Historically, public speaking has been one of the best ways for authors to sell books. 

Mark Twain went on an in-person speaking tour to sell books and save himself from bankruptcy. Modern public speakers give online presentations and lead listeners to their book’s sales page. 

Whether you speak to people in-person or online, public speaking is a great way to sell books. If listeners enjoy a speech, they want to buy a copy of the speaker’s book. 

Authors with public speaking careers sell 30-60% more books when they are the keynote speaker than when they simply have a book table available

  • But how do you get that first speaking gig? 
  • How do you get started? 
  • If you are speaking already, how do you get additional speaking opportunities?  

Jane Jenkins Herlong knows how. She is an international best-selling author, professional singer, award-winning professional speaker, and a member of the Speaker Hall of Fame.

Photo of Jane Jenkins Herlong, who teaches authors about public speaking.

How did you get started with public speaking?

Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: You didn’t start off in the Speaker Hall of Fame, so how did you get started?

Jane: I had the privilege of being in the Miss America Pageant as Miss South Carolina. Whether I liked it or not, I had speaking engagements and the bug bit. I adore being able to share my heart with an audience.

Find Your Lane

A good first tip for speakers is to find your lane. When I was 23 years old, I certainly wasn’t qualified to speak on marriage or children’s issues. But I could speak about rising above your circumstances, breaking barriers, and trying to find the best version of yourself.

I started doing school programs after my year as Miss South Carolina, and I loved it. I sang and talked to kids, and I bloomed in the spot I was planted.

Did your first speaking opportunities pay well?

Thomas: I imagine those first speaking gigs didn’t pay well since a typical elementary school doesn’t have a big budget for professional public speakers.

Jane: No, but I learned to seed my speech.

Seed Your Speech

When you’re speaking, you say things like, “I love speaking for young people in elementary schools and high schools, but when I speak to teacher groups….” You’re telling people the next step. Always be willing and ready to move to the next level.

Thomas: When people tell you it was a good talk, they’re offering a courtesy, whether it was a good talk or not. One of the ways I measure the effectiveness of my speech is whether I get any speaking invitations from people in that audience.

Ask Listeners What They Liked

Jane: You should also ask people what they liked about your talk and what their main takeaway was.

Sometimes if you go into the ladies’ room or the men’s room and pull your legs up in the stall and listen, you’ll hear how good or bad you were.

I always like to ask people specific questions because the worst testimonial you can get is “I loved your speech.”

I want to know

  • What did you like about it?
  • What was your takeaway?
  • What did it do for you?
  • What can I share with other people?

Thomas: The answers to those questions give you things to work on. Feedback is so valuable because it tells you what does and doesn’t work.

Be Brave

Jane: Be brave. Whenever I talk to speakers who think they’re knocking it out of the park for their big audiences, I challenge them to speak to a junior high group on Friday at 2:00 PM and then tell me how good they are. If you can hold that audience, you are a ringer and a winner. Teenagers will tell you how good you were.

Challenge yourself, get uncomfortable. Authors should do a lot of free public speaking at the beginning of their careers.  

Thomas: One of my clients developed independently published books to go along with his talks. He flew me out to Seattle once because he was speaking at an event for 30,000 people.

He wasn’t the only author speaking publicly at the event, but they probably paid him $5,000-$10,000 . It was good money, but after he spoke, he sold probably $30,000-$60,000 worth of books in the back of the room.  

He had a team of people swiping credit cards because every time he’d speak, there would be a line around the room waiting to buy his book.

Public speaking for authors goes hand in hand with book writing. Each makes the other more likely to succeed. The book gives you a little bit of credibility and helps you monetize those speaking gigs. The speaking helps more people discover your books. It’s a win-win for you.

Give Books Away

Jane: Many authors give away books when they speak publicly. I make sure to give it away to the person in the back of the room because everybody gets to look at my book as they hand it back to the winner.

Then I drive people to my table by saying, “I’ve got a gift for all of you back at my table.” I give away a bookmark with a QR code that takes them straight to the products page on my website.

That’s one way to be clever and collect names for that all-important author newsletter.

Thomas: Before we had kids, I used to travel and speak a lot. I had a flyer I took to every speaking event. One side was glossy and had information about our website-building services. The back was matte, and it said “Notes” with horizontal lines where people could take notes from my talk. It was perforated at the bottom, and listeners could write their name and email address, then tear it off and use it as their entry into a drawing for something I was giving away.

