Former tMa client Amber Case keynoting at SXSW 2012 (image via CNET)

Former tMa client Amber Case keynoting at SXSW 2012 (image via CNET)

“So, I want to speak at TED.”

Those words are enough to send a shudder down the spine of any startup marketing/comms agency and for good reason. We know the hard truth, which is success with getting entrepreneurs on stage does not come overnight unless your last name is Zuckerberg or Spiegel.

At the same time, we’re huge advocates for thoughtfully managed speaking programs—especially for our B2B and enterprise clients. Telling your story in front of your peers can be a very effective way of driving awareness for both yourself and your company.

So, if you want to start a speaking program—let’s just leave TED out of this for now—here are 5 things we see as absolutely critical if you want to be on stage any time soon:

  1. A speaker who can actually...speak: If you don’t have an executive who’s engaging and can string two words together, it’s going to be hard to get conference organizers to bite. In fact, we might even recommend against it: the last thing you want is Twitter commentary from target customers complaining about how boring you are. 

    On the other hand, if there is proof you’re actually a great speaker—we frequently link to videos of our clients speaking when reaching out to organizers—that’s going to help get you in the door.                        

  2. Brand and executive personality cache: Just being able to speak is not enough. My corner store guy is incredibly eloquent, but does he work for a company people are interested in hearing from? Probably not. The same is true for the speaking circuit. People want to hear from companies they think are doing interesting things, and from executives they think say interesting things.

    A good example is Dave McClure, a founding partner at 500 Startups. He has a memorable personality to say the least, and his investment arm has backed companies like The Daily Muse and Twilio. In short, he’s interesting and his company is doing interesting things. It’s no wonder he’s become a “go-to” for events like the LAUNCH Festival and SXSWi. Dave always draws a crowd and organizers know this when they book him.

  3. Willingness to co-present or speak on a panel with customers/big name brands: Especially for niche shows and vertical events, which often have the most business impact, being able to offer up well-known customers to speak alongside you is the best path to the bright lights. Yes, it takes real work to get customers to agree to something like this but trust me, it can be well worth the time and energy.

    I managed a speaking program for a company in the financial security a few years back, and this is an approach we used often and with great success. Having a customer talk about their experiences with the product helped show financial institutions—who are understandably wary of “unproven” technologies—that the company’s approach to security was working.


  4. Money invested in the show. You probably won’t like this one but here’s a fact: A lot of the people you see speak at your favorite conferences often pay to be there—sometimes more than $10k. For newer startups without much brand awareness, this is often the best route to getting on stage. As the company becomes more prominent and you prove to organizers you can draw a crowd, it will be a bit easier getting a free speaking slot at the same shows. But beware: it can sometimes take a few years to get to that point.

  5. A strong point of view that ties into industry trends. Do you have anything interesting to say? Similar to #3, conference organizers want people on their agendas who can add something new and thought-provoking to the conversation. If you’re reiterating the same boring old thesis statement people have espoused for years (ahem, “mobile is the future”) you’ll see very poor results and might as well not bother. To combat this, at theMIX agency, we work very closely with our clients to develop provocative themes we know from experience are likely to resonate with organizers.

While these are just the basic components of running a successful speaking program, their importance can’t be overstated. If you have all these in place—alongside a solid process to manage it—it’s only a matter of time before you’ll find yourself on the stage.

As for TED, well, maybe a better place to start is your local TEDx.