The One Person You Can Convince to Be a Public Speaker

By Jenn Lukas

It was 2009. My friend and colleague Dan Mall sent me a link to this: It was the first JSConf run by Chris Williams and I was stoked. I registered for a ticket and soon enough I was on my way to DC for the conference. That morning, I was greeted by the charming Laura Williams, co-organizer and wife of Chris, at the registration desk, who asked my shirt size and handed me a welcome bag. I grabbed a much needed coffee and headed into the shallow, rectangular hotel conference room. I looked around at the room, at the time about a quarter full of men and women, and took one of the many open seats on the left side of the room. The longer I sat there drinking my coffee, the more the room began to fill with some serious JavaScript lovers. Pretty soon the room was all filled up and a person began to make their way up to the stage area. There was an announcement that I wasn’t really paying attention to and then next thing you know, all the women I had seen on my way in? They got up and left the room.

I was disoriented, I wondered if I accidentally poured decaf. I began to look around anxiously. In all directions, the only eager Doug Crockford fans I saw were men. As far as I knew (remember the room was long and shallow), I was now the only woman in the whole room. All of my ladies had left me. Did I miss something? What was that announcement? Did I accidentally stumble into a men’s support group and was all the JS awesomeness happening in another room? Nope, I was indeed in the right place.

Panic must’ve shown on my face, as the man sitting next to me leaned over and let me know what I didn’t know at the time. JSConf had this super awesome aspect called the Significant Other track. The SO track was a free ticket for those traveling with their loved ones that were attending the conference. The SO’s toured around DC and met up later for the conference parties. I thought this was super cool to offer. It just so happened in this case, all the SO’s were the women in the room. And they all got up at once, leaving me very confused. I’ve met many other female developers that have said that they are used to being the minority in the room and that’s okay. Thus far in school and work, that had also been my personal experience and I had never paid much attention to it, so I never really thought anything of it. But here and now, in this room of 150 people, for one of the first times in my nerd life, I was feeling genuinely lonely and out of place as a woman.

This Was No One’s Fault

The conference sold out, that’s the way things go. What can you do? It would be totally weird to hold half the tickets for women. But I was still left with this uncomfortable feeling. A little while later, one of the speakers finished earlier than expected and Chris came up on stage and offered a chance for anyone who was interested to do a 5 minute or less lightening talk to fill the time. Someone volunteered and approached the stage, and I began to think, should I get up there? Should I address the elephant in this room? It is an elephant, right? It’s gotta be. I started to get super nervous. Could I do this? What would I say? Is this stupid? Is anyone else even seeing this? And then the presenter finished up, Chris asked, “anyone else?” And as soon as the pause hit the 10-second mark, my body decided it knew what was good for me and my arm decided to raise itself and get me into whatever it was I just volunteered myself for.

I walked up to the podium and my heart was pounding. I had not done any public speaking before and I thought I might faint. I got up there and from what my revisionist history recalls, it went something like this: “So…ummm…hey everyone. You, uh, might have noticed I’m one of the only women in this room. [nervous laugh] I think I maybe might’ve seen one or two others maybe.” At this point, the faces of Rebecca Murphy and Kate Chapman came into focus, who had been sitting on the far right of the room. They gave a wave and I waved back. I had my head up for just long enough to see at least a handful of smiles, maybe more, but enough to think it was okay to continue and I’d be safe from thrown tomatoes. “So yeah, there are three of us here and that’s cool. Well I was just thinking, you know, this sold out fast, so maybe next year, when you sign up again, you could uh, tell your female friends about it, too. And then there’d be more of us. And that would be cool. Okay thanks”.

And that my friends, was my first experience as a public speaker.

The day went on and I eventually got to meet and chat with Kate and Rebecca, both extremely talented ladies. I met a lot of other awesome people there, too. Everyone from attendees to speakers to organizers were all supportive and high-five filled. This acceptance certainly made the feeling in the pit of my stomach like I just blew the big game or something start to fade away, but I certainly wouldn’t qualify myself as a “speaker” at this point.

Fast Forward to the Future

It’s a year later and I’ve had pleasure of being on two panels organized by other people, one for a local Philadelphia organization and one at SXSW. I watch videos of myself and learn I say “you know” about 500 times when I speak in public, but I’m still into giving the speaking thing another shot. That’s when JSConf announced they are doing another US edition for 2010 and that you could “submit a JSON-encoded talk to our call for speakers that’s hidden in the web site.” For sure, I go to check that out! As I’m chuckling over their clever attempt to avoid a boring contact form, I begin to think about my plea to the other attendees to encourage more female attendees, but what about more female speakers? Is it hypocritical of me to put the work on others when I have the power to submit something myself and help contribute to the solution? I thought about that a lot. I thought about in conferences (and life in general) the person you are going to be able to convince the easiest to help you in your quest for anything, is yourself. I can help get more female speakers by being one. I can practice what I preach. I can do this. So I did.