It was an effective way to grow my email list. The only downside was that somebody had to type in those email addresses and decipher people’s handwriting. If you missed one character, the email would bounce. Back then, we had a higher-than-normal bounce rate.

If you’re using that method to grow your list, it’s important to send emails frequently so you can clean inaccurate addresses from your email marketing service provider’s list. A high bounce rate can hurt your email’s deliverability.

Do you use QR codes to collect email addresses when you speak?

Thomas: For a long time, I wanted to use QR codes, but people didn’t know how to use them. But since restaurants started using QR codes during the pandemic, I think they work better.

Do you find that people will scan a QR code that’s on the big screen and type in their email address?

Jane: I always send out a pre-questionnaire, and I ask about the age of the audience. If it’s an older crowd, I know the QR code won’t work well. But if it’s a younger crowd, they love it. Give people the option. Provide a slide with the big QR code, but realize that it needs to be big. It should take up about half the slide.

You can also show a slide with the URL and say, “Take a picture of this and type in the URL manually if you’d like.”

Offer the Best Price

Another way to sell books is to give the event coordinator the best price you can offer. Ask if they want to buy a deeply discounted book for everyone in the audience. Ask your publisher for their best rate, or if you’re self-published, choose the rate yourself.

I did this recently. The event coordinator ordered 100 books at a reduced fee, and everybody in the audience got a book. I signed each book, and when I got to the event, the attendees wanted the books personalized.

I have sold hundreds of books that way. Whenever you’re speaking with an event planner, remember to ask if he or she would like for everyone to get a book?

Thomas: If you’re publishing traditionally, talk with your agent about negotiating the price you pay for your author copies. Tell your agent or publisher that you value being able to get author copies inexpensively because you do a lot of public speaking. Getting your books for $4.00 per copy as opposed to $7.00 per copy makes a big difference.

You also mentioned the intake form that allowed you to get to know the audience so that you can adapt your talk for the audience.

Being able to adapt your topic for the audience is the mark of a professional speaker.

What do you ask the event organizer on your intake form?

Jane:

  • When is the event?
  • Where is it located?
  • Where am I supposed to be?
  • What time does the event start?
  • What time do I speak?
  • Who is picking me up from the airport?
  • What are the ages of the group?
  • Do you have a theme?
  • What would you like the folks to walk away with?

The answer to that last question is key because the first slide will say, “Three Sweet Tea Secrets To…,” and then I fill in their words in the blanks. It might say, “Three Sweet Tea Secrets to Increase Laughter and Reduce Stress.”

That’s how I deliver exactly what they asked me to talk about. It’s not a different speech. I might add different stories, but it’s pretty much the same speech.

I tell authors that when you’re preparing talks for public speaking, it’s easier to get a different audience than a different speech. But you must keep refreshing your material.

Take the time to get to know your audience and their needs.

How do I get an even coordinator to book me to speak?

Thomas: What tips do you have on getting event coordinators to book you to speak?

Do Your Research

Jane: You must do your research to find out if you’re a good fit for the organization. Visit their website, and when you call, say, “I visited your website, and I see you deal with a certain topic that I often speak about.”

Strategic Cold Calls

Cold calling is a lost art. Today I was calling around for future speaking engagements.

I’m a farmer’s daughter, so farm bureaus are big for me. I have a spreadsheet with each farm bureau, the last contact I had there, and their website and contact information.

I’ll call and say, “Hi, I’m updating my list. I have Tiffany Smith as the contact person who books your speakers, is this person still relevant?”

That gives me credibility because I’ve done my homework. I’m being honest.

Then I’ll talk to Tiffany. I’ll say, “Tiffany, I’m so glad I got to you.” I’ll leave her a voicemail or speak to her. Then I follow up with an email and add the “date sent” to my spreadsheet. Then I will follow up again in a couple of weeks.

It’s strategic. If you want to get booked and get paid, this is what you do.

Follow Your Friends

A lot of times, I’ll say, “I see you had a friend of mine speaking last year. I love her. You know, we’re similar. If you’re looking for that type of message, I’d love for you to look at my website.”

