What I do before pitching a conference

Written by: Karl Sakas

Speaking can be a great agency lead-gen technique—but you need to evaluate opportunities carefully. You won’t get leads from speaking if you never make it on-stage (whether a physical or virtual stage).

In this article, I share 9 questions to help you get past the conference gatekeepers and get a “yes” from the right events.

The reverse-engineering is based on my experience as a speaker (as many as 35 times a year), event organizer (150+ individual events, including a 2-day conference with national speakers), and agency advisor (including helping agency owners get paid speaking gigs).

Pitch only the events that make sense. Why? Each pitch requires time and energy to complete, and a “hold” on your calendar while you wait for an answer. I’ve become increasingly selective in my pitches.

This article is for agency leaders who want to upgrade their speaking

For purposes of this article, I’ll assume you’ve done public speaking before, and that you have at least one “standard” talk you’ve been pitching to events. Not there yet? Read my 2015 book.

In a future article, I’ll share how to write a better speaking pitch once you’ve found the event. But first, let’s evaluate if an event is even worth a pitch.

9 questions to ask before your next speaking pitch

Here are my 9 questions to answer before you submit your speaker pitch, to help you get leads from speaking:

1) Is there a formal Call for Speakers (CFS)?

2) What’s the speaker pitch deadline?

3) Are your talks similar to past event talks?

4) What is the event’s business model?

5) How would your talk support the event’s goals?

6) Do they use a “marquee keynote + filler breakout” strategy, or is everyone a “content” speaker?

7) Does your pitch face any inherent obstacles?

8) Is the programming staff paid, volunteer, or both?

9) Do I have any contacts at the event?

Now, let’s take a closer look at each question, including why it’s important to answer.

1) Is there a formal Call for Speakers (CFS)?

This is a good sign—a Call for Speakers (CFS) means the organizer has thought about the process, and they’re using a semi-open process to select speakers. (The alternative is for the organizer to use their network and friends to populate the program, which tends to be more insular.)

Some events call it a Call for Proposals (CFP), Call for Papers (CFP), Call for Sessions (CFS), or Call for Education (CFE).

If there isn’t a Call for Speakers, that might be for three reasons:

1) it hasn’t opened yet,

2) it’s already closed, or

3) they don’t have one.

When a CFS will open: In my experience, a national event’s CFS closes 6-10 months before the event, while a regional or local event will skew shorter. It’s OK to email the organizer to ask when their CFS will open.

When a CFS has already closed: I don’t recommend chasing events after their CFS has closed—it just makes you look pushy and entitled. (And organizers remember that.) Instead, make a note to follow up next year.

They don’t have a CFS: Smaller events can be hit-or-miss. When there isn’t a formal Call for Speakers, getting hired requires a mix of charm, social proof, warm intros, and lucky timing.

2) What’s the speaker pitch deadline?

If there’s a looming Call for Speakers deadline, be sure to meet the deadline—don’t be “that person.” Block-in enough time to get things done… and pad your schedule to give you an extra buffer.

Organizers sometimes extend deadlines—usually because they didn’t get enough high-quality talks—but don’t rely on that.

3) Are your talks similar to past talks?

Review last year’s agenda—which talks fit what you shared? If they’ve hired one of your competitors as a speaker, that’s usually good—it’s a sign they’re likely to consider you, too.

Does the event have certain tracks or categories (e.g., Marketing, Sales, Leadership) or are they more open-ended? If the event has standard tracks or themes, be sure to map your proposal to what the organizer wants. (And if that adaptation process feels like a stretch, it may be a sign that the event’s not a fit for you.)

Is there a certain mix of talks? For instance, a marketing conference will have a range of marketing talks—but a general conference for a specific client industry may have just a couple marketing talks. In that case, be sure to pitch more than one talk, each in a different “silo.”

Does the event promote that it chooses all-new speakers each year—or that every talk is all-new for the event? This can help if it’s your first time there. (If it’s a first-time event altogether, be ready for a rough speaker selection process… they haven’t worked out the kinks yet.)

4) What’s the event’s business model?

Several factors drive whether you’ll get a speaking fee, travel-only (if it’s in-person), or no compensation at all.

For-profit vs. Non-profit

For-profit events tend to put more money toward marketing, and they’re somewhat more likely to have a professional event management firm. They also tend to charge more for tickets, and are somewhat more likely to pay speakers.

In contrast, industry associations do want to drive profits to help their P&L—but “member value” means they may accept lower margins. This can help you get hired—and paid—if you’re seen as someone who’d benefit their members. Non-profit tax forms (the IRS Form 990) are public, and you can often see top-line conference budget figures.

Some events are run as a side gig by someone who’s enthusiastic about the topic. They may not be a formal non-profit, but “running a great event that attendees love” may be a bigger priority for them than “high-profit margins.”

Cost structure & Ticket prices

Event revenue tends to come primarily from ticket sales and sponsorship sales. You likely won’t know the mix—events don’t publish it—but ticket prices give you a rough proxy for event budget.

  • If it’s a local event in a restaurant’s private room and tickets are $50, there’s likely not much budget for speaker fees.
  • If it’s a national event at a big convention center, much of that $1,500 ticket goes back to the venue for food and A/V, and to the event management company.
  • If it’s a virtual event, there’s pressure to keep prices lower (but then again, event delivery costs tend to be lower, too).

