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How to: Land a Speaking Gig at the Event of Your Dreams
UPDATED for 2017: INBOUND's 2017 Call for Speakers is OPEN until March 17, 21st, 2017 (11:59pm ET!). Last year's call was oversubscribed by about 6:1 - with 6 great proposals for every available speaking slot, and so far this year looks to be even more competitive. You will want to read this entire post CAREFULLY to maximize your chances of a successful proposal.
As always, our content teams are looking for exceptionally well prepared, proven speakers for six of INBOUND's eight tracks, and we hope hardworking speakers will consider applying. This call includes our Hacks, Tips and Tricks, Ideas & Experiences, Inbound Sales, Grow with HubSpot, Executive and Bold Talks tracks. Each year we strive to find new faces and new ideas, with only a small percentage of speakers returning year over year.
To help candidates succeed in 2016, we blogged complete details and advice about our specific Call for Speakers, a detailed list desired topics broken out by track, and guidance on the differences between the tracks. Much of that information is still useful for the 2017 call, despite a few key changes.
ALL prospective speakers, whether veterans of INBOUND or brand new this year, MUST apply via the Call for Speakers so we can assemble a great content lineup and ensure an even playing field for everyone.
How Can You Improve Your Chances for Any Gig?
Rather than prattle on and on about what we're specifically looking for, we thought this would be a great time to get really real with all the aspiring (and experienced) speakers out there about how to go about landing any speaking gig. If you want to become a professional speaker, or just want to speak at more events, this post is for you.
TL; DR: Work really hard, show up, and be humble.
LONG VERSION: Read this post carefully, take notes, do all the stuff in it, and then...
...work really hard, show up, and be humble. (Notice a pattern?)
This (lengthy) post draws on decades of experience coaching, recruiting and selecting speakers, my experience as a professional speaker, and tips from more than a dozen experts. Parts will come off as hardassed. There is a lot of work involved. But, I have personally done nearly everything on here. It works.
Remember: we are talking about YOU onstage at the event of YOUR DREAMS. Your Dreams deserve nothing less than hard work and unvarnished truth. You might not get what you want easily or quickly, but if you put in the work described here, you will get results. Ready?
1. Be Great for the Audience
Begin with the end in mind. Set aside your ego and your goals. Put the event's audience above all other considerations. Your job as a speaker is to deliver an amazing experience - and real value - to those attending your talk. That's always the ultimate goal.
While there's a lot you can do for the organizers (we'll get to that next), most all of it boils down to making the them successful by serving their guests.
You do this by returning value for the audience's investment of time watching you speak. There are a million other things they could be doing. They cannot get that time back. It's on you to make it worth their while.
"Speakers need to know the level of subject matter expertise in the audience, and the kind of experience organizers are looking to create for their attendees. I think it's Nancy Duarte who noted (that) delivering a talk without understanding your audience is like addressing a love letter "to whom it may concern." The better I know your audience, the better I can meet their needs" - Margot Bloomstein, Author, Content Strategy at Work.
The people in the room are the ultimate customer for your talk, and you, my dear speaker, are in the customer service business.
2. Be Great for the Organizers
With the audience firmly in mind, next consider how you can be amazing for the organizers.
"Work to see what the organizer is trying to accomplish. Sometimes, there are specific skills. Other times, it's as simple as them not wanting to look bad in front of their peers. But knowing helps you keep from being completely self-centered." Marc A. Pitman, Author, Ask Without Fear.
Let's start out by taking a look at what the dedicated event organizer is doing to pull together their roster of speakers. I can't speak for everyone, so I'll be really specific here about the process behind the scenes for INBOUND.
Finding Amazing Speakers is Hard Work
Speaker selection for a 13,000 (2015 goal), 14,500 (2015 actual) 18,000 (2016 goal) person event is... complex. We take it seriously. We're responsible for ensuring speakers make good use of guests' time. Our community has high standards for quality, value, and inspiration.
We attend dozens of events to scout hundreds of speakers. We watch thousands of speaker videos. We brainstorm the topics our audience is looking for, and we scout emerging trends folks should know about. We pore over community reviews of past speakers and work to consistently bring back top performers. Regardless of talent, visibility in the industry or which stage a speaker is on, speakers have to have killed it to be considered again.
