This week I gave my first keynote presentation at Fluent in San Francisco, in front of a crowd of nearly 1000 people — a feat I would have thought unimaginable ten years ago. I’m an introvert, and talking to huge groups of people is not my specialty.

When I gave my first talk a few years ago, I was nervous and sweaty, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to go on stage. But when I gave my talk last week, I was struggling for days with my 10-minute keynote limit because I had so much to say!

Of course, I will still nervous before I went on stage, in fact my legs were shaking so bad at first I thought I was going to topple over. And I’ll let you in on a secret — most of the amazing speakers you see on stage at the conferences and videos you see are nervous too. But doing public speaking is an amazing opportunity to share your story and your insights about your work, and to build your personal brand so you can grow your career outside of the place you work now.

I have had so many opportunities come to me through the speaking I have done, so I wanted to share some of the best advice I have on how to get in the door as a speaker, and how to bring the house down once you’re up on stage.

Getting your foot in the door.

It is intimidating to apply to be a speaker at a conference; it’s easy to think, “Why would anyone want to hear what I have to say?” and of course everyone fears rejection. But everyone who’s up there is there because they have something to say that the event organizers thought was worth sharing. Anyone can have a great idea, and the people putting on conferences want to offer the best content they can for the people who attend.

You don’t have to be famous to get a talk accepted, and you don’t have to be a senior executive at a huge company either — you just have to have a pitch that gets people excited.

I saw this post on getting a talk accepted recently that I loved. In it, a first-time speaker sent an email to the event organizer explaining that although he was new to the speaking game, he was an expert on the topic and he would do a really good job.

I like this for a few reasons. First of all, he made a personal connection with the event organizer. As I have said before, relationships make everything possible. If you want to have a talk accepted, your odds of getting in go way up if you’ve connected with the event chairs before you submit your application. This can be anything from having a mutual acquaintance make an intro to just interacting with them on Twitter.

Emailing to follow up on the application is great too, for the same reason it’s important to follow up on an important meeting or job interview. Cement your connection, and add evidence of your real interest.

Another great thing about the speaker in the post is that he was clear about what he wanted to do: he had his topic, he knew he was an expert, and he was prepared to do the hard work to do a really good job.

That’s all anyone ever wants, right? A conference organizer wants a great event, so there’s no need to show them how smart you are by using tons of jargon or try to impress them with a bunch of complex theories. Tell them exactly what you want to do, and why you’ll make their event so good.

Here are a few more of my tips for getting your foot in the door:

  1. Keep pitching. I pitched the same conferences multiple times before they finally accepted me (and even as a known speaker, I still get rejected too!).  Just keep in mind that talks and conferences usually have applications 6 months before the talk so you can start pitching now and have some time to get your material ready.  And don’t be afraid to submit 2-3 pitches for the same event – you will never know what slots or material might fit well with the conference.

  2. Perfect your pitch. Read talk abstracts and figure out what gets accepted and what doesn’t. Read over last year’s pitches. Pay attention to the newer speakers – often times organizers like to have a wide variety of topics so going more niche can pay off (vs. a general “best practice” one).  A lot of conferences love stories, case studies, or lessons that you learned during a project.  Those can also be some of the easiest ones to tell 🙂

  3. Have a blog or other website. One thing organizers may do is google you and see what you are about. If you don’t have a lot of open source contributions, a website, blog, etc. then they may be less likely to take a risk. But if they see you are doing awesome things, then they are much more inclined to want to hear more from you.

  4. Talk at local meetups. A lot of meetup organizers are well-connected and can hook you up with other opportunities if you do a great job. Ask them for candid feedback and accept it gracefully. Even speak at other local companies if you can’t get into meetups. In addition to being good practice, you can learn what you have to say and how it will resonate with other people. I do this with blog posts and review how much they each get shared and commented on, etc. You want to find a great topic and get some experience speaking.

  5. Have a good polished demo video. It can be scripted, it can be practiced, just make it awesome 🙂

what would you do if you knew you could not fail

Becoming a good public speaker.

“There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars.”  —Mark Twain

  • Practice, a lot. The better you know your speech, the better you’ll do when the lights are on you and everyone is staring up at you from the audience. Don’t just practice in private either. Practice out loud, in front of people, as much as you can. Make your friends or partner watch you, and seek out other speakers you may know who can give you practical feedback. Try to create a scene as close to the one you’ll be in as possible; for example, if you’re going to have to hold a microphone or slide clicker, hold something in your hand while you practice so you’re not caught off guard on the day.

