You’re at a national conference where you normally exhibit (remember those days?). But this year you’ve been asked to speak and have just been introduced by a member of the board of directors by a well-regarded national public safety association. She says really good things about you from a bullet point list of key messages that you created from your bio.
You wow them with your energy, passion and insight (without once making a sales pitch.) Questions from the audience pepper the session, and when you finish, a group surrounds you to ask more specific questions or get your business card.
Congratulations! You’ve just marketed yourself and by extension your company to a targeted group of prospects, many of whom might follow up or at the very least will have a lasting good impression. That could make all the difference when they’re in the market for your product or services
Of course not every session goes that swimmingly but that scenario plays out many times in many different settings, including in the new virtual variety.
Why doesn’t everyone in business follow this strategy? Many are intimidated about speaking in public, or presenting themselves as an expert, or they imagine a basic conflict of interest that would prevent their consideration. Those are all real barriers that can be overcome.
Yes, the pandemic has curtailed in-person presentations at the moment. But six to twelve months out public safety events are already making requests for speaking proposals. And every day emergency services leaders and responders are attending virtual conferences and webinars where your company could be speaking. Why not throw your hat in the ring?
Public speaking is a virtue for your personal and company positioning, but only if approached strategically and with commitment. To become a regular on the speaking circuit—even if it’s more on the virtual side for the time being—you have to understand the different types of speaking opportunities.
These range from moderating a panel to delivering a lecture, giving a sponsor’s welcome or paying for a “lunch and learn.”
A Convergence of Interests
You own or work for a company that provides an important product or service to public safety. It’s very possible you worked in the field before you transferred to the business side. By virtue of your position, you probably have insights or interests that can be honed to represent an area of expertise. You may not think of yourself as an expert or presenter, but how do you think all those faculty at national conferences got to be there? They were passionate about a topic, studied it, and were interested in passing their insight along. They often started at local or regional conferences, where they were noticed. Most importantly, they didn’t disqualify themselves because “who wants to hear from someone on the commercial side.”
Your passion for your topic and interest in sharing it is not a conflict of interests but a convergence of interests. You have knowledge, attention to detail, relevancy and a unique viewpoint that conference program planners want and need. (And it often doesn’t hurt that they might not need to cover your travel expenses or an honorarium.)
The Benefits to Being a Presenter
Besides the obvious opportunity to be in front of potential customers, there are additional benefits:
- Certifies you as a thought leader by a third party. Just having a faculty ribbon or label (real or virtual) on your badge sets you apart to all attendees, not just those who caught your presentation
- Provides fulfillment in giving back to the profession and positions you and your company as partners to the profession, not just a vendor
- Allows you to develop your presentation skills, which are invaluable in many settings, inward as well as outward facing
- Researching and teaching a topic cements your knowledge, and keeps you at the forefront of what’s new
- Networking with conference planners and other faculty can be very helpful. They typically have other channels available such as websites, trade magazines, newsletters, webinars or social media outlets to communicate with their audiences
- Bonus—the time and research that went into building your content can be repurposed to become a webinar, podcast, blog or an article.
And remember—presenters are made, not born. Sure, some people are more comfortable than others in front of a crowd, but passion and preparation count for more than being an extrovert. Caring about keeping your audience engaged, making the extra effort with best practices in story telling and the use of slides and videos is something everyone can do. Presenting with good humor and energy sets you apart—and with practice, you get better, and more comfortable. Here’s a favorite resource with tips about how Ted presenters do their magic.
Most conferences (but not all) have a formal submission process and a group of reviewers who “grade” your submission.
This is based on originality, how interesting it will be to their audience, your references, experience as a speaker, and your “expert credentials.” (Even if they don’t do that formally, they follow a similar line of thinking.)
Of course, you don’t always have to be the expert. Taking on the role of a facilitator where you wrangle a couple of other experts (or customers who have really interesting case studies to tell) can also be an effective strategy to get your submission accepted. We all know panels can often be boring when uncoordinated. A program planner really appreciates a facilitator who has their panelists primed, ready and engaged.
A good facilitator knows how to control the pace, summarizes themes and take-aways, and engages the audiences with a “controlled” Q&A—that is, has questions ready to ask, so no session ends with a flat “well if there are no questions, the only thing keeping you from the reception is me.”
When you submit, the title of the session and the description are critical. Make sure you have a verb—it’s not “The Importance of Resiliency in These Challenging Times” it’s “How to Effectively Build Resiliency in Times of Extreme Stress.” The title is a critical component that should not be underplayed.