We recognize that the INBOUND community makes a significant investment of their time and money to travel to Boston for the event. The quality of every speaker must deliver the return our guests deserve for that investment.
Trying to Know What we Don't Know
Even after all of that, there's plenty we don't know. So this year we've created our first completely open Call for Speakers to build a robust agenda from the ground up. Even speakers who are being invited back are submitting their proposed topics via this process in order to ensure a comprehensive agenda and a level playing field.
Given all that, how can you best succeed?
Always do your homework and make it OBVIOUS for the organizers how amazing you will be at the event.
Know what their audience is looking for. Make sure your application states what the audience will get out of your talk. Know the event (and if possible, the stage) you are looking to present on. Invest time in making your speaker proposal amazing.
It's not a popularity contest
Though it is easy to lose sight of this, never approach getting a speaking gig as if it were a popularity contest. Check your ego and insecurities. Applying to speak is not a referendum on whether or not you are "good enough" to speak. It's a process of convincing people (people whose careers are impacted by your performance) that you're going to do the work it takes to deliver a great experience.
Decide you're already committed to becoming good enough. It may take a lot of time and work before you're crushing the stages you want to crush, but you do not need anyone's approval or permission to start working towards that goal.
Also remember, the harder you crush your proposal, and if selected, your talk, the more opportunities will come your way. We hear year after year from our top speakers that the follow up business they are able to land makes speaking at INBOUND a consistently worthwhile investment of their time and money.
Consider the Fit
To get the speaking gig you want, you need to find the right fit where your passions, interests, and abilities, connect to the audience's goals. Even if organizers are picking speakers for being "the most popular" instead of for being "the best fit for the audience and goals," trust me: you don't want that kind of gig.
For us, selecting speakers is a process of finding the right topics that our community needs to know, and then identifying the right individuals who are going to put as much heart and soul as we do into making an incredible experience for the audience.
All Your Words Matter
Never just bang out your session title and abstract and hope for the best. If an applicant is not willing to work hard on their application, what's to make the organizer believe they're going to work hard on their talk?
Speakers who work hard preparing their talks consistently perform well in our audience reviews, indepent of their speaking abilities, experience, and popularity.
While one cannot always predict how prepared a speaker is willing to be, a hasty application is a big yellow flag. If you weren't willing to invest the time in nailing your application, what's to make an organizer believe you will invest time in making sure your audience is delighted when it comes time to speak?
Have a Solid Speaker Video
Remember that "Be Prepared" bit? If you don't yet have a great video of you speaking, you're not yet prepared for speaking at the event of your dreams.
It's not personal. If the organizing team can't see you speak in person or on video, not only can they not evaluate your ability to serve a room full of listeners, they can't fairly compare you to everyone else who is in the running for your spot. Make a video and show the organizers what you've got. It's 2016 and shooting videos is incredibly inexpensive and simple.
Not having a video doesn't mean you're not an incredible speaker. It does mean that given the number and quality of speakers your target event is having to review, you have not given them enough to go on. This doesn't have to be some fancy "sizzle reel," and that may well not be worth the money. Organizers must see that you can hold a room's attention, and they need a fair way to decide between numerous qualified applicants all gunning for the same tracks and topics.
Don't make them do the work to discover all your awesome. Show it off, and make it quick and easy to review. Do not send every speaker video of your in existence. Do not send a really long clip where you speak for 30 seconds on a panel. Panel and talking head videos won't do the job at all - the organizers need to see you command a room, even if it's a 10 minute clip of you in your living room speaking to thin air.
DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP.
Be Easy to Work With
There is a huge difference between high and low maintenance speakers, and you can guess which get invited back more often. Try to complete the things you are asked to complete when you are asked to complete them. At the very least communicate clearly and proactively if you know you will not be able to do everything the organizer is asking you to do.
