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Want to Speak at a Nonprofit Conference? 8 Things I Wish I'd Known:

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Unlocking the Path to Becoming an Expert Speaker at Nonprofit Conferences

Have you ever wondered who these ‘expert’ speakers are that you see presenting at nonprofit conferences? How did they get in that position and how, when you’re ready to push yourself out of your comfort zone, can you get there?

It’s not just about testing yourself and doing something different. There is a lot to be gained from becoming a speaker on the conference ‘circuit’. Some of the gigs are paid, allowing you to earn an extra bit of income for you or your own organisation. It’s a really cheap or free way to holiday around the country and world in places you otherwise couldn’t justify visiting. And it’s a great way of building your personal brand or organization’s name: you have a captive audience that you can influence over the course of an hour or more.

But perhaps most importantly, it can allow you to attend some of the world’s best conferences without dipping in to your precious (or non-existent) training budget.

Some conferences are curated, and once you find yourself speaking at other conferences you may begin to get invited elsewhere, and even make a living from it. That’s where I am now, but along the way I’ve learned of pitfalls and problems, as well as a number of ways to increase your chances of being successful.

Here are eight things I wish I’d known:

1. You Are An Expert

Maybe you feel you’re not ready yet or don’t have as much experience as some of the other speakers you’ll see. The truth is you are an expert. You’re an expert in your own experience, your own successes and your own failures. Every speaker suffers from ‘Imposter Syndrome’ from time to time, doubting their own ability and fearful of getting ‘caught. But speak about what you know, speak openly and honestly, and nobody can fault you. We can all learn from you.

2. Decide What You Want To Get Out Of Presenting

As a trainer, consultant and coach I aim to get one new piece of business or my next invitation to speak out of every presentation.

When I worked in a nonprofit my goal was to bring in one new donor. Sometimes, like most speakers, it’s about getting positive feedback and affirmation from a roomful of strangers because we’re so emotionally damaged and desperate. Or is it a free holiday or free access to training? Whatever it is, be clear about the outcomes you’re striving for and make sure it’s embedded in everything you do.

3. Be Realistic About Your Value

When you first start speaking with no track record it’s unlikely you’re going to get paid. Some (unreasonable) conferences won’t even pay your expenses. But that might be the price you pay to fine-tune your craft and build up experience.

At the same time, don’t sell yourself short. Your hosts are gaining from your presentation so don’t be afraid to ask for your expenses to refunded and your time to be compensated. The worst they can say is no, and then you can weigh up whether it’s really worth your time.

4. Put Your Audience First

It’s not about you…what do your audience want to gain from you? You obviously know what you want to gain from the experience, but if the audience aren’t happy then that’s not going to happen. I’ve heard speakers describe their workshops as ‘shows’ or ‘gigs’. No, we’re not rockstars…but still, if we can give the audience something special and memorable then you’re more likely to succeed.

We’ve all seen speakers that overly sell, that don’t provide the insights we expected, or who are just simply boring. They don’t get good feedback, they don’t get invited back, and they don’t get the audience follow-up they had hoped for. That’s not what you want.

5. Submit Sessions That People Want

If you’re submitting to a conference, think carefully about how you propose your session. Most conferences like a catchy, quirky title that catches attention. And some attendees will choose to attend based only on that title without reading the description (I know! Crazy!). Have a look at previous years’ sessions and see what kind of sessions were chosen and what jumps off the page.

Make your description clear. Talk to the potential reader and help them understand what they’re going to get out of it. They don’t know you, they don’t know your topic…sell it to them.

And don’t forget you can submit more than one session. Cover the bases!

6. Understand The Conference Organizers

Consider the person or committee that are in charge of selecting sessions. They’re going to be going through piles of these things. What makes your session stand out to them? Sometimes it’s who you know. If you can talk directly to someone on the committee they’re usually pretty generous with their advice and tips. Don’t be afraid to ask what topics they’re looking for and what they think might be missing. There are certainly subjects they get inundated with and subjects that they’re crying out for.

Also understand that conferences are looking for a diverse range of speakers and (rightly or wrongly) lean towards charity staff rather than consultants. Can you highlight the areas of your career or bring in a co-speaker that will increase your chances of getting selected?

Don’t be too disappointed if you don’t get selected. I scored 100% – the highest possible score at my favourite conference – and still wasn’t invited back the following year. Am I bitter? Yes…absolutely. Don’t be like me.

7. Learn From Feedback

Most conferences will automatically collect feedback for you and you’ll receive it some time later. If that’s not going to happen then try to follow up with your own feedback survey. They’re painful to read, but you’re an unreliable narrator in your own story and sometimes the only way to learn what worked or didn’t work is from this kind of feedback. Still, don’t take it personally. No matter how amazing you are you’ll always get one person who hates you.

You’re going to be resubmitting this session to other conferences, so the feedback is a chance for you to tweak and improve.

8. Get Advice And Support

It can all be scary and daunting. But you’re definitely capable and conferences and events need more speakers like you. Ask for support or guidance from a speaker you already admire. Volunteer at events or on committees to gain deeper understanding of the process. Practice your session with your co-workers, friends or in places like Toastmasters.

People are good and willing to help you if this is something you want to do. And the whole experience can be sparklingly good for you. The truth is the only thing holding you back is probably you. But remember we live in a world where the ones who succeed aren’t necessarily the best…they’re sometimes just the loudest. The people who put their hands up and put themselves forward are the ones at the front of the room.

This time next year that could be you!

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  • Ligia

    Rala: you have to make sure you sign up to all the professional associations that organize conferences. Usually the call for proposals happens a year before the conference so you need to plan ahead. If you want to start by presenting at AFP chapters, for instance, you can reach out to the education chair of that chapter and propose a session. I suggest start with that and then move up to conferences. Good luck!
  • Rala L Williams

    I've worked in the nonprofit sector as an employee for the last 20 years or so, with the last ten being in management. However, I am attempting to launch my own coaching & consulting business. I believe public speaking would be a great way to promote myself and my desire to help others in the nonprofit sector. What is the best way to find out about specific speaking opportunities at conferences and what is the best way to contact the person/people who decide which speakers to accept?
  • erica waasdorp

    GREAT advice... so true... thank you! Cheers, erica
  • Simon Scriver

    Heck yes
  • Elizabeth Herder

    Refreshingly direct and quite helpful!
  • Steven Shattuck

  • Mazarine Treyz

    Also ask for money and push back when they try to make you speak for free. Thank you for coming to my ted talk.
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