I don’t belong here? the hidden secret of speaking at OpenTech (and most other places)

BardfeeIEAAE8st.jpg-largeI think it might be David and Clare’s fault, mostly because it’s harder to blame Amanda Palmer or Merlin Mann. They know why they’re there.
There’ve been a few discussions recently about fully unconference/openspace events, and a desire to achieve more out of them.
And some of those suggestions suggest a slight misunderstanding of why events work, and why some don’t.

That difference is people, and their mindset. More importantly their mindset and their understanding of the mindset of others, especially in massively interdisciplinary events, which are bringing different groups of people together for the first time. Those are often the most interesting type of events

Mindset is what people believe, and how they would choose to act in a much wider context. You can give cyclists a splash of blue paint on the road, and they may cycle on it as it’s better than anything else, but they wont believe they’re safe. And it’s mindset that makes great events.

I’m not saying that if you get the mindset right, then the event will be perfect. You have to get many things right for perfect. But most things can be done by throwing resources (money, people, energy) at the problem. Mindset is different. Mindset is mostly unrelated to resources; you can’t fake it.

I was at an event over the summer, which was about a week long. Because of the length, it was a coherent example of things that get said about shorter meetings and longer projects. This is one example, of a conversation I’ve had many times, with different people, in different ways, at different times.

It was day 2 and I was chatting to a friend who was wondering aloud, to steal a line, “what the hell am I doing here?”. It was the self-doubt of whether her place would have been better going to someone else; going to someone who did more, or knew more, or better, etc. My friend is one of the best people doing what she does, and the argument very similar to many other friends who also do great “knowledge work”.

I’m not quite sure what I said when I responded to the question, but it was some variant of the fact that everyone was there because the organisers had got many hundreds of applications, and had space for 60. And she, like me, was good enough to make the cut. And I completely agreed with the organiser’s decision for inclusion, and said so, and why.

That’s something that good event organisation should do.

The event organisers had made a very strong point that there would be no keynote presentations, and there were a lot of facilitated sessions and ad hoc coffee groups. The sessions were well facilitated, but everyone spent the first 3 days trying to figure out what was going on, with the resultant lot of wasted time and talent.

A good keynote or two, or similar, would have helped. Facilitation of information is not the same thing.

The Amanda Palmer video at the top of this talk was from the speaker dinner at Webstock; the biggest web conference in New Zealand, and one of those events that most people in the technical web world know. Rewatch the video, but watch the audience. As Merlin Mann says in his webstock talk, he was in the room, some of the singing was a little close to the bone. Almost everyone feels that insecurity, especially at high profile events, where they’re doing new work.

Good presentations

A good opening presentation, a good opening keynote, takes a group of individuals, and gives them a starting point and a narrative to begin from as a group. A good keynote is not an ending or a monologue, but a beginning for a story or a group. At the time of writing, I link to 4 different presentations in this post, from 4 different conferences. A good keynote can bring confidence and purpose.

Bad keynotes can destroy it, we’ve all seen terrible presentations; but good presentations can make a group sing together.

The next interesting again post will be this talk by the guys who created “Cards Against Humanity”. The talk is entitled “I’m really creative and successful and I have no fucking idea what I’m doing”. No one thinks they do, they just do what they think right, and then hide the cockups.

The Do Lectures, run by David and Clare, have a bunch of talks. But it was a seemingly offhand comment by David, some time in the first day that I was there, knowing that people would be a little out of their depth. His comment was “you all deserve to be here”, and here’s the narrative for why.

That message can be shared by anyone. If you have a room of people who do interesting stuff, anyone in the room can do some form of that talk. But some form of standing is useful to not come across as a crank. That standing can be propping up a bar with some friends; it’s probably not in a wider general event as just slightly cranky attendee; but at my events, I do have standing.

The Hidden Secret of Speaking at OpenTech:

What’s the hidden secret of speaking at opentech: ask us if we’d be interested in a talk on a topic.

I said it was hidden and (not really) secret, I didn’t say it was hard.

We pick talks, by people who do interesting work that should be more widely known. If you are offered a slot to speak, you deserve that slot. Because I say so, and I put the schedule together.

We don’t care if you’re scared about offering, about whether you’re unsure if you know what you’re doing, we care about your work, and we can (and do) help with everything else. 300 seconds will help too. If you’re interested in talking anywhere about something you do, and haven’t spoken before, let me know.

I’ve seen Neil Gaiman use a similar line a few times in the last year, “no one else can do your work like you can”.

My really hidden secret of Organising OpenTech, is that while I believe all the above about others (and you, yes you, especially you); I’m never entirely convinced about it in me. Why do you think I rarely speak…?

That confidence can only ever come from others.

Dec 2013
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