What I’ve Learned about Landing and Speaking on Conference Panels

I’ve been speaking on search and affiliate conference panels for almost 8 years now. In the early days, landing a speaking slot wasn’t super hard because the pond was much smaller. In fact, I ended up on my first panel completely by chance. I was literally standing in the right place at the right time.

There was a site clinic going on at PubCon and a speaker was unable to make it at the very last minute. I was a moderator at WebmasterWorld at the time, but had never spoken. Brett Tabke came out into the hallway, saw me and said “come with me” – next thing I knew, I was on stage. A few months later, Chris Sherman gave me a slot on the SES Toronto (now SMX Toronto) link building panel where I gave my first actual presentation. (For the record? I. Was. Terrified.)

And so my “speaking career” began.

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of people speak. I’ve been on a lot of panels with a wide variety of speakers – both awesome and, well, not. I’ve also moderated panels and picked the speakers. Some were awesome choices, some I’d never ask back on a panel I was moderating again.

Now, before I share what I’ve learned, I’d like to be clear on one thing…

I think that I’m actually a horrible “speaker” in that Toastmasters would give me a definite thumbs down. I talk too fast, I rarely make it through a session without dropping an inappropriate word, I say “uh” a lot… in short, I think I’m asked to speak on a regular basis based purely on my knowledge and not because I have awesome public speaking skills.

I point this out because I want people like me to know that speaking at search conference – in my opinion – is more about what you’re willing to share, your enthusiasm for the topic at hand and your ability to speak with some personality more so than whether or not you are the President of your local Toastmasters club.

With that, here are some tips I’ve learned over the years to landing a conference panel – AND (more importantly in my opinion) being asked back again.

Getting Ready to Pitch

Pick something you know like the back of your hand

So, pitching has opened and there is a panel on the agenda you’ve had your eye on – one you know you’d be perfect for. And then you realize that the session is already full. And you may be tempted to pitch for a different panel you “sorta” know. My advice? Unless you can rock – and I mean ROCK – a topic, don’t pitch for it simply because you want to speak.

Understand that Q&A panels are not as easy as you might think

A panel that allows you to speak without having to go through all the effort of a formal presentation? Score! But keep in mind that Q&A panels (like site clinics) – while free of all the Powerpoint preparation – are not for everyone. They require you to be very quick thinking and quick witted as well. Nothing is worse on a Q&A panel than what I refer to as “dead air” – where a question is asked and all the panelists stare at each other trying to think of something to say. If you pitch for a Q&A panel, make sure you’re awesome at “thinking on your feet” so to speak.

Pitch the moderator with a concept, not a book

As a moderator, I don’t want to read through your entire presentation during the pitch phase. I want to know why you’re qualified to speak on the topic, I want to know the angle you’re going to take and see an outline of what you plan to discuss. Most importantly, I want to know what you plan to TEACH the audience. What will they take away from your session that they can actually implement and use to help improve their efforts on the topic.

Don’t send a sales pitch disguised as a presentation

Moderators are not dumb. Most of them have been moderating panels for a long time. If your pitch centers around your products, services, tools, etc and not around giving the attendees actionable, useable information they can implement without shelling out cash to your company, you’re not going to get picked to speak.

Take. Your. Time.

Don’t be in such a rush to be one of the “first” pitches that you send in a pitch that isn’t well thought out or is riddled with grammar and spelling errors. I’m not saying that I’m viewing your pitch like an English professor (Lord knows I’d be in a glass house throwing stones) – I’m simply saying that obvious effort in your pitch is something I’m looking for. If you submit a half-assed pitch, I have no reason to believe you won’t do a half-assed presentation.

Preparing to Speak

Understand speaking is a privilege, not a right

Thousands of people are paying thousands of dollars to attend a conference to hear YOU speak. Give them the courtesy and respect to prepare well and prepare hard. Turn in your presentation on time and show up with some room to spare before your session. While a moderator may have chosen you to speak, it’s the feedback from the attendees that will decide if you ever land another panel again.

Find out your time and ensure you stick to it

Depending on the session, you’ll likely have 10, 12, 15 or 18 minutes to speak. Keep in mind that it takes the average speaker about one minute to go through a Powerpoint slide. If you have a 12 minute speaking slot, you should have about 12 slides. You cannot get through 34 slides in 18 minutes. Be respectful of the other speakers and don’t eat into their time – or into the audience’s opportunity to also hear what THEY have to say.

Your presentation should be bullet points, not a transcription

When creating your presentation, don’t put every word you plan to speak on the slides. The slides should be filled with short points that you then elaborate on while speaking. If you’re essentially “reading” your slides, then there’s way too much wording on them.

