7 lessons learned from 20 years of professional speaking


It is exactly two decades since I became a professional speaker. I had paid my dues over the previous four years speaking frequently for free at conferences. My breakthrough from ‘free to fee’ came from the publication of my first book, Developing Knowledge-Based Client Relationships, which gave me the credibility and visibility to be invited for my first professional engagement in late January 2000.

I have to acknowledge I didn’t do a stellar job for my first paid gig, but it was the beginning of what has been and still is a truly wonderful career. For me being a futurist and professional speaker is an absolute dream job, travelling the world to share ideas with an eclectic range of fascinating people.

Here are seven things I have learned about the profession of speaking over the last 20 years of hard work.

Play it as a long game

Many people seem to expect to be able to build a speaking career in a year or two. A handful succeed, usually starting with some degree of fame, but for most it is an extended journey of becoming known and improving their capabilities. Professional speaking should be considered as a life-long odyssey.

Carefully choose and evolve your speaking identity

There are tens of thousands of current and aspiring professional speakers. You need to be distinctive, a true expert in your field, and not try to extend yourself beyond what you know best. You also need to continually evolve and develop your identity, planning ahead to build your new positioning. I did not begin my speaking career as a futurist, but over years worked towards earning that role, and then built expertise in a range of core themes related to the future.

It is all about continuous improvement

You must start from self-belief. Early in your career and sometimes beyond you will be highly challenged as you learn your craft. The only way to become as good as you need to be is to treat every speaking engagement as a learning experience, one that you will use to get better. Every year and hopefully every month as a speaker I have improved, and I am still absolutely intent on getting better every time I speak. There is no such thing as good enough.

There will always be ups and downs

If you invest in developing your speaking capabilities and profile, usually every year your speaking business will grow. But you have to expect variations in the economy or the industries or topics you focus on. Moreover there are random variations in how much work comes in for any individual speaker. I sometimes get periods of as long as 3 or 4 months with relatively little work, followed by longer busy periods when I have to turn substantial work away. Be prepared for sometimes inconsistent revenue, and whether times are good or bad, focus on developing your business and profession, not just for tomorrow but for next year and far beyond.

Consistently build visibility

To be hired as a speaker you must be known. One of the wonderful things about being a speaker is that you get paid to promote yourself to new audiences. But that is far from enough. You must continually and consistently build your profile, by writing, video, mainstream media, intelligent use of social media, and more. This is an ongoing process that can only build on itself. It is an investment that pays back occasionally in the short-term, and far more often in the long-term.

Seek an impact with messages that matter

Having attentive audiences is an extraordinary opportunity to make a difference. Speaking is not about you, it is about the messages you convey. As I have written before, the only good reason to speak is to change people. Believing deeply that the changes you can engender in your audience are positive and valuable will give you a powerful motivation to build the scope and impact of your speaking career.

It is a process of becoming

Audiences want to hear from someone who is genuine and they can relate to. Speakers need to choose and project a persona, for business speakers always of authority, yet they also need to be true to themselves. This is a journey of becoming, consistently sharing more of yourself, aligning your personal and speaking identities, focusing on personal growth, and moving towards the potential you, not just who you are today. This journey of growth and becoming is for me the most delightful aspect of a life as a professional speaker.

I hope these thoughts are useful, wherever you are on your speaking journey. If you would like to discover more about the early journey of being a keynote speaker, read How to become a top professional speaker: 5 key insights from a leading keynote speaker.

And please share in comments any of your own insights into this highly rewarding journey.