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Get a Speaking Gig: How Event Producers Decide Who Gets Onstage

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Getting speaking gigs can be a mysterious and frustrating process, particularly if you don't have much experience. You know the drill: Send pithy email offering yourself up (or copiously fill out online proposal form). Hit Send. Wait.

To find out what happens during "wait," I interviewed a few content directors and program advisers, as well as some Web-seminar and teleseminar producers responsible for booking speakers.

Here is what they said, along with some sage advice on how to increase your chances of getting that breakout gig.

Be Patient

Long lead times for live conferences and events are the rule rather than the exception. Planning typically begins at least six months ahead of time but, depending on the size of the event or industry, can begin up to a year in advance.


Heather Lloyd-Martin, owner of SuccessWorks Search Marketing and program adviser for PubCon, SEMpdx, and major Direct Marketing Association conferences, explains: "There's a lot that goes on behind the scenes.... [W]hen we're considering a speaker, there might be additional planning and logistics, and several layers of approval needed before we can confirm the slot."

Lloyd-Martin says they approach A-list speakers first and then contact others who they think might be a fit. But, Unknowns, take heart. Lloyd-Martin says if she thinks you will do a good job and provide a fresh voice and perspective, she will bring you on.

Web seminars and teleseminars have shorter lead times (one to four weeks for teleseminars, three to four months for Web seminars) but can be even tougher to get in on because presenting virtually is much harder than speaking in person, says Marty Fahncke, a professional speaker and president of Conference Call University.

"If you are someone who feeds off the energy of people when onstage, the Web [seminar] or teleseminar format may not be for you. Keeping a virtual presentation moving and afloat requires the ability to sustain high, high energy for the entire session."

Be Online

To be considered for either format, a robust online footprint is essential.

"The first thing I'm going to do is type your name into Google," says Fahncke. "I really want to see a book, but at the very least I should see examples of you being quoted by the media and links to whitepapers and articles you've written. Next, I'll type in a few key phrases that would make sense given your topic. If you're truly an expert in your field, your name should appear on the first page."

MarketingProfs' Web-seminar producer, Shelley Ryan, adds, "It's best if I have come across your name already on social-media and networking [sites,] such as Twitter and LinkedIn. I want to know what you're tweeting, are you interesting, are you engaged in conversation within the industry?"

Ryan says when considering someone for a slot, she will Google a candidate's name to see what she can find out, and go to the candidate's website and read the bio.

As for websites, all agree that a good one may not get you the gig but a bad one can lose it for you. Ryan recounts an incident with a Web expert she was considering for a presentation.

"He had a pretty good reputation and some interesting things to say about lead generation, and I thought, Gee, maybe... To find out more, I went to his website, but I didn't stay long. It looked like his nephew had built it for him."

Traci Browne, president of tradeshow marketing firm Red Cedar Publicity and Marketing, books speakers for organizations, including the Business Marketing Association Philadelphia. She says she looks for online evidence of expertise but will contact the organizers of conferences in which speakers have presented to before to find out what the audience response was.

Says Browne, "In this day and age of Flip cameras, it is almost not acceptable to not have a video sample of your presentation—or several samples. We're not looking for high production values; we just want to see if you're a good speaker or not. A video will show us how dynamic you are."

Lloyd-Martin says she tries to get a sense of a person's personality and what that person will be like in front of an audience. She also emphasizes that title and position do not guarantee someone is going to be a good speaker (a statement that everyone I interviewed agrees with).

"We've had really high-level executives read straight from their notes, which the audience does not enjoy. They might have a fantastic message, but if people tune out, it gets lost," Lloyd-Martin says.

To avoid that scenario, she taps her network to find someone who has heard the person speak before or has been on a panel with that person. If she doesn't have contacts, she said, she might dig into what the person has done online.

"Everyone's an expert and being promoted as [an] expert. But if I go online and find that the person has never written on their topic, and I can't find any information about them beyond LinkedIn, I have to wonder if they are really who they tout themselves to be," she says.

Make Contact

How people want to be contacted varies. For example, Ryan prefers to be contacted directly by the speaker, rather than by a public-relations (PR) person or handler.

"Talking directly to the presenter allows me to start a relationship as well as to get a sense of what that person is going to be like for a broadcast."

She doesn't have much patience for candidates who play hard to get. Case in point: "If a Guy Kawasaki [founder and managing director of Garage Technology Ventures and co-founder of Alltop] or Seth Godin [best-selling author and renowned speaker] can pick up the phone and call me directly..."

Lloyd-Martin doesn't mind working with representatives but cautions, "Build a relationship with me but don't hammer, or I'll be thinking, If I bring on this speaker, I'll be bringing on this obnoxious PR person, too. Can I handle that?

All agree it's a good idea to ask what the preferred form of contact is in the initial email and to abide by it.

Browne urges candidates not to underestimate the power and purpose of the online proposal application form, which she uses as a screening tool. "If speakers can't be bothered to fill out the form, chances are they won't put much thought into their presentation, either."

All agree that if there is an online submission form, it's safe to assume that is the way the organization prefers to receive your application.

Other things on which the interviewees agree: (1) Email is the best way to make initial contact, and (2) dispense with the clever subject line (which might be construed as spam) and get right to the point.

