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What is a motivational speaker?

 

One of the most-viewed motivational speeches of all time is Simon Sinek’s TED Talk, “It Starts With Why.” But I’m going to start this post with what. What, exactly, is a motivational speaker, anyway?

A motivational speaker is a person who gives speeches that encourage or inspire the audience. Motivational speakers (sometimes called “inspirational speakers”) often tell a compelling personal life story about achieving success in the face of adversity. They may also be an author or thought-leader with expertise in personal development.

Although the term “motivational speaker” might refer to a person who shares their story on an unpaid, volunteer basis with local groups or religious organizations, skilled motivational speakers can give speeches as their primary livelihood. There are several thousand of these “professional speakers” who travel around the world, receiving speaking fees to give presentations at conferences, conventions, schools, and other events. Celebrity motivational speakers (like, say, Simon Sinek) may receive six-figure fees per appearance and give one-hundred or more speeches per year.

 

How to become a motivational speaker

Before we go any further, let me introduce myself. My name is Josh Sundquist. You’ve probably never heard of me, and I haven’t given any viral TED Talks (yet!), but I’ve been a motivational speaker for nearly twenty-five years. (About my speeches)

So that’s me. But who are you? Maybe you are reading this post as a fan, a person who likes watching motivational speaker videos and wants to learn about the industry. But most likely you’re here because you want to become a motivational speaker yourself.

 
Motivational speaker Josh Sundquist gives a talk at a corporate sales conference.
 

Why Speaking is a pretty sweet Gig

If this is the job you want, great! You’ve come to the right place. I’ll tell you exactly how to get begin.

But let’s start with why. The why is that honestly, this job is as cool as you think it would be. As a professional motivational speaker, you get to:

 
 
 
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Make a real impact inpeople’s lives.

Audience members will come up to you after your speech and tell you how much you helped them. You’ll get emails about how a certain speech you gave many years ago changed the direction of someone’s life forever.

 
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BE your own boss.

Motivational speakers are self-employed. So you get to choose which gigs you want to take. You get to decide how busy you want to be. You set your own hours and choose your own priorities. You can live and work from anywhere. As I’m typing this, for example, I’m in my home office wearing a bathrobe.

 
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Do creative work.

Most creative types are ultimately forced to choose between making their art or making a living. Speaking, however, doesn’t require this trade-off. You can make a comfortable living from writing and performing your own, original material. Your speech can involve literally any creative ideas, stories, visuals, short films, or other performance pieces you want to contribute to the world.

 
 
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SHARE YOUR TRUTH.

Audiences want you to share your deepest truth. Your message will be a distillation of what you most strongly believe. By definition, an effective motivational speech is one that communicates your authentic answer to the question, “What does it mean to be human?” And as you grow and mature and change, so will your speeches.

 
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Be an entertainer

You get to stand in front of audiences of hundreds or even thousands and hold their attention, telling jokes and stories. They will laugh. They will cry. For a few privileged minutes on stage, you really do get to be a star.

 
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TRAVEL THE WORLD.

You’ll eventually speak in every state and every major city in the country. Occasionally, you may travel to exotic locations around the world. The reality here is that you’ll eventually come to view the travel as the most arduous part of the job, but hopefully you’ll always count yourself lucky for the opportunity to visit so many different places.

 
 
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Build a brand around your passions

As a speaker, you’ll have a flexible schedule that will enable you to pursue side hustles. I know speakers who do everything from writing books to hosting TV shows to opening restaurants to spending half the year off-grid as eco-adventurers. And here’s the best part: Literally any pursuit you choose contributes to your speaking brand by enhancing your credibility in your topic area and giving you new stories to share on stage.

 
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Get paid for something you enjoy

I won’t lie, speaking is a really, really difficult career path. It’s fun work, but breaking into the business will require every bit of your smarts and hustle and determination. But we all have bills to pay, and as far as jobs go, this is the best one I know of. My view is that if you have to spend most of your time working, why not work on something you most enjoy spending your time on?

You, yes you, can become a motivational speaker

 
 

The career and lifestyle I’m describing here is not hype or exaggeration. I’m living proof. I gave my first motivational speech on stage at an awards banquet for twenty minutes when I was twelve years old. It wasn’t very good. Here’s a photo:

Josh as a child giving a speech at a banquet

But I got such a rush from the experience that I dedicated myself to the craft and within ten years, I was doing it for a living, speaking at schools and youth conferences like this one, where I entertained thousands of teenagers from the center of an arena.

Youth motivational leadership speaker Josh Sundquist talk to teens
 
 

Today, I’m a keynote speaker for corporate conferences, association conventions, and events for nonprofits.

You can have this job, too. There’s always room for talented new speakers. And not only are there enough opportunities to go around, there’s absolutely nothing special about me that isn’t already inside of you, too.

So, let’s get into it. Here’s an overview of what I’ll teach you below:

  1. The components of a motivational speech

  2. The most common misconception about getting started in this career

  3. How to develop your starter marketing kit

  4. Where to find your first few speeches

  5. How to (eventually) get paid to speak

 

writing your speech

 

Motivational speaking is a storytelling art, and usually these stories come from the speaker’s own life.


