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Speaking Up

Thoughts on my first abstracts & speaking at a Tech Conference™

In May, I had the privilege of speaking at Self.conference in Detroit about a topic dear to my heart: how people in the tech industry can effectively support student women in tech. The premise? Well, current efforts to invite student women into the field of technology face two major problems:

  1. There is a mismatch between student women’s goals and what tech companies believe those goals to be.
  2. Not all women in tech who identify as “students” are included in these efforts. Sure, tech companies advertise amazing programs targeted at university women, but often not for boot camp graduates, self-taught women, and older women getting a degree.
Uh oh, looks like non-university students aren’t welcome on this tech company’s cruise.

But, enough of the details of my talk. When I first got word that my abstract — or talk idea — for this particular call for papers(CFP) — call for (speaking) proposals — had been accepted to Self.conference, I was in shock. I had submitted several abstracts to CFPs (including this one) to at least five tech conferences since technical speaking piqued my interest in the fall, and had received rejections from all of them. This acceptance was simply unprecedented.

So, what was different about the talk abstract I submitted to Self.conference? In mid-December, I stumbled upon this Tweet from Anna Ossowski.

I immediately reached out to Anna for advice. She reviewed my rejected abstracts, and suggested that one plausible reason that these abstracts did not make the cut was that what I wanted to talk about came across as too general. To a CFP reviewer, it might appear that I didn’t know exactly which points I wanted to hammer home. She also empathized with me about these rejections, and confided that for most speakers in tech, accepted talks will be few and far between.

Most importantly, she pointed out a particular talk abstract that she thought had a lot of potential: “Build Her Up: On Supporting Student Women in Tech.” This is the same talk I gave at Self.conference in May, and gave once more at We Rise Women in Tech Conference in June.

Reaching out to someone with technical speaking experience made all the difference for me. Now, I have a clearer idea of what a CFP reviewer looks for in an abstract, and of what features mark a good tech talk.

In the week leading up to Self.conference, I grew nervous about my talk. I feared that its contents would be shunned as not technical enough, or worse, redundant. I dreaded having an audience of zero as a no-name first-time speaker. Maybe some sympathetic women in tech would attend, but I did not expect to see men voluntarily attend a women in tech talk.

After a late-night flight to Detroit, I fell asleep immediately, exhausted from all of this mental gymnastics.

The time finally came for me to give my talk at 1p.m.: the dreaded post-lunchtime slot. After fifteen people — yes, both men and women!— showed up, I promptly began speaking.

No one left the room.

The audience laughed — well, at least smirked — at my terrible jokes.

Whenever I scanned the crowd during a pause, everyone seemed… well, awake and attentive.

Forty minutes later, when I confessed that this talk was the first that I had ever given at a tech conference, I heard audible gasps in the audience. My talk was well-received, and based on the conversations that I had with individuals in the audience, my ideas were well-understood. I couldn’t have wished for a better outcome.

On my flight back to Chicago, I reflected on my first-ever talk at a tech conference, and developed a list of things that I succeeded at, and things that I wish I had done better.

An abridged list of the good and bad in my tech talk.

While my speaking was natural and well-paced, my greatest regret about speaking at Self.conference is that I stood perfectly poised behind my lectern for the entirety of the talk. I believe that this underscored the separateness of me and the audience — a separateness that already exists due to the power disparity between speaker and audience.

If I had walked out from behind my podium and gestured more naturally, this would have helped my talk feel more conversational and less preachy. In preparation for the next iteration of this talk at We Rise Women in Tech Conference, I tried to improve upon this aspect of my technical speaking.

I’ve come a long way since I submitted my first (rejected) talk in September, but my journey around the technical speaking circuit is far from over. In performing a life audit, I realized that one of my goals for the future is to keynote a tech conference. Bold, considering I’ve only spoken at one tech conference about a week ago where I gave a “soft talk.”

Speaking at Self.conference reminded me that I have a voice, and that is it absolutely exhilarating to use my voice to teach, support, and delight others. This alone gives me faith that I can turn this goal into a reality someday— perhaps sooner than I imagine.

To all aspiring and first-time speakers: I can’t wait to hear what you follow your dreams with your voice, just as I re-discovered the potential of my own.

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