What I get from speaking at conferences

I’m in the throes of composition. My presentation for STC Summit 2014 is in good shape, and I’m working on the proceedings paper right now. I got to thinking about why I put myself up for speaking at conferences. It’s a lot of work! Is it worth it? I also saw a post from Neal Kaplan, who doesn’t get conferences. So I decided to blog my thoughts.

If you’d told me five years ago that you’d seen me speaking at a conference, my reaction would have been

Ha ha, nope, that must have been some other Sarah.

Public speaking scared me to death. (Actually, it still does.) I never thought I’d be able to do it. Simply standing in front of a handful of peers turned me into a blob of jelly on a roller coaster.

Then Joe Welinske asked me to speak at WritersUA in Seattle in 2009. Of course, I said “Eek, no.” But Joe’s sweet persistence persuaded me to think about it. After all, he said, I knew a lot about what was then an emerging technology for technical writing: wikis. A few days later, Joe asked me again. To my utter horror, I said yes. My thinking went along these lines: I know no-one in the US. I’ve never even been to the US. If I make a total fool of myself, it doesn’t matter. No-one I know will ever know. πŸ˜€

I survived WritersUA 2009. And now, five years later, I’ve spoken at twelve conferences.

Oft-discussed benefits of attending conferences include:

  • Peers: Meeting other tech writers has been hugely rewarding. It’s especially great to meet in person the people I’ve bumped into on blogs, Twitter, and other online meeting spots.
  • Learning: Conferences seed ideas. I see what other people are up to, get a glimpse of new technologies, peer at different products. A while later, an idea pops up about something I can use in my own environment.

What’s the benefit of speaking yourself?

Getting funding to attend the conference is a big one. For me, living in Australia, the travel costs are too big to cover personally.

But for me, the biggie is this: Putting together a presentation makes me think about how others see what I’m doing. It makes me look at my own work, and that of my team, in a new light. It gives me a wider perspective. It firms up my own opinions on what are good procedures to follow, and what could do with tweaking.

So, a call to all conference speakers: why do you do it? πŸ™‚

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 9 March 2014, in technical writing, WritersUA and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Sarah, you summed it up so well when you said that speaking makes you examine your own work, and your team’s work, in new ways. I have to ask myself why, if I’m comfortable doing something in my own job, would I be uncomfortable recommending it — or even describing it — to my professional colleagues? That’s usually a sign that I can do better.

    Speaking at conferences also helps build a personal brand. People disagree over how important it is to have a strong personal brand (or reputation, to use a more traditional term). I happen to think that it’s important — and speaking at conferences is a great way to become known as an authority in your field.

    Thanks for sharing your personal story. I hope it’ll inspire someone who’s been quiet up to now but who will someday enrich us through their conference presentations.

    • Hallo Larry

      Thanks for a great comment. I think you’re right: a personal brand can be very useful, especially when the time comes to look for a new role.

      I love the idea of that quiet person someday enriching us all through their conference presentations!

      One thing I’ve found is that it’s actually easier to speak to a big room full of people than to a small number of colleagues. I wonder whether other speakers have had the same experience.


  2. Colum McAndrew

    The first thing we have to acknowledge is that conferences are not for everyone. That said, they can be a great way to network, whether this is with a purpose to build your brand or something else.

    I occasionally present at conferences, but like you I was a relative late starter. It can take a lot of work, but like Larry it makes me look inwardly at what I do. I may want to present myself as an expert in a particular skill / field, but I am not beyond admitting that I can do better.

    This is part of what I get out of a conference. I’ve had people come up after some of my presentations thanking me for my contribution, but giving positive feedback on how they could have got more out of it. I welcome these contributions. You can’t please everyone, but you’d be wrong to dismiss constructive criticism.

    Finally conferences offer the opportunity to meet others and exchange idea. Even if we work in a team of Technical Writers the chances are we are often working on different projects. Our solitary existence is broken by networking in conferences and a great way to learn from others. We can all do it regardless of our experience or specialist knowledge.

    • Hallo Colum
      Nice comment. πŸ™‚ You’re right, the feedback we get from attendees is very useful indeed. I’ve had people come up and say the presentation gave them a new idea, and I’ve found the idea to be new to me too! A new way of applying the information I presented.

  3. I love to see such posts, because I am always very stubborn to get more people I know to present (especially the women I work with because I think it’s an ice breaker for a lot of folks)

    I could not agree more, seeing my work through other peoples eyes makes me want to build samples, talk to people, help people. I allows me to never never loose interest in what I do.

    • Hallo Kasia!
      That’s a very good point: talking about what we do helps to retain our own interest, because we’re forever reinventing and rethinking as we create the presentation, and as we get feedback from attendees.

  4. What perfect timing for this post! I’m preparing for my first ever presentation (STC Summit, for a progression, actually, not a full presentation), and I’m wondering what on earth is wrong with me, thinking I could do this?!?! πŸ™‚ Yes, i’m very nervous, but I’m also very excited, exactly for the reasons that you mention. It’s in fact why I started to blog: so that I can stay connected to the world of tech writing, discover new trends, keep my job exciting, and meet other writers (if only virtually). It also helps that fees are covered when you present…. it makes it easier to convince my boss that he should send me to Phoenix πŸ™‚

    Thanks for this inspiring post! Now off to prepare my proceedings (which I never read, by the way, but today it’s helping me prepare for my presentation πŸ™‚

    Have a wonderful day!


    • Hallo Nathalie

      Great to hear from you, and to hear that you’re presenting a progression at STC Summit! You’re right: Writing the proceedings paper is a good way of focusing on the content of the presentation, which makes creating the presentation easier.

      Progressions are an excellent format for a conference session, and a great way to kick off your public speaking career. Go Nathalie. πŸ™‚

      Looking forward to seeing you in Phoenix.


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