A lot of people have been asking me if I could share tips on getting selected as a speaker at INBOUND, one of the world’s leading business and marketing conferences. INBOUND is an annual event hosted by HubSpot that brings together thousands of marketers, business leaders, entrepreneurs, and over 24,000 people to Boston for a week of learning, inspiration, and connection. INBOUND features four days of inspiring talks from speakers like Michelle Obama, Brené Brown, Seth Godin, Gary Vaynerchuk, Issa Rae, and Deepak Chopra, as well as incredible content from other industry experts and movers and shakers (possibly yourself!).
Being selected to speak at INBOUND 2018 was a huge achievement. I even got invited to lead an ENCORE session and spoke two days in a row, which meant that people really wanted to experience what I had to share. It was exciting and nerve-wracking all at the same time. Having attended the event since 2015, I never thought I would have the guts to get on stage at INBOUND—let alone twice. But I did it.
Whether you’re trying to land your first big speaking engagement—or even if you have a lot of experience and are looking to gain more visibility and credibility as a speaker—INBOUND is a great platform for that. It doesn’t even matter how much speaking experience you have. It’s all about being able to design innovative, relevant content and how well you can engage the room.
If you’re preparing a speaking application for TEDx (this applies to any event), you want to look at the titles of the most-watched talks and how TED talk titles are generally crafted. They are usually thought-provoking and fairly concise, follow a general format, and are often presented as questions.
To get selected to speak at INBOUND, you have to prove through your speaker application that you have put a LOT of thought into what you would like to offer, specifically for INBOUND’s audience. If you’ve never attended the event, listen to some INBOUND talks on YouTube and experience how the speakers deliver their content and the energy they bring into the room.
Also, study INBOUND’s different tracks—in 2019, they added a startup track. Figure out where you would fit best. Where can you deliver the most value and solve the audience’s biggest pain points? I spoke on “Increasing Your Influence and Impact Through Innovative Leadership”. I was initially hesitant given I wasn’t talking about marketing and sales hacks, but I was selected under their Elevate and Empower track and even became an ENCORE speaker. I didn’t even mention that I originally came to INBOUND in 2015 with a HubSpot Gold Partner agency.
INBOUND attendees crave original, innovative content. There is a reason why people spend thousands of dollars to attend the event. It’s a great idea to look at the industry trends in your area of expertise. As a speaker, you know the importance of repeating while iterating a really good talk, and testing new content. The subject matter can include components you’ve mastered as well as your tips and tools, but the title, description and the talk itself need to be crafted uniquely for INBOUND. Basically, you can’t propose the exact same talk you’ve already delivered somewhere else.
Tip: Look at last year’s agenda and search for the ENCORE and OVERFLOW speakers. Study their titles and descriptions and the way they were crafted, as they were in high demand.
Sometimes, as speakers, we include a link in our speaker application to a Dropbox folder or Google Drive with a bunch of videos. Chances are whoever is reviewing your application is also reviewing hundreds, if not thousands, of others. You have to make yourself stand out. Your best bet is to include a link to one video, or a link to your best videos. Make sure these are publicly accessible. If you don’t have a video reel or any professional media where you were giving it your all, record your own.
In 2017, on a Washington D.C. “snow day”, I recorded my partner, Grant Erhuanga, in my building’s events room using my iPhone, a Yeti microphone, and Garageband. Yeah, it took over thirty attempts but we only had to submit a few minutes for the purpose of the application. We had an editor quickly sync the audio and video, which wasn’t even necessary, but it definitely bumped up the quality.
Lo and behold, Grant got selected to speak at INBOUND 2017 on “Mastering Your Sixth Sense as a Mindful Leader” and had a room full of nearly 1000 people. This was at 5:00 pm, despite Michelle Obama’s 9:00 am keynote interview which we had to line up for at 6 am that same day (that’s another story in itself). For many folks, INBOUND is their first big speaking engagement and is a big fast forward in terms of speaking experience and credibility.
Here is one of the videos that I submitted in my application that was taken by an iPhone. It was actually my first TED-style talk on “Driving Social Innovation Through High Impact Leadership” at Wonder Women Tech Washington D.C. Global Summit in January 2018. Even though I did over 50 speaking engagements in 2018, and have learned a lot about public speaking since then, this ended up being one of my favorite and best talks. Side note: I highly recommend taking a body language course by Vanessa Van Edwards and a public speaking course by Chris Andersen.
The secret to getting selected as a speaker is showing you have great content through a catchy title and description. Just as its name says it, INBOUND is an inbound marketing event, though it has evolved to become so much more in recent years.
In 2017, I didn’t think I had the credibility to speak (ahem, limiting belief) and I decided not to apply. I had only spoken at events in co-working spaces and universities (unless the spelling bee finals count) and always had stage fright. However, they ended up extending the deadline, and my partner convinced me to submit an application. I quickly put something together that I wanted to talk about, and recorded myself in my living room without putting my full energy into it, and of course, I wasn’t selected. However, my partner, Grant Erhuanga, was selected, and we had put a lot of thought into preparing his application and video.
So, don’t half-ass your application. Why even waste your time? Reflecting, sleeping on your idea, and getting feedback is worth the while. Ask some of your friends and colleagues what they think is your most impactful message and value proposition. It’s surprising how much we can learn about ourselves from others!
Tip: Create a Google or Word document and paste the questions from the Call for Speakers form. As a speaker, it’s important to create a system, and this information will definitely be helpful for future speaking engagements and calls for speakers. Spend the most time thinking about what you want to talk about, and customize your bio a bit more than you normally would. Thousands of people will read your bio and talk description so it’s important to think about your goals strategically. What will be your Call To Action? Work backwards from there.
To sum it up…
Landing your first big speaking engagement is a huge accomplishment for anyone looking to gain visibility, build credibility, launch a book, sell a program, or just looking to get a free All-Access pass to attend the entire event. It’s also a great way to start getting paid to share your message, if you haven’t done so already.
One thing is getting your foot in the door, another is designing and delivering an incredible session. I had practiced and tested a variety of content before speaking at INBOUND. I also knew that I didn’t want to deliver a keynote-type talk, because that’s not the future of public speaking (and INBOUND brings the world’s best keynotes anyways). You can read more about this in Smiley Poswolsky’s book, The Breakthrough Speaker, especially if you’re looking to get paid to speak.
Instead of presenting an engaging Powerpoint presentation, I decided to bring in my own flavor. Just like my organization, Innovazing, and our amazing facilitators, such as Nick Brzezinski and Rachel An, I’m all about catering to different learning styles and bringing the audience on an experiential and transformational journey. To actually help shift mindsets and walk away with impact, it’s important to be more of a facilitator instead of speaking AT the audience the entire time. And based on the positive feedback I received, everyone loved the level of interaction. After going back and forth, I decided to be myself and do me, as that always works best, even if it’s different than the status quo.
I hope this post encourages you to apply to INBOUND’s Call for Speakers if it aligns with your goals. If your gut is telling you to do it, there’s no harm in trying. Our biggest leaps of growth often happen when we step out of our comfort zones.