But a good motivational speech doesn’t just tell your story. It also tells the audience what that story means. It gives them a message they can apply to their own lives. That’s the difference between, say, watching a feel-good sports movie and watching a motivational speaker tell their feel-good sports story.

 

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If you watch the movie Rudy you’ll walk away feeling great. If you watch the real-life Rudy Ruettiger give a motivational speech, hopefully you’ll walk away feeling great but also feeling like you, too, can achieve your goals by applying his ten-part “Game Plan for Winning at Life.”

In other words, a motivational speech is about your experiences but also what those experiences taught you. Your story plus what you learned along the way.

A movie is all story. A lecture is all information. A motivational speech combines both. It should be as interesting as a movie and as useful as a lecture.

The outline of every motivational speech

 
 

Every motivational speech has the same basic format:

  • Story

    • Application

  • Story

    • Application

  • Story

    • Application

A shorter speech, like say a TED talk, might only have one story and one application. An hour-long keynote might have ten stories and ten applications. But the basic outline remains unchanged.

The story is what draws in the audience’s attention. Then, once you have their attention, you use that story to teach them something useful. That’s the application.

Josh Sundquist gives an inspirational speech at a corporate event
 
 

Tell a story. Apply it. Repeat. That’s it.

“What’s your ____ ?”

 
Young Josh surrounded by friends who all have shaved heads

Telling stories earns you the right to teach applications. When you’re sharing a story, you’re earning their attention. When you’re sharing an application, you’re spending it. Spend too much time on applications and you lose their attention entirely.

So your applications must pack maximum punch into a minimum length. Here’s a technique I use to create strong applications in as few as three words. It’s called “What’s your [blank]?”

For every story I tell, I have a specific object or person within the story I plan to use as a metaphor. After I tell the story, I ask a rhetorical question that prompts the audience to apply that metaphor to their own situation.

For example, I’ll often tell the story about when I was diagnosed with cancer as a child and a bunch of my friends came over to my house and shaved their heads so I wouldn’t be the only one without hair. They literally had a “headshaving party” in my backyard.

 

That’s the story. After I tell it, I transition to the application by asking the audience, “What’s your headshaving party?” That’s the metaphor, the bridge connecting the story to the application. If your metaphor is clear enough, that one sentence might be all the application you need. But in this case I’d probably continue with a few more questions like, “Who is the person in your life right now who needs you to shave your head for them, so to speak? Who needs you and what can you give?”

And then I’d pause for a few seconds to let them think about it. That’s the beauty of rhetorical questions. Giving direct advice or instructions in your speech is pushy. And when people get pushed, they instinctively resist or push back. Instead, ask rhetorical questions that prompt them to solve the final step of the application for themselves.

Use metaphors, not cliches

 

Here’s the other great thing about applications based on personal story metaphors.

There are only a handful of universally true motivational ideas out there. Like maybe five. Ten at most. You’ve heard them all before. Stuff like:

  • Believe in your dreams

  • Keep a positive attitude

  • Make a difference

  • Turn your lemons into lemonade

  • Never give up

You know, the kind of thing you see on cheesy motivational office posters.

 
Kitten hangs from branch. Caption: Hang in there!
 

In fact, this stuff is so cliché that parody memes of these posters are now more popular than the originals.

 
A cat jumps for a rope. Caption: Give up. At some point hanging in there just makes you look like an even bigger loser.
 

But just because something is cliché doesn’t mean it’s not true, and as a motivational speaker, you are still expected to impart the ideas in the first set of posters. That’s, like, the definition of a motivational speech.

As is clear from the popularity of the second set of posters, though, people are cynical. If an audience hears you utter a single lame cliché, they check out. So your paradoxical challenge as a motivational speaker is to find a way to remind the audience of something they already know without them realizing they already know it.

That’s why metaphors. Instead of talking about “making a difference,” I talk about headshaving parties. Instead of talking about “goals,” I talk about ski racing uniforms and finish lines. Instead of talking about “believing in your dreams” I talk about staying connected to your Paralympic opening ceremony. Get it?

Metaphors bypass cliches to give the audience a fresh framework to apply universal truths to their lives.

Matt Foley syndrome

 

Over the course of your life, you’ve had thousands of experiences that taught you just as many important lessons. So how do you know which of those stories and lessons to share with an audience?

When they are trying to write their speech, many aspiring motivational speakers start with a question like, “What can I say that sounds motivational?” or “What stories from my life would be inspiring?” These are natural questions to ask. You want to be a motivational speaker, after all. So of course you want to sound motivational.

But this exactly how motivational speakers end up sounding like Matt Foley—and why there’s a stereotype of motivational speakers that makes that character funny in first place.

GIF of motivational speaker Matt Foley saying “I live in a van down by the river”

See, if you ask yourself a question like “What can I say to sound motivational?” what you’re really asking is, “What have I heard before that sounded motivational?” At best, you’ll give a mediocre version of someone else’s speech instead of a great version of your own. At worst, you will be a cliché. You will be Matt Foley.

So. Stop trying so hard to be inspirational. Don’t say something because you think it sounds motivating or you think it’s what the audience wants you to say or you heard other motivational speakers say it.

Instead, say something because you believe it’s true.

Start by asking yourself what you most believe deep down to be true about the human experience. And then tell the stories about how you came to believe those things. Those stories and their lessons are the building blocks of an authentic motivational speech.

