Get speaking opportunities
Like any other skill, becoming a great public speaker means first and foremost doing it a lot. Sure, you can read all about the art of public speaking but the main trick is to get in there and overcome your fears and uncertainties.
The crux is that it is not easy becoming a speaker at conferences. This is partly based on the decision of most conference organisers to play it safe and only use well-known speakers. This again is based on the fact that audiences in surveys keep requesting well-known speakers and this is - sadly enough - how we keep the speaker circuit from changing.
There is however a way in, which is to the most part based on getting your name out there and using alternatives to conferences.
Take part in podcasts
Podcasts have been blossoming lately and many people follow them on their commute and on the go. Getting invited to take part in a discussion or bring something to the news round of a podcasts is most likely easier than getting invited to an event. However, it is a great step on the way there. Listen to some podcasts, see what topics they cover and how it meshes with what you want to talk about and you’re halfway there. Podcasters are always looking out for content and things to cover and by reaching out to them and offering expert advice you do not have to do the outreach work yourself but become known at the same time. Getting invited is a process that happens a lot by word of mouth. This means that by helping a smaller, up-and-coming podcast you do not only help others but get onto the radar of the bigger players at the same time. Often you meet podcasters at events. If you’re flexible enough to do a recording on the spot you’ll soon find the first to contribute to.
Take part in panels
The same applies to panels. Whilst speaking slots are rare, panels, by definition demand more people to be on them. Most presenters are “panelled out” and don’t want to be on them when they have their talk to worry about. This is your chance to sneak on stage and get your first experiences facing an audience. As you are not necessarily known yourself yet, a good way to get invited to panels is to be a subject matter expert or be part of a larger group (library creators, tech stack enthusiasts…) and bring your expert knowledge to the discussion.
Go to Grass Roots events
Barcamps used to be a really great counter-movement to the conference circuit, and to a degree are still around. They are un-conferences, meaning they are gatherings of enthusiasts of networking and presenting. Unlike conferences they are free and one of the really interesting rules of Barcamp is that everybody who attends also has to give a presentation.
These presentations are normally 15 minute slots and can be about anything that gets you excited at the moment. I've seen the full range of technical talks at Barcamps but also knitting tips and gardening advice.
Barcamps and similar grass roots events are great opportunities to get your first experience in public speaking and allow interested people and conference organisers to spot you as an upcoming talent. Often you will find events like these organised around other events. For example, Indie Web Camps or a11ycamps.
Go to Meetups
Meetups are informal gatherings of people in the business to chat about hot topics and generally meet and get to know other local peers. Often they have a quick presentation slot to start the event and this is your chance to get a foot in the door and have an expert audience (or an audience that are not the normal conference crowd) to speak to.
Often local IT companies that want to get known organise meetups in their offices, and whilst this means you need to be cognisant of their agenda it is a good place to get to know that company and offer you as a guest speaker.
A lot of conference organisers also run online magazines. These change over time but there are always some big players out there you should easily find. The benefit of an online magazine for conference organisers is that they can keep the buzz going in-between events and try to build a community around their brand. This is a great opportunity for you. Not only can you hone your writing skills, but you get known right at the source for talk opportunities, too.
Offer to write articles for magazines and keep a look out for article writing competitions and you'll find yourself invited to speak faster than you think.
Brownbag presentations mean that you offer to come to a company during their lunch break and give a presentation. In case you are wondering – that's where the name comes from – as Americans used to bring their lunch in brown paperbags.
Brownbag presentations are a great opportunity:
- They are not that common - so offering them to a company makes the person agreeing to it an innovator. A lot of companies have them on their radar but have a hard time filling them with internal presenters
- They mean that you reach people that normally don't go to conferences but have quite a big word-of-mouth power or work in a large company that does a lot but isn’t loud about it
- Your presentation is not disruptive to the daily deliveries of the company but adds extra value to a normal break.
- They don't mean much traveling as you can do them at local companies (granted, living in a hotspot makes it easy).
- You get on the company's blog and Extranet and via that known to their clients and partners.
Ask questions at conferences
One idea to plant in your head is to never be shy to ask questions at any meeting or conference. I am a hundred percent sure that my success in my job had its main breakthrough after I asked detailed technical questions to the speakers at the @media2005 conference.
I had spent four months arguing with my boss to get tickets to the conference and that it is important for my team to go there and wanted to get my money's worth – and everybody going to conferences should do the same.
If you don't ask you don't get an answer - it is as simple as that. If your question is technically valuable and interesting you can be quite sure that the rest of the audience had the same problem, but were too afraid to ask.
Be a presenter people want to invite – publish your presenter terms
Imagine yourself as a conference organiser. You have to deal with a lot of people and juggle a lot of things. Who are you more likely to invite? A presenter you need to email every few days to get information, or someone you can easily work with?
One of the biggest winners with conference organisers I had was that I have my presenter terms listed in full detail online. These are on GitHub and I invite you to fork them and use them as your own presenter portfolio.
In these, I listed all the things conference organisers kept asking me about:
- A short, up-to-date bio
- Headshots and photos to use
- All the important personal information (name, location, job title, social media names, homepage)
- Videos of other talks / other presentation slides
I also listed in the right amount of detail:
- What I can do for an event
- What topics I prefer to cover
- What my show-stoppers are - things I won’t do and I don’t want to support
- What I will deliver at the event
- My technical setup - what stage technology I need
- What I expect of a conference organiser
- Financial agreements (I normally don’t ask to be paid, but my travel to be covered and the cost of a normal speaker fee to be used for free diversity tickets)
- What can go wrong and how I will deal with it
Thinking these things through doesn’t only help conference organisers, but it is also a good opportunity to focus what you want out of events. You don’t want to be seen as someone who doesn’t know what they want. You want to be a professional presenter happy to deliver a good talk but also expecting a professional surrounding.
Having all this information out of the way and available as a simple link for copy + paste, the only thing left a conference organiser who chose you will have to do is to sort out the date and get a title and abstract of your talk. This might not seem a lot, but having to chase this information with even only 10 presenters at your event really eats into your time budget.
By being prepared you can save a potential conference host for your talk a lot of time.
Getting invited to speak is a cumulative process. The more you present, the more likely you are to get invited again. Use any presentation opportunity also as a networking and advertising opportunity. Other presenters, organisers and even conference partners all talk to each other and share opportunities to present. Becoming known as someone helpful, nice and convenient to work with goes a long way there.