Sometimes I’ll produce a video saying, “Hey, Joan, I saw your theme for this year is Reaching New Heights. I’ve got the nicest speech about reaching new heights.”

Sometimes I offer to do a breakout session. Other times I offer to sing the national anthem.

I try to make myself so attractive that they cannot turn me down.

Thomas: It’s work to identify what kind of speaker they need, reaching out, following up, and recording videos. To speak professionally, you must approach it like a professional. It’s more than simply giving a good speech. It’s doing the hustling, smiling, and dialing.

Don’t wait around for the event coordinators to call you. You must reach out yourself. The telephone is scary. People don’t like to talk on the telephone, but because it’s uncommon, it’s memorable.

Jane: I have an friend who gave speeches at Baptist churches. I left him a message and said, “Jeff, I got your public speaking schedule. I’m going to call the event coordinators where you have been and tell them I’m your friend and I do a similar kind of talk.”

Then I told him, “If I get the job from your schedule, I’ll send you a finder’s fee. If you have a problem with this, call me back.”

I didn’t hear from him, so I’ve been dialing for dollars today, calling different Baptist churches in the area where Jeff has been. And my first line in every email is, “I’m friends with Jeff.” Then I tell them that I have a fun Lawrence-Welk-on-steroids, big-band comedy show I’d love to do.

There is an audience out there for every author who wants to speak publicly. You just have to find them.

If you want to make it work, you must have a passion for what you do. 

JANE JENKINS HERLONG

Thomas: The word passion comes from the Latin word for suffering. If you have a passion for something, you’re willing to suffer. You have to be willing to do unpleasant things.

Everyone enjoys the applause at the end of the speech, but you have to work to earn the applause.

It takes hustle, and you have to be willing to endure a bit of suffering if you want the reward at the end.

Read the Room

Jane: If you want that applause, you must read the room and adapt as necessary.

If I am telling a story and I see people shifting around in their seats and getting bored, I completely change it. So be ready and willing to change material at the drop of a hat.

Here’s a good example. I was speaking for the Arkansas School Nutrition Industry. As soon as I walked in, I could tell they were depressed. They’d had a physical loss. Some of them were dealing with COVID deaths, and instead of coming into the ballroom, they were in the hallway crying, saying, “I’m so sorry.”

I knew right then I had to change my approach. I had to feel their pain before gradually leading them into my Southern humor.

That’s why you arrive at the venue early and stay late. You go early to get a feel for the audience, and you stay late to answer questions and sell books.

Thomas: I like to arrive early to get a feel for the room and to check out the technology.

When I present, I have graphic-rich slides. For a 30-minute talk, I may have 150 slides, and I go through them quickly. I need to be able to advance them myself, but often the guy in the back wants to do it because he’s expecting bullet points on one slide per minute.

You also want to get a feel for the room beforehand because you’ll be more confident on stage if you’ve spent some time in that room. If you only see the room right before you go on stage, it’s a little disorienting.

Get to Know the Audience

Thomas: You also want to get a feel for how much the audience knows about the topic. I don’t want to tell them things they already know, but I also don’t want to tell them advanced things that they can’t connect with what they already know.

Jane: I like to get to know people before the event starts. It’s fun to sit down and talk with people, but I don’t tell them I’m the speaker because then they clam up.

I’ll initiate a conversation by asking what they do and ask if the pandemic has made their work harder. Then, when I open my speech, I can connect with them by saying, “Sarah was telling me how the pandemic has affected her work and how much this organization has meant to her….”

It shows I’ve taken time to get to know folks in the audience. And when Sarah hears her name, she loves it.

If you do a good job at that event, you’ll get multiple spinoff engagements. You can also ask the meeting planner if she knows other people in her industry who would love to hear your talk, and if she does, ask her to introduce you via email.

How do you develop a new speech from scratch?

Thomas: How do you approach preparing a new talk from scratch?

Jane: When my book, Sweet Tea Secrets from the Deep Fried South, came out, it was a challenge to get the speech from my head to my notes.

I started thinking of the qualities of tea. I decided I’d outline my speech with three qualities of tea: seasoned, steeped, and steamed.

Seasoned Tea

Seasoned tea represents growing in wisdom because to be seasoned is to have wisdom. Then I tell a story about a 92-year-old woman I met. When I asked her the secret to her longevity, she said it was her favorite scripture verse. Naturally, I asked what her favorite verse was, and she told me, “It came to pass.”

