I recently had the honor of participating in a panel discussion about the experience of speaking at tech and design conferences. Together with my colleagues Tanarra Schneider, Mick Champayne, and Natalie Hanson, we spoke about the reasons we speak, the process of choosing venues and topics, and the advice we’ve received and would give to other women looking to share their insights.
Here’s a recap of what I said (or wish I’d said!), in response to prompts from the panel moderator, Danielle Barnes of Women Talk Design:
Why do you speak at (and/or curate) conferences and public events?
I enjoy the rush of giving a good presentation – I’ve always enjoyed public speaking, and I love UX, so putting the two together is a no brainer.
Putting together a presentation forces me to think hard about what I want to say, and why. It offers the opportunity to reflect on what I do and what I view as valuable about it. It helps me think about what contribution I’m making to my field. It’s an opportunity for reflection that’s hard to come by in the day to day parade of projects and tasks.
It’s a good way to meet people without having to approach random strangers. If you’re the speaker, people come up to you afterwards and ask questions. It’s an easy way to make new friends at conferences and events.
Tell us about the first time you gave a public talk. Were you invited? Did you apply?
My first public talk was at a meetup called CHI-Squared (Computer-Human Interaction in Chicago, get it? 😉) I was invited along with my business partner to talk about the range of UX research methods and which methods were best suited to specific types of research questions. It was an informal gathering in the back room of a bar, attended by about fifteen people. I had such a good time sharing my ideas and the audience had such great questions – I was hooked, and soon started applying to speak at larger events.
If you've ever applied to speak at a conference, can you tell us what that process is like?
Conferences vary in the formality of their submission and review process. Some require that you provide a detailed outline of your talk, while others just ask for an abstract. Most also want supplemental materials like a bio, head shot, and an example video of yourself. Once you submit, the waiting begins – it can be as short as a few weeks or as long as six months, depending on the organization.
It’s important not to underestimate the effort involved in creating a good conference submission, and at the same time, it’s important not to feel intimidated. I’ve had the opportunity to curate events, and the strongest submissions were always the ones that were the most well thought out. There is often an inverse relationship between the experience level of the presenter (as described in their bio) and the detail provided in the submission. In some cases, although certainly not all, seasoned speakers rely more on their past experience and reputation than on the clarity and focus of their current idea. Given the choice between a luminary with a half-baked submission and a newbie with a thorough, well-articulated proposal, I would take the newbie every day of the week.
How do you decide on your talk topic(s)?
As a consultant, I work on a wide variety of topics across different industries. The pace of our work is quick and highly focused on the clients’ challenges as hand. This sometimes prevents us from fully exploring the more abstract UX questions than can emerge while we’re doing our work, and trends that we see across projects and industries. Topics like practical research tips and analysis frameworks are among my favorites to explore in conference talks. I also view it as my duty to provide the audience with something practical that they can use. If I don’t do that as a speaker, I feel I’ve wasted your time, which is unacceptable to me.
How do you prepare for your talks? Do you do anything differently now then you did when you were preparing your first talk?
My basic routine has not fundamentally changed over the years – research, outline, design, and practice. When I’m notified that I’ve been selected to present, my first step is to update my knowledge on the topic; given the long lag time between submission and acceptance, things may have changed in the field that I want to address. Then I follow an iterative design process, moving from points on sticky notes to a written outline to crafting slides that communicate my ideas visually.
Along the way, I gather as much feedback as I can. I’ll share early outline drafts with my coworkers, and then convene an early practice and a later dress rehearsal with my entire team. They really deserve the credit for honing my ideas – they’re experts at finding the points I’m less sure about and asking me tough questions to help me clarify my thinking.
The day before or the day of the talk, I scout the room, to help me visualize what the talk will feel like as I give it. Then I do a final run through, usually in a hotel room, ideally overlooking a beautiful view. I’ve presented to the skylines of Toronto, Boston, Baltimore, Milan…something about sharing my talk with the skyline helps ready me for the final event.
What events do you choose to speak at? How do you decide where to apply or which events to say yes to when you've been asked to speak?
I like to speak at two types of events. The first are peer-reviewed conferences in my field, where I can share advanced knowledge and hope to learn myself through speaking and participating in the event. I often speak at UXPA and its local chapter events, as well as regional events like MidwestUX and Madison+ UX. These are great for catching up with colleagues I’ve known over the years and expanding my knowledge of what’s new in the field.
The second type of event are conferences outside of my field where I feel the industry can benefit from the basics of user experience. For example, I began attending conferences for the museum industry in 2013, and speaking at those events in 2014. As museums have been incorporating more digital technology in the galleries, it’s been fun to run sessions and workshops on usability testing basics. They benefit from learning a new technique, and I benefit from the task of reflecting on the basics of what I do in an effort to teach it most effectively.
Do conferences pay speakers to present? What's the best way to find out? What other accommodations or compensation might conferences offer?
Compensation varies by the event and the nature of the organization sponsoring it. The best way to find out is to ask! Non-profit professional organizations are less likely to pay speakers, although most offer some level of discount on the conference admission fee. I’ve also been given hotel credit in exchange for my contribution.
Even though I present at events because I enjoy it, I believe it is fair to receive compensation for the time required to prepare and deliver a compelling presentation. This is especially true when organizations reach out and invite me to speak at their event, and when those events are run by private, for-profit organizations.
Has anything ever gone wrong while you were speaking on stage? (loud noises, slides not working, power outage, etc.) How did you handle it?
Something goes wrong every time you speak on stage – you just have to expect it. Sometimes it’s small things, like my hair getting tangled around the mic. I’ve learned to deal with that over time. Other times it’s larger things you can’t plan for, so you just have to smile and go with the flow.
For example, this summer I was part of an IGNITE panel at the UXPA conference in Puerto Rico. Since the island is still recovering from Hurricane Maria, internet and power were spotty, although mostly stable. During our talk, the island decided to test its recently repaired emergency notification system, which involved the fire alarms going off and everyone’s cell phones lighting up with an alert. Luckily I wasn’t presenting at the time, but my colleague who was had to restart his presentation three times (since IGNITE sessions are automatically timed). It was frustrating but what can you do? We all just laughed and soldiered on.
What is the best advice you've received about preparing for, or giving, a talk at a conference?
Slow down, and remember to breathe. Early on, I had a bad habit of speeding through my content and neglecting my breathing, which often resulted in my words trailing off, followed by a big gasp. The more uncomfortable you look, the less comfortable the audience feels, so I’ve learned to chill out and everyone’s happier.
I’ve also learned over time that nerves are really useful. When I feel nervous, I know it’s because I care about what I’m doing. That’s exciting to feel – given that I’ve been doing this for so long, it’s reassuring to know I’m still invested in it. So, when I feel myself getting nervous, it makes me happy, which takes the edge off and helps me proceed with confidence.
We've spoken to a lot of women who tell us that they aren't sure they are qualified to speak about anything - what would you say to them?
This is probably the biggest objection I hear from more junior colleagues about why they should not submit or present. I remind them that just like everyone has something to learn, everyone has something to teach. The fact that they’re even thinking about speaking tells me they believe they DO have something to say. The only real qualifications are deep thinking and careful preparation about a topic the field wants or needs to hear. If they’re willing to put in the thought and hard work required to give a strong talk, then they’re qualified to present it.