7 Tips for Getting Your First Speaking Engagement, and How I Got Mine Thanks to Lady Gaga

March 27, 2018 | Guest Post

Katie Martell is a marketing strategist, business advisor, and entrepreneur based in Boston, MA. She is a frequent speaker and emcee at conferences including TEDx, INBOUND, and MarketingProfs, and serves as the Co-Executive Director of Boston Content, the city’s largest community of content professionals. Follow her on Twitter @KatieMartell and subscribe to The Worlds Best Newsletter at Katie-Martell.com








I read somewhere that the average person ranks the fear of public speaking higher than the fear of death.


That’s not entirely surprising.


Why do we put ourselves through the obstacle course of human emotions that is applying for a limited number of speaking slots only to further expose our vulnerabilities by sharing our ideas in front of a room full of our peers?


Because it’s exciting. It’s effective at spreading a message. It’s validating. It forces you to crystalize your ideas and gives you the rare opportunity to help a room full of people. That’s an incredibly satisfying feeling.


And, let’s be honest – for hams like me in the world, it’s a dopamine rush of both attention and adrenaline.


Some Background for You

I was in my early 20s when I got my first industry speaking gig. I was working for a ridiculously fun B2B startup near Boston, and wasn’t quite sure which way was up. I had some familiarity with the process of speaking at industry events – my role at the time held me responsible for booking our executives on-stage at events in exotic places like Raleigh, North Carolina and sunny Minnesota.


On occasion the chance to fly to San Francisco presented itself, and we said yes to any opportunity to get a chance to galavant around that beautiful city.


When I later worked at a PR firm, speaking proposals were a core deliverable of our agency, and I learned quickly how to improve their acceptance rate. Soon after, I became a spokesperson as CMO/cofounder of a startup, and started securing more opportunities for myself to promote the business.


My favorite during this time was a TEDx talk on customer-centricity (central to my startup’s ambitious beliefs). Believe me when I say that this seven-minute talk took months to prepare.


Since then, as a freelance consultant, I’ve hammed it up on stage at a number of industry conferences, in front of graduate and undergraduate groups at universities, and in meetings of professional organizations. I curate speakers for Boston Content events, and am in the process of doing so for a major marketing industry event. (PS: It’s just as hard to send a rejection letter as it is to receive one.)


I’ve also written a good bit about this topic, notably the problem with male-dominated shows and the hype cycle that plagues many events. Ultimately, I think I’ve been on stage something like 30 times in the last few years.


But, You Never Forget Your First Time

I tell you all this to provide context as to why I’m passionate about helping others get on stage, and why I was delighted to be invited to contribute to the SnapApp blog to demystify the process.


Let me walk you through how I got my first speaking gig in a track aptly named “20/20”  – The Future of Marketing as told by “20 Exciting 20-Somethings.”


I presented a “deep dive into why Lady Gaga is the best example of brands of the future.” And, I’m not kidding.


But I am still laughing.




Here’s how it went down:


It starts with hope: “Surely I can be elected to that pinnacle of professional validation!”


Then, fear: “Wait, what on Earth will I talk about? What do I have to say compared to these amazing presenters from last year?”


This is followed by a rush of self esteem: “I’ve got something interesting to say (… I think).”


What comes next is bravery – you put hands to keyboard and craft an abstract.


Then, self-doubt as you close the document and think “this is utter crap. Nobody likes me. Everybody hates me.” You send the abstract to a friend who reads it and says “this is great. You should submit this.” They suggest some wording alternatives and tell you to “get over yourself and just do it.”


(You are grateful to have friends who will tell you the truth.)


You put it off until you realize the deadline is looming, and with mere hours to go you enter panic mode and admit… it’s now or never.


You take one more read of your clever title and compelling abstract, a deep breath, and hit “send” on the event submission page.


You blink. It’s done.


A pithy little confirmation message tells you – that’s it. There’s no turning back.


You’re then in the period known as “self-esteem limbo” as you wait to find out whether, or not, your submission was accepted. You swing between a pendulum of self-doubt (what were you thinking) and confidence (they’re fools not to have me!)


One day, an email comes in with the magic words.


