Going for broke: An editorial on how to become a SharePoint speaker

HEvery few months, someone approaches me at a conference and asks how I became a SharePoint speaker. I never know how to respond. It’s not that I mind the innocuous question; I just don’t think my evolution as a speaker is very interesting. As I stand there trying to form a pithy response to the “how did you get here” question, I get flooded with tactical follow-ups: How do you get on a conference agenda? How do you decide what to speak on? Where do you come up with your material? How do you get to travel around the world speaking at these events? And how can I do that?

The logic behind the question makes sense. If you want to learn something new, a good way to start is building a couch-to-success plan. You find someone to emulate, learn how they succeeded, replicate their strategy (with a few tweaks if necessary) and voila! You succeed.

Or not.

Becoming a SharePoint speaker is hard–much harder, in fact, than it was just a few years ago. And there’s no magical methodology for success. So asking me how I became a SharePoint speaker is really the wrong question. The right question is much more personal–it is about you, the expertise you have, the story you can tell and the audience you are meant to connect with.

I started attending local Twin Cities SharePoint events in 2008. At the time, many of the events and sessions were designed for technical audiences (IT Pro’s and Developers). I attended sessions and gleaned what I could, but quickly realized that I was not the target demographic. My goal wasn’t to learn all the technical aspects of supporting a robust SharePoint implementation. I wanted to learn how I could exploit SharePoint to make my business run faster.

Was I interested in becoming more involved in my local SharePoint community? Yes. Was I interested in speaking at national events? Not really. My first priority was connecting. I wanted to find other SharePoint people who had the same burning questions I did about business valuations, information architecture and user adoption.

I started small, applying to speak at a local SharePoint Camp. And I spoke about what I knew–how to implement SharePoint as a business automation tool and calculate its return on investment (ROI). People were excited to hear my story, and we connected. One presentation led to others and eventually I was asked to speak at the Best Practices Conference.

I used my time at conferences wisely–connecting with others in the community and learning as much as I could. And yes, I was star-struck when I met many of the SharePoint gurus that I had conversed with over Twitter and followed on EndUserSharePoint.com. But I also saw what set SharePoint community leaders like Lori Gowin, Ruven Gotz, Cathy Dew, Laura Rogers, Dux Raymond Sy, Mark Miller, Bill English, Wes Preston and Virgil Carroll apart. Yes, they all were knowledgeable about SharePoint and were natural presenters. But they also had unique skills and knowledge sets. They focused in different specialty areas and supported one another. None of them took the same path to success, but they were all successful.

The SharePoint community is a community. Relationships are important. And the best relationships are forged on curiosity, common questions and give-and-take learning. So if you’re interested in becoming a SharePoint speaker, go out in the community and connect with other SharePoint-ers. Attend a user group meeting. Ask a question. Volunteer to sit on a discussion panel. Invite a fellow attendee out to lunch so you can learn about their background and how they use SharePoint. Then expand your reach even farther–attend a regional SharePoint Saturday event and offer to work as a volunteer. Attend or organize a SharePint. Open a Twitter account and start following and tweeting other SharePoint-ers.

Once you’ve started connecting with others, it’s time to share what you know. Apply to speak at an upcoming user group meeting or SharePoint Saturday event. Start a blog. Offer to host a SharePoint discussion group at your office. If you are willing to share what you know, you will find people who want to listen and learn from you. And yes–if you have a message to share that resonates with others, you may just find yourself on a conference agenda somewhere…


  1. BTW – I’m not a ‘natural’ speaker. It used to scare the crap out of me until I forced myself out of that shell. Now, I love it. There are lots of resources available for folks to get better at speaking as well. I haven’t used any of them (I used brute force) – but there are Toastmaster and Techmaster groups all over that can help folks not only break through when it comes to speaking, but learn how to improve their speaking skills as well.

  2. Some people believe that once a topic has been covered, if technically accurate, then it doesn’t need to be written about again. I could not disagree with this idea more. No two people have the same experiences, and rarely are SharePoint environments — or the organizations they serve — identical. So share your specific stories. Walk people through your planning process, the pitfalls and wins of your development process, and your end user onboarding successes. Expand on the nuances of your industry, your company size, your corporate culture — all of which make up a unique fingerprint for your SharePoint deployment, and will undoubtedly speak to someone out there with similar organizational attributes. The community needs more content, more stories. And the more stories you are able to share, the easier it is to transition into the speaker community.

  3. Great advice Sarah! We really can take back what we learn from the SharePoint community and apply it in our business, when we seek the answers to our questions and listen to others sharing their story. I enjoy your sessions and am looking forward to more.

  4. Good post Sarah! I also like to suggest to people to take small steps on their journey to share their story including within their own organizations. Organize lunch and learns, start an after-hours SharePoint group at your company, etc. When they are ready, look for small local events to expand. Although I have the the opportunity to speak at some of the bigger conferences, the most rewarding events I have done over the last few years have always been local events where I can mix with people in my local community, and build longer term and deeper relationships.

    I agree that people can get the misconception that it is all about technical expertise, when really the hunger is about how to solve problems and make a positive impact.

    Despite the fact that SharePoint user groups often have a problem addressing non-technical audiences, I know that the local Puget Sound SharePoint User Group is always looking for new speakers who can share experience with how people solve real-world business problems with SharePoint at any technical level. I completely agree with Christian’s comment that everyone has a unique story and the community needs more real-world case studies.

    Don’t let the *experts* scare you away, get out there, grab a stump, and tell your story 🙂

  5. HI Sarah, I’d like to make a comment about your assertion that “Becoming a SharePoint speaker is hard.” I believe you’re referring to increasing difficulty in getting a speaking spot at a major show (e.g., the Microsoft SharePoint Conference). In that sense, I agree with you–it is harder now because they get so many proposals. However, this is generally not the case for local user groups and other types of ‘smaller’ SharePoint events. If you look around, you should find some place to start and then you can build from there.

  6. Getting the courage to speak for me was the hardest aspect of presenting. Lack of confidence in your own abilities is the biggest road block in sharing with the community. I started blogging a long long time before I started speaking.

    As Sarah said, start small, speak at local user groups, perhaps look at running code camps or tech camps, Get involved with your local user group. This is how I started, did my first SharePoint Saturday in December last year and I’m speaking at my first major conference in April this year!

    We’re always looking for new speakers in the SugUK, I’m involved in running the London events, so if anyone is interested in a UK spot, drop me a note on twitter, or if you’re elsewhere in the UK, I’ll put you in touch with your local co-ordinator… @Cimares

  7. Hat’s off to you, not everyone has the confidence and expertise to excel at national Sharepoint speaking engagements. I know I wouldn’t fancy the pressure myself.

  8. Great topic for discussion! The key to speaking engagements is credibility of course, but more importantly, bringing something of interest to the table in a dynamic and informative way that engages the audience and allows them someting to take something useful away. There are a million different SharePoint related topics and there is certainly nothing wrong with recovering a subject, particularly with a unique and original take on it. What we find though is that there are some presenters who are a little too ‘dry’ and therefore if a person works on an engaging presentation style, this will drive them towards the front of the presenter’s queue. We even include a video masterclass on it as part of our online workshops for our SharePoint strategist Practitioners.

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