Why Give Tech Tech Talks

June 12, 2018

Last year, I set myself the goal of giving my first technical talk at a conference. I exceeded that goal in spades. I’ve given my talk “Getting Unstuck: Using the Scientific Method for Debugging” 5 times, gotten paid to speak, and 600-700 people have seen my talk in person or on video. I also burned out on speaking, and resolved to stop giving talks. Then I changed my mind.

Why speak?

I learned that I went into speaking with the wrong goals. Developing tech talks is a huge amount of work, and it can also be massively rewarding. I wish I had better understood the costs and rewards going into the process.

I originally set myself the goal of giving a talk for three reasons. First, I was unsure if I had anything worthwhile to say, but wanted to see if I did. Secondly, I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to grow my career or be relevant without giving conference talks. And third (and possibly most important, though I wouldn’t admit it), all the cool kids on twitter gave talks.

It turns out, fear and cool kids are terrible reasons to give talks. I’m able to be relevant and grow in my job without giving conference talks, and I don’t really want to be cool on Twitter. It comes with a huge burden of trolls.

However, finding your voice and discovering you have something to say is a great reason to develop a tech talk.

Speaking is expensive

Travel is tiring

Travel for conferences is exhausting. It can be exciting, but it can also disrupt your sleep, disrupt your schedules, and generally be really tiring. This can be aleiviated by speaking at local meetups or conferences.

Talks take time

Talks take a lot of work and time to develop. I’ve heard some folks estimate that it takes them 40 to 80 hours of active work to develop a talk. 40-50 sounds about right to me. That time is writing slides, practicing, editing slides, and practicing more. Not everyone puts this much time into a talk, but it took me a huge amount of time.

Talks take energy

Beyond the time actively working on the talk, they take a lot of passive energy. During the phase of actively developing the talk, I spent a lot of time thinking about my talk, and the ideas behind it when I wasn’t working on it. Developing my talk consumed all of my creative energy for two months. I had an art show in late September, and then started my talk and didn’t do anything else creative until two months later.

I’m not sure that a talk has to take that much time and energy, but that was the process that I went through with my first talk.

Speaking is Rewarding

Although speaking is very expensive, I have found it to come with a large set of rewards.

Finding your voice

First, and perhaps most importantly, I discovered that I do indeed have something to say worth sharing. The confidence that I have gained from that has been significant, and has carried through to new confidence at work as well.

Growing in confidence

I gained a massive confidence boost. I now know that I can give a talk. Each time I give my talk, it takes me less time to prep it, and it gets stronger. I still have a few hours of freakout, but underlying it is the confidence that I can do this, because I’ve done it before.

Improve public speaking skills

I’ve learned to be a better public speaker. This is a valuable skill to develop for all contexts, whether presenting a new idea to my team at work, or teaching at my synagogue. I had practiced public speaking before, giving a few drashot (sort of like sermons) at my synagogue, and even joining toastmasters for a few months. However, none of that leveled up my public speaking skills like giving the same talk 5 times did.

Meet new people

I’ve met a lot of wonderful new people through speaking. Being a speaker puts you on the easy track for meeting people at a conference or meetup, because people will come up to you!

Share your ideas

I’ve gotten to share an idea that I think is useful with a wider audience than I could have imagined. When I set out to give a conference talk, I did not expect that I would give it to cumulatively 200-300 people, and

Travel new places

Speaking at conferences can also offer you the chance to travel new and exciting places, on the conference or your company’s dime. My company paid for me to travel to New Orleans to give a talk, and I got to see the city and eat a huge number of beignets in addition to speaking about debugging. Travel can be exhausting, but speaking can also offer exciting opportunities to travel. For new folks considering speaking, definitely ask if the conference pays for your travel, and if they can’t, ask your company if they will. It’s a big recruitment benefit for them for you to speak at the conference.

It wasn’t relevant to me at this time because I’m not job searching, but if you’re looking for a new job, speaking can also be a great way to raise your profile when doing so.

Is it worth it?

Four months ago, I was pretty sure the answer was no. Developing my talk took so much energy, and I wasn’t sure what I had gained. However, I can see now how much I grew during the process.

Today, I think it was worth it. I’m very glad that I’ve given my tech talk, and I do plan to develop another talk in the future, as well as keep giving my talk on debugging with the scientific method. I have a better understanding now of how to balance the costs of developing a talk with the benefits. Part of that, for me, means being selective in how much travel I do for conferences in a given year, and doing more local speaking.

I encourage you to speak, and to go into it with your eyes wide open as to the costs and rewards. Don’t do it to be cool, but do speak to grow. It is more work than I knew, but also can be deeply rewarding, if you’re doing it for you. If you’re a woman starting to think about giving a talk, I’d also encourage you to check out WriteSpeakCode who were massively helpful to me in developing the confidence to give speaking a try.