Why You Should Speak

At conferences and meet-ups, I spend a lot of time with young practitioners. And every time I chat with them, I try to talk them into speaking at a conference and/or writing an article.

But why? They have a millions excuse why not…

Excuse #1. I’m just starting to figure this out

If you are just starting to figure this out, how many others are also? How many haven’t even started figuring it out?

I bet when you sat down to work on a problem, you did what we all do– ran a search to see if anyone else had already solved it. And if it was solved, you did what the expert to did and moved on with your life.

But more likely is you found some articles that held a few clues, then you tracked down a couple people to ask them what they thought, and then you experimented.

Now you have unique information on what works (or what doesn’t) that is worth getting out in the world. Maybe you don’t have all the answers, but you have some. And if you share what you know, others can take it and grow it into something even better that you can build upon further.

Isaac Newton may have stood on the shoulders of giants, but most of us just take turns standing on each other’s shoulders.

Excuse #2. I’m not famous.

Silly! How do you think famous people get famous? Sitting in the corner? No, you have to have the courage to go out and look dumb in public. Trust me I know.

“I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said that you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)”
• Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Besides, aren’t we all tired of seeing them same talking heads, and isn’t it nice to hear a new perspective? Perhaps yours?

Excuse #3. I’m not ready.

So often people want to have all the answers before they go in public. But (see #1) it can be just as useful to you and the community to get what you know out into the world where others can help make you smarter.

When I was in grad school, I took a class on teaching. The most useful thing I learned was what to do when someone asks you a question to which you don’t know the answer. As humans, we often feel we need to have all the answers, and may make something dumb up rather than admit we are stumped. The teacher told us all his secret: ask the student what they thought the answer was. If they don’t know, you can suggest they research it and come back tomorrow. He explained to us that as well as it being a more more effective pedagogy, it allows you, the teacher, to research the question and come back tomorrow able to judge the correctness of the answer.

I’ve adapted this approach for when I talk. I also ask what the questioner thinks the answer is. Then either they tell me (they were just waiting to do so, often enough) or they share what they suspect might be the answer. Then I share what I think, if I have a theory, and suggest we both explore this question and share back on our blogs/twitter when we get answers. This approach of collaboration and humility has never backfired on me. Better to admit you don’t know than pretend and fool no one.

You could keep researching your subject until you had every single answer and were ready for every challenge. Unless you died of old age first. Or you could get your ideas into the world where they can do some good.

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
• Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Excuse #4. What if I flop?

It is a real if unlikely possibility. Think of the worst talks you’ve seen. How many of then ended up with the audience rising up against the speaker and throwing tomatoes? I think the worst thing I ever saw was the brilliant and charming Danah Boyd getting undone by the twitter backchannel. But she soldiers on, having received no bodily injury from the twittersphere.

Scott Berkun, whose book Confessions of a Public Speaker
you really must purchase before you step on stage wrote:

“In hundreds of lectures around the world, I’ve done most of the scary, tragic, embarrassing things that terrify people. I’ve been heckled by drunken crowds in a Boston bar. I’ve lectured to empty seats, and a bored janitor, in New York City. I’ve had a laptop crash in a Moscow auditorium; a microphone die at a keynote speech in San Jose; and I’ve watched helplessly as the Parisian executives who hired me fell asleep in the conference room while I was speaking.

The secret to coping with these events is to realize that everyone forgets about them after they happen– except one person: me. No one else really cares that much.”

Flopping is typically not memorable, but being inspiring is. The odds are in your favor.

Get Scott’s book, as it will help you far more than the book on pretty slides to prepare to not flop, as well as helping you to prepare– if bad things do happen– to survive it.

What if you flop? You will have tried, you will have learned, and you will be able to tell really funny stories at the bar about it.

Excuse #5. I’m scared.

We are all scared. Everyone of us. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. There is an intoxicating exhilaration of having done something hard, and painful and ultimately worthy when you stand in front of your peers and share knowledge. It’s like skydiving, only with more meaning and less actual death.

Finally, a story.

I gave a talk at a conference a while back. It was a talk where I studied up on something I knew nothing about– Architecture– then got up and talked about how it had everything to do with what the audience did for a living: web design. And I was scared, afraid I’d flop, afraid someone would point out I was not an architect and should never play on on TV. I didn’t sleep the night before. Yet it went ok, and a couple of my friends came up after and said they liked it, and I went on to the after party to get smashed on relief and red wine.

Flash forward a few years later; I’m enroute to a party after another conference at which I did not speak (how relaxing! How easy!)

I’m sitting in the dark intimacy of a tour bus at night next to a young but well known designer, talking about architecture’s influence on how I design for the web. Suddenly she turns to me and says “That talk changed my life. It made my work finally make sense, and partly why I started my company” And I was gobsmacked.

And that is really why you should speak (and write.) If you can make just one person feel they are not alone in this struggle we are all engaged in, you have done something truly worthwhile with your life.

So go. Speak.

Also, buy Bird by Bird and Confessions of a Public Speaker. They are really awesome.


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  1. 2
    Mark Eberman

    Another thing I learned about item #4: The majority of the people you are speaking to WANT you to do well. The don’t have torches and pitchforks stashed behind their chairs, just waiting for you to mess up. They are hoping you’ll do a good job, and will cut you a little slack if you need it (and are honest with them about your inexperience or nervousness).

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