Getting your message out to the world
How exciting! I just got a request for tips from another teacher who wants to get a speaking career off the ground. This is something I’ve been wanting to write for a while, so the inspiration hit at a good time. I remembered that I had posted an article about writing a book and getting it out there. But becoming a speaker is a bit of a different process, and it’s one I’ve been wanting to address for a while.
So let’s get down to practicalities. Here are a few suggestions from my own experience and observation for anyone wanting to build or enhance your career as a speaker, presenter, or trainer.
Know your material
This one is pretty obvious, so I’m not going to say much here. It’s always good to bring a unique perspective to your audiences, though—personal experiences, good and bad, and something they wouldn’t have heard from anyone else. Get a good theoretical foundation behind you, because you want your ideas to stand up to scrutiny (and be consistent with research), and to be cohesive and consistent with your intentions.
Keep it practical. We love being entertained as well as informed. But whether it’s a keynote, workshop, class, or podcast, I tend to measure its value in the take-aways: practical, do-able, helpful strategies that will improve my life—not to mention the lives of my students (or children) or the quality of my relationships in some way. (Of course, my orientation is educational, but these tips can apply to any topic or group of participants.)
Know your audience
When I set up a speaking engagement, I try to get as much information as possible from the person who hired me to speak.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. When I work with schools, for example, it would start with grade levels. A largely secondary audience tends to respond to different examples and approaches than primary teachers. Likewise, administrators, school counselors, assistants, safety officers, bus drivers, and parents—each group tends to have their own agendas, filters, issues, and questions. And if you are fortunate enough to get a very diverse group—say, all of the above—you really will want to make sure your presentation includes ideas for everyone in attendance.
One of the best tips I ever got was to take some time when people are coming in and getting settled to “work the room.” Whenever possible, I go around and welcome participants before the presentation starts, introducing myself as the speaker, and asking if anyone had a specific question, student, or reason for being there. (Yes, this is true even when I’m doing a keynote. Once I know the equipment is set up and working, there’s almost always a bit of time before the actual program begins to go around and make at least a few personal connections.)
In many cases, attendees are just required to attend and haven’t actually given me or my topic much thought. More often, people are there quite deliberately, and their questions can provide information that will help you focus your presentation, or at least address a particular concern.
Most challenging are usually the ones who had been sent to me as a punishment for some perceived failing by their administrator. A resentful participant—or audience—offers a special hurdle to overcome in connecting with the crowd. But there are ways to acknowledge and reduce bad feelings some can bring to a session, as you’ll see below.
Connect with your audience
Unlike a year-long class where you have time to develop relationships with your students, these types of presentations require some quick bonding! I was never big on starting with a joke, as many speakers like to do. Sure, I want to get a few laughs throughout the presentation, and that’s more likely when the audience can relate to you on a human, personal level.
After you’ve been introduced, talk to the people who are in your audience like they’re old friends, like you’re out for a drink or dinner with each one. Maybe ask for a show of hands—grade levels, subject areas, number of years in the profession, or a specific issue or problem they are facing. (I’ve done this with groups of several thousand. You can’t always see every audience member, but it will give you something to connect with and respond to.)
If you’ve gotten some questions from your early interactions, try to refer to the person or group who asked them (unless confidentiality is an issue). “You guys were asking about kids who talk all the time, right? Anybody else have that problem?” Connect with the reality of the issues you know your group is dealing with.
I recently saw a speaker who came in, joked with the person who had introduced him, and just started reading from his notes. I don’t think he even looked up to make eye contact with members of the audience during his lecture. An audience that doesn’t feel relevant is not likely to give you the warm response you’d want.
One more thing: If you reference some research, an article, a song or TV show, or piece of literature, for example, don’t assume that everyone in the audience is familiar with it. This speaker kept talking about a play from the 15th century and I doubt one person in the audience had ever heard of it. What a difference it would have made had he taken a minute or two to look up from his notes and simply explain, “If you’re not familiar with this bit of theater, here’s the gist of the content and why it’s relevant to why I’m here today.” You do not want people walking out of your presentation (as many did at this one) wondering, “What the hell was that about?”
Expect the unexpected (and yes, timing matters)
In programs scheduled for the beginning of the year, those “welcome back” orientations that happen before the kids come, almost everyone would prefer to be in his or her room getting things ready. Recognize that for many people, you’re just one more interruption, no matter how good you are or how psyched they get listening to you once you get going.
