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Don’t just lean in – stand up and be heard

Microsoft Search Evangelist Christi Olson urges women to get up on stage to help boost diversity at industry events

About five years ago, I noticed a trend at the marketing conferences and events that I attended. At least half of conference attendees were female and about one-fourth were non-white; however, when I looked at the speakers they were almost all white males over the age of 35. Diversity was missing from the speaker bench, both in terms of gender and ethnicity. It’s an issue that won’t solve itself, but that we can collectively work together so that the speaker bench has more diversity. Howso? The answer is simple – first conferences and events need more diverse individuals to pitch to speak, and second, attendees and sponsors need to stand-up and demand a more diverse set of speakers. No matter how hard we lean in, if we aren’t pitching to speak—to stand up and make our voices heard—then the diversity gap will remain.   

Let your passion and expertise shine through

The first step is to identify what topics you are both passionate about and are a subject matter expert in. I lead with “passionate about” because when a person speaks about their passions and interests it shows—there is a sparkle in their eyes and you can hear it in their voice. The second half of the recommendation is to choose a topic you’re an expert in, or at least one in which you’re  well-versed. This is so that when it comes time for a Q&A or for attendees to ask you questions you have the knowledge and the confidence to provide insights and answers.  You don’t have to know everything, but you’ll want to be able to speak with confidence in what you do know.

Pitch perfect

What is a pitch? It’s your opportunity to shine and show your expertise to the conference or event organizers and explain why you are a good fit for them. Most conferences will have a speaker proposal or pitch section of their website. Look at it, along with previous sessions to start preparing your own pitch.

What’s in the perfect pitch? First and foremost, it’s one that is tailored for the conference based on their audience. I’m always working on perfecting my pitch, which means I’m reiterating the process I’ve outlined below on a regular basis:

Research the conference

Know your audience. Check the conference website to understand who attends the conference, the topics covered and the level of granularity that the speakers go into for the event.

Look at the agenda from previous years to see what type of topics and content has been covered in the past. Use it as a jumping off point for brainstorming and to understand what type of content appeals to the conference organizers. There is a huge BUT to add to this, and that is don’t let the topics of the past define what you pitch for the future – if you have an idea that hasn’t been covered or a new take on a topic, pitch it!

Start brainstorming topics

The perfect pitch needs to be centered around a specific topic or theme that is aligned to the conference.

  • What have you recently learned or done that you think would be valuable to others?

  • Do you have a different approach or take on how to do something?

  • Do you have data or a case-study you can share?

Start by writing down the high-level topics and themes. If you have supporting data or research list it out and start to create an outline about what the audience would learn from the talk. Be specific in the take-aways.

Write your pitch

Next choose one of your ideas and write your pitch. Be succinct and specific. Keep your pitch to 1-3 paragraphs to explain the topic and make sure you include the 3-5 key take-aways or learnings from the presentation. Don’t forget to look at website to see what specific questions are asked as part of your proposal/pitch.

Have someone you trust, a mentor, a colleague, or a friend review your pitch and provide feedback to you before submitting.

Perfect your WHY ME pitch

This is your personal elevator speech. Be prepared to answer the question about why you are a good fit for the conference. It’s your moment to shine and to show that you not only know your topic, but you researched their event and would be an amazing addition to their speaker line-up.

Social proof – your online speaker profile

As you start to think about speaking publicly, begin to build your social proof—online speaker portfolio—that you can reference as you pitch events.

Create an online portfolio to highlight yourself as speaker and a subject matter expert. At a bare minimum, you need to have a headshot, that is professional looking and that doesn’t have someone else cropped out of the background, as well as a short bio and depending on your industry a built out LinkedIn portfolio. Over time build your portfolio to include pictures of you presenting at events, links or embedded presentations, and video footage of you speaking or even a sizzle reel.  Even if you haven’t spoken at large events you can start to create your portfolio and capture examples your speaking style while presenting at client or work meetings, fundraisers, etc. Ask friends and colleagues to take pictures of you when you are presenting. It’ll take time to build out your social proof, but it can help as you try to make the leap from small local events to larger industry conferences and events.

Use your social prowess to engage with conference organizers and speakers on Twitter and LinkedIn. Most speakers, myself included, speak because we enjoy training and sharing what we know, reach out and ask the speakers for help and get to know them.

Keep on pitching

Finally, keep on pitching. Unless you are a unicorn, you probably won’t get accepted to every event that you pitch. When you attend a conference make it a habit to talk to the conference organizers and ask them for advice on what you can do to help with your next pitch. Be polite, respectful and sincere in communications with the conference organizers and ask for feedback when appropriate. Build relationships with the conference organizers and other speakers, so that you have a network to reach out to as you go through the pitch process. Together, we can make a difference in the gender and ethnicity gap in conferences—so long as we continue to pitch and be willing to stand up and speak. I hope you see you speaking soon!