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.

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

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]


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.