Tips from Terry Catchpole: Creating the Best Speaker Pitch for Conferences

This is a guest post by Terry Catchpole, the co-founder and Executive Chairman of The Catchpole Corporation, which has more than 25 years experience managing executive and corporate visibility speaking strategies for companies in all markets. If you have any questions, please email

Submitting an executive speaker proposal is where the proverbial rubber hits the road in a speaker program. And the truth is, the road is often a very bumpy one. In an ideal world, the topic on which a client executive wants to speak matches up perfectly with a topic that the conference manager has learned that conference attendees want to hear about. Rarely is the world ideal, however. Often these two topics are poles apart and the client-favored topic has little to nothing to do with what the target conference’s attendees want to hear.

Pay Attention to What Conference Managers Say

The lesson for public relations professionals here is a very simple one: Pay very close attention to what conference managers say that their attendees want to hear. This can be reflected in a number of ways, including:

  • Topics listed on the call for papers
  • Topics mentioned in a conversation with a conference organizer
  • Topics covered in the last edition of the conference, understanding that they will evolve and change from year to year

First and foremost, it is important to understand that conference managers are every bit the learned professionals that the rest of us aspire to be. The good ones — and the not-so-good ones do not last long in this highly-competitive field — spend an enormous amount of time between conferences communicating with their attendees and learning from them which topics are most likely to be top-of-mind next time around. Conference managers are also likely to have a formal advisory board to give them feedback on industry trends; or, if no formal board, then a network of experts whom the conference managers can tap from time-to-time.

Map Your Pitch to What Attendees Care About

Once you and the client do identify a topic or two that map directly to a conference’s area of focus, the next challenge is to develop an abstract that will make the topic compelling and relevant to conference attendees. In most cases, this is done by positioning the content of the abstract in a way which addresses a current business problem that attendees are confronting back at the office.

For example, Catchpole client Autodesk wanted to talk about a new process that enabled, manufacturers to create a product design component mapping system that connects product components according to what they are, previous projects where they have been used, and how they can be used in current and future designs. Well, it turns out that one of the biggest challenges for product designers is to carve out more time to be creative and reduce time spent on laborious administrative detail, such as keeping track of hundreds or thousands of product components. And conference managers in the design market were very aware of this business problem, and were on the look-out for presentation ideas that would address the problem in a new, compelling way.

By focusing on this business problem as a way to introduce the system that Autodesk calls Design Graph, we were able to catch conference managers’ attention and lead them to give full and positive consideration of the Autodesk proposal. It also helped that this topic tied into the larger theme of machine learning/ artificial intelligence, which is growing in importance in the design field, as with many others.

Don’t Just Pitch a Speaker, Back it Up with Why

Other than a topic that is new, compelling, and relevant to conference attendees, the second most important factor in a speaker proposal is…the speaker! It is safe to assume that the conference manager reviewing the proposal will sooner or later ask: Why this speaker on this topic at this time?

A caveat: If you are proposing a c-suite executive speaker, they will typically receive very serious consideration, as a lineup of c-suite speakers is heaven for most conference managers. Why? Because this attracts c-suite attendees, and that, too, is manna for these folks. This is especially true if the c-suite executive will agree to appear on a panel with speakers of comparable stature and credentials.

But, if the speaker is not at c-level, the conference manager will look at his or her credentials to speak on the topic being proposed. If the speaker has the word “marketing” or “sales” in their title, the proposal will likely go immediately into the discard pile. Too many conference managers have been burned too many times by marketing and sales professionals proposing to give an agnostic, vendor-neutral presentation and instead give a full-bore sales pitch. “Never again,” they say; and never again it is.

For IT conferences, one of the most appealing titles/credentials is one related to the engineering portion of product development, ideally supported with one or more patents and/or published works related to the topic being proposed. Also attractive are IT company executives with work experience in the “real world” with consumer/user companies.

Whatever the proposed speaker’s title, the important element of the submission is to underscore the candidate’s unique qualifications to speak on the topic being proposed. While the first two or three sentences of a topic abstract should describe the business problem being addressed by the speaker, the next sentence should address the speaker’s qualifications to speak to this topic, perhaps with a sentence that begins: “Drawing on his/her experience in [fill in the blank], the speaker will outline options for IT users to overcome this challenge….”

So, there you have it: the perfect speaker on the perfect topic. Go forth and pitch!