I said, “What?”

She said, “The Scripture says 737 times that things will come, and things will pass. When troubles come, they will pass.”

I thought that was wise, so I used that analogy, and then I told a funny story to go along with it.

Steeped Tea

Steeped means you’re the best version of yourself. I ask the audience, “Are you the person you’re supposed to be?” Then I tell a story about my life and family struggles. I try to make it funny because I am a humorist.

Steamed Tea

I’ve got three illustrations with the alliteration of steeped, seasoned, steamed, and I have funny stories to go with each one.

My funny Southern stories are original. They’re not jokes. People come up to me and say, “I’ll never forget that point because you talked about the time that you got angry.”

I come up with new material by diving into my book and thinking of stories.  

Jesus spoke parables, and we want to speak in parables too. We use our material as parables that teach a life lesson.

Thomas: I love how you start with the audience. You ask what message would resonate with them.

Jane: I also record every speech to capture the audience’s laughter. When I go back and listen to the recording, I can hear what’s working and what isn’t.

Thomas: Listening to recordings of yourself is hard, but authors have to respect public speaking and treat it like a real job.

For the first ten years of my public speaking career, I recorded and listened to every talk I delivered. I still listen to every podcast episode multiple times. I’m constantly trying to improve.

Jane: Sometimes I recycle material. I told an old, old story one time, and everybody thought it was hilarious. The story was old, but new audiences come in every day. You can repeat some of those stories.

Thomas: Old dad jokes are new for children who have never heard them. They’re funny all over again.

What are your thoughts on virtual summits?

Thomas: I’ve been speaking at more virtual summits in the last year, partly because I’m turning down in-person speaking engagements. We have three very young children, and they are three good reasons to stay home.

Jane: I want to commend you on that. The worst mistake a speaker can make is believing that every standing ovation is more important than their children. When my children were young, I asked the Lord not to let my phone ring.

As the mother of two grown children who love me and each other, I’m telling you, you can’t put a price on that. You only get one shot to be a dad. So, Thomas, thank you for that.

Thomas: I enjoy being with my kids, so it’s no burden. But in-person events were a good way to connect with new audiences. It’s how many people discovered my podcast.

Virtual summits have increased in popularity, and I’m speaking at more virtual summits than I was speaking in person.

Virtual summits are less of a time commitment because you don’t have a day of travel at each end of the conference. I can deliver my talk from my home studio, and it often pays about the same. It also converts better to email because people are already on their computers.

I offer attendees a free reader magnet (lead magnet) related to the talk. Many listeners will immediately sign up to get that free thing, and then I have them on my email list.

I almost don’t want to go back to in-person events because virtual events are better in all categories for me.

Jane: Speakers with granular information do well online.

I’ve done several online events, but I love in-person events because I am a humorist. It’s hard to get energy from a virtual environment. It’s more important for me to get in front of people because I have to stay fresh.

Thomas: It’s rough cracking a joke in a Zoom meeting or webinar where the whole audience is muted, and you don’t even know if they’re listening.

Sometimes you can see them physically laughing, but it’s rough.

Standup comedy is by far the most difficult type of public speaking for authors or anyone. It’s even harder than open-air preaching, in my opinion.

Jokes are hard, but humorous stories are easier. Even if the audience doesn’t laugh at your story, at least you’ve told it well. But if you tell a joke and people don’t laugh, it’s rough.

Jane: I told a story in Minnesota that I thought was funny, but a couple of women didn’t think it was too funny. You have to be careful.

Many comedians will not set foot on a college campus because they get ridiculed, reprimanded, and outed.  

Thomas: And punched! There’s this new trend of punching comedians. It’s not just happening at the Oscars. Comedians have to be ready to physically defend themselves.

When people hear a joke they don’t like, they feel their physical violence is justified. We’re living in a different environment in the sense that people are more sensitive and less willing to take a joke.

People used to simply leave the venue in a huff, but now they try to get you fired or physically hurt you.

Comedy is risky because truth-telling is risky.

thomas umstattd, jr.

Comedians are taking on the role of speaking uncomfortable truths that regular people aren’t allowed to say. It’s always dangerous, and it has always been the role of the comedians. Even the court jester was the truth speaker.