One of the most difficult audiences I’ve ever encountered—hostile might be a better word—only had one day to prepare their rooms before the kids showed up the next day. Unbelievably, they had not been told that most of that day would be spent listening to ME until they arrived at school that morning. I don’t know if this was a lack of preparation on the part of the administrator who hired me or a nasty little power play (which you don’t want to get in the middle of), but the energy in the room was unfriendly, unresponsive, and just plain weird—at least until I stopped and asked what was going on. That also gave me something to work with and things did ease up a bit after that.
In your early conversations with your contact (long before your actual presentation), you might want to make sure to suggest that the audience be prepared—that they know that you’ll be there, that they know what you’re talking about, and that they have the schedule beforehand. Also, if you have a display with books or materials, you want your contact to make sure that the audience will know they will have a chance to look over and purchase (or order) what you’ve brought.
Ask about the size of the room and the number of participants. If you have 150 people in an auditorium that seats 800, guess where everyone is going to sit? (Ask me how I know this!) There are few things more exhausting to a speaker than talking to acres of empty seats to try to reach a bunch of people crammed in the back few rows. I have done much better when I can convince a coordinator to tape off the back rows or the side sections. Sure, a few people will break the tape, but I up the odds of getting people close enough to connect with when I ask for this—or some similar—accommodation! (Even a sign at the entrance asking people to sit close to the front of the room can help.)
Also know that every single person in your audience is likely to have something on their mind that has nothing to do with you or their jobs—a sick kid, an ailing parent, a bad breakup, a move, financial issues, an argument with a kid or partner, or an accident on the way to your presentation. (I’ve had audience members who were dealing with one or more of the above, and then some.) Again that personal connection can go a long way, especially when you can offer even a tiny bit of compassion and understanding: “Got it. You take care of yourself today.”
Acknowledge what’s going on that could get in your way
Two days after 9/11, I attended the first of a series of computer programming classes. The instructor came in and just started teaching, making no mention of the event or the fact that we were all still very much in a state of shock. I’ve often wondered if this was a good approach, and have since decided that even one sentence, anything that would have said something like, “I know we’re all going through a very weird time right now. I hope that this class offers a break and a bit of a distraction,” would have eased us into the content I had otherwise been looking forward to. I eventually got there, but I had a very hard time shifting into his training for quite some time.
I took this as a valuable lesson, as my first presentation after 9/11 happened to be only a few days later at a school in north Jersey from which the students and staff could actually see the towers across the river when the buildings were hit and collapsed. I could not pretend that this event had not occurred, much less ignore the impact the experience likely had on the group. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I was well aware that given my own state of mind, I could barely imagine the impact of having witnessed this horror from their own classrooms.
I offered a moment for decompression as well as opportunities to stop for breaks as needed. They declined both, and I think that maybe in this instance, just opening that door was enough.
Likewise, with the group I mentioned earlier who had not known that they would be expected to attend a workshop instead of working in their rooms as they had all anticipated, once someone told me what was going on—starting with “It’s not you…,” I could at least recognize that just about everybody who was stuck with me would rather be anywhere but, apologize for the miscommunication (even though I had nothing to do with it), and promise I would do my best to make the time worthwhile. It helped.
Same thing if the room is hot (or cold), or if the technology is acting up. (I often seemed to have a hard time with microphones.) I was once in a room that had been cleaned or sprayed with something to which I was having an allergic reaction. I realized that as I was talking, I kept scratching my nose and face. I announced that something in the room was triggering my allergies and apologized for the distraction. (Turns out others were having similar experiences.) I think it was much easier to not notice my reaction after that.
Be proactive! Ask about potential problems ahead of time and acknowledge anything weird as it’s happening. (I learned to take an allergy tablet as soon as I walked in a room if I realized I might have a problem in there.)
Use your notes (or PowerPoint) to guide your presentation—not be it
As as much as I love being read to, if I go to a presentation, it’s never to hear someone read his or her paper on the topic. I’m not a particularly good sight reader, so maybe that’s part of it, and I recognize that not everyone is a born extemporaneous speaker. Seeing a speaker pull out a stack of papers and start reading can fill me with dread. Unless the speech is broken up with unscripted comments or anecdotes, I tend to zone out, as the presentation becomes little more than background noise that I find hard to focus on.
