The Importance of Moving Up Through the Levels Within the Speaking Profession

As I have worked with professional service firm clients and created pre-program questionnaires with associations that serve speakers, trainers, consultants, and others, I have observed that there are six major stages of development (levels) within the speaking profession.  A speaker’s passage up the levels depends on his/her development and maintenance of a range of skills only a few of which are related to presentation on the platform. Mastery of marketing and sales, business management, topic development, and product development also serve as building blocks to help the speaker move from one level to the next. The levels are not just about the speaker’s sales volume.  The levels are about behavior, knowledge, demonstrated skills, and clarity of identity and purpose.

The media tends to cover the activities of top-level speakers.  A few former Generals (Schwartzkopf and Powell) and former Presidents (Carter and Bush) come to mind.  Interestingly, very few of the Level 1 and 2 speakers have come up through the ranks within the speaking profession.  Tony Robbins, Tom Peters and Zig Ziglar are unique in this regard.  Some excellent work is being done by Level 3 speakers (Allesandro, Kanter, Winninger, Popcorn, Cathcart, Ormond, Brooks, and Greshes, to name a few), but the overwhelming majority of speakers never make it past Level 5 or 6.  In fact, a large percentage of speakers who have earned professional certification (CSP) are still at Level 5. Not moving past Level 5 dramatically restricts one’s capacity to make a difference, so it’s important to make progress up through the levels.

How Does A Speaker Know His/Her Level?

At Level 6, a speaker still has his/her “day job” and does speaking on the side.  At Level 6, most, if not all, speeches are provided for free and are typically done for groups like the Kiwanis, the Lions, the Rotary, or Parent Teacher Organizations. Sometimes Level 6 speakers are those who provide speeches primarily to market/sell other products or services. Although some very talented people provide excellent speeches while in Level 6, it is likely that those speeches include quotes and other peoples’ stories. Most Level 6 speakers would not yet know what his/her book would be about, and the typical Level 6 speaker does not know what bureaus do.

A speaker has entered Level 5 of the profession when the commitment has been made to view speaking as a career and the huge step of charging a fee for one’s speeches has been taken.  The gross revenue of Level 5 can be as low as $15,000 to as high as $125,000/yr.  Because speaking is an expensive profession, a person who has made a career change from a managerial position within a corporation will have taken a significant pay cut if he/she doesn’t move beyond Level 5Level 5 speakers tend to do everything themselves or ask a spouse or other relative to help out.  They work the business from their personal checkbooks.  They may have some published articles, but will not have published a book of their own. Although many Level 5 speakers still try to be everything for everybody, it’s during Level 5 that he/she typically discovers the value of being original and bringing one’s own stories to the platform. The demo tapes of Level 5 speakers often include fuzzy footage. It’s the Level 5 speakers who send a ton of unsolicited material to several bureaus and wonder why the response is so poor. It’s the Level 5 speakers who still ask if they need to write a book, and Level 5 speakers still assume that they can/should retain a fairly high percentage of their gross revenues (e.g. 70%) and wonder why their revenues aren’t growing.

Moving through Level 4 is the most difficult and significant “passage” for most professional speakers. The gross revenue for Level 4 speakers typically ranges from about $125,000 – $500,000/yr through a combination of speaking fees, product sales, and other services like coaching.  To have moved to Level 4, the speaker must not only have decent platform skills, but he/she has realized that business finances should be separated from personal finances.  Operating systems such as contact management reports, schedules, project tracking, and budgets are critical during Level 4, and it becomes very unlikely for the speaker to progress to the next level if the systems can’t be executed consistently.  Speakers often participate in self-published anthology projects during their tenure in Level 4, have a book published, and have some other products (CDs, DVDs, downloadable MP3s, workbooks, etc).  It’s during Level 4 that a speaker comes to terms with his/her core message and identity.  The inconsistencies of the speaker’s marketing get resolved during Level 4.  The demo, one sheet, testimonials, reprints of articles by and about the speaker, website, etc. all complement one another and convey a consistent message. It’s during Level 4 that a speaker addresses whether bureaus should be part of the marketing/sales mix.  Often a great deal of time and money is spent during Level 4 courting a wide range of bureaus.  To move through Level 4, most speakers recognize that retaining 20-40% of their gross revenue is more realistic.

By Level 3, the speaker not only has published books, but has usually published THE book–the one that conveys his/her core message.  By Level 3, the speaker has typically selected a few bureaus that match his/her philosophy, understand what the speaker does, and serve the desired customer base.  The speaker’s demo becomes much less important by the time a speaker is at Level 3.   By Level 3 (which spans $500,000 to well over $ 1 mil/yr) the speaker has a team of people working with him/her who provide the consistency for product development, customer service, marketing and sales, business administration, etc. while the speaker is on the road. Even the speakers who proudly proclaim that they will never employ anyone clearly depend on an important network of vendors to function at Level 3.  Level 3 speakers often have a syndicated column or do a regular radio program.  They may even have appeared on OPRAH or another talk show.

Being Honest About the Levels Is Important

One can sometimes tell the level of a speaker’s business by the focus of his/her worries, complaints, and, yes, whining.  For example, Level 5 speakers often complain about how much money speakers must pay bureaus and how impossible it is to get their attention.  By the time a speaker is at Level 3, he/she has long since realized that the clients belong to the bureaus and the bureaus pay the speakers rather than the other way around.

It’s tempting for people who are new to the speaking profession to assume they can skip steps and try to jump right to Level 3.  Perhaps you also know a few formerly well-financed speakers who have ended up with a big box of unused fancy brochures or unsold product in their garages.  That happens when a speaker is really at Level 6 or 5 and is trying to buy his/her way up the levels.  It takes a while for some speakers to learn that it’s impossible to write your fourth book first. Although some people have just the right combination or skills, topic, and timing that propels them through the levels more quickly, the overwhelming majority of speakers do better when we remember to enjoy the learning involved at each level.  An individual speaker can be at level 6 with online training programs, at level 5 for products, level 4 in marketing and sales, etc.  Having a realistic view of where you are can prevent loss of one’s mortgage and free the speaker to still ask questions that match his/her level and really learn.  In the speaking business, half of the fun is the ride up the levels.

Known as The Growth Strategist®, Aldonna R. Ambler, CMC, CSP helps rapidly growing midsized companies (typically $20 – 200 million/year) realize their goal of Achieving Accelerated Growth With Sustained Profitability® through opportunity/resource analysis, executive coaching, strategic working sessions, and her intermediary role regarding growth financing. Her clients are among the brightest, most ambitious business leaders whose names now appear on published lists of the fastest growing privately held corporations. The recipient of 23 prestigious awards for her success as an entrepreneur and industry leader, Ambler hosts a peer-to-peer Internet radio program, aptly called The Growth Strategist™, which features lively interviews with CEOs of midmarket companies who have successfully executed the growth strategy of the week.  She can be reached toll free at 1-888-Aldonna (253-6662), by e-mail or online at

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Aldonna is very perceptive. It's amazing how quickly she grasps the unique strengths and weaknesses in a company. Her assessments and recommendations about local entities served as an important spring board for my work with local presidents within the region. She has worked with bright executives, appreciates the complexity and is constructive in her advice.

Fred Pike
Formerly of Ricoh/IKON Office Solutions

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