How to get a conference speaking slot

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This is going to be the first in a series about raising your profile in the web industry. I’m going to share some tips that are guaranteed to help you massively increase your visibility and credibility. These two things lead to higher paid, more exciting client work and opportunities. Let’s start with conferences, and how to nab a speaking slot if no one knows you.

Ryan speaking at FOWA San Francisco 2006, about how to build web apps

We’ve been running conferences for over six years and we’ve learned a thing or two about speaking, exposure, and credibility.

As soon as you’re on stage, you automatically join the ‘experts’ strata. It’s not fair or logical, but it’s just a fact. Humans naturally attribute credibility to someone who is speaking from a stage.

So if you’ve never spoken at a conference, how do you get an invite? It’s easier than you might think. Just follow these steps …

  1. Go to the conference and meet the organizer in person. The best way to do this is agree to volunteer for free. You’re doing the organizer a favor and he’ll feel obligated to return the favor at some point. This might seem Machiavellian but it’s not. It’s just How to Win Friends and Influence People 101.
  2. Do something really creative. Create an open-source tool, do a fake re-design for Berkshire Hathaway and explain why it’ll work, use the web to help a charity raise money. It doesn’t matter, it just needs to be creative and attention grabbing.
  3. Record a three-minute video sampler of a talk you’d like to give about the project. Tips for the video: head and shoulder shot, good sound, simple one-color background (not the wall in your bedroom), decent lighting, do NOT be boring. This video is about convincing the conference organizer that you’re going to be a great speaker.
  4. Send the video to the organizer and say that you’ve created something really interesting, recorded a three-minute video sampler of your talk. You’re willing to pay for your own flight, hotel and expenses. All you want is a chance to really delight their audience.

As long as you have just a little bit of charisma and excitement, I guarantee you can get a speaking slot if you follow these steps. Once you get your first speaking gig, approach another conference with the same tactics. Once you’ve got two big speaking gigs under your belt, you should be able to land almost any speaking slot.

Once you land the speaking spot, you need to do a TON of prep work and speaker training, to make sure you really wow the crowd. I’ll try to blog about this in the future.

Thanks to Laughing Squid for the photo.

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13 comments on “How to get a conference speaking slot

  1. I pretty much speak at conferences for a living now and I can get behind what Ryan is saying here. All it takes is one event organiser taking a chance on you (because that’s what they’re doing) as a rookie speaker to launch your speaking career.

  2. Great advice Ryan, the key goals I have a s a speaker are to:

    1. Leave the audience inspired
    2. Stamp my personality on the talk.
    3. Add value to whatever subject matter by offering my own unique tangent.

    Looking forward to FOWD!

  3. This is something I am very very interested in since Mr Dan Rubin mentioned it to me as a path. Thanks you for this post Ryan, great help.

  4. Great points!

    I run a meetup here in NYC. Because they’re casual, low-key affairs, I’ll take a chance on any presenter who approaches me with a relevant topic. Speaking at local, casual meetups gets you experience, a good rep, and if you can get someone to film you, real footage to send along.

    I’ve also been approached to be on panels because I run my meetup. Being the guy behind the guy is another strategy.

  5. Excellent! Best advice ever: go to the conference. Not only does this dramatically improve your chances of presenting there (or at a related event) later, it also give you crucial information for when you DO present there. Going to an event the first time *as a presenter* is really tough… your job is to give the paying attendees something of real value, and it is hard to appreciate what that is until you’ve interacted with them.

    I agree that “raising your profile” is a likely outcome of presenting at events like Ryan’s, but it is far from the only reason to do so, and pretty far down the list for some of us. I can think of so many other reasons to present at conferences, but the opportunity to give something back… to help others learn from your mistakes/ successes/research/experience/specific passion, etc. and then to learn how those ideas spread down the road… priceless.

    Someone high profile recently showed me what he did with an equally high-profile website, as a direct result (he claimed) of something he heard me say at a talk five years earlier. Took him that long, but the benefit to all of his users was instantly obvious. So, I speak at an event, and five year’s later, tens of thousands of users are having a better experience. THAT is why *I* do it. But then, I think “raised profile” is a little overrated.

    Because Ryan’s second tip is already going to start THAT ball rolling…

    My tip when you make that video: remember your talk is not about YOU. You are simply a UI into some experience for the attendees. Consider them your users. What experience do they want and need? Even if you have never presented before, no big deal, you already understand designing with the users experience in mind. That’s all this is.

    When I get stage fright, I just exhale and think, “I’m just a UI, I’m just a UI…” takes the focus of me and puts it right where it should be… Their experience and result from my talk is what matters. The rest sorts itself out nicely.

    (side note: having presented at a zillion conferences now, I can say with confidence that Ryan’s are among the very best experience for both presenters and attendees. My other top favorites include Webstock in New Zealand, and the Business of Software.)

    • Hey Kathy,

      Thanks so much for stopping by and taking time to comment. Thank you so much for the kind words about our shows.

      I love your point about being a ‘UI’. That’s a fun way to look at it and I can see how that would help you to focus on the attendees instead of yourself.

      Thanks so much for always being so selfless – you’re amazing!

      All the best,

  6. I’d add one suggestion: Get speaking. There are a plethora of local meetups & other events at local schools and libraries that offer opportunities to speak. Volunteer at your current work place to present a topic over lunch. The idea is to build your confidence speaking at the local level before jumping in front of a larger crowd.