Here’s How to Become a Speaker at Big Events Like SXSW

You’ve got big ideas, so let’s help you get them onstage.

Written by Dr. Eric Wang
Published on Aug. 10, 2022
Here’s How to Become a Speaker at Big Events Like SXSW
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This past March and April, I moderated SXSW EDU session “How good AI can be AI for good in higher education” and ASU+GSV session “Mind the ethical edge: delivering equal and unbiased AI.” I am fortunate enough to know veteran SXSW EDU and other notable conferences’ speakers, as well as work at a company that amplifies employees’ voices. If you missed the recent call for 2023 proposals, or if your project doesn’t get chosen during the public vote, what can you do to do better next time? Here is what I learned and how you can give yourself the best chance at getting your ideas to the stage. 

Advice on How to Become a Speaker at Big Events Like SXSW

  • A big event needs a big topic.
  • Assemble or join a team of experts on a panel.
  • Map out your panel discussion and practice in advance.


A Big Event Needs a Big Topic

Compelling topics make it to the stage of large venues like SXSW and ASU+GSV. That means that to have the best chance, your session needs to be able to answer a burning question, or explore the outcomes of a hypothetical situation that is respectfully controversial — something that has reasonable pros and cons. In other words, grounded in an argument. The more specific the topic is, the better. 

A good place to start is by picking out key arguments in soapbox speeches you may already have, or asking yourself: “What problem in the world am I trying to solve?”

For both of my panel sessions, our topic was: What is good, ethical artificial intelligence? Because my current expertise is artificial intelligence in education, my argument is that AI can be good in education when used to eliminate redundant, low-stakes tasks and is used as a tool to assist and scale human abilities — not replace them. This is a specific, compelling topic grounded in an argument, making a strong basis for building our panel.

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Assemble or Join a Team of Experts on a Panel

Without top-notch credentials, it’s difficult to secure a spot as a featured speaker. But a panel — a collective of highly credentialed experts with diverse perspectives — helps to secure those coveted speaking spots further down the road. Panels tend to also be favored for adding more interesting content, credibility, and publicity to the event.

Sign up for your favorite tech events’ mailing lists to know when calls for speaking opportunities come up. Most speaking and writing opportunities are free.

With a simple online search, you can find other experts at a similar stage in their career as you are who have already spoken at conferences on the topic you have additional insights on. Collaborating with a veteran speaker may be helpful in pitching your panel idea, as the veteran speaker would potentially already know the event organizers. 

Head over to Built In’s “Become an Expert Contributor” page for writing opportunities to build your reputation as a leader in your field.

Reach out to your alumni and professional networks. Whenever I meet someone who has an interesting idea, I always keep them in mind for any potential future collaborations. 

Additionally, if you have a solid, thought-through topic that relates to your current job, reach out to your company’s public relations or external communications team. Depending on company policy, they could be helpful in connecting you with experts, managing submission and execution logistics, and promoting your panel. Be sure to clearly state how the speaking opportunity aligns with company goals. 


Map Out Your Panel Discussion and Practice in Advance

An effective discussion structure hits these points:

  1. Relevance
  2. Argument
  3. Supporting viewpoint(s)
  4. Opposing viewpoint(s)
  5. Actionable solution

Relevance means answering “Why is this topic important? Why should people care now?” 

The most important section of your talk is suggesting an actionable, accessible solution that can be easily implemented by the audience. This is essential because the attendees — now further educated on the topic — are inspired to act. In order to make the discussion productive, we need to provide the solution or a step towards the solution. 

For my sessions, we built out a structure on paper and then had a free-flowing discussion about the topic. Take a week to break between each conversation to give panel members time to marinate on what was said so they can generate new ideas and deeper insights.

These discussions are where the moderator’s job starts to show its importance, by guiding each rehearsal conversation. A great panel discussion is not an accident; it’s the result of ideas and discussion tracing their roots to these pre-event chats. The goal isn’t to script the conversation — far from it, in fact — it’s to lay down a rich foundation of topics on which you and the rest of the panel can build.

From there, let the discussion flow. Your enthusiasm and engagement will come together with your preparation and expertise to bring together a great panel for your event.

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