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Ten Questions to Ask Before You Decide to Speak Professionally
By Vickie Sullivan

Professional speaking looks glamorous and it is - for the hour or so that you're in the spotlight. What you have to do before and after those magical times in front of the audience might be a rude awakening. Like show business, professional speaking is a volatile industry that chews up and spits out talented experts on a regular basis.

So you really want to be a professional speaker? Here are ten questions to ask yourself before entering into the fray.

1. Am I willing to sell more than speak?

In this crowded marketplace, you have to go out and GET the speaking engagements…and between celebrities and free experts, that's easier said than done. Be ready to spend more time getting the invitations than you spend getting the applause.

2. Can I/have I run a business?

If the answer is no, you could learn about critical concepts such as "cash flow" the hard way. The boring stuff - like financial statements, profit and loss reports, take on new importance. Many speaking businesses experience peaks and valleys, so don't count on constant revenue. Only the savvy survive.

3. Am I OK with investing at least $50,000 up front?

The bootstrapping days in the speaking profession are over. Successful speakers know that it takes money to make money, just like in any other business. In addition to a business's usual start-up expenses, be prepared to spend money up front for the tools you'll need for marketing: positioning and strategy, brochures, demonstration video, websites, etc. Everything adds up - in a hurry.

4. Can I work well alone?

Speaking can be an isolating career. Very few speakers have large offices and even fewer have water coolers. Creating a network of peers is one of the best reasons to join the National Speakers Association (NSA) ( so you won't feel "all alone out there."

5. How will heavy travel affect my personal life?

When your speaking business takes off, it's easy to let travel take over your schedule and, therefore, your personal life. Unless your spouse wants to be a single parent, make sure your speaking schedule doesn't interfere with your marriage, your parenting responsibilities, and your social life.

6. What other kinds of skills do I need to have?

The days of running a "pure" speaking business are also gone. You will need multiple sources of income such as coaching, consulting, book sales, etc., to make a profit. Speaking fees alone won't cut it, nor will speakers who can't write, coach, or consult.

7. How much am I willing to do pro bono?

Many speakers do lots of things to promote their speaking business, including free speeches, free articles, free…anything. Part of your marketing mix involves doing pro bono work to get your program visible and talked about. Unless you are a well-known celebrity, be prepared to give before you get.

8. Can my network get me speaking opportunities?

Selecting speakers is a risky decision so many buyers play it safe by sticking with pros they already know. If your colleagues have seen you speak and like what you do, ask if they will refer you to buyers when appropriate. These referrals might lead to breaks that can build your business fast.

9. Am I willing to invest in professional development?

Remember that old saying "Lawyers who represent themselves have fools for clients?" The same concept applies to speakers who consult and coach themselves. The best speakers know they must continually work on their style, their stories and their business strategy. And they don't even try to do it alone. Be ready to pay for expert help - acting classes, performance coaching, business strategizing - on an ongoing basis. Remember, you get what you pay for.

10. The most important question of all: Am I really that good?

Buyers who hire professional speakers have very high expectations. There's no such thing as having an "off day." They expect professional speakers to have an effortless presence, plus funny stories and provocative messages that don't come from best-selling books. If you don't cut it, the market will let you know in a hurry. (But not before you've spent all that money on videos, websites, etc.)

Bottom line: The professional speaking business is volatile, risky and oh so much fun. So fasten your seat belt and get ready for a ride.

Vickie Sullivan of Sullivan Speaker Services launched her first corporate speakers bureau in 1984 for a healthcare trade association. Since that time, she has worked with speakers bureaus, industry experts and change agents to increase their revenue and extend their brand using public speaking. Check out more information on corporate speakers bureaus at or contact Vickie at

Editor's note: I met Vickie and heard her speak at the Ohio Chapter of the National Speakers Association more than eight years ago. This woman knows what she is talking about. I have been receiving her newsletter (now on-line) ever since and she probably doesn't even realize how much she has taught me. If you are serious about speaking, be sure to visit her website and also sign up for her quarterly newsletter. You will be glad you did!

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