Speaking, 2015


After a long hiatus, I decided to start speaking at conferences again. Last year I dipped my toe back in the water, accepting a couple of speaking gigs in the UK.

I get nervous speaking; it doesn't come at all naturally to me, so I had a good think about what specifically makes me uncomfortable and how I could make it work for me:

  • I reuse talks. Doing a new talk for every conference was unworkable as I was spending weeks preparing for each one. I'll only do a new talk for higher fee. I'll still update my talk based on audience feedback and because stuff changes all the time, but now I don't feel obliged to write a new one every time.
  • I only speak at conferences with a Code of Conduct. I've been unlucky enough to have some particularly bad experiences at conferences, from relatively minor things like comments about my appearance being projected onto a Twitter wall behind me, to some really nasty stuff. A couple of weeks ago, I read a report that a guy who organised an event I spoke at was recently charged with making indecent images of children. In this situation I'm not sure a Code of Conduct would help, but it does make me feel a little bit safer.
  • I test new talks out first. The thought of giving a new talk to 200+ people is terrifying, so I've found that presenting it to a small room of people has helped massively. This year I wrote a new talk about Style Guides, and one of my clients asked me to present it at lunch time to anyone who was interested. That was still (surprisingly) just as scary, but I felt under a lot less pressure to perform, and I was able to ask for honest feedback from the people I work with: what had they wanted to learn? How I could do it better?

I've been lucky to be invited to join the lineup to some amazing conferences, and this year I'm really looking forward to speaking at Upfront next week, From the Front, and Smashing Conference in Barcelona. They've all been incredily understanding at my request for a Code of Conduct (even better, most already have one before I ask).

Unfortunately, I've had to pull out of a conference I was due to speak at in September as their Code of Conduct, which still stipulates that sexualised images should not be used, is incompatible with one of their speaker's talks. I didn't want to endorse a conference that doesn't follow its own Code of Conduct, or thinks putting an adult content warning before a talk is an acceptable compromise. I've always been keen to get more young people going to conferences, and they're excluded from events enough as it is.

The organisers of The Web Is were generous enough to invite school children to their event for free, and even had a 16 year old speaker. I was blown away by that. More conferences should do the same. It's just a concern when the same conference has a speaker showing explicit content that is definitely not suitable for children. It worries me because for many of these children, this is their first impression of the tech industry, and explicit content really isn't suitable for a professional event. It normalises sexism at events that are often 85-90% male. People make boob jokes in the breaks because that behaviour has effectively been given a thumbs up.

Asking people to sit out of a talk if they're offended (or underage, or Muslim) is unacceptable because they've bought a ticket for the full event. I'd like tech conference organisers to be more mindful of how they curate their event and what message it gives, given how much of a boys' club the industry still is. I'd like other speakers to consider this too when they're selecting conferences to speak at and writing talks.

I've got some more events lined up that haven't been announced yet, but I'm really looking forward to visiting some new places this year and meeting people whose work I follow and admire. That's something I missed when I wasn't speaking.