Work

Is it worth speaking at conferences?

I have been reading Twitter more often recently due to Brexit and I came across this mini-controversy that resonated with me.

Should you talk at conferences?

No, it’s a lot of effort that could be better spent on achieving your goals.

Yes you should if you’re from an under-represented background you should because it gives you visibility that is useful for developing your career.

Yes because it’s helpful for consolidating your understanding of a topic.

I certainly recognise this one, until you have to explain something its hard to say to prove that you really understand rather than having a strong intuition as to how something works

Yes because otherwise conferences are all-white boozy brofests.

The interesting point here being the idea that inclusion inherently leads to a loss of prestige in an activity because exclusion and prestige are related.

My lived experience

I did do conference talks to help build my “personal brand”. When I worked at ThoughtWorks it did help my career to be able to point that I was involved in community activity. At Wazoku I did talks simply to make people aware of the company.

At the Guardian doing talks was also important for your career because talking about our work was important to the organisation. In my early years there people at recruitment events were surprised to discover the Guardian had a in-house development team. I’m not sure that is was necessarily expected of everyone but at a senior level it was certainly an important part of the job not just to do the technical work but to ensure people outside the building understood what as a group we were doing.

At GDS doing talks was a complete pain because you had to get clearance for everything you were going to say and also there were various rules about the type of events and the representation at the events you could speak at. The level of bureaucracy around something that was already by this point a bit of a chore meant that I did one prior commitment and then basically stopped doing technical talks.

Stepping out of the cycle of trying to create and pitch talks was great. I just bought my ticket to events like a normal person and it was interesting to look at what value conferences were providing to me.

Relapsing

Recently though I did try doing some talks again. One of them about pop psychology concepts that are wrong was a very personal hobby horse. I don’t want to attend another talk where someone talks about various brain types (neuro-diverse, left-right, female-male, emotional intelligence) so I thought I do a talk about what is currently known about the mind and psychology.

Preparing was easy as I just needed to record various interesting bits and pieces as I came across them. Giving the talk was intense though. After a while not doing this kind of thing, getting up in front of people and aiming to entertain and inform them was a crushing pressure. Proper hand-trembling, mouth-dry, stage terror stuff.

The feedback was generally positive and I thought that while it had been a baptism of fire I was going to get back in the swing of things.

The next talk was to help a friend get their conference going in the North of England. It related to work activity so again preparation was not too hard… until the venue organisers said they needed the talk in Powerpoint format, which is not a program I own. They also needed the talk slides a month in advance whereas normally I will only finalise my content a couple of days before I am due to give the talk.

But I went ahead and cut a version of the slide deck via Google Docs. Fortunately I prefer to try and talk around my presentations and not heavily use slides so I just needed to try and sort out my tentpole slides and submit those.

The talk was reasonably well-attended and I was able to get a few questions going rather than presenting slides (a third of the deck ended up not being used). I genuinely prefer the Q&A format to the normal talk format. I was gratified to hear my talk referenced by other speakers later in the conference. However later in a vote on the most popular talk, my talk came last. I’m not sure anyone voted for it. I knew I hadn’t really gone for an entertaining format but I hadn’t thought it was that bad.

Later in the year I gave another version of that same talk. This time cut down to a running time of 20 minutes which required two weeks of practice. I was able to reuse the slides from the abortive earlier version but they still needed heavy restructuring to fit the new shorter format.

The talk got very little feedback on its second outing, no-one walked out though, which is positive. After the event the conference feedback system provided a score of 3.5 out 4, which I feel might be good or at least some proof that some people found value in it or possibly only a handful of people provided feedback.

The talk came at a particularly busy business time of year workwise and I don’t think I’d volunteer to do such a thing again due to the pressure of having to manage both preparation and regular work things.

Is it worth giving talks?

Giving talks for “personal brand” is essentially about making yourself feel like a known quantity to other people in your industry who you want to influence or have good relationships with. That might be clients you want to sell to, people you may wish to hire or employers who might hire you.

The truth is you want to achieve this as simply as you can with as least effort expended on your part. Talks, unless you are good at extemporising off the cuff, are probably more effort than the value they return.

A lightning talk, well-executed, might well have the same effect as a longer, more involved talk.

Giving a talk about something you care about or what to change in your industry is almost certainly worth it. Although it is the same amount of work, putting together your thoughts and arguments has value to you even if no-one ever hears the talk.

Also to some extent I think passion talks are easier to deliver. You are not really trying to entertain the audience beyond establishing enough rapport to get your message heard.

In terms of career development though I don’t think talks and conferences ever really helped because I’m simply not a good enough networker.

Many people have said that they enjoy talking at conferences because the talk serves as an icebreaker for meeting and talking to new people (as long as it is early in the programme). That has definitely been true for me in the past, and I totally recognise how much easier people find it to talk to me when they can hook it onto something that I’ve presented about.

If you are that kind of extroverted introvert then doing talks makes attending the conference more enjoyable and it makes sense to put in the work they require. Although again you want to limit the amount of effort you put in because the outcome you want is facilitated by the talk but the talk is not the point. You are giving the talk to help you to meet new people and find it easier to build a relationship with them; that’s where the effort should be spent.

So should I still be giving talks? Well at this point I think they do consume more effort from me than say, writing this blog post.

In terms of community or career-opportunities getting into roundtable discussions and breakfast meetings with senior technical people has more impact than talking at conferences with a general developer audience.

But talking and engaging audiences is a skill and a hard one to acquire and maintaining it requires practice. Therefore I probably should keep my hand in, but I should try to choose topics that I feel excited about and I should think about the format and make sure the effort involved is proportionate.

I should also think about the nature of the conferences I am pitching to so that I have a decent chance of succeeding in the selection while having the greatest chance of actually enjoying attending the conference and learning something as a result.

It’s also important who else is attending due to the networking effect. Beginner-friendly conferences while valuable are not going to fulfil my needs.

Therefore I think talking at conferences is valuable but you need to understand what you’re trying to get out of it rather than pursuing it as an abstract good in itself.

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