So yeah — three weeks ago, all my lucky stars lined up and I got an email telling me that I’ve been accepted as a speaker in SMX West 2015 in San Jose, California. Without overstating the matter, it’s probably safe to say that this was a professional dream come true. After all, SMX is the mecca of search marketing conferences and its attendees swear by the kind of experience it delivers.
Learning from the brightest minds in the industry is just the tip of the iceberg. Forming connections, discovering business opportunities, getting job offers and making new friends are equally attractive elements of the show. Having said that, it’s no surprise that the interest to speak at SMX is so high. Each session reportedly receives anywhere from 25-100 pitches from smart marketers who want to share their insights and get exposure on a global stage.
Initially, I charged my acceptance as a function of good fortune. After all, my brain had to cope with the level of disbelief that I was in. When my euphoria subsided, I realized that calling myself lucky would be a disservice to the event’s organizers and the other people who pitched. The only rational conclusion is that I must have done a couple of things right along the way to arrive at the outcome I got. If you’re planning to pitch a presentation in a future SMX event or you’re just curious about what I did to get accepted, this post is for you. It’s my unofficial guide to getting invited as a speaker in SMX.
1. Read the Instructions Thoroughly
With so many moving parts that make up a big event, it’s not hard to understand why SMX’s organizers would want to keep things nice and streamlined. The submission of speaking pitches is no exception to that principle. To submit an entry, you’ll need to fill out a form and follow the guidelines as best as you can.
Make sure to read each line of the speaker application guide carefully. It may not seem like a big deal, but the SMX’s organizers say that a lot of pitches get rejected due to breaches of the rules. If you’re pitching, you might as well do it right. Take your time and read the instructions to make sure your submissions steer clear of small but damning errors.
2. Target the Sessions You Have the Most Knowledge On
If you thought that more pitches for more sessions means more chances of being selected to speak, you’re only partially correct. People who want to speak are encouraged to submit as many as three entries but no more than that. This gives everyone multiple chances to succeed but it keeps the moderators from being swamped with too many entries that need to be reviewed.
When choosing a session, I suggest going with the ones that cover topics you know inside and out. Deep knowledge allows you to write detailed pitches that use uncommon angles to tackle topics. This gives moderators a better idea of what you bring to the table and which parts of the session you can be most effective in.
Don’t try to BS your way around a topic. Session moderators are usually experts on the topics that they’re assigned to and they can easily tell if you really know what you’re talking about. Even if you have elite fibbing skills and you somehow land a spot to speak, you’ll probably get peppered by questions that will make you very uncomfortable in front of a sizeable crowd. I don’t know about you, but not speaking at all seems like a sweeter deal than being exposed in front of a live audience.
3. Study the Session Summary Thoroughly
Before SMX opens itself to speaking pitches, it publishes the agenda for the event weeks in advance. This is where you’ll find the dates, times and rooms for all the sessions that will take place. The sessions that have speakers listed are usually closed and are not open to pitches. Most of the other sessions, however, will only list the topics, an abstract of the topic and the moderator for the session. Start shortlisting the ones that you’ll feel comfortable being a panellist in and choose the three that you like the most.
Read the summaries of each session carefully. This will give you important clues on what the moderator envisions to be the flow of the discussion. Decide which parts of the summary your presentation will fit into and focus on that when writing your pitch.
For instance, I successfully pitched for the session Creating Dazzling Content & Ensuring It’s Seen: Step By Step From The Audit To Analytics. I looked at the description and it read:
“The not–so–secret key to getting links and conversions lies in creating great content that’s useful, well–crafted, shareable, search optimized – and perhaps most importantly for long–term success in Google, “panda proof.”
Our experts will share their in–depth experiences and provide tips for crafting a comprehensive content strategy. You’ll leave knowing why and how to conduct a content audit, how to conceive ideas that will resonate with your target audience, and how to get that content completed, distributed and successfully measured.”
I knew that this would be a competitive session to pitch for due to the fact that virtually any marketer can speak proficiently about content. The thing is, I also knew that most of the pitches would focus on the audit and creation aspects of the theme but neglect the analytics segment. I had the good fortune of having worked extensively on content for most of my career while also having a decent understanding of web analytics. I saw it as a point of attack that can be exploited to separate my entry from the rest of the herd.
I then wrote a pitch that covered four phases of creating great content: ideation, production, promotion and measurement. For measurement, I suggested a presentation on measuring reader loyalty. It’s probably a safe bet that nobody else brought of that and it helped my entry stand out.
4. Familiarize Yourself with the Event’s Format
Putting together a winning pitch requires familiarity with how an SMX session works. Knowing how much time you have, how much you can realistically talk about and being aware that you’re sharing the stage with other people will help you propose a presentation that will fit nicely into the moderator’s plans. The idea is to deliver a talk that’s informative, actionable and inspiring in within a limited time.
