5 must-haves for professional public speakers

A sonorous voice and good diction are lovely attributes, but if you can’t transport your audience—and occasionally let them surprise you, too—you might be missing key qualities.


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I frequently chat with people who wonder whether they should go for the rarified life of a paid public speaker.

The money is appealing, of course, but mostly what they wonder is, “Do I have what it takes?” By that they mean, “Does the world want to hear me hold forth on my area of passion and expertise?”

When I ask them what their area of passion and expertise is, they’ll say something like “sales,” or “leadership,” or “IT.” That’s only the beginning of the conversation, of course, because what’s interesting is the particular insight they have into one or another of those huge fields of human endeavor.

There are thousands of leadership speakers, but only one who combines years of mastery of the martial art of aikido with a background as a Marine and experience surviving cancer. For a very particular perspective on decision making, priority setting and clarity, I recommend Michael Veltri to you. Michael’s done the work to figure out his particular voice—I say that as his coach and friend. That’s what anyone who seeks to develop a speaking career must do.

Find your niche.

Related: Create a powerful PR presentation for any speech or meeting.

When you go deep enough, there is a story that only you can tell—one that audiences want to hear, because it’s authentic and includes your stumbles along the way.

You still have to do a whole list of things to reach that keynote stage, but here are my five signs that you have what it takes to be a professional public speaker:

1. You’re willing to work harder than anyone else. There’s a lot of competition in the public speaking marketplace, and the folks who do the work stand out.

2. You’re not trying to prove something; you’re trying to share something. The best speakers are genuine public servants, ready to help people find their way on their own paths. They’re secure in their own achievements, so they’re in a position to help others. Though it is lucrative and should be treated like the business that it is, public speaking ultimately should come from an altruistic intent.

3. You’re always hungry for more knowledge in your niche. You have to be genuinely passionate for information about your particular subject, because you must always be at the forefront of what’s going on in that field. It’s always changing, and unless you’re changing with it, it’s going to leave you behind.

4. You’re a performer. Public speaking is performance art, and you should combine the fun of performing with passion for the subject. Most people have one or the other; few possess both.

5. You’re open, and you listen. If you’re not occasionally surprised by a question from someone in the audience, you’ve shut down and should find another line of work. That means being open and listening hard to even the most naïve questions. You never know when someone will open a door for you, showing you a way forward that you never would have tried otherwise.

No doubt other qualities are important, such as a cast-iron stomach and ability to go long periods of time without using the bathroom, but what qualities do you see as essential to a successful public speaking career? Please share them in the comments section.

A version of this post first appeared on Public Words.

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