There are three common paths into Design Management. Either you start at the bottom and work your way up, you take on a stretch project that elevates you above your peers, or you hit a glass ceiling and are forced to jump ship.
I know a lot of people who have followed the first path. They joined an early stage start-up as its first designer, and four years later are running a team of 40 people as Vice President.
It’s easy to see how this happens. As Designer number one, you’re responsible for hiring designers number two, three and four. For the first 18 months or so you’ve moved from being a regular designer to a lead designer. You understand the design system, and know why certain decisions were made, and everybody comes to you for advice.
When it’s time to hire your fifth, sixth and seventh designer, you’re the one who ends up writing the job spec, doing the interviews, and onboarding the new hires to the team. Once folks start, they report to you, and when they want a pay increase, it’s you they come to first. You probably don’t have the title of manager yet, but you’re effectively doing the job of one.
A lot of career advancement comes that way. You accidentally find yourself doing a particular job, and the title, salary and job description follows 6 months later. Eventually you’re doing so much people management that you move out of production, hire a couple of leads who eventually become managers themselves, and now you’re a Head, Director or VP of Design.
This is a wonderful career trajectory and looks amazing on a CV. However it’s a super hard career trajectory to plan, as a lot of it revolves around joining the right company at the right time. This doesn’t diminish the hard work and effort you put in. It’s just a hard route for others to follow with any certainty.
The next approach is more common inside larger, more stable teams. As a designer you’ll see some sort of opportunity, improvement or trend that you’d like to explore. These tend to be internal focussed opportunities like the creation of a Design System, or the formation of a Design Ops team.
Using your natural sales and leadership abilities, you’ll secure some time and budget. If you’re lucky, the project will be a success, and you’ll end up being put in charge of this new initiative. The powers that be will see this drive, and other leadership roles will soon follow.
This is a great way to prove yourself as a leader, but it comes at some risk. Convincing your company to do something new is always a challenge, and if you fail you’ll lose the trust of your superiors and your status in the organisation. As such, this can be especially hard to do for people from more diverse backgrounds, who don’t feel as secure in their role or their ability to leave and walk into another job with ease.
Unfortunately these opportunities are few and far between, so there’s an element of being in the right place at the right time. There’s also a big element of office politics going on here.
As leaders, it’s our job to find these stretch assignments for our teams, but there’s a good deal of evidence that these sorts of assignments aren’t evenly distributed. That promotion worthy stretch assignments get given to white men more than women—who are often given maintenance assignments—or people of colour. As such it’s important for design leaders to make sure that these opportunities are distributed evenly and judged fairly.
The third most common route into management is through promotion. You’re a great Designer or Design Lead, who continuously goes above and beyond the call of duty. Your design work is stellar and your peers consistently approach you for advice. You know how to navigate projects through your organizations successfully, and your stakeholders appreciate your diligence and hard work. The only problem is, there are no leadership roles available.
While most people assume that they’ll eventually be promoted into a leadership role, this happens a lot less frequently than you’d think. Unless the company you’re working at is growing quickly, you’re effectively waiting for your boss to leave; and while individual contributors seem to move roles fairly frequently, managers stay much longer. As such, the only option is to jump ship.
If you’re lucky, you’ll land your first leadership role at a company with a long history of Design Leadership, a group of peers to learn from, and a governance structure in place. However that often isn’t the case for new managers. Instead they’ll often find themselves being hired by companies with little background in design, as a Player Coach.
On the surface, the Player Coach role sounds ideal. You get to learn new management skills, while continuing to do the design work you know and love. The problem is that management very quickly becomes a full time job, especially when you discover that you don’t have basic things like standard job descriptions, team charters, or progression frameworks in place. You spend so much time working on these fundamentals that your design work and people management skills begin to slip. Very quickly you find yourself stuck in the new manager death spiral, and start wondering whether you did the right thing. Maybe life would be easier if you went back to being an IC.
I’ve seen this cycle repeat itself more times that I care to say. Fortunately this feeling will pass. You’re not a bad manager. You just found yourself in an impossible situation, so it’s time to move on. The best thing you can do is use this experience to land a design management role at a much larger company with an experienced design leader, a supportive group of peers, and all the necessary governance and infrastructure in place.
As you can see, none of these routes into Design Management are especially easy, and a lot of them require being in the right place at the right time. However It’s important to be aware of these common tropes, so you can take advantage of them when they present themselves, or know when to step away when they don’t.
