Accelerate Your Career Through Public Speaking

September 2021
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One smart way to advance your career is to share your wisdom from the stage at professional and industry conferences and other venues.

Public speaking will get people to notice you and help build your reputation as an expert. And that can attract all kinds of opportunities, from a promotion or raise, to a great new job offer, to valuable leads for growing your business.

If that sounds interesting to you, then let me share what I’ve learned over the past decade as a professional speaker. 

Overcome your doubts.

First, you have to convince yourself you can do it. Here are some of the biggest obstacles people put in their own way, and how you can blow past them.

You hate (or fear) public speaking. 

Yes, even professional communicators aren’t always fond of public speaking.

But like it or not, climbing the ladder comes with the expectation that you’re going to play a more visible role — not just at conferences, but also in meetings, new business pitches, program or budget reviews and more. 

To increase your comfort level, there are countless books, courses and other resources to help you build your confidence and develop the necessary skills. And many people have found Toastmasters to be a supportive, low-stakes way to practice the craft.

You think you have nothing to say.

Don’t underestimate yourself. You probably know more than you give yourself credit for. 

Mine your past experience for ideas. Sit down and just start sketching out what you know. Think about:

  • Topics, like media relations, leadership or relationship building
  • Processes, such as, “Five steps for resolving a crisis”
  • Traits, like resilience, persistence, flexibility
  • Stories, anecdotes and evidence from your experience
  • Life lessons you’ve learned

Also, become more conscious of the knowledge you routinely share when answering questions, contributing to meetings and even editing documents. Most of us have a vast storehouse of wisdom that we take for granted. Write those nuggets down! 

You worry you have nothing new to say.

I’m going to let you in on a dirty little secret: Originality is overrated. For instance, people have been talking and writing about communication for millennia. Yet every year, hundreds of books are published on the subject.

Here’s how you can put your own spin on any topic (using our own business as an example):

  • Explain or boil it down better than others. Everyone is looking to simplify things and to save time — “Social media mastery in 5 minutes a day” or “3 keys to digital marketing success.”
  • Create a “hook” or easy-to-grasp framework for your ideas. “Sports marketing for couch potatoes” or “A negotiator’s guide to persuasive writing.”
  • “Thin-slice” your topic by profession, industry or scale — “PR for accountants/food and beverage companies/small business.”
  • Offer a specific point of view. Sit down and write a “manifesto” of everything you believe about your area of expertise. Look for themes. Are you all about the data? Practicality? Cutting through the noise?
  • Conduct original research through surveys or interviews.

Finally, differentiate yourself by injecting your own personality into the discussion. 

Start simple.

As with any big task, begin with small steps.

Go with groups you know.

Start with your local PRSA Chapter. Go to the meetings, get to know the members who handle programming and ask them what they’re looking for. And don’t overlook the PRSSA Chapter.

Think about other groups you belong to or are affiliated with — nonprofits, community groups, etc. Volunteer to do a lunch-and-learn or webinar.

And seek opportunities within your own organization.

Apply to conferences.

Every professional and trade association is looking for helpful content for their members. Target organizations where you have an “in.” Study past agendas for context and see if you know any of the speakers. You might be surprised to find others “at your level” who are already out there.

Submit a killer application. It’s just like applying for a job — figure out exactly what they’re looking for in their call for submissions and address those points head-on. Don’t skip anything.

Develop more leads.

The best source of new speaking engagements is your current speaking engagement. If you do the job well, then you’ll get inquiries from audience members about coming to speak to groups they belong to.

And don’t be afraid to ask for leads from the organizers or audience members themselves. If they like what they see, then they’ll be happy to refer you.

Improve and advance.

As you progress, you’ll want to take it up a notch.

Refine your content.

Always be working to improve your content. Record and watch yourself on video. Get advice from people you trust. Hire a coach.

After an engagement, get feedback from the organizers. See what you can learn from audience evaluations. 

Take special note of the questions people ask — those could point to holes in your content or parts that warrant expansion or clarification.

Build a marketing toolkit.

Many conference planners these days want to see video of potential speakers. Because it’s not enough to have great content — you need to show that you can deliver it in an engaging way.

Hire a videographer for your presentation. Or offer a Starbucks gift card to a front-row audience member for recording it on your iPhone. It doesn’t have to be technically perfect. People just want a sense of your skills and approach.

It also helps to have professional headshots, ready-made session descriptions, a short bio and testimonials (whether from audience evaluations or social media).

Work your way up.

As you get more comfortable, apply to speak on progressively bigger stages, working your way up to national — even international — venues. Learn more about the art and business of speaking by joining the National Speakers Association.

Eventually, groups will want to pay you for your services, whether through comped registration or travel, an honorarium or a full-fledged fee.

Reap the rewards.

Beyond the career advancement benefits, putting your ideas out into the world will test your knowledge, sharpen your reasoning skills and even prompt you to dig into your subject more deeply.

Plus, sharing your hard-won wisdom and expertise is a great way to give back, and it’s a reward in itself. People come to me years after a speech to say it helped them in some way. 

So, step into the spotlight and shine. You never know where it may lead. 

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