I got an email last night referring to a bit in the latest Unfinished Business where I mention public speaking. It was a stupid comment I made to Andy about how I used to do whatever I could when I was younger to duck out of class presentations. To be honest, I thought I’d edited it out. It’s not something I’m proud of and I didn’t want to encourage other young people to do the same. Presenting ideas to your peers is an important thing to do and get used to doing, but I’d had a shitty time at school and spent a good part of it trying to be invisible.
The email asked how I went from that to having the confidence to speak at conferences.
I find speaking incredibly difficult. Some of my talks don’t go down well. I’ve read comments from people after a conference saying mine was the worst talk they’d ever seen.
Speaking is nice when it goes well, but I see it as a big risk. When I’ve worked so hard on a talk that I’ve been so nervous that I couldn’t deliver it well enough, it makes me question whether I’m good at my job.
I limit the number of conferences I do a year to 2 or 3 because in the months leading up to them, I get really stressed. More than that and it starts to affect my work. In the two weeks leading up to Update and Full Frontal, I could barely eat. Most of the time, I can’t go to speakers dinners because I feel so ill before doing a talk.
In the short term, speaking at conferences loses me money. I put days, sometimes weeks aside to prepare a talk, even if I’ve done it before. I like to know my talk inside out, be able to anticipate every question that might come up because I don’t want people to think I’ve been invited as the token woman. I want people to think I’ve done a good job. People have paid to be there and I don’t want to let the organisers down.
I don’t speak for profile, I do it because I have something I want to tell people. Like when I was talking about education, that was something really important to me and I felt best placed to talk about it because I’d just left school. Or console browsers, I think they’re important and nobody else seems to be talking about them.
These days, I’m very picky. I only speak at conferences where I personally know the organiser. I’ve been burnt before by organisers who I thought were looking out for me.
I only speak if my travel and accommodation are covered and I’m paid my day rate, because as I mentioned before, speaking, at least as a freelancer, is expensive. Maybe this makes me sound a bit up myself, but most of the time I’d rather spend that time quietly doing client work. Most people say it gets easier, but I’ve not found that. But sometimes I do it because, when it goes really well, it’s worth all that stress.
Basically, I don’t want people to think that to give a talk at a conference you have to be a confident speaker. I don’t think I’ll ever be, but my hope is that if my content is good enough, people will see through any weakness in the way I present it.