Becoming a professional speaker – avoiding the pitfalls and cons

Happy new year!  May 2015 bring you much success, ongoing wellness and many moments of unexpected delight.

This is often a period of many of us to be planning and creating strategies for the next 12 months.  Consequently, I’ve seen a significant increase in online marketing activity selling coaching, business planning and live-strategy workshops and services compared to the rest of the year.  Designed to ‘help you’ and while they’re at it, make a quick buck for themselves.  Now don’t get me wrong, this stuff works and if you choose the right offering, it can be very beneficial for you and your business.

What’s troubling me at the moment is the increase in offerings stating, “you too can be a world-class speaker”, “speak for profit”, and “be an expert by speaking on stage”.  This happens to be my area of expertise, but it feels as though it has become the latest topic in the ‘teach-others-for-profit’ seminar game.  I’m ok with the competition, but like all areas where knowledge and skills are sold, I’m not necessarily ok with the credentials of those presenting the information and techniques.  And I’m going to help you to navigate through the hype.  Please read on, I’ll show you what I’m doing about it at the end. 

When I’ve worked with groups and individuals in this topic over the years, I’ve tried to provide clear, take-home, usable value.  I’ve passed on what I’ve learned over 25 years of speaking and training of which the last 15 years have been as a professional corporate conference speaker and MC.  And I use the word ‘professional’ in context in ‘I get paid to speak in front of an audience’, from as small as 10 people to as large as 3000+.


But with the current spate of new speaking ‘mentors’, ‘institutes’, ‘academies’, it feels like this topic is indeed the latest bandwagon for other people to make money from.  To me, this feels very wrong.  You’ve got people with limited experience being mentors, institutes being formed with no learning and development background and academies teaching conference speaking skills by people who have a background in ‘pitching’ or selling from the stage.  In fact, one organisation that I’ve seen recently didn’t even spell check their own name! Insitute (sic)…

Many of these types of businesses will tell you that anyone can become a professional speaker.  I love that kind of positive thinking but there are some realities and limitations that need to be taken into account, so that you’re not taken in by the hype and hand over wads of your ‘hard-earned’ to people trying to pack a room.  I’m sure you’ll get some value and learn something, and I think that being able to speak well in public is an essential life skill …but how do you know, a) from whom to learn, b) are you learning the right things, and c) is it realistic for me to consider this a career?

I remember turning away a very keen individual who wanted to attend a program I was running. Let’s call him ‘Bob’. He was happy to pay the fee and was desperate to come along so that he could ‘become a professional speaker’.  As a bit of background, he had just spent in excess of $25,000 on a program that promised him a fully developed informational product and the system to sell it on-line.  During our interview to ensure he had the right pre-requisites I asked him how that venture was going. 

He paused for a moment before saying, “I had a great time, went for lavish dinners and an amazing boat cruise on Sydney harbour, but what I really got out of it was an empty DVD case with my name and photo on the outside, a whole lot of material that I’ll never be able to put into practice without paying more money, and a debt that I’ll be paying back for many years.”

Honestly, for $25K, I can see what paid for the boat cruise!

He was desperate to spend even more money (that he didn’t really have)…on the magic ingredient that would give him the new life and the earning capacity he was looking for. 

We all know, THERE IS NO MAGIC INGREDIENT! There are techniques, systems, skills, and of course, hard work, time and a certain amount of patience.

I didn’t want to take the wind out of his sails too quickly because he really wanted to improve his life and was taking steps (albeit misguided ones), to do so.

So I spent the time with him to find out if there really was any possibility he could ‘cut it’, so to speak, in the competitive world of professional speaking.

I applied my test of the three pillars of professional speaking to his situation.

  1. Notability
  2. Message
  3. Delivery

A combination of these three elements will indicate whether you have a fighting chance in a highly competitive industry.  Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of opportunities to speak in front of groups, plenty of opportunities to be motivating and inspirational, plenty of opportunities to provide insight and knowledge…but if you want to get paid for it, you’ll need a combination of the three pillars.


Being ‘known’ is a good start.  That doesn’t mean you have to be famous, it means you’ve achieved something of note or been recognised within a sector.

If you’ve won an Olympic gold medal, you’re notable.  If you’ve built a business with a recognised brand, you’re notable.  If you’ve climbed Everest, ridden across Australia, circumnavigated the world in a modified bathtub, you’re notable.  If you’ve held a position of importance, even if it’s in a fairly obscure field, you’re notable.  If you’ve got 100,000 instagram followers, or write a well-subscribed blog, you’re notable. 


A former prime minister, as an example, will have a notability rating of 9 or 10/10.

Bob worked in a furniture store and wanted to help others with back problems.  There’s not a lot of notability there.  With a little more probing, I found out that he was once voted the Number One Taxi Driver in his state and also ran outback tours to remote parts of Australia.  He had played this down, but that had real possibilities.

So he went from a score of 0/10 to one of about 3/10.

Be excited if your notability score is high.  Don’t be concerned if your notability score is low.  Please read on.