One other thing. Sometimes motivational speakers who have the best of intentions come across as unrelatable or arrogant because they misunderstand what inspiration is. They think inspiration comes from seeing another person’s success. No. Inspiration comes from seeing the struggle. The grind. The view from the valley, not the mountaintop. So instead of telling stories that make you look good or successful or inspiring, tell stories that make you look human. Which is to say, flawed. Broken. What is it you don’t want this audience to know about you? Talk about that. Confess your failures and mistakes.

Honesty, not ego, is the true currency of inspiration.

 
 
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an agent can’t help you get started

So now you’ve developed your stories and applications and you want to get out there. How do you find real live audiences to test your new material on?

When aspiring speakers ask me for advice, they almost always say something like, “I’m ready to speak more, now I just need to find a speakers bureau who can book me” or “my speeches are already great, I just need to hire a virtual assistant to find the speaking gigs for me.”

But this plan—thinking you need a person or agency or whatever to help you get started—gets the equation 100% backward.

Here’s an analogy. Let’s say you recently tried the sport of basketball for the first time. You really enjoyed it. So you played it a few more times. Wow, it’s fun! You’re aware that some people play this sport professionally. How great is that? They get paid to play ball! So you’ve decided you want to play in the NBA. Now you just need to figure out how to get drafted. You’ve heard that athletes have “sports agents” who announce their availability for the draft, take bids from interested teams, and negotiate the athlete’s contract. Wow! That’s it! All you need to do to become a professional basketball player is to find an agent, right?

You don’t need this kind of agent…

You don’t need this kind of agent…

Well, obviously not. An agent might type-up the contract and finalize the deals, but the player is the one who has to A) go out and become one of the world’s best basketball players through years of training and then B) play well enough in tryouts or college ball to get noticed by NBA scouts.

Get it? Substitute “professional basketball player” for “professional motivational speaker” and substitute “sports agent” for “speaking agent” (or “personal assistant” or “speakers bureau” or “marketing coach”) and you can see my point. The reason you are not currently an NBA player has nothing to do with the fact that you don’t have an agent yet. And even if you, an amateur basketball player, were somehow able to sign with an agent, you’d be no closer to getting in the NBA.

 
…but you do need this kind of hustle

…but you do need this kind of hustle

The point is that you have to do the work. You have to go out and find the speaking gigs. You have to practice in front of live audiences over and over until you are a world class speaker. Please hear me on this: There is no shortcut. There are no gatekeepers. There is no secret strategy. And no one can do this work for you. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something. Don’t let them take advantage of you and your credit card.

Both the good news and the bad news here is that the only thing currently standing between you and going pro as a motivational speaker is hustle—hustle only you can do.

 
 
 
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So How Long till i can quit my day job?

If you want to make it as a motivational speaker, you’re going to have to be world class. Because this is a word-of-mouth, live-or-die-by-your-reputation kind of career. So you’re either a great speaker or an unemployed one.

You’ve probably heard Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule—the idea that to reach world-class level in a given skill, you have to spend 10,000 hours doing it.

 
 

Let’s apply that to being a motivational speaker. A keynote speech is typically about one hour long. Let’s say you spend 9 hours rehearsing and preparing for every speech (remember that hustle thing I was talking about?) so each speech takes a total of 10 hours. Do the math (10,000 hours ÷ 10 hours per speech) and you get 1,000 as the number of speeches you need to give to become world class.

Do you have to give that many motivational speeches before people start paying you for it? Probably not. I’d say for most people it takes a few hundred. But if you want to become truly world class, yes, it will take you 1,000 speeches. That’s the only way you get good. By doing it over and over, by trying things and throwing them out and trying other things and finding what works.

This part is a volume game. If you want to become a professional motivational speaker, figuring out how to get to your 1,000th speech should be the only problem you are trying to solve. You’re not searching for the shortest path between you and a higher speaking fee or between you and getting speakers bureaus to list you on their website. The one single question that should preoccupy your every waking hour is:

What’s the shortest path between you and giving your 1,000th speech?

But before you can go out and find those 1,000 speeches, you’ll need to create two things.

The only marketing materials you need to create

 
 

Don’t worry that you don’t have a bestselling book or a viral TED talk or even a business card yet. Maybe you will someday, but for now, you only need two things to get started and they should cost you no more than $10 total. There’s nothing else you need to spend money on until you start getting paid for your speeches. Seriously. That’s it.

What you need to create right now:

  • Demo video

  • Website


Josh edits video of one of his motivational keynote speeches for a technology company
 
 

 

Demo Video

Your demo video is a two to five minute reel that shows you speaking to a live audience. It is the single most important marketing piece of your whole motivational speaking career.

Would you buy a house based on a written description? No. You’d want to go see it for yourself. Ideally in person, but at the very least you’d want a video tour. Your speaking clients are the same. If they haven’t seen you speak in person, they absolutely must be able to watch a video.

To see an example, watch my demo video:

 


Website

This is much easier and cheaper than you think. Don’t hire a web designer or branding expert or anything. You can make this yourself. Thanks to modern do-it-yourself website platforms, your grandma could figure out how to make a pro-looking website.

My website, the one you’re looking at right now, is built on SquareSpace. I also recommend Strikingly and Wix. There are many options. Just choose one that offers a template you like.