Jane: When the event coordinator reads my introduction, I expect people to laugh at two moments in the intro. If they don’t, I know I’ll have a hard time delivering my message. I’ll listen for it. I strategically put those two moments in my introduction that the meeting planner reads.

The audience’s reaction to my introduction helps me determine whether I should be funny, inspirational, or motivational. Because if the audience isn’t in a mood to laugh, nothing I can say will change that.

Sometimes after lunch, when carbs and proteins start to fight with each other, your audience will seem sedated, and you must bring energy to the platform.

I did two breakout sessions at one event. After the first session, people dragged their friends to the second session because they thought it was so great. But the second session was after lunch, and it flopped. When the event coordinator asked what happened, I told her, “Carbs.”

How do you wake up a tired audience?

Thomas: If you have the 1:00 session at a conference and everybody had spaghetti for lunch, you have to find a way to engage the audience and spike their adrenaline.

One time I was in that situation, and as I looked out at the audience of writers, I could see everyone carb crashing.

Since writers are generally introverted and not terribly confident, I had them stand up, find someone they didn’t know, and tell that person one thing they had learned at the conference so far.

That forced them into an uncomfortable situation which caused an adrenaline spike in these poor, shy authors reacting to a conversation with a stranger.

It cost me five minutes of my talk, and I had to cut it down. I didn’t get more time, but that five-minute exercise saved the talk. The energy in the room was higher. People were in better spirits. Even shy people like talking with strangers, especially if the other person is just as awkward as they are. It woke people up, and they even started laughing at my jokes.

Jane: I have a friend who sings, “My Bonnie lies over the ocean. My Bonnie lies over the sea.” Every time she sings “Bonnie,” the audience has to stand up

If I’m speaking to an all-female audience, I sing my silly song, “If You’re a Healthy Person, Clap Your Hands.” It’s funny and has some great lines:

If you’re a healthy person, clap your hands. 

If you’ve had a mammogram clap your hands. 

If your breast you have checked, 

in the shower when you’re wet, 

if you’re a healthy person, clap your hands.

I’ll start by asking how many of them have taken care of their health needs. I give them the opportunity to put a star on their card so they can receive that song in a YouTube video, as well as a checklist of health to-dos.

Sometimes I’ll sing and then go into the audience to put the microphone in someone’s face, and they’ll sing with me. I have several ways of waking people up.

Thomas: The common thread in all these methods is that we make people a little uncomfortable. It’s one tool in your public speaking author tool set.

You don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable the whole time. But if the message is important, then making your sleepy listeners slightly uncomfortable can wake them up, so they’re ready to receive your speech. Sometimes you have to prepare your own way.

Hopefully, the person introducing knows how to set the tone, prep the room, and get people excited. But in my experience, the conference organizer or a random person reads your bio from your website.

Then it’s up to you as the speaker to prepare the way. Since you’re the professional, go ahead and prepare the way.

Get people ready to hear what you have to say.

thomas umstattd, jr.

Jane: Make your introduction easy to read. Don’t use big words that cause the reader to struggle and stumble.

Make sure that person doesn’t do a keynote speech introducing you. If the person introducing you takes 20 minutes, your audience might be half asleep by the time you take the microphone. You’ll have to jack those people right back up. The introduction is tremendously important.

How do you get invited back to the same event?

Thomas: What are some tips for getting invited back to the same venue? A professional speaker often has a circuit of events where they speak year after year. You can cover your bills when you know that six places will have you back every year.

Jane: I recently reached out to a client of mine at the chamber of commerce. I said, “Hey, Tanya, I want to send you my new book.” Tanya and I are good friends, so I’m not randomly sending my book to someone.

I said, “I’ve got a new speech for women in leadership, and I’d love to chat with you about it and send you a video.”

The key to being invited back is to keep producing new material.

Thomas: When you’re starting out, it’s more important to practice than it is to get paid.

It’s hard to practice public speaking in private. 

thomas Umstattd, jr.

You can practice in front of your mirror and your spouse, but that doesn’t teach you how to read a room or get a feel for the emotional tenor.

Authors have to practice public speaking in front of an audience. When I started speaking, I would speak in people’s living rooms for five of their author friends. They’d sit on couches, and I’d present using their TV as a projector.

