10 tips for breaking onto the speaker circuit

Public speaking – done well, and for the right reasons – can be one of the most effective tools for self-promotion in a designer's armoury.

As a creative, it can give you credibility as an expert in your field and supercharge word-of-mouth about your services. Instead of fighting for a voice, suddenly everyone wants to talk to you.

But the skills involved in public speaking are just as valuable off-stage. Being able to talk confidently about your work in any situation – while pitching, during an interview, over a beer – is a fundamental design skill that differentiates the good from the exceptional, and is crucial if you want to elevate your practice to the next level.

Whether you're gearing up to speak to a 3,000-strong theatre crowd or a prospective client, the new issue of Computer Arts (240) – a self-promo special – brings you everything you need to know to pack your presentations with a punch.

Save 59% on Computer Arts 240 now

Out on 31 April, it's full of top tips from leading creatives for avoiding nerves, keeping your audience engaged and what to do if all goes wrong. (It also comes with a free ebook, The Self Promo Handbook – see tip 10 for details.)

Of course, being invited to talk at an event is the first hurdle. The speaker circuit is highly competitive and without the weight of experience it can be tricky to bag your first speaking gig.

Breaking onto the circuit

John Davey, founder of award-winning UK conference Reasons to be Creative, travels the world to source new speakers for his three-day celebration of design and technology. He rarely ask speakers to talk at Reasons unless he's seen them first and has chalked up thousands of hours at design events in his quest to secure the best possible creatives.

Here, Davey shares his top tips for breaking onto the circuit and making it as a speaker. From persuading a conference curator to take a chance on you, to what makes an outstanding presentation and what not to do, read on for his expert advice…

01. Watch the pros in action

Aardman senior designer Gavin Strange, aka Jam Factory, on stage at Reasons to be Creative 2014 in sunny Brighton, UK

I would encourage everyone to go to as many conferences as they can afford. Why? To see the presentation styles of as many speakers as possible.

I've seen so many wonderful presenters that it would be unfair to single one out alone. However, I can give you a few names who are absolutely terrific: Stefan Sagmeister, Eric Spiekermann, Brendan Dawes, Mr Bingo, Paula Scher – they're just a few.

02. Nail your proposal

The best proposals are the ones where the speaker is going to show work, demonstrate something or teach something. Of course, you want them to be entertaining, but content is key.

I can often predict the style of a session by semantics. If the proposal says 'lecture' then it's usually delivered differently to proposals that mention 'talks' or 'sessions'. I know it sounds picky, but it's worked for me for the past 10 years!

03. Don't tell designers how to design

Dutch studio From Form designed the stage furniture and opening titles for 2014's Reasons to be Creative conference. Photo: Marc Thiele

Proposals that say the session is going to talk about how to be a better designer, and then show hardly any work, or bland slides, often fall flat. An attendee has paid to go to an event – often they themselves are designers. I've seen first-hand the audience turn off when told how they themselves should design.

It's as if they're saying to themselves: 'What qualifies you, speaker, to tell me that I should do it a certain way?' Of course, if the speaker has an impressive body of work, it immediately qualifies them.

04. Apply for The Elevator Pitch

How do you get onto the circuit? Well, that's exactly the reason we run The Elevator Pitch – 20 newbies get three minutes to pitch their presentation. We have a dedicated AV team who deal with bringing laptops to the stage, plugging in and getting them ready so that when you step on stage, your mic is working and visuals are on screen.

There are no gaps, it's extremely tightly run and I'm very proud to say that The Elevator Pitch is one of the most popular sessions at Reasons. It's produced more than 20 new speakers who I now see regularly on the international circuit!

05. Good news spreads

Apart from opportunities like The Elevator Pitch, it's down to leg work. Start with local events [like Glug and Blab in the UK], meet-ups and user groups. If you're good, the word will get around.

Next page: five more tips for breaking onto the speaker circuit