So you want to be a speaker?
The fame. The glory. The joys of galavanting across the planet presenting at conferences around the world. Sounds exciting doesn't it? Let me tell you, it's not as easy as it sounds to break into the speaking circuit. In fact, let me impart my experience and viewpoint on the matter.
Talk to a conference organizer and one of the many things they'll talk about is getting new blood. Talk to regular conference goers (Mr. Haney, I'm looking at you) and they'll talk of the need for new blood. Of course, this would be balanced against a line up of well known names that draw people out. It's hard because new people are by definition new. They're inexperienced and there's no sure-fire way to guarantee a successful presentation.
I feel for the organizers. I imagine it terribly nerve-racking trying to determine a well-balanced line up. You've gotta be able to fill those seats after all.
When and Where
My biggest problem is that I only find out about a conference after it has been announced. By that time, the line up is almost done. How is one supposed to break into the scene if you never know when and where these things are going to happen? And of course, when announced, there's a huge list of big names.
Sometimes, though, there's an open call for presenters. SXSWi did this for 2007 and I put my name in. Mind you, my panel didn't make it but I managed to get in on another panel. I noticed that the Ajax Experience did something as well, although I couldn't come up with a decent idea for a presentation but I'll touch on that in a minute.
Often times, a conference that was held at a place and time one year will be back again next year. Same bat time, same bat place. With this knowledge in hand, you can approach the organizers and hope for the best.
Having an idea
Just emailing the organizers and saying, "Hey, I'd like to be involved" doesn't seem to help. At least, it hasn't for me. At best, a quick "thanks" might be received or at worst, ignored altogether.
You'll be better off putting together one or two presentation ideas. Not just witty titles, either. Include a paragraph that explains who the presentation is targetted to and what material you expect to cover. That way, the organizers can review and have a greater sense of whether what you want to do will fit in their program.
Try and think of something that is targetted to the audience that will attend the conference. For example, I didn't submit an idea to the Ajax Experience because I felt that anything I came up with didn't fit right. Of course, if I never submit an idea, I'll never get picked.
(Interestingly, the recent Blue Flavor online chat had veered onto what would make a good presentation idea. Apparently, case studies or process introspectives could be a key approach.)
Having a proven track record
Idea or not, you'll have a better chance of getting picked if you have a proven track record. This is a bit of a chicken and egg thing. How do you get experience if people will only pick you if you have experience? Luckily, there's a couple ways.
First off, BarCamp! They're free and completely volunteer. Find one in your city and if there isn't one, organize one. And when you get there, write your name down for a slot. It's all volunteer so I doubt anybody will fault you for not being stellar. Another option is a local Refresh. These tend to be smaller events but run more regularly than a BarCamp.
Teaching is also another great option. If you've presented seminars or taught courses then you've got a decent advantage.
Still not getting gigs?
Join the club. Personally, I know that I've lacked in presenting ideas to organizers, instead falling back on just asking and hoping for the best. Surprise, surprise, that hasn't worked. I do have some experience having presented at Webvisions last year and SXSW this year. But maybe it's something else...
Not good enough?
Alas, I didn't get asked back to Webvisions this year. Was it because I really am not a good public speaker? Should I just give up on the idea? The problem is, there is no decent feedback mechanism. I have no idea if it went over well or not. When I asked, people were positive. For SXSW, we actually got to see what people filled out for the comment cards but it's difficult to walk away with anything constructive. The comments go from brutal to fantastic.
Having a mentor or speech coach could go a long way to tweaking your delivery. If you can get a podcast of your presentation, you can even give it a listen yourself (unfortunately, I haven't seen a podcast for any presentations I've done...maybe next time, I'll just set my laptop to record it).
Make Me A Speaker
Make Me A Speaker was set up to allow people to learn more about getting into public speaking but that doesn't seem to have gone far since it's been launched.
What I do see is a lot of people wanting to break into public speaking. Despite the current trend of dozens (upon dozens) of conferences, I suspect things may start to slow down in a couple years. These two factors will make it even harder to break through into regular events.