One of the greatest marketing opportunities for young companies is having a company representative speak at industry conferences and conventions. Doing this can position your company as a leader and an innovator. And while networking is de rigueur at these events, your chances for connecting with the right people improve dramatically when you are exposed to 200 people simultaneously.
That said, it’s not easy to crack through and become a speaker. Conference planners need to have “names” to attract paying customers, and you’ve seen the conference advertisements that feature the usual suspects. (Do these people ever work?) Still, it’s possible to break in if you can demonstrate that you have a good story to tell. In the technology industry, there are literally hundreds of conferences, and those who organize them are hungry for people who can provide interesting, insightful advice and fresh perspectives on facing today’s business challenges.
While each conference has different criteria and needs, the typical methodology for applying to speak is through a speaker’s brief or abstract. This short summary describes the speaker, his or her relevant experience, and what information he or she has to offer. This synopsis should be tailored to the specific conference, so prepare different abstracts covering different topics you’d address to different audiences.
If you’re new to the game, it’s a good idea to start with smaller conferences to get some experience and become comfortable. Once you break in, follow these tips to make the most of your moment on stage, be it a solo performance or on a panel of experts.
- Understand the conference, your audience, and the topic at hand. Obvious, right? You’d think so, but you’d be surprised how many speakers don’t or don’t seem to understand why they’re speaking, what they’re speaking about, and whom they’re speaking to. I’ve attended more than one conference at which I wondered if I’d somehow come to the wrong place because the speaker went on and on about something having nothing to do with the conference topic.
- Talk to the moderator and your fellow panelists. If you are a panel member, make sure you connect with the moderator and your fellow panelists prior to the event. Every moderator has an idea on how he or she would like to handle the panel, and you should be aware of and responsive to these desires. Talking ahead of time to your fellow panelists will help you understand what unique information you can provide — and what information would probably overlap with what others will provide.
- Drop the commercial. A speaker intent on giving the full sales pitch for his or her company come hell or high water is high on my list of pet peeves. You’ve been asked to share your knowledge, not your product line. A brief description of what your company does and your background is always appropriate, but brief is the operative word. You should sum up this stuff in two minutes or less.
- Be up on current events. Catch up on your industry reading before attending the speaking event. You don’t want to get caught off-guard if asked to comment on a recent happening. Additionally, you may be able to work the information into your talk to help make a point.
- Balance your participation. When you’re participating on a panel, try to strike a balance; don’t dominate, but don’t disappear, either. A good moderator will work to involve all the participants, but that’s not always the case. Regardless, you determine how much you will interject and participate. If you are engaged and participating at a healthy rate, try not to jump into every topic. If you are behind curve, insert yourself when and where you feel comfortable.
Conference organizers can provide you with descriptions of the conference’s objectives and likely attendees. They will also outline what they would like you to cover in your talk. Use these tools to help you in preparation.
How interesting is it for an attendee to hear panelists say, “I agree with what he just said”? Panelists are sometimes asked to provide short PowerPoint presentations as a visual aid to the talk. Keep these short and to the point (see my previous column on PowerPoint for some potentially helpful hints). Nothing irks the audience, panel members, and moderator more than a panelist intent on being a soloist, eating up everyone else’s time.
The most significant tip I can give to anyone speaking at a conference is put yourself in the shoes of an attendee as often as you can. You have been there yourself and know what you have appreciated and felt was a waste of time. With this alone, you should do well enough to become a regular contributor on the speaker circuit.
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