Career Education women in computer science

Why I Cut Down On Public Speaking

year of the lolcat
Credit: flickr / micklpickl

Last year, I gave a lot of talks. I averaged about one a month, but it wasn’t spread out evenly. In October, I gave four talks. And then I stopped, and since then I’ve been putting off talks I intended to say yes to, or just outright saying no (I know, unlike me). There were a couple of reasons for this.

  1. It wasn’t in line with how I want to spend my time.
  2. I want to (or, think I should) move to giving more technical talks.
  3. Something nasty happened.

Conscious Decisions About Time

At one point last year, I  spent an afternoon of my time (drove 30 minutes each way, allowing time to set up, prep etc) and I presented to… six people. It was a talk I had already given, so no new content was created, and it was just not a good use of my time. Also, it was an academic conference I wasted my afternoon and paid a couple of hundred dollars for the privilege (this was so you could attend the rest of the conference, which I did not have the time or inclination to do). There was another small one, but this one did result in me creating content, and was close by (and not an academic conference, so – free), so even though there weren’t many people there the content on my blog got some engagement. That one was borderline worth doing, but the first one? I felt like it was a complete waste of time and money.

That kind of experience made me feel that I really needed to evaluate what I was spending time on and try and be more deliberate about what I say yes – and what I say no – to. Having massively overbooked myself, I was already consciously deciding that I would only give the fluffier talks (by which I mean – non technical, usually about career stuff or tech potential in general) for groups of mainly women. This was a reminder that I needed to stick to that, and likely take it further.

More Technical Talks

It’s taken a while, but I feel like I have a cool technical topic that I could give an interesting technical talk about. But I can’t really put it together until I can talk about what I’ve been working on, so that is on hold. I taught an internal class, did a couple of demos, and did a design walk-through. Positive change, but predominantly internal.

This is down to two things. The first is credibility. I think I know enough about something now, that I could be credible to give a talk on it. That is important to me.

The second, more interesting, thing, is why. What do I hope to gain from this sideline in public speaking? I want to be able to give a good demo, and effectively convey technical information. Probably better to spend the time on giving demos, and conveying technical content, than giving some warm fuzzy manifesto on why tech is awesome. I’ll do that if I think it will help spread the message of diversity in tech (good thing!), but that’s a side project, not my career.

Something Nasty

I thought I was giving a talk to a mostly female group, and I’d sent my content ahead of me. It wasn’t mostly girls, there were teenage boys there too. And it seems they were expecting something different that what I was offering.

So I gave the same talk I’d given multiple times (which people had said lovely things about) and a teenage boy in the audience posted offensive and hurtful things about me and my content on Twitter, and then made sure I saw it. I guess he wanted to take me down a couple of pegs… well, he succeeded.

Interesting, isn’t it, that one insult will do when talking about a dude, but for a woman it’s two, because of the obligatory “bitch”.

Super upsetting. All the more so, because I’d had reservations as to whether it was a good use of my time, there were things I wasn’t happy about and then I went and did it anyway, and the result was that I regretted it. I told myself, “this is what happens when you agree to do something that is not in line with your values”, and I became much stricter about applying them.

Not None, Just Less

… but in practice, none, lately.

Given more time, I might stop being quite so picky about what I’ll say yes to, but here’s the thing – I don’t miss it. I don’t have a good way to measure the value of what I was doing, or the impact. Maybe I inspired one girl at that awful talk, and is that worth the unhappiness it caused me?

Forgive me for thinking – no.

Seen a few things lately about lack of women speaking at conferences etc. Most places are fine. Male dominated, sure, but most guys are reasonable – more than reasonable. But it only takes one unpleasant experience to evaluate the costs and benefits and maybe decide, not worth it to me. And maybe I’m being pathetic thinking I don’t want to present to that kind of group again, but it’s not fair to judge the person who experienced the something nasty; judge the person who inflicted it.

I learned other lessons too – be clearer about what I’m doing, and what I’m not. Stay more faithful to my values. But the big lesson I took from it, and from the academic conference, was – not doing this again, it’s not a good use of my time. An afternoon to reach 6 people, does not make sense in the internet era. A voluntary experience that leaves me upset and feeling terrible is not worth some unknown impact of maybe one person, if that.

3 replies on “Why I Cut Down On Public Speaking”

Sorry to hear about your experience — as a woman engineer with a few decades on you, I’ve been through a lot of the same things, and assure you that it does (or at least can) get better. Or maybe you just grow a thicker skin over time. 🙂

Just thought I’d let you know then, that I really enjoyed your talk at ONCWIC  last fall. I’m working at a software company for the summer, and the number of women who ACTUALLY develop is probably about 5 out of the whole lab. I sometimes waver about whether I want to put up with some of the silliness that happens when you work with lots of men. Seeing you have all of the things that I want is a reminder that I DO want these things. Girls need role models, and you are one of mine.  I hope you do give some talks another time, because you have lovely public speaking skills.  Glad you wrote this, because I most likely wouldn’t have passed on my thoughts otherwise.

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