Breaking into the speaker circuit
As somebody who both organises and speaks at events, I’ve got a good insight into the workings of the conference circuit. This is probably why I regularly get emails from people looking for advice on breaking into the speaking circuit. So rather than repeating the same advice via email, I thought I’d write a quick article I could point people to.
First off, breaking into the speaker circuit can feel intimidating. If you look at the line up of most international conferences, they're packed with veterans speakers from well known brands. It’s easy to feel that the speaker circuit is already locked down and there’s no way to break in. However it’s worth noting that every veteran speaker was in your shoes at some stage. In truth, audiences get bored of the same old faces pretty quickly, so conference organisers feel a huge pressure to find new speakers from diverse backgrounds. As such, conference speaking is surprisingly egalitarian, and talent rises to the top surprisingly quickly.
Conference speaking can be a lot of fun, but before you start dedicating too much time and effort becoming a speaker, it’s worth thinking about your motivations. There are a lot of reasons why people choose to speak at events, and there’s no right or wrong answer. However the most common motivations I see include:
- Having a unique specialism you want to share.
- Giving something back to the community.
- Having an excuse to learn a new skill.
- Frustration by the status quo.
- Not being able to afford to attend conferences unless you speak.
- Building up your personal brand.
- Increasing your perceived employability and finding work.
- Promoting your company or consultancy services.
- Travelling the world.
While all the above reasons are perfectly valid, focussing on the intrinsic benefits of public speaking like a desire to help people, share knowledge and to push the industry forward, will lead to a longer and more fulfilling speaking career. Conversely, if you focus on extrinsic reasons like building a person brand or landing that next job, you’re more likely to stop once those goals have been met. Either way, public speaking is incredibly rewarding, so let’s look at where to start.
I regularly get emails from people wanting to speak at one of my events. When I ask where they’ve spoken before and what they speak about, the answers are often the same; they’ve not actually spoken anywhere before, and don’t have anything specific they want to talk about (worse is when they ask you what you want them to speak about, when you have no idea what they’re actually good at). This is a relatively new phenomenon, and it seems that speaking has gone from being a means to an end, into an end in itself.
So my first piece of advice would be to think deeply about the topics you want to talk about. If you have a particular skill, passion or experience you want to share, that’s great. However there’s a misconception amongst a lot of people that you need to be an expert to speak. While knowing your topic is important, you don’t necessarily need to be the most experienced person in the Universe on your chosen subject.
There’s a strange irony that the most experienced people in a particular topic are often the worst communicators, while those relatively new to a field can be great at explaining things, because they’ve recently gone through the process of synthesising the information themselves. As such, great storytelling usually trump superior domain knowledge.
There’s no point being a great storyteller if you don’t have a good story to tell, so its worth thinking about the particular point of view you bring to the topic. Do you have recent experience in the subject matter? A project that went well of badly? A technique you’ve developed, or a perspective that’s slightly different from the norm. It doesn't matter if you’re talking about something that’s been spoken about before, as long as you’re bringing a new and interesting perspective to the conversation.
Its also worth mentioning that just because your topic have been done by other people, doesn’t mean that everybody knows the subject inside out already. There’s a tonne of new people entering our industry every day, so there’s always a market for seemingly obvious stuff. In fact, I have no problem finding people to talk about cutting edge techniques at my conferences, but I really struggle finding people to talk about foundational skills. So don’t think you have to have something unique before you start talking about it.
Another common mistake new speakers make is coming up with a new talk for every event. Public speaking is a learnt skill, so the more you do it the better you get. That means that the first time you do a talk will probably be the worst time, and as you do it more and more, you’ll get better and better. You’ll learn which parts of the talk work well, and which bits need tweaking. You’ll see where people laugh, and where they don’t, and use the feedback k to improve things the next time you speak. As such I generally find I have to do a talk three or four times before I’m happy with it.
A lot of professional speakers will have 3 talks on the go at any one time. They’ll have a talk that they’re just debuting, a talk that they’ve been doing for a while and really happy with, and a talk that was super popular a few years back, but they are slowly running down. The new talk will be reserved for smaller conferences or conferences looking for fresh material, the main talk will be for the big events looking for a surefire hit, and the older talk will usually be the one you’ll do for free at local events.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m seeing a lot of new speakers expecting to start right at the top, with the big international conferences. I’m not sure if there’s an x-factor type level of expectation here, but most of the good speakers I know started building their reputation and learning their craft by talking at small local meet-ups. After a few years they’d start speaking a local and sometimes national conferences, and only start being invited to speak at bigger international conferences after a good few years on the circuit.
This is similar to bands and comedians, who spend years learning their craft in local bars and comedy clubs, before getting the big TV spots and stadium gigs. As such, my advice would be to start small, get in loads of practice, and work up to the bigger conferences and events over time.
