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.

New Blood

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.

Published May 21, 2007
Categorized as Conferences
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14 Comments · RSS feed
Gareth Rushgrove said on May 21, 2007

Good post, and some good points. Agree with getting out and speaking. Another options might be other, more commercial, local networking groups or academic circles. I got a gig recently teaching web design at a local uni which I did partly for the speaking experience.

The comment about a good feedback mechanism made me think. Maybe something mashing up upcoming, twitter and tagged posts?

Cheryl said on May 21, 2007

Really great post. I think the idea of approaching organisers with an idea is a good one as it shows you've really put thought into it. I guess another idea is to start small, especially if you have something like Refresh or the Web Standards Group in your area, where you might be speaking to a crowd of 20 instead of hundreds - at least it gets your name out there and a bit of practice in.

For the record, I enjoyed your panel at SXSW. :)

Jeff Sargent said on May 21, 2007

Good post, thank you. This is something I've been thinking a lot about lately, so when this post showed up in Bloglines, I had a "Jonathan is reading my mind again" moment. That's a neat trick you have...

What I'm getting from your post is that you can't wait for opportunity to come to you, you have to be active in pursuing opportunity; being active in a local group, putting yourself more aggressively (but not too) in front of conference organizers, etc. In other words, you have to market yourself.

Kilian Valkhof said on May 21, 2007

Very interesting post! You have a small error near the barcamp talk: "right your name down".

Being pro-active is indeed always good. Finding an organisation in need is even better. That way, you can get a semi-relevant track record for presenting. Offer workshops or talks to (web)company's in general (as just another service) would work as well, I think. Though then you have the dilemma of intentionally improving your competitors. (Which, most often, is something you don't particularly want.)

About your "not good enough" part, a very good technique is videotaping yourself and watching it afterwards. It's very confronting, and you will probably hate every moment of it, but it'll sure make apparent any ticks, annoyances or other points of improvement.

Matthew Oliphant said on May 21, 2007

Feedback is very important, and I agree with you there's no good mechanism I've seen for getting it. I've spoken twice: the first one went well, the second one sucked... from my point of view.

The feedback I received form the conference organisers on the second one was difficult to do anything with. It was a 3 person panel and was the 3rd lowest rated session, but that was solely based on "rate from 1 to 5..." That isn't much help. It was a dry topic which had the last slot on the last day. Everything I found on people's blogs afterward was positive (not that there were many people who wrote about it) which didn't jive with the numerical feedback. Was it me? Or the other two? No way to know.

I think it would be fair, in some venues, to say, "Hey, I am new but I enjoy this: help me get better by giving specific feedback directly to me at this site http://...." Heck, I'd even say that if I weren't new.

I guess we could just take our mad prezo skillz and make our own conference. That'd learn em.

Scott G said on May 21, 2007

Great post... I saw you speak at SxSW and I figure you were well presented and came off professional. The feedback at SxSW was kind of hit and miss, depending on your panel though.

Another point to public speaking. It's a *lot* of hard work. For something like an hour presenting, it's estimated you can spend up to 80 hours working on it... and you should. As a public speaker you can't just go up and waffle about anything unless you are *very* gifted at speaking.

Most people that turn up are professional peers that have chosen you over another presentation going on at the same time. You have to deliver :-)

Chris said on May 21, 2007

I think that you have presented some fantastic points on getting into speaking with this post. I know personally and intamately how much of a challenge getting ready for a speaking event can be. I have lead three or four before with topics from success to school to organ transplants and sometimes its a challenge, but I love getting up in front of people, so it comes to me easy and words have always been easy for me to use and understand as well.

Slick stuff with this live preview on comments

Lisa Braithwaite said on May 22, 2007

You give some good pointers for people wanting to break into the field of professional speaking. And you're right - it's not easy! It takes a lot of hard work and persistence.

I want to comment on this part of the post: "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."

First of all, you can't assume that you weren't any good just because they didn't invite you back. Organizers don't usually like to invite back the same people year after year, because they want to provide variety for participants. They may wait a year or two before having you come back. So don't take it personally right off the bat.

Second - you can't rely on conferences to give evaluations or share them with you once they've collected them. I always give out my own evaluations at conferences, because it's the only way to be sure that I get the feedback I need.

You also mention getting a podcast of your presentation. The best way to evaluate yourself is through video, so if any of your conferences videotape, ask for a copy. If not, you can always videotape yourself at the conference - I've done it! Then watch the video at regular speed, with no sound, and fast forwarded! You will catch most of your flaws this way.

I've invested in a digital voice recorder, so that I can at least hear myself after the presentation. When you have audio and video of your presentations, you can post them on your site and you come across as more professional. Conference organizers can then use those tools to determine if they want to book you.

And of course, as a public speaking coach and someone who's been speaking for many years, I am an advocate of hiring a professional if you really want to improve your speaking skills. :-)

Jonathan Snook said on May 22, 2007

@Cheryl/Scott: I'm happy to hear the presentation went well.

@Lisa: a part of my personality assumes the worst at times. And it's hard not to think it's "me" when I see others who were invited back (or had asked to come back). Your idea of posting video on one's site is a fantastic idea and I'll definitely have to remember that for future events!

Jermayn Parker said on May 22, 2007

my 2c

I have done a lot of public talking for my church and i still find it hard at times especially when not doing it regularly. I find that getting someone brutally honest is the best for me (in my case, my fiance) as she can pick and I can take it from her.

Although my experiences are only aimed at a local church, I can relate in some way. I also found being prepared with several talks/ presentations ready as a lot of the time, to get started you are just filling in and then when shine with your prepared talk/ presentation you may get more chance.

Patrick Haney said on May 26, 2007

It seems that I am "that guy" at conferences now. You know, the one who's always there. Usually wearing his KERN University sweatshirt. The conference junkie.

I'm with you on the problems with getting speaking gigs at conferences though. I got on a panel at SXSW only because some friends asked me to join them. I've tried to get my name on a few "lists" but to no avail. I suppose I don't really have a solid presentation thought up, but I do have a few ideas.

So how does one break into this role of "invited speaker?" I don't know, but when someone finds out, please tell me your secrets.

Britain said on January 16, 2009

Good afternoon. When you have got an elephant by the hind leg, and he is trying to run away, it's best to let him run.
I am from Japan and too poorly know English, please tell me whether I wrote the following sentence: "The wu yi system was created to help you achieve the incredible body you have always wanted."

Thank you very much :-D. Britain.

Rashed said on March 14, 2011

Well if you speak like how you write on this blog then I dont see why you cant get a gig. I suppose the hardest thing is to get hold of you first few gigs. maybe you should start doing your own talks on facebook and then you will have something to show people when they are considering you

Rashed said on March 14, 2011

sorry not facebook, I meant youtube. I am at work but you can already tell what are the two things I use the most whilst at work :)

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