Ensure your contact methods are on each slide

I’m not saying to have your phone number, address, email, Twitter and Facebook on each slide. But keep in mind people are likely liveblogging and livetweeting your session. Having your company URL and personal twitter handle on the bottom of each slide ensures the people doing so can mention you by name (or know where to link to). It doesn’t guarantee that they will, but it increases the odds.

Help promote the conference AND your session(s)

The more people that attend the conference – and your session – the more people there will be to fill out feedback forms telling the conference organizers how you rocked it – and the more people you may have potentially interested in whatever it is you’re there to promote. Personally, I tweet about the conference being open for registration in the months leading up to it. On the days leading up to it, I make my social networks and following aware of which panel(s) they can find me on. On the day of, I tweet out before every session I do where, when and why they should find it.

While You’re Speaking

Understand you don’t need to beat people over the head with your company

Too many people think that speaking at a conference is all about promoting your company. It is, but it isn’t. You don’t need to shove your company in peoples faces to get them interested. What we do isn’t easy. And a lot of people realize that after spending days attending conference sessions. They realize they need help. And often times, they seek out those that have been the most forthcoming in sharing their knowledge to help others vs. the guy who did nothing but drop promos for and “push” his company.

Be respectful of the other speakers on your panel

Do not argue with other panelists during a session (I’m not talking about playful banter that is attempting to bring humor to the panel). People did not fly all the way out there to watch an episode of Jerry Springer unfold on stage. If you disagree with something another panelist has said, I’m not saying you can’t say so. I’m saying say your peace – respectfully – and move on. The audience will get there are differing viewpoints. You don’t need to waste valuable time with needing to prove “you’re right”. If what the other panelist said was actual misinformation vs. an alternate way to skin a cat, you can share your opinions on it with the moderator after the panel.

Don’t name drop

Don’t tell the audience how you and Matt Cutts are BFFs who share midnight phone calls to discuss the algorithm (we know that’s not true). Stand behind your skills and not who you know (or pretend to know). Name dropping doesn’t make you look special, it makes you look pompous at best and foolish at worst.

Don’t assume the audience knows everything that you do

Referring to something “Matt” said? Try to remember to refer to him as “Matt Cutts, head of the Google Webspam Team”. On a beginner track panel and referring to “Panda”? Maybe follow up your first reference to it as “the Panda update – which was a filter that aimed to punish sites that had a heavy amount of low value or duplicate content”. Not everyone in the audience spends their entire day immersed in the search world.

Always have a backup plan

It’s happened before. A moderator doesn’t do a great job of ensuring the content of panelists presentations don’t clash before the show. You’re sitting there, awaiting your turn to speak and to your shock – and likely horror – the panelist before you is up there giving a presentation that literally mirrors your own. It doesn’t happen often, but I’ve seen it happen. In that moment, you have two choices – you can give your original presentation and bore the audience, or you can get up, laugh off the overlap and do your best to give an “on the fly” verbal backup presentation. The best way to avoid this? If you have an underactive moderator, be proactive in contacting other panelists to find out the topics of their presentations before creating your own and/or letting them know the topic of yours.

After Speaking

Make yourself available

Be approchable after the session, because audience members will likely have questions they want to ask you, especially if you gave away some great information. However, be mindful that there is probably another session after yours. If there are multiple people looking to chat with you, or you’ve spent a long time chatting, be sure to take the discussion out into the hallway to allow the next panel time to get ready and prepare during the break between sessions.

Have plenty of business cards

I admit to failing at this time and time again. I have a horrible memory and will often forget my cards. Do as I say and not as I do. ;-)

Never – EVER – reuse the same presentation

If you’re asked back to speak at a future conference, never give the same exact presentation you gave at the last one. Update it. Improve it. Even if it kicked ass, there’s always a way to make it even better.

Think I missed something?

Please feel free to leave additional tips in the comments!

About Rae Hoffman

Rae Hoffman aka "Sugarrae" is an affiliate marketing veteran and the CEO of PushFire, a search marketing agency specializing in SEO audits and link building strategies. She is also the author of the often controversial Sugarrae blog. You can connect with Rae via Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

Sugarrae runs on the Genesis Framework

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  1. Michael Dorausch says:

    Great info! I laughed at the mention of Brett Tabke coming into the hallway to grab you for a panel, I bet that’s a regular activity for him at conferences.

    Have to admit I don’t include contact info on each slide and I rarely bring business cards, I suppose I could work on that.

