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Learn How To Be a Great Public Speaker, and Why I’m Taking a Break From It

Jason Zook Speaking

Taking the stage in front of over 1,500 people was one of the most nerve-wracking moments of my life.

I heard my name being announced and my bio being read, but even that booming echo was a whisper next to the huge rush of butterflies in my stomach.

I felt like a complete fraud. I don’t belong here, I have nothing valuable to share, where’s the off-ramp?

My thoughts were a mess, but I climbed the metal stairs to the stage, anyway. I shook a man’s hand, took a deep breath, and…boom.

I was on.

Instantly, everything snapped into place. The butterflies disappeared. The feeling of fraud evaporated. I started sharing my story and clicking through my slides, and I worked that room for the next 60 minutes—moving from side to side, engaging the audience, and making people laugh. It went by in a blur, and before I knew it, the roar of applause was filling my earholes with joy.

That was my first paid speaking gig, and only my fifth gig ever. The rush I felt after that hour on stage fueled me for many years to come.

Since that talk in 2010, public speaking has been my jam. I’ve given over 75 talks. I’ve stood sometimes in front of thousands of people, and other times in front of just 5. I’ve made over $250,000 in speaking revenue, and with every talk, I’ve given 100% effort and energy.

One of my absolute favorite parts of public speaking is the feeling you get knowing you are making an impact on at least one person’s life. I can honestly say I know this happens because I’ve never done a talk where someone hasn’t come up to me afterwards and said something to the effect of, “This made such an impact on me!” I’ve also come to really enjoy the adrenaline rush I get after every talk. It’s a dopamine response like no other.

Want to give it a try? Oh, man, do you ever.

Here’s what I’ve learned about getting paid to speak and getting good at it:

Want more speaking gigs? Tell shareable stories.

Imagine being in the audience for two different speeches about healthy eating. The first speaker has a lot of facts to share. Statistics for days. There’s no room for emotion in this talk, but wow, he knows a lot about cauliflower. The final slide is a screenshot of his website and social media handles, and his sign-off from the stage is that he’s available to speak at your next event. Yay?

The next speaker shuffles his way to the stage, and he makes you laugh immediately with a silly joke about Nutella as a protein source. He opens up about his own emotional health journey—sharing moments of failure and success along the way—and he can’t believe it, either, but cauliflower fixed his high cholesterol issues and become a replacement for buffalo wings. A final joke about Nutella Protein Balls finishes off his talk, and he leaves the stage.

Now, which speaker do you think people are going to speak positively about? Which speaker do you think folks will pass stories along to their friends and coworkers about? And most importantly, which speaker do you think is going to get more speaking gigs?

As a speaker, telling stories is paramount. It’s what creates a connection with the audience and gives them a memorable experience.

We all have stories we can share. The trick is figuring out how to share those stories and weave them into a message that an audience can resonate with, relate to, and learn from.

Take a moment to think about some of your best personal stories.

  • What tough moments have you encountered in your life or your business?
  • What big changes have you made as a person?
  • What are the stories your friends share when introducing you to other people?

Write these down, and figure out how they can tie into an impactful message that your audience can use to change their lives.

Practice, practice, practice.

(Queue the Allen Iverson video clip about practice if you know it.)

I’ve had the displeasure of watching my early speaking gigs played back on video. Wowzers, it’s painful. At one event back in 2010, I was so intimidated by the size of the auditorium we were in that I literally hid behind the podium the entire time, white-knuckling the edges and never taking a step. Sounds like a nightmare come true…but! Watching that talk later on helped me realize how important it is to move around the stage, and to watch my own uncomfortable moments so I can learn and grow.

Whether you’re getting consistent speaking gigs now or you haven’t yet had your first public talk, here’s something simple you can do to get better: grab a video camera, iPhone, or webcam, and record a practice run of your talk. Give it your 100% effort. Do not half-ass it. Then, watch the recording. What did you like? What didn’t you like? Make notes, and then repeat over and over again, critiquing yourself (constructively! lovingly!) each time. You’ll get better, I promise.

Should you ever speak for free? Yes! Accepting non-paying speaking gigs early on is a rite of passage. We’ve all been there. The key with those events is to focus on honing your skills. Use the early and unpaid opportunities to try different things and share different stories. What seems to resonate with the audience? What do you enjoy talking about?

Find your comfortable speaking moments through experience. The only way to get more comfortable on stage is with practice.

