Want to get paid to travel and talk to people from around the world? For me – and other professional public speakers – that’s the gig. Folks often ask how to break into the business, so I sat down with colleagues at the National Speaker Association Winter Conference to ask about how they got started.
As I prepare to interview Tami Evans, she asks if her friend Christine Cashen could join the conversation. While some interviews might be complicated by adding a last-minute attendee, this one is immediately enhanced.
Their easy rapport and warm affection for one another is both palpable and inclusive. It’s a dynamic, fun conversation, and they build off of one another so organically that it’s difficult to differentiate between their voices in my interview notes.
I ask what advice they have for people considering entering the public speaking industry.
Cashen says, “Find something you’re passionate about and that other people are passionate about.” Rather than just telling stories, identify how your story can motivate or teach the audience.
Once you’ve got an idea of the topic you want to focus on, you’ve got to get in front of people.
“It’s controversial,” Evans tells me, but “Speak, speak, speak, even if it’s free. You can’t shortcut feet on the stage.” The only way to get more comfortable speaking in front of people, she asserts, is to do it.
Evans lives in a smaller community and started by calling all the businesses in the online yellow pages. She told them, “I’ll do a free lunch and learn or after-work session for you.” She ended up with connections in manufacturing and businesses of all different kinds using this strategy.
Evans also suggested joining the National Speaker Association. She encouraged newbies to get involved by attending events and volunteering. There’s an element of collaboration and sharing of resources within the Association that, according to Cashen, “You just don’t see in other industries.”
This collaborative spirit helped foster Evans and Cashen’s relationship. “Christine’s the reason I’m in the business. She started as my mentor, then she became my friend, now we’re sisters,” Evans tells me.
As a public speaker, Evans was initially reticent to engage with the audience more organically. As a classically trained actress, she was accustomed to following a script and striving to get every word just right.
When I shared my own inner-critic’s narrative, which similarly tells me that I’m too interactive and that “real speakers” give speeches, Evans and Cashen laugh in a way that’s both supportive and empathetic.
Quite to the contrary, Cashen recounts, “I told [Evans] to get in there, interact with the audience. Something will happen in the room. It’ll bring the whole room together. It elevates the live experience, and people will say, ‘You had to be there.’”
Now, with years of professional speaking under her belt, Evans agrees, saying speakers purposefully create those “you had to be there” moments in their talks.
Other moments of connection with the audience are unplanned, though, like the time when Cashen fell off the stage. She laughs readily, and on stage describes herself as #HotMess while playfully engaging with the audience. She strives to be highly relatable.
Evans recalls feeling that as an actress in New York City, in audition after audition, the only way to succeed was to become perfect, to become like everyone else. She says she often shares a particularly embarrassing pre-audition experience.
There was a wardrobe malfunction – Evans’ skirt was tucked into her pantyhose on the way to the audition…in Time Square. Evans arrived at the audition frazzled, gave a decidedly imperfect audition but told the casting team about the embarrassing situation. They cast her in the role, telling her they liked her personality and passion.
“Personality and passion upstage perfection every single time. Women think that in order to be better or succeed, they have to be less raw.” Instead, Evans suggests, “Let it hang out. Especially in the speaking industry.”
As Evans and Cashen shared their experiences and advice, the affection they have for the industry, their audiences and one another is readily apparent. For those looking to join the world of public speaking, their advice may be a perfect start.
A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.