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 floor–often literally. Our subject matter might not be “sexy”, 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.