How do I get my first break?

Many new speakers and potential professional speakers I talk with ask me the same question… “How do I get my first paying gig?”

It’s the age-old problem.  Prospective clients want to see you in action, and how do you prove that you’ve done it before…if you haven’t done it before? Clients may be impressed by your topic, your history, your field, but they’ll always ask, “But what are you like in action?” And it’s an excellent question. 

In my time as a conference MC, I’ve seen a lot of speakers, those who are professional speakers, as well as those who have been invited as a subject-matter expert or an executive presenting a report at a company or association conference.  Some are excellent, some are diabolically poor and there are a whole lot in between.  


Famous, doesn’t necessarily mean suitable

I recently introduced a TV celebrity with a bucket-load of credibility and skills as a TV presenter and journalist. This person is as gracious and personable as can be and one of the greats in media, but as a conference speaker, they were in that middle category…not great, not bad, just ‘meh’.

The conference organiser made the decision on who they were and what they had done (their notability) rather than on what (message) and how (delivery) they’d present. Had they seen the speaker before or watched a video of them in action, it may have been a different outcome. I can’t stress the importance of having some kind of tangible evidence like a video or even an audio recording to helping you get paid speaking work.

I think I can predict your head-scratching right now as you’re reading this. You may be thinking… “Great idea Tobe but…I need a video to get a gig, but I need a gig to be able to record the video!”

Here’s what to do

Yep, you’re right.  You need a gig.  Any gig. Present to your long-suffering family if you have to.  
AND RECORD IT.  At least we get to see your style and content.

This is probably a better process:

  • Look for local organisations that might find your topic interesting
    • Rotary Clubs, Chambers of Commerce, Specific Interest Groups, Local Councils, Schools, Sporting Clubs, Parents Groups…it just depends on your subject
    • Google ‘conferences’ in your locality and see if any might be a good fit for your topic
  • Contact them and offer your services for free or if you manage the conversation well, for a ‘reduced fee’. It just depends on the organisation.  Conferences are likely to have budget for speakers.  But remember, your goal at this stage is to speak in front of an audience, not get paid…yet. Many organisations will jump at the chance to have a guest speaker at one of their meetings, as long as you’re a good fit.  Make sure you have a brief overview of your topic and you background to send to them.
  • Let them know that you’d like to record it for your own promotional purposes.  Most organisations will be absolutely fine with it.  Those that aren’t may have some stipulations like ensuring that no audience members’ faces are recorded.  That’s easy to manage as you’ll be recording from the back of the room.

What are you creating?

Once you get the speaking engagement, you want good footage.  I can’t help you with your content or delivery in this article (watch out for future ones though), but I can help you get reasonable raw material to work with for your video.

You should probably have at least two versions of video:

  • A show-reel
  • An extract

A show-reel is a bunch of footage from different speaking engagements, edited together to give a moving collage of your topic, your style and your content.  You can have a look at my MC show-reel here.

I’m due to an update pretty soon actually.  You’ll get about 3-4 years before needing a refresh.

A show-reel is useful as it gives your clients a quick overview of you, your highlights, your breadth and depth of delivery style, your key messages.  But many clients will comment, “anyone can nail it in 10 second grabs, what are you like over a longer period?”  That’s where you need an ‘extract’ video.

An extract video is usually 10-15 minutes long and will show a continuous ‘chunk’ from your presentation.  It can still have camera angle edits but it needs to be continuous.  It should show your opening and then a decent amount of your topic.

Getting the best outcome…

You now have to work out how to record yourself in glorious action!

b2ap3_thumbnail_Cat-Bored.jpgThe easy but costly way: book a film crew and get them to shoot and edit it for you.  They’ll possibly use two cameras. One will be capturing a wide shot of the stage and will also frame up so that the backs of heads of the audience are in shot as well. 

