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.

three more things I know about public speaking

Monday I wrote about the two most important things I know about public speaking, and response to that has been gratifying, and here I am on a train for a few hours, so here you go: three more things I know about public speaking.

When you’re stuck, tell a story. I mentioned in the last post that finding a hook is the first important way to get un-stuck when you’re planning a talk. The second is to tell a story. Seriously, next time you’re feeling speaker’s block ask yourself: “What story can I tell here?” It will work.

It will work during the talk, too. People like stories. People relate to stories. People remember stories. Your audience is likely to be more engaged with a story-driven talk than a more abstract one.

It also works because you’re people too, which means that you probably like stories. You will probably be more comfortable and personable telling a story than in other modes of engagement.

Not all types of talks lend themselves well to storytelling — it may be that you really need to communicate about data or teach people an abstract concept — but even in those cases, you can frame, motivate, illustrate, or enliven the whole with a good story.

Corollary: when you’re stuck, use concrete details. Part of why stories work is narrative, but part of it is the concrete details: they’re more memorable and striking than abstract ideas. (“Social media, crystallization nuclei, and empowerment” vs. “Twitter, lightning rods, and spoons”? Seriously, no contest).

Sandwiches are tasty. I had the fortune to have exceptionally good professors in my undergraduate department. I mean, it was spooky: I could actually pick courses based on what I wanted to study rather than who was teaching, because I knew all the teaching would be solid. So one of the things I thought about when my mind was wandering (it does that) during class was, what exactly are these people doing that’s so effective? And I realized: it was sandwiches.

I think, broadly speaking, there are people who need to see concrete examples before theory makes sense, and there are people who crave theory and then can apply it to examples. Some people can play against type, but often it’s a struggle, and some just can’t. My professors were reaching both types by teaching new concepts either as theory-example-theory or example-theory-example. That is, explain the theory, illustrate with an example, and re-explain; or provide a motivating example, generalize to the theory behind it, and wrap up by showing an application. Doing this means some people may be confused for the first third (but they’ll hang with you because they know everything will make sense by the end) and others may find the last third extraneous (or maybe not; they might appreciate the review from a standpoint of greater understanding), but everyone will have received the concept in their preferred order.

So, particularly if you need to get across some kind of abstract or technical material, I recommend sandwiches.

Be a person. As noted above, you’re a person. So be one! Lots talks are painfully dry, as if people have confused “professionalism” with “leaching all the personality out of the room”. Against this backdrop, having any personality at all will make you stand out. Telling jokes, even if they are totally lame, will be funny, if only because it’s so unexpected. (Similarly — but only with the right audience, and in moderation — swearing.) It is fine if your personality is awkward or quirky or otherwise not what you think of when you think “polished public speaker”. Just have one.

The other great thing about this tactic is — if you’re nervous about public speaking or you haven’t found your voice yet — you can be someone else. This was my first effective tool against my formerly-crippling terror of public speaking; when I first had to present to a serious audience, I thought about all my favorite teachers, and I thought: which of those has a personality that I think I can emulate? And I copied his style for slide design and body language and vocal modulation as well as I could. Because excellent teachers can have a wide range of personalities, you have probably had an excellent teacher with a personality not unlike yours — or, at least, not unlike something you think you can fake on stage. Awesome. Just be them until you figure out how to be you.

For what it’s worth, my style on stage and (especially) my slide design have changed a ton since I started with this tool, since I now have my own voice. And I’m not going to claim I’ve ever been so excellent in front of an audience as he is, because Ran was one of the flat-out legends of my undergrad experience — people majored in CS so that they could major in Ran. Really what I’m saying is: thanks, professor. Debugging and infinite series were diverting, but this is the part where you really changed my life.

Ask me about the Nerf guns someday.
This is Professor Ran Libeskind-Hadas and he is pretty much the man.

the two most important things I know about public speaking

So I was talking to Annie Pho on Twitter a month or two ago, about the keynote I was about to give at ACPL, and the fact that I used to be completely terrified of public speaking. I mean, completely, hiding-in-the-bathroom-having-a-panic-attack terrified. And that was interesting, and I thought I should write a post about how I got over that, and maybe I still will, but I realized I don’t have as much to say about that as I do about how to be a good public speaker.

So the short version is, “teach middle school for five years”. But I realize this may be impractical advice for some of you, so let me try to distill the key points. Here are the most important two. If I remember, I’ll write more posts about others. (Anything else you want me to address?)

The most important things I know about public speaking concern audience and structure/hook.

Audience. The key part of preparing any talk is considering the audience. We’ve all seen meticulously prepared, articulate talks that fall flat because they are delivering information into a vacuum, without any consideration of audience. (Academic papers read aloud at conferences and most vendor talks: I’m looking at you.)

How familiar are they with your topic? Are you going to need to give them backstory — and, if so, what, and in what order — for your points to make sense? Do you need to skip ahead to the advanced stuff to stay engaging?