"As a former conference organizer, it made a huge difference to me if the speaker helped me find other quality people to fill my program. I guess the lesson is to be helpful. The other big one is to be timely with materials and send me a session abstract that fits my requirements. Putting together a conference program is (I imagine) like giving birth and having speakers that make it as easy as possible will always get an invite back." Jim Storer, Founder, The Community Roundtable.
To be great for the organizers, you have to understand the realities and challenges they face in bringing their guests the best experience possible at every turn.
3. How to Find Speaking Gigs
First and foremost, humble yourself, and speak. You get chances to speak by speaking. Period.
You don't get to where you can run a marathon by knowing a lot of marathoners, having a good attitude about marathoning, or by attending a lot of marathons. You run a marathon by getting yourself out there and running, really far, for months on end, on a regular basis.
There is no reason whatsoever for you not not to be out speaking, at least once a month. Can't find an event that will have you speak? Scour all your local meetups, professional associations, chambers of commerce and other networking groups. Can't find a local networking group? Find a meeting at your office you can present to. Can't find a meeting at your office? Book an empty conference room, develop a talk, and invite your co-workers. Can't do that? Find a Toastmasters group, no matter how advanced or basic, and show up, and speak. Can't find a Toastmasters group? Set up your video camera on a pile of books on a table and record yourself presenting. Now, watch it, and try again, and watch that. When you've got some speaker video that's working, put that shit on YouTube.
Don't believe me?
Consider the #3 most watched TED talk of all time, at nearly 22 million views more than 26 million views. It's by Simon Sinek (INBOUND 2014 keynoter, best selling author and household name). You may already know all that, but even if you've seen his talk before, do me a favor and watch it again.
Tiny room. Humble stage. Simple flip chart. Enormous impact.
Writers write. Runners run. Speakers speak.
If you're not scrappy enough to invest time in searching for people who need speakers, you're not scrappy enough to get this dream gig. No, it's not always easy. That's actually great news for you, because it means you can stand out from the crowd by stepping up.
There are a number of websites that let event planners search profiles of speakers and let speakers search for posted speaking opportunities. Get your profile set up on a few of them. Choose the profile that looks most appealing to you and promote it via your social media profiles or blog if you have one. Sure some people go in for big fancy "speaker" pages on their websites, but that's a nice to have once you get going, not something you should use as an excuse for why you're not ready to start.
Check with your local chamber of commerce, rotary and other civic groups, search for networking groups in your area. Get to know meeting planners who work at your local convention center, and let them know you are always available to cover when an event has a last minute cancellation.
Target a short list of events to speak at and then READ THE HECK OUT OF THEIR WEBSITES. I'm astonished how many applicants don't even really read the instructions when they apply, let alone familiarize themselves with our tracks, topics, and videos of past speakers.
Attend events, especially the one you want to speak at, and soak up everything you can about why the event exists and what it is trying to do in the world. Who comes? Why do they show up? What are they looking for?
Thank the organizers. Be kind to the volunteers, and thank them for volunteering. Ask intelligent questions of the speakers (questions that are not about you), and thank them for their presentations. Invest in quality networking time with people at the event, and really get to know them.
You never know what's possible. One of my first big gigs was when Guy Kawasaki grabbed me (the night before) for a panel of female tech entrepreneurs at SXSW. It was in this gigantic and cavernous main stage room. The crazy thing? I was not a female tech entrepreneur at the time, so I was terrified. This was a full year before oneforty. I had not started a tech company or even worked at one.
But, I rolled with it. I listened carefully to what was being discussed, and kept my mouth shut when I had nothing valuable to add. When eventually I did have something purposeful to say, I jumped right in. Guy is a masterful moderator and made the panel lively, so there ended up being lots of chances to contribute. And then, holy crap, suddenly I had done the main stage at SXSW my very first year even attending the event. I left the stage and went and hid in the TechSet Lounge until the adrenaline wore off.
You should also know that I was attending SXSW that year on an absolute shoestring. I was literally couch surfing (thanks Whurley and Adele!) as I could neither afford nor find a hotel room. I put the badge on a credit card, used frequent flyer miles to get myself to Austin, and figured out the rest on the fly. (You don't need money for food if you just eat at the parties. You don't need money for cabs if you're willing to walk long distances.)
