Keynote Mastery: The Personal Journey of a Professional Speaker

Do you want to be a motivational keynote speaker? Like you, perhaps, I knew that I wanted to be a professional speaker when I was just 10 or 12 years old, but I never jumped in because I thought I needed some incredible and indisputable victory to give me the credibility to be a ‘keynote speaker’. Why would anyone hire me?! But in 2007, I finally decided to let go of that fear and “just do it” anyway. I began speaking anywhere and everywhere I could, and since then, everything in my life has changed.

Lesson: the road to BEING is through DOING!

If you want to BE a motivational speaker, you need to start DOING motivational speaking. I spoke everywhere at the beginning! Rotary Clubs, Meetup Groups, Chambers of Commerce, Networking Groups … you name it. At the beginning, it was all local stuff but soon, I started to figure it out. And since 2007, I’ve spoken professionally at conferences across the United States and Canada as well as business events in Mexico, the Cayman Islands, Aruba, Colombia, Finland, Portugal, Sweden, Dubai, India, Bangkok, Moscow, Bahrain and the Philippines. In this post, I’ll tell you about my journey and give you some pointers to get started yourself.

First, here’s a video of a speech I gave in January 2014 where I shared my monthly credit card balances for the first seven (7) years of my speaking career. I shared it to give the audience (comprised of self-employed service professionals) an idea of my own struggle during the early years. I also explained how and why I started speaking internationally as well as the motivation behind my Strategic Business Insights video blog. The video is 28 minutes long but will give you a great introduction to the rest of the post below.

If you know of other people who would benefit from this video, please pass it along to them. Also, I have included my two primary demo videos below. The first was recorded in September 2011 at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT). I was speaking at an event sponsored by Bloomberg TV and Comcast Business Class. The second is my TEDx Talk on “Learned Intuition”. It was recorded in June 2013 at the TEDx Sacramento event. Video is the most important thing you’ll need as a professional speaker. The videos below are far from perfect, but they’re the best ones I’ve put together so far and they’re more than enough to get me booked as a keynote speaker.


Different “Circuits” in the Speaking Business

When considering a career as a professional speaker, you need to understand that there are three (3) different circuits in the speaking business: the Free Circuit, the Cheap Circuit and the Pro Circuit. The Free Circuit speaks for itself: free events like the ones mentioned above (like Rotary Clubs and Meetup Groups, etc.). The vast majority of “speakers” only do free events, and then they use those speaking opportunities to sell products or consulting services. I’ve always hated that type of business. I call it Platform Speaking and you’re constantly trying to sell stuff to people. Argh!

Definition of Platform Speakers

Platform Speakers follow a predictable pattern. Their pitch begins from the very first word. They immediately identify the problem and allude to the fact that an easy solution exists. They also reassure their audiences regularly that successful people invest in their own personal development. “If you want to be successful, you need to spend some money,” they claim. The second half of their presentation is “the offer” and consists of repeated examples of the true value of the problem’s solution. At the end, the price is finally revealed, usually much lower than the established value, but is immediately outdone by additional discounts if you “buy today.”

Platform Speaking

About 90% of speakers are Platform Speakers. Why? Because there’s no barrier to entry. Anyone can start speaking at free events and try to sell their wears. But because of that (no barrier to entry), the quality tends to be low. There’s a lot of riff-raff in the free circuit, but you can indeed make a living doing it, and a lot of people do. Of course, a few make it to the big leagues – people like Tony Robbins or T. Harv Eker – but it’s still Platform Speaking.

Making money as a Platform Speaker can be a struggle. You’re always trying to grow your email list and create new products or programs to sell. But having said that, the high end (Tony Robbins, etc.) offers an income potential much higher than Keynote Speaking. These days, a lot of Platform Speakers actually have much broader businesses, selling information products online among other things. People like Brendon Burchard and James Malinchak come to mind. And again, those established names make a fortune. Unfortunately, most Platform Speakers never get that far.

