How I became a professional speaker… (and how you can too!)

From where I began, to where I want to be
and how I can help you make that exhilarating journey!

Maureen Zappala was one of the Top Ten Speakers in the World
So often, people ask me “How did you become a speaker?” Sometimes they’re curious about my circuitous and unlikely path from engineer to speaker, and sometimes they want to become a speaker themselves and want the ‘inside scoop’ on how to do it. Enough people have asked that I figured it’s worth putting in writing. Warning: This is very ‘Maureen-focused!’

Few kids dream, “I want to be a speaker when I grow up!” I didn’t. I wanted to be an engineer. In 1983, I graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering (are you doing the math?), and came to Cleveland to work for the NASA Lewis Research Center. I settled in as a project engineer at the Propulsion Systems Laboratory, a full-scale jet engine research test facility. It was my dream job. However, there were a few rare opportunities where I was required to make a presentation, usually a technical or a project status update. I was awful. (Engineers, you may have heard, aren’t known for their verbal communication skills!) As a presenter, I was chaotic, fast-talking, nonsensical, and frivolous. I tried to be funny and entertaining – delivering a technical talk to a room of engineers. I was a train wreck every time.

I was promoted to manager of the test facility (NOT based on speaking skills, I assure you!), and the frequency of presentations escalated exponentially. I had to give budget reviews, maintenance overviews, manpower estimates, research status reports, and construction reviews. I presented to my peers, bosses, upper brass of agency, visitors, general public, politicians, and other dignitaries. I gave tours of the facility, pep talks to the crew, and pitched future projects to management. I gave a zillion presentations — and was still terrible.

At some point during my NASA journey, wanting to give back to my community, I volunteered to do something that strikes fear in the heart of many people: teach Sunday school to junior high girls. I know! Crazy, right? But I LOVED it. I found that my chaotic and off-beat style was a perfect match for their energy and attention span.

One night, I was speaking to a group of teens and parents, and after my talk, one of the adult women came to me and said “I enjoyed your talk. Have you ever heard of Toastmasters?” I had not, and she said “I think you’d be good at it. It helps people develop public speaking skills.” She went on to describe a very fun environment of support and encouragement and I liked what she said.

At the time, I was also selling Mary Kay Cosmetics on the side. Picture my dilemma. My world was primarily men, and I’m selling makeup. Do you see why my customer base was lean? I needed to meet women. (Don’t read too much into that!)

Maureen Zappala is a professional speaker & presentations coachIn 1997, NASA was downsizing, so I opted to leave in order to change focus to selling cosmetics. I remembered what that woman said about Toastmasters and I thought “I bet there are women there!” So I visited a few local Toastmaster clubs, and joined one. That was the turning point for me.

I joined for one reason, but stayed for another. Yes, I met women and grew my customer base, but I found incredible resources and encouragement for developing my presentation skills. I focused on getting better, and I got pretty good, actually. The Toastmaster program works, but only if you do. Great speakers are not born. They’re built. (Which, by the way, is the title of my book on presentation skills. Shameless plug, I know.)

In 2009, I entered the yearly International speech contest in Toastmasters club and I won. I advanced to the next level. I won. I advanced again. I won again. In fact, I advanced to the finals of that contest, the top 10 out of 35000 contestants worldwide, competing for the title of the World Champion of Public Speaking. A lot changed from my days at NASA, didn’t it?

I didn’t win that final contest, but who cares? If YOU were in the top 10 out of 35,000, wouldn’t YOU be jazzed? I sure was! But most profound was the impact I had on audience members. People said to me “Your speech changed me.” I had a message and it mattered.

While rehearsing for that final contest, I crossed paths with many professional speakers, who inspired me from my head to my heart. I learned about the National Speakers Association, the trade organization for professional speakers. I visited the Ohio chapter, and felt like I had arrived home. I learned the scope and breadth of the massive and colorful speaking industry, and threw my hat in the ring to learn what I could to become a professional speaker myself. It wasn’t easy to transition from a Sunday school teacher/engineer/cosmetic maven to a pro speaker. I am a good speaker, but I needed to learn how to market. It’s often said “We’re not speakers. We’re marketers.” It’s true. Some of the highest paid speakers are terrible speakers, but they’re brilliant marketers. Toastmasters taught me the skill of speaking. NSA is teaching me the business of speaking.

When people ask me “How can I become a speaker?” I always ask “Why do you want to speak?” Yes, I know we all have a story, and I believe our stories need to be heard. But don’t tell your story for the sake of telling your story, or to generate sympathy or make yourself feel better. Tell the story so others can learn a lesson from it. Simply offering hope, or showing that YOU overcame something isn’t even enough of a reason. People want concrete “how-to” and “step 1, step 2” directions. They want long-term solutions, not short-term emotions.

How to become a professional speakerIn telling my story here, the lesson for you is this: Speaking is not about you; it is ALWAYS about the audience. Turn your pain into their gain. Get training on speaking skills and marketing skills. Network. Brand yourself. Be unique, not vanilla. Find your message and find your audience. Strive to be the expert in your topic. Speak for free anywhere you can… churches, Rotary Clubs, networking meetings.

Get so good and so known so you can start getting paid. Learn to market. Keep speaking. Work on your message, your craft and your business plan. Develop products to sell. Get mentors. Join Toastmasters. Join the NSA. Don’t get discouraged.

That’s most important: don’t get discouraged.

This is a long journey, but it’s a richly rewarding one.

Best wishes on YOUR journey!

Maureen