I didn’t get paid, but I got to practice. Over time, I improved and earned a bigger stage.

After you’ve done it for a while, you can set your fee. When you get too busy speaking for that fee, you can negotiate a higher fee. If you’re in demand, you can set your rate high enough so that you don’t burn yourself out.

If you price yourself too low, you’ll give talks at hundreds of events. You’ll have a hard time remembering what city you’re in, and you’ll burn out.

Jane: Negotiating is important. My good friend Doc Blakely says, “The first one who speaks after you quote your fee loses.” So, quote your fee and shut your mouth. You can always negotiate down, but you can’t negotiate up. You must let them know the value you bring, and that is where you use testimonials.

My friend Al Walker tells new speakers, “Send me your hundredth speech, and then I’ll coach you.” Authors get more comfortable with public speaking over time.

You have to learn to walk a stage and move. You have to learn what looks good on you and have some fashion sense.

Thomas: You have to learn how to manage your energy.

Early in your career, it’s common for an author to feel nervous before speaking publicly. But how you interpret that energy is one of the big differences between an amateur and a professional speaker.

Practice telling yourself that you’re excited rather than nervous, and that energy will help you perform well.

If I’m not a little excited going into a speech, I can’t give my best performance. Use that energy to enhance your performance.

It’s not about getting rid of the butterflies in your stomach. It’s about getting them to fly formation.

Jane: Zig Ziegler said, “Love your audience, and they will feel your love.” He is right. Let them know how tremendously honored you feel that they have taken their time to sit in a room and listen.

If you feel it in your heart, it will come through your mouth. I promise you that.

What is the trick to getting good testimonials from your speaking events?

Thomas: Testimonials can help you set your fees, so how do you get good testimonials.

Jane: It’s important to strike when the iron is hot. When you write them a handwritten thank you note (not a thank-you email), you can ask for a testimonial.

I have a set of thank you notes that say, “Thank you a latte.” I put a Starbucks card inside and write, “Thank you so much for asking me. That was a tough conference. You did a great job, so put your feet up.” Make the meeting planner feel good and look good, and then in your note, ask for a testimonial.

You can also say, “Please tell me other folks who might enjoy what I do.”

I have gotten amazing testimonials by asking. When I received a recent testimonial, I asked if she could add bullet points of what people said about the conference. She did, and it was gold.

I’ve even written my own testimonial and asked the person to approve and sign it.

What tips do you have for authors combining public speaking and book sales? 

Jane: I spoke to a group called Area Churches Together Serving, and I charged a lot for my book that day.

I told the audience I was going to give a percentage of book sales back to the organization, and I did.

If you want to speak and sell books, contact an organization and say, “I know you’re raising money, and I have a new book. Why don’t I come and do a presentation for your group? I will sell books and give you $5.00 off the top of every book I sell.”

That’s an easy fundraiser for them, and it gives you exposure as an author and speaker. It’s also a great way to give back to the organization.

One time, I spoke to a group of realtor women. I told them my speech was called Rhinestones on My Flip Flops: When Life Flips, Don’t Be a Flop. Then I suggested having attendees bring flip-flops to donate to a homeless shelter.

You would not believe the number of shoes those women brought. They got incredible PR. We went to the homeless shelter, and the newscasters were there. It was free publicity for them and for me.

They gave the shoes to ladies in a shelter for battered women. Those women love flip-flops, and they even received some heels to wear to job interviews.

Thomas: You didn’t have to pay anything for that publicity, and you were benefiting the homeless at the same time. That’s brilliant.

Jane: It was a win-win-win for everyone involved. I try to think of ways I can give back and make a difference because that’s what’s happening.

What advice would you give authors seeking their first public speaking engagement? 

Jane: Start by asking your local Rotary Club, women’s groups, church groups, or Bible studies. There are many opportunities for local public speaking that allow authors to give back, so explore your options. Look around and see if there is an event where you can present.

Some people speak at Toastmasters meetings to have their speeches evaluated.

Thomas: Once you have learned what Toastmasters teaches, you should seek out the National Speakers Association (NSA).

Toastmasters focuses on helping you give a good speech. The NSA focuses on building an authors public speaking business.

Learn more about Jane Jenkins Herlong’s speaking and books at JaneHerlong.com.

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