Trust me on this one. Whatever it takes, show up.
"Network with other speakers. Some of my best engagements have come from such referrals." Dave Delaney, Keynote speaker, Author, and Founder, FutureForth.
Invest time and get to know slightly more experienced speakers whose content is in some way related to yours. Engage with their work in a genuine and supportive way. If you can earn their confidence, you can ask if they would consider referring you when they have to say no to a gig. I (still) ask this many times of speakers I look up to. Sometimes it works out.
If you're lucky enough to have people coming to you with too many speaking asks, it's nice to soften a no by providing other names as alternatives. When any event asks HubSpot for me or for one of our executives, we ask very specific questions about the event via http://bit.ly/hubspotspeakers. If it's not a great fit for the speaker requested, we try to offer someone else who could also do a great job. This helps our up and coming speakers get more experience and exposure, and it lets us offer at least something to nearly every event that approaches us.
You should become that up and coming speaker for someone else.
Having to cancel a gig at the last minute is a another uncomfortable no-no for speakers. Everyone realizes that there are times when it will happen, but when it does it's awfully nice to offer an alternative or two who can cover the now empty slot.
"Express a desire to do speaking gigs, both publicly and to organizers individually." Matt Ridings, CEO, Sideraworks.
If you know event organizers, ask them what kind of speakers they are looking for and offer to help them find some. While you're at it, make sure they know you're interested in speaking, and do it in a way that they can see why their audience would benefit.
Make sure you are watching your favorite events carefully so that you know if and when they are putting out a call for speaking proposals. If they don't have a public process, politely inquire how speakers are chosen. Don't make this a lot of back and forth. Package what they might want to know about you (name, job title, talk title, video sample and description of talk) and have it ready to send over before they have to ask you a bunch of questions to get that basic information from you.
4. Hone Your Craft
Practice, Practice, Practice
Extensive practice at speaking is the absolute best way to improve your speaking skills. While you are getting all that practice, there is a lot else you can do to become better faster. Enroll in Toastmasters. Attend your local National Speakers Association (NSA) chapter meetings. Take speaking classes through local organizations or hire a private coach to work with you. Videotape yourself speaking and then force yourself to watch it and make notes on what you'd like to try differently next time.
Watch and Learn
Observe and learn from the best. Whether you invest the time and money to attend an event with high profile speakers, to go study at an NSA national conference, or whether you just stay home in your pajamas and watch speaker videos online for free, you're can learn a lot. Considering the various techniques others use to win over an audience. Not all of these will be right for you, but you can learn from every speaker. If you don't like what they're doing, what don't you like about it?
"Anytime someone sees you speak that has spoken at one those organizers events in past hunt them down. Ask for feedback. If positive, then ask if they'd mind mentioning their thoughts to the organizers. If indifferent, ask for two words that they think would make you better." Matt Ridings, CEO, Sideraworks.
If you speak and there's a video, watch the video. I promise it will be hard, but it's worth it to learn what you can change. Ask people you know well what they suggest you work on improving. Find out if the evaluation data will be shared with you after your session, and if so, see what you can learn from it (but have thick skin). As Matt pointed out, bad feedback can lead to improvements, and good feedback can yield referrals. You win either way.
But aren't there any shortcuts Laura? Please, tell me there's a shortcut.
Yes, yes there are. There are absolutely "shortcuts" to landing more speaking gigs. Here is a list of shortcuts that will get you on a stage faster. You'll notice tho, the ones worth doing are insanely hard.
Have your TEDx Talk go viral
There are many TEDx events now, in nearly every conceivable place. Once you get your speaker momentum really cranking, you will likely be able to find a TEDx willing to give you a shot.
This is where humble can pay off big time: Simon Sinek (INBOUND Keynote 2014) at TEDx Puget Sound; Brené Brown (INBOUND Keynote 2015) at TEDx Houston. They didn't hold out for the TED main stage. They just showed up locally to give a talk. They worked really hard preparing those talks desite the "small stage," and they put their hearts into the work. Their lives have - literally - not been the same since. As of this writing, their talks are the #3 and #4 all time most viewed videos on TED.com.