That said, I do need a set of bullet points to guide my presentation and keep me on topic. I have become dependent on my slides to introduce an example or a story to go with them. And while I do occasionally run through a (short) list of these points, I always try to interrupt reading them with a comment, a brief story, or some experience that is more personal and relatable than a few words on the screen.
Speaking of which, don’t put too much content on a screen!! I sat through an administrator’s welcome to new teachers and struggled to even see what she had on the screen—a copy of a long page of material from the teachers’ handbook—and I was in the 2nd row of a very large group of people. Use your electronic presentations, a simple quote or short bullet points only—to help you stay on track and to give you a hint at the story or example you want to share to make your point. (See example below.)
Which brings us to handouts
I’m a very visual and tactile learner, and I love having materials in my hands for taking notes or highlighting. That said, the handouts that have become so common in workshops that show 3 to 6 slides per page are practically useless to me. First of all, I find them very difficult to read and that alone makes them impractical for me.
Secondly, if I wanted a copy of the presentation, I would just ask for it. Note: I have discovered that many speakers are uncomfortable giving away PDF copies of their slides. I have never had a problem with this. I do include copyright information along with a licensing notice with all of the materials I give out, simply asking that if people share, that they keep the attribution in place. (Contact me for a copy of this agreement, if you’d like.) The whole point of my being there is to share information. To date, I have never had a problem with someone claiming ownership of my materials, at least none that I know of.
As you can see in the images, my slides (left) are simple and relatively clean, signals to remind me what I’m talking about. These cues would have little meaning on their own.
So the handouts I offer on the same topic (right) have all the details and several examples that would be unreadable and useless as a slide. They offer more information than I can even offer in the presentation, included as a “value-added” option that most people have appreciated—and can refer to later for information as desired.
I suppose the main point here is not to make your slides look like the example on the right. And, if you really want to have an longer-lasting impact beyond your presentation, offer handouts that are verbally more informative, instructive, and helpful than a good slide will be.
Questions, or no?
This is another one I learned the hard way. People often come to these sessions with an agenda, and certainly with a set of beliefs in place. If you’re doing your job, you will challenge some of the policies, practices, and beliefs that may never have been questioned or even considered before.
Depending on your content, it may be perfectly reasonable to ask for questions early in the presentation (hence “working the crowd” before you speak), but if you’re building on concepts that fit together like a puzzle, the foundation material you offer at the beginning will simply make more sense as you continue to flesh out how a different approach can work (for example).
You want to avoid a bunch of “Yeah, but…” or “what about” objections before you get to present the content that will make everything make sense—if they can just hang on and let you build up to what they’re asking about. I know this seems counter-intuitive for most educators. But frankly, taking questions too early can throw you off track and very often, I would have to put people off with, “I’m getting to that. I promise,” which can be awkward and feel dismissive. (This is usually more of an issue in a full-day training than, say, in a 1-hour keynote.)
Of course if something needs repeating or clarification, you will want to know. But too often, you will end up inviting contradictions you will have to explain or put off, or end up with questions unique to a particular student that may have little relevance to the other participants. Any of these can derail your presentation and unsettle the positive atmosphere you are trying to create.
I found a win-win solution by explaining up front that they are going to have questions that will become clearer as I continue, and encouraging them to write them down to make sure that I answer them. My handout materials even included a nearly blank page to jot down questions that came up as I spoke. When I check in toward the end of the training, most people report that I had indeed addressed the issues they had written down.
I would often come back from a break to find some scraps of paper on my table with questions or comments and I would either answer them immediately or acknowledge them and let the participants know when I was getting to them. And I would usually have time at the end of the session to open the floor for questions, at which point I generally had a context for responding.
Be careful to avoid complaints about a specific colleague (usually administrator or department chair). A great presentation can quickly degenerate into a bitch session, often something for which you have no context. Become an expert at side-stepping stuff you have no business being in the middle of and getting back on track.
There are definitely times I will challenge existing policies because I figure I’m also training the people responsible for adopting or continuing traditions that have become anachronistic, even dangerous—and which need to be questioned and hopefully changed or discontinued. This might include old practices like listing the class rules on the wall (which no one follows just because they’re there) or having teachers write out lesson plans—or worse, discipline plans—for an entire year before they’ve even met the students. Impossible, and not remotely related to real teaching or responding effectively to kids. (Be sure to have solid, do-able alternatives to any practice you wish to shoot down.)
