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On speaking at the 2009 jQuery Conference

One of my personal goals for this year was to start being part of the solution to the dearth of female speakers at tech events. Though I’ve talked at a couple of smallish local events over the past few months, this past weekend I got to do it in a big way: I presented a talk on using objects to organize your jQuery code to an audience of around 100 people, more by far than I’ve ever spoken to before.

[This post isn’t so much about the talk itself as my first experience with talking at a conference. If you’re interested in the talk, I encourage you to check out the slides, links, and code at the link above.]

I decided I wanted to try to talk at the jQuery conference after I saw the initial very smart, very male speaker lineup. I submitted my talk based on an article I wrote earlier this year, and by the time it was all said and done, mine was the second most popular topic and I was slated to have 30 minutes in “the big room.”

There is something sort of out-of-body about that moment when I am standing in front of a roomful of people right before I talk — I had it when I gave my first Refresh talk, when I taught my first jQuery class, when I spoke at my first BarCamp RDU, and yet again this weekend. For that moment, in my head, I am a complete and utter case, and can’t quite fathom that I thought this was a good idea. And then I start talking, and then it is OK. And then when it’s over, people clap, and I like that part.

Back when I set out to start speaking more, I decided to take an improv class. For six weeks, we practiced being spontaneously funny, and at the end, we got up on stage in front of a bunch of strangers and tried to do it for real. Knowing what that feels like — what it feels like to run up the aisle like you’re excited when really you’re terrified because you’ve never done this before and in real life you sit at a desk all day and talk to no one and what were you thinking? — makes the thought of talking to a bunch of strangers about what you actually know how to do seem like a completely reasonable thing.

My experience this weekend was nothing short of excellent — people I barely knew rallied around me throughout the weekend to help me improve my presentation (most notably Chris Williams, organizer of JSConf, to whom I owe many thanks for all the images — especially the Liger). The audience graciously tolerated the part in the middle where I had to leave the podium to (very publicly) blow my nose. People asked great questions, and audience members gently pointed out things I might want to rethink. With the exception of one creepy off-the-wall comment about my “fine-boned features,” the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.

Reliable sources told me that of 300 attendees, approximately 282 were men. I was the only woman to submit a talk. So this is the part where I encourage other women to do the same. I think women, on the whole (of course there are exceptions), are way more inclined than men to think they aren’t good enough speakers, that they don’t know a topic well enough to tell it to other people. Two truths: one, the speaking skills of the speakers I’ve seen have been all over the map; two, you’d be surprised how much you actually know about a topic, especially given the right audience. Go speak at a small event — a local meetup, a Refresh, even a lunch-and-learn at your office. Get to know the people who do speak at events, and discover that they’re people just like you. Go out on a limb and try something that’s