Being invited to speak at a conference is a privilege, and we can use that privilege in a number of ways.
Of course it’s not all about the person speaking.
The very best speakers will usually have something important they want to say. Something they feel really strongly about, and wish to share with their peers in order to make their lives better. Maybe they’ve just come up with a clever technique that makes folks’ lives easier and want to share it with as many people as possible? Maybe they’ve seen people making the same mistakes over and over again that’s easily avoidable if they just do this one small trick? Or maybe they’ve been the brunt of some sort of challenge or injustice and are looking to highlight these problems and drive a deeper systemic change. Whatever their motivators, making a platform is a powerful thing, and something not to be squandered.
As a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of experienced speakers are looking for ways to do more with their privilege; to use the power, connections and opportunities they’ve been given to raise others up. One simple way to do this is to pepper your talks with references and quotes by peers from under represented groups. I’ve seen this done a number of times and it can be super effective.
However the more obvious solution is to step aside and recommend speakers from underrepresented groups who could take your place. This is a wonderful, altruistic thing to do. To offer up your place to somebody else who you know would value it more than you. This approach works, but maybe not as often as it should. Unless the people we recommend get picked, we haven’t made any significant change; we’ve just made ourselves feel good. Fortunately there are a few small, simple things we can do to improve our hitrate here.
The first thing to do is to understand why the conference organiser has reached out to you in the first place. Was it because of a specialism you hold, a talk you’ve done in the past, or a project you worked on; or was it simply down to the company you work for and the position you hold?
Many conference organisers—especially smaller ones— may simply be looking for a speaker from a well-known brand to help them sell tickets. In this case, it’s really easy to suggest an alternate speaker. You simply say something along the lines of “Unfortunately I’m not available but my colleague X would love to speak”. If you’re lucky, that’s all you need to do.
However, these pesky conference organisers probably want to make sure that the person you’re recommending is actually a good speaker and not just a report who mentioned wanting to do more public speaking in their last evaluation. As such it’s usually a good idea to send a link to a recent talk from that person, rather than just a list of names. If it comes with a personal recommendation, even better. Something like “I’m afraid I’m not available but I saw X do an amazing talk at Y recently. I think they’d be perfect for your event, so would you like an intro?”
Sometimes conference organisers aren’t just looking for any old speaker—amazing I know. Sometimes they’re looking for somebody with a specific angle to talk about a specific topic. In these instances, it’s helpful to understand what role the organisers were wanting you to fill, and recommend a speaker you know can do similar. “I’m afraid that I can’t make this event, but I saw X give a really good talk on the same subject as me at Y recently, and I was really impressed. In fact, I was thinking of using some of their ideas in my next talk. Want me to make an intro?”
From a conference organisers perspective, this is probably the perfect recommendation. You’ve had personal recommendations from somebody you trust. They’ve seen the person speak, can vouch for them, and have shared a link to see for yourself. They’ve even said that they’ve been so inspired by that person that they’re going to use some of their ideas in future talks themselves. This person is somebody I definitely want to speak to.
This is great, but what if the people you want to recommend aren’t as established as you?
Maybe they haven’t even spoken before. You have an inkling that they’ll be good, but you don’t really know.
If you have somebody on your team who wants to speak at a conference, before giving up your seat and thrusting them into the limelight—or under the bus—it may be worth investing a little more time in their development. Consider spending some time in your one-to-ones to pull out the topics they’d like to speak about. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had folks tell me they’d like to speak at one of our events, but then have no clue what they’d speak about (TOP TIP: “Oh, whatever you want me to speak about” isn’t a good answer). Once they’ve got some ideas starting to develop, help them write a talk description, help them put together an outline, help them write a first draft and give them feedback. Find opportunities inside the company for them to speak first, and try and record their sessions if you can. Many a great talk started life as an internal brown-bag session, got honed at community meet-ups, and only then found its place on a conference stage.
You see, developing one of your team as a new speaker is more than just throwing out their names in an email. It’s about investing in that person and helping to transfer some of the skills that have made you such a good speaker over to them.
Another great way to develop new speakers is to suggest that you do a joint talk. The conference still gets to have you on the bill for all the reasons they reached out in the first place, but now they get a second amazing speaker as a result. You get to confer some of your legiticancy on them, and they’re going to learn a tonne about being a great speaker from you in the process. This effectively takes ALL—or at least most—of the risk away form the conference organiser, while using your platform to raise somebody else up. As such it’s a win-win for everybody involved.
This works especially well if the conference is looking for you to talk about a specific project. Sure you may have overseen the project—and claimed much of the Kudos from that Medium article you wrote about it a few months ago—but you know that your team put the hard work in. So suggesting a joint talk where you frame the project, and then have your colleague jump into the details, can work really nicely. In fact I know several well established speakers who started their speaking careers in this way. Very soon they’d eclipsed the person that got them on stage in the first place, and had developed their own stand-alone speaking career.
It’s often harder if the people you’re recommending don’t work for you. However it’s worth thinking about why exactly you’re recommending them. Maybe you haven’t seen them speak, but you read a really smart article they wrote a few months ago. Or maybe you’re aware of the work they did on a specific project. Any background you can give about why you’re suggesting them as a potential alternative is better than a list of unqualified names. If you’re unable to confer a sense of equivalence to the conference organiser—that you’re confident that the person you’re recommending would do an equally good job as you—the chance of that person being selected is fairly slim. So the more evidence you can supply to underpin your recommendations the better.