We need more speakers!
More new public speakers with different voices and perspectives can only be positive for the community in its entirety. It brings new approaches and ideas.
But there is a high barrier for entry into public speaking. People are not sure they are ready or know enough to make a talk and if they don’t know public speakers personally, it can be extremely intimidating to jump in.
In this series of posts, I’d like to give my personal experience and point of view about it, in the hope that it can help some people who are thinking about giving it a try. I’m by no mean an expert about public speaking. But as somebody who has given a few talks over the last two years, organizes the French C++ Meetups, participated in a few conference’s program committees and organizes a C++ conference, I have some experience with writing and reading talk proposals as well as giving and listening to talks.
Should I even give a talk?
Before my first public talk, I spoke with a colleague who had given talks that I really enjoyed. He told me that he was putting a hold on public speaking because he used to give talks for “the wrong reasons” and now that he had realized that, he was no longer sure he was willing to spend the energy it requires to give a good talk. Fortunately, two years after he started giving talks again, so I guess he did find the good reasons for himself.
The “Wrong” Reasons
Everyone gives talks for their own reasons and I don’t intend to judge or stop anybody based on them. But I agree with that colleague that there are bad reasons to give a talk. Not because you shouldn’t pursue them, but because public speaking will not help much with them.
If you give talks to become rich, you either are in a very different field than me or are very bad at making a budget, because the technical conferences I attend are not paid! If you are lucky, they might cover speakers travel and hotel, so at least you don’t pay to participate. And even if it were paid, the time it takes to prepare a talk and the uncertainty to be selected would make it a bad main source of income.
Giving talks for the fame is also a very poor decision, because technical fields are extremely niche. If I take the C++ world as an example, I have only found two persons who have reached 10k followers on Twitter by talking about C++ only. There are many other ways to reach a lot more people without spending as much time and energy, if it is your goal.
The programming field is both extremely complex and vast. The more we explore it, the more we realize how little we know about it. Each person around us knows a little more about some subject than we do and one might consider the sum of all these missing knowledges, while being oblivious to their own expertise. All of that can lead to struggling with our self confidence and the dreaded impostor syndrome.
If you suffer from it, giving public talks will not be a magic cure. It can even make things worst, as people will congratulate you and treat you as the expert you are while the sum of missing knowledge you perceive will have increased from the expertise you will have gained.
Suffering from self-confidence issues should not stop you from giving talks, but at the end of the day, you will still need to address the problem or continue to live with it.
The “Good” Reasons
As a public speaker and somebody who pushes other people to give talks, I of course also think that there are some very good reasons to give talks at conferences.
Going at Conferences
Obviously, if you talk at a conference, it means you also get to attend said conference. And probably at little or no cost. That by itself is a very good reason. Most talks nowadays can be watched online, but that doesn’t make conferences less interesting to attend in person. Some talks are experienced very differently when you have the chance to see them live. Most people will not find the time to watch that many talks if they don’t have the dedicated time that a conference gives you.
But more importantly, the time between the talks is what makes attending conferences so valuable. You get to meet talented people around a shared interest and that leads to great conversations and encounters. If you are part of online communities, conferences are also a privileged time to meet in person friends that you made online. The highlight of the conferences I attend as a speaker is always to meet the marvelous people that I know from #include<C++>.
Giving Back to the Community
Programming communities are incredibly important in how we work. They lead the evolutions of the language, the tooling and they are the mould from which new patterns and workflow emerge and thrive. By giving talks, we take an active part in this community and participate in creating new discussions that will shape the future of our domain. Some very important changes in the C++ world originated from public talks. Perhaps your talk will start the next revolution?
I’ve heard many people tell me “I can’t give a talk about XXX, I’m not an expert about it”. And actually, it often works the other way around. You start with a talk idea about a subject you understand. Then, as you try to write a talk about it, you go from understanding it to being able to explain it simply. Then you go deeper in your thoughts about the subject as you immerse in it. Then you start thinking about all the tangential points that you could be asked about during Q&A and ensure that you understand them enough too. Then you give the talk and meet experts about the subject who give you their opinion. And that’s how by giving a talk, you end up an expert on a subject that you used to understand on the surface.
Take a Snapshot of your Knowledge
Giving a talk and having a video of it online is a great way to keep a snapshot of what you thought and knew about a subject at some point. You can refer other people to it instead of reexplaining in sub-optimal conditions the same thing over and over again. It can also be useful for you in one year or a decade, when you will need a refresher about the same subject.