How to become a top professional speaker: 5 key insights from a leading keynote speaker


Many people aspire to be professional speakers, traveling the world, sharing their stories and insights, with audiences hanging on their every word.

However, many more people desire to become professional speakers than those who actually succeed on that path. What have those who have thrived in this career done to achieve their objective?

Professional keynote speaker and futurist Ross Dawson shares five critical steps that have helped him gain the experience, insight and authority to have been invited to deliver hundreds of highly successful keynote presentations across 28 countries.

1. Learn from the best

Understanding—and eventually matching—the benchmarks for successful keynotes is essential. Aspiring professional speakers can kickstart their journey by watching and listening to a wide variety of their more experienced peers. “I used to see a lot of successful keynote speakers, and I thought, I could do that,” Dawson says. But he also warns, “You will see people who are so good that you think, I couldn’t do that.”

In Dawson’s view, the key is to find a balance between having realistic expectations for yourself and being motivated to improve. The more speeches you hear, the better you can compare yourself to in-demand professional speakers and gain a fuller indication of your own strengths and weaknesses.

2. Harness the power of practice

Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote in his book Outliers (2008) that “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness”. While it can be difficult to amass ten thousand hours of public speaking experience, Dawson suggests that “you should certainly aim for hundreds of hours to obtain a reasonable level of confidence”. He achieved this by joining Toastmasters to practice public speaking soon after he finished university, and embracing opportunities to speak and run seminars during his early career working for NCR and Merrill Lynch.

Dawson also points out that “practicing a speech is as important as giving a speech. Speakers shouldn’t expect that it’s going to require any less practice than any other type of performance.” Dawson says that what distinguishes amateur and professional speakers is that “an amateur speaker speaks; a professional speaker performs”.

“An amateur speaker speaks; a professional speaker performs”

3. Actively seek out and learn from feedback

In the world of public speaking and keynote presentations, constructive feedback can be lacking—unless you actively seek it out. Most of the time, says Dawson, “People either say nice things or they don’t say anything.” Seeking more comprehensive feedback—whether it be from audience members, peers, or self-assessment—can significantly boost your future speechmaking skills. “You must always try to work out how you can get better next time…That’s still my focus now after over 15 years of being a professional speaker,” emphasizes Dawson.

Whenever possible, he recommends obtaining a video or audio recording to analyze the delivery of your keynote later. “We don’t hear what we sound like, so we have to record ourselves and listen to ourselves and be critical of how we sound.”

4. Cultivate your credibility

In order to start receiving speaking invitations, you must first become known as an expert in a particular field. “You need to be in-demand as an unpaid speaker before you become a professional speaker, and you have to understand that’s part of the journey for most people,” Dawson advises. Speaking bureaus are much likelier to represent you if their clients have already heard about you or seen you speak. For these reasons, demonstrating your authority and expertise is essential.

Nowadays a wide variety of channels can help to establish the credibility and value of your work. These include written and digital publications, video content showcasing high quality examples of your previous speaking engagements, and social media profiles that attract attention and build your authority. “The major threshold is when you get sufficient invitations to speak for free, to the point where you can start to ask to be paid,” says Dawson. For him, that transition came with the launch of his first book, Developing Knowledge-Based Client Relationships. “People wanted to hear from me on what I had written, and I had sufficient experience to be able to do the opportunity justice.”

5. Give your clients amazing value

Ensuring that your clients receive value from your presentation is important before you become a paid speaker, and absolutely crucial afterwards. “Being a professional speaker means that you have to be a consummate professional: you need to pay every attention to making sure that your client that has paid is getting value for money,” says Dawson. This typically involves full and clear communication, a comprehensive understanding of the purpose and value of your talk, keeping to deadlines, and not allowing any margin for error in anything that you do.

A challenging and rewarding journey

The journey to becoming a successful professional speaker is fraught with challenges and setbacks. Not everyone will succeed. But the benefits of achieving this objective are compelling. The above insights from Ross Dawson’s journey can provide valuable lessons to those who are embarking on that path.

Image sources: The Next Web and Jean-Jacques Halans