Ten tips on getting selected to speak

Ten tips on getting selected to speak
So you want to speak. Well you’ve made the first and most important decision in your long technical speaking career.  Making the initial decision to willingly put yourself in front of people and talk about technology can be one of the hardest things you ever decide to do.  It’s not all glam and glory you know, there is a lot of work and a lot of fact checking to be done.  Some of the fears that might float through your mind could and will be: Will I say something incorrect, will people show up to hear me, do I have the skills needed to even speak coherently on my topic.
I’ve been involved in public speaking consistently for almost 7 years now and I’ve learned some very important lessons. In addition to being on the speaking side of coin, I’ve also been on the side picking the sessions for a conference. You think coming up with 3 topics to submit for a conference is hard, try picking 55 sessions. While picking them making sure that you don’t have any redundancy, and if you do making sure that they feed off each other. Making sure that the sessions you pick are relevant for the audience that will be consuming the information and at the same time totally disregarding any personal ties you have to those close friends you’ve made over the past 7 years. I’m here to tell you folks it is NOT easy, it’s actually the worst part for putting on a conference for me.
I don’t think enough posts exist that really talk about the do’s and do not’s of submitting a session and getting chosen.  I wanted to take the time to at least offer my experiences on choosing and getting chosen.
Make the decision, don’t look back
Once you make the call (or the call makes you), don’t look back. Don’t be timid, don’t be scared and certainly don’t worry about your ability to talk in front of people. The beauty of it all is that these are skills you build.  No one can assume a first time speaker wont stutter, won’t miss speak, it’s sort of the expected norm.
The point is that you’re moving forward and learning exactly like when you were given that project a few years back that revolved around a technology you’ve never worked with. You were up for the challenge and now you’re making waves. I can’t stress it enough, if you want to speak, travel and meet some of the greatest people whom you’ll never forget you have to make the all important first step.

{arnold voice}DO IT NOW!{/av}
Your name matters, but then it doesn’t
In the last two years when choosing speakers for SharePoint Saturday Baltimore, our minds went back to the very first event we hosted. My mind is seared with the memories of shuffling speaker submission papers around, organizing them by track and technical level. Then on top of that trying to pick the very best speakers I could hoping it would ensure a successful LOCAL event.  The key operator in that sentence is “Local”, you see we did the first years selections all wrong. We were completely fixated on the big names.
So going forward we now strip the names out of session submissions (as well as collecting them electronically). This opens up the selection process to a more survival of the fittest mentality. At that moment you’re name alone will not give you an edge and honestly it made the selection process much easier.
Now there is a huge caveat to this, in no way am I saying after achieving a level of status in the speaking community will your name not carry any weight. The fact of the matter is that in some cases it carries too much weight. I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in on sessions by big name speakers only to find myself wondering; “Why on earth is this guy sought after?” Whether the content is dry, or just wrong or the speaking ability being terrible. Just because you have elevated yourself doesn’t exclude you from needing to be good at what you do.
Ultimately SOME of the big conferences (see what I think about those below) will always go with the big name. Its unfortunate but that is just the way it is, sometimes it is totally justified or the conference is such a big deal its appropriate. If they actually do pick a first time or novice speaker you better believe it will be a costly venture for you to speak at that conference and make THEM money. But that’s a topic for another day.
Titles and Descriptions
As I said above hopefully a conference will look at your submissions before they look at your name. If that is the case your session title and description is pretty much you’re only chance to compete with those more experienced speakers.
You cannot, by any means, just wing this part of your preparation. I would argue that this portion of the process requires just as much time in consideration as how you will actually deliver the content.  You need to be on point, you need to be clever, you need to be detailed but right to the point.
The truth of the matter is that you’re not just selling your session to the folks picking the schedule, you’re also selling it to that attendee come the day of the conference. When they are walking aimlessly in the halls trying to decide what session to attend solely off of a schedule that only has your name and title on it, you better believe you need to make a good impression.
I can’t tell you how many session descriptions I saw over the years where the title was literally copy and pasted from the title field.  At that point it doesn’t matter if you are a big name or a novice that session will not get picked.
Get out of the, out of the box
It can be very difficult to come up with fresh and exciting content at the end of a product cycle but its so important to deliver good fresh content as much as possible. At the same time you need to get out of the box, in a couple different perspectives.
First, you need to know that if all you ever submit are sessions on basic SharePoint functionality or 101 sessions you will always have a place at the lower end events. User groups, SharePoint Saturdays and the like. But unfortunately you will never be considered with those same sessions in the larger conferences unless it is a new product release year and you’re a big name speaker.
Second, you need to personally get out of your box.  When I started out I often submitted sessions I haven’t even built yet, and in some cases features I didn’t even know.  If picked (and it happened) , if forced me to learn something new possibly something I would later be able to use.  Get out of your own box, stop submitting sessions on content editor web parts 3 years after breaking into the circuit.

