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Handle public speaking opportunities strategically

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

Public speaking is a leadership role. You may speak in public yourself or you may write speeches or speech notes for your CEO and senior executives, or you may do all these things.

Speeches are a powerful way to directly communicate with and influence target stakeholders. They offer a rare, face-to-face opportunity to front up to a gathering of important people. (If they aren’t important to you, you shouldn’t be there!) To successfully influence an audience, you need to understand the fundamental elements of successful speeches and how to tap into the audience’s emotions as well as their intellect.

Speech making is a core capability for a chief executive officer. CEOs of top US companies receive an average of 3-4 speech invitations a week, ie 175 per year, according to a 2005 survey. 1

The survey also revealed that 70% of corporate communication managers are responsible for advising their CEO on accepting invitations to speak at conferences. Their main criteria for accepting a speech invitation are: whether it is an influential audience (87%), a strategic fit (86%), a keynote versus panel role (68%), a potential forum to demonstrate thought leadership (61%) or whether the forum has prestige value (56%).

Which speaking invitations should organizations accept? And what should they do about initiating speaking opportunities?

Receiving frequent speech invitations is good for the corporate ego, but you should think strategically before agreeing to step up to the podium or recommending this to your chief. A strategic speaking program means achieving a balance of proactive and reactive activities. It means weighing up the amount of executive time available to undertake such activities. It means deciding whether a speech is the most effective way of communicating a message compared with alternatives. It means considering the types of issues your organization should discuss to its advantage in public, and your objectives in airing such issues.

Your organization’s speaking program should be developed only after considering how the speeches could support the accomplishment of your organizational mission and relevant goals. Be specific. You need to demonstrate exactly how each speech will support your mission and goals, preferably in measurable ways.

Be proactive – seek out speaking opportunities

It is fine to rigorously review all speech invitations against set criteria, but that is only one side of the coin, the reactive side. The other side of the coin is to be proactive about speaking opportunities.

Human beings are social by nature. They like to belong to groups. And business people like belonging to business groups. The strategically adept person would actively review the many available forums by checking the conference calendar of their peak industry body, and of business associations at local, national and international level. There are general opportunities to speak at events arranged by business associations such as company directors’ associations, institutes of management, shareholder and investor associations, and the like.

Professional associations usually offer good opportunities to speak and enable you to position your organization and management as a thought leader. There are as many such bodies as there are occupations: marketing, HR, engineering, finance and accounting, administration, information technology, telecommunications, risk management, insurance, banking, superannuation, advertising, management, universities, transport, to name a few, and many subsets of those general fields.  

The first step in a proactive speaker program is to decide how many speaking commitments would be reasonable to ask the CEO and other senior executives from your organization to commit to (with their agreement, of course!). Then review the conferences, conventions and trade shows to be held by relevant bodies in the coming year, plus business breakfasts, lunches and other events hosted by newspapers and business publications. If necessary, you can contact them directly to ask for their forward program of activity. You can identify the ones that are likely to provide opportunities to address some of your target stakeholders. Even if the type of audience is of marginal value, you can still arrange external publicity yourself aimed at wider audiences.

Usually event organizers will post a preliminary summary of the theme and program on their website. Quite often they will call for papers, and so you can check this information and decide whether there is fertile potential for you to offer a speech compatible with the broad theme of the event. You should write a thought-provoking working title (keep it short and sharp, not academic!), and provide a short abstract of the planned speech as well the nomination of a suitable speaker from your organization, usually the CEO.

Then contact the organizers to make the pitch. Often as not, especially if you have a respected speaker, the organizers will be pleased to receive the approach and will accept your offer. That’s when the rest of the preparation starts.


  1. Burson-Marsteller. “CEOs flooded with speaking requests – 175 invites per year”. Retrieved from

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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