Why are they there? Do they have to be (in which case you have a whole range of concerns about getting their interest and possibly overcoming hostility) or do they want to be? You have to establish rapport and credibility either way, but it’s easier in the second case, and can be driven more by engaging their curiosity and less by engaging their hearts. Are they there to be educated or inspired? Do they need to walk out with new, actionable skills, or are they there more for ideas or entertainment?

The more hostile or skeptical (not the same thing!) they are, the more you need to think about “how can I solve their problems?” These audiences won’t be there to hear you give your spiel about your thing, and they won’t care if you do. You have to relate to their thing. This can mean piquing their curiosity, or addressing some concern in their everyday workflow, or any number of other things, but you must think about what problems they have that you can solve. The more hostile they are the more you will need to be explicit about characterizing these problems and framing your talk in terms of their solutions.

What’s their subculture? This governs both the kind of jokes you can make and the subcultural references you can make to establish rapport. Yes, you can try to establish rapport via your bio, but this is usually boring, or via sheer incandescent charisma, but most of us don’t have that. Referencing subcultural touchstones adds personality, is frequently funny, and communicates that you are part of their tribe, or at least understand their tribe, and thus are more relatable and credible. (Of course this only works if you actually do have some level of familiarity with their subculture…otherwise it makes you look more out of touch. Good reason to read widely, I guess.)

Example: I gave a talk at Google’s Cambridge office about Gluejar, in which I explained what we do by reference to the Unix command chmod. Trust me, not only does this communicate to engineers that I have some technical credibility (and thus they should give me the time of day) even if I’m not a developer, but in context it’s is hilarious…and I cut that slide out of every non-Google version of that talk.

Since I mentioned middle school earlier, I should mention that age is an important element, too. If you’re not speaking to adults you have this whole other range of concerns about age-appropriate language and activities, and a much increased need to break things up, to let people move around, and to establish behavioral norms. But I’m not going to worry about that in this post.

Structure and hook. I find that I have speaker’s block preparing every talk until I have either the structure or the hook…and once I have one, I have both, and the rest is relatively easy.

My talks tend to be structured around a list of three things, plus intro and conclusion. This is a fabulous structure because it can be used at any length — it governs both my 7-minute TEDx talk and my almost-an-hour ACPL keynote. It’s also a fabulous structure because the three-act (or five-act, if you count the intro & conclusion) structure is well-established in literature; it’s something audiences will easily comprehend. And it’s fabulous because it creates a hook. For both talks, my hook is a one-sentence description of the structure of my talk, using some offbeat words. “It’s a story of Twitter, lightning rods, and spoons.” “I’m Andromeda Yelton, and I’m going to tell you three lies about technology.” That’s it. Dead simple.

Hooks are great for a couple of reasons. One is that they pique your audience’s curiosity and give them a reason to listen. Twitter and lightning rods, whuh? Lies? They’re going to have to listen to make sense of the hook. Furthermore, the hook is a promise: “I’m going to cover the following topics. You listen for them, I will reward your attention.” And it’s a roadmap: “You’re always going to know where you are in this talk and how the elements fit into the whole, because I just gave you an outline so short you can keep it in memory.” (Some people really crave the roadmap.)

And having a good structure removes a lot of the cognitive overhead from designing the rest of the talk. It tells you what to do. And, like I said, it’s expansible, so your one favorite structure will do for a variety of formats. At 7 minutes, my list of three is three brief anecdotes, with a lead-in and conclusion. At an hour, it’s three higher-level ideas, each of which has a couple of supporting examples I use to elaborate those ideas. I can readily see making the list-of-three a daylong workshop.

Another advantage of the list of three is that less is more. Too many presenters try to shove everything they know about a topic into their talk — yes, you’re an expert, that’s great, but your audience cannot comprehend or retain the firehose of everything you know. They don’t have time to think about it and listen in a talk. Whether because they’re thinking or distracted, they’re going to miss parts of what you say (another reason it’s good for them to have a roadmap — easier to reorient and catch up). If you give them a ton of facts, they’ll leave dazed. If you give them a list of three things, they’ll remember it. Maybe not the details, but the important parts. A spare structure is a discipline forced on the speaker for the benefit of the audience.

Of course, list-of-three isn’t the only way to go. I expect a lot of my readers are English majors, which means you know a lot more than I do about stories and how they’re put together. And doubtless some of you know about the great structures of music or dance. I think any time-tested artistic structure works; human brains comprehend them readily, and any structure is a hook when laid bare. But I don’t know a lot about that and am limited in creativity, so I like my list of three.

So there you have it. Use a good, simple structure; explain it with quirky words as a hook; and consider the needs of your audience in elaborating your structure with anecdotes and examples. You’ll be most of the way to a good talk.

ETA: There’s a follow-up post, Three more things I know about public speaking.