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Learn from Barbara Sher, Barbara Winter, and me…

Getting Paid to Speak:
The Biggest Mistakes New Speakers Make and How to Avoid Them

By Valerie Young

Before you read this article:

You don't have to aim to be a professional speaker to benefit from the following article. Change is change and advice about successfully launching one income stream can easily be transferred to others.

That's not the only reason to read this article. A key element of changing course is getting and giving support to your fellow dreamers. So if you know someone who should be up in front of an audience please support their dream by passing this article along.

Picture yourself delivering a presentation or workshop to an engaged and enthusiastic audience. Now imagine strolling to the mail box to find a nice check thanking you for your time and expertise. Sounds pretty nice doesn't it? It is.

I've been a professional speaker now for over 28 years. I also frequently work with clients who want to make their living conducting workshops or otherwise speaking in front of a paying audience. Over the years I've learned a thing or two about how to succeed as a professional speaker – and what mistakes to avoid.

1. Thinking You Don't Know Enough

The number one mistake aspiring speakers and workshop leaders make is thinking they don't have enough knowledge or training to get out there and talk about a subject. If you find your dreams stymied by the common, but distorted, notion that expertise means having three degrees and knowing everything there possibly is to know about a subject then it's time to readjust your thinking.

Competence and expertise isn't total and complete knowledge, but rather it's knowing how to identify the resources it takes to get the job done. In other words, you may not know everything about male-female communication or how to give a motivational speech, but I bet you're smart enough to figure out the researchers, authors, and speakers who do and learn from them.

2. Letting Stage Fright Hold You Back

You'd think that someone who wants to speak for a living would have few qualms about public speaking or otherwise "performing" in public. Not true. Barbra Streisand was famous for her chronic stage fright.

As part of a college class, I was videotaped making a presentation. I was a nervous wreck. My voice was shaking, my hands were shaking. The whole nervous speaker bit. The amazing thing was no one else could tell – not even me! The person I saw on that tape appeared calm, cool, and collected.

That experience happened 25 years ago. But, you know, I never forgot it, and from that point on I've managed to calm any pre-presentation jitters by reminding myself that no one can tell.

3. Not Making Constant Improvement a Priority

Despite my early performance anxiety, I went on to deliver hundreds of presentations and workshops to audiences ranging in size from 10 to 1200. Having so much experience under my belt made me pretty confident about my speaking skills.

That is until a former employer sent me to New York City to a two-day presentation skills training. The course, which I later became certified to teach, was conducted by a company called Communispond. Being the only attendee with a speaking background, I felt pretty cocky as I rose to deliver my benchmark presentation.

Seeing is believing. Even if you're already an experienced presenter, there's always room for improvement. By far the best way to improve is to observe yourself in action on tape.

4. Not Being Willing to Pay Your Dues

Sometimes a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. For example, a client with little to no previously paid speaking experience balked when I suggested he seize any chance he could to get out there and hone his craft – even if that meant in some cases speaking for free. "That's not true," he said. "Everything I've read said you should never give away your services because your client won't respect you as a professional."

Speaking for free is all about getting better at what you do and about exposure. Like most things you shouldn't expect instant results. It's not unusual for me to get a speaking offer from someone who saw me speak at a conference two years earlier. In fact, I've recently received a great contract based on the recommendation of someone who saw me speak 20 years ago!

Don't think of it as speaking for free. Think of it as the opportunity to essentially make a sales pitch in front of dozens of potential clients. Besides, now in your bio you'll be able to list all the groups you've addressed!

5. Not Understanding the Speaking Business

First of all, unless you're a big time speaker, the majority of your non-speaking time is going to be spent drumming up speaking gigs. If the very thought of marketing yourself, your topic, and your expertise makes you want to run for the hills, this would be a good time to consider another field (or just wait for part two of this article where I'll talk about marketing).

Next, when you're just starting out, you will need to make a heavy investment in developing your presentation or workshop. In fact they say for every five minutes of speaking time you should plan to put in about an hour of planning and rehearsing time.

