@wiredferret is so composed, informative, and present as a speaker

I Have Something To Say

That was the tagline for the late lamented Technically Speaking organization, and I really like it because it captures one of the really important parts of speaking – all of us have unique insights and perspectives, and even if you say something, I still have something to say that will be different.

As I learn and grow in the craft of speaking and giving talks, I have been thinking about what it is that I’m trying to achieve, what I would consider growth and leveling up. It’s important to not rest on our previous accomplishments – that leads to stagnation and that miserable stuck feeling.

I want to improve my delivery. I want to improve my slide construction. I want to branch out into different types of conferences. And I want to give a keynote.

When I told my manager this, he challenged me to identify what it is about a keynote that I want to have, that makes it different from the talks I’ve been doing already. After a bit of thought, I realized that the nature of a keynote means that you have a chance to talk to an audience who would not normally select your talk in a multi-track conference. No matter how good my documentation talk is, only people who care about documentation will choose to attend it, even though the people who need a documentation talk may not. I want to reach that reluctant audience, the people who don’t think they need to be in my talk.

What is a keynote?

In a technical conference, a keynote is addressed to the entire conference, and usually happens at the beginning or end of the day. Keynotes are thematically linked to the conference, or are presented by “big names”. They are the one experience you can expect everyone at a conference to share. Even single-track conferences have keynotes – they might be longer than the rest of the talk, or include a special introduction, or the speaker might be a promotional pull.

By content, a keynote either has something relevant to the community, like Matz’s Ruby updates at RubyConf; or it’s something that is broader than any one kind of technology, like Carina Zona’s “Consequences of an Insightful Algorithm”.

Organizationally, keynotes are almost always invited, rather than being part of the CFP/application process. The organizers select speakers and reach out to them with a specific invitation. The topic may be negotiated, but keynote speakers traditionally have a lot of latitude in their topic choice.

How might I get one?

Keynote elements

I think there are three elements involved in being invited to give a keynote:

  • Professional reputation
  • Proven speaking and delivery ability
  • Timely, relevant topics

I feel like I can work on all of those points, in different ways.

My professional reputation will depend on me continuing to do what I do as well as I can – speaking, teaching, mentoring, coaching, being available to help people with their needs whenever I can.

Speaking ability – I only have a smidgen of training in this. My high school didn’t have speech and debate, I didn’t participate in college, I’ve been pretty much getting along with a lot of self-education. I am thinking it might be time to get some real training and coaching. This is probably the aspect that scares me most — it’s really hard to get coached on something, especially if you think you’re pretty good at it. But it’s a way to get better, just like watching the talks I’ve done helps me get better, even though I really hate doing it. If you watch yourself speak enough times, you sort of burn past the shame and get to the place where you can improve by watching.

Timely topics — You always have to lead your target, and I want to put together a couple proposals for general-interest topics that haven’t been extensively covered yet. More on that later.

What I’m going to do

So my plan is multi-part. It all is underpinned by me doing a lot of work to remind myself that it is ok to publicly want a thing and publicly talk about wanting it. That’s hard to do.


I am trying to talk to all the people I meet in my conference rounds about wanting a chance to keynote. This has three effects:

  • It gets people to think of the possibility of inviting me
  • It normalizes people asking about keynoting, especially if they aren’t in the normal demographic of CEO/powerful person/known famous coder
  • It teaches me more about how to ask for big things, and gives me more experience in doing slightly anxiety-inducing things.


I need a couple topics to tease people with – things that are interesting, timely, and appropriate for a larger audience. Here are the two I’m thinking about, in CFP pitch format

Master Builder and the Growth Mindset

A lot of us got told we were smart growing up, and looking around at our pretty nice lives, it’s easy to believe that. But what if I told you that you are successful despite this compliment, not because of it? It’s bad for our sense of experimentation and willingness to fail to be told that we’re smart. We tend to gravitate to learning and doing things we’re good at with less effort. We avoid things that we won’t be good at instantly because we don’t know how to be mediocre.

Getting into technology is like being able to assemble a Lego set – there are easy instructions, you assemble the modules, and you end up with what you saw on the box. But not all of us are issued a box. Some of us have had to learn to be master builders, able to design and construct new and weird things that are not part of the kit. This experimentation and improvisation can provide us with flexibility and insight in a rapidly-changing industry.

This talk is intended for people who are interested in designing and working on teams full of people who value experimentation as well as execution.

Everything Is A Little Bit Broken
The Illusion of Control

Humankind is extremely superstitious and we are operating systems way above our actual level of comprehension. To keep our limbic systems from freaking out, we have a set of beliefs that makes us feel like we have control over things that happen around us – but are we right? Let’s talk about how error budgets, layered access, and function over form are the building blocks of the ability to get on with work without decision paralysis.

This talk is about how we shift risk around with both process changes and magical thinking, and how we can use our tendency to be fearful to actually make things safer, instead of just feeling safer.

This talk is intended to challenge and shake up people who think that failure is a single state or that doing everything right will lead to predictable results.

Study and Learn

I’m going to find myself a speaking coach, or maybe a course. Something to take what I already have and polish and refine it. No one knows how to do a triple lutz on their own, and coaching is the difference between talent and success. Like I said, this is really hard for me. Like a lot of gifted kids, I’ve gotten a long way on sheer talent without having to be bad at something. Luckily for me, I also have spent sometime sucking at things, being coached, and getting better. It took me 6 years to learn to serve a volleyball overhand, but I got there. I want to level up my speaking from “good enough/pretty good” to “reliably excellent”.

It’s a big goal, but I think I have a good plan in place, and I’ll let you know how it goes.