How to get a speaking slot at a conference

How to get a speaking slot at a conference

Over the past three years I’ve received hundreds of e-mails from people who want to speak at the Business of Software conference I run with Joel Spolsky.

Over time, I’ve reached conclusions about the best ways to get a speaking slot, at this or any other conference. Here are some does and don’ts:

Do write a personal note, tailored specifically to the conference

Don’t get your PR agency / PA to write on your behalf. ‘My client/boss is fabulous and important and would like to speak’ is not going to get your client/boss a speaking slot.

Do stand out from the crowd. If you’re running a 20 person company / have written a book / have raised $10m in funding then that’s a great achievement, but it doesn’t stand out. Tell me something unique.

Don’t just rely on your personal reputation. Unless you’re really, really famous, of course.

Don’t offer a standard stance on a broad, much-discussed topic (‘why agile software development is a good / bad thing’, for example)

Do tell me something I don’t know. Take an unusual stance on a familiar topic, or choose a narrow topic.

Do demonstrate your skills. Include a five minute youtube demo of you on top form. Surprisingly few people do this

Don’t just pitch your product / service

To illustrate, here are three examples of pitches I’ve received.

First of all, here’s a superb one from Matt Mason which follows most of the rules. My comments are in red.

From: Matt Mason []
Sent: 23 August 2007 19:17
Subject: Speaking at Business of Software 2007

Dear Sir/Madam [minor failing – you could found out my name easily],

I’m very interested in the possibility of speaking at Business of Software 2007 – it seems there is a lot of synergy between your event and the topic of my new book. This year’s theme, back to fundamentals [good – you’ve done your research] gels very well with what I talk about – the fundamental difference between right and wrong when it comes to piracy and competition, especially in relation to the software industry [good – links to the conference topic]. My name is Matt Mason, I’m the author of The Pirate’s Dilemma: How Youth Culture Reinvented Capitalism, which examines how piracy and some other subversive ideas are reshaping society and driving innovation. [sounds pretty cool to me]

The problem of how to respond to piracy and the challenge presented by new ways to share information and resources is one facing people everywhere, and it’s an issue that commands a new perspective. I make the case that piracy is not something companies and individuals should always necessarily fight, but compete with instead. The book is a take on the economic concept known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma: What is the difference between fighting pirates, competing and collaborating with them? Is piracy actually a solution to a problem that hasn’t been identified correctly? Does piracy change the models of competition that capitalism has succeeded on for so long? Does it actually expose contradictions between those models and their realities? Do recent but forgotten episodes in the history of capitalism hold the answers? I use a lot of fascinating case studies, and just a little bit of game theory, to help answer these questions and assess the best path of action for corporations who are dogged by piracy now, but whose response in the immediate will affect whether or not they come out on top long-term. [you’ve really piqued my interest now]

The book is coming out in the U.S. in January through Simon & Schuster, and through Penguin in the U.K. [good – you’ve persuaded some influential people that you’ve got something worth saying] In the run up to the launch I’m speaking in both countries, doing both keynotes and breakout sessions. I have developed a lively, exciting talk which brings the concepts from the book to life, involves the listener and will generate discussion and give your audience an insight into new ways to think about how we as a society share and exchange information, as new technology and some ideas that emerged from youth culture re-draw the lines between right and wrong.

I became fascinated with piracy as a teenager, I’m an ex-pirate radio DJ originally from London (now based in New York City) and the founder of RWD Magazine ( [you sound like someone I’d like to meet. But what’s RWD?]. RWD is one of the largest music magazines and youth brands in the UK, and one of the largest urban music websites in the world. As a writer I’ve been at the intersection between youth culture and innovation for many years, covering new sounds, scenes and trends for magazines in 12 countries, and I helped build a successful business that won more than a few awards [you’re a high achiever too]. As a consultant, I’ve worked with everyone from wily start-ups to blue chips to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown [I won’t hold this against you].

Please do let me know if this is something you’d be interested in hearing more about – I can send you a galley of the book, you can also find more information on my website.

Kind Regards,

Matt Mason
Author, The Pirate’s Dilemma

image [Nice picture]


Matt got a speaking slot, and was awesome.

Secondly, here’s an average e-mail. Not dire, but it just didn’t stand out. I’ve edited it to preserve anonymity.

Sent: ———- 2007
To: Neil Davidson
Subject: Speaking at Business of Software Conference
Importance: High [To you maybe]

Hi Neil [Good – you addressed me by name],

I hope things are well with you.

I wanted to find out if you are still accepting speaking proposals for the Business of Software conference happening in San Jose, California this October. Your speaker list is quite [hmm, faint praise] impressive and I see you still have some slots available. I wanted to see if you’d be interested in a proposal from my client [oh-oh] XXXX – and their CEO, YYYYY. YYYYY is a successful entrepreneur, developer and software executive [as are thirty other people who’ve taken the trouble to write to me personally] who has spoken at high-level IT conferences, including AAAA, BBBB and C
CCC. [Mildly impressive, but it still doesn’t mean he’s any good]

Looking forward to your thoughts.


[Name removed]

Finally, be prepared to break all the rules:

From: Alexis Ohanian [that name sounds familiar]
Sent: 21 June 2008 02:02
Subject: pechakucha sign-up

Who I am:  Pierre Francois [wtf? Thought you were called Alexis]

What I’d like to speak about: How to start, run, and sell a web 2.0 startup

Why I should speak: Because I’m Pierre Francois [wtf?]


Fact: 99% of people who submit feedback to a website are genuinely looking for help. The other 1% are crazy. wants the crazy emails. [wtf?]

Alexis Ohanian
cofounder @ [ahh, I see]
swine-defender [wtf?] @ [wtf?]

Alexis went on to win the pecha kucha competition.

Finally – one of my favourite Woody Allen quotes – 80% of success is showing up. The first, most important, step in speaking at a conference is to ask. The odds of success are still small, but they’re much higher than if you don’t.


11 years and 16 conferences and countless smaller events later, we get over 500 applications a year to speak at an event that is deliberately capped at a maximum audience of 400 people. We’ve refined our selection criteria. This advice still holds good for anyone wanting to further their speaking career, but for those of you looking to up your game, we have some updated advice.

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