May 12

How to become a keynote speaker


So you want to become a keynote speaker. Before you start having dreams of speaking on the world’s biggest stages, changing the world with the likes of speeches like ‘I have a dream’, I have to stop you for a moment and let you know the reality of the dream you have. Not because I’m cruel. But because I want you to know how hard it takes, and how to make it a little easier.

It is attractive. After all, keynote speaking is being paid for opening your mouth. But before that happens, you need to know how difficult it is.

Who am I to talk?

Of course you would want to know who’s the one talking. After all, you don’t want to be listening to someone who’s had no experience of speaking for money.

To date, I’ve earned a grand total of $5622, for a grand total of 6 paid engagements.

I’ve paid SG$13000 to be coached by Michael Port. SG$2160 to be coached by Alan Stevens. I don’t want you to pay that kind of money. I thought this article would be much cheaper to read. (If you want to pay me money though, I wouldn’t mind.)

Those are not stratospheric figures. But they are real figures. This is the reality of what you will get when you begin your career as a speaker. People pay you nothing to speak. Or people give you a pittance to cover your bus-fare. Ask for anything more, and they will be surprised. After all, who are you?

No offence to you. But I’m asking from the point of view of a buyer.

Without fame, you’re going to find it difficult to be bought as a speaker.

Understand the speaking industry

There are three main types of speakers, as Michael Port shares in his book, The Referable Speaker.

  1. The A-Lister – these are your celebrities, such as presidents, superstars, actors, and people who have accomplished something big – like walking on the moon. They put bums on seats. Often meeting planners get these A-Listers because they are the headline act. They draw people to the conference being organised.
  2. Industry icons – these are the likes of Tim Cook, Jack Dorsey (founder of Twitter), who revolutionised the industries they were in
  3. Surprise and delight speaker – this can be you. These are the speakers who surprise you with their insight and are also funny to have around.

Now that you understand the speaking industry better, you need to understand the myths that people will throw at you in your journey to becoming a speaker.

The myths

Before we go onto how to get gigs, we need to address the myths.

You need to market more!

You hear it all the time. People tell you

  • start a podcast
  • write a book
  • get on LinkedIn
  • post more on social media!

Those aren’t going to get you the quality leads you can close. In fact, as Michael Port so clearly points out, the one thing people should be focusing on is the speech. Before you are famous, people buy:

  1. Your speech
  2. Your ideas
  3. You

What we often hear is people going it the other way. They try to market themselves, their ideas, then their speech. That’s the wrong way. Because if you’re not Barack Obama, why are you marketing yourself? Your speech is your product. And until you’ve got a good product, no one is going to buy you again, even after they know you.

Think of it this way. The reason why Apple has managed to lock people into their ecosystem is because they have a good product. Their iPhone brings people into the ecosystem. After people use the iPhone, they realise the reliability and functionality of the product, and start getting the other products too.

Same with you, as a speaker. Even if you market yourself and get your first paying gig, people are not booking you again if that speech wasn’t great. Your speech is your product.

If you sell peanuts, you get monkeys. In this case, if you sell a poor speech, you’re not going to get the next paying gig.

You need to do more cold outreach!

I’ve done lots of cold outreach, and the sum total of all that outreach is ZERO gigs. The gigs that I’ve gotten have all come from referrals.

Others may beg to differ. They may talk about how they have managed to get more opportunities from reaching out to more and more. But the problem is that those gigs from cold outreach do not compound. They do not result in more gigs. You end up having to go cold outreach again and again. If you like spamming peple’s inboxes, go ahead, by all means.

What meeting planners really want (Graphic Credit: The Referable Speaker)

But you may not be working smart.

What you want, as Michael Port advises, is stageside leads. These are leads that come after people have heard you deliver your speech. They are people who think you can add value to their meetings.

So what do you do?

Build THE speech

You’re selling your keynote, and nothing else.

To do that, you need to build a better keynote. A heroic one that changes the way people think. Work on it like how you would work on a book. How long did you take to work on your university thesis paper?

Translate that number to an estimate of the amount of time to spend on your keynote. It should be that much effort.

Don’t you think it’s strange that we spend so much time writing a book, but not as much time building a keynote over and over again?

Build a visionary speech

It’s vital that you build a keynote that is visionary in nature.

You need to move your keynote from how-to, to how-to think (Credit: The Referable Speaker)
You need to move your keynote from how-to, to how-to think (Credit: The Referable Speaker)

The money isn’t in the workshops. It’s in the headline keynotes. If you do a workshop, you’re a commodity. You’re going to be eaten up by the likes of YouTube, who will reproduce what you’ve done, at a far cheaper rate. How-to workshops aren’t valuable because the likes of digital media have today made how-to anything, possible to access anywhere, everywhere, for free.

It’s a race to the bottom.

But if you do a how-to-think keynote, you go into a different field. It’s Visionary Town. And there, it’s less crowded. Because in how-to, Expertville, you’re competing with the millions of search results on Google, the millions more on YouTube, but in Visionary Town, it’s spacious.

Luxurious. It’s occupied by C-Level executives who need to know where to bring their organisation. That’s not found in a YouTube video or an article on Wikihow. That can only be found in keynotes, conferences, and great speeches.

How are you aiming your speech? If you’re stuck at aiming it at practitioners, through workshops, that might lead to very little money (Graphic Credit: The Referable Speaker)

Take a step back to think.

Why do people pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to attend a conference when practically anything can be found online now?

Because the in-person experience of having the cut and thrust of the world’s foremost ideas still matters to people. And that is where your value lies.

As Michael Port reminds us,

ask a question that Google can’t answer.

Where do you share your ideas?

So it comes to the question. – where do you present your keynote so that it makes the most impact? Present it where there are decision makers. How do you get to those meetings?


I’ve no other way than to share this method that has worked for others. Frame yourself as someone who wants to understand more about the issue, asking pertinent questions of decision-makers. People love talking about themselves.

That’s why when you ask for time to interview them about the topic you want to speak about as a keynote speaker, they will likely give you more time than if you told them,

Hey I’ve got a keynote to sell.
Do you want to buy it?

Then when they start asking you about what you do, that’s when you know you’ve got a chance.

It’s the speech, the speech, the speech.

If you look at how Barack Obama shot to fame, it wasn’t because he aggressively marketed himself on social media.

He shot to fame with his 2004 Democrat National Convention Speech. And my favourite line?

Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes.

Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.

Just build the speech.


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