How I Got Gigs As A Motivational Speaker

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Motivational Speaker Kelly Swanson is an award-winning storyteller, author, and comedian who teaches you how to harness the power of your story to connect, engage, and get results. In this blog, Kelly focuses on the business of professional speaking. Kelly’s post day is Friday. If you aren't sure how to comment on this story, click here.

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funnymotivationalkeynotespeakerHow Did I Find The Bookings as a Motivational Speaker?

It’s the question that I get asked more than anything – “How do I find people to pay me to speak?”   Unfortunately, many are asking this question before they really have something worth selling. But that’s another article.

I debated over what to call this post. If I called it “How To Get Booked As A Motivational Speaker” then I would making the claim that I had the solution to help you get booked. And I would be making the claim that there is one way to get booked. Both are false.

The first truth in this business, is that there are many ways to get to the money, and whether you get there depends on a lot of factors and moving pieces, like how good you are, what kind of message you bring, what problems you solve, what market you are going after, what business model you like best, your body of work, how you position yourself, your style and brand, etc.

Another fact of the business, is that there is no chartered path. There is no universally understood curriculum, degree, and career path that a guidance counselor in high school can put in front of you.  There are hundreds of different business models, and new ones being created every day.

Therefore, I will not attempt to tell you that there is one way that fits all.  Rubbish.

I am not a business coach. I coach speakers on how to create a keynote speech worth selling, that gets you standing ovations and gets you booked over and over, based on a keynote business model that is driven by word of mouth and referrals.  To designate myself as a coach when I haven’t studied all the business models, is not serving you. To take the way I did it, and put a stamp on it as the “Right Way” is just dumb and pompous.  The best I can do is tell you how I did it, and hope that you will see something in there that helps you develop a business model that works for you. You must filter the advice you get from me (and others) and understand that it is based on the business model and lifestyle I wanted to create.

For example, I got into this business because I love telling stories and making people laugh and feel good about themselves.  That might be the worst topic to choose if I want to make a lot of money, or attract certain clients. But I don’t care. I’m not willing to change what I love to do because it might make me more money. Make sense?  If someone came to me and said, “Kelly, we will pay you six figures to go give this one customer speech written by us, to all our audiences,” I would say no.  Not because it’s not right thing to do. For someone else, it might be their dream. But it’s not mine. I love the stage. I love writing new stories and creating new programs.  I love having ownership over how I create the program.  I am not willing to trade that in just because I can make more money.

Understand what you want to do and how you want to do it.  Choose the lifestyle you want instead of letting the business choose it for you.

Have something worth selling. You can’t outsell a crappy speech.

There is no right or wrong way to do this business. The only right way is the way that works for you and gets you booked. Filter all advice through the lens of what you want to create.

What Worked For Me Then Versus Now

The next dilemma I ran into with this post, is that what got me business in the beginning is not what gets me business today.

Today I have the benefit of having planted seeds for years. All those free jobs, all those postcards, all those relationships built, all that word of mouth, continues to sprout.  I am reaping the fruit of the seeds that were planted for years.  I now have a body of work that supports me, and a list of clients and testimonials.  I now have extensive video that shows me in action.  I now have a pretty full calendar, and the way I find business has changed because of that. My gigs have gotten bigger and now have more potential to spin off into more business.  I have also been working VERY hard for eleven years at my craft, and learning everything I can about how to make this business work for me. The knowledge I have stored from attending classes and learning from the masters, is more than I can ever write down in blog posts. I was also lucky enough to understand the importance of attracting business through the internet – something that took me years to develop. I have eleven years of feeding the internet with information about me and what I do and my message.

Not only am I in a different place now – meaning my advice for today might not help the person who is where I used to be –  but the speaking business has changed. It has become more competitive. Technology has changed the game.  Social media and the internet have changed how we market and sell, and how much information people have access to. Now clients can find any speaker they want directly instead of going through agents and bureaus. Meetings are having a more virtual component which is changing the model of many speakers.  It’s getting harder and harder to fill seats for a conference, so the need to be creative and relevant is stronger than ever. What does this all mean? It means that what I did then may not work today because the landscape has changed so much.

See why I cringe when somebody asks me how to get business?

But I still want to answer the question in the best way I know how. To share what I did in the hopes that you can find something in it of value, or at least if it doesn’t give you answers, helps you craft the right questions.

