How to Become a Speaker

This is the second half of my last post that got way too long. I love speaking. I especially love the reports two years later, when a congregation has studied Tribal Church, and then they started doing new ministries as a result. But when I talk to friends, I don’t think I have the hunger for public speaking that many people do. It’s hard work. It’s not like a rockstar glam life. There are times when you’re stranded without transportation or left without meals. Oftentimes people see it as part of my church ministry, and they don’t know why I should be paid. In short, it’s a calling that I love, but it’s hard work. I prepare, write, and think a lot before the presentation. Just know that, and I’ll let you know how I got started.

Prepare your CV. After you’ve produced some work, you will want to get a CV. The CV should not be your last pastor resume, but something up-to-date that highlights your recent accomplishments and writings.

Get a photo taken. I’m really bad about this, but it must be done. Don’t edit your last family vacation photo, or have your 8-year-old take a mug shot against a white wall. Your picture should be high resolution and professional, or as close to professional as you can get. A professional photo says… well… that you’re a professional. I don’t know why Evangelicals are so much better at glossy photos than Mainliners are, but there is a huge cultural difference there. Break the stodgy photo mold. (Yeah.. I’m not as cool as these people either, but you get the point. You actually want to spend some time with these speakers after seeing those pictures.) Give the organizers something that they are going to be proud to put on a conference brochure. If you are a person of color, a woman, pierced, tattoed, or young—then definitely send a good photo. We all know who populates these conferences speaker slots, and any decent organizer is going to be looking for someone who can bring a bit of diversity to the mix.

Write a description of what you’re going to present. You will want a long description (I still write a script, but I don’t read it), and a short 3-5 sentence description. The long one is for you and the 3-5 sentence one is for the organizer. In your presentation, you want to include

  • A chance for people to get to know one another. I’m not talking about a youth group mixer. I mean, ask a question that will help create community in the space and get people thinking about the material.
  • Present substantive information. You can do this with Power Point, but I don’t usually use PP, unless I know that the conference organizers are really into it (sometimes it’s disappointing if they’ve spent a lot of time setting up PP and I don’t use it). I don’t like it as much, because I’m less focused on people and more on slides when I use it.
  • Something that allows people to imagine the information in their own context and gives them something substantive to do.

Set up presentations. Again, as I said about publishing, start at the bottom. Ask your friends if you can lead a church retreat or Wednesday night Bible study for them (actually, it’s not really the “bottom.” I still love doing church retreats as much as big conferences. You get more accomplished having so many lay people on board.) Ask if you can lead something at your clergy group. Do church basement gigs. Ask your local governing body if you can lead a workshop for area churches. You may not get paid much for these, but it will build your resume and give you an opportunity to get comfortable with your material in a small setting.

Pitch to conference organizers. My calendar usually goes out about one to two years in advance. So, if there’s an annual conference, you can start contacting the organizers right after the last event. Include a query email, introduce yourself, say a word about your accomplishments, tell them what you would like to speak about and why, indicate that you know someone involved in the organization, say why you would like to speak at the conference (this is where you can tell them that you like the work that the organization is doing), and let them know what else is on your schedule. It helps if you have a catchy workshop title and enticing description. Usually, this should be a page. Attach a photo, your CV, a short bio and a short conference description (photo, bio and description can be on one page, so they only have to open two attachments).

Figure out your honorarium. As an author, I was looking at conferences as a way to do some good work, sell my book, and get my name out there, so I have been laissez-faire about honorariums. But… after a couple of years, I realized that I needed to start getting more serious. I was paying travel expenses and not getting reimbursed until months later. I would show up at a conference and realize that an older guy was getting paid two to three times more that I was, even though I was more accomplished. Or, that a much less qualified younger guy was getting paid two to three times more than I was…. Anyways, just like many areas in life, I had to come to the realization that I’m a thirty-something, five-foot-tall nice Southern woman, who is very accessible and may not look like she deserves as much as that other guy. Injustice is everywhere, and I don’t need to be perpetuating it just because I’m afraid to be seen as a Diva who’s a bit too big for my britches…

I needed to have a set payment and a contract. I don’t need to be presenting workshops at conferences where the keynote is much less qualified than I am. I have, in the past, gone down on my honorarium, but I sometimes resent the indelicate way it is presented and have gotten a lot better at saying “no” when it is handled poorly. (Basically, if you’re an organizer, don’t try to humiliate the speaker into thinking she is charging too much. It’s not a flea market, and that’s just tacky.) My time away from my family is becoming far too precious for me, so I’ve had to become a thirty-something, five-foot-tall Southern woman with a backbone.

Set a schedule. If business picks up, then you might want to decide how much travel you and your family can handle. Since I have a full-time pastorate that doesn’t recognize my writing or travel time as part of the job, I have to limit myself to two (and sometimes three) speaking engagements a month. I also try to take a couple of months where I have no engagements.

But I have not been on the organizing side of things.  Organizers and other speakers, what advice would you add?


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