Some folks are tired of the number game, but it is still a catchy way to organize a session: “5 Practical Tips to Create a Presentation that Sings.” (By the way, this free eBook “Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes” by storytelling guru Andy Goodman is excellent. Although Goodman focuses on government and non-profits, his advice on using the principles of storytelling apply whether it’s a cause or a product.)
Selling the Sizzle
Likewise, the session description should sizzle and leave the reader wanting to know more. Sometimes it’s a mistake to be comprehensive when the goal is to be intriguing. Who wouldn’t want to attend a session like this, aimed at business executives:
“How COVID19 Saved my Marriage and (Almost) Ruined my Business”
Presenter Jane Smith tells a moving and timely story that is funny, entertaining and ultimately inspirational. The CEO of ACME Public Safety Technology talks frankly about the stress under the lockdown and the craziness of the times. She shares critical issues stemming from working remotely at home while managing young kids and a business that was coming apart at the seams. It has lessons that will resonate for everyone who must negotiate the line between your personal and professional life.
Notice how the description doesn’t reveal any of her lessons. That’s for the attendee to find out!
Other Tips for Winning Submissions
- Prime the pump—talk to the program chair or others on the program committee. Get to know them and let them get to know you. Run some ideas by them and get a reaction.
- Remember to answer these questions in your submission: Why is this topic relevant, right now, to this audience and why are you the right person for this job?
- Controversy fills seats—don’t be afraid to take a slant (as long as it doesn’t put your business at risk by polarizing customers)
- If new to speaking, team up with a known entity (maybe a customer), which means less risk for the event planner. (Events are looking for fresh faces, but they don’t necessarily want to be the first.) Sometimes it’s a good strategy to work your way up. Start at local or state meetings, honing your skills, being part of a panel, and showing other faculty and program planners what you’re capable of.
- Again, try your hand at being a facilitator, bringing together a group of experts that will make the program planner excited.
And here’s a giant pitfall to avoid: If you do get accepted, don’t make your session a sales pitch. People came to be educated, and the minute you start selling, they will be annoyed and that will be reflected in the reviews. (But, it’s generally OK to wear clothing with your company logo. That branding effort typically doesn’t cross the line.)
Up to this point, the topic has been how to get selected to be a presenter. But there are lots of ways to get in front of an audience because you’re a sponsor. Events like “lunch and learns” or “bonus breakfast sessions” can be worth the effort. But if you want an audience of leaders and decision makers, make sure the ROI is there. And if your sponsorship includes an introduction to a general session or even a concurrent session, with the right audience that can be gold (or maybe platinum.) However, you need to be in control. Tell the event planner how you want to be introduced—write it out with bullet points—so your brand positioning is reinforced by a respected third party. “It’s a real pleasure to introduce Joe Blow, Chief Information Officer for ACME Public Safety Technology, who is the sponsor of our keynote. As you know, ACME has been a friend to our profession for more than 20 years…etc., etc.”)
After the event planner thanks you, they may allow for a “few words.” (And if your agreement doesn’t specify that, try to make sure it does. They can’t say no if you don’t ask.) Select those “few words” carefully. You’re in a banquet hall or a room (or on the internet) with dozens, hundreds or even thousands of impressionable prospects. Make the point of connecting your company with the mission of the event, the speaker, the topic, and/or the profession.
This reinforces that you’re a partner, not a vendor. And again, don’t sell a specific product or invite people to visit you at your booth (whether virtual or real.) They know that. You’re there for branding your company (and yourself) and you should have negotiated with the event planners to get the contact information of everyone who’s there. When you follow up with them after the event (and you will, right?) you’ll have the chance to build on that positioning.
Many event planning and media companies also create paid webinars or virtual event opportunities where you are a sponsor but are sometimes presented as the expert. Take it! Or sometimes your company is the sponsor but an expert and/or customer is the faculty. Letting a customer subtly tell your story through their own experience of solving a problem (with your help) can be great messaging.
Just Do It (But Do It Well)
There are lots of good reasons to invest in being a presenter, from branding to personal fulfillment. Frankly, the time and energy it takes to do this well isn’t for everyone. That’s OK. Just admit it and move on (and maybe suggest it to someone else on the staff who really wants it.) If you’re going to do this, you need to commit to doing it well. It’s better not to present than to do it poorly.
Finally, if you’re a sponsor and have negotiated to “say a few words” at an event, take it seriously. It’s a great way to introduce, or reinforce, what your company stands for.