Public speaking can be a nerve-racking experience, and even the most experience speakers feel stressed before going on stage, In fact I have a few friends who are literally nervous wrecks in the run up to their talks, wondering why they put themselves through the stress, and swearing that they’ll never speak again. Yet the moment thay step on stage something changes, and as an audience member you’d never know the stress they were going through back stage.
A small amount of nerves are arguably a good thing, and can act as a performance enhancer. However there are lots of “tricks” that can help you combat the inevitable stress of public speaking; exercise in the morning before your talk, listening to music backstage to get in the zone, or just being quiet and peaceful before your session, in order to blank out any fear and self doubt. Whatever techniques you use, things do generally get better with time and experience.
My top tip for getting over nerves isn't anything especially revolutionary. I just try to memorise the first few minutes of my talk, so when I get on stage I can do it confidently and eloquently. It usually takes a few minutes for the nerves to subside, and for you to hit your stride. So nailing the first few minutes, usually helps.
The other little secret is the best speakers often get coaching. Public speaking is a performance, and generally get’s better through active improvement. So training and coaching can help you structure more engaging talks, develop a good stage presence, increase your vocal range, and generally improve your delivery and confidence. So no matter what level speaker you are, whether beginner or expert, consider getting some external help.
When you’re ready to move from smaller local events to larger conferences, organisers are looking for three things, generally in this order.
- Confident speakers who are able to tell a great story.
- A really interesting topic that fits with the current zeitgeist.
- Well known speakers or speakers from well known brands, that will help sell tickets.
Mostly, conference organisers are looking for people who can demonstrate expertise, so if you are reaching out to organisers to suggest your services, you need to understand their conference, the audiences it attracts, and the topics that will be of interest to them. If you’ve been to the conference before, let them know. If you haven’t been, maybe you should consider buying a ticket this year, and then suggesting yourself as a speaker next year. It’s always more flattering as a conference organisers when the person genuinely knows the event, rather than bulk emailing a list of conferences they got off lanyard. Even worse is when the person's assistant or PR firm reaches out, as it demonstrates that person is to busy or self important to bother reaching out directly. This anonymous shotgun attitude always gets a black mark in my book.
If you’re already an experienced speaker with a good reputation, organisers will mostly know who are are, and what you talk about. If not, you’re going to need to give them a couple of possible talk ideas, along with a video or two of you speaking. If you don’t have videos of you speaking, it’s going to make your lives a lot more difficult as the organisers want to minimise risk and be sure that you’re going to do a great job. So consider recording a version of the talk when doing a run-through for colleagues or friends. Failing that, offer to drop by the event organisers office to run the talk by them in person. Organisers get dozens of unsolicited talk requests, so you need to make their jobs as easy as possible, by demonstrating how good you are and the value you can bring to their event.
When preparing talks, I usually allocate 1-2 hours of preparation for every minute of the talk. So a 45 minute talk would take me 90 hours (roughly two weeks) to pull together. The more you do it the quicker you’ll get. A lot of novices don’t realise the time it takes to put together a great talk, and will skimp on prep. In fact I see a lot of novice speaker (and embarrassingly some experienced speakers) bragging at speaker dinners about how little effort they’ve put in the talk. Even worse is when they get up on stage and say to the audience that they were finishing their slides off the night before.
While we’re all busy people, this unpreparedness is unprofessional and disingenuous to both audiences and event producers alike. So make sure you put enough time into the preparation of your talk, and run through it at least 3 or 4 times before you present to a paying audience.
Lastly, if you are a novice speaker, asking for a fee can be tricky. It’s amazing how many conferences don’t pay their speakers, or even cover expenses. In fact some conferences still expect speakers to pay for a ticket. While it’s tempting to speak for free, in exchange for the “exposure” you’ll get, this makes it harder for other speakers. Especially ones who are having to take time off work to speak at the event, or dip into their own pockets to cover things like childcare. So when you’re approached to to speak at a conference, it’s always a good idea to ask what package they can offer, and not necessarily take “no fee” as the first answer.
Of course you then have to decide what your fee should be. Whatever it is, you’ll be lucky if the fee covers your time out of the office, let alone the time it took for you to put the talk together. One way to look at it is to assume you’ll probably give the talk a half a dozen times, and spread the cost over a a number of events based on a rough day rate. Another way to look at it is to pick a fee that a low multiple of the average ticket price. At the end of the day there’s no perfect way to set and negotiate fees. It’s something that comes with time, practice and a certain level of experience.
I hope this article has given you a few ideas for whether public speaking is right for you, and if it is, how to go about breaking into the speaking circuit. In my experience, conference speaking is a highly rewarding thing to do, and its fun being part of a smart, supportive and diverse community of speakers. So I wish you all the best on your future speaking career, and hope to see you on stage at a conference soon.