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.
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!