I’m on a plane, traveling back from RailsConf 2019 where I was one of the keynote speakers. My head is full of thoughts and reflections on my experiences before, during, and after the talk.
I’ve given a few talks before, including several at previous RailsConfs, but this time was… different, somehow.
I’d like to share my experiences with you, in the hope that you’ll learn something of value along the way.
Genesis of the Talk
The process that led to my talk, The Stories We Tell Our Children, began circa 2.5 years ago, when my wife bought our first Israeli children’s book, A Tale of Five Balloons by Miriam Roth. I started to read it to my daughter nearly every night, and she loved it, but I honestly was bothered by the book. It was sad through and through, and I couldn’t figure out why it was clearly a popular book. It took me months to learn how it had become popular, and even then I wasn’t fully comfortable with it. It took at least a year to make my peace with the book, and to start to appreciate and even love it.
Through the process, I started to see how literature and the society within which it exists are intimately connected. It made me reconsider a lot of the American early childhood literature I grew up with. And the thoughts began to percolate around whether this could be something worth exploring in the context of a conference talk.
Time went on, and I began to read further. More Israeli books came into my life, and I continued to follow the pattern and see the connections. I started to seek out Israeli children’s classics actively, and try to perceive how each connected with Israeli history. I also read some literary criticism, mainly that of Dr. Shimona Fogel, which helped clarify things for me as well.
About 9 months ago, I decided I had enough material for a talk, and I had a sense of what I wanted to talk about. I submitted the topic to the RubyConf CFP, and was waitlisted, meaning I still got a free conference ticket, but would only give the talk if someone backed out at the last minute. No one did. In retrospect, this was a blessing; the talk was still somewhat raw and unrefined. I’m happy I got a few extra months to let things settle more in my head and on my slides.
Since I had been waitlisted rather than rejected, I already knew my proposal was pretty good. So I edited the proposal a bit more, and submitted it to RailsConf.
In case you’re wondering, I didn’t submit the talk to smaller conferences, for two reasons:
Small conferences tend to be on weekends. I don’t go to conferences on Saturdays for religious reasons, and I also don’t like the idea of making a long trip to a 2-day conference where one day is Saturday. Add the various Jewish holidays, and a great many conferences simply aren’t relevant possibilities. RubyConf and RailsConf are wonderful exceptions to this rule, since they are specifically held midweek so as to interfere minimally with attendees’ lives and to let them have full weekends before and after the conference.
Even if a relevant conference could be found, I had a sense this talk was special. It was certainly special to me. And I wanted to make sure I get to share it with as many people as possible. RubyCentral conferences would be my best shot at sharing these ideas with a large group, between the attendees and the many people who watch the Confreaks videos afterwards.
At any rate, one day I got an email from the conference organizers, stating that they’d decided my talk would make a great keynote, and they’d like me to take one of the keynote slots. Especially given that I’d been waitlisted last time, this wasn’t what I had expected, so of course I was thrilled to have the opportunity!
However, I was a little bit concerned. I knew I’d be addressing some Israeli history, which can be a sensitive and emotional topic for many people, and I definitely didn’t want to ruin someone’s conference experience by saying something insensitive or biased. Furthermore, because it’s a keynote rather than one talk of many in a multi-track slot, it wouldn’t be a talk people chose to attend. Keynotes also generally don’t get an abstract published in advance, and even whether to include the title in the program was a choice. (I decided yes.) So I wanted to make sure I’d have resources available for content review. Once I received confirmation from the RubyCentral team that this would be made available to me, I accepted the slot and started improving the talk.
Cranking Up the Quality
I’ve given several talks before, but this was a keynote. That means a bigger audience and higher expectations. So I set a higher bar for this talk and made every attempt to meet it.
I knew more or less what I wanted to say, but somehow all sorts of ancillary information always manages to creep its way into the talk. And there were some things I wanted to discuss which would have been ill-advised in consideration of the goal of not conjuring up uncomfortable feelings for people during my talk.
I expanded and pared down, again and again, until I felt pretty ready. Sadly, my talk was significantly longer than the recommended 40-50 minutes, so aside from wanting general feedback, I needed advice on what to take out.
Some folks from the US and UK were visiting the Cloudinary Israel office, and I figured it would be a good opportunity to get feedback from an audience that would be fairly representative of the people who would ultimately hear the talk. I invited the visitors, and ended up with a room of 5 participants in the audience. I got some great feedback, and ended up making many significant changes (additions and deletions) in response to their comments.
I rehearsed the talk once every 1-2 days for two weeks, each time tweaking a bit more. Once I felt comfortable with the newly edited version, I did a second round of testing on a group of my Israeli peers. They corrected a few things which I had confused due to being less sensitive to some finer points about Israeli culture. (I am, after all, an immigrant!) They also made a few suggestions to help me make it appeal more to the audience.
The most important bit of feedback I got in both rounds was to make sure to continuously ground the historical/cultural content in something practical. One of my reviewers put it this way: I was forcing people to maintain a long buffer, to remember a large percentage of the talk over many minutes, in order to understand the takeaways at the end. This made it harder for an audience member to maintain focus and understand what’s important to hold onto over time.
I sent a video of a rehearsal to the organizers and noted the parts that likely needed content review. It tooks some back-and-forth to make the review happen, and it wasn’t completed until the day prior to the talk, but thankfully it worked out. My test audiences’ feedback had already put me in a place where no further changes would be necessary. This was a great relief for me as the time drew near.
In the meantime, I continued making small tweaks, even on the plane ride, or in the conference hotel, and even the morning of the talk when something clicked in my head and I wanted to include the idea.
