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Be a survivor in the competition for public speaking opportunities

Thought leadership has to involve public speaking. It’s the only form of communication that allows you to:

  • Have your ideas dissected and analyzed by knowledgeable audience members
  • Interact directly with potential colleagues, employers and clients
  • Have particularly effective conversations (you’re wearing a speaker’s badge) while you’re in a position of authority But one of the great frustrations in public speaking is just getting the opportunity to speak. Many would-be speakers give up too easily.

This means that those thought- leaders who persist, in the right way, are more likely to get the limited number of speaking opportunities.

Here’s a three-step process to get yourself onto the speaker’s podium.

1. Find the decision-maker

First, make your appeal to the right person. Most business and professional organizations are run by a Board of Directors. Look for the Chair of Programs, Events, Education or some other title. If there’s nobody like that listed, find the name of the President. Get the person’s name, phone and e-mail.

At that point, I suggest you do a bit of research -- see if you can find their tracks online -- maybe through Google or a search for their LinkedIn profile, to see if you can learn more about them. Maybe see if you know people in common or if you share something else -- maybe a professional designation, or you went to the same university. Just remember -- these are usually volunteer positions, and sometimes people drop out of their positions and the site doesn’t get updated right away. So you may need to try several people before you get the person who makes decisions.

2. Approach the organization in writing with your idea Your best way to approach them is in writing, via an email.

And you do this by means of what’s called a ‘query letter,’ which is a term borrowed from the world of freelance writing. But it’s really just a mini-proposal for your presentation.

Start with a good subject line that will attract their attention. They may get a lot of e-mail from people they don’t know, an a lot of it’s just distribution lists. You need to point out why they should open your email.

I suggest something like, “Presentation idea: how new regulations on water will affect your industry,” only it needs to be a lot more specific about which regulation and which industry. Just think of what would induce you to open an email from a stranger.

State your case in just four points.

1First, state your topic. Get their attention right off the top by describing your presentation idea. Just one or two sentences is all you need.

2Second, explain why members of this audience would want to know about that topic: It may be obvious to you why the members would want to know about the theme you have in mind, but you need to point it out anyway. Virtually all business organizations are narrowly focused, and the organizers will defend their speaker program against anything outside of this focus. Please don’t waste their time, or yours, trying to convince them to broaden their horizons outside of this focus. To find out what the organization wants: read their website, their blog, their LinkedIn group, their Twitter feed or any other way you can learn about them.

3Third, list the points you plan to cover in your presentation: If you’ve succeeded in convincing them that your idea makes sense and is relevant to the members - - the organizer will next want to know what the proposed presentation will look like. All you need is three or four points, one line each. This has the secondary benefit of showing that you have thought through your idea in detail, increasing the organizer’s confidence that you’ll actually deliver. Indicate what kinds of audio-visuals you’ll bring along.

4Finally, list the speaker’s qualifications: One of the organizer’s main concerns is to have credible speakers, and one way to reassure them of this is to list your qualifications for addressing this topic. This can include:

- Your academic qualifications such as an MBA
- Professional qualifications such as being a Professional Engineer
- Your experience in their industry.

If you’ve presented at conferences, had papers published, published articles in other publications, have a well-followed blog, or a substantial Twitter following, include that information -- maybe with links.

Persist! Keep working on a response -- creatively

You can wait for a response. And you may wait a long time. Maybe more time than you have. But the point is that many would-be speakers fail to get the gig because they fail to follow up. In my experience, it can take several attempts to reach an organization before you even get a response.

Part of that is because the people on the board are usually volunteers, and their day job has to come first.

But you need to persist. How? Well, let me count the ways:

  • Follow up with a phone call
  • Leave voicemails
  • Call back
  • Re-send the email
  • Offer updates: “Here’s a new blog post I’ve written that talks about the topic I want to present on.”
  • Send a connection request on LinkedIn
  • Send a DM on Twitter

In short, just keep pushing. Keep demonstrating that you’re an expert in your subject area, and it’s likely that eventually, you’ll be having a conversation about what date and time would work best for them.

But to emphasize: most would-be speakers give up way too easily. You need to be the one that persists and keeps showing that you can add value to their members.

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