And be OK with not knowing. If I can’t think of a reference off the top of my head, or if I’m asked about something beyond my area of expertise, I have to cop to that. I will ask people to email or text me the question and promise to get back to them after I have a chance to look up what they’re asking. Also, if the question is “too big” for a very quick response, I have learned to refer participants to particular resource material or people who can offer them the time and support they deserve. (For a time, I also offered one-on-one coaching sessions to deal with these issues privately. I charged a separate hourly fee for this service.)
People will have questions, so don’t expect much of a break for yourself when you call one. It was rare that I didn’t encounter a stream of people during the breaks and after my presentations, and I’ve lost count of the number of times women followed me into the ladies’ room or even the times I responded from the stall. Sometimes you do need to escape, but I found the majority of those exchanges valuable, and often gave me material to address when I got back to the microphone.
Brain breaks and activities
People can only sit so long—for adults, the brain needs a break roughly every 20 minutes. There have been times when I can feel that they’re with me and engaged, and I don’t want to break that spell. In those instances, I will keep going for a good bit longer. But I can also sense restlessness and a need for something to break up the energy in the room. If I want to keep things moving, I keep the breaks short, less than a minute or two.
Now I have to confess that, as a participant, I am not much of a fan of what many speakers call activities. Unless we’re planning, building, sharing, or experiencing something practical that I can use in my work (or life), it almost always feels artificial, contrived, and even pointless to me. And as a participant, I have lost all sense of momentum and focus from getting in groups and brainstorming or discussing things. (Hey, I went to hear this speaker!!)
That said, as a speaker, when I need to break things up, I might refer to a Brain Gym exercise, which could range from taking a drink of water and briefly talk about the importance of hydration to learning, to standing for a moment of cross-crawl or a brief stretch. (And yes, I do address their kids’ bathroom issues—which usually are more about the need to move than about actually having to “go.”) Great example to tie in your strategy to their classrooms.
I may also give the participants exactly 1-2 minutes to turn to someone near them to have the pair each share an example of something I just mentioned. Two things to note here: first, they will talk because OMG teachers do talk (and as I often note: “We don’t get out much!”) and not always about what you’ve assigned. That’s OK. Either way, the brain is still processing.
Second, getting their attention back again once they’ve started talking can be even harder than doing this with students! What helped to solve this problem was a $30 investment from the Trainers Warehouse, a 3-toned chime that will connect with a part of the brain that hasn’t been listening to me all morning. There are also apps with sounds, but I never found one that worked quite as effectively for my purposes. Keep checking, as technology changes constantly.
In any event, keep breaks brief. If you are scheduled to speak for an entire morning, much less an entire day, schedule a break maybe 90 minutes in. Keep the breaks short (about 15 minutes). Much longer and you’ll break the momentum of your presentation. The length of the break however will partly depend on the size of the audience and the distance to, and size of, the bathrooms. Know that there will be stragglers long after you start again—just like kids!
Keep track of the pulse of the crowd. Try to start on time. If the lines at the restrooms are long, you will have to wait a bit, but it’s also OK to ask someone to round up the folks that are hanging out talking in the hall.
Speaking of technology
One of the most basic tools of the trade is a clock. Don’t depend on there being one in the room. One thing you don’t want to do is keep checking your watch or watching the clock, if one exists in the room. It looks unprofessional and can distract the group.
I used to travel with a little alarm clock, but later switched to an app on my phone, which I kept plugged in throughout the presentation just to keep myself on track. (And be sure to turn the ringer off on your phone!) The longer I did certain programs, the better I was able to pace myself and know when I needed to speed up or slow down, or even cut out content I would not ultimately have time to present. (A monitor in front of the stage can be very helpful, not only to see what’s on the screen, but also because most offer a big digital readouts letting me know how much time I have left. Note that it’s usually only big conferences and some newer schools actually have them, but it never hurts to ask.)
Some speakers use a countdown timer during the breaks, which they post on the screen to alert people to the break winding down. I never got the hang of that trick, but it’s not a bad one to use—unless you don’t stick to it, in which case, no one will take it seriously in subsequent breaks.
