How Can I Be A Speaker, Like You?

How did you get that unbelievable keynote/speaking slot/invitation?
What can I do to get on the TED stage?
How can I be a speaker, like you?

Those were 3 questions from the last month from Yes & Know members. Instead of answering these questions one at a time in emails, I thought to do the answers as a “request” post.  [Not quite Cheryl Strayed “Dear Sugar” column, but one has to start somewhere…]

Another question, people often ask is, ‘how do you come by it so naturally?’
That question is quite funny, if you’re me.

I’m 47 years old. My first “major” talk was when I was 19 years old, with ~ 200 people, in Sacramento California at a Embassy Suites Hotel conference room with bright fluorescent lights. That’s nearly 30 years to “come by it, naturally”. So, my first lesson is…

Start practicing, and never stop.
Not only do I remember that early venue, I also remember what happened: I mostly read my ideas. That reading just happened to be standing up, and behind a podium microphone. What this illustrates is that you build up capabilities, through experience. Long, slow experience, in my case.

Institute Pasteaur Nilofer Merchant Speaking

Today, after each talk, I name just one (1) thing that I want to do better next time. Just one because I can remember, and act on it. And, not 20 because I’ll never nail it, if I try and do 20 all at once. But do one at a time, and over a period of experiences, it adds up.

While it sucks in the moment, naming the thing that failed lets you improve upon it. You might remember, I wrote a “what I learned from my TEDtalk failure” on Harvard Business Review, no less. Why do this? Because, to get good at the cycle of learning / unlearning / repeat, you gotta admit to not-knowing. You gotta name it, to not be afraid of it.


Invest in it.
When I was already committed to give my next talk on the main TEDstage, albeit a short 3-minute one, I spent a day and $1000 in a workshop on speaking aiming to land the opening line. Think about that.

1 day for 1 line. During that day, with Heather Gold facilitating, I went to bat 4 times for 3 minutes a-piece, with a smallish group of 8 people.

And this was not just an investment of time or money. It was an investment in humility, as I was vulnerable and raw while things didn’t work.

It worked out well, having launched a meme, inspired Stanford to do new research and so on.

For the idea I’m working on now? I just spent several days (and thousands of dollars) going to SXSW to speak as one of 12 designated “Featured Speakers”, along with Larry Lessig, Eric Ries, Bryan Stevenson, Reshma Saujani, Sarah Lewis of the Rise, etc.  I wrote about that experience, here.  I used the opportunity to develop entirely new stories, new visuals, new metaphor, and then delivered my best effort to date on this idea of Onlyness.

SXSW talk picture Nilofer Merchant

I used a “free” venue of sxsw (they weren’t paying me to be there), because I would never ask a paying client to give me a chance to rehearse. And, talking to myself in my bathrobe, is not the most effective a way to think out an idea. So, knowing I wanted to beta test the thinking, I used SXSW as the venue to do it.

Count up the travel, hotel, and graphic artist time, that talk alone was $10K out-of-pocket easy. I mention the expenses not to be tacky, or vulgar… but to give this topic of investment some dimensionality. Certainly, you have to give the time to develop an idea, but there’s loads of other expenses in “having the honor” of doing a TED or SXSW talk. My graphic-designed gorgeous deck I use for my professional speaking today? $40K for the first iteration of it, and I’ve lost track of how much money I’ve spent over the years adding to it, and refining it.

Oh, and how did I get that talk at SXSW? or TED? I got asked. And before you glamourize that, go back and read the “invest in it” paragraph (above). More opportunities show up, the better you practice. Of course, I did raise my hand to do several free talks at SXSW for years before I got asked to do a featured speaker spot. So, I’m not saying you don’t have to pitch yourself, but the thing about “the big moment” is it follows a ton of little moments. Any big moment is like a dollar that materializes after you’ve put in nickle-after-nickle not knowing if or how it’s going to pay off.

In other words, don’t look for a magic moment, or breakthrough… We, as a society, are enamored with the idea of one “tipping point” of success, but forget to realize that’s a construct created in retrospect, to tell a simple and heroic story, of a complex and messy reality.


And, let’s remember that speaking is not an end unto itself.

It’s a way to further your life’s work, your mission. My speaking — for well over 5 years now —  has been about how to make ideas powerful enough to make a dent. Speaking advances this mission:

Having new (and often underrepresented) voices at the table, because it matters to innovation.
To leaders because I get them, and because they can be the ones to celebrate onlyness.
Why collaborative practices, are key to curate greatness and win in the marketplace.

Speaking, in other words, is a method, a way to create a shift. Not the only way, but one way. And it is not for fame, but to serve the purpose. Quite often when people are asking, “how can I be a better speaker”, what they are unclear about is who they are serving and why. Get clearer on your intention, and align your actions behind that.

