How to choose the right person for a public speaking opportunity
When is the CEO the person to represent your organization—and when should you look for someone else?
Nominating someone for a public speaking gig, such as an industry conference, can be frustratingly easy to get wrong.
I see teams struggle with these all the time, and sometimes they make them harder than they should be. The most common mistake is when nominators “repurpose” material from other sources in their effort to submit a speaker to a conference or industry event. It may not be intuitive, but it’s actually easier and faster to start from scratch.
Just as a professional chef prepares a mise en place by assembling all the ingredients, pots and pans, plates, and serving pieces needed for a particular recipe before cracking an egg, you’ll have a smoother nomination process if you read through the nomination form and material carefully and assemble all the “ingredients” you’ll need before you start drafting. Here’s a recipe for success:
1. Calibrate your candidate and conference.
In many cases, the CEO is the obvious candidate, but in choosing your approach, be clear on goals.
What are you trying to accomplish by having someone from this company speak at this particular conference? You’ll want to choose a speaker who can represent the company credibly with the specific audience, and whose title is appropriate given the other speakers at the event.
2. Consider diversity.
After years of criticism for featuring all white, all male panels and stages, conference organizers are consciously trying to diversify their speaker lineups. In fintech, one major conference publicly set a goal of having 40% of speakers be women or from diverse backgrounds. Another told me confidentially their goal is to increase female representation from 25% to 33% this year.
This means that if you’re trying to place a white, male speaker, your job just got tougher—but it’s important to remind yourself, and your speakers if necessary, that this is a long overdue correction that is good for everyone.
Can you submit someone else instead, or in addition to? If not, know you’re up against stiff competition and make sure to have the unique information and data to demonstrate why your candidate deserves one of those increasingly scarce spots.
3. Match the speaker to the format.
A keynote is a high-profile opportunity that’s typically reserved for a CEO, or other prominent industry personality or pundit. It requires confidence, poise and high production values to pull off (it might also require sponsorship).
A fireside chat is also a high-profile opportunity, but structured as a conversation and thus more forgiving, making it easier for a quieter personality to shine. A panel discussion is typically where speakers start, particularly those not yet C-suite level. Some conferences ask for ideas, others for fully built out panel proposals where all panelists have committed to travel in-person should the panel be accepted. Make sure you understand the requirements and follow them, including any diversity requirements.
In the ongoing fight for eyeballs and airtime, some conferences are incorporating different formats, including poster sessions, debates and contests. Some of these are quite interesting, so don’t be shy; just make sure you’re matching a speaker’s personality with the format and being realistic about what makes sense for your company.
4. Make an outline.
Once you’ve settled on your nominee and format, you can tackle content.
Here it’s critical to pay attention to conference specifics. The people who organize conferences typically are deeply versed in industry issues and have spent a lot of time developing their tracks and topic areas. Which of these can your nominee best address? What are the three key points they will make? What perspective can they offer that’s unique or interesting? What industry or cultural trends can they illustrate? What assumptions can they counter?
Most conferences are looking for a strong, clear articulation of what a speaker can offer and what attendees can take away.
5. Craft the nomination.
The easiest way I’ve found to ensure you’re not missing anything is to copy the nomination form into a word or google document. Make sure that you are directly addressing the specific “ask” of each section. It’s fine to incorporate content used elsewhere if it’s appropriate and relevant (a bio, for example) but make sure you’re customizing it to support this specific context, as well as to meet any specific requirements such as word count.
Conference organizers read hundreds of these; can you blame them for looking for reasons to decline? Don’t give them an easy one: Edit and proofread carefully.
- Look for any word ending in “-ly.” It’s probably superfluous.
- Look for the phrase “of the…” It’s probably passive voice and thus flabby.
- Look for common errors, such as its/it’s, fewer/less, to/too/two.
- Put it away for 24-48 hours and come back to it. Something that sounded good to you yesterday may sound trite today.
- Print it out and read it. You’re almost guaranteed to spot something you missed on the screen.
- Read it out loud (to a friend, the cat, or just the mirror). You’ll hear awkwardness you might have missed in scanning, including industry jargon.
- Have a colleague read it. A fresh set of eyes should always be one of the last steps.
Remember the old nursery rhyme, “And all for the want of a nail”? (Spoiler alert: A missing nail in a horseshoe leads to the loss of a kingdom).
Read the directions carefully and follow them to the letter on everything from word count to font and font size. Include the correct fee, if applicable, paid in the desired currency and via the desired channel. Make sure any photographs or illustrations submitted have the requested resolution. Include any required supporting materials. Meet—or beat—the deadline, and save the confirmation.
Most importantly, use the specific tools and information available. While conference submissions may seem like blood sport, you and the conference organizers are actually allies, not adversaries. They’re trying to help you, so let them!
- If they post a video, watch it.
- If they share an agenda or short list of hot topics, print it out and follow it.
- If they share tips or rules, follow them exactly.
And if an organizer is generous enough to offer to have a conversation and provide feedback and/or additional guidance, say “Yes, please, and thank you” and then spend some time doing all of the above in advance, so you don’t waste their valuable time asking questions you could have answered by reading the conference website. You want to focus on getting some unique insights and information that can help you craft the best nomination possible—ideally one that speaks directly to a gap they’re trying to fill.
And don’t forget to send a thank-you note!
Beth Haiken is an executive vice president with Method Communications.