I recently gave my first—and quite possibly, last—talk at a tech meet-up. While I’m grateful to LRUG for the opportunity to speak, and to the London Ruby community for being a charitable audience, giving a talk wasn’t an experience I enjoyed. I have conflicted feelings about this realisation, which I’m sharing in case others find themselves in a similar position.
On the one hand, I’m very early in my tech career and still in what I’ve fondly come to think of as “The Magpie Phase.” My interest and attention are piqued by each shiny new thing I learn about. It’s a nice change of pace to want to rule something out as a potential area of interest, rather than being distracted by the latest CSS grid or Raspberry Pi when my time would be better spent on core foundational skills.
On the other hand, it feels as though there’s some pressure in the field to give talks, particularly if you’re from an underrepresented group (e.g., if you’re not a cisgender straight white male). The perceived lack of diverse speakers is frequently trotted out as an excuse when conference organisers fail to put together a diverse lineup of speakers. I’m always happy to see women on stage as speakers, and it feels a bit hypocritical to be unwilling to be one of those women.
I’m good at speaking extemporaneously, enjoy crafting a narrative, and have a lot of collected random bits of knowledge about various interesting topics. On paper, I should be an excellent candidate for giving talks. The talk I gave was about beer, a subject about which I can speak at length without any preparation (or even any prompting, if I happen to have a beer in my hand). It’s not a technical topic, so the imposter syndrome that dogs me on a daily basis doesn’t really come into play. I’ve had to dig pretty deep to try to unpack why I hated being up on stage, but I think I’ve finally hit on it: It all comes back to karaoke.
A large majority of my friends love karaoke. They get together on a regular basis at their favourite karaoke bars. They practice their songs, trying out new material or polishing up old stand-bys. They put on a show, entertaining the audience, the other singers, and themselves. And as far as I can tell, they do this because they just really love it. They love the attention, they love performing, they love entertaining.
This aspect of giving talks—the part that relies on showmanship, being able to capture and hold an audience’s attention—is the part that makes me feel like my whole body is being dunked in boiling oil or eaten alive by tropical ants. I don’t mind being the centre of attention for a specific purpose, but being on a stage with the expectation of entertaining people, well, that’s never been my M.O. I despise karaoke.
I know that if I were to give a second talk at some point, I’ve learned a few things and would do a better job. It’s possible I would have enjoyed this more if I were speaking on a technical topic. I almost certainly would have felt more comfortable if I’d arrived early and tested my speaking volume with the microphone. I should have brought my own laptop, so I could have run my slides in presentation mode, with my notes visible on a screen for me but hidden for the audience. As it was, I presented without notes, which would have been fine were the timing not quite so tight.
But what I really want to know is: Must I? Is there any compelling reason I should put myself through this experience again? Ultimately, I’m perfectly happy to leave the entertaining to people who love the limelight… and that realisation is probably the most valuable lesson I can take from this experience.