The Way I Got Business as a Motivational Speaker

Right or wrong, here is the way my business was built.

  1. I had a gift. I didn’t realize how valuable it was until others pointed it out. I was really good at speaking and telling stories and making people laugh.  I was a good writer and a good storyteller.  It was a raw gift that needed work.  So I spent years (and still do) working to get better. My speech is my craft. My craft is my art.  My art is what I knew people were willing to pay me to experience. From the very beginning I was determined that I would aim to be the best. As Steve Martin said it best, “Be so damn good they can’t ignore you.”My biggest competition is my last show.
  2. I developed a message.  My gift didn’t fit too well in the entertainment model. Speaking was the perfect business for my craft. But pure entertainment is not professional speaking, it’s entertainment. I need to mold my craft to fit the speaking business, meaning I needed to craft a message that my audience would need and pay for. Note: I wasn’t a “content expert” and I did not go seeking that at the time.  My program was less about content and more about message and experience.  I did not go seeking the message that would get me the most money. I sought after the message that was in my heart – the message I knew I was born to give – the lessons my life has taught me.  I spent a lot of time searching for the true reason I was sent down this path. To this day, people seek me out for the stories and the humor and the motivation – THEN they ask me what message they should have me deliver.I didn’t think so much about what I wanted to say, as what I thought they needed to hear.
  3. I created a style and a personality.    It took a while, but I finally landed on a unique style for me. In the beginning, I looked and felt and appeared like just any other speaker. While my work was truly unique, my look wasn’t.  I began to reinvent myself. For the first time in my life, I created who I really wanted to be.  I love it when people come up to me and say, “You must be our speaker.”  When I ask them why, they say, “Because you look like an artist.”  That’s my goal. To look like an artist, not like a banker.  I didn’t go create a new personality, but I did learn to play up my personality and make it part of the marketing and the brand.  When it comes to keynote speaking, clients buy the personality as much as they do the message. Personality speaks to what kind of experience you will bring. Don’t leave it out.You don’t have to be attractive, or thin, or have fancy clothes. But your look does say something about you and your brand.  Be intentional in how you choose to present yourself to the world.  Think of it like a music band. A band picks their own style of music, the clothes they wear, the band name, the way their album cover (your website) is designed.  Have fun. Your music is unique. But don’t overthink it.  At the end of the day, your success doesn’t hinge on whether you came up with the catchiest tagline. The tagline is the name of your band. It’s just one more thing that adds to your brand message.
  4. I created a website and marketing materials that best reflected what I did and how I did it.  I cringe when I think of my first website. Sometimes I still cringe today when I see things on my site that need work. Our marketing materials are a constant work in progress. They become updated as we do.  Since day one, I have been constantly reviewing my site to make changes and present myself in a way that will get me business.
  5. I looked at other speakers sites to see where they got business.  Most speakers had (and still have) a list of places where they had spoken on their website. This gave me great insight into who was booking speakers – the types of clients and events.  I tried contacting these groups, but it wasn’t as simple as that. This turned out to be just a learning exercise.
  6. I chose a market.  I wanted a market that booked speakers LIKE ME and that I could access easily and directly. Associations were that market. Associations have conferences and they usually book speakers. Bingo. That’s the direction I went in.  While my message could go anywhere, I chose a group to reach out to you.  I chose associations where the people were much like me and most closely fit my style and topic.
  7. I began telling the world I was here – any way I knew how.  Sorry it’s not any fancier than that, but I didn’t have a rule book. All I knew to do was to get on the internet and look for associations and try to figure out if they book speakers. I sent them emails (thousands) and postcards. Churches came to me first (when word got around that I was cheap) and that was the first traction in my business. I did every job that came my way for anything they would pay me.  They were hard jobs for little money. But it was an even trade. I wasn’t good enough yet. My product wasn’t polished. I was practicing and perfecting my craft for YEARS.
  8. I created something I could sell at these jobs.  Books, CDs, DVDs. I found  way to make more money when I went to speak. Having a funny book title really helped my business. People loved the title, and I made the program name the same as the book title.
  9. I WISH I had started building an email list of people in my audience. How I wish.
  10. I WISH I had asked for referrals.  I’m still bad at this. I wish I had asked my clients and audience members for referrals and then followed up. I left a lot of money on the table.