What you talk about needs to be relevant, useful and of interest to your target audience.  Plus, it’s a bonus if you’re the only one who is able to talk about it (or your variation is different enough to stand out).

Here’s a range of topics that seem to always be in vogue:

  • Personal interaction skills
  • Technology
  • The economy
  • Relevant research findings
  • Industry insights
  • Environment and sustainability
  • Future trends
  • Business success
  • Social media
  • Marketing
  • Motivational/inspirational
  • Generations, demographics, psychographics
  • Work-life harmony, stress management
  • Comedy/Hoax/Experiential


It doesn’t matter if your topic doesn’t fit into one of these.  As long as it’s relevant and of current interest. And the more tailored you can make it to your audience, the better.  A good example of a topic with higher relevance right now might be ‘crisis management’.

Let’s go back to Bob.  He might have some great stories from being a cabbie about dealing with his wide range of customer experiences and what we can learn from them. Maybe even a topic based on the wonder of the Australian Outback.  There was some potential here.  If the content was well fleshed out, it could be an 8/10.  The difficulty would be to create useful models and frameworks that the audience could use from his customer types or customer experiences.  But as it was, with his initial desire to talk about better seating, I’d give this element 1/10.


This is the ‘craft’ of speaking…your skill on stage.  Can you capture and hold the audience’s attention?  Can you make them laugh, ponder, weep? Is your message clear and understandable? Are able to do all this in your own, authentic, style, or are you trying to mode someone else’s?

There are plenty of techniques and skills here to help you, but my last point is the most important.  You need to be a great version of YOU, not a mediocre version of someone else you think is great.  I’ve seen so many wanna-be Tony Robbinses and they’re just not able to pull it off.

Your style is what separates you from everyone else.  And it has to be real.  Li Cunxin (Mao’s Last dancer) is a quietly-spoken but extremely motivating and captivating speaker.  Contrast that with the on-stage explosions that sum up former Olympic swim coach and motivator, Laurie Lawrence, or Beechworth Baker, Tom O’Toole, or the intellectually amusing and enthralling delivery of famous demographer, Bernard Salt, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Being ‘someone else’, brilliantly, is just unsustainable for 45 minutes.

Let’s go back to Bob.  Nice guy, needed a lot of coaching in this area, but at least he had no fear of standing up in front of a group.  3/10

So sadly for Bob, I had to recommend to him that it was going to be a long journey, and there was no fast money in there (to help him pay off the $25K debt!).

You may not have scored highly on all three elements, but good news, you only need two out of three.  You can have low notability, but be brilliant at delivery with a great message and you’ll do well.  A speaker I’ve had the pleasure of introducing many times is Martin Grunstein. Certainly not a household name, but he’s a top 100 speaker, presenting five to fifteen times a month.

Or you could have any combo of two out of three and I’ll give you more examples another time.  If you get all three, then you’ll be able to command five to six figures every time you speak.  Pretty good for an hour’s work.

So you may be asking yourself, is this really something I can or want to do?  You may be thinking “thanks Tobe, but I need more info to really work out if it’s my ‘thing’!”

Well here’s where I want to help...

Option 1: Let me know what else you’d like to know and I’ll write another article about it.  It can be anything to do with the speaking industry.  It could be skill-based, hints in dealing with agents and clients, ideas to get started, structuring your presentation, choosing the right presentation tools…anything.  I’ll see what I can do and if I don’t feel qualified, I’ll find someone in my speaker/agent/conference organiser network who can.

Option 2: Book a seat at some ‘round table’ discussions I’m happy to do.  I’ll give you as much as I can about the truth behind the industry and what it takes to be successful in 90 minutes.  I’ll even buy you a coffee/tea.  Your investment is your time and parking or public transport fees.  Basically, I’m sick of the bullsh*t that’s out there and I’m happy to give you the insight.

Note: I will not sell you anything during this time. There is no pitch. No offer.  What’s in it for me? I get to help people who are genuinely interested to know more about this industry to learn what’s fact and what’s hype.  Obviously, there are business implications for me too. Some of you may wish to work with me formally later, and I’ll be happy to talk with you about that at another time, but not during the round-table, but that is not the intent of these round tables.  I just want you to know enough so that you can make the right decisions; whether this is something for you, and if it is, the most appropriate way of going about it.


I’m meeting with only six people at a time (that’s a café limitation and for those of you who are coffee snobs, you’ll love this place in South Melbourne), and I’ll only be able to do these round tables until the speaking season ramps up and my availability becomes limited.

So if you’d like to suggest a topic for me to write about, or you’d like to come to a round table please email my team at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call 03 9696 8889.  For those of you not in Melbourne, I’ll schedule the round for other cities if there’s enough interest.  I’m always travelling with speaking engagements so I’m likely to be in most capital cities (and many regional areas) during the year, so I should be able to factor in a round-table.  I just can’t guarantee the coffee!

Speak well, have fun, and say hi to your audience for me. ☺


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Toby Travanner - Conference MC, Training Facilitator, Event MC, Business Coach, Corporate MC, Keynote Speaker