Ghosting Candidates, Marathon Interviews and Zero Feedback: The Modern Recruitment Experience | March 6, 2019
The digital sector is a talent led industry, and as much as I dislike the idea of the 10X developer, the difference a great hire can make to your business is huge. So I’m always amazed when I hear about the shady, sloppy or downright atrocious recruitment practices we inflict on prospective candidates.
There was a time, not so long ago, when you could expect a polite acknowledgement of a job application, an explanation of the process and steps involved, and feedback if you weren’t successful. These days, ghosting candidates seems to be the norm. Hiring managers will claim that they are inundated with responses, so it’s just not possible to acknowledge every application, or inform people when they have been unsuccessful. They’ll also claim that overly aggressive legal requirements and an increasingly litigious environment means it’s no longer possible to provide candidates with feedback. Personally I don’t buy either of these arguments.
The volume of job applications has always been high, and if talking to hiring managers is anything to go by, the challenge they face is having too few qualified candidates rater than too many. While it used to be the case that applicants would apply for jobs via email, a large part of the process has now been automated. So the use of hiring tools with their set processes and templated responses, makes it harder to hide behind the excuse of volume.
I can sort of understand why, if you’ve received over a hundred applications for a specific role, it may not be practical to respond to everyone individually. However if somebody has taken the time to come in for an interview, I think you owe it to them to let them know why they failed to make the cut on this occasion. It’s not only polite—and generally the right thing to do as a human being—but failing to respond with the appropriate level of care and attention can have negative results.
The feedback I’ve heard about interview practices isn’t much better. Overly long, marathon interviews where the candidates are left feeling broken and exhausted by the end. No offers for tea or coffee, no breaks, just a revolving door of stakeholders peppering them with a seemingly random barrage of question. The lack of any coherent narrative makes these team interviews especially torturous. Randomly jumping from topic to topic with no logical segues, or being forced to answer almost identical questions posed by people who weren’t in the room to hear the answer you gave 20 minutes earlier. This unrelenting style of interviewing feels at best like a popularity contest and at worst like a form of interrogation, intended to break the will of an unsuspecting candidate.
In a time where team diversity is an increasingly important consideration, overly combative interview processes that favour certain personality traits like aggression, ego and resilience, seem like an especially bad way to go. While some hiring managers may be impressed by one candidates ability to bullshit their way through a series of essentially random questions, it’s not an especially good indicator of future success.
This brings us nicely around to the issue of interview tasks. Now I’m actually in favour of tasks in certain situations, particularly when you’re hiring junior roles where people have talent, but lack a broad portfolio of work to show. It can also help level the playing field between agency designers with lots of exciting bands in their portfolio, and people who have been in-house for a long time working on a single product. However I also admit that in most cases, tasks are planned and delivered poorly, and can have a negative toll on the recipients.
One big problem with tasks is when they focus on a real problem the company is facing, and end up feeling little more than spec work. Here is a poorly stated problem, and the person who comes up with the answer we like the most wins. Another common problem are tasks that are set a week in advance, and given fairly tight deadlines. Some people will be able to fit this work around their existing work and family commitments, while others won’t. As such, I tend to prefer whiteboard tasks that take place during the interview process itself. Even then, these things are often dropped on candidates without any notice, a process which borders on abusive in my book.
As product people and technologists, we’re meant to have empathy and understand the human condition, yet little if any thought goes into the candidate experience. I guess this wouldn’t matter so much if you had hundreds of qualified candidates knocking down the door, but this often isn’t the case.
It’s easy for hiring managers to forget that candidates are assessing you as much as you’re assessing them. Often more so. I’d argue we’re in a supply driven economy at the moment, where the best applicants will be choosing between 4 or 5 employers. In this situation, it’s your job to sell candidates on your company, and no glossy vision deck or lists of aspirational values will subvert a painful and broken interview process.
It’s also worth remembering that the digital industry is highly networked and super tight. If an applicant puts a tonne of work into an application, undertakes a remote task, and comes in for an interview, only to be ghosted by the company, you better believe they’re going to tell their friends. The old marketing adage goes that a happy customer will tell one of their friends, while an unhappy customer will tell ten. The same is true of the recruitment process.
I know a surprisingly large number of influential people who feel aggrieved towards certain, well known companies, because of the way they were treated during their recruitment process. They’ve told their friends over coffee, shared their experience in closed networks, and put dozens of people off of applying in the future. This isn’t where you want your brand to be.
