Speaking Easy, Part 1: Why it Matters

I recently volunteered to be a mentor for the Speak Easy program that Fiona Charles and Anne-Marie Charrett have started. Being accepted as a mentor is one of the proudest moments of my career. I’d like to talk about why this program matters, why I volunteered, and why this honor means so much to me.

First, the program:

Speak Easy came about when Fiona Charles and Anne-Marie Charrett decided to walk the talk about creating diversity at technical conferences. As conference organisers, they’ve seen the challenges in sourcing diverse speakers for their programs. As experienced speakers they’ve understood and seen the difficulty in getting experience and confidence to speak at a professional level.

This initiative is designed to bridge that gap.

This is a very real thing:

My experience as a conference organizer bears this out. Women are not the only underrepresented group as speakers at most technical conferences; it’s essentially every demographic besides straight white dudes that has a less-than-proportional ratio of conference attendee to conference speaker at most conferences I’ve attended. Try that experiment – assess proportions of the audience relative to the proportions of the speakers – at the next conference you attend, or when looking at a board, executive team, government body, etc. You know, in case constantly being told this is an issue wasn’t enough, and you needed some independent verification.

Why Does It Matter?

Because speaking gigs improve careers. A lot. And these opportunities should be accessible to everyone who deserves them.

Many conferences don’t pay anything beyond a conference admission for the time spent preparing and practicing a track session. Some will help a little with hotel, meals, or other travel expenses. Keynote speakers are more likely to get a small honorarium. None of this compensation is significant compared to the raise a promotion can bring, or the revenue of a consulting gig.

Some people are lucky enough to speak at conferences on an expense account, but consultants give up billable time to attend and speak at conferences. The time spent preparing material is also significant, and is more non-billable time.

So why do we do it? We often call it marketing, because getting your name and your company’s name out there can be of real value, and it’s good to have Google results. Plus, that lets you use marketing budget for travel expenses. But that’s not the only reason – and for most people, it’s not the biggest value they personally get.

Not only are speaking gigs exposure to the world at large for you and your ideas, they are practice for stepping in front of a group of peers and confidently declaring a point of view. Only half of the phrase “thought leadership” is about ideas. That is an important part – study, research, and articulating what you know is a learning exercise that will help you grow. The other half is about confidence, persuading, connecting with an audience, and other skills that are necessary to lead effectively, both formally and technically. The experience of stepping out on front of a room that you think is staring at you, getting over your terror, fielding questions/challenges, and staking out your claim as an expert will increase your effectiveness in a variety of situations. I’ve known a very few people self-possessed enough to confidently speak in front of a group. Everyone else has to get over their impostor syndrome and learn how to do this in order to advance their careers.

Speaking at a conference is one of the best ways to get this experience, and will help your career. It’s a valuable opportunity, and if you hope to lead, either formally or with your ideas, it is something you should strongly consider pursuing. If you would like a gentler on-ramp, consider addressing a Meet-up, or lightning talks/ “speed-geeking” at a conference.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2: You Can Do It!


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