Going where nobody knows your name

This year has been one of constant change and interesting experiences. The most recent of these found me at a conference where I only knew my coworkers who also attended. It was a regional conference in the South, where until this year I’d never lived. So it wasn’t a big surprise that I only knew one other person when I showed up.

While I’m something of a conference savant now, there was a time in the not-so-distant past when I never hit the conference circuit. So I can remember pretty vividly what it was like to show up to a conference and not know anyone, have no one know anything about me and to navigate that. Being sort of introverted, I have to work myself up for these things to begin with and so, it’s been nice over the past few years to end up at things where I have a crew of folks that not only know who I am, but understand my speaking and interaction style. That sort of comfortability makes it easier to navigate the events and makes me more inclined to engage and participate.

The best part of being at an event where you don’t know anyone is an opportunity. I’ve deliberately sat at tables without my coworkers, to get to know people from other places. All seems quaint, but I’ve always remembered being that person who didn’t know anybody and feeling weird about going up to people and introducing myself.

While it’s always to see your friends — new and old — it’s also nice to step outside of your comfort zone and explore new places, new themes and new experiences.

On paying to speak at conferences & processing audience evaluations

The past two years, I’ve done more conferences than I ever before. I’ve already topped my previous year’s output in half a year — 5 — and there’s still half a year to go. Did I also mention I’m doing my own conference this year?!

The catalyst for this post came from a talk a few weeks ago, but this idea has been swirling in my head for a while. I began sharing my insights and speaking at higher ed web conferences because I like talking and think I have unique insights that can help others. I’ve been speaking a long time, I’m pretty good at it but there are a lot of constraints to my speaking style that can get me into trouble if I’m not care.

For starters, I adlib heavily. I stopped writing prepared speeches in high school, because short of being like a Congressman I once worked for and printing my remarks in HUGE font on lots of pieces of paper like cue cards, I just speak too fast to keep up with the thoughts. Plus, I can usually read a crowd when it’s small and if I’m losing the audience during a talk, I want to figure out why before waiting for the evaluations. I once had a talk where I adapted the talk in mid-presentation because after asking a few cursory questions it was clear the audience wasn’t going to be prepared for what I had to deliver.

Now that I’m curating my own conference, I’m learning how the other half lives. You bring people who you know, folks you’ve seen speak before and like to come to events when you’re on a shoestring and trying to make sure you can pull an event off. When you’re an emergent speaker in your industry working up the ranks to “respected leader in your field,” it feels really nice for people to recognize you. Accepted topics to conferences are a good feeling, but too much of a good thing means people start asking for you to come to more events than you can handle and you have to choose.

If there are constraints that prevent you from doing all the things, this might turn out to be easier. For people (like me) without those inherent barriers besides the obvious time & money things, it’s tempting to want to go everywhere. I resolved I’d stop doing that this year, but I came up with another reason to stop after receiving feedback from an event I spoke at recently.

I went into it being a bit skittish and not being entirely sure that what I had to say would work for the audience. But I assumed it would be a multiple track event, so people would just show up if they were interested. Instead, it was a single track situation and that meant there would be people in the room to listen to a talk that simply wasn’t written for them.

Like an actor who doesn’t want to read the reviews, I tend to enjoy the negative feedback because it helps me prepare better, even if there are no surprises. In the aforementioned situation, I knew precisely what was wrong with the talk and I was just hoping to get out of it alive. The fact that the overwhelming majority of folks liked it, just made me happy, but I didn’t walk away believing my own hype.

I think when writing evaluations, remember that you want to give the most helpful advice you can if you’re going to give advice at all. I think I tend to be harder on speakers being paid than those are volunteering their time, but planning my own event has helped me get a better sense of how difficult — even when you have a lot of speakers — to get the right balance to match your event content with what people are hoping to get from it.

From my own experience, I will be a lot more discerning in the future about where I speak and why. I have a preference in terms of the types of crowds I speak to, what topics I like to talk about and where I think I offer the most value to people who’ll benefit from what I’m sharing.