I started speaking at public tech events in 2009, and 2016 was 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’s been immensely gratifying to have so many opportunities to share my ideas and passions with technical audiences.

As I’ve continued on my public speaking journey, I’ve realized that, similar to the military, there are different ranks on the speaker circuit. Each rank 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) in public speaking: Private Panelist, Sergeant Session, Captain Keynote, and Colonel Chair.

Private Panelist

Private Panelist (Pexels)
Private Panelist (Pexels)

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

However, Private Panelists are may occasionally get the opportunity to give solo presentations at meet-ups 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 towards 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 capability is a good practice for speakers at this level. While these videos should be as well-produced as possible, for Private Panelists, the content is more important than high production values.

As Private Panelists hone their speaking skills, they can start submitting their talks to Call For Papers (CFPs). By writing strong abstracts and providing links to videos of their talks, Private Panelists will begin to receive invitations to speak at conferences. 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 PaperCall.io, The Weekly CFP, and, for underrepresented genders in tech, Callback Women to conferences looking for speakers.

Sergeant Session

Sergeant Session (Pexels)
Sergeant Session (Pexels)

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 receive direct invitations from event organizers to speak at events. 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 crossing international borders. Custom agents can sometimes be harsh when they perceive that a foreigner is coming into the country to earn income. Event organizers are often experienced in navigating the visa process, and it’s critical to work with them when traveling out of your home country to give a talk.

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 event organizers. They also learn more about the complexities of conducting conferences.

Captain Keynote

Captain Keynote (Pexels)
Captain Keynote (Pexels)

Conferences often look among Sergeant Sessions to find keynote speakers and promote them to the Captain Keynote level. 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 Sergeant Sessions are first promoted to Captain Keynote, they usually get 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 and being easy to work with will find many opportunities to open or close the day at conferences.

Colonel Chair

Colonel Chair (Army.mil)
Colonel Chair (Army.mil)

Yes, I realize my alliteration breaks down in this section.

At the top of the public speaking stand the Colonel Chairs. These are the people who have spent several months speaking at tech events 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, 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 several post-conference responsibilities. However, conferences usually offer some form of 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 help those who are less experienced and also find mentors who have been more successful than you to teach you their ways. In any case, enjoy your journey of being a speaker!