Even if the experience wasn’t so bad as to be noteworthy, a lot of candidates will feel so bruised and battered by the experience they they’ll be put off from applying again. This is a huge loss as, just because the candidate wasn’t right for you now, doesn’t mean they won’t be right for you in the future.
Not wanting to blow our own trumpet, but at Clearleft we regularly have repeat applicants. Why? Because we try and make the process as humane as possible and give good feedback. We explain what we liked about the candidates–and what they needed to work on–while making it clear that we really valued their time and would gladly consider them for future openings.
So rather than ghosting or hazing candidates, and leaving a bad taste in their mouths, we need to try and create the best recruitment experience possible. So even if the candidates aren’t successful, they leave thinking that you’d be a great company to work with, will recommend you to their friends, and jump at the chance we a future job opportunity comes along. This isn’t just a case of playing the long game—It’s the fair and decent thing to do.
Personas aren't bad, and you're not a bad designer if you use them | February 20, 2019
With disturbing regularity, my Twitter stream seems to explode with posts demonising commonly used, yet seemingly harmless design tools. These posts take great pains to document all the ways these tools have failed people in the past (while downplaying or ignoring situation where they may have helped). Reading one of these threads you’d be forgiven for thinking these tools were actively harmful; some sort of public health nuisance this brave whistleblower was uncovering for the first time. Although they generally read more like the hysteria surrounding MMR vaccines to me, rather than any reasoned or measured debate. Instead they’re full of personal anecdotes and half truths, wrapped up in a thin veneer of scientific speak. One such debate I witnessed recently revolved around Personas.
Now the love/hate debate around personas is nothing new; in fact it’s been rumbling on for some time. I personally have no great love for personas—that would be a little like loving a hammer or a chisel—but I have no great hate for them either. Personas are tools like any others, with their own relative strengths and weaknesses. So while every few months a new tool comes along claiming the previous one is now dead–in this case Jobs to be Done—I’m much more interested in developing a rich toolbox of tools to draw upon, than engaging in a Battle Royal style deathmatch. That is to say, I’m not on team persona, team JTBD, or any other team that may be having its moment in the sun. Instead I’m on team human.
Whenever the vilification of persona’s pops up its ugly head, it always goes something like this. “Personas are bad because they’re usually made up and therefore have no empirical backing”, “Personas are bad because they try and segment people and people are too unique to be segmented”, “Segmenting people is bad on principal and tantamount to discrimination”, “Personas are just a bunch of demographics and are therefor completely useless”, “Even if personas aren’t just a bunch of demographics, they are so badly used that we should just stop using them”.
While all these arguments annoy the hell out of me, the last one is the worst. The idea that because something is badly used, we should ditch it, is a blatant call for ignorance. Personally I think if something is poorly or wrongly used, it’s our responsibility as experts, craftspeople and educators, to help people understand how a particular tool or technique works, rather than just throwing it–and the people using them—away like yesterdays garbage.
So let me address some of these other common misconceptions about personas. The first and most pernicious is the idea that personas are just a bunch of—often made up—demographics featuring a persons age, gender, job, hair colour and little else. Now if this was the main content of personas I could understand the frustration. However that’s just not the case.
I think this misconception comes from the world of marketing, where marketing personas generally are more focussed on demographics. That’s because marketing personas are generally used to try and capture, understand and categorise fairly broad ranges of preferences, and then understand where people holding those preferences spend their media browsing time, to better focus marketing spend. That’s all well and good for our friends over in marketing, but this sort of approach provides very little value when it comes to Interaction Design.
Instead, the use of demographics in personas is really there to add a bit of background detail, to make these pen portraits a little more realistic and memorable. This is because the true value of personas is a communication tool. As a way of synthesising a large amount of rich and complex data, generated through observations, interviews and surveys, into something that can travel around an organisation, and be consumed by people who weren’t necessarily involved in the conversation, or even have regulate access to customers. In these situations it’s helpful if the persona is recognisable as person, with a name, a background story and a set of attitudes and beliefs.
The question then is, if personas are a communication tool, what are they communicating? Well in general, the most useful part of any persona is the User Scenario; the area on the page that describe the sort of problems these users are facing, the behaviours they exhibit, and if you want to use that particular language, the jobs they want to get done.