If you don't hear back within a few days, it's acceptable to send a follow-up email. If there is still no response, then call the person to make sure the email has been received and didn't get caught in a spam folder.  Remember to leave your email address on the voice mail so the person can check.

Pet peeve: people who enable email return receipts. Don't.

Engage

Browne says proposals from association members and those who have a booth at the show definitely carry more weight. Her advice: "If you do get a booth, rather than staffing it with a salesperson handing out tchotchkes, consider offering free 20-minute mini-consultations to discuss solutions to pain points of participants who might be prospective clients."

Similarly, Ryan says, MarketingProfs recruits first from its network of member contributors and often will invite candidates to write an article for the site to gauge interest in the topic based on click-throughs and reader feedback.

* * *

Speaking is one of the best ways to connect directly with decision makers in your industry. Following the above-noted guidelines will help you better connect with the decision makers who can put you in front of an audience.


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Helena Bouchez is principal and owner of Helena B Communications (www.helenabcommunications.com). Reach her via helena@helenabcommunications.com or follow her on Twitter (@HelenaBouchez).

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  • by Alison Murdock Tue Mar 9, 2010 via web

    Helena,
    Thanks for writing this piece. I have been a conference producer in Silicon Valley for over 15 years and co-founded the famed Under the Radar Conference series, which many say the landscape of the start-up showcase with it's 6-minute pitch. Over the last two years, my team and I built a speaking directorate called Speakers & Listeners at a communications firm called Comunicano. Our job is to get speaking spots for our clients - many of whom are private companies that have been around for less than 5 years. Last year we secured almost 400 speaking slots - basically two per month per client. We weren't able to achieve those metrics by being "obnoxious PR" people.:) What wasn't really said here was that anyone who wants to get a speaking spot - whether it's the speaker themselves or a PR rep - MUST take time to understand the mission of the conference, the content of the agenda, and the business model of the event. How does the speaker add value to the content? Are they a rising star evident by some recent press coverage? What can they add to the conversation? Oh, how willing are you to buy your way in? More than ever today, it's pay to play. But if your clients key business targets are going to be there, well, it might be worth it!

    What I learned being on the other side of the table is that conference directors don't understand the volume of pitches that speaker reps have to make. And speaker reps need to realize that getting a speaking spot is like sales: prospecting, qualifying, building relationships, delivering on a promise, or cutting your losses when it's clear you won't win.

    The six additional tips I would add to your list:
    1. Don't make the event producer find the fit. When you suggest a speaker, tell them how and where they should go in the program. It will also show you cared enough to understand their program.
    2. Try pitching again when the agenda is posted. It gives you a better sense if you should cut your losses and move to a better opportunity or persist.
    3. The art of the short pitch - don't send bios, abstracts from the get-go etc. Find out in a short email if there is a possible spot and even if you are speaking to the real program person - and not the sponsor sales guy or gal.
    4. Respect the process (as you have said above) - complete the form and abide by the speaking deadline. See #2, however, don't give up if you don't get an invite the first time.
    5. Pick up the phone. The key to building a relationship is becoming human to the producer - not a deletable email.
    6. Be helpful. Be consultative. As a conference producer, there were a few well-informed speaker reps that would take the time not only to explain where their clients fit in, but other speakers that might be a fit that were NOT their clients. Their kindness was rewarded!

    Hope some of your readers will find value in these suggestions!

    Alison Murdock
    Next Round Communications

  • by Sharon Danley Tue Mar 9, 2010 via web

    Great points by Helen and yours too Alison. As my expertise lies in the visual aspect of presentation, I'd have to underscore that a recent picture is a must. So many speakers have old photos that it creates instant dis-trust when you meet your event planner. That first 7 seconds can make or break your attempts. So line up a good makeup/hair artist and snap away. When your picture honestly reflects you in the best light you increase your trust factor and self confidence.

    Sharon Danley, Master Artist
    Presentation-Management.com

  • by Helena Bouchez Tue Mar 9, 2010 via web

    Alison, Those are all great additions, particularly the point about not making the event producer find the fit! Very important, thank you.

    Sharon, yes, a pro photo does make all the difference, but can be expensive. Marketers take note: Photographers always need help promoting their services, see if you can barter.

    Glad you enjoyed the article!

  • by Terri Maurer Sat Mar 13, 2010 via web

    Excellent article, Helena! The peek into the inner workings of the event planning process related to finding appropriate speakers has enormous value for those of us interested in expanding our speaking horizons beyond our existing realms. A number of very useful tips were offered....and noted by this speaker.

  • by Helena Bouchez Sat Mar 13, 2010 via web

    Thanks Terri! I'm so glad you found the information of value.

  • by James Erdt Sun Mar 14, 2010 via web

    Thanks for this fantastic article Helen and the additional great points Alison! Very valuable information indeed!

    Yours in Opportunity, Abundance and JOY!!!
    James Erdt
    Founder / President
    Joyzone Inc. (http://Joyzone.com)
    Fitness STAR International (http://FitnessSTARNetwork.com)
    Fitness STAR Magazine (http://FitnessSTARMagazine.com)

  • by Casey Barto Wed Mar 17, 2010 via web

    Excellent tips, Helena and Alison.

  • by Jenni Hilton Thu Apr 1, 2010 via web

    Great points Helena and Alison. It is great to see your perspective on the other side as event planners. I will definitely follow your tips! Thanks for sharing.

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