Know how to hook your laptop or tablet up to the projector. There were a few things that took me a while to figure out and a good IT person can help you learn what you need to know. If you have your own projector, so much the better. (I never did—I saw them as an extra expense and extra weight I didn’t want to bother with.) It’s not unreasonable to expect a school to provide a working projector, and some work better than others, but do know how to hook them up. There may well be a tech person available to help, and if you feel comfortable turning your equipment over to someone, by all means do so.
Note: As a Mac user since the 80s, however, there were times I’d hand over my laptop to an insistent IT person who would look at me like I just handed them a toaster. I would hope that by this point in our technological history, that will no longer be an issue, but regardless of the equipment you have, you solve the problem by knowing how to do it yourself.
Ask ahead of time if you’ll be able to set up your laptop (or tablet) on the stage or on the floor near where you will be presenting. I move around when I speak, but I depend on being able to see what’s on the screen. You want to be close enough so that you don’t constantly have to be turning around or looking over your shoulder to see what the audience is looking at. In some instances, my laptop had to be set up in a separate room, at a digital center far from where I was speaking, and once, way in the back corner of a choir loft.
This makes it essential to have a quality remote (with fresh batteries either installed or available, in which case you’ll need to be carrying a tiny screwdriver, usually Phillips head, to change them out). I’ve often used the remote provided by the facility when it’s worked better and my laptop was farther away than I would have liked. But there may be times that your laptop will be out of range of even the best remote, in which case, you will have to get someone to help you.
Even someone who knows your material will still need cues to know when to advance when you need to move on. I have found this to be extremely distracting, awkward, and inconvenient, but there may be times when this happens, so be prepared. Get a good helper, someone who will truly be tuned into your work and attentive to your cues. (Maybe even a little thank you gift, a Starbucks card or copy of your book, as a way of acknowledging their contribution to a program you would not easily have gotten through.)
Keeping track of details: the master checklist
Even with last-minute engagements, I always made a point to double- and triple-check details about my trip. Again, I often learned these lessons the hard way—getting to my destination airport not having a phone number I needed, a ride that never showed up, and even once, a reservation at a hotel. Each of these experiences simply added to the value of the checklist I would fill in in early conversations with my job contact. I’ve included a copy of my actual planning sheet, which I printed on brightly colored paper to make it easy to find in my file or briefcase.
I’d start with my contact’s name and phone numbers—at very least, a cell phone and work phone. Just in case. If you haven’t already communicated via text, ask if that’s an option. (At this point in our technological history, it would be unusual for that to be an issue.) There will be times you need to be able to reach your contact, especially if a flight is delayed or you encounter some glitch in getting there, so you want as many avenues as necessary, whether you need them or not.
Next on my list are sections for up to 4 presentations. (I’d continue on the back if there were more than 4 topics or audiences, but that was very rare.) For each one, I’d ask for the topic or title of the presentation, the start and finish time, the expected composition and size of audience (grade levels or positions), and the location of each presentation.
I always preferred staying in the same room when I could, but it wasn’t unusual for a keynote to be in one room with follow-up sessions in others. Occasionally, I’d be in different buildings or even different schools for different presentations. This helped me plan transitions that would involve setting up and moving my tech equipment and book displays.
The next column was for logistics: the dates of travel, the airline, and departure and arrival for each segment of the trip. I would fill in this information as I planned the travel, which I increasingly insisted on doing on my own. Although some speakers prefer having the organization set up travel and just send them the details, I was better able to use my preferred airlines, use my status or points for upgrades, and arrange times and routing that made more sense than some of the geographically weird trips that had me zigging and zagging back and forth across the country. If the agency or school only paid for travel that they arranged, I did ask them to check with me before they confirmed the arrangements. It usually worked out.
Note: As time went on, most of this information would go into my calendar on my phone and laptop (or tablet), but even still, I created a backup on paper. Just in case.
Below that was hotel information: the name of the hotel, of course, along with the phone number and address. (You never know when you’ll have to give that information to the cab or Uber driver, and you’ll want it in your GPS if you’re renting a car.) I would also call the hotel to confirm a non-smoking room, which was critical back then—less so now, but if that matters, call ahead! I asked for a room with two beds when I could get them, mostly because I found it easier to spread out my clothing and suitcase on the other bed than anywhere else.
