This article is for all my friends and acquaintances, co-workers and aspiring product managers, mentees and anyone else who has ever asked me —
“How do you get your speaking engagements?”
— with the implicit inquiry around how can they get the same.
What people don’t realize is that to get invitations to speaking engagements or to sit at panel discussions or to get requests for interviews does not happen overnight (Disclaimer — I’m not tooting my own horn here; I’m not even a tiny speck amongst the people who earn serious money out of these engagements or get invited to the most talked-about events & conferences in the country).
Just as you don’t ask a surgeon how did they manage to snag a free parking space in the most competitive garage at the hospital, so too you don’t want to sound ignorant by asking someone point blank on how did they get invited to a give a talk at an industry [insert : event, conference, meetup, workshop ..].
For getting invited to these engagements is a secondary outcome of painstakingly building a personal brand over several years. My Medium blog is a prime example of this brand.
Hence the correct question to ask is —
“How do I build a Personal Brand just as you have?”
And I’m more than happy to answer that.
When I started writing on Medium about technology and product management primarily, I didn’t really have any experience of writing “business” articles beyond the business case studies, pitch decks, presentations and user stories I used to create at my job. I was still learning about product management back then after being a product manager for a couple of years.
I started following various product leaders who had had an early start in their product careers, who were very good at their jobs and had built a following of readers/collaborators by extensively writing articles about product management and various other topics. They shared their learnings and insights over the years, especially things that they learned at their jobs, analysis on industry trends, deep dives into their favourite products, reviews about the recent books they’ve read or their journey through an MBA program. And over the years, they had inadvertently become leaders and experts in their fields. Organizers wanted them to come speak at their conferences, hosts wanted them to grace various podcasts and students wanted them to deliver talks at schools and colleges.
And I understood. It was not about how do I get to be the next interviewee on a podcast or a key note speaker at an industry event, but about how do I build my personal brand, sustainably, around things that I love to do, enjoy and share.
Write (or create content)
Thus I started writing. Also because writing was one thing that came naturally to me. There were people out there who built their personal brand through networking, talking (eg. starting a podcast, short videos), volunteering or channeling other hobbies such as photography and film (eg. YouTube videos). However, I’m an introvert, and I wanted to share my story, my findings and my work through words and sentences. I thoroughly enjoyed Product Management, and I thought why not write about it? I even wrote a controversial article about the psychological void (and the resulting frustration) between engineers, designers & product managers in 2016.
It began slowly, initially with little or no attention, with one article here, another thought there. However having consistently written over a period of four years now, I guess I’ve accumulated a mass of thought material that helps me to pitch ideas quickly, point potential stakeholders to my “portfolio” or showcase my wares on social media to get some eyeballs.
I’m speaking at the Re-Work conference this fall because one of their organizers came across my ‘Ethics of using AI in the Financial/Banking industry’ article and wanted me to get involved!
Thus began my journey towards building a personal brand. And there were a host of other things that helped me along this tumultuous journey (by the way, my personal brand is still a work in progress even now) —
Finesse your story
The first item in my agenda was to create my brand story. Just as the curiosity of an Atlantic pharmacist led him to experiment with a distinctive tasting soft drink which got baptized as Coca-Cola, so too I had to tell (and believe) my story around my multi-geographical experience across India, Dubai, Singapore and North America, how serendipity plucked me from a marketing role at a financial betting startup in Malaysia to a product role at a publishing house in Singapore, and how the failure of my fledgling P2P startup company (that connected expats and home-chefs with home-cooked meals) led me to migrate to Canada.
This brand story not only helped me control my narrative in my job interviews, but also helped me craft a compelling value proposition for myself — adaptable across work cultures, quick learner in fast paced environments, curious to learn and absorb, fearless to conquer new horizons.
My talk on Fearless Product Management was the result of me reflecting on my story, finessing it over the years and spouting it pat down whenever the need arose.
Networking makes me anxious. Being an introvert is another major reason for me not wanting to be around large groups of over-eager people. However networking is a two way street — you’ll receive as much as you’re ready to give.
I had networked a bunch during my B-school days, however hadn’t really cared to form new connections after that. Until 2016 that is, when I tagged along with my friend to a major networking event —pure networking, no talks nor panel discussions— filled with confident people schmoozing with their small shrimp cocktails and martinis, overstuffed in straight cut jackets, balancing on stripy sandals, talking tech, finance, venture capital, investments and the next big startup. I was overwhelmed. I sat at a stone deck feigning nonchalance, deep down dearly wanting someone to come and talk to me. It wasn’t the best night for me as you can guess (my friend had conveniently left me to pursue his own networking agenda), and there have been other sub-par networking nights where I just didn’t want to speak to anyone, expend time and energy on small-talk.
However there have been other events where I’ve made an effort, introduced myself, listened to what the other person had to say, smiled more, made some connections (even though networking was the last thing on my mind; I’d have rather got home and curled up with some comfort food on a cold winter night) and added some relevant contacts to my digital rolodex.
Networking has helped me experiment with my brand story and narrative, test it in real life and meet some amazing new people who’d potentially invite me to collaborate on a project — I started on my sustainability project with a person I met at a networking night and received an invite to speak at an event through someone I met at a social innovation networking event.
Networking is a substantial part of building your personal brand, however shamelessness is another. The number of times I’ve asked organizers if they wanted any speakers at their events (at the start of my brand building journey) is hilarious. I got a few breaks early on, which were disasters — one was a product talk about innovation at a local tech event and another was a product pitch at a local startup competition. I was nervous, maybe not prepared enough, didn’t know how to coolly talk to the audience and laugh at myself if I stuttered a word.
However that ‘asking’ became less frequent as I moved up my career ladder, gave more talks (even internal company ones) to build up my confidence and started getting invited upfront for speaking engagements without me having to ask.
Find your Niche
I had a personal (Blogger) blog on travel and lifestyle way back in 2013. It was all about the 10 things you need in your bag, my travel story to a secluded beach in southern India, the delish chicken rice meal I had in Malaysia and how I celebrated the Hungry Ghost festival in Singapore. It was fun and carefree, but after sometime, it felt too personal.
When I started writing again in 2016, I wanted to create content around what I was an expert on and what I found comfortable sharing with an audience. I chose product management and technology since I was living the job day in and day out, and much later segued into finance, AI, leadership, innovation, team building and more. I’m still trying to find my niche and evolve as I learn new things, however my holistic content around technology, product & innovation, I believe, has found a small audience or has the potential to a future large audience!
Creating content around your niche works wonders because that’s what you enjoy doing, are passionate about and get inspiration from. And that’s how you build an audience who might want to hear you speak on a stage because you’ve built a community around you on mutually relevant subjects, themes & topics.
Fill up those speaker forms
I still fill up those speaker forms on conference websites and there is absolutely nothing wrong about that!
One conference (amongst several others) that has alluded me year over year is the annual Women In Product (WIP) conference. The kind Elizabeth Ames (Founder of WIP) sends me a long sincerely apologetic email every year, informing me about how she truly appreciates me applying to speak at her conference and about how it was a damn tough choice, but how my proposal was not a fit for the programming for this year’s conference. I do God hope this is just a generic email blast to all the non-invitations (NOTE : I’m just being a prat! What that long winded rant really meant was that I love WIP and I so want to speak at your conference!).
Building your personal brand has it’s own charm — you get to showcase your abilities, your vulnerabilities, your authenticity and your story. So don’t worry about those speaking engagements, create your trademark, and let those gigs come to you.