Why I Speak

By Tiffani Jones Brown

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.

10 thoughts on “Why I Speak

  1. Jenn Lukas

    “The worst case scenario is your talk flops” it’s true, which really in the long run, is not the end of the world or even close to being Bruce Willis on an asteroid in Armageddon, so why not?! :)

    Great advice all around!!

  2. Jonathon Colman

    This is fantastic, Tiffani — I really admire your openness and honesty. :)

    …but I especially love this: “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.”

    …and this: “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.”

    That’s just so spot-on. No one becomes great overnight and few people are born with natural talent. Instead we have to ask for help, practice, watch other people, and continually take a leap of faith and challenge ourselves to do better. It may even be a good sign of sorts that we don’t feel okay with our work… being uncomfortable drives us to keep learning and doing better.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Casie Gillette

    I love this line “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.” That is so true and truthfully, it’s something I still sometimes struggle with despite being in the search industry for 8 years. I ‘m confident I know my stuff, but it’s hard not to think about someone asking you a really difficult question…and then of course you learn that people rarely do and more importantly, it’s ok to say you don’t know the exact answer. The just go do it attitude is the best way to go about it. Thanks for the honest post!

  4. Laura Marcello

    I didn’t know who you were, but I read about this article on Twitter. So I did what you just said: clicked. Jackpot to you too, lady. You gave me that feeling before crying with joy, but only different.
    You moved something in a very meaningful time of my life. That time when you start doing the things you always knew you wanted to —and you’re afraid, excited, afraid again, excited again.
    I’m really thankful for that. Keep inspiring people.
    Thank you so very much.
    Laura Marcello
    Buenos Aires, Argentina.

  5. Margot Bloomstein

    Tiffani, thank you for this, and thank you for contributing to the web by writing and speaking. We share the sentiment that in our corner of the internet, we stand on some mighty big shoulders, and we all grow in wisdom, insight, and connectedness thanks to the generosity of others. Halvorson, Rockley, Redish, and McGrane are smart, spirited pioneers, but we owe great thanks to the others too: your co-worker Tom. My colleague Jaime, who mentored me through my first editorial style guide. They brought to the workplace and you bring to the conference stage a spirit of sharing that undercuts the sense of competition common to other industries, and the benefits are personal as well as public. We all benefit, all those would-be content strategists and developers and designers in the audience. And more importantly, so do the folks not in the room: our audiences and the users we hope to serve. So thank you on behalf of them, too! :)

  6. valerie

    Really loved this post–thank you for writing it! Could you maybe share other workshops you attended (or any other specifics) that helped you become a better writer?

  7. Tiffani Jones Brown

    Thank you all so much for reading, and for your thoughtful comments!

    Jonathon: +300 being uncomfortable!

    Casie: My former boss used to have this concept called “owning your chair” that she learned from her psychotherapy days. It’s a good metaphor for owning what you know, I think.

    Laura: Thank YOU. And good luck with whatever endeavor’s next.

    Margot: Hi! Yes to shoulder-standing! I’ve stood on all y’all’s.

    Jen: Thanks for letting me write, lady.

  8. Frank Marquardt

    What the others said. Beautifully expressed. I can totally identify with the professor/therapist/creative writer in you. I suspect a lot of content strategists can.


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