how to get me to want you as a keynoter

All of the Twitters pointed me today to this Hi Miss Julie! post on who does and doesn’t get attention in librarianship and why. (It’s good; go read it.) The bit that jumped out at me:

I want people to listen to what I have to say. I want to be offered speaking engagements, to have a larger platform to discuss my ideas of how to better librarianship, to be valued….So next time you need a keynote speaker, perhaps consider one of us librarians who spend most of our time on the floorโ€“often literally. Our subject matter might not be โ€œsexyโ€, but we know how to tell a damn good story.

This jumped out at me because, well, I’m on a conference planning committee (LITA National Forum 2013), and I spent a big chunk of time last fall thinking about who our keynoters should be. (Obligatory disclaimer: I’m speaking for myself and not the committee here; experiences and opinions my own.)

So let me tell you what I think about how to get people to make that offer. First, I’ll tell you how I got from my own personal longlist to my own personal shortlist (which was not, of course, the committee’s final shortlist); then I’ll tell you what people could have done to up the odds of being shortlisted.

How I researched keynote speaker options

Here was my rough process. I brainstormed the biggest list I could, trying hard to get outside the usual suspects and my personal circle, and to come up with a pool that was diverse on many axes. I put my ear to the ground for rumors. I read speaker lists from other conferences (including ones tangential to library technology), the Code4Lib diversity scholarship recipients, lists of past LITA Emerging Leaders. Et cetera. And then I took that list and researched the heck out of it, looking for evidence that these were people I could recommend as keynoters.

Because: here’s the thing. For session speakers, we can take a risk on an unknown. Heck, I for one would love to have some new, or new-to-LITA, speakers at Forum. (You, maybe? Call for proposals.) And it’s okay to run the risk that some of them will be terrible for the chance that some of them will be great. You don’t waste a lot of people’s time. They can go to competing sessions. These things happen.

But you hang your brand on your keynoters. There are no competing sessions, and a substantial fraction of attendees will go, and you owe them a good show. And they’re the marquee names you use to convince people to come to your conference in the first place, which has huge implications for the financial and experiential success of the event.

So here are the things I was looking for:

  • Evidence they could speak well. Ideally, video of previous talks. Positive reports from attendees of other talks are good. A job with lots of required public speaking (schoolteacher, instructional librarian, children’s librarian, adjunct faculty…) is a good sign, and reduces the other evidence needed, but it’s not on its own sufficient. In a pinch, substantial public speaking experience coupled with solid evidence of charisma – interesting topics, an interesting take on them, a social media or face-to-face presence full of personality, et cetera. I feel shaky recommending a keynoter on that evidence, but if their work is just super-interesting and a good fit for the conference theme, I can take that risk.
  • Documented speaking experience. Session speakers can be giving talks for the first time. We all did once, right? Everyone starts somewhere. But if you’re keynoting, this cannot be the first time you’ve delivered a talk of keynote length. It cannot be the first time you’ve spoken before a sizable audience. Full stop.
  • Evidence they actually were interested in speaking engagements.Duh, right? And yet.
  • Easy-to-communicate appeal. Because the keynoters are part of the marketing, they either need to be familiar names to the audience, or people whose work is obviously interesting and well-documented, and the outlines of which can be communicated in the one paragraph they’ll get in the publicity materials. That has to be enough to make people interested in attending, or at least in learning more.

So I was looking for this. And for many, many names on the list, I couldn’t find it. That does not mean they would not be good keynoters. It means I couldn’t find enough evidence to be comfortable taking the risk. And, while I can ping someone out of the blue and ask them to submit a proposal for a session (and have), we can’t just call up a keynote option and say, hey, are you actually capable of doing this job? We can’t call you up to keynote unless we already know the answer is yes.

Steps you can take to be more appealing as a speaker

AKA “seriously, I wish more people had done this”.

