Your stagecraft is excellent; your delivery refined. Now you want to know how to elevate your speaking career to that illusive next plateau. You want the conference conveners to seek you out a year or more in advance of their events because they have to have you. The next steps in your evolution may not look the way you expect them to.

If we applied the 80/20 rule to professional speakers, the breakdown might look like this: 80 per cent are every nice aunt or sweet-natured uncle you’ve ever met: kindly, polite, politically correct. Cautiously inoffensive. Indistinguishable from the next.

The other twenty per cent do things differently. Their approach is counter-intuitive, and they do not play it safe. And to the annoyance of the self-governed rule-bound, these speakers are typically remunerated on a different scale.

Think of it as being the flame-red Lamborghini of your industry, rather than the soft grey Toyota Corolla.

It’s not to say that you have to be rude or brash or caustic to be a great speaker. It’s not to say that you should aim for shock-value at the expense of sound thought. But to be a sugary-sweet clone of everyone else, saying only things that people are comfortable hearing, will mean you will be paid like…well… everyone else.

There are at least 9 things that iconic speakers do differently:

1. Speak strong

Iconic speakers champion a strong viewpoint – sometimes even a controversial one – and represent their wave-making cause with passion. They understand that their role is not to chair a balanced, academic debate, but rather to start mental fires in favour of strong ideas.

2. Practice extra-scenario thinking

Iconic speakers tap deeply into the imagination and vividly display ‘what could be.’ They make potential futures come alive so that their audiences can just about taste tomorrow. They aren’t limited to speaking on operational ‘how-to,’ but venture beyond into ‘what more could be if we only had the courage…!’ This makes them true thought leaders.

3. Own a Framework

A framework is simply your unique way of organizing and presenting your body of knowledge. For Robert Kiyosaki, it’s the ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’ construct. Do you have a central metaphor, a memorable analogy or a unique angle that anchors your ideas; a way of looking at things for which you’re known? Frameworks can set speakers apart and make them iconic.

4. Constantly Produce

Their readers, fans and followers are still thinking about that great speaker’s last game-changing idea. But the speaker is already launching the next one. Iconic speakers have their interior attic lights switched on and are always thinking, always innovating, always producing new thought.

5. Please the buyer, not the audience

Iconic speakers don’t prioritize standing ovations. Oh, they may get them. But they understand that their primary focus lies in assisting the person who booked them to challenge and change the thought processes of a group, not to get hung up on the approval of the group. They meet the real goals; the adoration of the crowd is secondary. This takes real courage.

6. Price themselves right

…Which doesn’t mean being cheap. Quite the contrary, iconic speakers are generally priced at the top-end of the continuum. Their uniqueness means that they are not an interchangeable commodity – ‘Oh, just get another speaker who does what he does’ - and for that reason, they are perceived as valuable.

7. Use strong visual iconography – or none at all

Slabs of text on a slide do not just disqualify a speaker from iconic status. They disqualify a speaker from entry-level status. There is no excuse for low-impact visuals or reams of text in the world of paid speaking. Iconic speakers find ways to make their visual aids and visual representations of ideas so powerful as to be unforgettable. Some don’t even use slides, and are actually the better for it.

8. Something spectacular

These days, great speaking must come across as sincere and authentic. The key word is ‘real.’ But 60 minutes of sincere and authentic, with absolutely no theatricality, makes for a very bland keynote. Iconic speakers bring peaks and troughs to their rhythm. They have vignettes that are so spectacular, so funny, so moving, so memorable, that they are often booked again on the strength of someone saying, ‘Come and tell that story to my group!’

9. Have a certain ‘be like me’ quality

The nice uncle approach may be inoffensive. It may be perfectly safe. But it isn’t aspirational. Its great weakness is that it doesn’t make audiences want to be like you. And yes, in our industry, that matters. Are you iconic? Do you portray a desirable final outcome? Would I want to be like you if I saw you on stage? If the answer is no, there is virtually no chance that you will become an iconic speaker. Why would any audience become devout followers of someone they wouldn’t fundamentally like to be?

It takes great self-belief, true originality, and significant forged-in-the-fire willpower to become an iconic speaker. And no, it doesn’t mean you can’t be nice. It doesn’t mean you can’t be friendly or accessible. It only means that sweetness alone does not meet the criteria required for you to reach the next level.

There is something a little bolder than the ‘nice aunt’ construct at the forefront of the pack. Are you desperate to fit in? Hung up on social approval? Or are you strong enough to stand out?

Watch a 45 minute keynote on ‘How to Become an Iconic Speaker’:

Douglas Kruger is a professional speaker and author who encourages people to think. He speaks on Expert Positioning and the misunderstood link between work and wealth. He is a 5x winner of the SA Championships for Public Speaking and the author of three books. See him in action or read more of his articles at Email him at Follow him on LinkedIn or Twitter: @douglaskruger.


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