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About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.

Written by: LMiller  |  July 01, 2007

Speaking On The National Associations Circuit: How To Catch The Fast Track To Bookings

Originally published for

ZZ Top said it best: “I’m bad…I’m nation-wide.” And it’s true; speaking at national associations has a certain cache and can give you access to the movers and shakers of a particular industry. Getting to the podium, though, can be quite a trip. When it comes to selecting speakers, associations use two processes. The key is to participate in both processes simultaneously. The following is an insider’s view of the system and tips to get on the fast track.

The Call For Presentations

First is the published process, known as the call for presentations. This process is mainly used for concurrent speakers but keynoters can post too. The notice is distributed to the association’s membership and publicized in industry media. Many association websites announce the call with a downloadable form.

I was a volunteer program chair for a national association for four years, the point person for both keynote and concurrent session slots. Due to a small staff, I was the first person to get the proposals.

And the games began. Responses would flood in first from the members themselves. Everyone wants to be seen as the “rising star” in the industry, so speaking at their association is a natural way to get national attention.

The delicate balance facing the association is between the in-the-trenches content that attendees crave and the inevitable boring speaking styles from the amateurs. This is why associations have set up program committees – a democratic process to choosing speakers gives everyone a fair shot and ensures no hard feelings among the rejected.

Insider’s Tip: The best way around these folks is the “research” angle. Develop your program around any findings relative to the membership. It can be an online survey or just your multiple years experience dealing with a gazillion folks just like them. This content is a great balance to the case studies that the members present. The program needs both; your proposal won’t be seen as competition to the members.

Proposals That Didn’t Make The Cut

These requests for proposals are sincere; the responses are examined by a real-live human being. (For four years, that was me.) They are also fishing expeditions, where many of the fish are “released” after being caught. Here are two of the most common reasons why 75% of these proposals didn’t get past my initial screening:

First, the content and format didn’t fit our needs. My personal favorite: a national firm hired a PR person to get speaking engagements for their execs. When I got the proposal, it demanded a three-hour time slot. Our slots were an hour (yes, it said so in the form), so they were asking for three slots, or an entire afternoon.

After I stopped laughing, I looked at the title and session description. The topic was geared for large companies. Our audience was smaller, more boutique firms. The proposal was a shotgun blast to many associations. It was clear that no one did their homework. It was logged and went into a very special “round” file.

Insider’s Tip: The information in these forms is golden. Most associations will tell you what they are looking for. Read the form carefully and follow the format. Topics that go narrow and deep get a second look. Position your content as an original slant to a relevant challenge. Make the format consistent and to the letter. If you are unknown to the association, don’t ask for any favors. Red herrings slow down the process and make it harder to say yes to you.

Second route to the round file: the proposal sounded too promotional. The content was unique and the speaker had credentials, but the tone of the proposal sounded too much like a pitch from the podium. This strikes fear into any program person’s heart. Any blatant selling will result in revolt from attendees, complete with multiple feedback forms that breathe fire. I’ll never forget the time that one speaker was so promotional that the conference chair was cornered in the ladies room and given “feedback” with demands that she step in and stop the presentation.

The dead giveaway of a pitchy program is in the list of learner outcomes, benefits that the attendees will receive from a program. One potential speaker actually wrote, “the attendees will benefit from having access to my book.” I am not making this up. This speaker didn’t have a chance.

By Invitation Only

The second process is much more subtle and more effective. It is used to decide both keynote and concurrent session speakers. Getting the inside track here takes more finesse, but when done right, your proposal is placed in the “special” pile.

In many associations, the key players get together and decide who they would like to present. At first we were dreaming, thinking of the major celebrities that would really draw attendance. Then reality set in and we focused on who we’ve heard that would make the grade. Anyone on this shortlist had the spot to lose.

For the keynote slot, we considered speakers who were personally previewed by myself, and the team or the board. Someone we know had to, personally, vouch for that speaker. For concurrent sessions, content was king. Those with good press and a killer website were seen as thought-leaders and got on the fast track.

Insiders Tip: You can’t beat this dynamic, so you might as well join it. If word-of-mouth gets you on the speaking radar, make sure your website has a great presentations section with original topics and rave reviews. Compelling articles and special reports show your thought-leadership. Media shows your prominence.

How The Shortlist Gets Longer

Two other groups enter the fray through this door. With political clout, they are formidable opponents.

First are the sponsors. In 2007, associations are projected to get almost $400M from folks who want to sell to their members. The associations can’t put on the conference without them. These partners are asking for more for their money and speaking is on the top of their list. Two delicate problems arise here: 1) the association has to balance the program so the conference doesn’t become a pitch fest, and 2) anyone that looks like a vendor can’t speak without upsetting the sponsors that requested and were refused a speaking slot.

So if you’re speaking to promote your services, be prepared to get hit up on by the sponsorship chair. Many associations are now either banning any vendors from speaking or charging a fee for the privilege.

Insider’s Tip: Position yourself as a credible outsider with “independent” content. If you are considered a prominent thought-leader that is above the fray, sponsors won’t see you as competition.

Second are recommendations from the powers-that-be. Board members, chapter presidents and the industry’s “giants” are on the lookout for great speakers. They don’t hesitate to call the conference chair, the program chair, and the meeting planner with their latest discovery. And they take their suggestions personally. The slightest indication that their speaker was not fully considered results in a flood of emails to board members, the president, even the pope if necessary. I handled these suggestions with kid gloves.

Insider’s Tip: This is another dynamic you can’t stop, so your best bet is to join in. Who are your clients and what associations do they belong to? Are they willing to recommend you? You’d be surprised who is on those boards or program committees.

Industry insiders report ten possible speakers for every slot they need to fill. Between the deluge of proposals and politically-charged recommendations, getting the invitation to speak can look daunting to outsiders. But it is possible. At the end of the day, everyone on the team wants a great program. Use the “by invitation” system to get in, and use the call for presentations system to close the deal. When you have the shortcuts, the maze doesn’t look so complicated after all.

Filed Under: Speaking

About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.