I submitted a talk on JavaScript and Web Standards, something I firmly stand for and sent it on its way. In a conference where the newest JS techniques were being displayed, I had a few reservations about submitting a talk about why your site should work without JavaScript. However, this was something I practiced and at the time, I thought was supremely relevant to the technology. Even if it didn’t get picked, I was mainly proud of myself for coming up with a topic and submitting something to talk about for 30 minutes, solo, even if it scared the crap out of me. Then three years ago on Feb 8, 2010 at 8:57 PM, the email arrived on my phone.

“Congratulations! Your speaker proposal has been selected for presentation at JSConf US 2010! This is exciting news because only a handful of the 100+ speaker applications are actually going to be able to present and you are one of them. We are putting together an amazing conference for JavaScript and we look forward to your assistance in accomplishing this feat.”

I think I shrieked. Even though I was nervous, I took a chance and it paid off. I had a great time speaking that year and the female attendance grew from 3 to 8. Over 150% growth! And sure 87% of statistics are made up on the spot (2% of users without JS anyone???) but it *felt* better. From any seat in the room, you could spot another woman and I was super pumped to be presenting, as not only do I relate with being a web standards lover, I also relate with being a woman. And being able to be on the stage as both for 30 minutes was an honor.

I Didn’t Want to Stop There and Neither Should You

Between the two JS Confs, I also did something else. I registered ladiesintech and At the time, I had no clue what I was going to do the with the URLs, but what I did know is that if I owned them, I had the power to make something I believe in. And that’s what I’m doing now: Creating another place for a group I relate to, ladies. Just like I don’t think we can have enough female speakers, I don’t think we can ever have enough resources and content online for things we believe in. I can’t force anyone to speak publicly or to read this site, but I can put this site and myself out there. I hope you all do, too.

20 thoughts on “The One Person You Can Convince to Be a Public Speaker

  1. Cat

    GREAT point Jenn about having the power to make change yourself – by putting yourself out there as a speaker.

    You’re a brilliant speaker and I was definitely inspired to speak myself by seeing you at Web Design Day in Pittsburgh only a couple of years ago. I’ve since presented and spoken at a few events and this post is further inspiration to keep myself in the game and try to improve. Right on.

  2. paula

    You go girl! And to all the readers: you go ladies!

    I’m excited to see this space and looking forward to its development (pun unintended) :)

  3. Luke Jones

    Great story Jenn, I’m hoping things are changing for the better now that more and more people are speaking up about the issue. I don’t go to many conferences any more but over the years I’ve noticed that there are more and more girls there. Everyone should feel totally comfortable to go to or speak at conferences regardless of gender, age, ethnicity and so on and so forth.

  4. Linda van der Pal

    A story similar to my own. As a Java programmer I went to a lot of conferences and saw the number of women rise (along with the number of men, so the percentage didn’t change much yet). Being shy and wanting to get to know these other women, I started Duchess a network for women interested in Java.

    It took me a bit longer to start public speaking, but I have started and intend to keep it up. These days I’m even speaking at schools to tell girls about a career in tech.

  5. Lisa Wess

    Jenn, thank you for sharing your experience and starting this site. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing you speak and that is always a pleasure.

    Here’s to some forward movement for the wonderful women in our industry. There’s a ways to go. :)

  6. Julie Xiong

    Over the years and throughout college, I don’t think I’ve encountered another woman interested in both web development and video games like me—probably due to lack of exposure to those with these interests because I went to an art and design school in Wisconsin… It is so frustrating at times when I cannot geek out to my girl friends about the latest technology. It’s either all about health, food, fashion, or beauty with them—I don’t mind it, but totally feel a void.

    Definitely looking forward what comes of this website!

  7. Jenn Lukas

    Thanks to all of you for reading and commenting! Your positive feedback means the world to me. Thank you to the max! We have a great lineup of more stories to be shared! I’m excited and I’m glad you all are too!

  8. Janet

    Hey Jenn,
    Thanks so much for the great story!
    Sometimes it takes a lot of self talk to take that first step. We make the difference in our own lives, taking that first step can rock our personal world.. You never know, that step may just change the path of your life (or the life of someone else) Realizing we all live and breath the same air is an edge we sometimes need. To stand and speak to a group for any length of time is quite the experience. Prior to starting as well as the first few moments my mouth is dry and my knees are weak. After a few minutes I am calm and enjoying the experience.
    I honor you for your determination, courage and personal “mind speak.” You are an inspiration to all women; no matter their field. To throw away our personal doubts allowing one to express/share love of a topic or ideal through public speaking is true freedom. By sharing your story, and creating the website you have edged a path for many.
    May you continue to grow, thrive, encourage and share. Thank you !

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