The great thing about sitting on a stage is that, at least initially, no one in the audience is going to be able to tell if you’re running a Fortune 500 company or an organization that only employs a handful of people.
As we get closer to the summer, the number of conferences and events in almost every sector begins multiplying faster than flowers in the average garden. Canadian small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) may not be able to make it out to all or even most of these gatherings, but when the chance to speak at one comes up, it would be almost foolish not to accept.
In many conferences and events, the top keynote positions may only go to those organizations with a budget large enough to sponsor them. In what are called “breakout” or concurrent sessions and even “mainstage” or plenary sessions, however, organizers will often assemble multiple subject matter experts to weigh in on a hot-button issue. This is where many SMBs can discover a major opportunity to raise their profile, establish their authority and even forge relationships with potential prospects and customers afterwards.
If you’re not sure how to get those coveted spots, don’t worry. Some conferences and events will post “calls for submission” which any company can enter (and fees don’t always apply). In other cases, it might make sense to reach out to organizers early on -- even six to nine months out for major events -- with proof you’ll have something meaningful to contribute.
Those SMBs which have already been develop insightful content like blog posts, white papers and eBooks which they’ve managed via Marketing Cloud, for instance, might be able to quickly convey their expertise in a given subject matter. If you can’t get something in before an event, try afterwards. If you or your firm have attended a strong conference or event, for instance, following up with content that aligns well with the organizer’s main themes and audience interests may put you first in line when they’re looking for strong panelists the next time around.
Assuming you’re successful in getting an invite, it’s not just a matter of showing up and hoping to make a good impression. Much as you’d put the work into winning over a prospect or customer you were meeting in person, do the right preparation in order to maximize the time you have on stage.
Most conferences and events don’t expect those participating on a panel to walk in blind. They will likely circulate specific questions or at least general areas of discussion that will likely be covered over the course of your session. They may also ask for feedback on these areas to make sure you’re comfortable with them. If there is a prep call or time to offer your take in writing, consider the following:
It’s important to mention here that being in a panel discussion, much like having a keynote speaking slot, should not be treated as an overt sales pitch for your company’s products and services. In all likelihood the organizers will be using forms to have attendees evaluate the entire conference or event on a session-by-session basis, and you don’t want to be in the session that gets a low rating or negative comments.
That doesn’t mean you can’t use a speaking opportunity -- even one where you’re going to be one voice among many -- to get across why those sitting and watching should want to know your organization better.
Hopefully as you’ve closed some of your first deals, you’ve also managed to foster a strong enough relationship with some of your customers and developed a few case studies that showcase what your company does and how you’ve helped real-world organizations. A good case study can be a powerful way to nudge a customer who’s on the fence to closing a deal. In an panelist context, you can take a lot of that content and bring it to life in a natural, organic way.
Depending on what you’re being asked in the session, for instance, specific examples of what customers have been going through will reinforce your credibility with the audience. Again, you may not need to get into the details of how your organization helped, if that doesn’t pertain directly to the question. It will be enough to establish that you have those kinds of relationships and are knowledgeable about the issues.
Being a panelist can be a lot simpler than preparing a keynote speech, because you can also build upon what others say. It also means you could have a chance to meet with audience members one-on-one after your session, or be more easily recognized if you reach out to book a meeting during the event or later on. Even if you’re an SMB, you’ll suddenly start looking like a much bigger player.