There comes a time in your career when people start to recognize you for your expertise. Whether it’s a reputation you’ve carefully crafted over the years or one you’ve naturally and serendipitously fallen into, when you reach a modicum of success in your field, you’ll notice that people start to ask for your opinion.
At the office, they may ask for your perspective on detailed projects, or high-level strategy. Outside the office, strangers will ask for your perspective, too—often in the form of a speaking opportunity or conference invitation. This is especially true if you’ve already done some public speaking, and are easy to find online, which these days so many of us are.
Depending what your take is on public speaking, that attention may or may not be welcome. Early in your speaking career, you may look at speaking invites with delight. Being recognized for your talents, knowledge, and unique perspective on a topic is flattering, and validating: it shows we’re doing good work, and confirms that other people see that, too.
But once you have a few conferences under your belt, you may find you have a different reaction.
If you find yourself fielding speaking requests and unsure of how to respond, here are my tips for how to navigate those requests and know whether it’s worth your time—and your audience’s—for you to accept the invite, and speak:
Be honest about your interest in the conference
First things first: is the conference you’ve been invited to compelling to you? As a speaker, you’re not expected to attend each session, so no need to evaluate content panel by panel. But at a high level, are you excited or at the very least intrigued by the spirit of the conference? If the answer is no, your answer to the organizer should also be no.
Assess your audience
Who will you be speaking to? Does it sound like “your tribe”? Are you confident you can help or enlighten that crowd in some way? If the audience doesn’t resonate with you, your message may not resonate with them, either.
Dig into conference history
Is the conference well known or brand new? Have you attended before? Who has spoken there in the past, and do you admire and respect those previous speakers? Does the conference organizer have experience hosting? Will you feel good attaching your name to the conference?
Ask about details before you accept
How long is the talk expected to be, and what format? When is the conference (will you have enough time to prepare?), and where? How big is the audience?
Plan to be prompt
Ask your questions upfront, and ask when the conference organizer will need you to confirm your participation by. Remember that conference organizers are busy people with complicated lives just like you, so gather details, but respond promptly. If you decline and know someone who might be a better fit, pass their name along and keep the good karma going.
Ask the hard questions
Regardless of whether or not you’re ready to take that speaking slot for free, always ask if there is a speaker’s budget. This is not insulting or greedy: it simply means that you value your time, and any conference organizer looking for speakers knows and expects this. Forget discomfort and find out if there’s an honorarium or speaker’s fee to offset the time you’ll spend preparing and presenting your talk. Ditto for inquiring about airfare and lodging support.
Focus on “fit”
Is it obvious why the conference organizer picked you—not someone else—to speak at their conference? How will your presence and knowledge contribute to the conference? Is the topic spot-on for your expertise, or a stretch? If it feels like a stretch, it probably is: if it’s not clear to you why you should be there, it won’t be clear to your audience, either. If you’re not sure why you’re being invited, ask. If you still don’t get a convincing response, move on.
Align your goals
Are you being asked to repeat a previous performance and reshare pre-existing content, or create entirely new content for your speech? Which would you prefer? Are you and your conference organizer looking for the same thing?
Check your chemistry
Given the audience makeup, will you be excited to share your story? Flattery aside, will you look forward to putting in the work and preparing your presentation on this topic? If you’re lukewarm on it now, best not to sign up: It will only get more intense after accepting.
Knock ‘em dead, or save your story for the right match. It will come, all in due time.