Since there are lots of attendees at big events, there’s revenue for speaker compensation… although not necessarily for breakouts.

5) How would your talk support the event’s goals?

What’s the agenda mix between programming versus something like a meet-our-sponsors tradeshow? This will help you understand the organizer’s priorities.

Is the event 100% about educational programming, or are they conducting other business at the event? Are there gaps the organizer is trying to fill this year?

Some events publish a summary of what they’re doing differently this year. If they do—and your pitches fit that shift—you can leverage that.

6) Do they use a “marquee keynote + filler breakout” strategy, or is everyone a “content” speaker?

Most events book (and pay) big-name keynotes to draw attendance, and fill the rest of the schedule with breakouts led by people booked (usually without payment) to share content. I call this the “marquee+filler” programming strategy.

Marquee keynotes are people that audiences would come to hear (they’re at least big-name within their industry), regardless of the topic. In contrast, some events focus on 100% content speakers, which can give agency leaders a chance at a keynote.

7) Does your pitch face any inherent obstacles?

Depending on your situation, you may face some built-in obstacles.

Professional (or frequent) speakers

If you’re seen as a frequent speaker—or known as a professional speaker—this can work against you for some events. Those events may describe themselves as “community-driven”; if you’re not seen as part of the community, you have an uphill battle.

Even if you’re not a “professional” speaker in the sense that it’s a key form of your income, some organizers may be put-off by pitches that are “too” slick—they want speakers who are experts in their topic, not experts in speaking.

It’s hard to judge this externally, but you can use a Call for Speakers as a proxy—if there’s not a CFS as the event approaches, it may be a sign that organizers aren’t expecting seasoned speakers to apply… or that speakers are recruited privately rather than publicly.

To stand out, focus on concrete takeaways the audience will get from hearing you—unless you’re an industry celebrity already, your content needs to convince the organizer.

Bizdev motives

No organizer wants a speaker making hard-sell sales pitches, but some events have an extreme bias against even saying you offer paid services.

Be sure to understand the event’s ethos—for instance, most events are OK with you doing an email opt-in promo if it’s offering value to the audience… but that’s not true for every event.

If you want to generate leads, but the event is strict on sales references, think twice about applying. It’s not fair—especially if they don’t cover travel—but life’s not fair. It’s their event, and they get to make the rules.

Over-represented group

Event organizers increasingly consider how the speaker lineup matches the audience’s diversity. If everyone else applying looks like you, it may work against you.

Not every organizer has a quota, but it can be a factor—for instance, a representative speaker lineup would not be 100% white men.

This applies to company details, too—if an organizer wants just one agency person on a panel and they’ve already filled that spot, tough luck for you.

8) Is the programming staff paid, volunteer, or both?

Plan to do a strong proposal, of course—but different recipients have different priorities.

When the sponsoring organization hires an event management firm to run things, your contacts tend to be more professional (this is their career) but not necessarily as warm (this might be one of 10 events they’re doing this year). For them, highlight your social cred (they may not be experts on your industry) and how you’ll be easy to work with.

When it’s volunteers, people tend to be enthusiastic, but levels of competence will vary. For them, highlight your industry relevance.

Sometimes events have a volunteer-led programming committee, supported by a paid organizer; for them, they want a mix—and you should prepare for “decision by committee.”

9) Do I have any contacts at the event?

It helps to make connections with the organizer—but this only works if you make a good impression.

Organizers tend to be busy—when I ran the High Five Conference for AMA Triangle, I got plenty of emails around “hey, I want to speak; can we do a call about what you’re looking for?”

As a volunteer, I rarely had time—but that’s why I intentionally created a FAQ for speaker proposals. I usually pointed people there. If I got a warm intro from someone I knew and trusted, it was easier to justify spending more time on sharing advice.

Don’t know someone at the event? Check LinkedIn for their staff and board, and for 2nd degree connections. But as you’ve seen, those intros only go so far—your shared connection may not know them well enough to do an intro. Don’t press.

Do you know a speaker who spoke at their event last year? Ask for an intro… but these tend to work best if the speaker was someone the organizer remembered as a top speaker.

Applying This at Your Agency

Check speaking opportunities against my list of questions before you do a speaker pitch—and be honest with yourself about whether an event is truly a match. If you have trouble convincing yourself, you’ll struggle to convince an event organizer.

If an event isn’t a fit, I suggest you pursue fast failure instead of pressing on. Every pitch takes time—but it also means adding a “hold” to your calendar and wondering whether the pitch will go through.

It’s fine to pitch “reach” events, but be honest with yourself about the odds of getting picked. Fortunately, there’s a flywheel effect—success at lower-end events can help you build momentum to get mid-range and higher-end events.

For more advice on speaking for agency lead-gen, see my 2015 book—The In-Demand Marketing Agency: How to Use Speaking to Become an Agency of Choice. It’s available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle, and the advice applies to both in-person and virtual events (and, to an extent to being a guest on podcasts).

Question: How do you evaluate events when you’re speaking to generate leads for your agency?

Book Cover: "Work Less, Earn More" by Karl Sakas

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