How to start out as a Guest Speaker

by Jurgen Appelo

Oh boy! Inc.com has recently named me a great leadership speaker. An accolade of which I have mixed emotions. On one hand I can’t help feeling the appellation should be taken with a ‘bucket’ of salt. On the other hand, I’m just a little bit proud… 🙂

And unsurprisingly, I often get asked, “Where do I start if I want to be a speaker at conferences?” A great question! But a difficult one to answer.

Let’s discuss the first three things that spring to mind when I think about being a keynote speaker:

Learn

I originally called this item ‘Read’. Why? Simple, because I read a lot. It’s my preferred mode of learning. Other people learn through different methods. I like to learn through books, such as Presentation Zen, Slide:ology, Confessions of a Public Speaker, Lend me Your Ears and Talk Like TED (which is still on my backlog). I found that reading about the experiences of others, checking out how they do it, helped me improve my skills as a professional speaker.

Take note of what you like and don’t like about other people’s performances. Watch TED videos or make notes about others during conferences. You’ll never get to know that making the audience stand up for 10 seconds is a great way to engage them, until you see someone else actually do it, or describe it to you.

Pay

What you should not do is expect event organizers to pay you for your performance, when you don’t have any track record. This means, in the beginning, you have to pay in order to speak. Yes, you read it right.

Speaking will cost you money. You don’t need to pay event organizers (avoid those!), but you must pay for your own travel and accommodation.

What you get in return is free access to the event, a great learning experience and the right to tell yourself, “It’s OK to fail, because I’m in learning mode. They’re not paying me EUR 2,500 for a keynote”. Five years ago, I kept track of all Agile conferences in Europe, together with all their deadlines for session submissions. I don’t do that anymore, because I now have a fine track record. But you asked me, “Where do I start?”

Repeat

I don’t believe in practicing talks in front of a mirror. You simply cannot fake interaction with an audience. Sure, before a new presentation, I usually flip through my slides once or twice, to check if I remember which stories to tell and which jokes to offer. But I can only validate the jokes and stories with a real audience.

Why practice delivering something that doesn’t work? Some ideas are great… when they remain just ideas, but they don’t work on stage. And some of my best stories and jokes simply emerged during an early performance. I do something silly and I see people laughing, and I think, “Oh, OK.

Apparently, that’s funny. Let’s remember that.” It’s the main reason why I don’t allow video recordings of the first few performances of a new talk. I’m still in development mode!

So there you have it. Learn, pay, and repeat. That’s how you start. Do that for five years, as I did, and you will certainly be listed on Inc.com’s greatest speaker’s list in 2020. 😉

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