Should I stop speaking at conferences?
January 26, 2020
I’m a software engineer that’s partly made a name for herself from speaking at software conferences for many years. I’m good at it and people very regularly say that my talks are interesting and they learn a lot.
I’m pondering stopping, not because I don’t like it anymore, but just because it’s kind of exhausting. I want to focus some of my time on other local activities, but I guess I’m a bit afraid of losing a bit of my identity. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions on how to make a final decision?
Questioning This Choice
First of all, congratulations on making a name for yourself and for getting such wonderful feedback from the people who have learned from your talks! 🎉
It sounds like you’ve put in a lot of hard work to produce such well-regarded content—learning the information yourself, determining how to clearly and eloquently explain it to others, presenting it in an engaging manner, and doing all of that not just once or twice but on a consistent basis over multiple years.
The skills, expertise, and confidence you’ve gained from conference speaking won’t disappear overnight if you decide to take a break from speaking. You get to take all that experience with you for the rest of your life, even if you never use it directly again.
But you don’t have to make one big lasting decision right now about whether you’re going to be a Regular Conference Speaker™ or a Person With Free Time™ for the rest of your life.
If you are so exhausted and burnt out from tech conferences, you can quit now and never speak again and have a completely fulfilled life. But I think there’s a lot of space here for you to take a step back from your current level of involvement without having to completely sacrifice that part of your life if you don’t want to.
One question you might ask yourself: What do you currently gain from speaking at conferences? Do you like the challenge of preparing a new talk? Do you enjoy the feedback of a live audience as they learn something new? Are there particular topics you are passionate about sharing with people in tech? Do you like the recognition or respect associated with being on stage? What parts of your identity feel so specifically linked to speaking at software conferences?
On the flip side: What is it that exhausts you about speaking at conferences? Is it the travel? Is it the process of preparing slide decks? Is it the time spent on rehearsing talks? Is it the anticipation of public speaking? Is it the emotional energy of being “on” and publicly visible after speaking at a conference? Is it an invisible pressure that you feel that if you’ve spoken at N conferences last year, you have to speak at N+1 this year?
The goal of these two questions is to help identify: What are the parts of conference speaking that bring me fulfillment, and how do I access them in ways that don’t exhaust me?
Here are a few constraints you could consider if you wanted to try out speaking less for a little bit:
- 🏡 Only speak at meetups and conferences in your city (or region, or in the places where you have friends you love visiting).
- ⭐️ Pick one or two conferences that you’ve had the best experience speaking at in the past. Only apply to speak there.
- 💅 Exclusively speak on topics that you’re already an expert in, so you don’t have to learn new things.
- ♻️ Reuse existing talks only—no new talks for a year.
- 💸 Pick a speaker fee that you think is worth your while. Double it. Only speak if the conference will pay that amount.
- 🌈 Only give talks to conferences, meetups, or non-profit groups that explicitly center marginalized people.
- 🛋 Take a complete break from any and all speaking engagements for at least six months. Think about what you missed, if anything.
You can take a break from giving your free time to tech. You can prioritize thriving in the place where you live and building a community and a home and a routine.
I hope you can celebrate the parts of your identity that you’ve discovered while speaking at conferences, without feeling beholden to conferences forever lest you lose that part of yourself. They didn’t create that part of you—you did. She’s yours.
Whether you stop speaking at conferences altogether, or drastically scale back, or take a temporary break but then resume again—whatever it is that you choose, I hope you find a balance that feels right. I hope you carve out the time and space for yourself to do the things you love. And I hope that you always get the opportunity to make choices that feel best for you at every stage in your career, and to reexamine those choices when they inevitably no longer suit. 💖
All the best,