Part of the job
During the two years that preceded the pandemic, I travelled two to three weeks a month.
It began as an experiment.
In 2018, I resolved that if I was invited some place and I could go, then I would say yes and I would try to create a talk just for them.
I only said “no” to two or three offers. One had a military theme that made me uncomfortable and one had a reputation for not treating speakers well. Generally, I said yes and met some amazing people and reunited with great friends.
It was exhausting and I didn’t get nearly enough work down outside of all of that conferencing and training but, particularly now that I may not return to traveling very much, I’m so glad that I did it.
In fact, I liked it so much that I continued into 2019 and had planned to do so in 2020.
I mostly didn’t apply to speak at conferences and mostly said yes if I was invited. But what were they inviting me for?
Speaking at conferences
When you give a talk, you are responsible for somewhere between twenty-five minutes and an hour of content.
Surely, that’s not why a conference has spent the money to bring you in.
Sometimes attendees will look at the list of speakers and sign up because of one or more of them, but many conferences have such a good reputation that attendees will register before the speaker list is announced.
I trust the organizers of a bunch of conferences to know that they will curate an experience that I want to attend.
So what do I do during all of that time that I’m not speaking?
In the old days, I would be off somewhere finishing my talk and polishing my slides.
I haven’t done that for twenty years. I now have my talks written well ahead of time and hone them as I get closer to the date. The night before I will often delete 10% of my slides and add the same number. I’m often sharpening the talk based on the vibe I’m getting from the attendees and what I think they will respond to.
But during the conference, I think of it as part of my job as a speaker to attend other sessions and support those speakers. I often learn so much from their presentations - either the content, their style, or both - and delight in tweeting about it or telling them so in person.
I love that at my age (yes, I’m a little hung up on that right now) I am still learning so many cool things. Being on the conference circuit was kind of like being back in school.
Also during the conference I feel it’s part of the gig to talk to other attendees during breaks and sit with them at meals. I love hanging with other speakers, but it’s important not to miss the hallway time with regular attendees who often have great stories and amazing experiences to share. The locals also have suggestions about things I need to see and do in their town.
So, not everyone feels that way.
I’ve seen big-name speakers come out for their talks and be invisible the rest of the time. They may be writing their talk, doing work in their room, or sight-seeing - I have no idea, but they aren’t anywhere to be seen at the conference.
Some speakers are incredibly nervous before they speak. Some of them request to be scheduled in the early parts of the program because they know they won’t be able to interact with the attendees or go to other sessions before they have delivered their presentation.
I feel for them and excuse them from any expectations. They so want to do the right thing but they just can’t until after they talk.
Other’s are introverted and shy. It is beyond them to participate more than they do.
I had a professor in graduate school who was brilliant but introverted and shy. He began our class with fewer than ten students by telling us that he would pace and tend to look at the ground or the blackboard but that we should feel free to ask questions.
If you asked him a question he would stop and look at you and listen carefully and then respond. He could interact with one of us at a time - just not all of us. If you saw him in the hall, he would stop to talk to you and he showed a genuine interest in both what you were doing and how you were doing.
He was just introverted and shy.
I am incredibly introverted and shy.
People who meet me at conferences don’t believe it because I am loud and energetic on stage and I spend the remainder of the conference talking to people and socializing.
It exhausts me.
I’m a meet-in-small-groups kind of guy. I’m a lets-go-out-for-coffee (tea, beer, …) and sit-and-talk kind of guy.
But I believe it’s my role at a conference to talk to attendees and I genuinely love doing so.
And then I go back to my hotel room and need to recover.
Some people love the energy of the crowd. It’s not that I don’t love it, there’s a part of me that does love it, but it does not come naturally to me and it saps my strength.
Other people can’t bring themselves to participate. It is beyond them.
I get that.
You need to take care of yourself first.
As much as I think that part of the job of a speaker is to interact with other speakers and attendees - sometimes it is too much to ask.
So don’t ask.
This week Naomi Osaka dropped out of the French Open rather than participate in press conferences.
I objected online to her being pressured to participate in media events and was told that “it’s part of the job”.
I never liked it.
I’ve never learned anything from these post game interviews - have you?
I cringe when I see someone who just lost in front of the world and has to face an interview and be asked about decisions they made during play or preparation - like they don’t deserve a moment to themselves.
Oh no, I was told, “they’re in the entertainment business.”
I don’t find it entertaining.
Win or lose.
A tennis player has just played for multiple hours and - win or lose - has to answer questions right away in that moment.
Part of their job. Entertaining. That’s why they get paid the big bucks.
I don’t think it’s good for them and I don’t think it’s good for us.
At a conference, there are many ways that a speaker interacting with other attendees and other speakers is good for everyone.
We exchange ideas and stories about our different and common experiences. We sometimes decide to work on something together or meet up later for a meal.
I’ve made friends all around the world from moments like these. I’ve even had people come up and tell me that some code I presented during my talk would be better if I’d done it a different way. Most of these interactions were positive with respect on both sides.
I don’t see what we get from that post game interview that makes us a better person.
I’m sure people will write to tell me I’m wrong, but I don’t see how it benefits anyone.
Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 62. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe