Sunday, November 20, 2016

Remind me again, why do I speak at conferences?

It was 1997 and all I wanted was to be one of the cool kids in the student union board of executives. I announced my interest, and was standing in the queue for introducing myself. At time of my introduction in front of the large classroom with probably 50 people at most, I was shaking, about to faint. They could see me shake. My voice would escape me. The introduction did not go well, but it changed my life. It changed me through starting to work on my handicap of fear of crowds and public speaking.

With public 59 talks in 2015-2017 timeframe, I can say that the change is quite relevant.

Public speaking is not an inherent talent, but it is a skill we can practice. It's a skill I have practiced, and an area where one is never ready. All it takes is a decision: I will do it. Opportunities to practice are everywhere. Start safe with something you know and care for, with a short talk, with an audience that shares your interests. They want to see you succeed and they are interested in your framing of the same topics. You don't have to travel across the world for your first talk. Talk at your own company. Talk in your local community. Don't worry about failing, we all do bad sometimes.

I've learned not to do theoretical talks as they don't sit well with me - I speak from experiences and cases, even if those cases are full of imperfection. I've learned to take down the amount of text on my slides as my comfort levels of speaking went up. And I've moved from talks to live demos. There is no one recipe for a talk. I find the recipe to seek is bringing yourself to the talk and for me, it's been a long journey of experiments with all sorts of topics, approaches and emphasis.

I recently listened to Agile Uprising Podcast's Women in Agile -episode, and listening to it made me upset. One of the panelists introduced the idea that it's bad for all of us women if a women who shouldn't be speaking (not good enough) gets a chance. It made me think back to the chances I was given to practice. I wasn't always good. I got better by practice. Speaking isn't a one off thing, but it is a journey. Amongst all the average men, why is one average woman framed as bad?

Getting ready to yet another talk, I ask what I've recently asked so many times: why do I bother? Why do I speak at conferences? What's in it for me? As my friend reminds me, there's three things conference speaking gives me.

  1. Network and connections. My network isn't of immediate financial value to me as I'm not a consultant, but I've found (and keep looking for) special people to connect with. People who can inspire me, teach me and keep me honest when I'm learning. 
  2. Strive for learning. Speaking in conferences gives me chances of participating in conferences I couldn't be in otherwise. Many of my colleagues talk about years without being in one, and I go to tens of conferences every year. My unique position as someone who goes out a lot in combination to my personality makes me the person who drives my organizations for better directions. I know what is possible outside my company, and I don't believe in "impossible". I'm never completely happy with where we are not but always seeking for options to do things better at work. 
  3. Setting an example. I speak so that people like me would dare to speak. People who are not consultants  but practitioners. People with severe stage fright. People who don't see people like them on stage, just like I still don't see people like me. We have still unrepresentative amount of women in the field of testing on the stages. 
I try to remember this when I'm in a different country while my son is sick at home and I can only offer my voice as comfort. And I reflect on this as I work to pass the ball forward, to take time to stay away from conferences to work on other projects. 

If you are someone working your way into the speaking circuit, either right at the beginning or anywhere on the journey, and believe my experiences could be of help, please reach out. If I can be a speaker, anyone can.