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      LOL, I don’t think I’d ever been so terrified in my life (except probably when I had to give my first Powerpoint in Toronto). I still remember who it was that had to cancel last minute too (thanks Tim Mayer!). :)

  2. David Temple says:

    Rae, great insights. This should be on every conference website. “What will they take away from your session that they can actually implement and use to help improve their efforts on the topic.” Indeed the best presentations to me are those that include actionable information, which you’ve alway had in the presentations I’ve seen of yours.

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Ha, thanks – I try… I certainly don’t get asked back for my generic skills as a “public speaker”. ;-)

  3. Casie Gillette says:

    I love the point about being passionate because that’s definitely what’s made some of my favorite speakers, my favorite speakers. I’ve seen people go up there with a slide deck full of great data and it was so boring I had to do everything in my power to not fall asleep. Other times, I’ve seen people give great presentations that didn’t necessarily contain the best information but the delivery was so good it didn’t matter.

    A tip I would add for after speaking is recognize those who came to your session. Whether they tweeted something you said or just were the person in the front row giving you encouragement, be sure to recognize that.

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Casie – that can sometimes be hard. I speak at at least 8 conferences a year and am often on multiple panels at each. While I will recognize you on Tuesday if you came up to me after I spoke on Monday – I may not recognize the person at the next conference. I just meet so many people each year and also have a horrible memory. But I do try! :)

  4. Kim Krause Berg says:

    Love the honest, no fluff delivery in this post. I worry all the time about speaking because I learned I’m my best when I’m NOT attached to power point. I don’t make heavy power points and don’t use images much. I’m a story teller. For me a good story that illustrates a lesson or teaches a principle stick in the human mind better. But, since we get less than 15 min. to speak, it’s bullet points and action items. Bookmarked this one. It’s a keeper.

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Yeah, I’m definitely no Powerpoint aficionado… I find myself in awe sometimes of some of the presentations I see by people who obviously ARE awesome with it!

  5. Elisabeth Osmeloski says:

    There is so much truth in all of this, I don’t even know where to start! But thank you Rae for pretty much nailing it!

    A couple of things I might add, mostly from the conference organizer POV:

    1) specifically, realize that not all events are run the same way; a panel moderator is not always the same person who selects/organizes the panel of speakers – so a moderator may *not* be the one responsible for overlap in speaker presentations and other issues; to combat this, be proactive in asking what the organizers expect of you & do take the lead on contacting fellow panelists & moderator to get on the same page in advance if that’s not done proactively by organizers.

    If you have a problem with a specific moderator (or fellow panelist for that matter), let the conference organizers know – we can’t fix what we don’t know about. That said, we’re not perfect either, so sometimes we’re the ones to get things wrong; fwiw, we usually know when, where & how it went wrong – so we’re constantly trying to fix those issues for the next time, to make sure we deliver on the promise of attendee value and create a good experience for speakers as well.

    We’re also professionals who can listen to constructive criticism & improve ourselves/own bad habits – so be direct and helpful with your feedback so as to not put them in a defensive position; If you really don’t feel comfortable talking directly to the mod or, if they’re one of the event organizers themselves, go to someone else on their team that you know can relay the message appropriately.

    2) Overlap in speaker presentations also happens when people don’t turn in drafts/near final PPTs on deadline & share with their fellow panelists – don’t be that person! As Rae said, be a professional about time management. When you pitch to speak, you are saying you are WILLING to prioritize & spend the time to put together something amazing. Follow through on that & do it – don’t use ‘I’m busy with client work/this project’ as an excuse.

    It’s really unfair to not only to your fellow panelists, but also to those who could have spoken instead /were rejected & were willing to put the time in to crafting a killer presentation.

    3) Avoid Rockstar syndrome at all costs. this happens in pitches all the time, and then when it comes down to crunch time / PPT deadlines – I speak at X, Y, & Z conference, or I gave this presentation at these 10 other events – I. DON’T. CARE. beyond knowing that you’re *comfortable* as a public speaker, knowing your material inside & out & being passionate about the subject is far more important to me.

    Most importantly, I want to know what you’re going to do for MY AUDIENCE, I want to know what new value you’re going to add and I want to know you’re not phoning it in.

    It’s common to also hear – “but you have heard me speak a zillion times before & you know I always deliver a killer presentation at the last minute” –

    Ok, that may actually work out for you by accident – but guess what? even rockstars have off nights, and $hit happens so waiting until the last minute does not always pay off (I should know, I’m really good at procrastination) – and conference organizers might have specific goals they have for the session, we can’t know you’re going to deliver on that unless we see some proof. And every conference has a different type audience.

