How Do I Become A Public Speaker At Colleges & Universities?

Taylorr Payne

Taylorr Payne

Co-Founder & Marketing Expert. Follow us on social media to stay in the flow!
Taylorr Payne

Taylorr Payne

Co-Founder & Marketing Expert. Follow us on social media to stay in the flow!
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Some of the most overlooked professional speakers are professors, teaching assistants, and other college and university faculty. Despite not being a “speaker” at colleges by definition, these men and women lecture all the time, sometimes daily. Because of this, their impact on students in higher education can be long-lasting and their message received by a larger audience. 

But how do you reach those college and university audiences purely as a speaker, rather than an educator? That’s what we’re going to cover here in our guide to becoming a speaker at colleges and universities. 👍 Below are just a few of the topics we’ll cover and questions we’ll answer. 

How do I become a speaker at colleges and universities?

As you may expect, there are a few different routes you can take when entering the world of higher education as a speaker. The first is working to address students while the second is to address the teachers, faculty, and staff on campus. Just as I covered in our previous blog, “How Do I Become A Public Speaker In Schools?” the topics most suitable for your audience and the best tools for finding gigs vary greatly depending on your target group. 

Speakers for College Students

First and foremost, let’s tackle speaking for college students. Unsurprisingly, at a large percentage of campuses, the student body makes up the majority of the on-campus population. As a group, college students can be a desirable audience for a number of reasons. These include their moldability, their large numbers, and their diversity compared to the average group of college faculty. 

However, depending on your age and experience, your message, as it exists currently, may not be relevant to a college student audience. Take college debt, for example. For many of you, it may have only taken a few months of full-time work to save enough money for a semester of college. Today, the average college or university student graduates with at least $37,000 in debt. In fact, nearly half of college students say they’ve considered dropping out purely because of the cost. 

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All of that said, don’t be daunted if your message isn’t immediately tailored to a set of college student ears. For many students, the years they spend in college are some of the most turbulent and formative, making it all the more important that college students are exposed to as many diverse viewpoints, learning opportunities, and guest speakers as possible. That includes you!

We’ll go over, shortly, some first steps you can take for bringing your message into higher education. But first, let’s touch on the other audience present at colleges and universities.  

Speakers for College Faculty

Enter college teachers and faculty members. For many experienced speakers, approaching a faculty audience may be easier than speaking to students. This may be because of their specific profession, age (as college professors are generally older than students), or individual interests. 

Choosing to speak for college faculty rather than students can also be a wise choice, depending on your level of education. Guest speakers for student groups or activities aren’t typically required to have any exceptional credentials. This can, in some cases, result in many competitors for a single gig. On the other hand, most college faculty members are highly educated. As a result, they may likewise look for individuals that mirror their dedication to academic excellence. 

Ultimately, it depends on where you, as an individual, are most comfortable speaking and which audience you can impact more. Depending on your previous education and experience, there are also ways to position yourself so you can work around any credential-related concerns. If you’re not sure how to sell your services in that way, feel free to book a free call with us, too. After all, helping speakers with sales is a large part of what we do!

College Speaker Checklist

But, back to the point. As you’re working to become a speaker at colleges and universities, there are a few best practices, so you can hit the ground running. Let’s break them down one at a time below. 

1. Brush up on the current problems facing college students. 

Remember when we touched on the difference in today’s tuition cost compared to that of 20 years ago? That is why this step matters. Just like you’ve been shaped by past obstacles, today’s students are facing unique problems, problems you might be able to solve! If you’re not sure where to start, the American Council on Education’s report collection and the American Association of University Professors’ “Issues in Higher Education” page are two great resources. Both of these pages are a great starting point for preparing to understand, educate, and motivate the students in your audience.  

2. Check your value proposition and your overall message for college faculty. 

This tip goes without saying: You don’t want to be presenting a message totally irrelevant to your audience. Just like in the last tip, when you made sure you were relatable to college students, you also need to be relatable to college faculty. Demonstrating your passion for higher education is all well and good. However, you also need to be sure you demonstrate your understanding. The National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment has some amazing publications if you want to get a glimpse at the challenges for higher education as a whole. Conversely, if you’d prefer to start small, Cornerstone University’s article “Five Issues Facing Higher Education In 2018” is a solid starting point, too. 

3. Build your speaker one sheet like an educational resume. 

If you’ve been speaking for a while, you probably already have a “one sheet”. If you don’t have one, this is your chance to get started. 👌 I’ll save you my usual laundry list of tools and design strategies for one sheets for now, but, in short, a one sheet is your visual resume. Like a graphic designer’s resume reflects their design skills, you want your one sheet to reflect your brand. If you plan on being a speaker at colleges for your primary job, it’s also useful to create a one sheet specific to education. In other words, highlight your credentials. Showcase any certifications you have, as a speaker and a working professional, regardless of your industry. The more you can show, upfront, that you are willing to study and stay up-to-date on the challenges college students and faculty are facing, the more likely they are to book you. 

4. Connect with as many people as you can – students and faculty alike.

As a speaker, you already know the truth in the phrase, “It’s not what you know. It’s who you know”. After all, the speaking industry thrives on relationships! The same is true when working as a speaker at colleges and universities. The more you can be in the ground learning from and interacting with college students and faculty, the more insights you’ll have, making you more prepared to put your knowledge and skills to use. 

Tools for Finding Speaking Gigs at Colleges

Now, to the bread and butter of becoming a speaker at colleges and universities: the tools. Besides the referrals you’ll get after making connections in the world of higher education, you also want outbound sales efforts so you’re booking gigs consistently. These efforts can be narrowed down depending on your personal focus or desired search radius, from a geographic standpoint. 