Definition of Keynote Speakers

Keynote Speaking is different. As a Keynote Speaker, you’re hired by an organization to speak at an event, and the only thing you’re selling is your message. In fact, if you tried to sell something else (like a 3-day seminar or an expensive coaching program), you would never be hired back! As a keynote speaker, you get a check to speak. That’s your payment and it would be completely inappropriate to try to make even more money by selling stuff to the audience. So the Cheap Circuit and the Pro Circuit are both Keynote Speaking circuits. You get paid, so no selling allowed.

Keynote Speaking

As a Keynote Speaker, you’re always being hired by new organizations. Yes, there are some that will bring you back a second or even a third time, but the referral process usually brings you a steady stream of new clients. In fact, if you do a good job, every speaking engagement should lead to 3 or 4 more … and there are literally hundreds of thousands of organizations who host events and hire professional speakers. That means that once you get established, and if you’re good, the marketing process should take care of itself.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and on any given week day, there are probably at least 100 speakers being paid to speak at various events around the city. There’s literally tons of business. It’s endless. Every single medium or large-sized business has an annual meeting, and so does every single association. And once you do a good job within a given industry sector, the referrals will lead to more opportunities for similar organizations.

Getting back to income potential, the top names in the Platform Speaking business make millions of dollars each year. I think Tony Robbins made over 15 million dollars one year. Keynote Speakers can’t touch that. The upper income limit for most Keynote Speakers is about $400,000 or $500,000 per year. I break this down in more detail near the bottom of this post.

Keynote Speakers generally fall into one of four categories: motivation, inspiration, overcoming adversity and leadership. Leadership and overcoming adversity speak for themselves, but the difference between motivation and inspiration is a bit more subtle. My definitions is that motivation is the act of convincing people to do things that they already know they should be doing. By contrast, inspiration is the act of convincing people to do things that they never thought of doing until they heard your speech.

Definition of Motivational Speakers

Motivational Speakers can be either Platform Speakers or Keynote Speakers. Tony Robbins, for example, is definitely a Motivational Speaker but he is also clearly a Platform Speaker. He’s selling stuff. He has CDs, DVDs and lots of expensive programs. T. Harv Eker is the same, but Motivational Speakers can also be Keynote Speakers. There are tons of speakers that offer motivational programs to companies and associations. Sales trainers and team-building experts come to mind, as do some leadership speakers.

Motivational Speaking

It’s important to understand that any Keynote Speaker, regardless of his or her category, needs to have a motivational angle to his or her speech. If it’s not motivational, you won’t get any referrals. Actually, there are two elements you need: motivation and humor. People learn when they laugh. And if you’re funny – like, comedian funny – your referral business will explode. Seriously. Get some good laugh lines and watch your business grow. There’s a direct correlation between humor and referrals!

The Cheap Circuit and the Pro Circuit

The Cheap Circuit refers to speaking fees between $1,000 and $3,000 (plus travel expenses). Most Cheap Circuit gigs are booked directly between the event organizer and the speaker. Why? Because Speakers Bureaus can’t make any money recommending such inexpensive speakers. Speakers Bureaus usually earn between 25% or 30% of the speaking fee, so a fee of $2,500 only yields a commission between $625 and $750. Keep in mind that the bureau salesperson has to split the commission with the house. So assuming a 50/50 split, the salesperson only makes between $312 and $375 for the engagement. Compare that to the commission on a $10,000 speaker; it’s no contest. So Cheap Circuit gigs are almost always booked directly.

Pro Circuit gigs refer to those of $5,000 or more. Most Pro Circuit engagements are booked through Speakers Bureaus or Speakers Agents. As detailed above, the higher fees make these events more attractive to “middlemen” like bureaus and agents. In fact, many Speakers Bureau salespeople only deal with speakers with fees of $10,000 or more. When I was at the $5,000 level, one of my bureau contacts called me and told me to raise my fees to $10,000. It seemed crazy at the time, but the change did indeed lead to more bureau business.

