November 3rd, 2012

On Motivation: Becoming a Speaker

About two months ago I announced that I'd be speaking at a conference for the very first time. A friend reached out and asked me a pretty important question. "Why speak at all?" He was curious about the motivation to speak and why it's so common for programmers (not me) and designers (yes, me) to take up speaking.

My answer's a pretty selfish one. The reason I started speaking is really simple: I want to be a good speaker. Maybe even a great one, someday. And I figure that if I start now, and become acquainted with the almost-certain vomit-inducing/crippling nervousness that is the art of speaking, then maybe I'll have a chance at becoming one.

After forcing myself to rewatch the talks I've given, I've noticed that I've improved after every speaking opportunity. After my most recent talk, I even felt like I'd developed the ability to arrive at, and communicate, actual thoughts and ideas while on stage, rather than just parroting the content of my slides. Now that I've spoken a few times, I've found myself wanting to speak for what I think is a much cooler reason.

And that is, if anything I say in the 30-45 minute span that someone allows me to stand on a stage will help anyone who's listening to a. move faster, b. work happier, or c. have a better fucking day, then it's completely worth my time. Every second of it.

There are a few things that have made my speaking experiences really good and also a few that have made them what I percieve to be a little bit harder. Here's a few things to consider before you decide to submit a proposal to speak or conversely, abandon speaking completely:

1. Conference size. This may be trivial to some people, but for me, speaking at a smaller, tighter-knit, conference was 10x better than speaking at a massive 10-track conference. And it's not just about being able to fill a room. People at smaller conferences are a lot less likely to be assholes. The conference organizers of a smaller, more personal conference do a much better job of facilitating a safe, respectful environment for both speakers and attendees.

JSCONFEU set an incredibly high the bar as far as creating an environment I will continue to want to be a part of and contribute to. They even wrote up a Code of Conduct to lay down some ground rules and sent it to every speaker and attendee before the conference began. Every conference should consider doing this. In fact, I'll probably think twice before I speak at another conference whose organizers don't both write and promise to enforce one.

2. Conference talks are a lot of work. A LOT. Every speaker I've ever known has admitted this. And for some reason I was still surprised to find out that it's true. I even felt like my slides were pretty simple, and still ended up spending no less than 40 hours working on each talk.

3. Inevitably, not everyone will love you or what you have to say. Or maybe they will. But it's probably better that you prepare for the worst. I was recently trolled pretty hard by an attendee of a massive conference here in San Francisco who literally called me out on Twitter for being 'annoying' before my talk had even begun. Some people will just decide to dislike you, and find arbitrary reasons to try to discredit you. Best piece of advice? Ignore them. Those people probably don't deserve your consideration. Additionally, you're not forcing them to listen to you. If they don't like what they're hearing they can leave. In fact, it's probably better that they do, to free up room for people who do want to hear what you have to say and/or might benefit from your talk. WIN-WIN.

4. Absolutely be yourself. I was incredibly nervous to speak, both as a newbie and being super yawkard (young + awkward). The only kernel of hope that I had to hold onto was that I'm pretty proud of the person I am and the work that I do. Take those things on stage with you and you'll be fine.

5. Speaking is probably more rewarding than any of us deserve. After my second talk I got an email that literally just said "Thank you so much for speaking." How fucking awesome is it to feel like you've maybe made someone else's day or the way they work a tiny bit better? The answer is: Too fucking awesome.

In case you're wondering if you have anything to offer as a speaker, there is a particularly great post by one of the organizers of JSCONFEU, Tiffany Conroy, about bringing your unique perspective to the conference world, entitled We Are All Awesome.

My talks have finally surfaced on the Internet. And I've made a home for them, here's a link to my talk Because F%$k Photoshop.