Because of my allergies, I would also ask for a fragrance-free room, if only to request no perfumed “air fresheners” sprayed on the day I’d be there. (Cleaning supplies were rarely a problem.) And if I had a loyalty membership number, which I did for pretty much every chain in this country, I would give it to them then and have it on paper at the time of check-in.
You’ll also want to confirm ground transportation. Will someone be picking you up at the airport to take you to your hotel? If so, where and when? (This was always my preference, but I frequently needed to take a shuttle or taxi.) If someone is meeting you, unless you’ve met or had visual contact in your correspondences, it’s helpful for them to have a sign so you don’t have to search for one another. This is also where having a cell phone number is helpful.
Unless your event is in the hotel at which you’re staying, how will you get to the venue? If someone will be picking you up, make sure you have that person’s name, cell phone number, and note the time and location of where you will meet. I also had space in this section for the times I’d need to rent a car. I included the rental agency and confirmation number here. (I also had a space to check off when I’d requested and received directions, but unless there were special circumstances, as GPS became more widely available, I’d rely more on the addresses for the hotel and speaking locations when I would have to drive myself.)
The final column included a checklist for things I’d need to send or receive, including my confirmation packet, which included a 1-page speakers agreement (contract) with a place to check when it had been signed and returned. This packet also included my bio for printed materials, a script for introducing me, my photo, my policy for media events, and a checklist for the contractor of things I’d need.
There was also a place to check when I had sent the handout originals for them to print or make available to participants electronically. Likewise, there was space for the room set up: theater or auditorium (with a space to check my request to rope off sections of the seats), tables (straight, rectangular, or round), water for participants, temperature, electronics (LCD projector, lavalier microphone,* a monitor when possible), and a display table or two for my books (occasionally with a helper to process sales or take orders).
* I tend to walk around when I speak and am uncomfortable behind a podium, as it feels like a barrier between me and the audience. I personally prefer a lavalier microphone but occasionally end up with a hand-held mike, which is OK for a short presentation, but even the newer ones start feeling heavy and awkward after a very short while. Wireless is better than one with a cable, because even a long cord can be limiting and can present a tripping hazard.
Finally, I have reminders to add the upcoming event to my website calendar, add the completed event to my resume and online info, sort and file receipts, invoice the agency, and send a thank-you note to my contact and any others who were especially helpful during my visit.
This may seem like overkill, but frankly, speaking engagements involve a lot of details, and the more of these boxes I can check off, the fewer problems I tend to have.
Getting paid, what to charge, what to bill for
This is a tough one, and it’s where networking and trusted colleagues will come in handy. If you have a relationship with a staff development coordinator or similar administrator, you might ask them what they have paid for presenters in the past and get a sense of that person’s experience and qualifications, the type and length of the program, and whether the presenter had materials on hand for sale.
Talk to other presenters, people who are currently working with schools (or whatever market you have identified) and ask them if they are comfortable sharing what they charge for the kind of program you plan to present. Also ask what they charged when they first started presenting.
When I was just starting out, I looked for as many opportunities as possible to simply speak, even if I didn’t get paid! I submitted proposals to as many state and national conferences as I could afford, as most don’t pay unless you’re keynoting. In addition to working solely for the benefit of the experience and feedback, you can also expect to have to cover your own expenses, including transportation, lodging, meals, and registration, which can get quite expensive.
Start building up your speaking resume, and that will grow with every presentation you do. You technically can identify as a “national speaker” once you’ve presented in more than one state, though it will help as your list gets longer and your experience becomes more extensive. I started locally, doing short presentations in nearby schools. If you do a good job, the word will spread. In my case (and very early in my career), a recommendation from someone at a local school resulted in an invitation to speak in northern New Mexico, many miles from my home in Albuquerque, where I was flown in a little 2-seat plane that landed on the highway near the school!
I got a token amount—for some reason $45 stands out in memory—for one presentation, and pretty soon, I was charging a couple hundred dollars for my work. As my experience and confidence grew, I started charging more, gradually increasing to $5000 for a stretch, more in the past few years. (As of this post, I’ve been presenting for more than 40 years, so that’s a lot of experience to bring to the table.)
I did not differentiate between keynotes, half days, and full-day trainings, although many speakers do. When I quoted a price, I would say that was for “up to 5 or 6 hours of (actual) presenting plus expenses.” Most often, contractors would take advantage of my offer to follow up a keynote address with a workshop or breakout session, sometimes two. I didn’t mind. Once I was there, I was wound up and ready to go, though after a while, more than 5 or 6 hours was more mentally and physically demanding than I could comfortably accommodate.
