Creating Your Own Speaking Gigs

Creating Your Own Speaking Gigs

By Ken Lizotte

In addition to putting yourself up for speaking slots at professional associations and companies, how about creating and sponsoring events of your own? Think of it: no more haggling with event planners, no more filing formal proposals, no more asking around for leads from informal connections and sources. Just set up your own event and “hire” yourself as the speaker.

Which is not to say that there won’t be a few issues to overcome when you strike out on your own, but they’ll be very different from the kinds of challenges we’ve been discussing so far in this book. But as with self-publishing your book instead of seeking out a traditional publisher, sponsoring your own event is an endeavor that you’re in complete control of, one where you’ll sink or swim without needing anyone’s permission or life jacket. Work hard enough at it and I promise you this: many great gigs will be the result.


In the years before I founded my present company, emerson consulting, my (now) wife Barbara and I decided to create a self-help career program that we named CareerScape. Its purpose was to guide and empower mid-life professionals through career transition issues. With our help they could take some carefully considered, if at times risky, steps to radically change their careers, modify their careers, or, if this option made the most sense to them at the time, stay in the career they were already in. Over the course of about 10 years we served 8,000 to 10,000 professionals with our program and its customized strategies and advice.

Our format was not the usual one-on-one career counseling approach, although we did offer some of that if a new client felt more comfortable that way. We offered a process in which career explorers would work together in a team setting to help each other, with our input, as they faced the challenge of moving themselves into entirely new work lives, or at the very least, new attitudes toward their work.

To pull this off we needed to rent a meeting space for our programs that would accommodate 10 or 12 participants, and sometimes many more. Some of our programs attracted audiences of 50 or more. We also had to develop program registration forms, program workbooks, promotional fliers, and all manner of other program and marketing materials. In terms of our core services, we needed to plan our programs carefully from beginning to end, customizing such planning according to whether program attendees were meeting for an intensive full weekend or for our standard one-evening-a-week, nine-week format. We also had to establish timelines for starting and ending each program and for breaks and lunch hours. Then there was publicity and networking to be done to spread the word to our target markets, a newsletter to send out to our clients, vendors to be obtained . . . really a lot that always had to be done.

Was it worth all that time and trouble? Yes, it was, because this was our core business. The path for us to making the most profit was to peddle our career-helping wares in the form of training sessions, something we had to do by ourselves since we were the ones who knew how our CareerScape program worked.

We delivered what were basically shorter sample sessions by partnering with adult education schools, job training organizations, colleges, business training workshops, nonprofits, and professional conferences. But 90 percent of our efforts were composed of our own programs, organized and controlled by us.

This is what I mean by creating your own: conceiving, organizing, promoting, and implementing speaking engagements and training programs that are dependent upon no one but yourself. Anyone can do this. But the first question to ask is whether you’re up to such an all-out commitment, or if you’d rather not be bothered. That’s a big decision.

The decision to create your own can start off very humbly, and this was true of our CareerScape programs. As you attempt to spread the good word about what you have to offer, you might find the public slow to react, slow to see the value you’re offering, and even slower to write you out a check!

But if you keep at it you might incrementally build your visibility and reputation. Your program graduates may return to your follow-up sessions again and again as well as tell their friends how great your programs are. In some cases they might even drag them along to a program of yours. If you can hang on long enough, this dynamic will one day fill up your space with audiences that are hanging on your every word.

My current business emphasizes direct and customized consultation services for our clients. Thus it was years before I decided to offer a one-day session called “Thoughtleading Launchpad,” and later another called “Publishing Your Ideas.” Because this was a new fit for me, would-be participants didn’t exactly break down my door, although I did manage to enroll the half dozen or so that I had hoped for from the beginning.

In one session though, enrollments were nonexistent, but instead of cancelling the program altogether I offered six $795 tickets to clients and colleagues whom I knew would appreciate attending and who might help spread the word to friends and colleagues who would be willing to pay the advertised fee. This sometimes is the route you have to take to build a business in which your speaking engagements are conducted totally under your own control.

Bottom line here? Yes, it can be done.

Sponsoring Yourself at an Important Venue

A variation that also fits the definition of creating your own is to shell out a few bucks for a sponsorship at an important event, i.e., one that’s aimed at your target audiences. This might be a professional association or corporate meeting, or even a nonprofit fund­raising or charitable event. The idea would be that they will be doing all the organizing and heavy lifting, which frees you up to simply write them a check and show up at the appointed time to do your thing.

You might find that the price you pay for a sponsorship approximates what you might spend had you done it all on your own. Thus you might consider it worth the price if you view it as delegating all the work that you would’ve had to spend time on yourself. Another advantage is that this organization you’re sponsoring already has a following of some sort, and a mailing list, an email list, a membership list, hundreds or thousands of former attendees, etc., all of whom might be willing to come this time just to see you. Followings of this sort are invaluable because they can take years to amass. So riding the coattails of such organizations can prove very wise indeed. Why instead should you try to re-invent the wheel?

A marketing VP for a major firm told me recently that her company spent a hefty amount every year to sponsor an annual conference of a major executive association. This sponsorship fee allowed her firm’s CEO thoughtleader to deliver a keynote to the attending corporate decision-makers. “And the reason we do it,” she told me, “is simple: the ROI is tremendous!”

Keep in mind that not all sponsorships result in a tit-for-tat arrangement, where you pay a certain amount and get to deliver a presentation in an enviable speaking slot. In fact, the sponsored organization may not let you deliver any presentations at all!

Many organizations, like publications, want to be careful to maintain a certain level of integrity so that they’re not perceived as selling off their resources. If they did so, you and I might decide that this professional group can’t be trusted to have our best interests at heart, that such a group was merely selling its resources and spotlight to the highest bidder. For this reason, a sponsorship may or may not earn you a speaking slot, so ask the right questions and know what answers you want to hear before you fork over a sponsorship fee.

On the other hand, if your message and information are properly vetted by the organization you’re thinking of sponsoring, i.e., if you truly offer the event’s attendees something of value, your willingness to help out with a sponsorship fee may get you an exception to the general rule. When I was president of the New England chapter of IMC USA, for example, we put on a one-day conference each year at which we included a trade show, where sponsors could buy a booth or table space to display their marketing materials and chat with attendees during the breaks. Though we didn’t automatically offer a speaking slot with a trade show fee, we weren’t opposed to approaching a trade show sponsor and offering them such a slot if we determined that their product or service might translate into a “top ten tips presentation” of useful knowledge for our management consultant attendees. Examples of who we deemed would offer genuinely useful information included a newsletter designer, a website developer, a seller of project timeline software, a marketer of an electronic presentation tool, and a representative of a personal finance service.

Speaker Notes

One thing sponsors should get, even if it’s not always offered, is the chance to speak for a minute or two to the main group about their services or products. If that opportunity isn’t offered, it’s perfectly appropriate for you to request it. Make sure that the event planners understand that their sponsors have some value to offer the event’s attendees and that they should let them make their case. That way the attendees can decide whether their case has been made or not.

And if you’re given the opportunity to make a brief presentation, don’t wing it! Instead, carefully craft your impact message (refer to Chapter Two) and turn your momentary sponsor spotlight into a mini-keynote!

KEN LIZOTTE is Founder and Chief Imaginative Officer of Emerson Consulting Group. A Certified Management Consultant, he speaks regularly to organizations on thoughtleading, publishing, creativity, and business success. He is the author of The Speaker’s Edge, The Expert’s Edge, and four other books.

Excerpted, with permission from The Speaker’s Edge: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Locating and Landing Lots of Speaking Gigs.

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