“Sponsor me to talk”?

Written on August 09 2011 at 17:24 and updated on August 10 2011 at 13:46

Eleanor,

I read your blog post about conference speaking, and had a few thoughts. I hope you don’t mind if I jot them down.

Firstly, I’m sure everyone can sympathise with the desire to go to lots of conferences, and how financial constraints often limit our ability to indulge ourselves in this way.

It’s probably true that a good chunk of conference attendees have their conference travel subsidised to whatever extent by their employers. They’re pretty lucky to have employers who are willing to do that, since we all know (having blagged it as employees ourselves) that there’s very little value flowing back to the employer1.

But bear in mind, they also have to put up with all the shit that comes with being an employee in order to get those perks. So it’s not all gravy.

Despite this, a surprising number of people pay their own way. Over the years I’ve personally paid hundreds if not thousands of pounds/dollars, just for hotels and flights to conferences, even when I was speaking. My own money. Money I could’ve spent on cake.

Conferences are an expensive habit, so I don’t really blame your audacious approach to satisfying it.

It’s all for a good cause

Years ago, a very generous person once gave me $50 for maintaining the engines plugin2. I was delighted. It was totally unexpected, and I had to set up the donation mechanism because it had never occurred to me that people might reward development in that way.

I never earned anything from it beyond that Grant, except immeasurable experience and a nice email from DHH with the subject line: “I repent”.

Your turn. Did you know that people - strangers - have donated well over two thousand dollars to date towards your attendance of conferences. That’s pretty incredible.

Perhaps your situation isn’t as bad as you think?

I’m also a bit confused about how you feel your presentation style relates to all this. You’re right - everyone takes time to find their voice and hone their style. The first presentations I gave were awful, and I’m not sure I’m that much better now.

However, it sounds like you’re saying that your presentations are not intended to be digested at the conference. Am I reading you right? What you’re actually aiming for is some kind of beat-poet stream of consciousness veering whimsically around while the slides perform a dissonant peripheral assault? I mean… really? Really?

But more than this, despite acknowledging that audiences find your style hard to engage with, and that your slides aren’t really designed for audiences to understand, you think that they should still donate money so that you can physically deliver your presentation mind-bomb in person? The presentation that’s too-hard-to-follow-at-a-conference-so-they-should-just-try-to-decipher-it-on-slideshare-instead?

My eyebrow, Ma’am, is significantly raised.

My suggestions

Forgive me if this seems impertinent, but I have some suggestions3.

On that last point: as both an audience member and a conference organiser4 I can assure you that while the performance is certainly memorable, I spent a considerable amount of time in the presentation trying to figure out what I should be paying attention to, and reading the slides afterwards without any context or obvious threading is - to be honest - worse than the live show.

You say in your post that you think this is providing more value, but it’s not. I don’t doubt that it’s the culmination of months of work and research, but part of your job as a presenter is to distill that into key insights and digestible chunks. Nobody gets refreshed by drinking from a firehose.

In other words: focus a little less on cementing your genius for posterity, and a little more into genuinely communicating with your audience.

  1. And I’m sure many employers have lost employees who scouted out new jobs at conferences too.

  2. Now in Rails 3.1! So, I can finally fire the pneumatic bolt through its brainstem.

  3. Clearly I have opinions about conferences which inform my view.

  4. Eleanor spoke about “Ruby Go Lightly” at Ruby Manor 2.


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