Developing a Speaker’s Program for Your Agency

Microphone with One the Air caption
By Mike Pina

Speaking at conferences and events may spark a real boost to your agency’s mission. Public speaking offers a unique gateway to reach key stakeholders, audiences, and industry peers. It also provides a path to connect with others, share your message, and help motivate change or support. When your agency’s subject matter experts participate in various public engagements as guest speakers, it may help to position your staff as thought leaders.

Speaking engagements also increase brand recognition for your agency as well as increase access to new target audiences. The ability to engage and interact with an audience provides a unique opportunity to both share an agency’s message and gather thoughts, perceptions, and insights. You can also test out sharing organizational messaging when delivering a speech because you will receive instant feedback from a live audience. Moreover, some speaking opportunities also have the added benefit of boosting the careers of the speakers.

As your agency’s communications strategist, you can play a significant role in identifying, booking, and promoting speaking opportunities for your team. The key is to identify the goals for delivering a speech. This process starts with:

  1. Researching topics
  2. Drafting effective messaging
  3. Identify the appropriate speaking opportunities
  4. Prepare a solid speaker proposal that excites show organizers
  5. Track organizational public speaking engagements
  6. Get the most mileage out of promoting executive speeches

So how do you get started? 

Step One: Identify the Goal

First, consider the purpose of your agency’s speaker’s program and what your team aims to accomplish with their presentations: what are the objectives? Ideally, effective and well-planned presentations may increase awareness about your organization. However, there may be other, more specific motives behind the messages you plan to share. You may want to reach a specific stakeholder group, get your organization’s name and message in the news, or challenge viewpoints opposed to those promoted by your organization. Agency speakers may also want to further their careers or build confidence as a speaker. Whatever the motive, focus on this goal

Step Two: Determine Your Message

The simplest way to find the right message is to focus on the ways your agency is addressing problems in our society. For example, car crashes are a leading cause of death in America. If your agency is working on technology that mitigates crashes and saves lives, this includes a high-priority public health and safety messages geared towards to the target audiences. Work with your subject matter experts to develop communications products that showcase some of your key research findings and results. It also helps to generate an editorial calendar with pre-packaged presentations in advance so that they can be tailored to specific events is the best way to ensure your agency speakers are prepared and establish your agency as a subject matter expert in the field.

Step Three: Identify Target Events

You may have developed concise and thought-provoking messaging and a captivating presentation, but if there’s no audience or outlet for it, then it goes unheard. You now need to identify some of the leading conferences and events related to your topic areas. Google is your best friend here. A quick search for relevant events, (e.g., “largest health conferences”) may result in a list of industry-focused events and leading conferences. You can also look up the trade associations in your field and find out the dates and locations of their annual conferences.

Step Four: Make Your Pitch

In general, conferences want to have government officials speak at their events. High-profile government officials usually add significant weight and credence to a roster of speakers—without the price tag (government officials can’t accept pay when speaking about their work and cover their own travel expenses).
However, being a government official is no guarantee for a prime speaking slot; some conferences are still very competitive. For instance, South by Southwest receives more than 4,000 proposals for only about 300 sessions.

Thus, speaker proposals need to target the interests of the event’s audience, be concise and clear on the subject, and be engaging and thought-provoking. In addition, make sure to track the deadlines for all your agency’s planned events. Missing a deadline is a near guarantee that your proposal may not make the cut. Generally, organizers of larger conferences start to seek proposals 8 to 10 months before their events. This requires long-range planning on your part. Smaller events tend to have shorter deadlines, but it is still a good idea to plan early. 
At the very least, show organizers will ask you to list some the learning objectives for the proposed session and submit a biography for the speaker. Larger shows will likely also ask for a list of other events where the speaker has presented, supporting website links, supporting materials such as a PowerPoint uploaded to SlideShare (or similar deck-sharing client), or even a promotional video so the planning committee can view the potential speaker’s style. Identifying and developing these in advance goes a long way toward increasing your proposal’s chance of being accepted and ensuring your staff are prepared for their speaking engagements.

Step Five: Keep Track

As your program develops and gains traction on the speaker’s circuit, create a spreadsheet to track your agency’s engagements. Some of the items to keep track of include the events at which you’re interested in presenting, events that have approached your agency to speak, events where your proposals were not accepted, and speaker invites that you declined. If your agency has several staff speaking at the same or multiple events, such a tracker will be beneficial to stay organized and on schedule.
If your agency frequently receives unsolicited invitations to speak, develop a form for organizers to complete that requests basic information such as the date(s) and location of the event, type of speaking opportunity (e.g., a panel discussion, keynote address, or breakout session), expected number of attendees, conference demographics, various media representatives covering the conference, and desired subject for your agency presentation. Having this information at the onset is helpful during strategic planning of upcoming speaking engagements.

Step Six: Promote Your Speaking Engagement 

If your agency staff is speaking at an event, your role is to manage on-site promotion. Contact the public relations staff at the show to get their press list, and then send selected media outlets a pitch about staff presentations. Offering interviews with speakers is also a way to generate more interest, engage the audience, and ask for feedback. If the conference offers booths for participating agencies, this is a great opportunity to hold such interviews and showcase your agency.
Conference program dailies also offer free promotion of speaking engagement, so make sure your speaker is part of the daily program, as well as seek out photo opportunities. In addition, conferences offer a great outlet for promoting other programs and activities at your agency. Investigate whether you can distribute flyers to attendees or add them to attendee promotional packets. Lastly, determine whether it’s possible to record your presentation. You can get additional mileage out of the presentation by posting the videos online for future use.
One final note: consider creating a “speakers page” on your agency website. You should include speaker biographies and photos, past speaking engagements, subject matter expertise, videos of past speaking engagements, quotes from any positive feedback received about past speaking engagements, any publications to which your agency speakers have contributed, and your agency’s travel and honorarium policies. If your agency is comfortable with this approach, it can be very successful. Speaker pages are a great way to promote your speakers and attract more speaking opportunities.

Mike Pina currently serves as Program Manager with the U.S. Department of Transportation where he provides communications and outreach support for Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office. Previously he was Director of Public Relations at AAA. He can be reached at mike.pina@dot.gov