Guest Posting: How to become a Keynote Speaker, by Patrick Schwerdtfeger

Patrick Schwerdtfeger is the author of Marketing Shortcuts for the Self-Employed and Webify Your Business – Internet Marketing Secrets for the Self-Employed. He is a regular speaker for Bloomberg TV. He has spoken about Modern Entrepreneurship, Online Branding and the Social Media Revolution at conferences and business events around the world.

This article was first published in his own blog. It is an honest, first-hand report on the steps to take to become a professional speaker.

How to become a Keynote Speaker

by Patrick Schwerdtfeger

I earn about 80% of my income from speaking fees and the remainder from book sales. I haven’t done any coaching or consulting in almost two years. My speaking career has taken me to every major city in this country as well as destinations in Canada, Mexico, Aruba, Sweden, Finland and India. I absolutely love what I do.

A lot of people ask me about the speaking business so in this post, I will describe the path I’ve chosen and the things I’m doing to push my career forward.

First, it’s important to understand that there are two very different categories in the speaking business: platform and keynote. Read Platform Speakers versus Keynote Speakers for more information. This post focuses exclusively on keynote.

Second, speaking engagements tend to fall into one of three different strata: the free circuit, the cheap circuit and the pro circuit. Read 3 Levels in the Speaking Business for more information. Becoming a keynote speaker implies that you’re getting paid to speak.

Saturate Your Market

Darren Lacroix (the Toastmasters 2001 World Champion of Public Speaking) frequently cites “stage time” as being critical to success in the speaking business. Bottom line; the more you practice, the better you get. I agree 100% and recommend you start with the free circuit in your local community to refine your message and fine-tune your delivery.

In 2008, I spoke at 47 Rotary Clubs in the San Francisco Bay Area and didn’t get paid for any of them. In 2009, I spoke at 127 events (!!) and got paid for six of them, all in the cheap circuit. In 2010, I spoke at 68 events and got paid for 21, split evenly between cheap circuit and pro circuit. And in 2011, I will probably do 60 or 70 events and will get paid for 35 or 40 of them.

Let’s look at travel. In 2008, I traveled for two events (Vancouver and San Diego). In 2009, I traveled for four events (Sweden, Aruba, Phoenix and Chicago). In 2010, I traveled for 20 events (including India, Finland, Calgary, Vancouver and more than a dozen domestic destinations). And in 2011, I have been to every major city in the country as well as destinations in Mexico, Canada and one coming up in Portugal.

This is a process! On the one hand, it has gone slowly. But on the other, it has gone extremely quickly. But the point is that I have “walked the path” and encourage you to do the same. So far, I have four years invested.

Getting Started

Looking back now, those days in 2008 when I was driving from one Rotary Club to another were dreadful. But at the time, it was exciting. Yes, I was broke (seriously, I was living on roots and berries!) but I didn’t mind. It was all new territory for me and I felt like I was making progress.

How did I book all these Rotary Clubs? I used the club locator function on their website to compile a listing of 194 clubs in the Bay Area and Sacramento. Once compiled, I spent two days making phone calls and sending out emails. I created a 1-page PDF file for my programs and emailed it off to the Program Director of each club. The PDF file had the following elements:

  • Program Title
  • Program Description
  • Personal Biography
  • Personal Head Shot
  • Contact Information

When I first started, my program was entitled “Driving Internet Traffic” but many of the Rotary Clubs rejected that topic because it was too business oriented. Rotary International is a non-profit community organization. Even though they function as business networking groups, they focus a lot on charitable causes and community development. As such, my topic wasn’t a good match.

During the afternoon of my first day of outreach, I developed a second program that would better fit the community-oriented mission of the Rotary organization. And to this day, it was the worst title I have ever crafted for any reason. It was awful. And it took me almost a full year to realize how bad it truly was. The program I developed that day was called:

“Touching a Younger Audience”

So bad. Embarrassing. But anyway, the point is that I only invested two days for outbound calling and emailing. Now, to be clear, I didn’t have all 47 events booked by the end of the second day, but my outbound efforts were done at that point. There was a bunch of back-and-forth with different clubs and some didn’t get confirmed for weeks, but my job was done. All I had to do was follow up. You can obviously do the same thing. Here’s the key:

  • Think of an awesome juicy sexy title.
  • Write a captivating and enticing description.

Rotary Clubs are easy to get into because they meet weekly and are always looking for speakers, but they’re not the only ones. Kiwanis Clubs and Lions Clubs are in the same boat and these days, you can find dozens of local Meetup Groups that would also make great opportunities. Finally, I suggest checking with your local Chamber of Commerce. Not only do they hold events themselves, but they usually know about a lot of other events too.

Climbing the Ladder

Obviously, the objective is to rise above the free circuit and start earning speaking fees. Over and above all the outbound marketing I’ve done, the #1 thing that has helped my career move forward it positive word-of-mouth advertising. If your speech is insightful and impactful, people will pass your name along.

This is critical for success. That’s why I recommend saturating your local market first. As Darren Lacroix says, stage time, stage time, stage time. Practice makes perfect. Someone once asked Tony Robbins how to become a great speaker. He said, “give the same speech 1,000 times and you’ll be good at it.” Your career will not advance if your speech isn’t insightful and impactful.