I'm being flippant calling this a "shortcut." Both Brené and Simon were doing really great, really earnest hard work long before their talks took off. Both well deserved the reception they got. Maybe once you start connecting to your best audiences and doing your uniquely right work, something cool is in store for you. Give it a shot.
Be massively successful
The more your career takes off and you become prominent in your company or industry, the more invitations you will get to speak at events. Luckily, if your career takes you to soaring heights, you're often (but not always) going to become a strong presenter in the process. Either way, speaking well is pretty good skill for career advancement in and of itself.
Every year dozens of speakers hit us up for keynotes. Unfortunately, until they build the kind of global branding and audience folks like Aziz Ansari (2015), Arianna Huffington (2013), Martha Stewart (2014), Chelsea Clinton (2015), and Alec Baldwin (2016) have, there is nothing we can do to make that happen.
Build a large online following
Patiently and consistently invest the time to provide useful and unique content to a relevant audience. Commit yourself to genuinely caring about and serving that audience. Understand who they are, what they find compelling and then deliver that. If you can earn a large online following, you become a bit more valuable a speaker. On paper. You still have to deliver the goods.
Write a great book that does really well
Earn expertise in the trenches or do extensive research. Put together an excellent book that truly helps the reader. Get a publisher or publish and promote it on your own. If your book takes off, people will start seeking you out to speak. Super easy shortcut, right? Hahahaha. By now I hope you're catching on that none of these are truly shortcuts.
Pay to play
Pay to play, which is a reality, is almost always not the best way to go. You don't want to find yourself onto a stage you're not prepared for. You don't want to put yourself in a situation where you will crash and burn. It will do nothing for your reputation or your confidence to force your way onto a stage and then phone it in. So even if you get a chance to speak somewhere as a by-product of your company sponsoring something, be really sure you're preparing well and making yourself useful to the audience. (HT Adam Zand)
6. More Tips from Experts
I asked my Twitter and Facebook communities for their thoughts.They came through awesome material, some of which is worked in above. Read on to see what globally successful keynoters, event planners, and other speakers had to say about reaching your goals.
@Pistachio I think many try to “fit in” with their platform pitches, rather than finding their unique personality/angle and pitching it.— Jennifer Leggio (@mediaphyter) April 10, 2015
"If you're serious about speaking for a specific event, register to attend. Still submit a speaker proposal, but register first. Organizers often have people drop out of panels or smaller sessions, and they'll look the to attendee list to see if there's someone who can cover. If that happens, you'll get your registration fee back!" Kerry O'Shea Gorgone, MarketingProfs.
"Develop good, interesting, useful content. I see a lot of speakers covering really basic material." Eric T. Tung, BMC Software
"Niche content is very desirable. Some professional connection to the hosting organization. Flexibility on the speaker's part." Jeff Cutler, Writer and Keynoter
No matter what approach you choose to get yourself closer to your dream speaking gig, give it your all. Don't worry about it if you get turned down, just keep finding new approaches and different stages and work through the process. Temper your enthusiasm with patience and a willingness to work hard, and progress will absolutely follow.
So what do you say? Will we see you on stage at INBOUND, or at least scouting the 2016 event so you can be on stage in 2017?
Laura "@Pistachio" Fitton is Inbound Marketing Evangelist, HubSpot, and Co-Author, Twitter for Dummies. She curates the INBOUND Bold Talks, writes and edits INBOUND, the Blog, and was previously Founder/CEO of oneforty.com, which HubSpot acquired in 2011. Prior to that her firm Pistachio Consulting taught businesses about Twitter (starting in 2007) and coached speakers for a decade before that.
Laura's main stage credits include SXSW, Inc 500, Inc Women, Business of Software, Learning, and Blog World Expo, and she has spoken at hundreds of events including INBOUND, SXSW, LeWeb, Dreamforce, GrowCo, Mesh and Glue. She's also lectured at dozens of universities including Harvard Business School and MIT, and she'll never forget how nervous that first big solo talk at the Women's Business Forum of Bucks County made her.