In the technology PR sector, it’s our dream to have a client CEO deliver the keynote speech at a major conference, or to appear on a panel with illustrious peers. Executive speaking opportunities offer great visibility, built-in media coverage, and contact with prospective customers. As a bonus, speeches from conferences can also be recycled as bylined articles or video snippets suitable for social sharing.
But how does a young company generate such opportunities? Submitting a potential spokesperson for speaking engagements can be a full-time job. It can also be very competitive, with some exceptions. For female founders of successful technology businesses, there’s likely to be greater opportunity for plum speaking engagements, simply because they are so rare. But for more typical candidates, the submission process can be lengthy, labor-intensive, and overwhelming.
How to get speaking engagements at conferences
Look at last year’s conference program
Start by building a calendar of targeted conferences. The best way to gauge a conference’s relevance is by studying the past year’s program online. Past programs offer a wealth of intel, including the format and tone of the session abstracts, quality of speakers, and themes. These will be useful for creating a speaker proposal of your own. Some conferences like the Digiday and Digital Summit series offer guidance on submitting proposals.
Who goes to this conference?
Research conference attendee demographics, usually found on the website or program under the sponsorship, FAQ, or the “why attend?” tabs. What are the job functions and seniority level of the attendees? What size companies do they represent? Who sponsors the event? Peg your prospective speakers to their most important audiences; a CEO should be speaking to an audience with at least some C-level executives. If 70% of the attendees are from SMBs and startups, then it may not make sense for your enterprise-level executive to participate.
Pay-to-play or earned speaking engagement?
To avoid wasting time it’s good to know whether the speakers are generally from sponsors, vendors, agencies, or brands. If the speakers are mostly repping sponsors, the event leans toward a pay-to-play model. If you are a PR pro for a B2B vendor, make sure the conference welcomes such speakers without sponsorship. Most clients are interested in earned opportunities, because they don’t need us to secure paid ones.
Don’t wait to submit
Get in early. To find out when speaker submissions open, you often need to get on the conference’s email list. But don’t wait for that date. Ask smart questions to the coordinator even before submissions open. Submissions often ask for extensive company financial and biographical information, which will take time to be compiled and polished.
Know the coordinators
When submitting your speaker, do not try to sell or promote a product or brand. Instead, think of it as a collaboration with the coordinator to help them build outstanding conference content. Cultivate ongoing relationships with conference coordinators in the same way you would journalists and industry analysts. They’re every bit as valuable. Stay in touch, ask questions, and even take them out for coffee if local.
Bring a panel or a partner
A PR team can improve the chances of acceptance by proposing an entire panel discussion — if your company has the ability to assemble a top-quality group. Many conferences will shy away from accepting speakers from vendors and steer you in the sponsorship direction. If so, why not pitch a joint session involving a vendor and one of its client brands about how they worked together using an original approach to achieve a great outcome?
Have a point of view
As is true of the most compelling thought leadership content, speaker/talk proposals have to dazzle in order to be noticed. The best way to stand out is to have a novel point of view relevant to the conference program. Don’t be afraid of taking a controversial stand on a hot industry topic. Alternatively, you can outline a pressing industry problem and offer tangible solutions or fresh thinking that attendees will be eager to take back to their companies.
Set your sights high — but not too high.
Your client may have his heart set on a top-level meeting where he can rub elbows with enterprise-level CEOs or celebrity entrepreneurs. But most candidates need to pay their dues before being called up to the bigs. There are countless tech conferences that match every industry, business stage, size, and niche. And no matter how naturally dynamic your speaker may be, he or she can gain necessary experience before mingling at Davos or keynoting a Dreamforce conference. As the executive’s profile grows, you will find him being accepted — and even invited — to speak at more prominent events.