by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter
Whether you’re an editor, proofreader, writer, or other communications professional, and whether you’re working in-house or freelance, you may have information worth sharing with colleagues. You’ve developed experience, knowledge, and a strong skill set as a writer, editor, proofreader, etc., and perhaps as a businessperson as well. It might be time to consider adding to that skill set by becoming a public speaker or presenter of conference speeches, workshops, or classes.
Why Speak Up?
The two most compelling reasons to develop a speaking business: to make money and to help colleagues.
You can get paid for sharing that information and experience, especially if you develop classes to present locally or webinars to offer to the world at large. You could increase your client base, if you’re a freelancer, by becoming visible to more potential clients and to colleagues who might refer you to other clients.
Speaking and teaching also enhances your reputation and makes you appear more important and respected, again to prospective clients or employers.
Every time you make a presentation, you give colleagues — both current and prospective ones — a share of your wisdom. Not only is that generous of you, but it helps make our profession better by passing on knowledge and experience. That’s one reason I make presentations about freelancing — not only do I think there are opportunities for all, I also think that providing suggestions about how to be more businesslike and effective is good for the publishing/editorial/freelancing profession as a whole.
Preparing to present your knowledge as a speaker does not involve a lot of out-of-pocket cost; it primarily involves time and effort. You already have the information in your head; it’s just a matter of transferring it to a script or PowerPoint presentation.
Speaking for Free?
As with other skills we offer, be prepared for being asked to make presentations for free. Think about this ahead of time so you know how to respond to such invitations when they arise. While many professional associations, for instance, do pay their speakers, many do not. Some pay honoraria ranging from skimpy to generous, some cover travel and/or accommodations, but some don’t offer anything in return for benefiting from your insights.
Again, as with being asked to write, edit, proofread, index, design, etc., for free, you have to weigh the possible advantages of accepting a speaking engagement that doesn’t pay, or doesn’t pay very much. Reasons to say yes include:
- Genuinely useful visibility. The audience might be packed with people who are likely to hire or refer you once they meet and hear you.
- Other speaking opportunities. You might be able to arrange another presentation as part of the same trip for which you will be paid. I’ve done this several times, offering a topic different from the presentation for which I officially made the trip on the day before or after that one. I’ve even done that when I’ve been paid, or at least had my expenses covered — I love generating more income from the same trip.
- Sales opportunities. If you have published a book or have other resources that you would like to sell, you can usually piggyback selling those items on the speaking engagement.
- Organizational support. You may be willing to donate your time and insights because you believe in the host organization. If the host is a nonprofit organization, you can’t use the costs of travel and accommodations for such a speech as a tax-deductible charitable deduction, but your travel and expenses should be tax-deductible as a business expense (caveat: I’m neither an accountant nor a tax expert; you need to check with your tax expert on this).
- Personal. If the destination is one you want to visit or where friends or family live whom you’d like to see, it may be worth making the trip. If you have a business reason for the trip, you should be able to deduct at least part of the travel and accommodation expenses (see caveat above).
- Pleasure. For many of us, public speaking is just plain fun. I enjoy the change of pace from writing and editing to speaking, and I love meeting colleagues in person — both students and peers. Of course, as I’ve said before, I’m the poster child for extroverts, but even more introverted colleagues have found that doing presentations can become enjoyable.
How to Get Gigs
Once you decide to try speaking, you have to find opportunities to present your ideas. You can’t wait for speaking engagements to come to you; you may have to start by going to them. That means looking for events or host organizations where you can pitch your topics and expertise, and letting them know you’re available.
Start with associations you already belong to, where you are likely to be known and respected for your skills. Look at the programs currently and recently offered to see what kinds of classes or presentations they host, and submit your ideas, along with information about why you would be the ideal person to present those ideas. Tailor your proposals to an organization’s mission and whatever gaps you notice in its current offerings. Think about what you’d like to learn or hear.
