Fledgling professional speakers say they struggle to sustain themselves

The Comerica Theatre in Phoenix recently featured professional speakers Tony Robbins and Lisa Nichols, as well as Arizona resident Dean Graziosi. (Photo by Travis Arbon/Cronkite News)

Despite Arizona’s history as the birthplace of the National Speakers Association the Phoenix metro area does not necessarily attract the kind of large speaking engagements at the rate happening in other areas, according to convention statistics and venue operators. That leaves small-time speakers to fend for themselves in a competitive industry.

Because speaking engagements can be held anywhere from a high school to a private home, no organization tracks the number of speaking events that happen in the state.

However, groups do track conventions, which often bring in local speakers to fill their schedules, said Loretta Love Huff, president of the Arizona chapter of the National Speakers Association a professional development organization for business and motivational speakers.

The Phoenix Convention Center held 65 conventions in 2015, according to city spokeswoman Cynthia Weaver. These conventions are often the venue of choice for larger, nationally recognized speakers who may receive thousands of dollars for their services.

Other large western cities host a similar or greater number of conventions, albeit with key differences.

For example, San Diego saw 64 conventions in 2015, according to the San Diego Tourism Authority, but more than double the number of total attendees at 535,910. That means individual conventions in San Diego were, on average, much larger than in Phoenix.

Denver’s convention center saw 215 conventions with more than 900,000 attendees in 2014, according to Visit Denver.

When speakers aren’t contracted by conventions, they occasionally participate in large speaking events at other venues.

Nationally-recognized motivational speaker Tony Robbins headlined an all-day event at the Comerica Theatre in Phoenix on Feb. 1, but theater General Manager Eric Larson said in an email there’s no way of knowing how common these events are. He said the theater generally hosts one event similar to Robbins’ each year, but some years the venue may not hold any.

That means that in Arizona, many speakers find the bulk of their work speaking to businesses, local associations or schools, which may pay little or nothing.

Mona Dixon, a 23-year-old motivational speaker and graduate of Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, is learning that the hard way, as she juggles financial stability with a desire to share her message.

Dixon has been speaking on a consistent basis for about a year, mostly to schools, relating her experiences growing up homeless.The money she gets from her engagements won’t cover her expenses, she said.

When she’s not speaking, Dixon works as a high school liason for Mesa Community College while pursuing a graduate degree at ASU. She also was appointed to the board of directors for the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal organization that supports volunteer initiatives across the country.

“There’s some stuff that I have to turn down because I’m not a full-time speaker,” Dixon said. “If I’m at work, a lot of events are in the morning or during the day, and I can’t keep leaving work to do speaking engagements, but I’m not at a point where I’d quit my job and do that full time, either.”

There are slightly more than 3,000 “self-enrichment education teachers” in Arizona, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The job category covers people who speak or teach self-enrichment and nonacademic subjects outside of classrooms. The median wage for this occupation in Arizona is $35,640, according to the bureau, slightly below the national median of $36,020.

Dixon said part of the reason she has trouble getting off the ground is that she lacks the professional connections more experienced speakers have. She is not a member of a speaking organization and does not have an agent, which means she’s had to handle all of her marketing and booking herself.

Huff said her organization requires members to meet a certain threshold, such as completing 20 speaking engagements in a year prior to submitting an application. The group provides training and other services. It claims 74 professional members and 61 candidates in the state.

New speakers clawing their way up the ladder through pro bono or lower-pay work is hardly a new development. Lisa Nichols, a professional motivational speaker from San Diego who appeared at Robbins’ event, said she did 42 events for free before considering charging for her services.

“At the beginning, I was making a lot of fun moments,” Nichols said. “I wasn’t making anything. I remember my first event that I got paid. I got paid $50. … The third time I got paid, I got paid $1,000, and I was nervous because I didn’t know what to say for $1,000.”

Huff said she still occasionally does free events, despite her status in the Arizona professional speaking world, as a way of marketing herself and bringing in new clients.

Speakers now often turn to social media, blogs and podcasts as a way of promoting themselves. Huff said her association provides training on ways to use new tools to enhance speakers’ businesses.

“Social media has become more of a part of branding and marketing ourselves than it was 10 years ago,” Huff said. “The recession certainly changed the meeting industry, so companies are a lot more concerned about their travel budgets and may not be traveling quite so much and bringing in speakers from out of town, so we’re doing more virtual presentations.”

Dixon, who has less than 100 Twitter followers, doesn’t have nearly the following of big names like Robbins. And though she said she speaks about twice a month, with a growing number of requests from clients, sometimes she questions whether professional speaking is the correct path for her in the long term.

“Eventually … I would like to (speak full time), but I don’t know if there would be a time when I wouldn’t want to do that and then I would need a job to fall back on, and then I don’t have any experience for years because I was just a speaker,” Dixon said. “I’m kind of afraid of that.”