It’s important to note that middlemen like Speakers Bureaus and Speakers Agents are getting squeezed by the internet. It’s happening in every single business category. Middlemen are getting squeezed. And even in my own business, I notice a much larger percentage of gigs getting booked directly. The corporate buyers are doing their research on Google and calling prospective speakers directly. That’s why I started my video blog. I needed to have more content on the internet to increase the odds that the buyers find me.

If someone contacts you directly, it’s important to always ask them how they found you. If they got your name from a Speakers Bureau, it’s super important to funnel that business through the bureau. Give them their commission. They still control a big chunk of the Pro Circuit and you don’t want to ruin those relationships. It’s hard enough getting in with them in the first place! And besides, honoring their client relationships will increase the odds that they recommend you in the future.

By the way, these labels (Free Circuit, Cheap Circuit and Pro Circuit) are not established terms. I made them up. Nobody else uses these names. So if you talk with other speakers and ask them if they’re doing Cheap Circuit or Pro Circuit gigs, they probably won’t know what you’re talking about. But for me (and now, you), they make a lot of sense and help me categorize the different strata within the speaking business.

Getting Started as a Professional Speaker

I made every mistake you can possibly make. I started in the Free Circuit and tried to work my way up the ladder. Bad idea. Turns out, referrals from the Free Circuit are almost always for other events also in the Free Circuit! Meanwhile, referrals from the Cheap Circuit are generally in the Cheap Circuit themselves, and the same is true for referrals in the Pro Circuit. That means it’s almost impossible to work your way up. You need to learn the different requirements at each level and adjust your marketing accordingly. Anyway, here’s how it played out for me …

In 2008, I spoke at 72 events and only got paid for two, both in the Cheap Circuit. That means I did 70 gigs for free! I traveled for just one event that year. In 2009, I spoke at – get this – 127 events! Crazy. I only got paid for six and traveled for five. That means I did 121 events for free. It’s also important to point out that it would never be possible to speak at 127 events if you were traveling for most of them. It just takes too much time. But because I was speaking primarily at local free events, I could squeeze in more. I once spoke at three different events on the same day. Brutal.

Speaking Engagements

In 2010, I started to figure it out. I spoke at 64 events that year and got paid for 21 and traveled for 15. I got my first Pro Circuit gig in July of that year. Actually, by complete coincidence, I did three Pro Circuit gigs all during July of that year; the first in Las Vegas, the second in India (!!) and the third in Philadelphia. It was stressful!! I’m not kidding. I actually got crazy anxiety in preparation for those three events and it took a full 20 months (yes, almost two years!) for me to get comfortable with my evolving Pro Circuit career.

The event in Philadelphia was my first event with Bloomberg TV. They have been my #1 client ever since. That event went extremely well and I’ve done dozens of events with them for the past four years, all through a Speakers Bureau. What a blessing! That one client taught me sooo much about the speaking business! Here are some of my better-known past clients:

Professional Speaking Clients

In 2011, I spoke at 59 events and got paid for 31. I traveled for 30 including events across the country as well as events in Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Europe. It was a breakthrough year for me. I finally started making good money and felt like I had stabilized in my new career. Of course, every time you feel that way, there’s sure to be a shock just around the corner, and that’s exactly what happened to me.

2012 was difficult. My signature “social media” topic started to die. Well, it didn’t die altogether, but it moved from a “general session” to a “breakout session” topic at most conferences. So, let’s define those two. General sessions are the big keynote sessions for ALL the conference attendees (imagine a conference with 1,000+ attendees). There’s usually a breakfast keynote and a lunch keynote, and sometimes an afternoon keynote as well. They’re usually done right after (or during) a meal. By contrast, the breakout sessions are the educational concurrent sessions that take place during the middle of the day.

For many conferences, there might be three or four concurrent tracks and attendees can decide which sessions they want to attend. That means that breakout sessions might only have between 25% and 40% of the total number of attendees. As a result, conference organizers can’t pay as much for breakout speakers. Besides, there are always plenty of industry speakers who are willing to speak for free because they get business as a result of the conference exposure. So breakout sessions rarely pay more than $1,000 or $2,000 so you can’t really make any money doing them. The real money is in the general (or keynote) sessions. Conference organizers regularly have between $5,000 and $25,000 (or more) allocated for general session speakers.