Use the 10/20/30 rule for speaking presentations

If you’re not going to use slides, you can skip this step (but I’d suggest reading it anyway).

The 10/20/30 rule was created by Guy Kawasaki, and it’s very simple. 10 slides. 20 minutes. 30-point font. That’s it.

You don’t have to follow this formula exactly (I didn’t), but it’s a great way to keep your presentation extremely simple and easy to follow. It’s a framework rather than a crutch, and it’s a way to make sure your slides reinforce your story instead of the other way around.

The exception to the 10/20/30 rule is if you use a ton of imagery and click through your slides quickly. Now, I don’t mean you should rush through your presentation, just that you have a lot of visuals to back you up.

(By the way, if you don’t have great imagery of your own, I’d recommend Unsplash and Death to Stock. Please don’t use clip art!)

Be funny, but don’t try to be a comedian

You don’t have to tell jokes to be funny. Many aspiring speakers make the mistake of trying to land jokes (as if they were stand-up comedians). This doesn’t work. Unless you have experience doing stand-up comedy, stick to telling funny stories.

And here’s a huge secret to telling funny stories: they don’t have to be your own! That may sound weird, but other people’s funny stories are great way to introduce new perspectives, infuse humor, and reinforce your message.

Use pop culture for moments of humor as well. Remember many years ago, when Brett Favre got in trouble for texting scandalous photos of himself? When I gave talks around that time about using photography to promote your business, my running joke was to warn the audience, “Just don’t share photos like Brett Favre.” I’m no stand-up comedian, but this line always got a laugh. It was timely, people knew exactly what I was saying, and it worked like a charm because it fit into the message I was trying to share.

And hey, if you don’t want to even worry about trying to add humor to your presentation, that’s okay, too. As long as you’re telling good stories and delivering valuable information, you can still be a highly sought-after public speaker.

Use your existing network to get more paid speaking gigs

A few years ago, my speaking schedule seemed to be drying up. I realized I had done a terrible job of reaching out to previous gigs (more on that in a second), so I decided to email a handful of other contacts to see if anyone I knew could recommend me to a friend. Here’s exactly how I did that:

  • I scrolled through my email inbox and made a spreadsheet with 50 names and email addresses on it. These were not people who’d hired me to speak before; they were just people I knew through various other means.
  • From that list, I sent an email to each individual. I kept the email short and sweet, and simply asked if they knew anyone who ran events or was looking for a good public speaker.
  • I sent all 50 emails, and a week later followed up with anyone who didn’t email me back. People need following up with. (I’ve got more on how to follow up in episode 9 of the Action Army podcast.)

From those exact emails, I can attribute over $50,000 in speaking revenue. Again, not a single person I emailed ran events, hired public speakers, or was even someone I thought had a contact for me. I was just willing to ask, and I trusted that people I knew might know people (and would vouch for me).

Of course, it’s an even easier idea to reach back out to previous speaking gigs (people who’ve hired you to speak before). You can ask them how things are going with their current events and if they need anyone for future events. I should’ve done this! If they don’t want to bring you back that’s absolutely okay—you can also ask these folks for introductions to other potential speaking engagements. This works really well, and a warm introduction can go a long way.

Just be yourself

This is your last tip about booking paid speaking engagements. Event coordinators are looking for interesting and unique people. They want people who have their own stories and their own talks. If you copy other people, you’re not going to stand out. Figure out what sets you apart, and embrace the heck out of that!

As a final resource, my buddy Grant Baldwin has a ton of resources that help people learn how to be better public speakers and how to get paid doing it. I highly recommend taking his free course (and he has no idea I’m even sharing this with you).

After all that success, why would I stop?

The last talk I gave was in November 2015. It was a great event in Dallas that paid well. I shared my story with hundreds of conference attendees, and even did one of my on-stage cartwheels to finish things off. I walked off that stage feeling pumped up, and was met with an overwhelmingly positive response afterwards. So why was it my last?

Well, life has a way of changing. My life right now is moving away from the public speaking phase. I feel like I’m simply telling the same stories over and over again, so I’m going to take some time off to create some new stories. To experience new things in life. Will I be back on stage soon? I’m not sure.

But you know what? My taking a break just means there’s at least one more open spot out there for someone who’s got a story to tell.

Someone like you.

So go do it. Use this article to help.

This is the end of the yellow brick road. If you want to read more articles mosey on over yonder.