Tech & Work

The right way to get into the tech public speaking circuit

You've taken some courses, spent hours practicing on colleagues, and you're ready for your first official public speaking engagement. Find out why experts advise you not to aim for the PC Expo and why you should start on a smaller public circuit.

Public speaking at IT seminars, conferences, and trade shows can reap a host of rewards. It helps advance a CIO's professional aspirations; it can boost a company's fortunes; and it also provides credible insight and information to IT audiences.

As a previous TechRepublic article explained, the first step toward a public speaking profession involves building the requisite arsenal of skills and traits. The second phase—the topic of this article—is focusing on getting an official speaking engagement.

Lots of opportunities
Unlike the job market, there are plenty of opportunities within the public speaking circuit, even with the reduction in trade shows and conferences.

"Trade shows are desperate for good speakers," said Carmine Gallo, principal of the media training and presentation business for the Gallo Communication Group in Pleasanton, CA. "Ninety percent of speakers who show up at trade shows are pretty poor at communicating a vision."

The best approach is to start honing public speaking skills at smaller venues. This could be a local rotary club or a regional meeting of a professional organization. These are excellent venues for beginners to work out the kinks in their first presentations.

Obviously, speakers on this level aren't paid, but the experience more than compensates for the effort. Practice time for perfecting presentation and speaking skills is key to landing the bigger, more professionally rewarding speaking opportunities.

Heading right into a mainstream conference or trade show without prior practice or experience isn't a smart step. The majority of executives who attend the big shows have listened to dozens, maybe hundreds, of presentations and expect a level of professionalism newcomers most likely won't be able to deliver.

In fact, not having experience will likely thwart any new speaker's efforts to move into the mainstream anyway.

"It's unlikely that a conference promoter wants to take someone who has no experience in front of an audience and throw him in front of 600 people," said Matthew Moran, an IT career coach and author of  The IT Career Builder's Toolkit.

Getting on the schedule
While there are lots of ways to break into public speaking, there is no one definitive blueprint to work from. Popular, and obvious, strategies include calling acquaintances who may be serving on a conference committee or leading a specific organization that sponsors shows to get on the speaking track.

"There is no straight line from A to B to C," said Rae Weil, the communications program coordinator for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a national lab in Richland, WA. "It's more of a flow chart. There are a thousand paths. Some are networking; some might be more aggressive marketing campaigns."

Moran noted that smaller conferences are a good starting place for new exec speakers because such conferences are always in need of speakers. Consistently appearing at these events will likely lead to opportunities at larger venues.

"Start with the local NT or tech users group and speak to them about something similar to what you want to talk to a larger group about," Moran said. "Refine your message." Just as in any business, conference organizers are likely familiar with counterparts working on other efforts or larger shows, and you can begin networking the circuit and getting your name out through the smaller venue operators.

Moran described how he once took a slightly different approach to public speaking opportunities. He was rolling out a thin client solution for a company and became captivated with the technology. He then contacted the vendor's public relations firm and volunteered to speak at an upcoming show on the company's behalf.

While the approach worked, as the PR firm was looking for someone who could explain the technology from a user viewpoint, Moran said he knew that in doing the presentation he needed to avoid hyping the product because doing so could backfire and lessen his credibility. In essence, he knew he didn't want to become an infomercial speaker; he, instead, wanted to be a technology presenter.

Indeed, Gallo says the number one pet peeve of conference organizers is presenters who give product presentations instead of informational talks.

Attaining expert status
Once you've gained experience and built a track record of speaking to IT audiences, you can eventually slide into an industry expert category, based on your knowledge base and interests. At this level, speakers don't have to search out opportunities because conference organizers often call them when an agenda is being formulated. On the professional side, the greater exposure and notoriety will likely open doors to a higher profile position within your current organization or a new opportunity elsewhere.

"Speaking at any kind of conference or user group gives you instant credibility," explained Moran .

"The idea is that a speaking engagement can be almost like a mini job interview. It's one thing to have on your resume that you did an ERP implementation, yada, yada, yada," Moran said, adding, "It's another to get up there and say, 'Here are the hurdles.' Companies look at that and say, 'Wow, he's addressing the very same issues we are running into. We want to talk to this person.'"

In fact, there is almost no downside to speaking at conferences and shows. "It goes a long way with the company, its partners, investors, suppliers, and the boss," Gallo said. "It helps you and your company stand apart."


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