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Storytelling, Humility, and Keeping it Weird: How Conference Curators Select Speakers by

From brain tingles to compelling storytelling, we’ve collected insights from organizers across a range of industry events. Here’s how they identify talent, what they look for in pitches, and more inside info that might just help you land your next appearance.

Over two inspiring days each year, the Adobe 99U Conference welcomes 50 speakers who empower our audience to supercharge their work. Our team works year-round to curate this lineup behind the scenes, a process that involves constant research and outreach.

We often hear from would-be speakers who are keen to better understand our selection process. Like many other creative conferences and events, we look for engaging people with unique points of view and seek out recommendations from colleagues, past speakers, audience members, and peers.

99U is just one part of a larger ecosystem of events and forums where creative perspectives are featured. So rather than tell you how we alone select speakers, we’ve collected insights from the curators across a range of industry events on our radar. Here’s how they identify talent, what they look for in pitches, and more inside info that might just help you land your next speaking appearance.

“We look for speakers who make our brains tingle”
Arianna Orland & Dava Guthmiller, Co-Founders, In/Visible Talks

“[We] keep a running list of people we know, people we admire and wish we knew, and people who have been proactive and pitched us over the years. As you can imagine, the list is quite long. We look for speakers who make our brains tingle, who inspire us to do better work, who have the potential to expand our perspectives on a creative practice, who we know will get real with us, and who make us fall in love with being creative professionals all over again. It’s also important to us that we have gender parity and to put a truly representational group of people together.  

“We do not expect speakers to know what they’re going to talk about when we approach them. In fact, we prefer they haven’t the faintest clue. We enjoy taking an active role in the curation of the conference, in part through the conversations we have with potential speakers. Our talks tend to fall into three buckets: process, inspiration, and challenge. It’s important to us that a talk hits on at least one of the three. We’re also diligent about the talks not being case studies, portfolio reviews, or product pitches.

“[Pitches miss the mark] when individuals haven’t researched the conference and don’t know what we’re about. Come to our conference. Engage with our community. Suggest ideas that challenge our expectations about what conference programming can be. (Think: performative, think experimental, think weird – we love weird.)”

“Often times people pitch themselves in a way that lacks humility”
Tina Roth Eisenberg, Founder and CEO, CreativeMornings

“We know our monthly themes a year ahead of time which gives us lots of breathing space and time to keep our feelers out. Besides having my antenna out year-round and keeping a running list of people we’d be interested in, I also like to ask former speakers for their personal recommendations. 

“My ultimate goal of any CreativeMornings event is that our audience leaves inspired and uplifted. We look for individuals who stand for something, who have a strong point of view, who inspire with their actions. Sometimes we invite speakers who have polished talks ready to go. But sometimes, we help them craft their message and talk.

“[Potential speakers should] participate in conversations, spark my curiosity, and when that happens and I click through to your site, make sure there is something there that gets me hooked. If you’ve spoken before, make sure those talks are easily accessible. Have an about page or a Twitter/Instagram bio that lets me quickly understand what you’re all about. 

“Often times people pitch themselves in a way that lacks humility. When you do pitch yourself, do it humbly. Show up with an appreciation for what this organization stands for, [show] that you get them. And then, explain what you can offer to this community. Show up generously, with a sense of giving, not taking.”

“A talk is more than just a good portfolio”
Othmar Handl, CEO, Forward Festival

“We believe in the power of networking, cultural exchange, and experiences of lasting value. Throughout the whole year, I am hunting for ideas and in constant exchange with past speakers and the Forward community. I always aim for a diverse lineup. We had over 70 talks this year [that] not only differed in genre, but also in their presentation style. We are always looking for fresh talent and we push young creatives. Variety is important.

“A talk is more than just a good portfolio: the [speaker] should give valuable insights and be fun on stage. Nowadays, our attention span is short. If a pitch doesn’t grab my attention within 5 seconds, I can tell that the audience will also lose their attention within 5 minutes. A good talk should let people forget about their smartphones. It should be fun, insightful, visually appealing, and outstanding.”

“Our approach tends to be hands-on, supportive, and collaborative.”
Leetha Filderman, President, PopTech

“PopTech has long been regarded as the forum that features emerging thinkers and doers. We spend a lot of time researching individuals working on breakthrough approaches to global challenges and societal issues.

“Speaker selections are made by our curatorial committee, based on research and guided by the theme of the annual forum. In addition to our internal curatorial committee, we consult past speakers, PopTech Fellows, and organizations we collaborate with on our non-conference portfolio of projects. PopTech does not host an open call for speakers.

“We tend to know our speakers pretty well by the time we extend an invitation. Members of our curatorial committee are regularly in discussion with speakers as the fabric of their talk emerges. Since we do not do an open call for speakers, we tend not to rely on talk abstracts. Our approach tends to be hands-on, supportive, and collaborative.”

Our takeaways:

  • Get to know each conference’s tone, audience, and style: Even better, attend the event and engage with their community and organizers. When you pitch, you’ll be prepared to do so with a better understanding of what resonates with them.
  • Clearly demonstrate what’s unique about your talk topic or speaking style: You’ll avoid blending in with other pitches. The best way to demonstrate your style? Have video of a previous talk readily available on your website, and link to it in your pitch.
  • Develop your storytelling: Few creative events are interested in a simple portfolio review or case study; they’re looking for the larger narrative and the insights you can provide.
  • Demonstrate how you’re “giving, not taking:” Even when you’re promoting yourself and your speaking, humility is valued by organizers and audiences. What can you uniquely offer them? How do you already participate in this community, whether at the live event or in digital forums?