And related, focus on the impact of the community you’re there with, not on yourself. Get out of your head, out of your ego. Even though I am someone who researches and has evidence behind all my ideas, it’s not about “my proof” as much as it is about “their experience”. The other day I watched a speaker talk about his brand, and such but very little was relevant to the audience. They had to do a lot of work to figure out what part of what he said was for them. Mostly he was there pitching why his company rocked.

But to serve the audience is different …  remember it’s about others, and how you are serving an idea, and connect it to those you came to address. My speakers bureau in the US,  Speakers Spotlight, has a phrase:

A speech may last 60 minutes. Its impact can last forever.

Impact only happens when you understand how to deliver impact giving that audience, and their context and to step outside of you wanting to be seen a certain way, and move to what they need from you. If you’re lucky, you share your idea with such passion and it connects so deeply, that the audience steals it for their own and starts to spread it with vigor. But if you go into it with the focus on that outcome, not in service to others, your idea never spreads. Weird, right? Wanting to have your idea spread is a little like the Sorcerer’s Stone in Harry Potter; if you want it for yourself, you can never have it.


Study the art.
My husband says he can’t sit next to me anymore at conferences because I mutter to myself about what other speakers are doing. While I sincerely hope this isn’t true, I worry it is.

This, like so many things, can be studied… Some ideas for doing so:
Go to conferences. Corporate venues don’t tend to serve this goal for a variety of reasons. But cross-functional events, do. For example: Watermark in Silicon Valley, PopTech in the East Coast, Wired in London, DLD in Germany, The Art of series in Canada, and MIT are venues known for organizing fresh ideas, and fantastic speakers. Cross-functional venues are important because the speaker has to get beyond jargon and the domain knowledge, and that always leads to the speaking itself being important.

Books. I know there are tons of books (!) on this topic, some of which I’m sure are good. What are your favorites?  The ones I  turn to are by Nancy Duarte who nails the structure of speaking. She literally won an Oscar for best slides, when Al Gore got one for Inconvenient Truth. And I am looking forward to the upcoming book by Gina Barnett, who coaches TED speakers. She’s coached me twice and I’ve learned a great deal from her. Some of her tips from her upcoming book, here, and get her full book here.

Corporate Speakers Primer: For those wanting to serve a corporate audience, I was struck with the wisdom of Liz Wiseman in this piece by Dorie Clark: especially to “staple yourself to the problem”. It’s why I’ve priced my workshops ~ the same as keynotes. It’s how I can bring my 20+ years of operational experience to working in depth with a team on their real-life collaboration challenges. In my experience, a transformation isn’t created by one speaker mesmerizing others with a clear idea, it’s in the conversation that ensues between the team, and the ensuing decision they make together. My workshop design enable that conversation to happen.

And, a Conference Speaker primer: Laura Fitton wrote about how to land a conference talk, so I’ll turn it over to her for “how to land a speaking gig at the conference of your dreams”.

I hope any / all of that is helpful, and if you wish…  you’ll be a SuperStar.


The #1 mistake any of us make in navigating the #socialera? Doing it alone.BlogIcon_Right copy

So, let’s learn together — what do you think makes a great speaker? Who are your favorites, and why? Any questions you have, other resources you want to add, or comments to make. Let’s help one another do better, be better and make our ideas big enough to dent the world.

9 Replies

  1. very good your post, I’m not great speaker with others, it would seem almost social, but I’m determined better every day.

  2. Oh Nilofer, I so relate to your experience, and wisdom. I’m back into action after some time out for health reasons with a deadline for a workshop next week at Vivid Ideas here in Sydney on my Contemporary Currencies framework.

    I held a run-through a few weeks ago and I can totally name the things I failed at – Too much about my concepts and not enough about their experiences. Not using the many examples I have that would have enabled people to go “ah ha” about the concepts: not enough openings for them to provide examples from their lives 🙁 Pleased to say that the learning is being well incorporated for the workshop proper: and there’ll be more learning from that.

    I’m investing in graphics so that people can more easily grasp the relevance of the concept for them: personally and professionally. And designing fun exercises so participants can collaborate with me by sharing their experiences and knowledge.

    I don’t want to be a superstar, I want to be the catalyst for a constellation of conversations about changing what we perceive, as a society and an economy, to be of value. So that more people start asking two questions: “Does money still matter most?”; “Or, are our contemporary currencies, our attention, time, energy and values as if not more precious?” And answer by having conversations about how to respect the exchange rates people expect for their contemporary currencies – attention, time and energy – irrespective of how much money they have. And recognition for the power we have to change things by aligning the ways we use our attention, time, energy and money with our values.

    Thank you for sharing both your insights, and the links to resources.

    Kind regards

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  7. My favorite is TARA GENTILE. Tara in my opinion is the queen of going deep as in when the bible says deep calleth unto deep, it was talking about her . You do not just feel good about tara ,you walk away with something that you can do. I can see why she recommends you ,cos this article is something else, I would have to read it again and practice what you have shared.

    1. I love how Tara encourages ACTION, even small steps. It’s not how big the step but the continuous and steady progress that gets us to our goal.

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