Here’s the only thing I’m going to tell you to spend any money on: Registering your domain name. You can usually do this on the same platform you’re building your site on. Anyway, if it’s available, register YourName.com (for example, this is my website, JoshSundquist.com). If someone already has that address, add another word like YourNameSpeaks.com or try a different suffix (YourName.biz). Registering your domain should cost you about $10 and it’s the only money you should spend until people start paying you to speak.

Choose the simplest monthly plan that allows you to build the website itself and have your platform host it free of charge. At this point, your site doesn’t even need to have multiple pages. Just delete the other pages in your template and put it all on the homepage. Your site only needs three things:


  1. YOUR BIO. It should be at least two paragraphs long. The first paragraph is about your background—specifically the parts of your background that qualify you to be a speaker or the parts of your background you speak about. This is not your Tinder bio. This is a marketing piece. Where you grew up is not relevant (unless that’s an essential part of the story you share in your speech). The college you went to is not relevant (unless you have a fancy degree and/or went to a fancy school). Only information that demonstrates why and how you’ve earned the right to be a speaker. The second paragraph is about your speeches. If you’re not sure what to write there, use these fill-in-the-blanks:

    • Sentence one tells them the theme of your speeches: “[Your name] speaks about [your primary theme or message]”

    • Sentence two tells them what the audience will learn: “In [your name]’s speeches, audiences learn [something the audience will learn from you]”

    • Sentence three promises them a benefit: “[Your name’s] speeches help people [how your audience’s lives will be slightly better after hearing you]”


  2. YOUR DEMO VIDEO. If you literally have no video whatsoever of you giving a speech yet, just put a headshot on your website for now. But make a solemn oath that you will record your very next speech and post a clip on your website ASAP. If you don’t have any speeches coming up soon on your calendar, invite some friends over for that awkward experience in your living room.


  3. A WAY TO CONTACT YOU. Make it as easy as possible to contact you about giving a speech. Provide a call to action like, “To invite [your name] to speak, please contact [your email].” Bonus points if you provide additional contact options like your phone number (if you don’t want your mobile online, setup a Google Voice that forwards to you) and a web contact form.

 

That’s it. Now you’re ready to start booking speeches.

 

Start Local

 

Professional motivational speaking is a travel job. Going to work almost always means getting on a plane to fly to an event. And all that travel costs money. Eventually, you’ll have clients who will cover those costs (in addition to paying you a speaking fee!), but for now, you’re going to be doing it free of charge. So you need to find speeches that don’t require you to spend a lot of money traveling to them. Which means you’ll start local.

If you live in a rural or less populated area, yes, there will be fewer opportunities. But don’t let that stop you. When I set out to become a motivational speaker as a teenager, I lived in a town with 30,000 residents. Outside our city limits was farmland and forests in all directions. Here’s a map of the area:

But even among all those farms and forests, I still found plenty of groups to speak to. And so can you.

Your target audience is any location within driving distance (say, 100 miles) where two or more people are planning to meet for any reason whatsoever.

Remember, you’re aiming for 1,000 speeches. So don’t turn anything down. You should speak to literally any group of any size who will listen to you. I once spoke at a church youth group so small the entire audience fit on a couch. I was the “keynote speaker” at a PTA meeting of three people sitting at a table. I’ve spoken in a barn, the center of a crowded restaurant, and in the back aisle of a Walmart.

These days my audiences tend to be larger than that PTA meeting, but I’ll still speak to anyone, anywhere. Just last year I gave a speech at a dueling piano bar.

 
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And here’s the key: In every single presentation, tell the audience that you are looking for more opportunities to share your story and that you’d appreciate their help if they have any ideas of places you could speak. Eventually, once your speeches are good enough and you make this plug in front of enough audiences, you won’t have to search for speaking opportunities anymore because your audiences will find them for you. But for now, get your hustle muscles warmed up because you’re going to have to go out and find every gig yourself.

Making your pitch

I won’t lie. This part is not fun. It’s the part everyone wants to find a shortcut around. But you can’t become a pro-speaker without the grind of pitching and cold calling any more than you can become a pro-basketball player without the endless free throws in an empty gym. This is a game of numbers and volume and pure hustle.

How much volume? Let’s say your outreach has a 1% success rate. So it takes 100 outreaches (phone calls, emails, postcards, etc.) to book one speech. That means you’ll need to make 100,000 outreaches to get your first 1,000 speeches.

Leonardo Dicaprio works the phones in Wolf of Wall Street

Look, I know this is hard. But if you don’t mind me putting on my motivational speaker hat for a moment, this is exactly what I talk about in my speeches (and you probably do, too). One more thing, one more time. You keep doing one more thing until you get that booking. You keep doing it one more time until people start paying you for it. If you want to make it in this business, you must be nothing short of relentless.

Most people who read this will not believe me.

Most people are instead searching for a marketing secret or agent or coach or shortcut to skip over this part.

Most people just aren’t willing to do the work.
And that’s why most people won’t become motivational speakers.
Don’t be most people.

When I was fifteen years old I started cold calling school principals. I got a list of every high school in the state. I called hundreds. Most wouldn’t talk to me. I called again and again. Sometimes they hung up when I started my pitch. Didn’t matter.

