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How public speaking can increase your credibility and get you your next gig

Heather Rast's Layout avatar

Whether you freelance or are part of the traditional workforce, you share these truths: distinguishing yourself and connecting with other professionals is elemental to your career velocity.

For any given full-time position advertised on LinkedIn, there may be 50-350 applicants. Ouch. Freelancers have it equally tough as they face the arduous task of building a client list.

Great gigs don’t magically appear to those who simply wish and wait. Or even to those who, in recent generations, would have met most job qualifications with a four-year diploma and some prior experience.

Today, web designers need to take more significant measures to stand out as the logical new hire (or consultant of choice). Beyond secondary degrees, internships, and even relevant job experience, shouldering your way to the front of the masses requires creativity, commitment, and a willingness to develop new skills. “T” shape may be the new specialization.

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Many paths to get there from here

There’s no single right way to create distance between you and the candidate pack. You could build a varied writing portfolio. Someone else might develop sample websites or apps to demonstrate proficiency in programming languages and logic, or do pro bono design work to showcase creative juice.

On top of the inherent value, these and other types of side projects help career-minded pros stay competitive, develop key workplace skills, and be an indisputable part of the consideration set when new opportunities open up.

The case for talking more

Another useful tactic to distinguish yourself is to attend conferences and give some talks. A list of interesting talks given at regional or design conferences speaks to how well you are regarded in the industry while also suggesting talent on the rise.

When annotated with positive reviews from attendees, an appearance list is a testament to your comfort level in defending a particular point of view, of possessing an analytical mind, and of having a pleasing stage presence. As you establish your speaking and presentation chops, your professional network will expand as your credibility in your field grows.

Someone skilled in public speaking with a documented history of talks may be more persuasive and display higher emotional intelligence in important business situations, like when a deal is on the line.

What it takes to be a great public speaker

Now that you see how public speaking can benefit your career aspirations, the next step is to figure out what you’ll need to be good at it. Here are four rules of thumb:

1. Focus on a specific topic

“Great speakers boil broad topics down to a specific, finite essence. ” They don’t spend a lot of time setting the stage for their main theme, and they avoid over-explaining concepts or ideas that most of their audience are familiar with.

2. Read and react to your audience

In sports, the superior athlete is one who can read his/her opponent, quickly analyze their objective, and react accordingly. Similarly, the best speakers look for cues in the audience to adapt their delivery. That may mean asking a spontaneous question to test audience understanding and assess engagement, or adding more detail if a few faces look quizzical.

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3. Only talk about passion topics

As with most things in life, there’s no substitute for innate passion and interest. We excel doing the activities and tasks we find most emotionally and intellectually rewarding. The best speakers identify primary themes of interest and concentrate their lecture repertoire in that area. Sure, exploring some tangents is acceptable, but it’s a slippery slope. I say own a topic area, and rock it.

4. Lead your listeners on a journey

Skilled speakers aren’t really concerned with being the center of attention or even projecting their rigidly fixed ideas into the minds of others. Instead, “influential speakers know their job is to lead the listener on a journey. ” On the journey, together they’ll identify problems, explore potential solutions, evaluate some success cases. The speaker will help the listener discover how the teachings come into play with their own work.

Next, get your name out there

It’s important to intelligently market yourself as a speaker, too. That means understanding the attributes event programmers value most when researching and recruiting speakers. Here are five ways to make yourself attractive to those in charge of getting you an audience:

1. Understand the engagement

The trouble with some “seasoned” speakers is they hear the words, “Are you interested in speaking at…” and then they stop listening. Their brain automatically jumps to a Powerpoint (or ten) they’ve already given. Remember, even if the organization is okay with you drawing on some previous work, they likely don’t want a cookie-cutter presentation.

Ask questions to learn more about the anticipated audience makeup, what prior experience they likely have, what issues the event programmer thinks are most important, and understand the attendee journey (will they receive a transcript after the fact? Do you need to develop a worksheet?).