  1. First-and-if-you-do-nothing-else, please put something on your web site that says you are actually interested in getting speaking engagements. (Something which, frankly, I could do a better job of myself. Bad Andromeda.)
  2. Second, put your CV or similar online. Let people see how many talks you’ve given, at what sorts of events, on what sorts of topics. Let them have a sense of whether they’re panel talks or you’ve held a stage solo, whether they’re 15 minutes or an hour or a day. (And if you want to keynote, some of them need to be solo and hour-minimum.) If some of them were keynotes or otherwise invited, specify. (And keep it reasonably up-to-date!)
  3. Give people ways of evaluating the quality or critical reception of your talks. Again, video is ideal. If you got media coverage, or blog coverage, that’s good. Slideshare’s good. Whatever tool(s) you use, give people a chance to see how you construct and deliver talks, and to infer whether the audience likes them.
  4. Be easy to contact.
  5. Yes, most of this assumes you have a web site. Yes, do that, and not just because it makes conference planners’ lives easier (though it does; thanks!). It’s about marketing. If you’re already a familiar name to your audience, you don’t need the web presence, but if you’re not, they’re going to google you, and they need to see reasons to be excited about hearing you speak. This doesn’t mean you have to be Ms. Flashy McFlashums 2.0 — I can think of some people who would be great for LITA who don’t have huge social media presences or their own domain — but you need a place to stick that CV and contact info and other useful information, and it needs to effectively communicate that you’re an interesting person doing interesting work who might, therefore, have interesting things to say interestingly.


When I was culling my longlist, the people I had to eliminate for lack of evidence were, disproportionately, the people who would have brought to Forum types of diversity I’d really like to see. This made me want to pretty much curl up in a corner and cry.

Advocate for yourself.

I know, I know, it feels awkward, it’s hard sometimes. If it helps, don’t think of it as ego. Think of it as being helpful and considerate, making conference planners’ jobs easier.

FYI, keynote shortlist time has come and gone, but the LITA Forum 2013 Call for Proposals for speakers is open until late February. And even — especially — if you’re not one of the usual suspects, I’m willing to take a chance on you here. We can’t accept every proposal, but I am so looking forward to hard decisions among intriguing candidates. Write a great pitch. Tell me why you’re a speaker I’ve been looking for.

19 thoughts on “how to get me to want you as a keynoter

  1. This is great advice that I will definitely take! Thanks for reading my post and being inspired by it, which, next to imitation, is a great form of flattery.


  2. Andromeda, thanks for this. My blog is my only current webpresence, and it probably needs to come down. And I really need to work out a web site for myself, to do the kinds of things you refer to. Thanks for the kick in the pants — I needed it!


    1. Hooray! Yes, you are totally good company who thinks about interesting things, so you are exactly someone who should be making it easy for people to tell if you want to do speaking engagements, too ๐Ÿ™‚ Glad to have kicked you.


  3. Interesting. I’m glad people haven’t always used all of your set of criteria, since I’m pretty sure I had never given a keynote-length talk to a large number of people before I was invited to do my first keynote. (I’m not even sure how likely that is to happen for many of us.) I had, to be sure, done a few other talks.

    And it would never have occurred to me to add length of talks to my CV.

    Fortunately, when I did the 40 or so keynotes in my career, people were (I guess) more willing to take a chance. [I’m not angling. I think younger people who are actually doing things should be giving most keynotes, as opposed to old hands who are mostly blathering even if they’re expert at it.]


    1. Just to clarify, I listed keynote-length and sizable audience in separate sentences because I wouldn’t necessarily be looking for “keynote-length to sizable audience” (I don’t think I’d done that before my first keynote myself). I just don’t want it to be the first time someone’s prepped an hour-long talk, and I don’t want to to be the first time they’ve had to hold a stage solo in front of a large number of people. Those are both important, complex skills that take practice.

      (I am also planning a national conference…I might be more flexible for a smaller event.)

      As for talk length, I don’t explicitly add that to my CV, but I think there’s enough evidence there that people who are generally familiar with library conferences can infer some of them were long. (The talks with video links, of course, make their length pretty obvious, and that was something I noticed when looking at video of other people’s talks – “oh hey, this video is an hour long!” or whatever.)