Some people have to “seal” a talk some time before giving it, in order to rehearse a final version and feel comfortable onstage. For me, though, a talk is a living entity, not done being developed until the moment I’m onstage and it’s too late to make changes. It’s an outlet of my mind and my emotions, and it needs to reflect who I am and what I think and feel when I give the talk. That dynamism lets me bring my entire self to the presentation.
Giving the Talk
It was time. I headed over to the convention center, and reached the main ballroom 15 minutes early. I hooked up the microphone and laptop, and then spent a few minutes talking to some friends who had also arrived early. That helped calm my nerves a bit, but with around 5 minutes to go, I decided I needed some quiet time. I went backstage, and took a few moments just to breathe and relax. Abby, one of the organizers, got up to make the morning announcements, and then it was time!
I got up, took in the round of applause, took a deep breath, and started. The first couple of slides were completely scripted, which helped me get into the rhythm of the talk, and the rest was bullet points and notes to let me speak more naturally. I heard the crowd laughing, crying, even gasping at one point, and I fed on that energy and connection to bring even more of myself into the talk.
It’s a surreal experience, being in front of a huge crowd and conveying ideas you care about deeply. At some point, at least for me, the power of the ideas themselves begins to carry you. You feel like you’re floating, you forget that your body exists, you simply become a conduit for thought and emotion, via the medium of words.
My memories of the talk itself are fairly sparse. I know I covered all the slides, and I remember a few key moments in time, but most of it is a big blur. I was in another world, yet very much connected with the audience at the same time.
In the past, I tend to take audience questions on the side after the talk, and then take a break for a while, and later in the day start going to talks again. This time, I had a couple of talks I really wanted to hear. So I went and listened. And then it was lunch break, but instead of eating I went back to my room, took a shower, put on more comfortable clothes, and went back to the conference with a clearer head. Still, it took a few hours to feel completely back to normal.
I was overwhelmed and often surprised by people’s reactions to my talk. I imagined I’d get some interesting responses, but even so, a few things caught me by surprise. Some highlights:
- An attendee from Venezuela told me about how much he values hearing about other cultures, and expressed his frustration that Americans don’t fully understand the situation in his country, and that’s a story that needs to be told.
- An attendee originally from Pakistan (now living in the US) noted that he isn’t legally allowed to visit Israel. For him, this was an enlightening experience and a chance to learn more about Israeli culture, to see the humanity of Israelis.
- An American Jewish attendee described to me how excited he was to see someone obviously Jewish onstage talking about Jewish history. He said it made him feel seen. He’s never been actively excluded from the programming community, but it still meant a lot to him to have representation in this sort of public forum.
- Two Israeli Jews in attendance (probably the only ones aside from myself) told me about their feelings of shock and wonderment in seeing the books they read to their children onscreen at the biggest conference for Rails developers in the US. They were thrilled to have the opportunity to tell their family and friends back home what had happened across the Atlantic.
- A father approached me to talk about the concerns he shares with me about the books he reads to his children. Sometimes he’s noticed messages that he realizes are problematic, and he appreciated me raising awareness of the issue.
- A programmer who works for TED came over to compliment my presentation style, and we got into a scintillating discussion of how TED has impacted the way people give talks, for better and for worse.
- Someone I’d met the previous day approached me and told me they have been dabbling in writing a children’s book. They gave me a copy to look at and asked me to share my thoughts.
Many other people approached me in the days following my talk. Some wanted to connect on a more practical level; I was invited to be a guest on two podcasts, which should be a fascinating experience. Mainly, though, people wanted to share all kinds of reflections, mostly centered around being more aware of the messages in children’s books and in the stories we tell.
I’m still unpacking the experience, but I’ve drawn a few lessons from my little adventure.
First is the power of vulnerability. This talk put me in a potentially very vulnerable place. It involved many of my own feelings, both about literature and about the society in which my wife and I have chosen to live and raise our children. But I found that people were very receptive to my honesty and openness about myself. There are certainly limits, and I needed to take great care to ensure I wouldn’t trod on someone else’s feelings. But I was amazed at how positively people reacted to the talk and the content.
Next is the value of letting ideas simmer. This talk came to be over a period of years, as the result of a personal journey. Even once I put together the initial abstract, nearly a year passed before I gave the talk onstage. The passage of time allowed me to clarify my goals in the talk and what exactly I wanted to convey in the time allotted.
Third is the value of testing. I thought I had a pretty good talk, but I found out I was too close to the material. Hearing the reactions of a test audience helped me to notice the ways in which my talk could be improved and made more valuable for them. Because this isn’t about me getting to spew at people. It’s about what they carry with them when they exit the room.
Fourth, I was prompted a few times to make the talk feel more relevant. It’s easy for a speaker to forget that you need to have a strong and clear answer to the question, “Why should I care about any of this?” And it needs to be stated early and often. I think my talk was much better received because I chose to scatter some of the takeaways and lessons throughout, rather than concentrating everything at the end of the talk.
Finally, I was intrigued to see how different people took different things away from the talk. Some focused more on issues of literal children’s literature, while others wanted to talk about messaging in media and in programmer culture. Everyone listened to the same talk, but heard something a bit different. This reminded me that as a speaker, you can’t control what your audience will hear, but that’s OK. Maybe everyone hears what they need to hear at that time. It’s a gift to them; they choose what to do with it. And my job as speaker is to give up the illusion of control and allow each attendee to interpret in their own way.
Thank you, dear reader, for listening. I hope it was worth the time and energy you’ve invested, and you’re a bit wiser now than you were before reading. I’d love to hear what you learned from my experiences in the comments.