Speaking at Large Professional Conferences

Speaking at Large Professional Conferences:
A Marketing Dream!

It was 1989, and I had just returned to the workforce after choosing to stay home for 19 years. During that time I had made my children my career, and now it was “my” time! I had been hired by a Times Mirror training company to be their Manager of Training, and in my typical German style, I was determined to be the best I could be at my new job. That year I attended the national convention of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD)–a five day affair with over 300 workshops and speakers. As I sat through boring presentation after boring presentation, I thought, “I could do this–AND I could do it in a way that wouldn’t put people to sleep!” So, the next year I submitted a proposal to speak at the 1990 conference. Out of over 3000 proposals, mine was one of 300 selected, and I was on my way to becoming a professional speaker! Four years later, after I had started my own company, a five year contract with the State of Michigan came out of that one speaking experience.

My largest contract, my first retainer, a personal friendship with Ken Blanchard, and the bulk of my current work have all come from speaking at large professional conferences. I would like to encourage every speaker to consider applying to speak to at least two professional conferences each year. It is the fastest way to get broad exposure to many different companies and organizations, and usually all the attendees are decision makers who can hire you. It is also a great place to network as well as to learn. Here are some of the things I have learned that will help you make your marketing dream come true.


Have a strategy to decide where you want to propose to speak. Research those conferences that are the most prestigious in your target industry or those conferences which attract the largest number of potential clients for your speaking topics. And each year propose to one new conference. For example, when I first began my own company, after coming from a training background, the bulk of my work was doing workshops and seminars in customer service, so ASTD was the best marketing venue for me. However, as I expanded my topic areas to include “Regenerating Spirit in the Workplace,” I began to do more and more keynotes, and the persons who hired me were usually senior executives in Human Resources, so I began to apply to speak at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). In 1998 not only was I ranked one of the top ten speakers at their National Conference, but I also received ten confirmed bookings within two weeks of that conference–with companies such as Boeing, Kentucky Fried Chicken, the State of Wyoming, and Great Clips. That is a marketing dream! And of course, for any speaker, the ultimate marketing experience is to speak at the American Society of Association Executives or Meeting Professionals International since they are all potential clients.

With most of the large conferences, your proposal must be in nearly a year ahead of time, so mark your calendars at the beginning of each year with the approximate dates when the proposals will be available online. Most of them are due in the months of April to June, I’ve found. It is often difficult to plan what you want to say a year ahead; however, that is “the way it is,” so you learn to anticipate issues while you focus on their theme and needs.

Although they give you complimentary registration to the conference if your proposal is accepted, most of the large conferences do not pay fees. However, some of them do pay your expenses. The Society for Human Resource Management does pay expenses, for example, but ASTD and the American Society of Association Executives only give you a complimentary registration. In fact, ASAE gives you free registration only on the day of your presentation, and IF you meet all the deadlines for handouts and audiovisual orders, you receive a complimentary registration to the entire conference.

Why, then, do you want to go through all this hassle to write a proposal AND to have it cost you money for your expenses? Simply because it is the best marketing investment you’ll ever make! These organizations send their conference brochures to thousands and thousands of members both nationally and internationally, and usually two to three mailings go out for each conference. Your name is mentioned in at least two of these mailings. (I have received calls for speaking engagements just from the brochures–even before I presented!) And also the information is posted on the organization’s website for months ahead of time, another opportunity to have exposure.

When you arrive, you register in a special place, and you receive a nametag that very obviously says “SPEAKER” or “PRESENTER”, which leads to many interesting conversations in elevators and other sessions. You are regarded as somewhat of a celebrity at some of the conferences, especially when there are 12,000 attendees and only 300 presenters! The International Conference on Humor and Creativity holds a special dinner to honor all the speakers each year, and that is a delightful opportunity to meet others in your profession. Many dear friendships started there for me, including the young man who eventually contributed all the cartoons for my newest book, John McPherson, the creator of “Close to Home”, and David Roth, an extremely talented folksinger who has written a beautiful ballad called “A Little Something More” about my signature story. And, after meeting one of Ken Blanchard’s associates in the Ladies’ Restroom, I was invited to have lunch with Ken the next day, and as a result, he closed the ASTD conference of 8000 people by telling my “Johnny” story (and crediting me, of course). What a thrill to be referred to by a true celebrity as “my friend, Barbara Glanz”. . . . .and it all happened because of an encounter in the restroom at a professional conference!

Most of the conferences have very special social events where you can network, dynamic celebrity speakers from which you can learn, and sessions of interest for your personal and professional growth, so a free conference registration can be worth the investment. One of the strategies I use for networking is that weeks before the conference, I schedule breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day with someone I want to see–current clients, potential clients, professional friends, and publishers. Another advantage is that nearly all of the large conferences have Expos, so if you are looking for a publisher or wanting to produce a product or even do contract work for a training company, these are excellent places to do your research and to meet them face-to-face. My first book contract with Irwin/McGraw-Hill was finalized at one of these conferences!