I sent thousands of emails. Not like spam, but personal messages written to a specific person whose email address I’d found by scouring the internet for leads.

I did this for years.

That’s just what it takes.

 

SCRIPT TEMPLATE

OK, let’s talk about the pitch itself. Your pitch is a shorter version of that two paragraph bio you wrote for your website. Whether it’s an email or a phone call, assume you only have two or three sentences of that person’s attention. That’s how long your pitch should be. So write a good one and get really good at saying it.

Here’s a 3-sentence script template:

Who you are: “Hi, I’m [your name] and I [credibility builder].”

What you do: “I give speeches about [theme] to help people [benefit].”

The ask: “Any chance I could share my story at a [group name] event?”

Taylor from the show Billions says “Find me people with no fear”
 

Here’s what I’d say on the phone when I was fifteen:

Hi, I’m Josh Sundquist and I’m a fifteen-year-old cancer survivor. I give speeches about goal setting to help students reach their dreams. Any chance I could share my story at an assembly at Washington Middle School?

Today, I’d say something like:

My name is Josh and I’m a bestselling author and Paralympian. I give speeches about my training motto one more thing, one more time, to help people face adversity and elevate their professional performance. Do you need a keynote speaker for your sales conference?

So that’s your pitch if you’re talking on the phone or in person. If you’re reaching out by email or direct message, use the same script, but also include your website in your signature. Don’t assume they will actually look at your website (in fact, assume they won’t), but the fact that you have a dot-com website with your name shows you are, like, a legit person.

How to find your first 1,000 speeches

 
Top youth speaker Josh Sundquist gives a speech to teens at a high school

Now begins your search for speeches. Start by asking your contacts. All of them. Everyone you know.

A mass email or general Facebook announcement is not enough here. I mean, sure, announce your new website on Facebook, but also and more importantly send individual, customized emails and Facebook messages and LinkedIn messages to everyone you know both personally and professionally telling them about your new website and asking for their help finding audiences to share your story with. Tell them you’ll speak to any group, any age, any audience size, any time. If anyone you’re remotely acquainted with is unaware you’re trying to become a motivational speaker, you’re not finished with this step yet.

Your network is a good starting place, but it won’t be anywhere near enough. You’ll need to do cold-outreach, too. Start compiling a list (and never stop adding to it) of every organization you can think of that might have meetings or events with a guest speaker. Obviously the best options are organizations you have a personal connection to, which could mean you know someone in the group or that your story/background relates to that group itself. But here’s some suggestions of groups that are probably in your local area to help you get started brainstorming.

 
 
 

Schools

Start with individual classrooms. Especially elementary schools, because there are probably dozens of elementary schools and hundreds of elementary school teachers within driving distance. Any of those teachers has the ability to invite you to come speak in their classroom. High schools and middle schools have school-wide assemblies, sure, but start by trying to speak at club meetings, sports team practices, leadership group events, PTA meetings, and award banquets.

Support groups

If you have an inspiring message about personal adversity, that story is relevant to any type of support group. There are dozens or even hundreds of support groups near you. Groups that meet to discuss addiction and recovery, loss and grief, mental health, and myriad other issues. All could benefit from your story.

Religious groups

I come from a Christian background, so when I was starting out I spoke to Bible studies in people’s homes, youth group retreats, Sunday School classrooms, and more. Even the smallest of churches has many different Bible studies, committees, and fellowship groups that all have their own weekly meetings where you could speak.

Non-Profits

Every non-profit in your community has events where you could speak. I’m an Eagle Scout, for example, so I have spoken at many Boy Scout camps, scout ceremonies, and Troop meetings. I’ve spoken to local youth service organizations, sports camps, retreats, and more. Look up your local Boys and Girls Club, Big Brothers Big Sisters, YMCA, Salvation Army, and 4-H. Your message can inspire them to help more people.

BUsinesses

Does your message help people? Of course it does. So any business would benefit from its employees hearing you because you’ll make them happier and therefore more productive. Small businesses, large businesses, doesn’t matter. Ten employees in the break room? Great. Five people in the conference room? That’s one step closer to 1,000 speeches.

 
 

Start with students

 

The opportunities to speak to local students, in particular, are nearly limitless. I spoke almost exclusively to students for my first seven or eight years as a speaker. First elementary schools. Then middle schools. Then high schools. One more classroom. One more cafeteria. One more gymnasium.

Josh gives an inspirational speech at a middle school
Josh shares an inspirational talk with children in a park
Josh, as a teenager, giving a motivational assembly speech at an elementary school

Most adults feel less nervous talking to children than they do other adults, so elementary-aged students are a great place to hone your storytelling abilities. Work your way up to speaking to teenagers. They are the most difficult of any age to speak to. Once you can hold the attention of 1,000 teenagers in a high school gymnasium for an hour, you’re ready for any audience anywhere anytime.

 
High school motivational speech by Josh Sundquist in a gymnasium. Josh balances his crutches on a stool.
 


In fact, you can spend your whole career speaking to students at school assemblies and teen leadership conventions. Some of the best motivational speakers in the world work in this market exclusively. They make a big difference and make a good living while they’re at it.