Anyway, assuming you’ve crafted a powerful keynote, people will pass your name along. The interesting thing is that referrals from free circuit gigs are generally for more free gigs. Referrals from cheap circuit gigs are usually for more cheap circuit gigs and referrals from pro circuit gigs are usually for more pro circuit gigs. They are like parallel worlds. They seem to function independently of each other.

The easiest way to start pushing referrals higher up the ladder is to start telling people what your speaking fee is. When I first started referencing a speaking fee, I said it was $2,500. Later, it increased to $5,000 and then to $10,000. Anyway, as soon as you mention a speaking fee, the free circuit people start to think differently about you and your services as a speaker.

Referencing a speaking fee does not mean you can’t do events for less money or even for free. As I mentioned above, I still do free events today, when I have a hole in my calendar or if I want an opportunity to address a particular audience. The point is that you need to muster the courage to request a speaking fee before anyone proactively offers it to you.

The big events (with big budgets) usually book 6 or 8 months in advance. Generally speaking, as I get closer to a particular date, I will accept lower-paying opportunities. For example, I will no longer book any free events more than 45 days in advance. Beyond that, there’s still a reasonable chance that a paid opportunity will turn up. But within 45 days of the date, if I still have an opening in my calendar, I will book free events that contribute to my career objectives.

If a particular organization asks me to speak for free or for a low fee, I will give them a date when I will confirm my participation. At that point, if they need to finalize their schedule, they will raise the fee to a point where I will confirm immediately. Otherwise, they will have my tentative acceptance but will also know that something else may come up, requiring me to back out of their event. For me, this approach has worked well.

Essential Marketing Collateral

As described in this post, most of the pro circuit opportunities are booked through speaker’s bureaus and agents, but don’t go knocking on their door too quickly. You only have one chance to make a good first impression and if you screw it up, it’s really hard to go back a second time. Trust me.

Always think about what the salespeople at the bureau (or the agents) need in order to do their job. More than anything else, they need a good demo video. I highly recommend making a good demo video before you approach any bureaus. Here is an example of an excellent demo video. Here are the four things you’ll need to enter the pro circuit:

  1. A good 3 to 5-minute demo video.
  2. Some great photos of you speaking.
  3. A printed one-sheet with your programs.
  4. A professional speaking-oriented website.

Ideally, get a three-camera shoot for the video: one on either side of the room and one behind you. That way, you can get two angles of you speaking as well as one of your back and the audience in front of you. That third angle will also allow you to get some close-up shots of audience members laughing or taking notes. For the two cameras facing you, make sure to get some close-up footage to show the expressions on your face. It shows your authenticity.

In terms of audio, I recommend a two-track recording: one lavaliere microphone on you and a second microphone to capture audience laughter. Audience reaction is extremely important. That’s what conference planners are buying. They’re buying an impact for their attendees. If the audience doesn’t react (i.e., laugh), you haven’t done your job and nobody will ever hire you. You want to make sure you capture that laughter on the video, so make sure you have a microphone on the audience. In your three- to five-minute video, you should be telling a powerful story with a strong message and at least two or three laugh lines.

When you record your video, you want to be in a big impressive room. Here’s what to look for:

  1. An audience of 200+ people.
  2. A raised stage.
  3. An impressive stage backdrop.
  4. Dimmed audience lighting.

You should be able to get everything you need at a single event. If you don’t have a big event booked, find a way to get 200+ people in a room. Make sure it’s an impressive room and then bring in a professional photographer and a videography crew. It’ll cost you some money but you can get the photos and demo video done all at one time, not to mention video testimonials from attendees. Remember, a good demo video is the single most important thing you’ll need.

Other Helpful Tips

Empty chairs kill events. The tighter the seating configuration, the stronger the audience reaction. So theatre style seating is much better than big round tables. And you’re always better to have too few chairs than too many.

Remember, for your programs, make sure you get a juicy sexy title and a tantalizing description. Program Directors make their selections based on your program title and description, along with your kick-ass demo video.

If you have been featured on any recognizable media outlets, get those logos onto your website and your one-sheets. If you have spoken to any large corporations, add those logos. They build immediate credibility.

If you have been interviewed on TV, add clips to your demo video. Again, here is an excellent example of an awesome demo video. Watch it. His entire introduction is done with a compilation of TV clips. Brilliant.

I hope this post helps you chart a course for your evolution as a speaker.

3 Comments so far
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This is a very helpful post. I’ve been convinced over the past few months that pursuing professional speaking, particularly as a way to do business development for a new company, was the best strategy for me.

This post laid out very nicely the things to keep in mind as you get started.

One thing I didn’t see (I probably missed it) was how long some of those early ‘free circuit’ speeches are.

Could you provide some insight there as well?

Thx, 🙂


Congratulations on your decision to build your public speaking career. In addition to the tips Patrick shares you might also like to contact the National Speakers Association chapter in the Los Angeles area and network with their members. There is also an Academy program for emerging speakers.

Most speeches to associations and breakfast clubs are between a half hour to an hour in length. I’d recommend keeping formal remarks to a half hour and leaving time for discussion. Ask your audience what they found most useful in your content, and where they would have liked more information, then tweak for the next time.

Good luck growing your role as a speaker!

An updated version of this article is available on Patrick’s website. Also, check out his awesome YouTube channel.

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