That said, databases of colleges and universities are always a wise first step. In the United States, these include CollegeStats.org and 50States.com, among others. Depending on your message, additional search sites may be available that provide lists of colleges tailored to you. In our previous blog, “How Do I Become A Public Speaker At Churches?” for example, we mentioned the Top Christian Colleges Guide. Be sure to search not only for colleges in your area or colleges – period. Look also for institutions that already focus on your areas of expertise. Whether it’s finance, religion, minority inclusion, or a topic specific to colleges near you, showing your knowledge on top of your passion for speaking to college kids is another way to win over college decision-makers. 

Finally, there are a number of organizations for professionals in higher education that you can approach for speaking opportunities. These include the Association of American Colleges & Universities, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, and the College & University Professional Association for Human Resources. Additionally, the SpeakerFlow Intel Engine is another simple and affordable way to build a list of educational institutions. With any of these sources, you can start prospecting for college gigs in no time at all. 

Top College Motivational Speakers on YouTube

Ready to get started as a speaker at colleges and universities but need a little extra inspiration? Check out the videos below the SpeakerFlow team’s favorite college motivational speeches on YouTube. From TED Talks to commencement speeches, the following five clips are five of our top sources of inspiration and encouragement, as experts in the speaking industry and, for some of us on the team, as past college students ourselves. 

As a side note, if you don’t already know what TED Talks are, check out, “What Is A TED Talk? The Fundamentals of TED Explained” for an introduction to TED and another collection of incredible speeches.

“How college loans exploit students for profit” by Sajay Samuel

First on the list is a quick, 12-minute TED Talk from Penn State University business professor Sajay Samuel. In his speech, Samuel states, “30 years ago, higher education tuition was affordable, reasonable, and what debts you accumulated, you paid off by graduation date. Not anymore.” On the brighter side, he also provides a solution from a businessman and professor’s point of view: “[link] the cost of a major to the expected income. Let’s call it Income-Based Tuition or IBT”. Click below to learn more. 

“What Can We Learn From College Athletes?” by Kendall Spencer

Next up is the second of the two TED Talks in this list, a presentation by student athlete and 2013 chair of the National Student-Athlete Advisory Committee Kendall Spencer. In his speech, Spencer explains the many things that everyone can learn from students in college athletics. He says, “As both student and athlete, I get this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take the passion I’ve cultivated on the field into the classroom…a place where we explore new ways of challenging the world around us.” Watch more to learn about Spencer’s experience and how we can all challenge the world we live in. 

J.K. Rowling’s 2008 Harvard University Commencement Speech

The next clip, at 24 minutes long, is the longest in our list and comes from Harry Potter author and screenwriter J.K. Rowling. In her speech to the 2008 graduating class at Harvard, Rowling states that “You will never truly know yourself or the strength of your relationships until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.” Continue watching for more heartfelt advice for people of all ages, whether you’re a student or not. 

Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford University Commencement Address

Fifth is the commencement speech for the 2005 Stanford graduating class, delivered by the late renowned Apple co-creator, Steve Jobs. To the students in the audience, he advises “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” Click below to hear more of Jobs’ encouragement for seeing the opportunity in hardship, among other timeless pieces of advice.

Matt Damon’s 2016 MIT Commencement Address

Finally, last on the list is the 2016 MIT commencement address from actor Matt Damon. Towards the end, Damon says, “There are potentially trillions of human beings who will someday exist whose fate, in large part, depends on the choices you make … on your ideas … on your grit and persistence and willingness to engage.” Continue watching below for more hilarious encouragement and insight. I promise all 23 minutes of optimism and inspiration are worth it. 

Other Frequently Asked Questions

What is a college motivational speaker?

Surprise! A college motivational speaker specializes in bungee jumping, mountain climbing, and other high-adrenaline activities. 

I’m totally kidding. A college motivational speaker speaks to audiences of college students or faculty in order to encourage and inspire them. Plain and simple. 

How much do college motivational speakers make?

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Although the revenue you can make as a speaker at colleges can vary, as a general rule, the larger the college, the larger their budget for guest speakers. Thus, the larger your potential fee for a single speaking event. Conversely, opportunities at community or technical colleges, because they are generally smaller and cost the students less, will generally pay you less. 

Budget can also vary depending on whether the college or university in question in public or private. As is seen in lower education, private higher education tends to cost students more than public higher educational institutions, meaning more money to spend on guest presentations. So, to summarize, the bigger or the more expensive the school, the greater your potential revenue from a single gig. 

That said, the big exception to these rules comes in two words: corporate sponsorship. Tons of businesses, such as Chipotle and Insomnia, exploded because of their popularity on college campuses. So, if the fee for guest speakers isn’t quite what you expected, a corporate sponsor might be able to give you the monetary boost you’re looking for. 

What do speakers in higher education generally talk about?

In the sections above, we touched briefly on a few general topics prevalent in higher education speeches at this time. However, depending on your audience, there will always be minutiae that can tie into your speech to make it more effective. 

Take my home state of Minnesota, for example. Although the University of Minnesota faces many of the same concerns as other large schools, there are specific challenges because of its location. These include safety in extreme cold or the adjustments to the U of MN’s meal plan after this summer’s unexpectedly low harvest, as Minnesota is a largely agricultural state. 

In the end, it’s up to you to research the area surrounding the venue before your gig. That way, you can not only demonstrate your wealth of knowledge in the educational arena. You can also show that care about what makes the area special, and that’s what’ll make your words last long after you leave.

For more information about becoming a speaker in lower-level education, check out our companion blog to this one, entitled “How Do I Become A Public Speaker In Schools?”. 👍

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