Friends, prospective speakers, countrymen, “Bumpy” from Shaft, lend me your ears …


After the summer lull, we’re moving headlong into trade show season — and with that, the desire for tech vendors to be seen as thought leaders at these shows, both as a speaker or a panelist.

As most of the fall shows are filled, the spring shows have impending deadlines, so I wanted to share a few thoughts I’ve amassed over my time running speaking bureaus. The goal? An inbox full of congratulatory notes, rather than the vague, “we had thousands of applicants, seriously, it’s not you, it’s us … OK, it may be you but I’m not telling you why.” (As you know, those notes are frustrating and difficult to share in any meaningful way with clients). With that:

Fig 1.1: Bumpy reminding Shaft that money, in fact, always matters.
  • First, you don’t need to be a sponsor to get a speaking slot. In the film “Shaft,” his nemesis Bumpy tells the eponymous private dick who is a sex machine with all the chicks, “Money always matters.” And while I’m pretty sure he wasn’t speaking of trade-show speaking, money always (sometimes) matters. That said, Bumpy, if you’re listening (or even alive) there are plenty of ways to get in otherwise — among the first being …
  • Customers … they will put you at the top of the list. Most trade shows shudder at the thought of being considered a show of vendors speaking to other vendors. Even a customer doing nothing but (somewhat obliquely) shilling your product is better than yet another vendor demonstration. Sure, some events involve vendors talking to vendors (think of TechCrunch Disrupt or DEMO, but these are extremely specific types of shows.


  • It’s better to cast a narrow net than a wide one. With PR firms, The speaking program is usually trusted to an entry-level employee or intern. While it’s a great way to learn, the lists will invariably be way too broad and at best peripherally relevant. I am a firm believer in keeping it specific — either to the major shows, the top industry shows and the local events.
  • Know the audience. There’s nothing worse than running through a speaking grid with a client, and knowing literally nothing about the show other than the name (and typically, the names are generic enough that they provide no clue — the words “tech,” “disrupt,” “meet-up,” “forum” and the like aren’t very helpful on the fly.). Make sure you research the attendees — who is most likely to attend, who spoke last year, what the key takeaways are, etc.–and include a column.
  • Think like a speaking coordinator. Much like a reporter doesn’t want to hear yet another shill for your product or service, speaking coordinators don’t want yet another product demonstration. Start at the end and work backwards:
    • Who is the audience?
    • What will they learn?
    • How will the customer and/or vendor teach that?
  • Know your speakers’ history. The last question on most speaking submissions is the stumper — what is your client or customer’s speaking history? Know this going in.headless_body-300x300
  • Titles matter — for your talk, for your speaker. There are two ways to cut through the clutter —
    • 1. Think like a headline editor when naming your talk. You won’t match the genius of the greatest headline ever (“Headless Body Found in Topless Bar” from the New York Post,) but come up with something pithy that will garner attention.
    • 2. Ensure your speaker has a title more exciting than director of marketing or customer service manager. There’s no need to go all Fast Company with a “chief loyalty evangelist,” but something that shows the speaker is more than a marketing shill goes a long way.


  • What? Over? Did you say “over”? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Speaking submissions have deadlines, and many of these are hard-and-fast. Many aren’t. It’s always worth a call to the speaking coordinator to see if there are any cancellations or opportunities to participate in a panel.
  • On that note, get to know the speaking coordinators. Treat them like members of the media — don’t hassle them with irrelevant queries, but ask them 1) what types of speakers they might be lacking and 2) what types of customers would make for great speakers. Don’t just ask for favors — be a resource for them! the-monkees_wide-1f3bc50b16a1851423f14dce7d4f2d69038538cd-s900-c85
  • Use the Don Kirschner/”Pre-Fab Four” model. When forming the Monkees, Don Kirschner assembled the band and had them ready to go (well, at least for their speaking parts) prior to their debut. Similarly, offer to provide the speaking coordinator with a pre-fab panel, using the “add water and stir” model. Ideally, and this may sound crazy, but invite a competitor to be on the panel (even more ideally, from a bigger company, so you will be included as a competitor to larger, more well-known entity.) This model works, particularly if you secure an analyst or even a reporter to moderate–oftentimes they will include the panel in an event write-up.
  • Finally, be realistic in your goals. The CEO of your 10-person startup is unlikely to keynote or give a Ted talk — but there are now smaller Ted talks in suburban areas, and regional shows in which such a talk would be welcome. When a client has crazy ideas and no idea how to implement them, do your best to gently, respectfully but forcefully set expectations.

Do you have any other thoughts on placing speakers? Drop me a line and let me know.

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