(HINT: It’s not just for the people in the audience.)
An industry colleague once told me he wouldn’t accept an invitation to speak at a conference unless the the audience was at least 200 people. While I respect why some prefer to have a sizable gathering present to make the time investment worthwhile, I think it overlooks other more important factors. Whether there are a hundred, two hundred or a thousand people in the room, here are five more important considerations for why working the conference circuit benefits your career:
You get to know the conference organizers
Knowing the people behind these conferences (more precisely, that they come to know you) helps to build your profile in the industry. The organizers are also usually industry associations, whose officers are prominent industry leaders and whose relationships you may need, or media organizations focused on your industry.
The conference industry is a relatively small one, in which conference producers will move around from one company to another. If you do a good job and the response to your presentation or panel discussion is positive, the organizers are more likely to invite you to future conferences. It’s also not unusual for the same people to stay in touch and keep you top-of-mind, even as they (or you) move from one organization to the next.
Conferences linked to media, such as trade publications, will give you the chance to develop good relations with journalists or independent writers who cover your industry. They are also more likely to contact you for comments on stories they are working on, even if the story isn’t about the company you work for.
You get to meet other speakers
If you’re invited to speak at a conference, don’t just show up 10 minutes before and then leave as soon as your part is over. Spend as much time as you possibly can because this is a great opportunity to meet the other guest speakers, all of whom are likely to be industry leaders in their own right.
Introduce yourself, exchange business cards and chat with them during the breaks. During their presentations, make notes about some of the things they say and refer to them later when you are onstage. You’ll discover who are the people in the industry who feel the same as you do about issues. (You’ll also be able to size up who are the ones who offer real opinions, with whom you’ll want to learn from and form lasting relationships, and those who are simply corporate marionettes.)
You may be surprised to find how many other industry spokespersons are in careers linked to yours, who are invited to the same types of conferences as you. These could develop into some of your more valuable industry relationships (or friendships).
You need the practice
The best public speakers are the ones who make it look easy. These are the guys who look like they just came up with those brilliant insights while they were onstage, thanks to their vast experience and industry knowledge. The truth is, the key to good public speaking is practice.
I learned this from watching stand-up comedians. Comics are the best public speakers in the world because they pull off each routine like every single joke is fresh and spontaneous. But of course, all of those gags have been practiced and road-tested over and over. I discovered this when I watched an act at the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village in New York City several years ago. I saw the same comedian on The Tonight Show deliver exactly the same act as he had performed live 48 hours earlier. Yep, even the “spontaneous” jokes.
You have great industry knowledge but there is a craft to articulating your thoughts correctly. (You don’t really think President Barack Obama settled on “Yes we can!” right off the bat without trying it out on audiences a few times, do you?) Think of your best presentations like a stand-up comic’s favorite routine. You need to stick with the key words and phrases that work on a live audience. Speaking at conferences allows you to refine your presentation until it’s perfect. And you need not be afraid that someone will accuse you of repeating yourself since you are very unlikely to have the same audience at two different events. So you can keep showing the same funny videos and dropping the same timely, witty remarks. (Yep, even the “spontaneous” jokes.)
You will have content you can re-purpose
Assuming you didn’t just compile other people’s work and actually prepared original content for the conference, this is how you get the most mileage from your efforts.
When organizing an event, I always remind my teams to think beyond just the people in attendance but the many more who will consume the content produced from the event after. In the same way, that PowerPoint presentation you spent hours on must have a lifespan long after the conference ends.
In addition to being the source material for future events, your presentation can be reworked for your blog, offered as a written piece to trade journals, used as an outline for an audio podcast, etc. At the very least, any photos or videos of you can be used for social media like LinkedIn. This is the age of Transmedia storytelling, after all.
You can stand out
Sadly, in a typical conference speakers repeat the same things and spout the same cliches over and over. Everyone talks about how need to “fail fast” and “innovate or die.” How often have we heard that humans now have the same attention spans as goldfish? (That’s bullshit, by the way.) Or listened to the speakers who obviously just grabbed the standard Sales deck or presentation from the Corporate Communications team back at headquarters and presented without adding anything to it? (I also think there should be a rule that every speaker can only talk about his own company 20-percent of the time maximum. But I digress.)
If you are being asked to speak in front of a group of people, you’d better have something fucking original to say!
This is your chance to present your own ideas, challenge traditional wisdom and show off your breakthrough work, even if you might spark a little controversy. Be memorable. Speak your mind. No one remembers the guy who played it so safe that he disappeared into the crowd. Each conference represents a chance to stand out and be remembered as the industry leader you are.