Ask Annie

How to get on executive recruiters' radar screens

May 11, 2012: 10:34 AM ET

Giving speeches at industry events is a time-tested way to get noticed by headhunters, but Twitter has made it more of a gamble. Luckily, you have other options.

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I'm in upper-middle management at a big company where, as you wrote about in your recent column, I really feel stuck. I think I'd have a better shot at moving up somewhere else, maybe at a smaller company, especially if I can leverage my expertise in my field to get the attention of executive recruiters who might be searching for someone like me.

I've heard over and over again that one way to establish a reputation as a "go-to" person in a specialized area of knowledge is to give speeches at conferences and other industry gatherings, but my question is, how does one break into that? Don't conference organizers usually look for experienced speakers -- and (a classic Catch-22), if you don't have speaking experience, how are you supposed to get it? — Restless

Dear Restless: It's certainly true that recruiters scout conferences for talent (which is one reason why it's smart to go to them, even if your employer won't foot the bill). But "it's a common misperception that, if you have no speaking experience, you can't break in to national events as a speaker," says Lisa Calhoun. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

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Calhoun is CEO of Write2Market, an Atlanta-based communications firm that organizes conferences. "What conference organizers are dying for is speakers, unknown or not, who have practical, expert know-how in a given subject area," she says.

She recommends three steps for getting a spot on the program at a big event. First, "make a list of all the conferences where you think attendees would have a lot to learn from you. Research those opportunities by looking at the program from last year's conference," Calhoun says. Second, "figure out what makes you unique, so that your proposed session will stand out."

And third, send a succinct email to the person in charge of lining up speakers. "Be sure and identify three specific items that session attendees will learn, preferably in a short list of bullet points. Then write a sentence or two on why you are particularly qualified to address these topics," Calhoun says. "Well-researched, practical proposals have a tremendously high acceptance rate."

You probably won't be a keynote speaker your first time out, she adds, but that's okay. A breakout session at the right conference can actually establish your reputation among the smaller subset of attendees whose opinion of you matters most, so "don't discount breakout sessions. Apply for them diligently," Calhoun advises. "And when you do address one, get a friend to videotape your presentation, so you can use the video in your next round of speaking submissions."

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Great, but one word of caution: Public speaking these days is not for the faint of heart. Scott Weiss is head of a firm called Speakeasy that has coached executives at Microsoft (MSFT), Toyota (TM), Cisco (CSCO), Wells Fargo (WFC), and many other big companies on the fine points of effective public speaking. He notes that a growing number of business events now feature live Twitter feeds that let the audience Tweet comments and questions during speeches. The Tweets often show up either on a laptop on the podium or on a giant screen set up on the stage that is visible to everyone in the room.

"Twitter is really changing the game," observes Weiss, adding that, even if you don't see the instant Twitter feedback on what you're saying, "people are still tweeting about you. When you look out at the audience and see everyone's thumbs going, it can be distracting," he notes. "Along with all the other stresses of speaking to an audience, you now have this added layer to contend with. It's nerve-wracking" -- especially for a neophyte speaker who may already be nervous enough.

Indeed, for anyone who is prone to stage fright to begin with, the Twitter-factor may be a deal breaker. Luckily, there are other ways to catch an executive recruiter's eye besides standing up in front of an in-person audience and strutting your stuff. Contributing bylined articles to trade journals and other professional publications can get you noticed, too.

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And don't overlook the direct approach: Get in touch with a few recruiters who specialize in your field and let them know you're interested in swapping contacts. Even if you're not quite the right fit for a job opening a headhunter is trying to fill right now, you may know someone who is. One of the surest ways to stay on a recruiter's radar screen is to help out by recommending and introducing others.

Since headhunters often troll for talent on social media sites, make sure your LinkedIn profile is complete and up-to-date. "Well-chosen key words, a demonstration of career progression, and obviously solid titles, companies, and education will catch our attention," says Justin Hirsch, president of Chicago-based recruiting firm JobPlex, adding that a strong network on LinkedIn means "you can get referred to us and, at the same time, we can find you."

Talkback: Have you made a career move as a result of a public speaking gig (or more than one)? If you've gotten a job through an executive recruiter, how did you connect with him or her? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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