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About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.

Written by: LMiller  |  July 01, 2011

From Free to Fee: How Experts Get Paid to Speak

Originally published for

You’re already on the speaker’s circuit, using concurrent session programs at industry events as marketing opportunities. Each year, you get return invitations, rave reviews, and high evaluations. Perhaps it’s time to quit giving away your expertise and get paid. Makes sense doesn’t it?

The transition from speaking for visibility to paid speaking is like jumping off a cliff: if you survive that first leap, the rest will seem easy. Here are four big changes you must make if you want to succeed.

1. Go Where the Gigs Are

The first change you have to make is where you speak. The easiest way to get paid is not with associations; there are too many speakers in those venues willing to speak for free. Instead, you need to compete in another arena — corporate special events.

The good news is that many professional service firms already have established relationships with corporate decision makers, so you have the ear (and respect) of the buyers. You don’t have to go through the usual gatekeepers. But familiarity can be an obstacle if your clients see you only as a teacher or trainer.

What they want:

These buyers are looking for something more than their association colleagues. Corporate folks want to know the outcomes of your presentation. They are looking to change current behavior. So, have a compelling answer at the ready.

What to do next:

To prevent being pigeonholed, invite the prospect to preview your speaking outside of the consulting environment. Show your client that you are the riveting speaker they need to rally their troops.

If you still want association gigs, ditch the concurrent sessions and go for the keynote slots with state and regional associations. National associations with bigger budgets usually use more high-profile personality keynoters, so pitch for the general session, where lesser-known experts are used. More motivational topics are usually given in the wind-down speaker slot.

Another way to work with associations is to participate in pre- and post-convention workshops. Associations are also open to creating new venues for speakers who will provide a draw (and high registration fees). Experts can get paid for these presentations if they are willing to take a percentage of the fees.

2. Ditch the Data, Add Stories

Buyers and audiences alike have very different expectations of keynoters. If you want to get paid $4,500 or more, it is assumed that you have more than just great presentation skills. Audiences at that level have been exposed to masterful speakers, so make sure your skills can compare favorably.

The flow of your speaking must be very smooth and transitions seamless. Storytelling takes the place of diagrams. Humor takes the place of case study exercises.

What they want:

Keynoter programs also require major content changes. National associations request general topics that discuss trends or allow their members to feel good about their roles. Remember, technical content is more appropriate for the concurrent sessions.

What to do next:

Go through your programs with a fine-tooth comb. Take out all the exercises and replace them with compelling stories. No more data dumping and PowerPoint slides with 10 lines of text.

3. Expand Your Media Campaign

Established committees that focus on expertise and content usually choose free speakers for concurrent sessions. Selecting paid speakers is made at the very top levels, and the decision is far more subjective. These buyers are more concerned with the speakers’ brand and how their message fits the strategic objectives of the meeting than with their PowerPoint presentation.

Because the decision is more subjective, indirect marketing approaches work best. Focus on recommendations from advocates and showcasing. Leverage is king, and paid speaking engagements can beget more of the same.

While speaker bureaus play a bigger role, don’t depend on them to be your marketing department. Speaker bureaus work with speakers like banks loan money: they only want those who get plenty of bookings on their own.

What they want:

In the corporate markets, content is king. Your message has to be a conduit for attendees’ strategic objectives. Again, what behavior will you change? What are the outcomes they can expect? In the association market, buyers want someone with enough visibility to create excitement for the conference.

What to do next:

Pump up your prominence in the right places. Experts who have focused on building their business with trade journal articles will need to expand their media campaign. It’s time to be quoted in widely read publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, etc. Make sure that book you’ve written will get you into these respected outlets.

4. Create Speaking-Specific Promotional Materials

Again, the decision is more subjective, so speaking-specific promotional materials take the place of requests for proposals. Professionalism is the key here — good graphic design and copy are essential. The focus is on message and approach, not specific content. No one will read pages of topic descriptions.

Many buyers check out speakers online, so websites have become the centerpiece of a speaker’s promotional materials. They won’t search your site for your topics; have a designated section just for your speaking.

What they want:

While many experts have a speaking section on their site that mentions keynotes, these sections are not effective if the homepage focuses only on professional services. Buyers are looking for experts who both speak and provide related services, not advisors who speak as a sideline. This subtle difference is critical.

Another way to show your stuff is via video. Buyers not only preview footage for speaking skills, but they also use them to determine if the message is on target. They examine the audience as well to determine similarities between your previous engagements and their own.

What to do next:

Smart experts refocus their site towards the positioning and expertise rather than the roles they play, such as speaker, consultant, author, etc. If that’s not possible, consider a separate speaking website that touts your background, expertise, and approach. And get crackin’ on that video footage. It should be less than a year old. The fancy graphics that many speakers include are not necessary; it’s more important to be certain you are presenting your best speech material. Put it on the homepage as well as the speaking sections.

Written materials are still needed, especially when working with speaker bureaus. Plan on creating what speakers call “one-sheets” that feature your photo, list of speaking engagements, testimonials from speaking clients, your background/approach, and topics. Even beginning speakers have this material professionally produced.

A Different World

The transition into the world of professional speaking doesn’t happen with your current tools and marketing efforts. Be prepared to revamp your positioning — to brand your approach to different buyers with different expectations. Invest time, energy, and money just as you have in your professional service firm. And like any other business venture, professional help in speaking skills, marketing, and promotional material production can speed up the process.

Good luck, and I’ll see you on the circuit!

About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.