Keep in mind, though, that no one is paying you to endlessly perfect your material. Once you get a good program down, as far as I'm concerned, the goal is to be able to walk in and deliver it cold. There's nothing quite like the relaxed feeling of heading off to deliver a big presentation without a care in the world because you just know you're going to nail it!

If you have something you'd like to share with the world, and you genuinely enjoy teaching others, there's no better job in the world than getting paid to speak.

6. Not Realizing What You're Really Getting Paid For

If you're setting your fees based on your actual "on" time you're missing the boat. As a professional speaker you aren't being paid to talk for one hour, or three hours, or even to facilitate a full-day workshop. What you're getting paid for are a) your total time commitment and b) your expertise. Let's look at your total time commitment first.

If your speaking engagement involves travel, then you need to consider the total time involved in fulfilling your commitment. That includes the time it takes to set up the contract, get to and from the speaking venue, any pre-event set-up and pack-up time, and the time it takes to take care of any client invoicing and follow-up.

Your actual time is only one factor in setting your fees. Although there are some speakers who bill for travel time (I'm not one of them) or who charge local clients less (which I often do), you're not being paid to travel. In fact, you're not really even getting paid for your actual speaking time. You read that right.

What your attendees or clients are paying you for is your expertise. Break this down and whether they know it or not, clients pay you for the time you've invested in acquiring that expertise which includes your speaking and facilitation skills. Or, as Dr. Bailey Jackson, an outstanding trainer and personal mentor explained it to me, "When you're up in front of a room full of people, your job is to make it look easy."

Designing a 7-hour seminar is one thing. Standing up in front of 20 people and appearing to effortlessly juggle the content and flow of 120 PowerPoint® visuals, a 100+ page participant workbook, a 250 page leader guide, not to mention managing the learning needs and interpersonal dynamics of a group of discerning managers and professionals is not something that comes out of the design phase. It's like expecting a screenwriter to finish his or her screenplay on one day and then star in it the next.

7. Failing to Match Your Market to Your Financial Goals

Your audience consists of the people who actually hear you speak. Your client, however, is the person or organization writing your check. If you're putting on your own public workshops, then your client consists of the paying attendees. The same is true if your workshop is being offered through the Learning Annex or another adult education program. Since you're receiving a percentage of each attendee's fee, your client and your audience are also one and the same.

Sometimes your client is determined by what it is you want to speak about. If you want to teach about how people can improve their love life or achieve spiritual wellbeing, you're not likely to find a lot of corporate or other organizational sponsorship. Here you're probably looking at individuals paying out of pocket. We'll look more closely at marketing to individuals shortly.

It is possible to make six figures speaking or conducting workshops on topics like astrology, tapping into your inner power, or esteem building for teens. To do so, however, means you're going to have to put in the time and effort it takes turn yourself into a "personality." In other words you're going to have to become the "astrologer to the stars" or a nationally known leader in the field of self-esteem or well-known guru on tapping into one's inner power.

8. Defining Your Style

Finally, to some extent your preferred audience size can impact your financial goals. In other words, if you had to choose between two speaking gigs – one is facilitating an interactive workshop for 10 to 15 people and the other is delivering a presentation in front of an audience of 200 to 1200 – which would you pick?

If you said the 10-15 people, it's probably because you like the intimacy of interacting with a small group. If you opted for the large group, it's probably because you like entertaining people. I'm happy to do either. But the setting I find more exhilarating, and personally, a whole lot less work, is the large group presentation.

How finances factor in is simple. Typically you'll earn more money by speaking to larger audiences than smaller ones. This is true regardless of whether individual participants or an organization is writing the check. The exception is big name speakers like say, a Stephen Covey who can charge a small group of CEOs top dollar for a small group executive leadership retreat.

9. Not Knowing How to Market Yourself

Seminar marketing is a huge topic and it's not possible to cover it all in one short article. So let me hit the high points and then tell you where you can get more detailed information.

If you're new to the speaking business, one obvious place to start is by offering your program through an adult education program. Most colleges and universities offer continuing education programs. In larger cities you'll find private programs like The Learning Annex, The Boston Center for Adult Education or The Knowledge Shop in Orlando.

