Julie Pagano

I Support Speakers and So Can You

Several people have asked me about the Tech Conf Speaker Support of Awesomness speaking support group that I run. I am sharing some information about what we do in the hopes that others might join us or create groups of their own.

Why is this important?

Before I start talking about my group, I want to emphasize how important improving speaker support is.

The old model doesn’t work. It leads to the same people giving the same talks at the same conferences every year. It leads to all white all male (or nearly all white male) speaker lineups. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s boring. I want to hear from a variety of people with a variety of backgrounds, experiences, thought processes, etc. If the old way isn’t getting me that, it’s time to do something different.

I’m not the first or even one of the first people to do this. I’m just one of the people doing this. For example, I started thinking about speaking at conferences when I joined a google hangout with Sandi Metz and Chiu-Ki Chan through the Devchix google group. Their support convinced me to try. I wanted to pay it forward.

Reaching out and supporting people gets results. This year, PyCon had 1/3 women speakers, and from what I hear that was in large part due to Jessica McKellar going out of her way to reach out to potential speakers and help them with their proposals. This is awesome, but not a sustainable solution for the whole industry unless we invent cloning.

More people need to step up and help foster and support speakers. Imagine a world where we’re not having arguments about all white male speaker lineups because they become rare. Imagine a world where we see different faces and hear different ideas at conferences. Imagine a world with more people feeling able and willing to share their thoughts and ideas. I like that world. One speaker support group can’t get us there. One person improving one conference can’t get us there. Imagine a world where more people reproduced those efforts. I think that might just get us there.

Background

The group was created, and we had our first support meeting in February 2013. If I recall correctly, myself and a bunch of mostly women programmer friends wanted to encourage and support each other to start speakinng at conferences. We lived in a wide variety of locations, so an online solution made the most sense.

We slowly added more and more people as friends and friends of friends were interested in getting help and support. I don’t have an exact number, but many of our members (myself included) have gone on to give well-received talks at a variety of conferences. I jokingly picked the group name “Tech Conf Speaker Support of Awesomeness,” but in retrospect think it is apt.

What do we do?

Our speaking group supports people through the entire process. Below are some common things we do.

Brainstorming

The first step of the process for some people is even convincing them that they should try talking at conferences. They may be nervous or think they have to be an expert or be unsure what they have to say. A good brainstorming session with supportive people can help suss out what they’re passionate about and what others are interested in hearing. Sometimes people just need to hear “yes, I would love to hear that talk” or “I would be excited to hear you talk about <topic>.”

Some people know they want to speak, but just aren’t sure of a topic. A brainstorming session where they can bounce ideas off of other people and get suggestions can help them get started.

Selecting events

Once you have an idea, you need to find events to submit it to. A talk needs an audience. The group will often share their experiences with different events to help someone find ones that are a good fit for their experience level and topic.

Proposal writing

Unless you are an experienced speaker invited to give a keynote, you are usually submitting your talk to a call for proposals (CFP). The group often helps people people brainstorm a little bit for their proposals. Many members will email the group with a rough draft for review before submitting.

Talk preparation

Once a talk gets accepted, the hard work of preparing a talk begins. The group will often help people brainstorm ideas for the outline or parts of their talk. We frequently do talk practices and walkthroughs where we let people practice and then give feedback on the talk, content, slides, and other relevant bits.

General support

The group also provides general support for all parts of the process. Scared to submit a proposal? Sad a talk wasn’t accepted? Frustrated by yet another all white male speaker lineup? Stressing out about speaking in front of hundreds of people? Worried about some negative feedback? We provide a general support system for our group members to talk about these things and get help from others.

Organizing

The organizing effort for the group is fairly low. Below is a quick breakdown of what I do. I think this model is reproducible, but your mileage may vary.

Getting started

Create a Google group for discussions and support between meetings. This also creates an email alias that makes it easy to invite group members to meetings.

Develop a code of conduct. Make sure that all group attendees are aware of and agree to it. I recommend linking it in the welcome message on your group. I added a code of conduct when the group expanded from a small group of close friends to include a wider group of people. We’ve never needed to use it, but it’s good to have a shared understanding about expected behavior as the group grows. If I was starting a new group, I would have a code of conduct from the very beginning.

In addition to the standard language about harassment, our code of conduct includes expectations about creating a supportive environment. This supportive environment is critical to the success of the group, so it was important to me that we codify it.

The purpose of this group is to provide support to people interested in and preparing to speak at tech events. All participants are expected to help maintain a supportive environment. Feedback should be constructive. Moderators reserve the right to sanction or expel anyone who is detrimental to a supportive environment.

Last, but not least, start the group with a collection of awesome people. Our group includes a nice mix of people ranging from those new to speaking to experienced speakers. Our technical backgrounds and skills are pretty diverse. This is great because it allows people to get feedback from different perspectives. I recommend having at least a couple more experienced people, so that they can provide guidance based on their expertise.

Meetings

I follow the process below to set up our meetings. I try to do this on a montly basis. We usually take off for a month or so around the winter holiday season.

Facilitating

I usually facilitate our meetings. Below are some of the things I try to do as a facilitator.

Group Membership

Our group is currently open to people I know well or people who other attendees know well and recommend to join.

I would also like to open up the group to people affiliated with the following organizations who are interested in help with speaking at tech events. If you are involved with these groups and would like to join, please fill out this request form.