In the past few years, I’ve been invited to speak at popular conferences around the world on the topics of marketing, bots, and artificial intelligence. As CMO of TOPBOTS, a strategy and research firm for applied AI, I advise executive teams at Fortune 500 companies like L’Oreal, Paypal, and WPP on how to build successful businesses in our new world of automation and machine learning.
Here are the steps I took to advance from an unknown expert to a recognized “thought leader” speaking several times a month to leading executives learning about emerging technologies. My dream is to one day emulate Brené Brown and Amy Cuddy by taking the center stages of TED.
In the meantime, here are my humble learnings from this journey thus far.
Overcome Your Fear Of Speaking
To speak publicly, you must be a master of presenting before an audience. f you’re prone to stage fright or tend to stumble over your words, here are a few practices which can improve your confidence and delivery.
Take improv classes
Improv classes teach you how to think spontaneously on your feet and are a playful and fun way to develop your impromptu communication style. Other people dive directly into standup comedy routines, but I recommend dipping your toe into improv first as introductory courses are low pressure and an easy way to push your comfort zone.
Check out toastmasters
Toastmasters is a famous organization that helps people learn how to give speeches. Different members rotate giving speeches and receiving feedback from the group. The organization creates a sense of accountability and a safe environment for practice.
Hustle For Your First Few Gigs
When you don’t have a track record of successful speaking, you’ll have a hard time getting booked. Do whatever it takes to nab your first few speaking gigs. Here are some ideas of low-hanging fruit to go after.
Speak at your company
One of the easiest ways is to start by speaking internally at company events. If you’ve reached major milestone or deliverables, ask to present to a wider group in order to educate and update your colleagues on your work. Not only will you get more visibility at your company, you might even get a promotion!
Speak at meetups and local interest groups
If you’re an expert in a topic, whether a professional or a personal one, look up nearly meetup groups and organizations that hold events you can speak at. The settings are usually informal and unintimidating. You can even consider organizing your own meetups if existing ones don’t suit you.
Pitch yourself to conferences
If you’re with a hot startup or a major brand, conferences are more likely to book you even if you haven’t spoken previously. You might even convince your company to sponsor an event in exchange for a coveted speaking slot.
Ask your network for opportunities
Let everyone know you’re available for speaking gigs. If anyone in your network is speaking at a conference you’d like to present at, don’t hesitate to reach out for an introduction to the organizers.
Write a book
Having a best selling book is the easiest way to get booked on the speaking circuit, and authors often make more money from their speaking gigs than the book itself. While this is much easier said than done, it’s a worthy goal to keep in mind.
Sound Intelligent And Eloquent
Clean up your speech
Inexperienced speakers often make three common mistakes when presenting: 1) upspeak, where every sentence ends in a higher pitch and sounds like a question, 2) vocal fry, a guttural type of speech that reduces your perceived clarity, and 3) Unnecessary filler works like “um”, “like”, and “you know”.
Get a speech coach
Just cleaning up obvious mistakes in speech might not be enough. If you’re truly serious about your speaking career, invest in an executive communications coach who can help you practice regularly and discover your unique speaking style.
Listen to podcasts
Subscribe to podcasts and write down everything you like about how various hosts tell stories. Practice these techniques in your own content. I personally love Radio Lab, Planet Money and Gimlet Media.
Watch Youtube tutorials
Search YouTube for free educational content on “how to present”. Prioritize watching the videos that have a like recommended / watched ratio, as those are often the most valuable. You can even practice with negative examples by noticing why a specific video presenter isn’t effective and avoiding those mistakes.
Watch TED and TEDx videos
Presenters on TED are phenomenal examples of practiced public speakers who know how to give educational and inspiring talks. One of my favorite presentations is this “How to Sound Smart In Your Ted Talk”. In this video, Will Stephen says absolutely nothing, yet you’re mesmerized by his presentation. It’s all about delivery.
Practice, practice, practice
Practice makes perfect. Your master and confidence will show in your delivery. You should ideally be able to deliver your content even without the support of your slides. In worst case tech failures, you may indeed be called upon to do so!
Prepare Your Assets
Get a professional headshot
Most events will ask you for a high quality headshot to use in their promotional materials, so don’t be caught without one.
Keep your LinkedIn updated
LinkedIn is your public professional resume. Event organizers actively use the tool to find speakers and validate your credentials.
Create a personal website
Go a step beyond social media and create a personal branding website. Customize your content to highlight your experience, background, and other reasons why an event would be remiss not to book you!
Write a stellar biography
If you speak to different audiences, you want to have multiple versions of your biography tailored to their interests.
Manage Event Logistics
Understand the audience & talk format
Be sure to obtain this information from your conference organizers so you can best tailor your content:
- How large is the audience?
- What are their functions? Their levels?
- What are they interested in?
- How advanced is the audience?
Other important questions include:
- What are other speakers going to talk about?
- How many minutes do you have?
- What is the presentation slide size? (e.g. 16:9 or 4:3)
- What format do they want the slides in? (powerpoint, keynote, pdf)
- Is time for Q&A included?
Prepare Your Content
Get PR team approval
Don’t accidentally walk into a PR debacle. Be sure to run your content by your PR or communications director to ensure you’re in line with your company’s guidelines and goals.
Add visuals and imagery
Bullet points are boring. Resist the temptation to cram as much as possible on each slide, as your audience, especially those sitting further back, will not internalize the content. Focus on one major point per slide and the key takeaways for your listeners.
Invest In Speaking Tools
Technology varies from venue to venue, so invest in your own presentation tools if you’re committed to being a regular speaker. Here’s the presentation clicker that I use. I also highly recommend buying a versatile display adapter so you can ensure your computer will work with the projector onsite. Here’s one that has HDMI, VGA, and DVI to DisplayPort support for Macbooks.
Be Invited To Speak Again
Be gracious to conference organizers
Organizing massive events is a nightmare. Be responsive, patient, gracious, and helpful to your conference organizers and you’ll be more likely to be asked to speak repeatedly. I was honored to be invited to speak at Jason Calacanis’ LAUNCH conferences four separate times.
Don’t cancel unless absolutely necessary
Speaker cancellations are a huge headache for event organizers. Commit and stay committed. If you do have to cancel, be sure to suggest another excellent speaker to take your spot.
Capture Photo & Video
Always get a recording of your presentations. You can use the content to review and improve your speaking style, but also as a demo reel for future conferences. If a conference is not recording the content, ask to bring your own videographer.
Advice For Female Speakers
Women are wildly underrepresented at conferences, especially technical ones. Be sure to check out Smiley Poswolsky’s excellent resources for female speakers specifically. In particular, be confident in your expertise and skills and don’t be afraid to ask for the speaking slot or honorarium you deserve.
Want Us To Speak At Your Event?
Hope that these steps have been helpful for you to get started on your own speaker journey. Let me know in the comments below if there are any other tips that have worked for you.
We teach executive and entrepreneurial audiences how to succeed and grow their businesses in a world of automation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. Book us as speakers for your event or conference.