I think this is one of the reasons why a lot of people claim that Job Stories and JTBD do away with the need for Personas, and I think in some situations that may be true. If you’re working in a fast moving engineering focussed start-up, servicing an incredibly wide demographic with a similar set of needs, and everybody in the company is very user centric and in touch with those needs, you can probably do away with the touchy-feely fluff and focus on the core jobs; it’s just a lot of unnecessary distraction.
However if you’re working in a traditional organisation serving a smaller range of fairly distinct behaviours, and you need to get your stakeholders out of the mindset that all customers think and behave the same, or worse, all customers think and behave the way the executive team do, personas may be of some use.
In some way you could argue that personas and a useful step on the journey towards JTBD, but if you’re already there, they probably hold little additional value. Personally I like the ability to reference John, Mary, Prisha, or Joaquin as a placeholder for a set of behaviours, rather that sifting through half a dozen job stories to explain what set of problems we’re solving for today. It’s efficient and and travels well, even if there is a certain loss of fidelity.
The best personas generally are based on research data. You’ve surveyed hundreds or thousands of customers, you’ve interviewed dozens more, you’ve crunched the data and found certain patterns. Maybe you’re a travel company and have noticed that parents and children tend to travel shorthaul for a week or two, over the school holidays? Maybe the data has surfaced another cluster of younger travellers who prefer cheap city breaks, anytime other than the school holidays. Maybe you discovered a third cluster of people who travel for business and generally (but not always) fly business class, use the lounge and prefer to be back home for the weekend. This is a fairly trivial example, but I hope you get my drift.
Knowing this information may allow different product teams to tailor different experiences for different clusters of behaviour. This obviously beats treating every customer as the same, but isn’t as good as building up a rich and individual picture of behaviour by acquiring tonnes of data about the user, and feeding it into a sophisticated CRM system. Many tech firms have these capabilities, which is another reason why they probably look down on personas and those who use them. However you’d be amazed how few traditional businesses are able to significantly alter the merchandising offering, let along the whole user journey, based on detailed data capture.
Now it’s worth pointing out that nobody is saying that you can’t be both a business traveller, a city breaker, and somebody who is looking for a fly-and-flop holiday with their family. Similarly while the Personas my suggest that city breakers tend to be younger than people traveling with families, the actual data shows considerable overlap. In fact you may find a cluster of retirees who take their grandchildren on holidays on their own, and also like city breaks.
Fortunately personas aren’t rigid definitions, but rather porous archetypes, so people will move between the two. Something this will happen over years. Other times it will happen in a single session. The key to any successful model is realising that it’s only a model, and therefore has limited scope. Sometimes it’s useful to think about light in terms of a wave, other times in terms or a partial. A good craftsperson understands the strengths and weaknesses of each model and uses it appropriately, while a poor craftsperson generally blames their tools.
Which comes on to my last point, the inevitable cargo-culting of any and all design tools. As a quick recap, cargo cults emerged amongst Pacific Islanders who tried adopting the object and rituals of western colonial power, without realising how things really worked. So they would build wood and reed airplanes, control towers and airport terminals, in the hope that American GIs would return with their cargo, without realising the intricacies of world politics, aviation, and international trade. They basically just copied what they saw other people doing in the hope it’d work.
I see this all the time in our industry. You read an article about personas and throw up some badly researched, demographic heavy documents. You then use them to prover the validity of your pet feature to a bunch of skeptical engineers and business people, and wonder why it failed. It couldn’t have been you, it must have been the tool, so you go to Twitter or Medium and vent your anger at the uselessness of Personas.
It’s frustrating to see people behaving this way, and if it was just themselves they were hurting, I wouldn’t mind as much. However when these things below up, the outrage and misinformation tends to travel much further than a reasoned argument about the pros and cons of a certain tool or technique ever could. The resulting blast radius is huge, and a lot of innocent people often get caught up in the ensuing chaos. After all, if you were a relatively newly minted designer and somebody you trust with 20k followers on Medium, tells you that the thing you were taught as school is no longer useful, and all the smart people are now using something else, what are you going to do? Well, you’re probably going to ditch one tool in favour of the other, and may go around telling others to do the same. This is how MMR scares and market panics start.
Fortunately we’re not dealing with anything nearly as serious here, and at least you’ll end up with a tool in your tool box. However as the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Even if you spend most of your time hammering nails into blocks of wood for a living, I think it’s worth understanding what a screw looks like, and when to use it, rather than trying to hammer a screw into a block of wood once or twice and then claiming that screws are rubbish.