Some organizations have formal proposal processes for prospective speakers to follow; others are more relaxed and open to informal messages or calls with your ideas and credentials.
Once you’ve gotten your first few speaking engagements and they go well, you’re likely to start receiving requests to speak. From that point, it’s all onward and upward.
Keep in mind that you don’t always have to speak in person. Teleconferences and webinars make it easy to make presentations to groups of any size without ever leaving your home or office. You also don’t necessarily need a host to sponsor your presentations. You can learn to use the software to host online presentations yourself, or book space and make presentations under your own flag rather than that of an organization. Software to check out includes Skype, GoToWebinar, Adobe Connect, and FreeConferenceCall, among others.
Once you have a speaking engagement in place, be sure to take a role in promoting the event. Don’t rely on the host organization to get the word out for you. The host organization may only announce the program through its own network; you may have a far wider net to spread. Post about it through your Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter accounts; any professional organizations you belong to; your local press and that of the event location; friends, colleagues, and family in the city where the event will be held, if it’s an in-person program, etc. Promotion can make a huge difference in attendance, especially for webinars.
Making the Presentation
Public speaking is supposed to be one of the most nerve-racking activities we can experience. It might be easier to start locally, perhaps with offering a class at a local writer’s center or adult-education program. Standing up (or sitting down) in front of a small group is less terrifying than facing an auditorium full of people.
No matter how skilled you are as a writer, editor, proofreader, or other publishing professional, you probably need some training in public speaking. Consider joining a local Toastmasters club to get a sense of how to structure a presentation and practice at actually making speeches.
Learn what to do — and not to do — from other presenters. Pay attention to presentations you attend — watch and listen for what makes the speaker effective (or ineffective), especially body language such as gestures and facial expressions. Look at the graphics or PowerPoint displays critically for whether they enhance or detract from the presentation.
Once you’ve done this a few times, you’ll feel comfortable enough not to worry beforehand or need as much rehearsal time, but don’t wing it for the first few speaking engagements. Practice a few times to develop your timing and get a good sense of how much material you need for a given time slot (the rule of thumb seems to be 145 to 160 words per minute for a presentation vs. 110 to 150 words per minute for casual conversation).
You can speak “to” a mirror or your computer screen, or ask a family member or friend to be your guinea-pig audience. When I’ve done teleconference presentations where I can’t see the audience, I sit in front of my computer so I can see myself, which helps me feel as if I’m addressing people rather than a void. Some webinars make it possible for both speaker and audience to see each other, but sometimes all you see is yourself. I still find that helpful as a form of audience to direct my attention to.
One old saying about public speaking remains useful: “Tell ’em what you’re going to say, say it, tell ’em what you said.” In other words, have an introduction, then a narrative, then a conclusion. It isn’t necessary to open with a joke or include jokes in your presentation — you’re better off playing it straight than trying to make a joke that falls flat.
To help me focus and relax, I find a couple of people in the audience with whom to make eye contact to feel as if I’m addressing them one-on-one. (Be sure to move your eye contact around a bit rather than only interact with one person for the whole speech. Focusing on only one person could make you seem rigid and the person you lock onto quite uncomfortable.)
PowerPoint displays seem to be mandatory elements of presentations nowadays, but they might not be necessary. I like to have the audience focus on me and what I’m saying rather than a screen behind me (although I usually do provide handouts to make it easier for listeners to take notes). Then again, there is a role for PowerPoint slides: to repeat and reinforce your verbal points, as well as to illustrate complex ideas graphically. There are those who say that using PowerPoint to give listeners something to focus on other than the speaker is a good thing.
If you do use slides, do some research on what makes them attractive, readable, and useful rather than boring, overstuffed with lettering, hard to read, or otherwise more of a distraction than a benefit.
Have you tried speaking or teaching? How did you get your first few engagements? What is keeping you from trying to add to your business by being a speaker? What do you think about the value of PowerPoint slides as part of a presentation?
Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, which hosts an annual conference for colleagues, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.