If you attend IT events regularly, you probably listen to lots of speeches about the future of the technology industry and the latest whiz-bang products. Ever wondered if you could be the one standing at the podium?

It might be easier than you think, says Barbara L. Gavin, conference program manager at Digital Consulting Institute (DCI), an Andover, MA-based high-tech education, trade show, and management consulting provider. Conference planners are always looking for new speakers and new topics, and consultants are especially in demand.

“So many calls or speaker submissions are from vendors rather than consultants,” she said. “We aren’t interested in vendors trying to sell their products. We’re looking for someone who has dealt with a problem and found a way to solve it and who wants to share that information with others. We will always take a consultant over a vendor speaker.”

Read on to learn how to find speaking engagements, how to give a good speech, and what benefits speaking at a conference may hold for your consulting career.

How do you get started?
The best way to get started on the speaking circuit is to make yourself available locally. Offer to speak at a local meeting of a technology organization, at companies that you consult for, or at a nearby university. This will give you a feel for whether it’s something you’ll enjoy.

If you’re unsure of a topic for your speech, look in technology publications, ask conference attendees, monitor current controversies or issues in the IT industry, and ask the speakers themselves for ideas. Or keep case studies of projects you have consulted on and document both the problems that occurred and what you did to fix them; they often make great fodder for informative presentations.

If you’ve tried the local circuit and feel you’re ready to move on, the Web is a great place to begin your event search. Hundreds of technology conferences and seminars are held each year, and virtually all of them are publicized on the Web. (TechWeb’s TechCalendar is a great source.) Of course, you’ll want to pare your list down to those events that focus more specifically on your area of expertise. Query the conference planner, whether it’s via an online form, e-mail, or telephone, making sure to follow the guidelines for submissions. Write a good synopsis of a topic you’d like to cover, name the objectives of your presentation, and give a brief but thorough history of how you became an expert in this topic.

Topics of interest for technology conferences and seminars fall in what Gavin calls the “FUD factor: fear, uncertainty, and doubt.“ Most people attend conferences because they need solutions and need to make choices. Speakers who have been there, fought the battle, and found solutions to similar problems are able to alleviate those “FUD” feelings, which makes attendees feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth from the event.

What makes a good speaker?
Conference planners look for speakers who make their living doing what they’re speaking about. For instance, at a conference on technical training, the planner’s first choice probably would not be a vendor trying to sell training manuals. Instead, the preference would go toward a trainer who has trained on a regular basis, knows the ins and outs of training in various subjects, can relate war stories, and can recommend techniques that have worked well in his or her realm of experience. In other words, the speaker is there to teach, not sell, Gavin explained. And teaching doesn’t mean selling a proprietary solution—it should be one that is easily and readily available to everyone.

A successful speaking engagement involves capturing the audience’s attention and keeping it. Gavin suggests that to enhance a 45-minute speech, for example, you should complement your presentation with 15-20 well-designed PowerPoint slides that highlight the pertinent points. She offers these tips for a successful speaking engagement that will have conference planners inviting you back again and again:

  • Always have your slides ready three to four weeks prior to the event so that they may be offered in the brochures and handouts. This shows your respect for the attendees by allowing them to know exactly what you will be speaking about.
  • Never read straight from the slides. If an attendee feels that he or she could have just read the slides to get the information, you have failed as a speaker. Use the slides to add special emphasis to the most important points of your speech.
  • Humor, when used appropriately, sets the stage for a relaxed audience. If you aren’t a funny person, don’t attempt humor. Never go overboard with too much humor and always make it relevant to your topic.
  • Don’t get off track and wind up not showing all your slides. People will feel cheated.
  • Practice, practice, practice, until your speech is natural and you feel confident. Practice in front of your peers and ask for critiques. Videotape yourself and practice hand and body motions to accompany points until they are natural.

Exposure, not money
Former President Bill Clinton reportedly earns $100,000 to $200,000 per speaking engagement. If you’re expecting big payouts like his, forget it.

“You have to want to be a speaker, and you shouldn’t expect to make money from this,” Gavin said. “Speaking at conferences and seminars is a marketing exercise. What you will get from this is a huge amount of free advertising naming you as an expert in your field.”

Conference and seminar companies like DCI send out thousands of brochures that include speakers’ bios and photos. “This labels you as an expert in your field, and often this information is available online” where even more potential clients will see it, Gavin noted.

While some speaking events will pay you a nominal fee or cover your travel expenses, your dividends are the free advertisement you’ll reap from these engagements, which can have tremendous benefits for your career and your business.

Once you’ve proven yourself to be a good speaker, you will likely be invited back often, as conference planners like to hold onto good speakers.
Is it worthwhile for IT consultants to speak at conferences and seminars? How can they maximize the value of these engagements? Post a comment below or send us a note.