There are at least three good reasons to start here:

  1. It's a hassle-free, paid opportunity to refine your material because someone else takes care of marketing your workshop, covering the cost of the meeting room, and registering students. All you have to do is show up!

  2. It's a venue to promote any books, CDs or other related material. We'll talk more about this shortly.

  3. Even if your workshop doesn't fill, potentially thousands of people are learning about you and your business through the short bio accompanying your course description in the organization's catalog.

In fact, sometimes this kind of exposure can lead to amazing things. It was at a Learning Annex workshop in New York where a publisher first approached Barbara Sher about writing a book. Barbara is quick to admit that she was baffled as to how she could possibly come up with an entire book. Wisely the publisher urged her to think of each workshop module as a chapter. Barbara went on to write Wishcraft which has sold well over a million copies.

10. Failing to Tap Other Income Streams

Many years ago I bought an audio program called How to Build Your Speaking and Writing Empire featuring Mark Victor Hansen. That's where I learned that in a survey of top speakers, the number one thing they wished they'd done differently was to have developed some kind of product earlier in their career. So-called "back of the room" products range from books, CDs, audio tapes, workbooks, and so on.

I know what you're thinking, "I don't have a book!" Not to worry. There are less labor-intensive ways to create workshop-related products for sale. For example, create a participant workbook and charge each participant. Corporations are used to a paying for materials on top of speaker fees, and at 50-200 dollars per attendee this can make for a nice revenue stream.

The other thing you can do is audio or videotape your program and sell the DVD or CD. Making Dreams Happen, the 24-set CD program available here at Changing Course, is an audio version of a live four-day workshop-retreat I delivered with Barbara Sher and Barbara Winter. Even the 100+ page participant workbook is on a CD.

11. Not Being Willing to Invest in Your Business

By far the BIGGEST mistake wanna-be speakers make is being unwilling to make even the most modest investment in themselves and their fledgling speaking business. Whether you're just launching your speaking career or are a seasoned pro who wants to increase your bottom line, you absolutely must be willing to invest in your own success.

On the low-cost end are books. The three I recommend are:

  • How to Make It Big in the Seminar Business, by Paul  Karasik
  • Speak and Grow Rich, by Dottie Waters
  • 1,001 Ways to Make More Money as a Speaker, Consultant or Trainer: Plus 300 Rainmaking Strategies for Dry Times by Lilly Walters

All three are available in the Changing Course bookstore

Another resource to check out is Charli Jane Speaker Services. This member site is specifically designed for speakers, authors and coaches who want to jump start their speaking career by providing professional and affordable speaker services. A few of the member benefits include media leads, public speaking and training leads, templates. Check it out at

If you're really, really ready to step into the big time and start earning "mega" speaking fees I can't say enough about the Mark Victor Hansen program I spoke about earlier. It's called Building Your Mega Speaking Empire.

You can read all about the self-study of Hansen's live 3-day course (see below) at Both the live and the self-study versions of Building Your Mega Speaking Empire cover how to get free publicity on the radio. But if you'd rather target your self-marketing campaign specifically to radio and want to fast-track your efforts, I highly recommend letting an expert like Alex Carroll teach you the ropes.

A few years ago Alex Carroll wrote a book about how to beat unfair speeding tickets. With a zero advertising budget he decided to promote his book exclusively through radio interviews. To date, he's done 1,264 radio interviews, gotten more than four million dollars worth of free radio airtime and earned over one million dollars in direct sales.

Carroll wisely packaged up his Radio Publicity Manual for purchase. You can also get a database with the names and hosts and producers from every prime time talk station in the US that have at least 100,000 listeners – 1,026 in all. To learn more visit 


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About the Author

"Profiting From Your Passions®" expert Valerie Young abandoned her corporate cubicle to become the Dreamer in Residence at offering resources to help you discover your life mission and live it. Her career change tips have been cited in Kiplinger's, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today Weekend, Woman's Day, and elsewhere and on-line at MSN, CareerBuilder, and An expert on the Impostor Syndrome, Valerie has spoken on the topic of How to Feel as Bright and Capable as Everyone Seems to Think You Are to such diverse organizations as Daimler Chrysler, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Harvard, and American Women in Radio and Television.

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