Last week, there was an argument on the internet.

As usual, it started on Twitter and a flurry of blog posts are cropping up this week to fill in the nuances that 140 characters will not allow. So, here’s mine…

[Aside: I did actually make a promise to myself that I wouldn’t get involved, but, I find that cranking out a quick blog post, gets my head in the space for writing generally.]

I started speaking at web conferences in 2006. After attending SXSW the year before, I proposed a panel discussion (with the lofty title: Traditional Design and New Technology) with some design friends of mine: Khoi Vinh, Jason Santa Maria and Toni Greaves and moderated by Liz Danzico. I was terrified. But, in the end, it was fun – there was some lively debate.

I wanted to do a panel at SXSW since seeing Dave Shea, Doug Bowman and Dan Cederholm sit on a CSS panel at SXSW in 2004. Not because I saw the adulation, but because I saw – for the first time – what it was like to contribute to this community. To be part of it. To give back: be it code, techniques, thoughts, debate or discussion. And I wanted a part of it. So, that’s what I did. I started blogging – I felt I had some things to say, about typography, grids, colour theory. All of the traditional graphic design stuff that mattered to me. Not because of some egotistical trip, but because I genuinely wanted to make things better. Trite, I know.

Fast forward a couple of years and I’m speaking at the inaugural New Adventures conference in Nottingham for my friend Simon Collison. On that day, every speaker up on stage was trying to give the best talk they could. Not because of the audience, not because of who they were, but because of Simon. It was personal.

The talk I gave at new Adventures took about two years to write. Yes, it took me that long to write a twenty five minute talk. You throw that into the equation, a high-risk personal favour for a good friend, plus my family and best friend in the audience, and you’ve got a recipe for bad nerves and vomit. And I did vomit.

But, I got up there. Cast aside the nerves and held my head up and spoke for twenty minutes on things I’ve been thinking about for years. It was received well. Afterwards, all I did was sit in the green room for about two hours and didn’t really speak to anyone.

My natural preference

It may surprise you that most speakers I know are not extroverts. I don’t mean extroverts in the way you may think, either. I mean it in the Myers Briggs type: they are not the type of people who gain energy from other people, they gain that energy from themselves. I’m one of these people, too.

Being on stage is firmly out of my comfort zone. Firmly. I’ve had to learn to harness the nerves and put them to good use. A good friend of mine calls this ‘peak performance’ – the nerves help you bring your ‘A’ game.

My natural preference is to be on my own, working. Either thinking, sketching, writing, building, exercising… whatever. All through my life, I’ve enjoyed solitary sports and pastimes, from angling to cycling. Now, that’s not to say I’m a hermit. I’m not. I’m pretty sociable when I need to be, but it’s not my preference. So being on stage – sticking my head above the parapet – takes incredible effort, and then afterwards, I generally want to go and hide in a corner for a bit. It wipes me out.

So, why do I do it? Why does anyone do it in this community? If you’re a regular speaker, or your first time? Almost everyone I know does it because they want to give back. They have something they’d like to share in the hope it may help someone else in a similar position.

This brings me full circle to my opening sentence. Why, then, knowing all of this, is there a general feeling of discontent in a vocal minority that speakers who do this regularly are:

  • In it for the ego
  • Not doing any real work
  • Not leaving room for new speakers

I’d like to address these points from my own experience.

In it for the ego

Why would someone get up on stage and speak to hundreds of people? Sure, some may get a kick out of that. People applauding you feels nice. But, let’s be clear: that’s not egotistical. That’s being rewarded, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Not doing any real work

I wrote about defining ‘work’ last week. I see speaking as part of my work as a graphic designer. If you’ve studied graphic designers, art directors, ad copywriters and the like, you’ll know that a lot of them speak to their peers – either at conferences or through publications. Writing and talking about what we do with each other is work. Not only that, it’s fucking important work too. Without it, there would be no web standards, no open source, no progression.

Not leaving room for new speakers

Experienced speakers leave room for everyone. Experienced speakers do not run conferences: conference organisers do. And conference organisers need to put bums on seats. Just like a big music festival, you need the draw, but also you need the confidence that a speaker will deliver to the audience. Every experienced speaker I know works damned hard to make sure they deliver the best they can, every single time. They’re professional. They don’t screw it up, or spring surprises. They deliver. And that’s why you may see their faces at one or two conferences.

A couple of months ago, I saw Heather Champ talk at Web Directions South in Sydney. Amongst many hilarious – and equally terrifying - stories of how she’s managed and curated communities over the years, she came out with the nugget:

“What you tolerate defines your community”
Heather Champ

At this point, I’d like to ask you this:

What will you tolerate in this community?

Will you tolerate a conference circuit swamped by supposedly the same speakers and vote with your wallet? Or will you tolerate conference organisers being continually beaten up for genuinely trying to do the right thing? Will you tolerate speakers being abused for getting on stage and sharing their experiences?

Will you tolerate harassment, bullying and exclusion?

As I’ve said before, Twitter is like a verbal drive-by. It’s fast, efficient, impersonal and you don’t stick around for the consequences. Let’s stop it.