Convince and Convert

7 Ways the Speaking Business and Music Business are the Same Business

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Jay Baer Blog PostIn 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.

Facebook Comments


  1. says

    Thanks for sharing this Jay. I’m in the very early stages of building my speaking career. Talking with guys like Marcus and watching you sometimes it’s hard to connect the dots from where I am to where I want to be…
    …then you realize it just takes time and work.

    Appreciate the advice here.


  2. Tracymst says

    Thank you for sharing your advice Jay. I’m also in the early stages of my speaking career and found this post incredibly useful. Will definitely be checking out the books you’ve recommended too.

  3. Loren McDonald says

    Great post Jay! I continue to struggle quite a bit with #5, especially this: “Too often, speakers make the mistake I made, and try to pack everything they know about a topic into an hour.” How did you break this habit and was any particular thing key to you simplifying your presentation?

    • Steve Woodruff says

      Boy, is that ever a continual challenge, Loren! Sometimes I’ve paused and asked myself, “what is ONE thing I want people to walk away with?” Then build backwards from that, rather than packing in the 10 things that are swirling around in my brain trying to get out…ultimately, people have a very small memory space for any message we want to give. We’ve got to package it for that space.

      • says

        When Amber Naslund and I did our very first presentation of The NOW Revolution, I realized we were trying to present the book, instead of presenting about themes that were also in a book. That was my big moment of clarity on the overstuffed speech front. Although I’m still guilty of giving people too much in 60 minutes.

  4. Julia Carcamo says

    Thanks for the post Jay! I’m working my way up the ladder. It’s good to know there is a top rung you can reach for.

  5. says

    I read every single word of this one, which is rare these days. :-) There is just so much stuff to do. I am not yet in the speaking profession, but just planning on joining a toastmasters group to get some experience. I enjoyed this post because I am a vocalist and not long ago I wrote a post where I talk about why a vocalist is like a social media marketer –

    Your advice will come in handy as I make my baby steps in this profession.

    • says

      Terrific Churchill. I’m thrilled you took in the whole post, and I loved your post as well! Good luck with Toastmasters. I haven’t done it personally, but several close friends have been through it, and SWEAR by it.

  6. Michele Hudson says

    Jay, Thank you for this awesome article! You really speak the truth here… it takes a lot of hard work to “make it” as a professional speaker and success builds slowly as you impact your audience — and they can’t help but talk about you to others! I handle booking for professional inspirational speaker, Marc Mero. His message is saving and changing lives, and he entertains in the process of educating people of all age about making positive choices and living life to the fullest. He is also connecting with one of the hardest audiences to present to — teens and youth. Thanks again, Jay for your encouragement to those who aspire to reach audiences with their wisdom, stories, messages, and creativity! Best of success to speakers and musicians who are on this journey! ~ [email protected]

  7. Graciousstore says

    Every point you made about what it takes to be either a good/ professional musician or a speaker is absolutely true. Nothing worthwhile comes overnight and no bodies achieves anything worthwhile without guidance from his/her predecessors

  8. Steve Woodruff says

    Great stuff, Jay – very practical and realistic. Perhaps a follow-up post would be a great help to some: how to negotiate as you consider a speaking gig (and what the various factors are), particularly at different stages up “the ladder.”

  9. DerekCoburn says

    Great article, Jay! As a big fan of live music and someone who frequently books speakers for our events, I think you make a lot of excellent points. Something else for author-speakers to consider is that many people do not have the time to read as often as they would like. Seeing an author live, provides an opportunity to get their message in front of more people who otherwise might not have committed four hours to read the book. (BTW- You and your staff were awesome to work with and at least 15 people from our event suggested your talk was the best they had ever seen.)

  10. says

    Really enjoyable read, Jay. I love the juxtaposition between the music and professional speaking industries! The advice is solid and I love how you outline the “why” behind the “how.” It seems like much of your (and any musician’s) success is about relationships – with the audience, people who could offer a speaking/performing opportunity, those who cover logistics, etc. Overlooked often, but clearly clutch.

  11. Kathy Sacks says

    As a conference organizer who has hired you to do speaking gigs in the past, I can stand as testament that you live by these rules.

    Like I’ve shared on this blog before, you were the stand-out favorite speaker at Infusion2013 –Without a doubt the most entertaining and informative. Daymond John had the special Shark Tank celeb appeal and was entertaining and inspirational–yes, ok he was. But you, my friend were exceptional. And that’s why in our attendee survey Jay Baer was the top pick for best mainstage.

    Your brilliant delivery, fresh ideas and provocative call-to-action, wake up call, dose of reality for marketers everywhere was what made you the favorite, hands-down.

    Hire this man. Your audience will thank you for it. He is exceptional. And belongs at the top of the ladder.

  12. says

    This may not have a parallel to the music business, but I’d like to think that having something substantive to say is an important element of success. I see so many speakers describe themselves as “motivational.” But what are you motivating people to DO? Where’s the substance beyond the feel-good platitudes?

    Or perhaps there are speakers who do really well without having much to say. Your Black Eyed Peas of the speaker circuit, if you will.

  13. says

    Jay, thanks so much for putting this article together. I’m just starting to climb the ladder and see that I have much work ahead of me yet. The advice here was definitely helpful :)

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