 
 
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Improving your your craft

It’s not enough to just give the 1,000 speeches. You have to make each one better than the last. And honestly, your initial attempts at a speech will probably be terrible. Mine were. After hundreds of cold calls, I finally booked my first middle school speech. I was supposed to do two assemblies. After the first assembly, the principal canceled my second one because my content was “disturbing” to the students. No joke. Actual quote. “Disturbing.” So not only was I not motivating the students, their lives were actually worse after they heard me speak. I was a demotivational speaker.

Anyway, here are some key strategies for improving your craft (for a bunch more ideas, check out these 100 tips about becoming a a motivational speaker from my friend Grant Baldwin):

 
  • Record yourself and (gulp) watch it

Ugh. I know. You hate your voice on tape. But if you can’t stand to watch yourself, how do you expect groups to ever pay to watch you?

  • Make notes about each speech

After every single speech I write down a list of observations about new stuff I tried, what worked and didn’t work, and anything I learned. I review notes from my last few speeches before I give the next one.

  • Study other performers

Not just speakers—comedians, politicians, street performers. Anyone who can hold the attention of a crowd. Especially a rowdy crowd (in a comedy club), a hostile crowd (at a political town hall), or a crowd of strangers who are already late arriving someplace else (street performers)

  • Audience feedback

Ask everyone who hears you speak for suggestions on getting better. If there are too many people in the audience for you to talk to individually, pass out written evaluation forms or email a questionnaire to everyone in attendance. Ask them what they liked and what they think you could do to improve. Remember: Positive feedback improves your ego, negative feedback improves your speech.

  • Look in the mirror

For years and years, I practiced every speech out loud in front of a mirror from start to finish three times before I delivered it. You can also watch yourself in a selfie cam, which lets you record your rehearsal on video and play it back for yourself.

  • Join Toastmasters or the local chapter of the National Speaker Association

These are professional groups where you can practice your craft in a structured setting and get feedback and support from other people like you. Speaking is a lonely gig. There might be a thousand people in the audience but you’re still alone on that stage. So don’t attempt this journey by yourself.

 
 
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bureaus and ted talks: the doN’t worry about list

Someday you’ll be a professional speaker giving keynotes at big conferences and conventions. Really, that can be you. But don’t get distracted trying to cross bridges you haven’t come to yet. I’ve already told you everything you need to know to get you through your first hundred speeches or so. The rest of this article is bonus material to give you an overview of things that you don’t need to worry about (or even understand) until years into your future. Seriously. You can stop reading right here and you’ll already be equipped with all the knowledge you need to get your career started.

Here’s a list of things that you might be tempted to start worrying about now—and indeed you may very well one day need to do some of this stuff—but that you absolutely don’t need to give any attention to yet. For now, your only job is to make that website and then go out and find those 1,000 speeches and get really, really good at delivering them. Everything else will take care of itself.

 

Don’t worry about

Why you shouldn’t worry about it

When to start worrying about it

Getting a “speaking agent” Only celebrities need agents. Anyone claiming to be an agent is just trying to take your money. Never
Becoming famous You don’t need to be famous to do this job. You just need great word of mouth from people who have seen you speak. Never
Getting “listed” on speakers bureau websites As a novice speaker, getting listed in a directory with thousands of other speakers is no more valuable than having your name listed in the phonebook. Bureaus can only help you by actively pitching you. But bureaus will only pitch you once you’re so good you don’t need them anymore. Never.

Note: Yes, bureaus can become valued partners who help you book gigs. I work with many fantastic bureaus. But for now, don’t worry about contacting bureaus. When the time is right, they will find you. Trust me.
Giving a viral TED talk Yes, it’s true that a viral TED talk can launch a person’s speaking career. But for every TED talk that goes viral there are tens of thousands that don’t. The TEDx YouTube channel currently has over 100,000 TED talk videos on it. Aiming to create a viral TED talk is like planning to win the lottery. Never.

Note: If you have the chance to give a TEDx talk, go ahead and do it. That’s one step closer to your 1,000 speeches. Just don’t plan on it getting a million views and making you famous.
How much your speaking fee should be Once you’re good enough to get paid to speak, people will start offering you money or asking what your fee is. Until then, give every speech for free. When people start asking what your fee is (more on this below)
How to write a contract between you and the group you are speaking for Look I’m not a lawyer so you should probably ignore my advice here, but if your speech is local and you’re doing it either for free or for a very small honorarium, why go to the trouble of negotiating a contract? You’ll just seem like a douchebag. When you are traveling out-of-town to give the speech. If you are getting on a plane, now the stakes are higher because this speech is taking a couple days of your life. So you’ll want to write a simple letter of agreement with the time/place of the speech and the fee you’ll be paid and have them sign it. That’s it. My contracts fit on one page and are maybe ten sentences long.
Making a fancy website or speaking demo Repeat after me: Speaking is a word of mouth business. You will ultimately make your living not because of your website but because people see you speak in real life and tell their friends how great you were and sometimes their friends happen to need to hire a speaker for their conference. That’s the whole business model. After people start paying you for your speeches.

Once you are a professional, invest in professional marketing materials. But remember, the website only serves to validate what they heard through word-of-mouth. Don't be fooled into thinking groups hire you because of your pretty website.
Quitting your day job It will probably take you years to generate enough income from speaking that you can quit your day job. Once you have enough incoming paid speaking opportunities to support yourself and any dependants.
Writing a book
Starting a podcast
Having a blog
Producing vlogs
Building a big social media following
All of these may have some marginal value, but their importance pales in comparison to your skill as a speaker. Until you’ve quit your day job, all your time should go into looking for speaking opportunities, writing your speeches, rehearsing them, and giving them. After you quit your day job.