Anyway, between 2007 and 2011, social media was a general session topic. It was new. It was hot. Everyone wanted that topic and I was ahead of the curve. I had a strong program and the referrals took me all around the world. But in 2012, social media started to become ubiquitous and fell from the general session slot to the breakout level as a result. My speaking opportunities were drying up. You can see in the chart above that the number of events I did dropped dramatically and my income fell by about 40% that year. I had to diversify! I needed a new topic.

By mid 2012, I decided to broaden my primary topic to “global business trends” of which social media was just one example. “Big Data” was a second, and technology in general was a third. Demographics (which I’ve been super fascinated by for years) was fourth. I re-branded all my marketing material and website and got to work spreading the word … and it worked. 2013 was the best year of my entire working life. I spoke in Canada, Dubai (second time), Moscow, Bangkok, Bahrain and the Philippines. In 2014, I spoke in Dubai (third time), New Zealand, Colombia, Mexico, Trinidad and Istanbul.

You’ll notice that I did fewer events again in 2014 but it was primarily because my average speaking fee had gone up a lot and I didn’t feel the need to pack my travel schedule. I focused on the high-paying opportunities and spent the extra time researching my topic, developing my content, building my keynote programs and recording videos to showcase my message and delivery. I really felt like I’d figured it out. I understand how to do the marketing and I understand how to deliver a good speech. Here’s a map with all the places where I’ve spoken professionally:


How to Write a Motivational Speech

Like any industry, the quality of the product is the ultimate determinant of success. As a motivational keynote speaker, the quality of your product refers to the quality of your speech. Like I mentioned above, your speech must have a motivational angle and some good laugh lines, but there’s a lot more to it than that. I write my speeches like a song with verses, a chorus and a “bridge” near the end. And what’s a bridge? Well in 1980s, it was the guitar solo. Your speech needs something similar; something to break the audience out of the established rhythm and jolt them with something surprising and dynamic. Here’s a video about this proprietary structure I developed for myself.


How much money can you make as a Motivational Speaker?

How much do Keynote Speakers get paid? Well, that depends. Malcolm Gladwell gets $85,000 per speech. Condoleezza Rice gets $150,000. Bill Clinton gets a lot more than that. But for people who do not have massive celebrity cache, it’s almost impossible to earn speaking fees higher than $25,000 per speech and more realistically, $10,000 or $15,000. For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume $10,000 per event (plus travel).

As I mentioned above, I spoke at 127 events in 2009 but that was only possible because I was speaking at local venues. Today with all the travel involved, I think it would be difficult to do more than 50 events each year. Yes, it’s possible but it’s a lot of work. I know someone who speaks at about 75 events each year but they’re almost all in America and he’s traveling constantly. Personally, I don’t like to scramble around quite that much.

Let’s assume 40 events at $10,000 each. That’s $400,000 per year. For an established speaker, that’s very realistic. If you did 50 events, that’s $500,000. The guy I just mentioned above makes about $650,000 per year. That’s a lot of money. Now obviously, it will take some time to build up to that level but it’s also an exponential curve. The step from $1,000 to $2,500 is the same as the step from $2,500 to $5,000, and it’s also the same as the step from $5,000 to $10,000. That last step is a big one!

Speaking Fees and Speakers Bureaus

Once you’re charging a $10,000 speaking fee, the speakers bureaus will promote you twice as much because they’ll earn more commissions along the way. If your speaking fee is only $5,000 and the bureau takes 30%, that’s only $1,500 in commissions and the salesperson has to split that with the house. That means the salesperson probably makes between $500 and $750 by booking you. It’s not enough to get their attention. But when you’re at $10,000, it doubles their commission potential and they’ll promote you more as a result. It gets even better when you’re charging $15,000.

