Once you’ve attended a few search and social conferences, you may realize that you could do as well as – if not better than – some of the speakers on stage. Are you ready to make a name for yourself, standing up in front of a crowd of peers, illuminating their lives with your amazing insights?
Speaking at a search or social conference like SES brings with it a few perks.
Most (not all) conferences will give you a free conference pass as a speaker, which makes it much easier to get your boss to agree to let you leave the office for a week to go to locations including London, New York City, Toronto, San Francisco, Chicago, and Las Vegas.
Conferences are also a great lead generation opportunity for speakers from agencies and tools vendors. As a speaker, you'll have plenty of chances to swap contact information with interested attendees.
Additionally, networking and discussions that happen in the speaker room are both extremely worthwhile and valuable.
If you want to increase the odds of getting accepted to speak at search and social conferences, it will take some preparation.
Planning Your Conferences
You want to start thinking about what conference(s) you want to pitch to fairly early. Some conferences have a 3-4 month lead time for speaker pitches, which may mean that you’ll miss your opportunity if you aren't extremely proactive. There’s a fairly comprehensive list of 2013 search and social events available here.
Think about the topic(s) that you’re able to speak on knowledgeably, and that your company will allow you to talk about. Look for conferences that align with those topics by looking at the agenda for previous events. While prior events may not necessarily have had a session on that exact topic, when you make your pitch many conferences will add in new or consolidate new with existing sessions in order to keep the content fresh and up to date.
The Speaking Pitch
Here’s where you’re going to be marketing both yourself and what you bring to the table.
Typically you’ll be asked to either name the session you want to speak on and then write a couple of paragraphs giving an overview of what you’re going to be talking about. This is where you want to outline what conference attendees will take away from your presentation.
Detail what kind of insights you’ll be providing in your presentation. If you can speak about a case study that highlights the points you’ll be making, that’s even better.
On the topic of case studies, ideally it should be one in which you were involved, rather than one that’s been done to death at other conferences. While “United Breaks Guitars” was a great example of a viral video helping to break through a customer service nightmare, you can bet that most of the attendees are extremely familiar with it, and have been since 2009, so that’s not going to help your cause.
The other part of the speaker pitch is your bio. This tells the conference organizers (and, should you be accepted, the attendees) about your experience.
Don’t try to oversell yourself here, unless your official company title is Guru, Swami or Expert – don’t shoehorn those or similar words in.
Be honest about your background. Talk about some of your highlights.
Don't work for a big company? Honestly, this isn't a big deal. Many conferences recognize that their attendees want to see people who are in similar situations, so they can relate more easily.
When I first started speaking I was working for a small agency with four other people. Sure, now I get some speaking gigs because of where I work, but you'll see a good mix of speaker companies.
Congratulations, you’ve been accepted to speak at the conference. So what now?
You should get an email from the conference giving you all the details about your session (e.g., timings, fellow speakers, moderator, equipment), about the conference (e.g., dress code, expected level of attendees, and other event logistics), and most likely some badges to display on your blog or website.
Also, your moderator will typically schedule a call a couple of weeks before the event to introduce the panel to each other and make sure that there’s no duplication of content across the various presentations. If you can have a draft of your presentation ready before the call, that will really help the moderator and other presenters to align the overall content of the panel. Be prepared to accept some changes to what you’re asked to speak on based on the content that other presenters have proposed.
Speaking order will also be arranged during the call with you moderator. Typically, speaking order is based on the content in the various presentations.
Preparing Your Presentation
Once you have your deck ready you need to run through it a couple of times. Make sure that when you run through it you’re within a minute or so under the max time that you’re given to speak, as you don’t want to run the risk of the ignominy of being hooked by a moderator. It’s poor form to take time from either your fellow panelists or the Q&A portion of the session.
You also want to make sure that your presentation flows from one idea to the next, and that you’re both familiar and comfortable with what you’re going to say.
You don’t need to plan every word and gesture – you can, and will, vary what you’re going to say –but you need to make sure you stay on track as much as possible. Any little diversions can be directed back so as not to leave you floundering when attempting to get to the next topic.
While most conferences will limit you to a single slide on you or your company, make sure to include your Twitter handle on each slide. This will allow your audience to connect with you, and to ask any follow up questions.
Many conferences require that you submit your presentation electronically a week or so in advance. This doesn’t mean that you can’t make changes, should it need further refining, or should some new data or news become available that would be of value to the audience. Whether you change it or not, take a copy of your presentation on a thumb drive just in case it didn’t make it to the presentation laptop (which has been known to happen).
If you haven't done much public speaking before, you may feel some trepidation about getting on a stage in front of 30+ people. Nerves are natural, and can be overcome through experience and confidence.
The best way to gain confidence is with practice. Try speaking in front of smaller groups that can offer you help and suggest improvements. This can be done by presenting to your co-workers, to a local meet-up group, or by joining a local Toastmasters group.
Above all you need to remember that attendees have paid to listen to you speak, they’re there to hear what you have to say. You aren't doing an open mic at the local comedy club where you stand a good chance of being heckled if you don’t start out strong.
If you stumble you can collect yourself. A good moderator will step in and help you with a relevant anecdote or affirmation if needed, and allow you to compose yourself and continue.
Make sure to show up at least 15 minutes before you’re scheduled to speak. Check that your presentation is on the machine and is the latest version (if not, whip out your thumb drive). Make sure that any videos or audio you have work correctly, then head to the rest room as unlike the attendees you’re not able to leave the room should nature demand so.
Listen to your fellow presenters speak. They may say something that you can tie into your presentation, or during the audience question-and-answer period.
When it’s your turn to speak, your moderator should have your presentation queued up, you’ll be introduced.
Take a deep breath and go speak.
Try not to rush through your presentation. Make eye contact with the audience (not with one person throughout, but for perhaps 5 seconds at a time with individuals).
Enjoy yourself. Remember, you know your topic. You’re there to impart your knowledge.
If you make a mistake, don’t panic. Take another breath and get back to where you need to be. If something goes wrong, make light of it and carry on.
Once the panel is done you’ve most likely got a question and answer component (not all conferences do this, but you’ll know beforehand). Typical questions will be about issues raised during the presentations, or about something of interest to an audience member.
Your moderator should give each of you an opportunity to make your points and further share your thoughts with the audience.
One important point here: if you don’t know an answer to a question, it’s perfectly acceptable to sat that. Don’t try and bluff, because if someone calls you out on it, you'll instantly lose the credibility you’ve just built up over the rest of the session.
As soon as the session’s over, check Twitter and respond to those who have tweeted at you. Thank those that offered praise or tweeted about the session, correct any erroneous data that may have been tweeted, and answer any of those follow up questions.
Many conferences provide aggregated feedback from the attendees, either giving you a grade or comments or both. Take whatever feedback you get as an opportunity for improvement, and build upon that for the next conference you speak at.
Image Credit: SESConferenceSeries/Flickr