    Again, the professional courtesy here goes a long way – with our time, your fellow speakers’ time, and the audience’s most valuable time & money spent to be there.

    Finally don’t assume you *should* be accepted as a speaker just because you’re a rockstar & have delivered great things in the past, you still need to be raising the bar yourself.

    It’s also pretty difficult to discover new rockstars if they never are given a shot at performing – and that’s a tough thing to balance when you’re taking a chance on an unknown speaker – but after having one amazing experience with a first time speaker who was excited & diligent about communication, sending PPT outlines & drafts & iterations, and continues to be a very prepared speaker time & again, and the audience responds positively to that, I’ll take that chance again over any ‘rockstar’ who puts in minimal effort.

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Agreed Elis… I should have clarified that sometimes moderators are simply moderating a panel and were asked to do so after the speakers were picked, etc. I’ll be taking your additional tips into account when I pitch for a session of yours at Advanced. :D

  6. Brian Harnish says:


    This is an awesome post. Even though I have only just begun my speaking career I have learned so much just by listening to and reading blogs like yours. I absolutely agree on 2 very important points – NEVER reuse the same presentation, and always allow something actionable to be taken away from your presentation. Attendees have spent money and time traveling to attend the sessions in question – why not make them as memorable, unique, and actionable as possible? That’s why I will always put in the effort to create a custom made presentation just for that session and conference. For me, there’s no other way to go. And of course, the promoting of the conference and your session should absolutely always be something that you do on your social networks – you’re giving back to those who have graciously given you the opportunity to speak at a major industry event! Do give back generously (but not to the point of annoying your followers, of course).

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      I think presentation reuse was one of the big things that shocked me early on. I mean, I get it – you gave an awesome presentation at SMX, why not use the same one for SES… but bottomline is there is still some attendee overlap. Honestly, I’ve seen one person give the same EXACT presentation, three years in a row, on the same panel, at the same conference. I don’t get how people get away with stuff like that.

  7. Ross Hudgens says:

    Great points Rae. It was awesome having you on my panel at LeadsCon – clearly you have done this before and as this post details, you know what’s ok to do and what simply isn’t.

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Thanks Ross – was good to finally meet you as in more than passing. It was an interesting panel, that’s for sure. :)

  8. Michael Martin says:


    SOOooo thats why you won’t have me on your SEO Site Clinic panels again – JK ;)

  9. streetlevel says:

    This is a great walk through of the basics of public speaking!

  10. Peggy Duncan says:

    Great advice. Here are 2 more tips. I had to text a panelist to ask him to put his cell phone away. Told him his audience was more important. And I’ve been distracted by panelists who worked on their presentations while waiting their turn…yep, up front and on stage.

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      I am guilty of looking at my phone – and based on who I speak with, many of my fellow panelists are too. In most cases, what I see is folks checking Twitter (myself included) seeing what questions and comments folks from the audience are tweeting. But I see how someone could take it as we’re not focusing on the session. I guess that’s something I need to keep in mind at the next show!

      • Elisabeth Osmeloski says:

        Actually, this is a habit we’re proactively working on breaking at SMX – we don’t like to see the panel doing it either (I am guilty of forgetting to remind my panels at West) – and I go back & forth on whether we as mods should be following the twitter streams & checking the Q&A as it comes in – but honestly, I think it’s more important to actively listen to your fellow speakers.

  11. Spot on, Rae! Fantastic advice, well written. Thanks :-)

  12. Michelle says:

    Is it ok to expect the conference to cover your transportation and accommodation?

    • Rae Hoffman says:

      Michelle, this answer varies a lot depending on the type of conference, the reasons behind you speaking and your visibility profile. I.e. I’ve seen conferences do it a variety of ways. In order to get your accommodations covered, the conference organizer usually needs to see you as a “draw”. So, if you could be replaced with another speaker and the lack of you specifically being the speaker will have zero effect on ticket sales, you likely won’t find your accommodations covered. If the answer is “will you as a specific person put additional butts in seats” is no, then you’ll have a hard time getting those expenses covered – especially if your presence there gets you “paid” relatively. I.e. if being a speaker gets you business, then you are compensated for your travel expenses, just not directly by the conference. If you’re speaking at an event where “new business” is not a potential benefit or at a smaller event where you won’t have a lot of exposure, then a speaking fee and/or accomodations and travel is much more likely. In my experience.

  13. James Strock says:

    Terrific post, thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience. Like so much wisdom, much of it is known to people in the field, but may not be gathered together so effectively and with an eye toward the underlying rationale. The bottom line is about serving your audience. Period. From that it all flows….

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