And even then, don’t be seduced by the sparkle and ego-driven allure of these activities. People don’t hire a motivational speaker because he or she hosts a podcast. They hire you because you’re a great speaker.
Setting up a legal entity Aspiring speakers always think they must need to incorporate or something. Nope. You can file your taxes as a sole proprietor without ever setting up an S-Corp or an LLC or whatever. There may (eventually) be legal or financial reasons you’d want to form such a legal entity. But it's not a prerequisite for getting started. After you quit your day job.

Once speaking is your full time job, hire a CPA to do your taxes. Don’t Turbo Tax yourself into an IRS audit.

Many speakers do set up an LLC. Hire a lawyer to file it if that makes you feel good, but you can also do it yourself online.
Turning down speaking opportunities because they are unpaid Your first goal is to get to 1,000 speeches. If you’re not there yet, say yes to any opportunity, even if it’s free and even if you are getting paid for some of your speeches. Don’t let your ego slow your progress. Once your calendar is so busy with paid speeches that you don’t have time to say yes to every unpaid speech.

But even then, you should donate some of your time by speaking pro bono for organizations and causes that you care about.
 

motivational speaker salaries

And now the moment you’ve been scrolling down for: How much do people make doing this?

 
 
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 Entry-level speaking fees

 
Funny motivational speaker Josh Sundquist delivering humor in a keynote speech
 

When you’re getting started, be patient. The money will come. For now, you’re trying to develop your skills. Your first 1,000 speeches are your college, grad school, and internships. None of which you’d expect to make money from, right?

But you’ll eventually get good enough at speaking that people will expect that they should pay you. You won’t have to talk them into it. They’ll just assume you should be paid. And that’s when you know you’re ready to start accepting money. The first time a potential client asks you what your speaking fee is, you might just say “whatever you normally pay your speakers.” That might be twenty bucks. Or it might be a thousand. But that approach—letting them choose the fee for you—is the least awkward way to negotiate and will probably get you the highest fee that group was willing to pay anyway.

The next step will be to start quoting a specific fee when groups ask you to speak. Depending on how quickly you are able to find your early speaking opportunities, it may take you a couple of years to get there. Basically, you’re ready to start quoting a fee once you’re giving out-of-town speeches. If you have to get on a plane to fly or drive far enough that you have to spend the night in a hotel, it’s probably time to ask for money. Start at $500. That might sound like a lot. And, of course, it is. So you’re not comfortable with those numbers, pick a lower number you feel good about. Here’s the key, though: Don’t turn down the speech if they don’t have what you ask for. Remember, your goal is to practice speaking. And now that you’re pretty good at it, you have a new goal: To start building word-of-mouth about your speeches.

 

So here’s your line:

Client: “What’s your speaking fee?”

You: “My fee is $500. Is that within your budget?”

If the client says yes, great. Book the speech.

If the client says no, you say: “What is your typical budget for a speaker?”

Whatever their budget is (including zero) is, you say:

No problem. I’m looking for opportunities to get my name out there, so I’d be grateful to speak to your group for that amount. All I’d ask in return for that discount is that A) if you like my speech, afterward you give me a testimonial I can share with future clients and B) you find someone who can film the speech for me. Is that possible?

This way, you never turn down an opportunity because of money, but if they do have money, you’ll be paid. And you’ll probably end up with a testimonial (more valuable to you than money right now!) and video (for your demo!).

Like I said, even if the speech is out-of-town (requires getting on a plane or driving so far you have to spend the night in a hotel), you should still be willing to speak for free, but you should expect them to pay for your travel. They can either buy the flight and hotel for you or reimburse you afterward.

Don’t raise your fees until you have so many speeches you are having to say no to paid speaking opportunities because you can’t fit them all in your calendar. Then raise your fees by 10%. Wait till your calendar is full again. Then go up another 10%. And so on.

How much money can motivational speakers make?

 

The amount of money speakers earn varies widely depending on the market (that is, the type of group you’re speaking to) and the speaker’s reputation in that market.

Type of Speaker Fee range (per speech)
Highly skilled speakers with several years of experience, enthusiastic testimonials and strong marketing materials $5,000 to $7,500
Well-established motivational speakers with many years of experience and strong word-of-mouth within their topic area presenting at large national events $10,000 to $40,000
Speaker whose name may not be famous, but who is associated with a universally-known accomplishment—for example, authors who have written non-fiction books everyone has read or at least heard of, individuals who have been the subject of a major motion picture about their life, or speakers with a top-20 most viewed of all time TED talk $50,000 to $100,000
World-famous sports celebrities, major political leaders, A-list movie stars, and celebrity CEOs or business leaders $100,000 to $500,000 plus the cost of a private jet

Note: Speakers at this level have other sources of income or wealth and will often have their speaking fees donated to their personal charitable foundation.
 

