Going Virtual with Your Speaking Engagements

Women Talk Design is on a mission to see a more diverse group of speakers on stage. We elevate women and nonbinary speakers and their talks, empower event organizers with resources to design more inclusive events, and host events, facilitate trainings, and cultivate community for new and developing speakers.

We hosted our very first #CouchConvo on March 23rd focused on navigating public speaking in the time of COVID-19 and taking your speaking engagements online. We’re recapping some of the excellent advice speakers Margot Bloomstein & Denise Jacobs shared on getting started as a new speaker, honing your craft, making the transition to online, and navigating conversations around compensation.

“You may be panicked personally and thinking all of this opportunity is gone. It is actually that the opportunity is just transformed” — Denise Jacobs

Advice for New Speakers

Offer to be a partner for event organizers.

Denise: Even though I’m an experienced speaker, I very clearly remember the time that I was not an experienced speaker. One of the things that I did that is still relevant even now is to reach out to conference organizers and say ‘I know you had this scheduled. Do you have any plans to take this virtually? I’d love to be part of this event and if there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know!”

“Make yourself of service. You may have a skill or expertise they need help with. Be a trusted partner to them.”

Right now this pandemic is teaching us the power of community, the power of being of service, the power of being useful. What can we do for the collective good? It’s helping us step into a place of being more empathetic.”

Use this time for reflection and inspiration. Develop your talk topic.

Margot: “If you’re a new speaker now’s a great time to figure out what your first talk topic will be.”

“Now is also a good time to say, the world is coming out at you fast right now and you need to stay in and nurture yourself, nurture your family, and literally and figuratively shelter in place. That’s an OK place to start or continue your speaking career. Now is a good time to pull out of that race and say, ‘let me find some really good sources of inspiration’.”

“If you get inspired going hiking, don’t feel like you’re going hiking and are not doing what you should be doing. If that’s what you need to do? That’s exactly what you should do because that’s when inspiration will strike.”

Denise: If you’re a new speaker and you’ve been wanting to talk about something, maybe this is a good time for you to think, ‘Is this what I really want to talk about or is there something else? Is there something else that’s bubbling up now that’s more my truth and more in my wheelhouse of passion and expertise than this thing that I thought I should talk about.”

Reach out to Meetups. Ask people you know to recommend you to events.

Margot: “Start reaching out to local community organizers. Maybe it’s the people that run the local UX meetup, or the small business association is always looking to bring in speakers. Now, they don’t have the budget to bring in speakers. There is no ‘in’ to bring people into anymore. But maybe they are trying to figure out what it means to have an event over Zoom? If you can be that speaker that’s easy to work with and has a somewhat polished first talk to deliver, this is where you can start out.”

“I started speaking professionally about 10 years ago and leading up to my first big talk at SXSW I spoke at local meetups and at the time I said, ‘If you can get me there and put me up at whatever cheap hotel, I’m there.’ And now it’s even easier because we don’t need to say ‘bring me there’. Now it’s just a matter of saying, ‘I can be on Zoom at this time’.”

Denise: My favorite technique [for finding speaking opportunities] is to get other people who are speakers to introduce you to event organizers at events they’ve spoken at. Find someone you know to connect you with someone they know who runs events.”

Use this time as an opportunity to practice and get better.

Margot: “If you’re just figuring out a talk right now, you can take advantage of doing it over Zoom. As you’re working out the details and getting down your patter, and if you’re developing a script for it, there’s no reason why you can’t have that script on your screen, just under the camera, maybe in a word doc or some free or cheap teleprompter app.”

Denise: Always be practicing. Think about the presentation in modules. This is a tip that one of my mentors gave me. Make your content modular. Think, ‘how can I do that in this 3 minute bit?’ Don’t try to practice the whole presentation at once. Not at first at least.”

Reframing How We Think About This Time

This is an opportunity to engage with an audience in new ways.

Margot: “When they announced that the conference was going to go virtual, the event organizer reached out and asked, ‘are you still in if we do this?’ and I said ‘oh yeah sign me up’ because to me it seems like another way to engage the audience and to still keep momentum and enthusiasm around the topic.”

Denise: “We have this opportunity to connect in a way we haven’t before. Connect with more people, that’s been the promise of the web from the beginning. We’re forced to do this but it’s great because it’s really making us focus on the connections and the commonalities and the ways in which we can show up and help each other and be of service. This is a great opportunity for us to tap into all of those things and for us to benefit from the relief we get from not having to go someplace.”

This is also a great time for us to be able to recover, take care of ourselves, rest and rejuvenate but still be able to have the connection.”

Remote opportunities create more access.