As a professional we all benefit from having a variety of tools at our disposal, instead of falling for the hype around silver bullets and one size fits all solutions. We’d also benefit from a bit more critical thinking in our industry. Arguments that go along the lines of “This thing hasn’t worked for me, so it cannot work for anybody” are super reactionary. They stifle intellectual curiosity, rather than encouraging people to expand their horizons and learn new things.
If you’ve discovered a new tool that works for you, by all means share what you think is great about it. Similarly if you’ve found legitimate weaknesses in existing tools, please share that information so we can all learn and grow. However we live in incredibly polarising times, and debate through opposition is super easy. Just remember that it isn’t always necessary to raise one thing up by knocking something else down. That it’s a large world out there and we benefit more for variety and choice than a limited set of (largely manufactured) binary opinions.
On Food (and my 50by50 challenge) | January 11, 2019
I’ve always been somebody who has favoured experiences over objects. The buzz you get from buying a nice watch or a fancy pair of shoes fades pretty quickly, even if the utility remains. However the memories you form from that city break to New York or that diving holiday in the Maldives last a lifetime, or at least until you memory starts to fail. Research into the field of hedonic psychology backs this up. There’s a general belief that you get more bang for your hedonic buck when buying experiences over material positions—just one of the many things our Millennial friends have got sussed.
For me, one of the best ways of capturing a strong memory is having a great meal at a top-notch restaurant with a small group of friends. There’s something amazing about the art of hospitality—of making people feel warm, welcome and comfortable. From a UX perspective, I find so many parallels in the art of hosting and the art of creating digital experiences; the sense of occasion, the focus on small details, the dedication to craft.
Of course, these meals can be pricey, so I realise what a fortunate position I find myself in. That being said, I’m often surprised nice restaurants don’t charge more; especially in comparison to some of the expensive, but un-noteworthy meals I’ve had in the past. In my experience a top end restaurant serving an eight or twelve course tasking menu will cost about twice as much as my favourite local bistro offering a starter, a main course and a desert. So for the cost of two nice but largely unmemorable meals, you get to have a three to five hour gastronomic experience that will stay with you forever. Good value hey?
Over a post conference dinner with a couple of friends last year, we bonded over our mutual love of food. Whenever we found ourselves in a new city, we’d try and hunt down an interesting restaurant to dine at, and one of the easiest ways to do this was by picking a restaurant with a Michelin Star. Now there’s a lot to be said about the Michelin star system, both for and against. Not every good restaurant has a star, and I’ve been to several “starred” restaurants which over promised and under-delivered. However if you don’t know the culinary scene in a particular city, it’s generally a safe bet.
A few years earlier I’d discovered another restaurant rating list called The Worlds 50 Best Restaurants. Rather than restaurants being reviewed by professional reviewers with a strict set of criteria, this list was compiled by industry experts; chefs, restauranteurs, food writers and critics. I’d eaten at a couple of the restaurants on this list already, and had been super impressed. I told my friends about this crazy idea I had of trying to eat at 50 of the best restaurants in the world by the age of 50. Much to my surprise and delight, they thought this was a great idea, so we’ve ended up egging each other on to undertake this task.
Over the past 12 months I’ve eaten at 7 restaurants on the top 50 list; The Clove Club, Restaurant Tim Raue, Odette, Attica, Alinea, Le Bernardin and Eleven Madison Park. The year before I’d also eaten at The Ledbury, Septime and Lyle’s, brining MY grand total to 10. I’ve two more restaurants booked for early next year, and have a couple more I’m lining up once reservations open.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about this undertaking so far, it’s it’s ability to bring folks together around food. Normally when I travel to cities for work, I’ll reach out to groups of people I know in that city to arrange brunch, dinner or drinks. However if you live in a city like New York, you’re always getting folks passing through, so it can be difficult making enough time. Especially if you have life to get on with. If, on the other hand, you’re into food and somebody says that they’ve just secured a hard to get table at a restaurant you’ve been anting to try for years, people find a way to make that happen.
I generally book a table for 4-6 people, put the word out, and see who fancies joining me. As a result the dinners are usually a mix of super interesting folks, some of whom know each other already, and some of whom don’t but really should. As such, it’s fun playing matchmaker, and seeing new friendships form.
