The 5 questions you must answer convincingly if you want to land high-profile speaking opportunities


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Of the 400 people who applied to speak at the last TEDxClapham, we accepted just 1...

Now, you could argue that as a curation team, set our standards way too high, but the truth is, the quality of the applications we received were bitterly disappointing.

Whittling down 400 applications to the 20 or so we put through was surprisingly easy. To stand out, all they had to do was ensure that their application was coherent (at least half of them simply didn't make sense) and didn't fall into one of the following talk categories:

  • 'I want to tell my story.'

Interpreted by event curators as 'I want to stroke my ego.' Very few stories are stage worthy - from my experience, I'd estimate that 1% of personal stories are unique/interesting/insightful enough to be the sole focus of a talk.

  • 'I want to talk about my business.'

Interpreted by event curators as I've got something to sell.

In both scenarios, the only 'winner' here is the speaker. If you want to land big stage presentations, you need to position your talk concept in a way that makes both the audience and the conference win first. The point is, by putting just a little bit of thought into each talk submission, you are already putting yourself into the top 20% of applications that curators will have to sift through.

Pretty good... but if you knew how to make it into the top 5%, you would quadruple your chance of landing the slot, which is far more exciting. So this article, I going to show you how.

At the beginning of each year, I bring together a small group of leaders and challenge them to think and communicate big. The purpose of the programme is to help them land, write and deliver a piece of thought leadership on a big stage. I'd say about half of each cohort ends up going down the TEDx route and the success rate we have is pretty bloody good. In fact, at the time of writing, 3 of the cohort have delivered TEDx talks in the last month.

The reason why is that we spend 2 weeks (~5 hours of work) crafting answers to the most common questions that are found in speaker application forms. Right now, I'm aware of over 10 thought leadership events that are on the hunt for speakers - with the answers already prepared, you could apply to them all with very little effort.

A simple case of copy, paste and then tailor to the event.

So what are the questions? And how do you answer them?

Question 1: Tell us a little bit about yourself

Ewww. The worst interview question of all - so hard to know where to even start!

What most people do is reel off all their accolades and achievements in an attempt to impress the curators and build credibility. It's a surefire way to create a forgettable first impression.

Instead, think of the question a little bit like a dating profile and go personal. Refrain from mentioning anything that could be found on your LinkedIn profile and give the curators an insight into the real you. This is an opportunity to differentiate yourself from everyone else before they even find out about your talk topic. The more surprising the answer, the more interesting you will appear and the more memorable you'll be.

Question 2: What do you want to speak about?

This question is designed to test your ability to communicate your idea with clarity.

What most people do is provide an overly complex and convoluted answer... e.g.

‘Women need to start businesses that make more money with less investment and hire self-perpetuating diverse teams who are better at innovation.’

And then follow it up with an essay justifying why the topic is so important.

Instead, answer the question with a single sentence that is:

  • easy to understand (requires no context)
  • authoritative (containing no words expressing uncertainty)
  • short (under 10 words). E.g.

Stigma around female sexuality has created a pleasure gap between the genders.

This is the exact answer I received from our 1 in 400 successful applicant, Billie Quinlan. It was so good in fact, we let her get away with 12 words! It was specific, clear and the potential for the subject to have a bigger impact was obvious.

Question 3: Provide a brief overview of your talk (200 words)

Here comes the opportunity to showcase your expertise.

What most people do is write an essay, which is a surefire way to lose the curator's interest.

Instead, make it easily digestible and skimmable by providing 1 bullet point for each section of your talk. Each bullet point should serve as a stepping stone that takes the audience from where they are right now, to where you need them to be at the end of the presentation. Don't save your best content for the next round - share it now.

Question 4: Why do you want to speak at this conference?

This question is about helping the curators get clear on your talk's need.

What most people do is write something sycophantic about how speaking at this conference is on their bucket list or how they want to build their brand.

Instead, convince the organiser of your talk's relevance and importance. Show that your talk will solve a specific pain point/problem and get them excited about the ripple effect your talk could go on to have.

Question 5: What makes you uniquely placed to talk about your subject?

Now is the time for credibility.

What most people do is re-write their answer from question one, slightly confused that they've been asked the same question twice. (Luckily, you now know better!)

Instead, get really specific about what makes your perspective unique. No doubt there are other people who could speak on your subject matter. What is it about your personal/professional experience that makes you different? How many years of experience do you have? Are you walking the walk as well as wanting to talk about it? If so, how? Do you have any of your own data that you could bring into the talk? You get the picture.

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There is an art to answering speaker application forms. A bit of time invested upfront will have a significant impact on your application success rate.

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