-time commitment to being a leader in your field.