      And, of course, once you’ve given one, as long as it went over okay, you’re much less risky ๐Ÿ™‚


      1. The disjunction makes sense–that is, both (fairly) large audience and (fairly) long talk, not necessarily at the same time. I’d done both of those before my first keynote. So, yes, this makes sense. Thanks for the clarification.


  4. Great insight into how keynote speeches are chosen – it can’t be an easy task. Speaking as an attendee of conferences. A couple of my bug-bears about key-note speakers are
    a) those who have not researched their likely audience and so give a talk that is totally inappropriate for the given audience – admittedly this is a hard one to weed out by their CVs etc.
    b)speakers who have a hobby-horse about a certain issue, and whatever topic they are asked to speak on, the talk will be twisted round till they speak about that issue to the exclusion of what they were supposed to be speaking on.


    1. As an attendee, those things drive me crazy too.

      As an organizer there’s a fine line to tread. It’s nice to have some people who are outside of the field — not only not the usual suspects but not in the echo chamber — people whose work is relevant but who will have a very different take on things. But of course that runs the risk that they won’t understand the audience. Similarly, invited speakers get invited to things because they have reputations, which they got because there are things they’re passionate about and known for…which creates a hobby-horse risk.

      Again, it’s nice to have the documentation and the video. Video shows you how they speak about topics, so you can address hobby-horse risk, and get some sense of how they’re relating to the audience and whether they’re just reciting off some mental script that’s the same every time. And a CV won’t tell you if they get you, but it will tell you if they’ve spoken to similar audiences before, at least.


  5. This was illuminating, but I don’t know anyone who goes to conferences for the keynote. IMO if you’re doing that then you’re doing conferences wrong.

    Also, I wonder about getting your foot in the door, getting your fist keynote. I’m not looking to do anything like this, but I have five years of teaching experience, which means lecturing in front of lots of people for an hour at a time. How can one translate this into speaking engagements?


    1. I don’t know how everyone else does that, but my path was teaching career -> volunteering to do workshops at library school -> Battledecks -> asked to do TEDx talk by people who saw me do Battledecks -> keynote.

      The key thing here is that there are early steps in the process that you don’t need much permission to do — they’re just things where you volunteer, and maybe you already have social ties to the event organizers so they have that trust level with you — and those things give you more visibility, which lets you translate to broader audiences.

      So I’d say look for people who are familiar with you as a teacher or as a person, and tell them about your interest. Local/state/regional conferences, ALA interest groups or round tables — people who are always looking for speakers and have a relatively low barrier to entry.

      Or, you know, volunteer for Battledecks :).


  6. You had me at “Ms. Flashy McFlashums 2.0.”

    Thank you for this excellent and amusing posting!

    As a keynoter & frequent featured speaker at tech & lib conferences I have been also meaning to blog (vent? gripe?) about the ironic prevalence in our profession of the OWG (old white guy) who seems to be the default choice of most conference planners for keynotes.

    In a profession that’s dominated by women, why does it seem that some planners will pay 2X up to 3X more for the OWG keynoter than the cool chick voice? But I’m loathe to nip the hand that feeds me or stir the pot (more than usual!) – yet it rankles so! But I probably still will once I’m past conference season. Heh heh.
    But seriously, we need strong female voices like you, like Bobbi Newman, and like those librarians who are not afraid to advocate for our practice and profession (and do it with gorgeous slides & snarky commentary!) Just sayin! ๐Ÿ˜‰
    ~Gwyneth Jones
    also obviously not afraid of a parenthetical phrase nor an exclamation point!


    1. Thanks for commenting!

      Dear conference planners of the world: I’m perfectly happy for you to pay me 3x to speak at your conference, just so you know. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      And I mean there ARE a lot of older white men (or white men in academe, the library tech equivalent) who are AWESOME speakers and totally worth it….I just don’t think any of us are well-served if they’re the only ones talking. Or being listened to.


      1. Yeah…that’s totally what I mean! I very much respect & admire MANY OWG’s! Just like to see some diversity now and then! Cheers!
        btw, read through your blog – you’re awesome!


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