tl;dr — If you know someone that you think would be a great tech speaker, tell them and do everything you can to encourage them to take the first step to get speaking. If you’re successful you have a good chance of changing their life.
I have recently been conducting interviews with experienced Java conference and tech keynote speakers and found it amazing how often people have told me two things. Firstly that speaking has completely changed their life and secondly that the reason they first started speaking was that someone made them do it. Usually a manager, mentor or highly respected peer. We are talking positive pressure here (cajoling, sponsorship and enthusiastic encouragement), not negative pressure (shaming and forcing), but people usually take something between a gentle nudge and a big push to take that daunting first step.
Most recently I was speaking to Maria Gutierrez, Engineering Director of Intercom London. We discussed the many ways that speaking had improved her career, she has received her last 3 job offers through people who have seen her speaking at conferences or events. Maria tends to speak at 2–3 conferences a year and has met many friends, recruited a number of great people and met those rare kindred spirits who share her passions and just made her life better.
I asked Maria why she originally started… what pushed her into taking that first step, and she said something which seems to come up very often when speaking to experienced speakers. Someone made her do it. A friend of hers was organising one of the first-ever Ruby on Rails conferences and needed to find some people to speak about it and as it happened Maria was heavily into Ruby at the time.
So she nervously agreed, gave her first talk and never looked back. Now she has achieved incredible success throughout her career, much of which she attributes to her speaking engagements.
I hear this over and over again when interviewing experienced speakers. Someone saw potential in them and made them put a toe in the water, they were nervous as hell… but now they’re giving keynotes. Trisha Gee of JetBrains has often spoken about how her early mentors within LMAX and the London Java Community encouraged her to speak about the Disruptor technology she had worked on. She speaks passionately about how that was the beginning of a life-changing journey to become a Java Champion and keynote speaker.
Steve Poole has done this over and over again by giving speaker workshops for IBM. He recalled a story in our interview, of someone he had spoken to that was slightly low on confidence. Steve could see this person would be an incredible developer and encouraged him to give a presentation and share his passion with others. Begrudgingly he agreed, delivered an excellent presentation, received incredible feedback and went on a similar life-changing journey.
There are parallels to my own personal journey. I have now opened and hosted 500+ meetups, conferences and roundtable events. This was not something I was particularly interested in and would probably never have gone out to do, but someone who became a mentor of mine is ultimately responsible. I asked him if he would do open an event we were organising and he candidly told me I had to do it. So I did. Like Maria and Trish, I have never looked back.
Having the confidence to open events has changed the trajectory of my business and my life. It has brought me in to contact with many incredible people and mentors who have taught me a great deal. It has also opened opportunities that I would never have been aware of.
Sometimes knowing you’re good, or even being told you’re good just isn’t enough. Sometimes you really do need a big strong push to get involved by someone you respect. So if you lucky enough to be acting as a mentor or are a manager of someone you feel has technical talent or would make a good speaker then let them know and give them the encouragement and help that they need.
It is important to note, and essential to be aware of the difference between positive pressure and negative pressure. Positive pressure will include private encouragement, cajoling, overwhelming enthusiasm and a sense that you truly believe in someone using overwhelming enthusiasm. Be their sponsor. Offer them the opportunity to help make introductions within your network that may help and talk through their concerns/reservations but most importantly make sure people feel safe enough to respectfully decline. That is that they can say “no” without losing your respect. There can be a fine line between this and a more negative pressure, which may include a more public pressure, shaming or even forcing people into doing it. If you are making people feel bad for not doing something then this will have the opposite impact.
tl;dr Be kind to people. Always.
If you do know someone that would make a great speaker then invite them to get involved in our aspiring speakers group. http://meetamentor.co.uk/aspiring-speakers/. We provide a safe space for new speakers within the group. We hold a fortnightly lightning talks event within the London Java Community. We have so far this year had 40+ new speakers. If anyone you know is looking for a space to practice then we will be more than happy to offer it to them.