From backstage, you hear the emcee introduce you as “one of the greatest minds” on today’s topic. You pause one, two, three then push back the curtain. The room is packed with people. You step out from behind the curtain and everyone in the audience jumps to their feet.

You stroll to the podium, shake the emcee’s hand and she leaves you alone on the stage. Every person in the room paid big money to hear you speak. Some even flew in from out of town. Gradually the applause fades and the room grows silent. They are ready to hear you speak the words that will change their lives.

Ready? What do you have to say?

If this scenario excites you, you might think about a career as a professional speaker.

Though it doesn’t appear on the typical lists butcher, baker, candlestick maker professional speaking is a thriving and lucrative field. According to the National Speakers Assocation (NSA)’s 2007 Membership Survey, 52% of its members earn a net pre-tax income of $75,001 or more. Those at the very top of the profession earn millions of dollars per year. And professional speakers earn most of their incomes simply by talking to people about whatever they are most passionate. There are professional speakers on virtually every subject imaginable: health and wellness, business management, education, motivation and goal-setting, spirituality, relationships, sales and marketing, leadership, and confidence building, just to name a few.

How do you become a professional speaker? Carolyn Gross, a professional speaker and author of “Staying Calm in the Midst of Chaos”, worked as a catering manager, a sales representative, and a craniosacral therapist before becoming a professional speaker. She says she was “bitten by the bug” when she saw various motivational speakers speak at conventions while she was involved in network marketing. She was at a point in her life where she “no longer wanted the status quo” and wanted to find a career where she could combine her desire to help people with her need to make a living and a love of travel.

Gross had an epiphany on a weekend trip to Seattle. She was there for a convention, but decided to skip out for a day and visit Mount Rainier. It was on that mountain that she says she had a “vision”. As she peered out from the edge of the mountain, Gross says an image appeared in her mind, of herself “in front of a room full of people with tables in the back full of books” she’d authored.

That image stayed with her when she returned home to San Diego. She joined NSA and enrolled in its training program for novice professional speakers.

Her first speaking gig came through contacts she’d made as a sales rep for a food distribution company. That was 12 years ago. Since then she’s authored two books and been certified as a trainer by a couple prominent companies, built her own company called Creative Life Solutions, made appearances on various radio talk shows (she now hosts her own show on the internet), and spoken all over North America.

To begin your career as a professional speaker, Gross recommends that you first select a topic that you deeply desire to speak about. This can take a bit of introspection, says Gross, but introspection is time well-spent.

“The better you know yourself, the better you show yourself,” she says. In the speaking industry bible, Dottie and Lilly Walters’ “Speak and Grow Rich”, the authors write that a professional speaker “must be a passionate expert on a topic.” You must have a passion that drives you and animates you on stage, and you must have expertise that focuses your marketing efforts and makes you the “go-to” person to speak on a given topic, the authors say.

Think about any of the experiences you’ve had in life: family, military, volunteer, spiritual, work, relationships, or even medical. What are you an expert in (or would you like to be an expert in) that people want to know more about and would pay money to hear you speak about?

Sometimes the most difficult experiences in life can be made into powerful and moving speaking programs. As a stage III breast cancer survivor, Gross often speaks on overcoming cancer without surgery just as she did, adapting her own experience and her expertise in maintaining calm in difficult and chaotic situations to inspire others afflicted with cancer and their families. She helps them to be not only cancer survivors but, as she calls them, “cancer thrivers”.

Gross’ second recommendation is to practice speaking in front of audiences. “Get to Toastmasters. Get to NSA,” she says. Get involved in an organization that will help you become the best speaker that you can be. Then find some places to speak, even for free at first, if necessary.

Gross recommends starting with any service organizations you area involved with such as churches, charities, and non-profits. These organizations are always looking for people to speak and are a great place to start. To further refine your skill as a professional speaker, Gross advises getting a speaking coach. You can find one in your area by doing a quick internet search.

“Find a mentor,” says Gross. This person should be an established professional speaker. How do you go about getting a mentor? “You do not walk up to someone and say, ‘Will you be my mentor?’ That’s not how it works,” she says. “You must have something to offer them, even if it’s just an understanding that you’d do anything to help them.”

“Read as much as you can about professional speaking starting with ‘Speak and Grow Rich,” says Gross. “But remember that speaking doesn’t come out of a book.” She advises getting to as many live events as possible and watch how a speaker engages a crowd. If you can’t get to many live events, get some DVDs of successful professional speakers and watch them again and again.

So, is professional speaking for you? That depends.

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