I always hold my breath when I click the button to submit a speaker application. I lean forward in my seat, my heart beating just a bit quicker. Experience doesn’t seem to play a role – the excitement and anxiety cocktail doesn’t get any weaker.
Those tumultuous emotions don’t have anything to do with how I actually feel about public speaking. I love being on stage and sharing my knowledge with others. I love it so much, in fact, that I’ve spent some serious hours thinking about how I pitch myself as a capable speaker to event organizers. It hasn’t always been easy and you need to deal with a lot of rejection – but I learned quite a few things along the way.
The world needs more female speakers and quotas are not a solution
I often tell friends that public speaking is actually a lot of fun and they should definitely give it a go. Many of them don’t feel they have anything to say. And while this isn’t an issue I see only among my female friends, it’s more pronounced with them.
A lot of events nowadays have “female speaker quotas” – that is to say, there’s a formalized policy that a certain percentage of speakers should be female. This leads to an ill-fated practice where
When I was thinking about applying to a big international event, I was told by a person involved in the organization “You should definitely apply. And since you’re a girl, you’re much more likely to get chosen!” As a woman, as an event organizer, and as a speaker, I believe this is complete bull.
The problem in my experience isn’t that not enough women are chosen to speak – it’s that too few apply in the first place. So we need to remedy this by engaging women and showing them that it’s easy enough to apply and they won’t be torn apart on stage.
And while we can dive much deeper into the topic of female speakers, today I’ll be sharing some of the lessons I learned that will be equally valid for any and all aspiring speakers.
You do have something to talk about
The most common objection I hear is “I don’t have anything to talk about” or, to phrase it differently, “I don’t feel I’m qualified to talk about the things I like.” But I believe you do. Things you’d take for granted or common knowledge are actually topics people are interested in.
Say, you’re a complete newbie in marketing and you just recently got your first job. There are many people aspiring to do just that – find a career forum or a marketing event with a Beginners track and tell your story.
The most engaging presentations are not just rehashing facts or speaking from the authority of 10+ years in a given field. They actually are personal stories of lessons learned and overcoming obstacles. Share yours!
From a shy kid to a proactive speaker
It often comes as a surprise to those who know me now, but I was extremely shy as a child. My worst nightmare was that when my primary school teacher told us to pair up for a field trip, there will be no one who wants to walk next to me.
Then one day, I went to drama class… and I loved it! I was actually great at memorizing lines. At first, going on stage terrified me. But I had made new friends who shared the same struggle and helped me overcome it. This got me accustomed to being on stage in front of large groups of people – to the point where I was not afraid anymore, but actively sought the thrill of it.
Later on, my love of being on stage merged with my interest in sharing knowledge with others. After starting my blog, the most exciting part was seeing that people found what I wrote useful. The online medium was the best in terms of reach, but I wanted to diversify and actually meet the people consuming this content in person.
I’d be lying if I told you I deliberately planned my path in public speaking. At first, it sort of started happening, with an odd invitation here and there. There were too few people dabbling in digital marketing and ready to speak at events.
But when I decided that I wanted to speak at international events, it was a whole different story. I was a nobody. I didn’t have a platform or network. I had to rely on my expertise and my communication skills when pitching myself to event organizers.
Applying as a speaker requires research
At first, all I did was think what topics I’d like to cover and go with those ideas straight to the event review team. With time, I learned applying for a bigger event requires more preparation than that. Now I go through a routine of several steps.
I always check past editions of the event. I go through the agenda, see what topics were covered, what experience speakers have. Then, I go a bit deeper – I check the Facebook event or the organizers’ page for any public reviews. Then comes time for Twitter and a search for the hashtag of the event. Often, that’s where the true gems lay! You can learn what topics guests enjoyed, what they didn’t like, what questions they wanted answered.
At this point, I’d already see overlaps between my personal interests and the event’s needs. Then I like to talk to the organizers. Of course, there always is a formal application process, but that doesn’t mean the organizers will refuse to talk to you. Remember – they are invested in providing quality content to their audience. So I may drop them a line asking if a particular topic would be interesting or if an angle to a story seems right. It often turns out that they have a specific niche they lack content for and you can get useful insights.
I recently tested an even more unconventional tactic: I surveyed my target audience about what topics they’d like me to do talks on! I didn’t have access to the future attendees, but I have a lot of people with similar profile in my social circle. So I created a simple Google Form and shared it on social media. I ended up with 50 responses – not just ranking topics I had proposed, but also suggesting topics I never thought of!
