Speaking in public can be a powerful marketing tactic for any self-employed professional. Public speaking increases your visibility, boosts your credibility, and establishes you as an expert in your field. It gives you exposure to potential clients in such an impactful way that you may find yourself closing a sale before the day is over.

When you speak at a meeting or conference, it’s a much more effective way to meet new prospective clients than simply attending the event. People are considerably more likely to remember you if you are standing in front of the room instead of seated in the audience.

Speaking virtually at a webinar or teleclass allows you to reach prospects located outside your local area. Many professional associations and virtual communities regularly invite outside speakers to deliver programs to their members.

With all the benefits public speaking offers, it’s unfortunate that surveys show most people are more afraid of speaking in public than of dying! If this is true for you, don’t include public speaking in your marketing plan just yet. You want to make a good impression on your prospective clients, and you’re not going to do that if you are nervous and uncomfortable.

Take a public speaking class at your local community college or adult learning center. Or, join a local Toastmasters International group, where people meet regularly to practice their speaking and get feedback on their delivery.

You can work gradually on becoming a better public speaker by gaining more experience. Start by participating in a networking group that requires members to introduce themselves at every meeting. Your next step might be volunteering to emcee a meeting for a group you belong to. After that, you might be ready to serve on a panel, where it is common to speak while staying seated and referring to notes.

Over time, you will get more comfortable at being in front of a group and be able to carry off a solo talk without experiencing panic.

When you are ready to get started with speaking to promote your business, you will need to locate some likely places, groups, or events where you can give presentations to prospective clients. You should seek out organized groups to present to rather than trying to produce an event yourself and round up your own guests. You may be surprised to find how many civic, business, and professional groups are eagerly seeking speakers for their meetings.

Here are some potential speaking venues:

  • Chamber of Commerce mixers and workshops
  • Service clubs such as Rotary, Lions, and Kiwanis
  • Trade and professional association meetings and conferences
  • Meetings and mixers hosted by networking groups
  • Brown bag lunches sponsored by corporations and office complexes
  • Lectures, workshops, conferences, and fairs hosted by educational institutions, community organizations, and affinity groups
  • Classes offered by community colleges, resource centers, and adult learning centers (e.g. The Learning Annex)
  • Webinars, podcasts, and teleclasses hosted by membership organizations, educational institutions, and vendors

To approach groups like these about being a speaker, first, choose one to three speaking topics you would like to present. Your topics should be interesting, distinctive, and showcase your specialized expertise without being excessively self-promotional. They should also allow you to tell stories about your work and include examples of what you have done for clients. In this way, you can deliver valuable content to your audience and promote yourself effectively at the same time.

Give your presentation topics enticing titles that will attract plenty of prospects when appearing in a group’s newsletter or program announcements. Write brief descriptions of each topic that will give group organizers enough information to decide if they like it, and can also be used to promote your talk on their calendar. Include a short bio of yourself that summarizes your qualifications to speak on the topics you are suggesting.

Once you have a talk scheduled, look for ways to get the most out of the opportunity. Post the details on your website, announce the talk in your newsletter, or send a special bulletin to your email list. People who attend the talk will get a chance to see you in action, which may be all they need to hire you. Even for those who don’t attend, your credibility will be increased, because the sponsoring group has given you an implied endorsement by asking you to speak.

Ask the sponsor if you might also write an article for their newsletter or blog. Published before your talk, an article will increase attendance. If it runs afterward, you may get inquiries from those who missed you and want to know where you will be speaking next.

To make the maximum impact on people who hear you speak, give them both valuable information and a chance to connect with you on a human level. Interact with the audience before, during, and after your presentation, and allow plenty of time for questions. Make sure the audience knows exactly what services you offer by giving the host a prepared introduction to read.

Finally, make sure to capture the names of everyone who attends your talk so you can follow up with them afterward. Collect contact information from those who attend by holding a drawing for a book or CD, or offering to send them a free ebook or tip sheet. Or, if the host permits, circulate an evaluation form, collecting feedback on your presentation, asking if your services might be of interest, and gathering names of other organizations where you might speak.

Then be sure you follow up. Even though public speaking is a compelling marketing technique, it’s still a mistake to count on people contacting you if they are interested in doing business. Within a few days after your talk, reach out to the people who heard you speak and offer to answer any additional questions they have about the topic of your presentation. Then ask if you could be of service in your professional capacity.

Since you have already established yourself as an expert and made a personal connection with the people who were in your audience, contacts like these may be the easiest — and most productive — sales calls you’ll ever make.