So you’ve seen your biggest competitors and admired peers posting on social media about their upcoming speaking engagements at major industry events like the Cannabis Conference, MJBizCon, or thought leadership events like TEDx or SXSW. It hits different seeing familiar names next to panel descriptions and on conference recap posts—especially if you're wondering why your name isn't on the same schedule.
It's fair to have FOMO—that's the fear of missing out. Conference speaking engagements often bring about powerful networking opportunities and lead to valuable connections. They also serve as vital tools for building brand awareness.
“The value is immense,” explains Grasslands founder Ricardo Baca. “I mean, for one, you are up there and you’re seen as an educator, you’re seen as a thought leader. Your peers are out there and they’re looking to you to share your expertise. It’s good for your personal brand, but it’s also good for the brand that you’re there representing.”
Before you get to share expertise and build a reputation onstage, however, you’ve got to land those speaking slots. Strategies for success revolve around several tactics, including:
Leveraging the members of your network involved in conference organization who are familiar with your reliability, skill set, and perspective
Filling out a speaker application, with a practiced awareness of what the speaker selection jury is seeking
APPLYING FOR CANNABIS CONFERENCES
Applying for conferences is a fairly standard process. Different event applications might vary in terms of the level of detail required or the word count to which your responses are limited, but most expos demand similar kinds of information. The challenge isn’t filling out the form; instead, it’s figuring out what conference organizers are looking for, and proving you are the person to provide it.
When picking a thought leadership topic, it helps to think in terms of the classic five Ws journalists rely on: who, what, when, where, and why. Be prepared to speak to who you are, what actionable takeaways attendees will gain, when you’ve participated in thought leadership in the past, where you’re coming from in terms of your background and perspective and why you are a qualified expert.
To begin, jot down a list of topics about which you feel your contributions could be meaningful. Be sure to include subjects that best represent your business’ competitive advantages and that will appeal to conference attendees. Investing in thought leadership takes time and money; think strategically about how each cannabis conference speaking opportunity will help your company meet its messaging goals.
Take a look at that conference’s previous year schedule to see what’s already been covered, or which of last year’s topics have seen pertinent changes in the months since. Note emerging trends in the cannabis industry or the economic landscape at large that might impact how cultivators, dispensaries, or vertically-integrated operations do business. Take another cue from journalists and practice active listening at your next industry happy hour to see what seems to be a hot topic or a particular pain point for different types of cannabis businesses.
ASSESSING YOUR VALUE AS A SPEAKER
Not only do you need a timely, actionable and fresh-feeling proposal, you also must to assess what you bring to the table as a speaker. Press pause on imposter syndrome for a minute and ask yourself the same kinds of questions you would anticipate from the expo’s organizers as they read through the stacks of applications they’ve received.
When the cannabis industry was smaller, fewer conference applicants routinely appeared at events all over the country. As their thought leadership resumes grew, conference organizers turned to them repeatedly for speaking engagements. The rise of a relatively small pool of cannabis experts led a certain level of overexposure, however. Conference executives picking speakers became increasingly concerned, as audiences don’t want to pay $500, $600 or $700 for events featuring the same arrays of speakers they already have encountered at other gatherings.
Conference organizers are “seeing the need to get new faces out there,” notes Ricardo. “That’s great news for developing thought leaders and new brands with compelling things to get across.”
Find What Makes You Unique in the Cannabis Space
Are you one of those new faces who represents something fresh in the cannabis industry? That can certainly help your chances of your proposal being accepted. It can also help shape the proposal or panel you submit and how you approach the subject matter at hand. Perhaps you’re unique value-add as a speaker is that you transitioned to the cannabis industry from another field.
Evaluate intersections of your personal brand and the company you represent. For example, ancillary services that formerly steered clear of cannabis, such as law, accounting and transportation firms, now flock to the space and generate buzz—and their executives increasingly speak at cannabis conferences. Perhaps you bring intersectional identities or diverse perspectives to the cannabis industry. Or you innovated a unique solution to a problem other companies face. Lean into your unique qualifiers to stand out among other applications.
Establish Your Bonafides
Closely scrutinize your resume and professional portfolio, too, for examples demonstrating your capability not just as a subject matter expert, but as a public speaker. As Ricardo notes, “a very common question on those speaker abstracts is ‘have you spoken before in public? Have you spoken on a panel?”
“If there’s a photo or video evidence [of your public speaking skills] they oftentimes ask for that because they want to make sure that when you’re on that stage in front of 10 people or 500 people, you’re not going to clam up,” says Ricardo. “They want to make sure that you’re going to be able to express your expertise and have a thoughtful conversation with your fellow panelists to help educate people in the room.”
ASK FOR HELP WHEN YOU NEED IT
If it’s starting to sound like getting on the thought leadership circuit takes some work, you are correct. But you don’t have to go it alone. Industry partners in cannabis marketing and cannabis PR can help you break into speaking at cannabis conferences and finesse your personal and professional value-adds and branding.
With hard work, vision and a little help from savvy industry partners, you might just be surprised by the influence you can flex through thought leadership and speaking at cannabis conferences.
Want to learn more about how you can develop your expertise into thought leadership as part of a robust PR and marketing plan? Reach out anytime to talk with the Grasslands team.
CONTENT STRATEGIST & COPYWRITER
Meghan O'Dea has honed her skills as a writer and content strategist for over a decade. She cut her teeth writing film and music reviews and a weekly opinion column on the 20-something experience. Early success in personal essay led Meghan to earn a Master's degree in Creative Nonfiction at UT Chattanooga, during which she attended the international MFA program at City University in Hong Kong as a visiting scholar. She has served as a digital editor for Fortune Magazine and Lonely Planet and earned bylines in The Washington Post, Playboy, Bitch magazine, Yoga Journal and Subaru Drive Magazine, amongst others. Meghan began writing cannabis stories for Willamette Week, Nylon and Different Leaf while working in the travel and outdoor media industries in Portland, Oregon. In addition to covering the intersection of travel, hospitality and cannabis, Meghan's work as a travel journalist took her from Los Cabos to Yellowstone, from San Francisco to Jamaica. She has also taught composition and travel writing at the college level and guest lectured on topics such as literary citizenship, urban history and professional development at conferences and universities throughout the United States as well as Madrid, Spain.