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The Importance of Visibility: Taking the ‘Right’ Approach to Speaking Engagements

Beautiful female speaker in conferenceBy Tina Vasquez

If you ever needed a reason to get over your fear of public speaking, new research from Weber Shandwick should do the trick. The public relations firm reports that a full 60 percent of women who speak at executive conferences also have a seat on boards, which the firm says demonstrates a “direct ‘speak and sit’ correlation.” The firm also asserts that top US women business leaders who engage audiences are more apt to be acknowledged as effective leaders.

Liz Rizzo, Weber Shandwick’s research partner on the study, says that in reality, only a third of board seats are filled using “traditional” methods.

“Most board appointees come from networking and referral, so what better way to make those connections than by speaking at a conference?” Rizzo asked.

According to Weber Shandwick’s executive vice president, Carol Ballock, there’s no better time to consider speaking at conferences. The EVP says the opportunities in the conference space have never been better – but you have to choose the “right” space.

“You have to be strategic if you want your efforts to translate in a bigger way,” Shandwick said. “Who will be in the room? What will you be talking about? If you’re speaking at a well-chosen conference, there’s more than your time on stage to consider. You’ll have conversations with editors, interviews with writers, one-on-one meetings, and opportunities for joining new networks, networks you may not have been able to join otherwise. If you choose the right conference, you don’t have to do a whole lot to get a high return.”

Taking The ‘Right’ Approach
Raleigh Mayer, founder of Raleigh Mayer Consulting, and a frequent partner contributor to theglasshammer.com on topics such as public speaking, executive presence, and leadership agrees landing a speaking engagement is phenomenal and can clearly add a much-needed boost to your career.

Mayer goes on to say it’s important “that when the opportunity is given, you’ve got to be ready for it, making sure to avoid the mistakes often made when speaking to a large group of peers.”

The seasoned public speaker says this includes diminishing yourself, both physically and verbally, by apologizing, refusing to take credit, or shrugging off and avoiding attention.

“We do this because we are taught that it’s wrong to be the center of attention, or we feel uncomfortable attracting it,” Mayer said. “We sit when we should stand, sometimes ramble and fail to make solid points, and often engage in reflexive and inappropriate apologizing, or what I call diminishing disclaimers: ‘This is just an idea’; ‘It’s only my opinion’; ‘I may be way off-track here’, rather that stating our viewpoints or recommendations directly. Teenage girls criticize their counterparts who behave too confidently by saying, ‘She thinks she’s all that,’ meaning, ‘She thinks she’s better than everybody else.’ Executive women should take a tip from the men: earn that label, and take it as a compliment.”

Company Visibility & Career Advancement
At just 36, Czarina Walker is CEO of InfiniEDGE Software, Inc., a Louisiana-based custom software development company. She has also participated in a wide-range of speaking engagements, from local and national to entrepreneurial and technical. The benefit, she says, is two-fold.

“It kept us in front of the public when we are traditionally a field that people do not think much about. We found that customers generally remembered us better because they saw that I had spoken at various events,” Walker said. “The ability to think on my feet while speaking has also had a great deal to do with my personal and professional success. Within eight-months of agreeing to do at least monthly speaking engagements in business or industry, I was asked to participate in four boards at the same time.”

Too Much Visibility
What the CEO didn’t anticipate, however, was the amount of time that all four boards would involve, and that they would also require her to take on additional speaking roles. Walker came to realize that she had to be more careful about the amount of time she was devoting to speaking and serving on boards. The realization came after she asked her employees what made their company different.

“One of my female staff said, ‘We have a female CEO.’ I was mortified that of all the great things I knew about them, this was the best they could come up with about what made them different,” Walker said. “My leadership and innovative spirit I was sharing outside of my office really needed to be recommitted to sharing internally to ensure that I continued to cultivate a great team.”

This is why Walker recommends picking one or two arenas to focus on in terms of speaking engagements.

“If you don’t focus, people will take advantage of having you speak at things which do not truly benefit you. Being visible is a good thing, but too much visibility can also give your customers the impression that you’re not spending enough time on their projects, so you have to be very careful of your external presence,” the CEO said.

Walker’s also quick to remind women that the business must come first, urging them not to immediately respond to any speaking requests – no matter how “awesome.”

“Give yourself a day or two to think through: Is it something that fits into one or two of your key areas of focus? Is it something that you can realistically participate in without hurting your own company? Do you already have too many commitments this month?” the CEO said.

Walker limits herself to one engagement a month, giving herself time to focus on that one event and give it her all.

Tips for the Conference Circuit
JJ DiGeronimo is President of Purposeful Woman, which provides leadership strategies for professional women, including tips on how to approach the conference circuit.

Previously, DiGeronimo was the global director of VMware’s Cloud & Software Defined Data Center, acting as one of the company’s regular conference speakers. One of the main reasons she was happy to take on this level of visibility, she says, is because it’s easy for people to see you in the role you’re in today, but to get to the next level you’ve got to stretch.

“As your expertise grows, it’s important for people to see you as a leader and an expert and speaking at conferences is a great way to accomplish that,” DiGeronimo said. “I was doing STEM conferences, where there were few women speakers. When you speak in these spaces, it’s a launching pad to new opportunities.”

Mayer also suggests catering your approach to the conference you’re speaking at.

“You should absolutely make as many connections to your audience as possible, whether that is through language or geographic, cultural, and industry references. The size, level, and nature of the audience and program should guide you as to how formal or relaxed both your content and delivery should be. By formal, I mean structured, not stiff or frozen. Your content should always be designed and selected to be relevant, interesting, and informative for your audience,” Mayer said.

In terms of subject matter, Purposeful Woman’s president says that a great approach is learning as much as you can about next generation topics and then creating your own talking points, saying that if you’re at the forefront, opportunities present themselves quickly. But, you have to take the time to develop your expertise.

“Take the initiative to learn, but do it the right way. Learn about it, read about it, write about it, take the right steps. Have an angle, talk about how you took existing knowledge or technology and implemented it in a new way. Talk about how that benefitted your company,” DiGeronimo said. “People will only see you as a leader or beneficial to a board if you can share knowledge in a way that empowers others.”