Having a visible audience increases your credibility as it shows you’re not just in your lounge room presenting to your cat (but remember, even that is better than nothing as long as your performance is good).  The other camera will follow you on stage as a close up or as an MCU (that’s film jargon for Medium Close Up). 

They’ll record the audio from a microphone you’ll be wearing - either from a specific one they place on you or they’ll take a sound feed from the audio desk.  Either way, you’ll sound awesome, or at least you’ll sound like you, not like you talking in a cave…but more about that later.

They can then edit the right shots for you and put together something special.  All this will come at a price though, expect to pay between $500 and $2,500 depending on the number of cameras, the duration, the amount of editing and how desperate for work (or how inexperienced) the videographers are.

If you’re speaking at a larger conference, there may already be a video crew there.  Ask the producer nicely and they’re often happy to give you a copy of your footage, as long as the conference organiser agrees.  Always have a very large thumb drive with you just in case.  And if they do give it to you, back up your gratitude by sending them a decent bottle of wine (or whatever).  People in the business remember.

…without it costing you a fortune: if you don’t have the budget, there are ways to get a good outcome.

The main thing about shooting good video footage is about the audio! I’ve seen too many videos shot on phones and hand-held cams that look ok, but you can’t hear the speaker well. The mics on phones and video cameras are really only ok for close-range work. The viewer focuses on that and associates the poor audio with your skills as a speaker! Not the outcome you’re looking for.

So here’s what you can do…

Invest in a lapel microphone specifically designed to plug into a smart phone’s headphone jack.  There are a number available.  I use a Rode SmartLav.  And no, it’s not a hi-tech Japanese toilet that washes and then gently blows warmed, perfumed air over your nether-regions while playing Mozart’s Serenade #13, Eine Kleine Nacht-Musik.  The ‘Lav’ refers to the term, Lavalier, which is what Lapel mics can be referred to overseas. You should be able to pick one up for somewhere between $50 and $60.

Plug it in, put it on (centre line of your chest, about the middle of your sternum), hit the record button on your audio recorder app that came with your phone or the one you downloaded that’s matched to the mic, pop the phone in your pocket, and you’ll have more-than-passable audio.  Even if you don’t record any vision, you now have a podcast!

Vision-wise you’ve got a couple of inexpensive options. You can use a low-end compact HD camera ($350 to $400) or just borrow another phone! The main thing is to pop it on a tripod.  You can buy phone holders for tripods.  I use the one that came with a cheap selfie-stick.  Set it up at the back of the room and frame it so that you know where your edges are.  What I mean is that you know at what point on the stage you’re in or out of shot.

Just make sure you have enough memory in whatever device you’re using to be able to shoot your entire presentation!

Then, once you’ve done your presentation, you can pop the video and audio files into a simple video editing program like Movie Maker for Windows or iMovie for Mac.  These are fine for what you’ll be doing.  We use Adobe Premiere Pro (as do many in the video industry), but you don’t need to go that far. 

All you’re really needing to do is the following:

  • Fade in from black
  • Pop in a title with your name and topic at the front
  • Balance and synch the audio with the video
  • Fade out to black.

b2ap3_thumbnail_clapperboard.jpgA quick tip on synching your video and audio tracks.  Somewhere in the footage, clap or make a clear noise in front of the camera.  You can do this before, during or after your presentation.  Then all you need to do is to match the very noticeable peak in the audio file with the moment your hands come together, and voila, you’ve synched your tracks together.  Just like a clapperboard in a movie shoot. 

That way, your video doesn’t look and sound like a badly dubbed ninja movie (come to think of it, I actually want one of my videos to look like a ninja movie, but with good audio synch).

It may take you a little bit of time on your first attempt in completing your video but you’ll have a good ‘extract’ video in no time.  If it’s beyond you, find a Gen Y, they’ll be all over it.  Then, like the shampoo commercials say, “lather, rinse and repeat”.  Every time you speak, shoot basic footage and before you know it, you’ll have enough for a show reel.

Happy presenting, happy filming and always, 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