Margot: To me, this feels like such a wonderful time to make our events more accessible. Obviously we’re in a horrible situation, but I think and I hope that our events will learn and take great things from this horrible situation. Conferences come with a lot of privilege for both speakers and attendees. You probably need to take time off, you need to travel there, you need to have a budget to travel there. If you have kids you need to figure out the childcare situation. And then you need to set away emotionally from home and your other work. Now, we’re able to change that a little bit.”

“For example, for this event, from the get-go we were saying, ‘let’s do it twice’ because people are going to be busy with maybe homeschooling or they are just trying to focus on work or they are just not in the mindset for this during the day and they want to go out for a hike. And that’s OK. Let’s do it again in the evening. Let’s make this available to parents after they tuck their kids in at night.”

“If your session is recorded, it might go on Youtube where we can easily add captioning. For people that take in information audibly and want to be able to pause it, think about it, take some notes — they can do that. If there are people who are both visual and verbal learners, it’s a lot easier to nurture all of those different learning styles to make our events technically and socially more accessible.”

“I hope the things we learn from online events, we can bring back to our physical events once we’re able to do them again.”

This is a time to hone your craft.

Denise“From a craft standpoint, as speakers, we need to be constantly building our craft. A lot of times we’re at events without AV, where they aren’t videotaping the event. Unless you video yourself, you are not going to be able to see where it is you can perfect and hone your delivery. We now have this great opportunity that we can potentially capture our talk ourselves or, if it’s in Zoom, record and look back and learn from that to hone our message and hone our delivery. Taking that and having that data and input will help us do what we do even better and serve our audience even better.”

Margot“Online events and webinars have given me a huge opportunity to work out the details in new talks. Sometimes when I’m working out the details of the talk and I don’t have my padder totally down and I don’t have the facts and figures totally down, I can have my script on the screen, under my camera. I love that I am able to deliver a good high-quality experience for them, even when I’m still working to hone the details.”

Tactical Advice for Presenting Virtually

Make eye contact.

Margot: Work on eye contact. Make everyone’s windows smaller and physically drag them to be right underneath your camera.”

“The biggest distraction [is] seeing yourself on the monitor. You tend to look at yourself. So, if you can drag yourself to be under your camera, it will look like you’re making eye contact.”

Consider your lighting.

Margot: Orient yourself so you are facing a window or there is a window off to one side so there is natural light. You don’t need to have a big, fancy, lighting setup. But, if people can see you well, you will look more professional. You will present more professionally.”

Check your sound.

Denise“Make sure you look good and make sure you sound good.”

Be willing to adapt.

Margot“Creative, flexible, adjusting on the fly — that’s the name of the game now.”

Denise: “We have to be adaptable and we have to be agile. And if we get feedback for something, we have to be able to work with it.”


Denise: Preparing for the talk can be one of the most enjoyable parts of the process. For me, when I prepare for a keynote, maybe it’s been a little bit since I’ve dealt with the content and then I really start to really focus on the content and the audience and the event and the theme and how I want to connect with people and really what I want them to feel and do afterward. The preparation is really important for that.”

Build trust.

Margot: If you are in a position of presenting, now we have to think more about voice, volume, and vulnerability. How we establish a consistent and accessible tone of voice, as well as the vocabulary we’re using. People aren’t necessarily afraid of jargon, but we all like to get smarter at it. We can establish a common vocabulary, by overexplaining a little bit, maybe figuring out new ways to share our ideas, bringing more metaphors into our conversation to explain what’s going on in our work. When thinking about volume, think of the level of detail you are sharing. By vulnerability, I mean how we operationalize vulnerability, how we over-communicate or better communicate our needs…It’s sharing, ‘here’s what I’m going through, here’s what I’m learning.” When the camera gets knocked over and the lightning isn’t great, it’s saying ‘What can I do so you can see me?’.”

Advice for Keeping Your Audience Engaged

Focus on connection.

Denise: “Don’t underestimate your ability to connect with people. If you show up you have good content, you have a way to interact, and build that interactivity in, you will actually connect with people and you will be able to use the medium to have the outcome that you want.”

For a virtual situation, I make sure that I still have the connection with the audience and try to simulate the same kind of connection with the audience that I would in person. I make sure I look at the camera, make sure I’m still making expressions with my face. I make sure that I’m not using too much monotone and that there’s variation in my voice in delivery. I make sure I bake in engagement and act like I’m with an audience. And I ask for feedback in the chat and the feedback channels so I can realize I am connecting with people.

Break your presentation into smaller chunks.

Margot: When I’m teaching virtually…I can go about 20 minutes talking and then I want to get them talking. So maybe we break into separate Zoom chats, maybe that’s the point when I say, ‘now tell me about your experience with this topic’ and I get them talking to me. Or, maybe that’s when I break from the slides and then they see my face again and I share an anecdote that’s a little more conversational or on the fly. So I’m switching up my tone of voice every 20 minutes as well.”

