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Getting Promoted in Public Speaking

posted Jul 15, 2016, 3:40 PM by Anjuan Simmons   [ updated Jul 21, 2016, 4:49 PM ]
I’ve publicly spoken at tech events since 2009, and 2016 has been a banner year for me. I’ve had opportunities to speak from Los Angeles to Boston, from Detroit to Austin, and as far away as South Africa and Colombia. It has been immensely gratifying to have so many opportunities to share my ideas and passions with large audiences.

As I have continued on my public speaking journey, I have realized that there people have different ranks the speaker circuit. Each one experiences different audiences, outcomes, and opportunities for advancement.

Of course, the higher ranks often do the work of the lower ranks, but there is a clear.line of progression from level to level.

Here are the ranks as I currently understand them: Private Panelist, Sergeant Session, Captain Keynote, and Colonel Chair.

Private Panelist

This speaker is often asked to be on a panel with other speakers to discuss some topic within the realm of their expertise. Private Panelists don’t have to stand on their own because there are other speakers on stage.

Private Panelists are often able to give solo presentations at meetups or small gatherings, and this is a good way to expand their network. As they refine their delivery and develop a reputation for being a good speaker, they can start moving toward the next level.

Private Panelists rarely receive compensation for their talks, and must pay out-of-pocket for any speaking opportunities outside of their local area.

Obtaining a collection of videos displaying their talks is another good practice for speakers at this level. While these videos should be as well produced as possible, the content is more important than high production values.

Once Private Panelists hone their speaking skills, they are well positioned to submit to conference Call For Papers (CFPs). By writing strong abstracts and providing links to videos of their talks, Panelists will begin to receive invitations to speak at conference sessions. However, the number of rejected submissions may dwarf the number of accepted ones so submitting a high volume of ideas is critical. Private Panelists would do well to use resources like Technically Speaking, The Weekly CFP, and Callback Women to find high quality conferences.

Sergeant Session

As Private Panelists successfully speak at more conferences, they will begin to be sought out by more conference organizers to fill session slots in their schedules. This becomes a self-perpetuating cycle that results in the promotion from Private Panelist to Sergeant Session. Eventually, Sergeant Sessions are invited to speak at more events than they apply to themselves. A seasoned Sergeant Session will have to decline a number of speaking opportunities each year.

A Sergeant Session can sometimes earn money through honorariums. However, when speaking outside of their home country, these speakers often have to be careful when going through airports. Custom agents can sometimes be harsh when they perceive that a foreigner is coming into the country to earn income.

Another way for a Sergeant Session to monetize speaking is by conducting workshops. Many conferences share workshop revenue with the people who conduct them, and this can become a significant source of revenue.

As Sergeant Sessions advance, they become known to more conference organizers. They also learn more about the complexities of conducting conferences.

Captain Keynote

Conferences often look among Sergeant Sessions to find keynote speakers. Keynote speakers often give the opening and/or closing talks at conferences. Since keynotes are meant to set the tone of the conference day or end it on a high note, experienced speakers are desired.

When a Sergeant Session is first promoted to Captain Keynote, she usually gets assigned the closing keynote. Closing keynotes are important, but they are less risky than opening keynotes. There is also less pressure from the audience.

As Captain Keynotes advance, they start getting invited to give more opening keynotes. However, the pyramid structure of conferences becomes more obvious. There are a lot of Private Panelists forming the base, a smaller number of Sergeant Sessions in the middle, and an even smaller number of Captain Keynotes towards the top. This means that competition for keynote slots is very competitive. Organizers usually want well known speakers in the keynote position so it can be difficult to find space if you’re a new face. However, speakers who develop a reputation for giving great talks will find many opportunities to open or close the day at conferences.

Colonel Chair

At the top of the public speaking stand the Colonel Chairs. These are the people who have been to dozens of tech conferences and have often helped organize and run them. The role of the Colonel Chair is to select speakers for the conference, plan the agenda, enforce the code of conduct (or, good behavior if a formal code of conduct isn’t in place), and make sure the conference is a success.

There is an immense amount of stress being a Colonel Chair because the responsibilities are substantial. Many hours of work are required before the conference, and Colonel Chairs often have to maintain a constant presence while the conference is being conducted. There are also post-conference responsibilities. However, conferences usually offer fairly good compensation for Colonel Chairs, and they can gain a lot of respect in the industry if the events they run are successful.


There are the four ranks of public speaking. No matter your rank, you can find people less experienced than you to help and mentors who have been more successful than you to teach you their ways. In any case, enjoy the journey of being a speaker!