Spin a yarn, collect a check

Know your trade, and don't mind holding forth about it? You may be ready for a spot on the speakers' circuit.

American companies are giving their people a good talking to. For qualified talkers, that can make for a career opportunity.

The same workaday challenges that are the bane of the modern corporation - issues such as struggling sales forces, spotty leadership, intense global competition, and flagging morale - are a boon for thousands of professional speakers nationwide.

Using their gift of gab, they impart knowledge, hope, motivation, big-picture thinking and, occasionally, a few laughs to audiences at conventions, company powwows, trade shows, and association meetings.

Eric Wahl is one such beneficiary of corporate America's hand-wringing. For the past three years, the San Diego-based lecturer and artist has toted paints and an easel around the country for a presentation titled "The Art of Vision." At each stop, he literally draws parallels between the creativity that drives great artists and that which fuels the world's most successful entrepreneurs, underscoring his most memorable points and examples by painting quick portraits of visionaries such as Albert Einstein or Abraham Lincoln.

Mr. Wahl's "think outside the box" message and high-energy delivery have brought him a steady stream of lucrative appearances. He says that by year's end, he'll have logged 100 speaking appearances at his going rate of between $6,500 and $9,500 apiece. "I'm truly blessed," he says. "In this business, you can't assume that just because you have a great presentation that you'll be booked all over the country."

Wahl's success story, by his own admission, is something of an aberration. Still in his late 20s, he hasn't published a bestselling management book. He isn't a household name or a corner- office veteran with a trove of great war stories. And he hasn't rebounded from personal tragedy to lead a last-place team to a world championship.

Wahl, who majored in art and business at the University of San Diego, took a job at Speak Inc., a San Diego company that books speaking talent for corporate clients. He ultimately became a partner before deciding to head out on his own.

What Wahl does have, says Rich Gibbons, the firm's president, are the three elements a successful speaker needs in today's marketplace: relevance, uniqueness, and, most of all, passion. "An audience can tell when a speaker is truly committed, versus someone who's doing something by rote and reciting professional platitudes," Mr. Gibbons says.

It's virtually impossible to pinpoint the exact number of speakers working the lecture circuit in the United States today, and it's equally difficult to generalize about the fees those speakers command. While the National Speakers Association, a trade group based in Tempe, Ariz., includes roughly 3,500 speaking professionals, the NSA's membership doesn't include, for instance, most of the celebrities, high-profile pundits, athletes, authors, chief executive officers, former CEOs, politicians and ex-politicians who often make the scene as keynote speakers at major social and business functions.

And, while more than 60 percent of respondents who participated in a recent NSA member survey reported earning anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 for a major engagement, it costs a great deal more to bag a big name, even one who's been a big name for only a short while.

Charles Moose, the former Montgomery County, Md., police chief who headed last fall's Washington, D.C., sniper manhunt, now asks up to $30,000 per appearance. Frank Abagnale, the con man who was the subject of last year's Steven Spielberg hit "Catch Me if You Can," is in the same range. After-dinner addresses from the likes of former President Bill Clinton or former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani have been reported to fetch $100,000 or more.

John Truran, director of marketing for Keppler Associates, which represents Mr. Moose, says the former chief's defection to the greener pastures of the lecture circuit was a logical byproduct of the case's drama and Moose's instant-hero status. "This is a celebrity culture. Moose was the lead guy in the investigation; he's African-American, which makes him a great diversity speaker; and he was a memorable figure in the media," Truran says.

It's still possible for people who lack Moose's track record or Clinton's cachet to make it big in public speaking, experts say, but those whose reputation doesn't precede them have to be able to wow prospective clients with a dynamic demonstration tape that does the talking for them.

Of course, putting that video together demands that the speaker get caught during a terrific performance at the podium, and therein lies the Catch-22, says Mark Sanborn, NSA's president and a speaker who addresses corporate audiences on topics such as leadership, team-building, and customer service. A speaker can't be heard until he or she is hired, Mr. Sanborn notes, but "you can't get hired without first being heard."

Sanborn and others say that by far the most popular misconception about public speaking is that it's easy. "People look at what we do and say, 'Hey, how hard can this be?' Well, if I'm doing my job right, it should look easy.

"The cost of entry in this business is whatever Kinko's charges for a business card, but it's much, much harder than it looks to make a living at it."

Advice for those who'd like to speak

Think you might be cut out for a career as a "change guru"? Ever thought it might be fun to earn a living traipsing around the country telling other people what they should be doing differently at work?

The most successful professional speakers combine a show-biz flair with a memorable schtick (but not too much schtick) and content that audiences can actually use. Here, courtesy of several successful speakers and the men and women who book them, are some hints for turning pro:

Figure out who will pay to hear you. "The first things we ask someone who wants to get out there are, 'Who's the buyer?' and 'Why should they buy you?' " says Don Epstein, president and CEO of Greater Talent Network Inc., a prominent New York firm that mostly arranges engagements for celebrity speakers. "You also have to ask yourself whether you're a great storyteller. Some people will say, "I speak 20, 30, or 50 times a year. And I always ask, 'But how many times have you spoken where someone's paying you?' It's a whole different thing."

Be an expert. "Having a great idea is one thing; having the credibility to back it up is another," notes Andrea Driessen of Seattle's Amplify Professional Speaker Services. Adds motivational speaker Mark Sanborn, "You've got to have expertise to drive your message." Assuming your name alone doesn't open doors, publishing a book and racking up an impressive track record in corporate life are among the best ways to establish yourself, both say. Mr. Sanborn himself has written eight books, including "Sanborn on Success" and "Outlaw Wisdom."

Be funny. St. Louis-based comedian Buzz Sutherland has made a living entertaining and emceeing on college campuses for more than 15 years. Recently, he's found himself addressing corporate audiences, mixing his PG-13 observations about work and family with extended discourses on the importance of trust in business. "Once you get people laughing, they open up," Mr. Sutherland says.

Mr. Epstein of the Greater Talent Network adds that satire - particularly the political variety delivered by the likes of P.J. O'Rourke and Bill Maher - will always find an audience: "Those guys deliver insight and education, but satire makes it easy to digest."

Don't pull it out of a can. The well- traveled rock star who barks, "Hello, Cleveland!" from a Cincinnati stage is dead in the water. So is a speaker who trots out the same generic content for every corporate audience he faces. Speaker Eric Wahl, who lectures on the role creativity plays in successful businesses, provides his clients with a five-page questionnaire that helps him understand the company's unique business challenges and master its jargon before setting foot on stage. "You have to customize each presentation," he says.

Have a great, unique videotape. John Truran, marketing director for Keppler Associates, readily admits that after two decades in the speaker-booking business, "A lot of these tapes look alike. You really have to distinguish yourself from everyone else out there. A lot of this is show business. Groups want less and less substance. They just want to feel good. That's how our culture is, I guess."

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