  • Create great content. At first your delivery will need a bit of work (well, mine certainly did, and still does) but the reason people wanted me to come back was because of my content.  Don’t be content to just tell what you know.  Do research, talk to other leaders, compile the best stories, the best ideas, and try to make them actionable.  Part of your job is teaching, but part of it is entertaining, and having interesting and useful content can be enough to give lots of value to your audience.

    “If you give good, actionable, clear advice, people will forgive it all” – Tim Ferris

  • When in doubt, go advanced.  There are times that beginner content makes sense (a tutorial or talk with intro in the title), but most people may know a bit about the topic.  If you are an expert try to have at least 2-3 morsels that you learned recently.  The best talks have something for everyone, and so making you content aimed at the best people can ensure that you don’t waste anyone’s time.

  • Tell a story. It can be your story, a historical story, or even a story you heard from someone else – but try to fit your message into a story.  Think about heroes, journeys, struggles, and overcoming it all.  People are much more likely to remember things and engage with your content if you put a framework around it.  And who doesn’t love a good tale?

  • Make your slides beautiful.  This presentation has some great tips, and I love sites like Note and Point for inspiration.  I like to use a special font (usually 1-2) and more images than text.  And no bullet points!  And if you put code on your slides make sure it is readable, or an example to show a lot or little (like, “look at how easy this function is”, or “you won’t be believe how complicated the solution used to be”).  And if you have to have text, please don’t read from the slides – try to say something totally different.

  • Don’t rush beforehand. Wake up earlier than you would normally need to on the day of your talk, eat breakfast so you have energy. Give yourself extra time to get everywhere, and don’t wear anything unusual that you might find irritates you by the time you get on stage. I would also encourage you to think about where the microphone will go (dresses are problematic here), and remove things from your pockets that could create unsightly bulges or jingle if you walk around (like keys).  When you’re already worked up about speaking in front of a crowd, don’t give yourself other opportunities to get upset by running late or forgetting an important thing like your phone in the hotel.

  • Go slow. When I get nervous, I start talking really fast. That’s bad because when you’re making a big presentation to a room of dozens or hundreds of people, you actually need to speak a little slower than usual to make sure you are understood. It helps to actually count out beats between sentences (“one..two..”) so that your words don’t run together. You worked so hard on every word in your presentation, so take your time and let them sink in for the listener.

  • Don’t picture everyone in their underwear. Everyone tells you to picture the audience in their underwear, right? If you are talking to a room of engineers, that thought is a little ….ummm…unattractive. For me, I try not to think about the audience at all. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you’re staring at a huge group of people waiting for you to wow them. Instead, focus on one person, or at least, pretend like you’re just talking to one person in the audience at a time. You don’t want to stare with laser focus at one guy in the front row, but direct your attention to individuals — not the whole crowd — and just talk to them.

    And if you only have a few people in the room, get them to come closer to the front and talk like it is a fireside chat.  Those can be some of the best and will give you a chance to really bond and connect with your audience.  And don’t panic if people aren’t looking at you – they could be tweeting or just listening.

  • Practice your breathing. When you get nervous, your heart races and you start to breathe shallowly. This is what makes you feel light-headed and dizzy right before you walk on stage, which can throw off the presentation you had down cold that morning in your hotel room.

    Some of the best advice I ever got was on how to listen to your body signals and adjust them through mindfulness.

  • Remember to build your brand. This is a simple tip, but it’s a good reminder that part of the reason you’re speaking is because you want to grow your reach to a wider audience. Don’t forget to put your Twitter handle or website on your slides for your presentation, so people can share snippets from your talk while it happens and connect with you afterwards.

    Another great tip is to upload your slides to slideshare in advance and put the url on the last page of your slides.  People will often tweet this and share it and so it is great way to share and distribute your content while it is fresh.

  • After the talk, keep talking. Once you’re done with your talk, you might feel the urge to run back to your hotel room and recharge for the rest of the day (or at least, that’s how I feel!), but you’ll lose the amazing momentum you built up if you don’t connect with people before and after your presentation. I actually love giving talks because it gives me an automatic icebreaker for starting conversations with new people.   So get out there and network!

If you are thinking of speaking at conference, well start pitching!  It is a great way to build your network, your brand, and showcase your great accomplishments.   And since this post spurred from some consulting I have done recently for people who are aspiring to be public speakers, you can always reach out too, and I will help if I can.

See you on the stage!

PS: Be sure to checkout our popforms’ spark on pitching a conference we take you through the steps of prepping a pitch.  

More resources (and feel free to leave others in the comments):

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