The bottom line is that a career as a motivational speaker can be very lucrative. As I’ve mentioned above, I believe it’s the best career available. Honestly, I can’t even imagine a better career! You can make a great income and spend your life traveling to exotic destinations around the world and making a positive impact on people’s lives. Personally, I never liked 9 to 5 and hate rush hour traffic. So if you like to travel and are content with an unconventional job, becoming a professional speaker is the best option I’m aware of.

National Speakers Association (NSA) Million Dollar Round Table

The National Speakers Association (NSA) is the primary organization for professional speakers and they recognize speakers who earn more than one million dollars in a single year. There are indeed a few speakers who achieve that milestone but the vast majority of them do so by selling products and programs at their events. Very few do so with speaking fees alone. Again, the famous celebrity speakers can do so easily because they’re earning $50,000+ on each event. That means that 20 engagements will already get them to one million dollars in earnings (and possibly less than half that) but it would require 40 events with an average $25,000 speaking fee for regular speakers to attain the same goal.

The reason for including this is to provide both a lower limit and an upper limit on what’s possible for professional speakers. Once established, I think it’s quite easy to earn $150,000+ but quite difficult to earn more than $600,000. That’s a wide range but I hope it gives you an idea of what’s reasonable. Personally, I believe an income of $300,000 per year provides an outstanding lifestyle and an intelligent investment strategy should be used to provide income potential beyond that point.

Should You Join the National Speakers Association?

I have never joined the National Speakers Association (NSA) and no plans to do so. The reason is that they spend a lot of time on product development and back-of-the-room sales. In other words, they spend a lot of time on Platform Speaking and that’s not what I do. Since the vast majority of professional speakers are Platform Speakers, it makes good sense. They are catering to their audience. The problem is that I focus exclusively on Keynote Speaking so much of the content isn’t directly relevant to me.

The other problem is that most of the attendees at the local chapter meetings are not actually earning a living from their speaking. Many are just getting started and the rest are struggling. Intuitively, it makes sense that the successful speakers aren’t attending the local meetings because there’s a good chance they’re either out of town speaking or happy to be home after their most recent engagement. This is common in most industries. The most successful players don’t attend the educational and/or networking events. They’re already successful, so why attend?

This unfortunately creates a self-fulfilling cycle. The beginners come to the meetings because they have the most to gain and the rockstars stay away for precisely that reason. Now, just to be clear, and as I have described in detail above, I struggled like crazy for the first three or four years as well. Also, I am certainly no rockstar today! But all along, I felt like the National Speakers Association didn’t offer much value for me. On occasion, I attend the northern California chapter meetings and pay the slightly-higher registration fee because I’m not a member.

Having said all that, I do believe the annual conference is worth attending. So far, I haven’t but that’s not because I don’t see value there. It’s just because I had conflicts in each of the last two years. Anyway, the annual conference attracts a ton of real, live, in-the-flesh, successful Keynote Speakers and I would be honored to mingle among them for three days once each year. They usually have excellent speakers and I’m sure I would get tons of value. With any luck, I’ll be able to attend the next one.

Training Programs for Professional Speakers

The National Speakers Association does have a variety of training programs for aspiring speakers. The northern California chapter has it’s Speakers Academy and many other chapters have their own versions. There are also a bunch of programs you can sign up for. James Malinchak has his Big Money Speaker program and Brendon Burchard has his Experts Academy program.

I have never taken any of these programs. Yet again, they generally focus on Platform Speaking. I’m sure they’re excellent programs but they all require that I allocate an entire weekend (or even many weekends) to attend. If you’re comfortable with that, I’m sure you would learn a ton. I’m sure I would learn a lot too but have never taken the plunge. If you start building your career with a little guidance, step-by-step, I think you can do it all by yourself!
With that in mind, I created the Keynote Mastery Program which is the most comprehensive program ever developed exclusively for keynote speakers. It will help you get paid to speak by organizations in your local area and also around the world. It has 15 in-depth modules along with downloadable MP3 files and PDF worksheets. Click the button below to learn more.


Conference Speaker