While many of the restaurants are in easy to reach cities like London, Paris and Barcelona, a few are in more exotic or off-beat (for me anyway) locations like Shanghai, Mexico City and Lima. So another big draw is having an excuse to go and visit these places. There are also a few places like Moderna in Italy or San Sebastian in Spain which I hadn’t considered visiting before, but now I am.
As the lists changes each year, I’m not going to be able to eat at every restaurant on the list in my 50th year. However by the age of 50 I hope to have eaten at 50 amazing restaurants that were on the list the year in ate in them. Oh, and if you were interested, I’ve 4 years left to accomplish this task, so it’s doable, albeit tricky.
That’s where I need your help dear readers. If you’re a friend, happen to live in one of these cities and would like an excuse to have a nice meal, drop me a line and let’s get our dates synced up. If I don’t know you, but you’d like to take me out for a meal at one of the restaurants on this list in return for some free mentoring or advice, consider me interested; and if you’re a conference organiser arranging an event in one of these cities, we should definitely chat.
On Travel | January 2, 2019
I grew up in a pretty standard working class family. My father was a glazier while my mother looked after me and my two brothers. We lived in a nice, 3 bedroom council house, on a friendly estate. My parents worked hard to give me access to things they didn’t have as children. That meant a home full of books, weekend trips to museums, and regular holidays.
Summers were spent in the U.K. Mostly in the West Country, but occasionally we’d venture further afield; to Wales, The Lake District, and the Yorkshire Dales. I relished our family trips and felt super lucky, as few of my Friends had seen as much of the country as me.
I had one friend who’d been on holiday outside the UK. He’d had a two week trip to California and I loved hearing his stories from the land of CHiPs and Beverly Hills Cop. The huge meals, the gigantic freeways; it all sounded so exotic. However his dad had an office job and they owned their own house, so overseas travel clearly wasn’t on the horizon for me. Yet one can dream, and dream I did.
Being a child in the 80s, I grew up on a diet of James Bond and Indiana Jones. Watching these heroic figures hop from exotic country to exotic country with seeming ease. I dreamed that one day I’d be able to visit places like Hong Kong or Shanghai, but how was a kid from a council estate going to make that happen? I reasoned that the only way somebody like me would get to travel was if I ferried other people there, so I set out to become an airline pilot.
I went to Manchester University to Study Aeronautical Engineering but quickly realised that being a pilot wasn’t for me. At the time, the majority of airline pilots were ex RAF, and doing 20 years military service didn’t really appeal. British Airways took on a small number of graduate trainees, but competition was stiff, and they seemed to favour applicants from specific backgrounds. The only other option was to pay your way through training, and that wouldn’t have been possible for somebody from my background.
Fortunately I was starting to go off the idea anyway. There’s an old adage that being an airline pilot was ninety nine percent bordom, punctuated by one percent sheer terror. I also had a friend whose dad was an airline pilot and she talked openly about his drinking problems and tendency to have affairs with the cabin crew—something of an occupational hazard I later found out. Neither of these things sounded like a lot of fun.
Around the same time I met a couple of people who’d been on a gap year before University. Being one of only a handful of kids at my schools to go on to University, I hadn’t realised this was something you could even do. Hearing their stories about trips along the Mekong River and full moon parties in Thailand sparked my sense of adventure. So once University was over, I saved up some money doing low paid jobs, and went off travelling.
Looking back it’s amazing how much your environment and the people around you fix your perception of what’s possible.
That first 6-months travelling around South East Asia really opened my eyes to the wonders of the world, and the possibilities that existed. I loved experiencing different cultures and seeing how others lived. I also met people from a variety of backgrounds, opening my eyes to a range of career options I never thought possible. I was hooked.
6 months turned into a year, then two, then three. I learnt to dive in the Indian Andaman Islands, did my Dive Master on Koh Tao, and became a Dive Instructor in Phuket. I led dive expeditions on the remote islands of Indonesia, ran a dive school on Koh Phi Phi, and did a stint as a dive guide on the Great Barrier Reef. This helped fill my coffers, working the high seasons and then using the money to travel the rest of the year. It was on one such trip to Singapore that I discovered Web Design was a thing.
Arriving at the hostel late one evening, there were only two other people still awake. A British guy and a French dude in lycra who I later learned had just cycled to Singapore from Paris. We got chatting over beer and the British guy said that he was a Web Designer. At the time I didn’t know you could actually create web pages, let alone make a living from it. The British guy explained that it was super easy. All you needed to do was learn this thing called HTML and you could make tonnes of money in London. This was in the hight of the first dot on bubble, allowing my newfound friend to work for 6-months and travel the rest.