A typical session runs anywhere from 60-90 minutes. A moderator facilitates the flow of the discussion and introduces the panellists. Each panellist presents for 15-20 minutes and the rest of the time is used for Q&A. Make the moderator aware through your pitch that you’ve planned for a presentation that will end on time and let them know what the flow will be. Don’t be satisfied with giving them a simple outline of what you intend to share. Give them details the content of each section of your talk and let them know how you’ll transition between ideas from start to finish.
5. Get Tips from People Who’ve Already Done It
Aside from the official speaking tips from Search Engine Land and the SMX site, I found unofficial guides by past speakers to be very useful. Matt McGee’s take on pitching heavily influenced how I wrote my entries, while Ross Hudgens helped me out with his tips on picking your spots to avoid heavy competition. I highly suggest reading both blog entries and finding others before you start writing your entry.
6. Profile the Session Moderator
When the agenda is posted, the names and Twitter handles of the moderators are also revealed. These are the people who’ll choose who gets to speak and it’s in your best interest to “get to know” them a little bit. Follow them on social media and see what their activities are. What gets them excited? What annoys them? What kind of content do they share? All these can give you valuable clues on how to angle your pitch correctly to catch their respective attentions.
UPDATE: Elisabeth Osmeloski of SMX was kind enough to point out that while it’s often true that moderators select the speakers for a session, it’s not always the case. She says “sometimes moderators are brought in just for their expertise and specific knowledge of a topic, particularly to lead a discussion panel. Sometimes guest moderators are used/moved around due to scheduling issue that needs to be resolved.”
7. Be Original… or at Least Credit Your Sources
Search Engine Land advises people to be as original as possible when it comes to writing pitches. That means you have to write the entry yourself and not considering copying/spinning material from somewhere else on the Web. Plagiarism is pretty easy to detect, so don’t embarrass yourself by passing off someone else’s work as your own.
If you want to incorporate ideas from other people’s published work, cite your inspirations and sources in the pitch. There’s no shame in telling the moderator that you learned a cool trick or two from authoritative figures in the industry.
8. Bring Your Writing A-Game
There’s no getting around it: effective written communication is a prerequisite to speaking in SMX. You may be a kick-ass public speaker with killer ideas to share, but if those ideas aren’t delivered with breadth, flow and technical correctness, you may never get the chance to showcase your brilliance. Before submitting your pitch, I suggest editing it yourself and having someone else look at it to make sure your thoughts are translating nicely to written form. Don’t get me wrong: you don’t need to be a professional writer to pull this off. Just remember the following best practices for simple but fundamentally sound writing:
- Keep sentences short and snappy
- Avoid complex sentence structures
- Avoid using big words
- Break up long paragraphs to avoid creating text walls
- Use the active voice in your sentence constructs
- Write it like you’re talking to the moderator and making a case
9. Be Comprehensive yet Flexible
To maximize your chances of being given an open slot, you’ll want to submit a pitch that demonstrates your versatility and the completeness of your knowledge on the topic. Write a pitch that covers as many of the subtopics in the session as possible and make a note that you’re comfortable in presenting on any of them. This helps a moderator realize that you can be placed in a panel with practically anybody and your expertise isn’t limited to just a couple of the topic’s aspects.
At the same time, you don’t want to make the impression that you want to hog all there is to talk about. State that the pitch is flexible and that you’re willing to discuss only the parts of it that the moderator feels is best for the session. This makes time allocation easier for mods and it reduces the risk of overlap between panellists. It also shows that you’re a team player who’s considerate of his or her co-speakers.
Update 2: Bonus Tips
Elisabeth also gave a few more ninja tips to help aspiring speakers increase their chances at being shortlisted. She writes:
- Include in your Pitch and/or bio – links to YouTube/videos of you speaking elsewhere, including webinars; we may watch to see what type of speaker you are.
- Make sure your Linkedin profile is up to date and really reflects your experience / depth of knowledge.
- Include links to past presentations online.
I submitted three entries. One of them went through while the other two seemed to have gotten fair consideration. Even for the entries that were declined, I got some good feedback from the moderators just like this one:
Overall, pitching was a great learning experience and it gave me new perspective on what it takes to compete on the world stage. The most fulfilling part for me is knowing that the Philippines will be represented in a major search marketing event and I’m looking forward to leaving a good account of our local industry in the minds of the people I meet.
There you have it: the things I did to land myself a seat in the grand banquet of search marketing knowledge. If you want to learn more, feel free to ask questions in the comments section. You can also hit me up on Facebook or Twitter for a casual chat.