2. Master the basics

Good grammar, plain language, proper editing, and proofing may sound obvious, but plenty of marquee speakers submit materials half-baked. Imagine if five of seven speakers slated for an event are lazy with their fundamentals? That’s time and attention the program manager doesn’t have. If your materials are polished, you’ll be remembered.

Moreover, you’ll get back-channel recommendations for other events and gigs. I once invited a speaker to participate at an event and was so pleased with her attention to detail and punctuality that I approached her later for another event and a spot as a guest writer for the company blog. She’s now doing some freelance editing projects, too. Boom!

3. Be reliable and timely

You may not understand why the draft of your lecture is needed eight weeks before the event, but trust if the event programmer asks for it, it’s in your long-term interest to deliver. Further, if you agreed to a timeline (or signed a speaking agreement with a detailed timeline), you’re obligated to fulfill as expected. If something unexpected were to pop up, give as much notice as possible. You’re not doing the event programmer any courtesy by stalling, and they’ve likely heard every excuse imaginable.

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4. Keep an open mind

Event programmers have the responsibility of meeting the expectations of both the audience and host organization. A collaborative mind open to feedback and suggestion is a great way to further endear yourself. Don’t strong arm the event programmer.

5. Tell people about it

There’s not an event programmer in the history of ever who isn’t thrilled at the words, “How can I help promote the webinar/lunch-and-learn/class/workshop?” Remember to ask if there is a custom URL or hashtag you should reference when promoting the event on social networks. Review the full event lineup for ways to cross-merchandise, tie topics in with what you already share on social media, or promote other featured speakers.

Get out there and talk

Wondering how to get started? While it’s true you’ll need some major events under your belt before you can command stiff speaking fees or a keynote slot, taking baby steps is a good way to get started building your chops and your network.

Do you use RSS? Add some blogs to your feed, and pick up some good books to get inspired and learn some tips.

  • Michael Port has a great book available on Amazon right now.
  • Check out the Evoso blog, led by speaker and coach Erin Weed.
  • The Oratium blog has good pieces by communications pro, Tamsen Webster.
  • Ethos3 has a good mix of articles about presentation design and delivery.public-speaking-give-talks

Not sure where to get started? Do a little research into local opportunities. My first speaking assignment was a webinar for a non-profit health organization. Start small, aim higher.

  1. Identify student chapters of larger organizations. The Public Relations Society of America and American Advertising Federation both have student chapters with regular meetings. You could inquire about a guest slot, maybe to discuss the transition from college junior/senior to the workforce.
  2. Investigate local meet-ups. Organizers may welcome new speakers for a regular monthly meeting.
  3. Turn to your startup and tech community. Startup incubators, coworking spaces, and business schools can be good leads to finding small, energetic groups, meetings, and seminars.
  4. Try your hand at podcasting or video blogging. You’ll gain experience on screen and speaking, not to mention some marketable digital skills. You could interview talented pros you know or simply create segments on topics close to your heart. The experience will boost your confidence and fine-tune your eye (or ear, as the case may be) for presenting.

Last, make sure you practice your talk before actually giving it. Author, strategist, and all-around idea guy Mark Levy once told me he practiced every talk he was slated to give at least 20 times, beginning to end.

  • Know how much time you’re allotted for your gig, and practice delivering it to your couch, to your dog, or to your best friend until you nail the timing.
  • Ask your test audience for feedback, including the speed of your delivery, whether you have any annoying tics like extra pauses or filler words, and whether or not you stayed on topic. Were your ideas complete without being tedious?

You’re on your way now

After you’ve bulked up your skills and are on your way to becoming a sought-after speaker, remember to showcase your achievements so others might learn about what you’ve done and your areas of expertise. Accomplished speakers, including Christopher S Penn, Jason Falls, and Justin Cutroni, dedicate specific pages on their respective blogs to make discovery and contact easy for event programmers (and employers and clients).

If you’ve given a talk before, what are the biggest hurdles to overcome? What advice do you have for others thinking about talking? Share in the comments below!

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