For maybe a year or so, I’ve been mentoring aspiring tech speakers, primarily women, and helping them bring their perspectives to the tech conference landscape. I’m not an expert in presenting, but during the two years I’ve been doing it, I’ve picked up a few tricks that I can now pass along to others. So I do. I answer questions about finding talk topics, creating abstracts, submitting to conferences and dealing with criticism, and it’s been successful enough that I intend to continue doing it regularly.
Recently, someone I was working with asked me a question, prefaced with the expressed hope that it wasn’t a weird thing to ask: “Why do you do this?” Oddly, it was the first time I could remember someone I was mentoring asking me that. It seems to me not only a perfectly valid question, but an important one for me to answer.
I mentor for a variety of reasons. The primary reason is the same one why I speak in the first place: I like to connect with people. I like sharing ideas, starting conversations and inpsiring creation. It energizes me.
Beyond that, I would like to hear a greater diversity of experiences, backgrounds and voices giving technical talks. It enriches our community and strengthens our community’s output. But the mechanisms that support educating and preparing diverse speakers are not optimized or, in some cases, even functional. Individual mentoring is the one lever I can pull on my own to try to make it all work better.
My own mentoring mechanisms work like this: I devote between one and two hours a week to people who want to become tech speakers. I create virtual “office hour” appointments at Ohours and spread the word via my social media channels. People sign up for mentoring slots and we talk over Skype video calls (or Google Hangouts, or phone).
As I mentioned, I answer questions about all areas of the speaking process, from beginning to middle to onward. Brainstorming, submitting, describing, presenting, audience-wrangling. My opinion is that everyone has a story and every story has an audience. Not all stories are for every audience. But there is enough room in tech conferences and meetups for people to talk about the things that excite them and make them productive.
I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve learned that a little encouragment and human contact goes a long way in clearing away the mental barriers in the way of an individual who wants to speak publicly. Some of the people I talk to have been accepted to an event and are preparing. Some have spoken at a couple smaller events and are ready to scale up. Some haven’t spoken anywhere at all. All are wondering about what kind of world they’re stepping into.
There are other barriers, of course. Almost all of the women I talk to ask me if I’ve ever been hassled or heckled based on my gender. There’s a very real danger, emotionally and/or physically, in making yourself visible and audible as a minority. I personally have a fair amount of privlege and have been fortunate enough to never have been subject to any completely out-of-line feedback or outright abuse; but even I am careful about my interactions and steel myself for backlash when speaking about anything controversial. I advise people to make sure the events they speak at have conduct guidelines and safety procedures in place and that they trust the organizers to create a supportive environment. While it makes me sad this is something some beginners have to consider on top of everything else, the least we can do is provide the opportunity for people to ask about it, have their concerns taken seriously, and share what tools we do have to create a positive experience.
Which, really, speaks to my overall point - mentoring is far more than teaching someone how to do something or trading answers for questions. At its best, its an empathetic transfer of feeling, thought, experience, advice, hope and confidence. It’s an open exchange, and, as with most things in life, you get out of it what you put into it. I recommend starting with sincerity, optimism and honesty and getting more granular from there.
No matter what you do or what skill level you possess, you can mentor someone else. Somewhere, someone could benefit from your perspective. Don’t claim to know anything you don’t, but examine yourself and figure out what it is that you can offer. And then offer that. Are you a developer? A designer? A UXer, a strategist, a project manager? What was it like getting into the industry? What tool or language is your favorite? What are the best books and resources in your field? What are the things you wish someone had told you when you started? If you think you’re too inexperienced to offer advice, remember that you’re closer to a beginner perspective than those who have been working for years and maybe sympathy is the most effective thing you can give. Maybe someone in a different domain would like to learn about what you do. Maybe you can learn what they do. Maybe you have process tips or working strategies that someone at an equivalent skill set could use. There are a million ways what you have to say is valuable.
Which is exactly why I choose to help people learn how to speak up and say it.
When I say everyone can mentor, I mean it! I would love see this become a catalyst for others offering individual mentoring in their fields and skillsets. Steal whatever tips you can from me. Check out Ohours, which has been an effective way for me to manage virtual appointments. Let me know if you decide to offer mentoring and I’ll spread the word on my own channels. If we get enough of us doing this sort of thing, maybe we can band together and pool resources. Let’s see what happens.