  11. I joined the National Speakers Association and began going to the state chapter meetings. NSA saved me.  It was here – attending everything I could afford – surrounding myself with people who had made money – that I learned.  The past eleven years has been like college for me at NSA. Not only has it really taught me, the association has provided networking opportunities with other speakers who have become my closest friends, and who send me business.
  12. I started directing internet traffic to my website.  It became my goal to consistently feed the internet through blogs, articles, social media, content on my web, and anything else that would possibly drive traffic to my site. I studied what words people were using to find speakers like me. It took years, but eventually I started leading traffic to my door. At one point, I was on the first page of Google when you typed in the keywords I wanted to be found under. Now things have changed and we are no longer on page one. But those couple of years when I was, changed things for me. It brought a lot of traffic to me. It also brought the bureaus.  I had begun taking their business. I still do a lot of talking on the internet.
  13. I took advantage of opportunities to get exposure in front of buyers.  Some of these worked out, some didn’t. I paid for listing services. I participated in showcases. I paid for leads.  These didn’t really pay off like I’d hoped.  But it’s what I did.
  14. Other speakers started referring me. That’s when things began turning around a little.  When other speakers saw my work and liked it, they would recommend me to their client after they did a gig.  Many of us are doing that in this business and it’s a great way to leverage business, and help the client find good speakers. Note: I won’t recommend any speaker I haven’t seen. Don’t expect speakers to refer you if they haven’t seen your work. And don’t be pushy about it. Sometimes we’re not comfortable recommending a speaker.  We don’t recommend a speaker because we like them or they are nice. We recommend a speaker because they are good at what they do, and a good fit with that audience.
  15. I worked to get even better on stage and perfect my content and message.  Since I still didn’t know exactly what to do to get business, I worked to get better on stage. I wanted to blow away every audience.  I worked on my speeches, my stories, my comedy, and how I put it all together.  I worked to develop more messages and more content to try and be relevant to what clients are looking for today.  I constantly tweaked my website to fit what my market was teaching me.  I constantly asked people how they found me, and what made them pick me.
  16. I tried to leverage my jobs to get others like it.  When you do one state association, you know there are others in other states. I would take letters of reference from a happy client and send it to other state chapters by letter or email.
  17. I went for low hanging fruit.  By low hanging fruit, I mean easy jobs to get. They don’t have a ton of money, and the speakers they’ve seen aren’t that great.  There are lots of different schools of thought on how much to charge. Speakers have different fees. How high you can or should go, is not for me to answer. Though many will try to answer that.  I think it’s just like music. Some bands, because they are awesome and everybody loves them, will be able to charge high fees and play in coliseums. Other bands will play at your cousin’s wedding.  It’s just the way it is.  Your fee depends on what you do, how you do it, what market you work in, how good you are, what credibility you have to your name, your body of work, etc.  I have always preferred to position myself in price range where I know I can dominate and get the business.  Hard to explain.  You’ll figure out how much to charge.  Supply and demand has a nice way of helping you get where you need to be.  I see speakers with really high fees barely scraping by.  But if they cut their fee in half, they’d be working all the time.
  18. I just kept trying. I kept looking for leads. Buying directories. Searching the internet. Asking others where they got their business. Contacting people who might book speakers. Sending out postcards. Making phone calls. Sending out proposals.  All these ideas came from peers in the business that I met through NSA.  I formed friendships with people where we shared our gifts equally. For years I had no idea what I was doing. To this day, I still really don’t.  My business comes from word of mouth or internet traffic.  So my work is spent getting better on stage so I get more word of mouth, and driving traffic to my site so people will find me on the internet when they go looking for a speaker.

Looking back, it’s still very hard for me to pinpoint what worked and what didn’t. All I know is that you can’t sit by the phone and wait for it to ring.

Now that I do get business, I can tell you what I truly believe got me here…

  • I am very funny.
  • I tell a really good story. People love my stories.
  • I am real and connect with people.
  • My message hits home and they believe me when I deliver it.
  • I give them something different from the other speakers they’ve seen.
  • I’m easy to work with and grateful for the business.
  • I’ve always been reasonably priced.
  • I over deliver.
  • I have more than one speech.
  • I connect and engage with my audience.
  • They can find me easily on the internet when they go looking for what I do.
  • I have taken as many gigs as I possibly can for years. That’s a lot of seeds. They’re still sprouting.