Like many of you, I really dislike writing these proposals, and I have to discipline myself to just “get it done.” However, the great feeling when you have finished is almost worth the agony, and once you have done one proposal, you can often just cut and paste for others. The requirements of the proposal usually include:

Personal Information
Co-Presenters (Optional)
Focus Area, Track, or Issue the Presentation will Address
Audience Level
Title of Session
Length of Session
Summary Description of Session–Usually 75 words or less
Outline of Session
Learning Objectives of Session
Audiovisual Support Needed
Biography/Expertise of Presenter(s)–Usually 50 words or less
Three References
Videotape, Audiotape, Supporting Documents

Proposal Tips:

Tie your proposal into the theme of the conference. Reference the group to whom you will be speaking and their particular needs in your proposal. Do not make the proposal generic.

Look at last year’s program and read the organization’s publications to determine what are “hot” topics. One year nearly everything I received from ASTD was focused on “global,” so I decided to ask two of my international clients from New Zealand and Greece to do a short piece in my presentation, sharing how they implemented the ideas I suggested when I spoke in their countries. We titled it “Regenerating Spirit in the Workplace Worldwide.” Not only was the proposal accepted and I had a chance to share my message, but it also became a wonderful professional and PR opportunity for my clients to share what their organizations were doing.

Design your presentation based on principles of adult learning. Indicating that you have an understanding of how adults learn can be critical in getting your proposal accepted. Not only must you have relevant content, but you must also design your presentation to appeal to adult learners and to ultimately cause behavior change. For these professional conferences it is not enough to simply entertain your audience.

Be creative in your session title and content. While you want to address the needs of your particular audience, remember that you want your proposal to stand out from the hundreds of boring ones they receive, so make your title and description enticing. And don’t forget to add some fun! (Remember the conferences you’ve been to and what turns you on.)

Use references that the decision makers of that industry or profession will recognize if at all possible. Nearly all professional associations will ask for three or more references. If you can use familiar names, they will be more impressed with your credibility.

Send only what they ask in the proposal instructions and follow those instructions explicitly. They are NOT impressed with additional material, and in fact, adding extra things can work against you. At the very least, they will only throw those expensive materials away. Because they receive at least ten times as many proposals as they can use, any digression from the exact instructions becomes a reason to toss your proposal out, so read everything carefully two or three times, and check and recheck your work to make sure it adheres to the specific instructions.

Don’t be discouraged if you get turned down. These professional organizations get hundreds and hundreds of proposals for just a few slots. I applied to speak at Meeting Professionals International four times before my proposal got accepted! However, it was well worth the wait–I received a confirmed booking from a huge corporation right on the spot at the end of my presentation.

Don’t forget to send proposals to speak at NSA, your very own professional organization. This is a chance to give back and to help newer speakers in the profession learn from our mistakes as well as our successes.

When you do your marketing plan for next year, include a strategy for proposing to speak to at least two professional conferences. Once you perfect the proposal process, you can “adapt” a core presentation in many different ways, so it becomes easier and easier. This is also an opportunity to tap into your particular professional expertise. The proposal which was finally accepted for MPI was on adult learning, the focus of my master’s degree, not a topic I speak on to my outside clients but one that has been invaluable to present at NSA chapters. And because it is foundational to developing a presentation that causes behavior change, it also got me new client bookings.

Always remember: Writing the proposal is the grunt work that is necessary for that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shine. You CAN do it, and for you, too, it will be a marketing dream!


American Society of Association Executives
Education Department
1575 I Street, NW
Washington, DC 20005-1168

American Society for Training & Development
Education Department
1640 King Street
Alexandria, VA 22314

International Conference on Humor and Creativity
The humor Project, Inc.
110 Spring Street
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866

Meeting Professionals International
Attention: Education Department
4455 LBJ Freeway, Suite 1200
Dallas, TX 75244-5903

National Speakers Association
1500 S. Priest Avenue
Tempe, AZ 85281

Society for Human Resource Management
Attn: Education Department
1800 Duke Street
Alexandria, VA 22314-3499

© Barbara Glanz Communications. All Rights Reserved.

Barbara Glanz Biography

A member of the prestigious Speaker Hall of Fame and one of fewer than 700 Certified Speaking Professionals worldwide, Barbara Glanz, CSP, CPAE, works with organizations to improve morale, retention and service and with people who want to rediscover the joy in their work and in their lives. She is the first speaker on record to have spoken on all 7 continents and in all 50 states. Known as "the business speaker who speaks to your heart as well as to your head," Barbara is the author of twelve books including The Simple Truths of Service Inspired by Johnny the Bagger®, CARE Packages for the Workplace, and 180 Ways to Spread Contagious Enthusiasm™. Voted "best keynote presenter you have heard or used" by Meetings & Conventions Magazine, Barbara uses her Master’s degree in Adult Learning to design programs that cause behavior change. She lives and breathes her personal motto: “Spreading Contagious Enthusiasm™” and can be reached at bglanz@barbaraglanz.com and www.barbaraglanz.com.

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