Denise“I recommend the book Brain Rules by John Medina, a top professor at the University of Washington who studies attention. He was one of the top lecturers because he knew what people’s attention spans were and would structure his lectures accordingly. If it was 10–12 minutes, he would start to build up and peak around 9 minutes and then wrap up. He was able to capitalize on people’s natural attention spans.”

Offer guideposts and adapt to different learning styles.

Denise“Be very clear and sufficient. If you have a list of something, say I have three things: first, second, third. Give people guideposts and places they can attach their attention to so they don’t have to try so hard to follow you.”

Margot: “We can tap into the different ways people learn. This may mean putting more words onto our slides. Let people that are visual learners see the jargon and internalize it as they are hearing an explanation from you. Give them multiple hooks to latch on as we’re introducing more technical topics. We need to translate it to engage people in a more multi-sensory way.”

Keep it low tech.

Margot: “If you can make it more low-tech, do it. That’s what allows our experiences to be more accessible and more democratized to more people. Not everyone is on a high bandwidth connection, a lot of people are on their phones. If they’re using some complex online tool, maybe it’s putting too much of an interface between them and an experience we want them to have.

“For a card sort [exercise I do], I’d rather everyone use the same tool so no one feels like their experiences are lesser. I send out a PDF doc and we do a lot of thinking aloud. They are still having a shared experience. It’s incredibly low-tech and it still works.”

Ask for feedback.

Denise: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Ask for responses from people. How are you guys feeling about that? Can I get a clap? Can I get an amen?”

Compensation Considerations

Don’t forget, you are still offering value.

Denise“One piece of feedback from speaker friends was, ‘Just because it’s virtual doesn’t mean you aren’t delivering the same amount of value.’ Just because you aren’t getting on a plane and staying in a hotel and catching an uber to give the presentation, doesn’t mean that you aren’t delivering the same amount of value. You still have to prep, you still have to show up, you still have to deliver and connect and offer the same content. I would encourage you to go into the conversation standing in your value and make sure you stay strong in that.”

Get creative with your offering.

Margot: I think there’s an opportunity to approach speaker fees with more flexibility and creativity.”

“I had an event this past week that said, “Now that we’re going virtual, can we lower your rate? I’m sympathetic to where they are. At the same time, I didn’t want to be the only speaker that’s a sap and say ‘yes, let’s cut my rate’, but I also didn’t want to come off as one of the hard ‘nos’. How do I make this a win-win-win situation? I approached them and said, ‘Why don’t we keep the rate the same, but let me do more. Because the one thing I have now is time. What if for the top 50 people or companies that opt-in, each gets 1-hour no-fee of my time. Or, we can offer 50 hour-long mentoring sessions to the first people who opt-in. It’s a chance for me to nurture our industry. The 1:1 time with companies, that’s how I build my pipeline. And if I can help them and I get to hear about all of the thorny challenges they are having? I love that. I did that on the recommendations of other people. They responded with, “The value that you’re adding is so much greater than what we would be subtracting from your fee.”

Get paid to speak.

Margot: “You have your fee and it does not change…until it does. When you’re starting out you do want to figure out different ways to get exposure. Know your worth and sometimes that is expressed through money, sometimes that is expressed through the opportunity to connect with people at that conference, go to a city you’ve never been to before but they will pay for your travel. One conference couldn’t pay my rate but one sponsor was travel-related and could give me an extra plane ticket so my husband could come as well so that was extra value for me.

As a speaker, you are the most valuable part of the conference so see how they are willing to value you and treat you.”

Denise: “In my own personal experience, for at least 2 years I was doing all of my speaking with the belief (very mistaken belief) that once I got good people would start to offer to pay me. I cannot tell you how profoundly incorrect that is. No one is going to give you money unless you ask for it.”

“Your hour talk is the years of experience that came before the moment you got on stage. That’s what they are paying for. The talk is a culmination point. Everything that goes into that informs that you should be getting paid for your experience and knowledge.”

“Think of a number — most likely I say and then double it. And if it’s less than $1500 make it more. Start asking for it. You have to establish your own number and people will follow suit.”

“Trust that what you are doing and the expertise you have and the act of sharing your knowledge is valuable and if you leave with nothing else know that. That value can have a dollar value to it and you deserve to get paid for your expertise.“

Getting paid to speak was such a popular conversation, we decided to bring it back for our next #CouchConvo. Save the date for Thursday, April 16th and keep an eye on @womentalkdesign on Twitter for more announcements.

Watch the full #CouchConvo on “Going Virtual With Your Speaking Engagements”.

A big thank you to Margot Bloomstein & Denise Jacobs for sharing their experience and expertise with us!