Last weekend I attended a workshop about preparing to speak at technical conferences. It was somewhat more than that, but I’ll start there. That is something I’m interested in right now, as I’m working on proposals to submit to an upcoming conference.

It was organized by Write/Speak/Code, a group of people who do several events around women, technology and open source. (There is also a larger annual conference.) This event, Own Your Expertise, was focused on preparing women to submit talks to conferences and participate in open source communities. This is one of several workshops Write/Speak/Code offers, and thanks to GitHub, tickets were free. There was even a professional photographer so everybody looks good on conference web pages. (Mine is also for foreign job applications, which I’ll not make this post any longer by getting into here.)

So on to the day’s content. Yes, it’s about conference talks. The presenters have a somewhat different path to getting to that however. While it does get on to mechanics like what “CFP” means, it starts with getting yourself convinced you can actually do this. For me, I’ve presented at conferences before so it’s not unknown territory. But I’m hardly jumping at opportunities to do so because, surprise, I have a problem figuring out what I can talk about and convincing myself I have something relevant to say.

There are topics where I’m comfortable with my expertise, but in textiles rather than my professional work. The dynamics of textile communities are different for me than work, first and foremost that I don’t depend on textiles to make a living. My visibility and activity in that community have no bearing on whether or not I can pay rent or buy food, and can vary as circumstances change. (This is not the case for some of my friends.) Without that pressure, it’s easier to talk about what I do. I have trouble carrying that over to paid work however.

The first part of the day was group exercises around speaking more comfortably about one’s own expertise (hence the title), different areas each of us can influence and educate, and words we can use to describe what we have to offer. In honor of the occasion (while many of our friends were at Women’s Marches around the country) one of the exercises was “If you could be nominated for a Cabinet post you were patently unqualified for, which one would it be?” I volunteered for Health and Human Services, given my extensive experience in Yelling At Insurance Companies.

As a less gregarious person, sometimes the exercises seemed a bit silly. (And given limited time, rushed.) But everything was focused on putting together people who don’t know each other and getting them talking about areas of their own knowledge and experience. Sprinkled in with more than a bit of “You Go Girl!” chicks-can-do-this cheerleading. (Which sometimes is too much large group socializing for me, but I got through it.)

The second part gets into details about how to actually go about this, with breakout sessions focusing on different parts of the process. I was in the one about writing a proposal, since that’s exactly what I need now. We read our preliminary talk proposals to the group (about a paragraph) and discussed ways to improve them. Everybody exchanged contact info to keep working together on our talks.

As might be expected of something hosted at a Bay Area startup, there was much socializing, food, and following the programmed events, alcohol. The bartenders also concocted no-alcohol fancy drinks by request, so that was cool. (Yes, GitHub has a full bar in their cafeteria/event space. They are hardly alone in that. And I have Opinions about the role of alcohol in startups. Another time.)

I had a good time, I got some useful ideas in framing my topic, and met a bunch of people. I actually wrote down contact info and followed up with five people. That’s a lot for me. Go me. I hope I can keep in touch with a few (that is often where things fall down, on both ends.) I’ve already heard back from one, and we will probably meet up next week.

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