As a young almost-professional, I never wanted to speak at tech conferences—because I never wanted to be in tech. The idea of new innovations or bleeding edge anything never appealed to me. I wanted to be a philosophy professor, creative writer, or therapist.
It wasn’t until I realized I’d be $80,000 in debt and living in Tucson that I decided to hang up my Master’s degree and end my professorial career once and for all.
I landed my first tech job at a small design agency in Seattle, where I was hired to edit blog posts about design, code, and other topics I knew nothing about. My first week on the job, my co-worker Tom pulled me aside to tell me what the Internet was. That was 2008.
I was completely culture shocked. I barely knew how to brighten the screen on my Macbook, let alone what “Photoshop,” “project management software,” or “HTML” were. I realized right away that if I was going to do anything worthwhile at this job, I’d need to get over my tech squeamishness and learn some stuff—fast.
So, I did what all my coworkers seemed to do when they had a question: I checked Twitter. Jackpot. I found A List Apart, Steve Krug, Kottke, and Signal vs Noise. I learned there were other writers like me out there who were calling themselves “content strategists.” I learned there were such things as design conferences, where you could learn how to design and write and be an entrepreneur. I signed up for my first South by Southwest the same day I found out about it.
It was at that first SXSW that I realized I’d landed in the right industry. I didn’t really fit in with the developery, early adopterish crowd I’d fallen in with, and I didn’t understand half of what Jeffrey Zeldman and the other speakers were saying—but I was floored by how openly they shared what they knew and by their can-do, entrepreneurial spirit. I had the sense that if I wanted to start my own business or be a designer, I could just go do it. I decided I wanted to do writing, voice, and brand stuff and that if I ever got decent at it, I’d share what I learned too.
Fast forward five years, and I now lead writing and voice for Pinterest in San Francisco. I’m still learning, but I actually enjoy what I do, which is a hybrid between creative writing, interface and communication design, old-school editorial, and cognitive therapy. I also regularly speak at conferences like Build and Confab.
If it weren’t for the generosity of the speakers and writers I learned from in those early years, I might not have landed so neatly where I am now. It would’ve been much harder for me to stumble on something that inspired me and then turn it into a living in just a few short years.
And so this is the main reason I speak: To help other people have that quiet, burning, can-do feeling, and then make it into some kind of reality. Not everyone will be inspired by what I say, but some will—and a few of them will use that inspiration as fuel to do something awesome.
Now that I’ve spoken a bunch, I realize that there are other benefits too. Speaking sharpens my thinking and forces me to put a finer point on my intellectual hunches and gut feelings. It’s helped me begin sound more like myself, and begin to find “my voice.” It’s made my writing better. It’s also been great for my career—when I was freelancing, I used to get a slew of new gigs every time I spoke. Finally, and most importantly, it’s forced me to be a little braver.
Most everyone I know starting out in their career has the feeling that they “don’t know enough” to speak, or that speaking would reveal them as the fraud they really are. This is especially true of women. It’s bullshit.
When I started speaking, I was terrified because I knew next to nothing about the things I was speaking about. I almost backed out every time. Yet I found out that if I focused on the kernels I did know—or even if I focused on my opinion about those kernels—someone would get value out of what I said. My first few talks were embarrassingly naive, but that’s just how it goes. You have to produce a lot of crap before you finally make something you feel good about. So far I’ve produced about 1/4 of a talk I feel okay about, but I know that if I keep speaking, something good will come of it.
If you’re interested in writing or speaking but feel scared that you’re not “good or experienced enough,” I encourage you to ignore those feelings and just go do it. I promise you won’t die, find yourself unloved and alone, or have your biggest fear played out for you in public. The worst case scenario is your talk flops—in which case you’ll be stronger for it. The likelier scenario is you’ll give a couple decent talks, followed by better ones, followed by even better ones, until you give one that really makes a difference.
When I used to work at Facebook, there was a poster on the wall that said, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” It’s a good question. I encourage all of us to consider it.