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I myself am a keynote speaker in customer service, customer experience and hospitality, so I’ve experienced many of the triumphs and trials of the keynote speaking business. Keynote speaking is a financially rewarding business, but it’s not for everyone. In my estimation, those who succeed all share the following six qualities.
1. You have to want it!
Keynote speaking has an allure that’s easy to understand: it’s a profession where you get to stand on a stage for an hour and bring home thousands of dollars. But that time on stage is the final manifestation of hours of preparation, negotiation (with inevitable disappointments and misunderstandings), travel and paperwork. So, while this is a profession with low (if any) barriers to entry, it’s not going to work out for you or your audiences if you aren’t committed.
2. You need to be comfortable onstage
Notice that I am not saying you need to be an extrovert, or that you need to have performed on Broadway, or anything like that. In fact, extreme extroversion and “staginess” can negatively influence how an audience perceives you.
So what do I mean by comfortable onstage? Some of us actually relax when speaking on a riser to a hundred or a thousand people sitting right in front of us. (These can be the same people who aren’t particularly comfortable making small talk at a cocktail party or one-on-one setting. Comfort requires different skills and mindset. It’s wonderful if you have both, but it isn’t a prerequisite for speaking success.)
By the way, the secret to making yourself more comfortable onstage, beyond having the right genetic makeup, is simple: Prepare. Know your material. Rehearse.
Related: 8 Master Tips on How to Get Paid for Public Speaking
3. You need to enjoy traveling (or at least tolerate it)
Don’t worry: you don’t have to be on the road for an inordinate amount of time in this profession unless you really hit it big. But you need to be comfortable with (ideally excited about) intermittent travel and have support at home when you’re gone: someone to water the plants, feed the dogs and get the kids to school. Whatever you’re leaving behind, even for short intervals, cannot be neglected.
(An easy-to-overlook tip about this in a family context: do not expect to be treated as a conquering hero when you come back. Hopefully, the routines at home have been chugging along smoothly without you, so when you return and interject yourself again, do it gently.)
4. You need to have something to say
“Something to say” means a particular point of view or particular knowledge on a subject of interest to audiences. This is why a keynote is so attractive as a side gig: Your actual day job can keep you fresh and well-informed on your topic or at least keep you in the mainstream of what is happening in your profession. (I’m generalizing here; your viewpoint may have nothing to do with your day gig, but it often does.) In fact, one well-respected speaker’s bureau owner told me, “It’s not my first preference to sign up full-time keynote speakers because if that’s all they do professionally, they can start to sound inauthentic and run out of fresh things to say.”
(While your “something to say” benefits from an encyclopedic knowledge of your subject, don’t think that sharing all your subject is minutiae will endear you to audiences, at least in a non-academic setting! You need to distill your knowledge into bite-sized bits, with only one thought per slide and paragraph, rather than putting your audience to sleep with endless bullet points and asides.)
By the way, you don’t need to be famous already to succeed as a keynote speaker. Most keynote speakers aren’t. Of course, it helps incalculably if you are, but it isn’t a prerequisite. It certainly helps, however, to have a respected book or other platform already in the marketplace.
Related: 5 Steps to Start Making Money as a Public Speaker
5. You need to be ready to work hard
You need to be up for doing the work of chasing down, signing and sending out invoices for engagements yourself. This means responding to every lead, answering every phone call by the third ring, and following up.
Don’t fantasize that a speakers’ bureau will handle all of this for you, at least not for most of your gigs. I love working with speaker’s bureaus; they are true professionals and generally a delight to interact with and have on your side. However, unless you’re a celebrity like Magic Johnson or a name-brand author like Malcolm Gladwell or Daniel Pink, you won’t get enough work from signing an exclusive with a speakers’ bureau to keep you working.
Related: How to Tackle Procrastination and Win Back Time
6. You must be committed to refining your presentation and keeping it up to date
The elements that make a successful speech are a bit beyond the scope of this article. However, regardless of how much work you’ve put in initially to build a speech, it’s best not to leave it static. There are speakers who give the same speech over and over, and this seems to (somewhat) work for them, but a better approach is to always have your ears open for feedback and for market or societal developments that require an update.