From Free To Fee

Making the Transition from Amateur to Professional

by David Brooks
1990 World Champion of Public Speaking
Austin, Texas

Steve Martin used to close his comedy act by plucking his banjo and singing a song that ended with the lyrics “the most amazing thing is, I get paid for doing this.”

If you have ever accepted a check for speaking, you know the feeling. There’s nothing better than getting paid for doing something you would gladly do for free.

Through Toastmasters, you hone your skills by giving free presentations. But as you progress through the manuals, and your skills improve, it’s not uncommon to acquire a desire to speak for a fee.

If you are good enough, you can progress from amateur to professional speaker, as many Toastmasters have done. Yet, though the skills you have developed in your club can take you to the threshold of a speaking career, to fully make the transition to professional speaker, you need to learn several things that the Toastmasters experience typically does not teach.

Among them:

You will rarely be paid for a seven-minute speech.
Toastmasters’ speeches require brevity. Except for a few advanced manual speeches, most assignments are in the five-to-seven minute category. To be able to say something significant in five to seven minutes is a great skill to develop, because it requires precise construction and economy of words.

However, no meeting planner ever looks to hire a speaker for a mere seven minutes. In the professional speaker’s world, 30-60 minute speeches are common. Therefore, you have the luxury of time that Toastmasters does not allow. But after spending years practicing manual assignments that reward conciseness, constructing longer presentations can be awkward, if not downright difficult--a process contrary to the skills you’ve honed.

In fact, 1995 World Champion Mark Brown says writing a keynote address is like “preparing for the World Championship in reverse.”

“Writing my winning contest speech was a matter of condensing 45 minutes worth of material to fit a seven-minute window. Now, people want to hear my winning message, but they want to hear it as a 45-minute keynote. So I had to rebuild it--taking my tightly edited seven minutes and expanding it--enhancing it with more humor, more drama, additional stories and audience interaction.”

“In a keynote address we have the luxury of time that Toastmasters does not allow,” Brown said. But he cautioned “If we have 45 minutes, it is important to fill that time wisely by adding more points to produce more substance. It is not sufficient to merely stretch out your original three points you had in a seven-minute speech.”

You will have to work harder for the audience’s attention and respect.

Toastmasters audiences tend to be the most attentive, receptive, and polite audiences in the world. We are attentive because one of our purposes is to improve our listening skills. We are receptive because we have an inherent interest in the speaker as a friend or colleague. And we are polite because we know it will soon be our turn at the lectern.

As a result, Toastmasters tend to listen to you from your very first word. Professional speakers, however, rarely enjoy these courtesies. Frequently, you will speak to people have no prior knowledge of who you are or how good you may be. Often, you will face people who would really rather be someplace else. Occasionally, you will be confronted with people who are there only because they have to be.

Because non-Toastmasters audiences are not trained in listening etiquette, it is possible to launch into your speech too quickly. That is, unless you have extraordinary stage presence or an unusually dramatic entrance, many in the audience won’t be ready to listen when you are ready start.

This is not to imply that you should enter into your speech timidly or with hesitation. Begin with authority and appropriate power. Use the first minute or two of your address get the audience’s attention and to establish the direction of your message that will follow. 

Then, back off just a bit.

Aware of the fact that you have grabbed their attention, but mindful that the points you made may have been lost while the audience was settling in, take the next three to five minutes to give them time to get to know you. Give them an opportunity to learn how you look and sound-give your audience ample “get acquainted time.” This can be time well spent, because if your listeners don’t feel as if they know something about you, they will remain indifferent and consequently, your message will be lost.

So what do you fill this “get acquainted time” with? Play to your strengths. Tell your most amusing anecdote, ask a few questions to encourage involvement, use a few humorous lines if you have them, or use any number of similar devices to get the audience to focus on you. Let them learn your manner and style before you try to hammer your message.

Then, after you have established who you are, how you look, and how you sound, show the audience that you are going to make a sincere effort to communicate with them, not just speak to them.

Italo Magni, a finalist in the 1994 World Championship, emphasizes the importance of making that connection. “In a Toastmasters speech you may spend the first minute or two trying to impress. In a professional speech, it’s more important to spend that time trying to connect. You’ve got to show the audience that you want them not only to hear your message, but to understand it.”

You will need to develop a different rhythm.
Once you have connected with the audience, the next trick is to sustain interest for the duration of the speech. Though your rate of speech--the speed at which the words come out--need not vary from amateur to professional presentations, the pace, rhythm, and flow of a professional speech can be significantly different.

Because of short time limits, Toastmasters learn to build to a climax in approximately six minutes. But if you did that in a one-hour presentation, what are you going to do the rest of the hour?

Obviously, you cannot construct a 45-minute speech by simply stringing together six or seven manual speeches. But if you design your 45-minute presentation around a series of five-to-seven-minute cycles, you can help keep the audience focused and engaged. That is, make a significant point at least every five to seven minutes. The easiest way to do that is by telling anecdotes or stories.

You will need more stories.
Golden Gavel winner Bill Gove said at the 1992 Toastmasters convention that the secret to public speaking is simply this: Make a point, tell a story. Make another point, tell another story. Make yet another point, tell yet another story. That’s all there is to it, he said.

To illustrate the effectiveness of this advice, (not surprisingly) he told a story.

He said years after he will have given a speech somewhere, he will encounter a person who was in the audience. The person will tell him, “Bill, I still remember the story you told about..”

“That’s flattering,” Gove says, “but do you remember the point?”

“No, but I do remember the story.”

Gove then smiles and says “If you got the story, you got the point.”

This is how professionals earn their fees. They tell good stories.

The typical Toastmasters speech allows time for you to make three points, anchored with three examples. Because of time constraints, you rarely get a chance to tell more than one story. But even in a speech as short as seven minutes, one good story can be enough.

Morgan McArthur, the 1994 World Champion, used this one-story technique with remarkable success in his championship-winning speech. Now, as a professional speaker in New Zealand, he thrives on turning little stories into big examples. “I look to my life, and the lives of others, for real events that I can use to illustrate my theme,” he said. “And the longer form of a professional presentation gives me enormous opportunity to select from life’s grand menu to accomplish that.”

Once you have great stories to illustrate great points, you are well on your way to becoming a professional speaker.

Except for one thing:

You will never stop learning.
The progression from Toastmaster to professional speaker is a continual process. Some can accomplish the task in months; for others, it can take years. But if you are serious about professional speaking, don’t look at Toastmasters as an organization you “graduate from.”

There is always room to grow.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to hear, once a speaker has achieved a measure of success: “Now I am a professional. Now I don’t need Toastmasters.”

Bill Hodges, DTM, a management training seminar leader from Dayton, Ohio, disagrees. “I’ve seen far too many Toastmasters take their training and leave. It always shows. They should have stayed.”

Reprint rights may be granted provided you 1) submit a written request, 2) include author’s credit as written below, and 3) provide a copy of the publication in which the article appears.

Author’s credit:
David Brooks, DTM, won the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking in 1990. Since that time he has coached and/or mentored six subsequent World Champions and dozens of finalists. You may contact him at

Author’s note:
If you want to learn more about building better speeches, visit David’s website. Under the Resources tab you will find many free resources for writers and speakers. And, when you are there, sign up for David’s free blog-azine so that you can receive nuggets of knowledge from him on a regular basis.

This article originally appeared in Toastmaster Magazine, 1999.