Expenses would include travel, hotel, local transportation, and meals. More recently, I’ve simply been quoting inclusive fees, meant to cover my speakers fee plus my air fare, ground transport, and meals. This saved everybody the hassle of dealing with receipts and is usually easier for a school or organization to contract for. (After a while, I got tired of dealing with rental cars and whenever possible, started relying more on taxis or Uber.) I would also ask them to cover two nights’ in a hotel and most of the schools and districts I worked with had some kind of deals for lodging, so that was rarely a problem.
Be willing to be flexible. Sometimes you’ll be offered a worthwhile experience—to speak to a school or conference that just doesn’t have much money. Throughout my speaking career, I was often willing to alter my fees to accommodate the budget for an organization that had never paid more than a certain amount for a speaker, even though it was lower than my usual fee at the time, as long as they covered expenses as well.
After my first few presentations, I developed a one-page flyer listing the various topics I felt comfortable presenting and mailed it out to every school (or district) in the state. This was long before the Internet and email, so I needed a way to let people know who I was and what I had to offer. I ended up with quite a few jobs from this mailing, which gradually expanded to districts throughout the country and would include a second flyer with my books and resources.
Be prepared to market yourself. Getting on the program for a big conference will showcase your talent—which includes your content expertise as well as your stage presence and ability to work a crowd—to people from all over the country, and in many cases, all over the world. Build up your speaking resume and get out there. Word of mouth has been my best friend in this business, and showing up as often as you can will help you tremendously.
Have business cards designed and printed up. If you can do your own graphics, great, but consider the services of a professional designer if you have any doubt that your cards look very professional.
And by all means, set up a website! Even if you only have a splash page with your photo and contact information, maybe a short video. Consider a few pages for your bio and background, resume and speaking experience, topics you offer, a calendar (once you get busy), and any resources you have written or produced and offer for downloading or for sale. Add some (free and helpful) content and you’re off and running.
I used to do big mailings—10,000-15,000 pieces or more—once or twice a year. The cost of paper, printing, and postage has skyrocketed over the years, so I don’t know if this would even be a worthy venture at this point. More recently, I’ve relied on my site, social media, and for a while, an occasional newsletter sent to email addresses I had collected over the years.
Start collecting names and email addresses from participants. Pass around a sign-up sheet. I always assured people that I would only be contacting them a couple times a year and would never sell or share their information.
Keep upping your game
There are few ways to grow as a speaker. As often as you can, attend workshops and presentations by other speakers. Note what they do effectively as well as what doesn’t resonate for you personally. Some of this business is personality, and everyone has his or her unique style.
Keep learning. Take a few courses. No, you do not need a PhD to be successful as a speaker, but the more knowledge and experience, the better. (And yes, a Masters level degree can’t hurt.) Read up on current research and cultural trends that relate to your topic.
Get feedback. You want to get as much feedback as possible, even though some will feel unappreciative, even cruel. (I once got an evaluation that only said, “I hate your hair.” I really don’t know what to do with that but it helped me understand that not all feedback is relevant, valid, or even helpful.) Enjoy the evals that say you’re the best speaker they’ve ever heard and look for some gems in the negative feedback that will only make you better and more sought-after.
I did one of my first presentations in 1979. I was still in the classroom and about to move across the country, having no idea what awaited for me in my new life. I’ve been speaking for more than 40 years and it’s by far one of the most rewarding and satisfying parts of the work I’ve done in education. I hope that down the road a bit, you can say the same—and I hope some of the suggestions here have helped.
Best of luck to you. ❤️
(Note: If you’re thinking of starting a business and have any interest in what a 40+ year career arc looks like, speaking and generating engagements included, I’ve been keeping a running blog of my writing, speaking, publishing, online, and other aspects of my work-life since the early 1990s. It covers a lot of ground as well as many changes in education, publishing, and marketing—but it may include some helpful tips, if not just a scope of what a very busy and multi-faceted career can involve!)
This photo is from a 2006 parenting keynote for Forty Carrots Family Center in Sarasota, FL. I apologize for losing my notes with the name of the person who took this picture. If anyone can help, I’d love to credit the photographer for this picture.
© Dr. Jane Bluestein, 2022.
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