Be concise
Being concise is important in getting what you want in addition to making yourself known.  Sometimes it’s the little things that make the folks putting on the event lives a bit easier.  A few examples if you will.
– When you are asked for a bio, provide a bio NOT a novel. A lot of the time these bios get printed and distributed.  The more you write the more it costs for the printing and in cases like user groups and weekend events, cost is very important.
– Your title should be to the point and descriptive. No more than 5-8 words.
– Your description can be a little bit longer but cover the facts and remember you are selling your session. Again these get printed so keep it concise.
These small things go a long long way and in many cases will actually prevent you from being chosen.
Even public speakers have resumes
Start small! My very first speaking engagement was to my own colleagues in a brown bag type session. It then graduated on to a user group then I was a co-chair in the group and often found myself presenting to it.  Next, were the TechEd’s and SharePoint conferences.  The point is you need to start at the bottom floor in most cases. My situation was a bit different in that I made contacts that allowed me to jump from user group sessions directly to a TechEd, but my situation was very specific and probably not repeatable in my own case at the present. There are intermediate steps now a days like best practices conference and TEC.
Don’t fret these small steps, they can be EXTREMELY rewarding. Some of my best sessions and most interactive discussions with a group were at these levels. You will begin to build a resume that will actually be requested of you when submitting sessions for big name conferences.  You will be asked where you spoke, if you gave the same session or if it is a new one as well as the speaker scores you received.
Go the extra mile(s)
This is by far my favorite tip.  Do not be afraid to get on a  plane and get out to somewhere new. I know that is easier said than done. Trust me I know with my new little girl and trying to maintain a sense of being able to get away and do something I’m passionate about while balancing time with the people I love. And let’s not even mention the cost that goes into doing this.
But mark my words. The speakers who have learned to use a far off event as an excuse to see a new place while delivering GOOD content to folks who may not normally get visited have the whole concept of public speaking down.  It’s not always about how recognized your name is, or how smart you are (or you think you are). It’s about sharing information with others in a way that both rewards the attendee as well as the speaker.
I argue that a person that only speaks to big groups in 200 mile radius of where they live versus someone that goes out of their way to help not so fortunate groups will actually rank higher when coming down to choosing one or the other for a speaking gig.
Follow directions, be consistent
The moment you don’t follow directions and your counterpart does is the moment you lose your chance to speak.  If you can’t simply fill out the speaker submission form correctly and completely you will probably be discounted.  It’s understood that sometimes it comes down to the wire, or you maybe submitting multiple sessions and for whatever reason but you need to make sure each of your submissions are complete and correct. Not submitting a picture or not submitting email addresses to be able to track you down and the like will quickly make you a pest in the eyes of the organizer.
Follow the directions, don’t take who you are or the session you have in your mind as leverage that you will get chosen. In this last round we discounted quite a few sessions for simply not being complete. Nine times out of ten that incomplete entry will translate into a speaker you need to baby sit.

What is important to you

You personally will need to quickly evaluate what events are important to you to try to speak at.  Additionally, the frame of mind and overall goal of a given event will likely end up playing into choosing an event to speak at or not.  If you were to take me offline and ask me what events do I think are the big events to try to speak at I can promise you they will be a lot different than you can imagine. For me international events are more important than some of the more well-known domestic events as well there is a small amount of discontent in events that treat their speakers unethically.
All of these factors will probably lead to what you actually submit for and what you don’t and only you can make that decision
Have fun
Ultimately you need to have fun at this otherwise there is no point in doing it other than advancing your career.  With that said, if your focus is solely advancing your career you will not be a speaker for very long or at least not a respected on. You need to understand that this is a labor of love and often times you will get nothing out of it but a new experience, some good questions and smiles and that’s if you’re lucky.
One of my most fun sessions was a session I did with Mark Rackley at the 2011 SharePoint conference. Now granted that was a huge conference, that room alone had over 800 people in the room. The session was so much fun because I was with someone you enjoyed being around, we played off each other and most importantly having FUN was priority in the session. That said that could very well have been a user group or any other event, it just so happened to be SPC.
Have fun, see you out there.

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