Six Things Every Speaker Should Know

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By Ann McCormick

Some people view public speaking as a cushy job – lots of perks for not much work. All you have to do is smile, talk for an hour, and bask in the applause. But a good speaker does more than show up and talk. If you are just starting out or are considering becoming a speaker, here are six things you should know.

Maintain an Upbeat Attitude, No Matter What –Like it or not, you are a public figure the moment you step out of your car at the speaking location. All eyes will be on you. It doesn’t matter if the traffic was dreadful or the cat did something unmentionable on the carpet just before you left. The attendees expect you to be happy to be there because they want to enjoy themselves.

Expect Problems With the Location – The old phrase “there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip” certainly applies to speaking. It never fails – I get to the location where I’ll be speaking and discover something isn’t there, is there and shouldn’t be, or doesn’t work. Once I found myself speaking at a Home & Garden show where attendees had to locate an elevator hidden behind a display, go up two floors and down a hall usually used for exhibit staff to find the room where I was speaking. And don’t get me started about securing a decent place to sell books before and after the talk.

When you talk to the program director or event organizer, do not assume that they know what you will need. Ask about the layout of the room. If you’re one of several speakers, ask how much time is allotted between talks. Be prepared for the person ahead of you to go beyond his allowed time. If you are selling books, emphasize to the program organizer the need for a good location to setup before you start talking. If possible, sweet talk them into securing a sales assistant who can be paid with an autographed copy of your book.

It’s a Business, Not a Privilege – When I began speaking over a decade ago I felt awkward about asking for a fee and tended to undervalue my worth. I soon found that some of the organizers felt the same way about my value. They thought I should be happy with a $50 honorarium and a free lunch. Well, think again.

Like most garden speakers, I spend hours gathering materials and planning the talk. I also set aside the time out of my life to travel to a meeting. The years I spent learning about herbs (my specialty) is almost as long as it took to get my college degree. And just like that college degree, I want it to pay off.  You should too.

When talking to program directors, be friendly but confident. Never apologize about the fee. You will be earning it, believe me. When you arrive for the event, be confident you can do the job. Don’t behave shy or self effacing. If that sounds too aggressive or not your style, get over it. This is not a social even. It’s a business engagement.

Always Have a Contract on Paper – This is one of the first bits of sage advice I received when starting out as a speaker. Having all the pertinent information down in one place reduces the risk of mis-communication. Do this every time, even if the organizer is a personal friend.

So what should go on your contract? First of all, contact information for the organizer and yourself – email, home and cell phones, websites, mailing addresses. Next comes the critical information such as date and time of talk, location (with a street address), name of contact at the event (which is not always the same person you are talking to), and the topic of your talk. Last but not least, spell out your compensation. If publicity is part of the deal mention that too. Include travel costs but guess high. People are always happier if the final bill is lower rather than higher than they expected.

The Bigger the Fee, the Greater the Respect – One of the toughest lessons I have learned is that your fee is a reflection of how valuable you are perceived to be. If they think they are getting a bargain (translation: something cheap), they are not likely to treat you like anything more than an incidental. It comes down to the connection between cost and perceived value.

Recently while reevaluating my fee structure, I spoke to other well-known garden speakers in my region about their experiences with fees and results. The bottom line for both of them was that the more you charge, the greater respect you get.

Speaking is Hard Work – Before I started speaking, I wondered why Christian ministers usually take Mondays off. Now I know. Sunday sermons plus being “up” all day dealing with the congregation is exhausting. The same is true with speaking to a public audience.

You don’t realize it at the time but your adrenaline is flowing when you’re on stage. Even experienced speakers will find themselves drained after a performance. And that’s what it is – a performance. A good speaker engages in high-energy real-time multi-tasking. You are focused simultaneously on your topic, the reaction of the audience, and how much time you have left – to say nothing of suppressing the nagging fear that you’ll drop your notes or develop an uncontrollable cough.

All this may sound like a cautionary tale designed to discourage potential speakers. But I must admit I love public speaking. I get a kick out of engaging an audience as I teach them about herbs. There’s a real satisfaction in hearing afterwards how attendees learned something new and can’t wait to try it out. Yes, speaking is hard work (if you do it right) but the rewards are worth it.

Meet the Author

Ann McCormickAnn McCormick, the Herb ‘n Cowgirl has devoted her time for the last 20 years to writing and speaking about herbs. Ann is a columnist for Herb Quarterly where she pens the ‘Herbalist Notebook’ and a feature writer for The Dallas Morning News. The Herb ‘n Cowgirl also shares her love of herbs and her gardening techniques as a speaker and media guest. To find out more about the Herb ‘n Cowgirl visit her at

Author: GardenComm

GardenComm, formerly known as GWA: the Association for Garden Communicators, provides leadership and opportunities for education, recognition, career development and a forum for diverse interactions for professionals in the field of gardening communication. GardenComm members includes book authors, bloggers, staff editors, syndicated columnists, free-lance writers, photographers, speakers, landscape designers, television and radio personalities, consultants, publishers, extension service agents and more. No other organization in the industry has as much contact with the buying public as GardenComm members.

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