In addition to my work as a social media and content marketing consultant working with the great team here at Convince & Convert, I’m a professional speaker. I’ve been speaking publicly for a long time, and have really ramped it up in the past four years to the point that in 2013 I will do 50 live presentations and approximately 30 Webinars.
I get asked a lot of questions about speaking and how it works, and I’ve realized through the years that the best way to think about the speaking business is to understand that it is very, very similar to the music business. Here are seven ways the speaking business and the music business are the same business. I hope this comparison will help you take your own speaking career to the next level.
1. You Must Climb the Ladder
As Chris Brogan once wrote, it takes 10 years to become an overnight sensation. Whether you’re a musician or a speaker, it’s exceedingly rare that you burst on the scene out of nowhere and become a huge smash. It happens more in music because of that industry’s insatiable thirst for newness, but in both fields, the more typical route is to climb the ladder.
- First you play or speak for free.
- Next you get beer money.
- Then you get free admission to the conference.
- Then you get free admission and your travel comped.
- Then you get paid a little bit of cash to do your thing.
- Then a little more cash.
- Then you’re really making a living at it.
You almost never can skip rungs on that ladder, and if you aren’t willing to take each step in sequence you are going to be consistently disappointed with your own progress. Why do I get paid to speak now? Partially because I started speaking for free in front of hundreds of people almost 30 years ago, in high school. If you have any doubts about the importance of this principle, re-visit Malcolm Gladwell’s coverage of The Beatles’ 10,000 hours experience in Hamburg, Germany.
2. Virality of Audience
People who attend live music performances and enjoy that performance TALK about it face-to-face and via social media. When you are FIRED UP about something you saw, you want to explain it to other people. Some of those people become intrigued, and the next time that musician (or speaker) is in their area, they’ll make the effort to attend, based on their friend’s advocacy.
This is how small bands become big bands. This is how local speakers become national speakers, like my friend Marcus Sheridan, who has exploded his speaking career recently. He touched every rung of the ladder, but he touched them more quickly than most speakers. Why? Because he is disproportionately good, and he very much understands that the people that will hire him to speak six months from now are IN THE AUDIENCE TODAY. That’s why you can never, ever do a presentation that is just okay. Your two options must be very good, and outstanding.
That’s why it drives me crazy to see speakers working on their presentations the night before the event. Seriously? I’m pretty sure even the most accomplished musicians aren’t sitting around the night before a concert working on new lyrics.
3. Use Snacks to Sell Meals
You know how much musicians make on recorded music these days? Almost nothing. (check out this remarkable Google doc from Canadian cellist Zoe Keating, who provides the full accounting of her payments. For 1,323 Spotify listens she received $1.05) Musicians have had to reconfigure their business model so that they get paid via live performances, merchandise, ad revenue from YouTube videos, and other ancillary revenue streams.
The speaking business has always been set up this way. Very few speakers make money on book royalties, blogging, podcasting, email newsletters or any other circumstances where they parcel out what they know a little at a time. They make their money on-stage, just like musicians. (note that I am somewhat of an exception in this regard, ad we have four treasured sponsors here at Convince & Convert and on our email and podcast. But among speakers, that’s very unusual)
The key is to use your information, music, content etc. as a giveaway to build your following, then monetize that following in three dimensions, not two.
4. Is It a Business or a Hobby?
There are people who are excellent musicians, and there are professional musicians. There are people who are accomplished speakers, and there are professional speakers. You have to understand which you want to be, and organize your life and your priorities accordingly.
I live in Bloomington, Indiana home to what is generally believed to be the second-best music school in the country, the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. Musical talent in this 100,000-person town is seemingly everywhere. But even in an environment where your next-door neighbor could easily have a doctorate in cello, there are very few professional musicians. There are, however, a ton of incredibly talented musicians who still play constantly, but don’t do it to make a living.
Speaking is the exact same set of circumstances. There are many, many speakers at major conferences, but comparatively few who look at speaking as a fundamental part of their job/career/life. For most, it is a sideline. That doesn’t make them any less effective as speakers, necessarily, but if you are REALLY serious about getting paid to speak, you need to treat it like a job, not a hobby. This means having processes, methods, paperwork and best practices. All the stuff you’d use in a “regular” business, you need to apply to a speaking career, too. You might want to grab a copy of this book from my friends at Gold Stars Speakers, or this book from the National Speakers Association (of which I am a member).
5. A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down
Even the most political or message-oriented musicians cloak their perspectives in hooks, rhythm, melody and stagecraft. Smart speakers do the same. I used to struggle with this, until my friend Scott Stratten (who is a remarkable professional speaker) sat me down and told me that audiences need to be entertained first, and educated second. That without the former, the latter will never stick. He’s right, and understanding how to balance fun and fact in a 60-minute keynote window has elevated my speaking career.
Too often, speakers make the mistake I made, and try to pack everything they know about a topic into an hour. Audiences simply cannot take in that much information, and keeping things interesting and dynamic helps them remember your message – and you.
6. It Takes a Village
The speaking business is its own subculture, with distinct rules, norms and unwritten principles. I do not know a single professional speaker who has been able to climb the ladder without help. I also can’t think of a single professional musician or band that hasn’t been helped along the way by those who came before them.
The truth is this: if you want to truly make a career as a speaker, you must have good mentors. I will be forever in debt to Kelly McDonald (an outstanding speaker who really got me started on the pro route), Sally Hogshead (a hall of fame speaker who has helped me a TON), David Meerman Scott (an epic thought leader who works hard at the craft every day, and has given me so much great advice), Mark Sanborn (one of the world’s most accomplished business speakers and a huge inspiration), the aforementioned Scott Stratten, and Rory Vaden (who helped teach me how to market my new book Youtility, and is the World Champion of Public Speaking). Without those six (and many more who have helped me along the way, and continue to do so), I’d be several rungs behind where I am today.
The music business and the speaking business are about people more than they are about ideas or performance. In addition to mentors, you eventually need to build relationships with speakers bureaus, event planners and everyone else that REALLY makes it all work. Which brings me to my last point…
7. Golden Rule
You are not Beyonce. You do not need $900 titanium straws. Yes, there are many speakers bureaus, event planners, audience members and other folks involved in the speaking business. But in reality, it’s a pretty small industry. The single best asset you have as a speaker is word-of-mouth, and those whispers are always about two things: your performance, and how easy it is to work with you. The same is true in the music biz, I’ve been told.
In theory, you are getting paid a lot of money to tell stories for an hour. It’s a pretty good gig. Act like it.
- Call the meeting planner to let them know you’ve arrived on site.
- Show up for sound check on time.
- Always be cool to the A/V guys, as they can ruin you with the snap of a finger. Remember their names.
- Hang with attendees after your presentation.
- Send thank you notes.
…and other stuff like this that should be common sense, but is often overlooked.
I only have two goals for every presentation I give. First, I want at least three people to tell me it was the best marketing speech they’ve ever heard. Second, I want the event organizer to proactively mention how easy me and my team were to work with. I don’t always reach those goals, but those are my targets. And they should be yours.