Three ways to sink your public-speaking career

No matter how engaging your presentations are, make these mistakes and you’ll ensure your career never takes off.

I’m a speaker coach. People ask me every day for help becoming a speaker who breaks the mold, gets paid, receives standing ovations and changes the world.

I love it. It’s my job and privilege to help these passionate visionaries become their best.

In 30 years I’ve seen enough speakers succeed and fail to understand those successes and failures.

I mostly write about the secrets to success, but I want to explain the failure I see over and over again.

Here are the three secrets to public speaking failure. I posed them as questions, because that’s the way they come to me:

1. “Can you get me represented by a speaker bureau?”

My heart always sinks when I hear this, because I know the speaker is looking for a shortcut to success. The speaker believes being listed on a speaker bureau’s website means the phone will start ringing and gigs will come in faster than you can say “$20K plus travel.”

Being listed on a bureau page is like hanging your shingle as a lawyer in New York City. You have to do it—it’s a “now-I’m-a-real-speaker” step you must take—but you become one of a huge number of people competing for scarce invitations.

A bureau might represent hundreds or thousands of speakers. (I recently spoke to one that had 18,000 speakers on its site.) Say the bureau gets a request from a company to provide a conference keynoter. The bureau selects 12 of its top speakers—the ones everyone talks about, who have New York Times bestselling books and powerful social media presences—and it sends material on all 12 to the conference organizer.

If you’re listed, and if you’re one of the bureau’s top speakers, your odds are still one in 12. You have to be included in 12 selection sets to reasonably expect one gig.

Being listed by a bureau is a good step. It’s not sufficient.

2. “Can you make me a great sizzle reel?

Sizzle reels are essential to public-speaking success.

A sizzle reel is a clip that shows you giving a fantastic presentation to your ideal audience. Sizzle reels are in flux. They used to be one entire speech on a VHS tape, but now that we have the Internet, they’re becoming shorter, with more varied content. They’re like a commercial that showcases your skills. Some bureaus still require the old format.

The sizzle reel is not an end, however. The right people need to see it.

Like any businessperson, you have to think about your audience first. Who will buy your speech? What do they need to know about you to close a sale? How do you reach those people?

Putting a sizzle reel on a website is as sure-fire a guarantor of success as posting a YouTube video of your cat is a guarantor of 10 million views.

Questions one and two in this article focus on the wrong things. Think of a naïve golf enthusiast who buys top-end golf clubs, expensive clothing and a membership at a top club who expects to become a fabulous golfer overnight.

Everyone knows the only way to become a fabulous golfer is to work hard at golf. The clubs don’t matter until you’re good enough to make a difference.

3. “My content is great; can you help me with the delivery?” Or “My delivery is great; can you help me with the content?”

This question is depressing, because it comes from someone who doesn’t want to consider his delivery or content because he secretly believes it’s inadequate.

Content and delivery are naturally and deeply interrelated. Delivery issues often stem from content that isn’t working, and vice versa. You must believe in yourself to deliver great content, and you must believe in your content to deliver it well.

These questions (and others like them) mask one of two things: insecurity or impatience. You should have enough passion for your cause to believe you’re the best spokesperson for it, and you should have enough passion to patiently put in the time it takes to build a speaking career.

If you have both of these things and you’re willing to work harder than anyone else, success will come easily.

A version of this article originally appeared on Public Words.

This article first appeared on in Feb. 2016.

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