How To Non-Sleazily Break Into The Conference-Speaking Circuit

How do writers actually get paid? By giving talks. How do thinkers launch a brand? By giving talks. How do you break in? By reading this article.

Opportunities, it has been said, don't float down from the sky; they're attached to people. Which is why speaking gigs--and the potential connections and exposure they imply--are so valuable.

So how do we get to the podium?

First, make a connection

"People putting on conferences want to offer the best content they can for the people who attend," notes entrepreneur-speaker Kate Matsudaira. You need to show them why you're an obvious part of that selection.

As with everything else, your odds of acceptance go up if you know the people in power. To make a better ask, Matsudaira notes, you should connect first. An introduction, even over email, will prime the pitching pump, as will a few Twitter interactions.

But take heed: Conference organizers, like other mammals, can sense if you're a clingy, sleazy, self-promoting predator. Like dating, hiring, and other forms of courtship, it's best to show them what you can add and avoid talking about what you need.

Next, make the pitch

Ben Orenstein broke into RailsConf because he made an enthusiastic, concise pitch: making his argument in two points and attaching a video of his speaking style.

The result? One of the conference co-chairs, after being forwarded the app, replied "Wow... just wow."--that's the impression we're trying to make here!

Then: make speaking normal

The key, it seems, to landing such speaking gigs is making it something you do: a habit, a ritual, a craft.

To do that, Matsudaira has awesome advice:

  • Pitch, pitch, pitch: She reports that she's pitched the same conferences multiple times before they accepted her--even though she's now a known speaker.
  • Know the timing: Many conferences start accepting applications six months ahead of time--so you can apply with an outline, then flesh it out as the date approaches.
  • Study the process: Read abstracts of the talks that have been given, she says. This will clue you into the organizers' taste.
  • Have a presence: This is a little old hat, but make sure you're readily Googleable. If they can't find you, you look like a risk.

Then, once you're accepted, it's a matter of finding your voice.

Bottom Line: Know the people, know the material, know the pitch. Repeatedly.

So you want to speak at a conference….

[Image: Flickr user Kevin Jarrett]

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5 Comments

  • I'd also add that relentlessly marketing to event planners via multiple platforms (email, snail mail, LinkedIn, etc.) is hugely effective. Building the relationship by offering thoughtful ideas, forwarding interesting articles, or simply hand writing a card to the event planner works wonders.

    It is not the best speaker who is on the stage at the convention; it is the speaker who marketed themselves to the event planner as the obvious and only choice who gets the gig.

  • Theresa

    Good post but somewhat undermines the amount of time, money and energy needed to be booked on the speaker's 'circuit'. Having been a motivational speaker since the 90's, I've seen good speakers fall by the wayside due to lack of marketing skills, finances, people resources, technology, yada yada. The opposite is also true. Average/bad speakers booked because they're marketing gurus.

    One of these days I'd love to get on that proverbial speakers 'circuit' and be booked solid by never-ending referrals....

    Thanks for your insightful blogs. I'm a big fan.

  • Amy

    Also important to remember that each event is different, and attracts a different audience.  The same 'pitch' may not always be appropriate.