Congratulations, Katie. We’re delighted to extend an invitation for you to present on such and such date and time and yadda yadda, who cares, you just got your first real conference speaking gig!


That’s it. There’s no magic to it.


More than anything, it takes chutzpah.


But here’s some practical advice to those of you seeking your first speaking gig.


7 Tips to Land Your First Speaking Gig


1. Figure Out Your Motivations Clearly, First

Why are you doing this?


If your goal is to become a professional speaker, to make this your livelihood, you are essentially a product. That’s a whole different ball game. You’re now in the world of platform (e.g. a great book or blog), possibly a manager or agent, a stomach for travel and skin thick as hide. In many ways this is about product-market fit and business model.


If your goal is to advance your career by increasing the exposure of your personal brand, then go for it. Heck, do it well enough, build a following, and you can even begin to charge for your time. Take your experiences and your lessons learned, and spin it into a story of triumph, failure, or some other relatable human experience.


If you’re the spokesperson for your company, and seeking to promote its brand, your motivations are crystal clear. This gets challenging as vendor pitches are about the last thing event curators want to subject their audiences to. So, your job is to elevate the message and present some SERIOUS value in a way that audiences love. Read more about how to create a buzz-worthy brand POV.


2. Find a New Angle on an Old Topic

Event curators often choose speakers well in advance to encourage ticket sales. Attendees spend money on events to learn about the problems facing their business right now and in the future. Hook your topic into something interesting. Case in point: Lady Gaga. (I’m still laughing at myself.)


3. Go for it, Even if You Don’t Feel Ready

The confidence gap is a real thing that plagues women in business. “Evidence shows that women are less self-assured than men – and that to succeed, confidence matters as much as competence.”


Though this is good advice for men as well who are plagued by imposter syndrome.


You have to start somewhere, and with enough preparation and respect given to the process of developing a good session, you will do far better than you think. Practice, get feedback, LISTEN TO THAT FEEDBACK, adjust, rehearse, and go for it. If you haven’t spoken ever before, try a panel event to start. They’re less daunting and give you experience.


4. Get Rid of Your Ego

Seriously, get rid of it.


Ego prevents you from taking rejection in a healthy way. You start to believe the world owes you an opportunity (hint: it doesn’t).


It stops you from understanding what the event needs (vs. what you want to speak about) which is a surefire recipe for rejection.


It also comes across on stage loud and clear. The best speakers are deeply humble off stage. They know it’s not about them – it’s about the audience in that room. That’s what makes them great.


As Oprah says, every human being wants to know “Was that ok? Did you hear me? Do you see me? Did what I say mean anything to you?” It’s our universal insecurity as we all want to be validated.


Maintain that humanity, recognize when ego is driving your decisions, and you’ll be great.


5. Give Yourself the Best Chance to Be Selected

I am a student of the ineffable Tamsen Webster, whose post “How to Write a Conference Speaking or Session Proposal That Gets Chosen Every Time” is the only guide you need to follow on this topic.


Also, have a personal brand, even if you’re just starting out. Event organizers will Google you if they haven’t heard of you, and you need to be prepared with some evidence that you’re worth bringing onto a stage in front of a room of people who are likely paying to be there.


6. Be Found

If you’re a woman, sign up for Innovation Women. Created by Bobbie Carlton (of Mass Innovation Nights), this is a speakers bureau dedicated to removing all the excuses around not having an equal representation of gender at events. If you’re a woman who would like more opportunities to speak at professional events, you can create a profile for a nominal yearly fee of $100.


For both men and women, there other bureaus like Speakizi to try.


A tip from the brilliant Mollie Lombardi is to include a section on your LinkedIn profile with “topics I am available to speak on.” Make it easy for event organizers to find you.


7. Do Your Research

Where many people fall short is in taking shortcuts.


Customize your proposal for each and every event, and understand what tone / topics / speakers have been selected in the past. Each event has a different purpose – seek to understand the goals of the event so you can best close the deal. This is a sale, and you are the product. Do your homework.


Are You Convinced?

Scared off from the process? Good. This isn’t for everybody. But the truth is, nobody (I know of) has ever died from doing a speaking gig.


You will be better for having done it, and if you’re open to feedback, even the process of rejection is a learning opportunity. Break a leg!


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