By Mike Southon, FT Columnist

After completing a difficult task, it is very satisfying to be told you made it look easy. This is often said about sporting heroes, in the knowledge that one tiny moment of genius requires many long hours of preparation and expert coaching.

The same is true of public speaking, to which many people aspire. Some people are natural storytellers, with the ability to engage an audience at a dinner party. They should be first choice as presenter at a customer event, so long as they are encouraged to tell customer stories rather than alienate the audience with hundreds of bullet points and endless unreadable diagrams.

The event may also feature a professional speaker who is typically being paid for something they love to do, making it seem effortless. If you really understand your subject matter and prepare correctly, it is indeed relatively easy to be a public speaker. It is much harder to be a professional speaker, the crucial difference being that you actually get paid for the privilege.

This is why, despite over ten years earning a living from my speaker skills, I still spend significant time working on my craft. I recently set aside a complete Saturday to learn from one of the world’s leading experts in professional speaking, Topher Morrison.

The room was packed with aspiring speakers, all eager to learn. Some had overcome some personal setback, such as low self-esteem in a public sector job, problems with drug addiction or abusive relationships and wanted to help others. Great speakers and motivational books had inspired them to follow this path; the most popular cited were Tony Robbins and The Secret by Rhonda Byrne.

Morrison’s one-day workshop covered a wide range of topics from presentation tips to practical advice on how to book meeting rooms at the last minute, thus securing significant discounts.

Underlying all this good advice was the plain and uncomfortable truth behind the professional speaking circuit: very few people earn large speaker fees, except celebrities. Many of these are also very poor speakers when judged on platform skills alone.

Non-celebrity speakers at high-profile events are there to sell their products, often giving 50% of these sales to the promoter for the privilege of addressing such a large audience. This can be counter-productive, especially in the UK where audiences have a strong resistance to American-style selling techniques.

This leads unscrupulous motivational speakers to use every technique, including hypnosis and neuro-linguistic programming, to persuade the unwary to put charges for expensive products onto their credit cards. This on the sure knowledge that this time next year they are sure to be a millionaire so long as they follow the ten-point-plan on the $1,500 DVD set.

Morrison explains that speaking at events themselves are usually not enough to sustain a good income; so high-value follow-on products are essential. He offers a programme called Legacy: an intense fourteen-day workshop in Florida with himself and several other world-class professional speaking experts.

At $20,000 plus your airfare, this is only for people who are already successful and wealthy, or have put aside that amount from their embryonic speaking careers towards their professional development.

I was pleased to note that Morrison did not cajole people into handing over their credit cards in the heat of the moment, but requested written applications for his Legacy programme.

Some, he will have to tell that they are not yet quite ready or, frankly, cannot afford it. To others he will explain that it is a very competitive business that requires significant effort and continuous coaching. But if successful, they will make professional speaking look easy.

Topher Morrison can be found at http://www.tophermorrison.com

Originally published in The Financial Times: www.ft.com Copyright ©Mike Southon 2011. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission in writing. Mike Southon- Co-author of The Beermat Entrepreneur & Business Speaker- www.mikesouthon.com

Mike is one of the world’s top business speakers, a Fellow of The Professional Speakers Association. Mike is a Visiting Fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at London South Bank University. He has made frequent appearances on television and radio, has a monthly sales column in Real Business magazine and is a regular commentator in the Financial Times.


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