Let your heart be your pilot
Once I outline the topics, the next step is to bridge them with my passions.
I’ve worked with speaking topics that were ultra-optimized for the targeted event, but I wasn’t excited about them enough. The result was mediocre content and uninspired delivery. So even if I now know that an audience is interested in something, I’d still make sure it’s a topic I really want to deliver.
And even at a professional event, I often spice it up with other interests of mine. I use theatre, photography, or science metaphors to convey a specific point. This helps others get to know me better and relate to what I have to say. Not to mention it makes for some interesting conversations after your talk – like the comparison between marketing measurement and quantum mechanics I recently dived in.
I pitch the topic, but I also pitch myself
There are two parts of an engaging presentation – the topic and the speaker. Many questions in speaker application forms ask about what you’ll be talking about. Sometimes, organizers ask for recordings of my previous talks or sample slide decks. But you need to go one step further and show what makes you a good speaker – and a good fit for the event.
Ways to pitch
Most organizers would look at your LinkedIn profile, so make sure it’s up to date and the summary section is optimized (i.e. contains the points I cover in the next paragraphs).
I go one step further – I’ve created a speaker resume I send in with my application. It may sound unconventional at first, but think about it – you are actually applying for a job, the job of speaking. There’s a group of people who hold an opportunity and they evaluate candidates with different credentials.
As part of the team behind the resume builder Enhancv, I’m wired to look for problems I can solve with a good resume. Here’s what my speaker resume looks like:
Finally, if you have a personal website or blog, you can add a speaker page where you can list your expertise and the speaking topics you cover. Bear in mind, you don’t need to have all of these talks outlined in detail and ready for presenting tomorrow! If I have a clear idea what I want to say, I’ll list it there and if an event organizer likes it, I’ll develop it in full.
Showing what I do
Of course, a good speaker comes with professional credentials. I try to show a couple of different things here: what I’m currently working on and what’s my past experience.
In a couple of sentences, I’d share the projects I’m currently working on. I’ll always try to bridge them with the topics of the event I’m applying for or the specific talk I’m pitching.
Then I’d also give a brief overview of my past experience – this will include the industries I’ve worked in and the topics I can speak about from experience. It shows a full picture of who I am as a professional.
Proving I can communicate ideas well
It’s one thing to be a seasoned professional and it’s completely different to be able to relay this experience in simple terms in front of a large audience. There are great experts who can’t really convey ideas in an everyday language. So I try to provide evidence I’m not part of that group.
Of course, I’d share recordings of past speaking gigs, but I’d also try to go a bit deeper.
Showing my current work as a university lecturer proves I can present complex topics in front of a large audience. I also provide links to my blog where I write regularly about marketing. If you read an article or two, you will see that I’m always trying to explain things in a clear and structured manner. If I show I’m a good writer, then it’s more probable that I’m a good speaker, too.
I also highlight my experience in doing theater for 10 years as proof that I’m not stage-shy and I feel comfortable in front of large audiences. Everything in your past experience can make you stand out as a speaker, if you use it well.
Success takes persistence
In my first year of deliberately pitching as a speaker, there was this major international event that I wanted to be part of. I was ready with a couple of topics, all of which I thought were amazing. I was excited. They had to choose me!
A couple of weeks after applying, I got an email with the usual “We regret to inform you…” line. I stared at the screen for a long time in disbelief. I remember rereading it again and again. I felt so disappointed. I thought “Well, what was I even thinking, I’m nowhere nearly as experienced as the other speakers they get. Who am I kidding?”
The email ended with a call to not get discouraged and try again in the future. Well, I failed at the first part, but I didn’t plan on failing the second. So that application button I told you about at the beginning of this post? It was this year’s edition of the same event.
Persistence is key – where’s the fun in getting everything after your first try, anyway?
I’m not that shy kid anymore
I can’t wait for the next time I will set foot on a stage – not with memorized lines, but with slides blazing.
That pleasant buzz is not the only thing I like about public speaking. It’s a great way to travel to new places, make new connections and give back to a community you learn from every day. It has helped me grow as a professional by showing me the importance of clearly communicated ideas.
Even if you’re not sure people will want to hear about your ideas, give it a go. Overcome that nagging voice in the back of your head that tries to convince