Broadly speaking, here are the current market rates for well-established professional motivational speakers giving a keynote speech:

  • School-wide assembly for elementary school: $0 to $1,000

  • School-wide assembly for middle school: $500 to $1,000

  • School-wide assembly for high school: $500 to $2,000

  • Regional teen leadership conference: $1,500

  • National teen leadership conference: $1,000 to $3,000

  • College campus: $1,000 to $5,000

  • Staff training or in-service at a local school, hospital, or small company: $2,000

  • Regional non-profit (teachers, healthcare organizations, charities, etc.) conference: $1,000 to $5,000

  • National non-profit conference or major annual fundraiser or summit: $5,000 to $10,000

  • Regional professional association conference: $2,500 to $5,000

  • National association conference: $5,000 to $20,000

  • Major international association conference: $20,000 to $500,000

  • Regional corporate event or all-employee event for mid-sized business: $10,000 to $30,000

  • National corporate event for a division of a major corporation: $10,000 to $40,000

  • Major event for large national or multinational corporation: $10,000 to $500,000

 
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The best motivational speakers

I’ll leave you with my ranking of the best motivational speakers of all time. I’m judging here based purely on their speeches themselves, by the way. I’ve personally had multiple interactions with each of these people in real life, and only one out of the three is the kind of person off-stage that you’d hope they would be after seeing their extraordinary work on-stage (I’ll let you guess which one):

 

3. Tony Robbins

 

Tony Robbins is the first person who comes to mind when most people think about a “motivational speaker.” But is he a motivational speaker?

He would say no. Tony describes himself as a “peak performance coach.”

Personally, I’d say: Sort of. Sure, he sometimes gives what we might call “motivational speeches.” But in reality, his career transcends any typical job description of a “motivational speaker.”

Think of it this way: Is Neil Degrasse Tyson a physicist? Is Sanjay Gupta a doctor? Is Martha Stewart an interior designer? Every profession has a leading figure who yes, is technically a practitioner of that thing, but whose career is much bigger and broader than the job title would normally suggest. Like, sure Neil Degrasse Tyson is a physicist. But he doesn’t do physics experiments in a lab like the way we normally mean when we say someone is a physicist or scientist. Tony Robbins is the same. Most motivational speakers get hired to speak at other people’s events in hotel ballrooms. Tony Robbins hosts his own events. In arenas. Or on his private island. Advertised on infomercials. See what I mean?

All this being said, he is easily the greatest on-stage, live-event motivator of our time. His skill, knowledge, and abilities as a speaker are unparalleled. I first saw him live at an Unleash the Power Within (his signature event) when I was sixteen. It was unforgettable, powerful, and indeed life changing. Go see to one of his events before he retires.

 

2. Les Brown

 

Les Brown was the original and in my opinion remains the very best life-story speaker on the planet. Whereas Zig Ziglar (below) gave speeches in which he used his personal story to illustrate the message he was trying to share, Les’s life story is the message. Les, in my opinion, invented the structure I mentioned earlier where a speaker tells a personal story, then applies it to the audience.

But with Les, it’s not just the words. It’s not just the message. And it’s not just the story. It’s him. It’s his vibe. It’s the way he says the words. The way he moves. You could watch his speech without understanding English and still feel motivated afterward. You could watch it without the sound on and you’d still absorb some of his energy.

He has an infectious laugh which he deploys at will in response to his own jokes, quotes liberally from a wide range of literature, and paces the stage with an evangelist’s zeal. His story is indeed inspiring. But it’s the way he tells it, and the way it makes you feel, that makes him the best life-story motivational speaker of all time.

 

1. Zig Ziglar

 

Before we get to Zig Ziglar, allow me to nerd out with a quick history lesson: The seed of what would eventually become our modern notion of motivational speaking was planted a century ago when the wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie challenged a young man named Napoleon Hill to write a book about the “secret knowledge” that had turned Carnegie and the other figures of the industrial revolution into millionaires (or robber barons, depending on who you ask). Napoleon Hill accepted the challenge and wrote Think and Grow Rich, which established motivational speaking tropes like “whatever a mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve;” “every negative event” contains the “seed” of benefit; the path to riches starts with a “burning desire for wealth.”

A couple of decades later, a guy named Norman Vincent Peale came along and wrote a book whose title remains in the cultural vernacular to this day: The Power of Positive Thinking. Peale was a pastor by trade and thus the first person to present these motivational ideas live, on stage, in something like what we’d now call a “motivational speech.”

But the first guy to put all this together and essentially invent the concept of a “motivational speaker” as I’ve defined it in this article was Zig Ziglar. Zig’s speeches combined the self-help of Napoleon Hill and the positive attitude psychology of Norman Vincent Peale with his own personal story: A pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative of growing up in poverty to become a highly successful door-to-door cookware salesperson.

As a speaker, Zig pioneered the business model of traveling from conference to conference presenting enthusiastic, interactive, and emotionally rousing speeches about having a positive attitude, working hard, and, of course, getting rich. He polished and perfected his speeches early in his career. Most of the material he was presenting in his thirties remained word-for-word identical—but also effective in inspiring audiences—for the rest of his life. If you watch Zig’s speeches today, some of his lines can feel cliché or even corny. But remember, they weren’t cliché at the time. He was the first one to say them. He invented the clichés. He was the original motivational speaker.

 
 
 

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Motivational speaking is my life’s work and my passion. Thanks for allowing me to share the philosophy behind what I do on stage.

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