As somebody who’d always had an affinity for computers—I was the first person in my school with a ZX81 and would regularly spend my lunchtimes playing snake on the BBC
micro while everybody else played footie outside. So I set about learning web design from sites like Ask Dr Web, using cracked copies of Dreamweaver and Photoshop from coverdisks of tech magazines. The rest, you could say, is history.
Somehow I’ve managed to build a career that involves a fair amount of travel. Last year I visited Singapore, Wellington, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Chicago, Berlin, Amsterdam, Norway, Stockholm and New York for work. I’ve also visited Rome, LA, Palm Springs, Vegas, and The Maldives for pleasure. All in all I’ve had a spectacular year or travel!
This year is also shaping up to be a fun year. I have work trips to Copenhagen, Seattle, Seoul and Japan arranged for the spring. I have a couple of potential speaking engagements in India and South Africa which I’m waiting to confirm, and am tentatively planning a holiday to Ibiza, a road tip in the US, and a long weekend in Marrakesh in the second half of the year.
While I’m not a millennial, I think I have millennial sensibilities—possibly a product of growing up on the Web. For instance I’ve never been a huge fan of acquiring stuff. My movies are through Netflix, my music through Spotify and my transport (when not walking or using public transport) is through City Car Club. As such, the bulk of my disposable income is spent on renting services and buying memories, be they food, travel or live entertainment. So yes, I’m somebody who would rather have a nice brunch of avocado on toast on the weekend, then save up for a 65 inch OLED flat panel TV or statement car (I should add that this isn’t to dismiss anybody who does want to spend their money on physical possessions, it’s just not how I’m wired).
I feel incredibly privileged by all the travel I’m able to do, and can’t imagine what 12 year old me would think of the life I’ve somehow made for myself. However I’d like to think it’s everything he dreamed it would be, and more.
Breaking into the speaker circuit | August 6, 2018
As somebody who both organises and speaks at events, I’ve got a good insight into the workings of the conference circuit. This is probably why I regularly get emails from people looking for advice on breaking into the speaking circuit. So rather than repeating the same advice via email, I thought I’d write a quick article I could point people to.
First off, breaking into the speaker circuit can feel intimidating. If you look at the line up of most international conferences, they’re packed with veterans speakers from well known brands. It’s easy to feel that the speaker circuit is already locked down and there’s no way to break in. However it’s worth noting that every veteran speaker was in your shoes at some stage. In truth, audiences get bored of the same old faces pretty quickly, so conference organisers feel a huge pressure to find new speakers from diverse backgrounds. As such, conference speaking is surprisingly egalitarian, and talent rises to the top surprisingly quickly.
Conference speaking can be a lot of fun, but before you start dedicating too much time and effort becoming a speaker, it’s worth thinking about your motivations. There are a lot of reasons why people choose to speak at events, and there’s no right or wrong answer. However the most common motivations I see include:
- Having a unique specialism you want to share.
- Giving something back to the community.
- Having an excuse to learn a new skill.
- Frustration by the status quo.
- Not being able to afford to attend conferences unless you speak.
- Building up your personal brand.
- Increasing your perceived employability and finding work.
- Promoting your company or consultancy services.
- Travelling the world.
While all the above reasons are perfectly valid, focussing on the intrinsic benefits of public speaking like a desire to help people, share knowledge and to push the industry forward, will lead to a longer and more fulfilling speaking career. Conversely, if you focus on extrinsic reasons like building a person brand or landing that next job, you’re more likely to stop once those goals have been met. Either way, public speaking is incredibly rewarding, so let’s look at where to start.
I regularly get emails from people wanting to speak at one of my events. When I ask where they’ve spoken before and what they speak about, the answers are often the same; they’ve not actually spoken anywhere before, and don’t have anything specific they want to talk about (worse is when they ask you what you want them to speak about, when you have no idea what they’re actually good at). This is a relatively new phenomenon, and it seems that speaking has gone from being a means to an end, into an end in itself.
So my first piece of advice would be to think deeply about the topics you want to talk about. If you have a particular skill, passion or experience you want to share, that’s great. However there’s a misconception amongst a lot of people that you need to be an expert to speak. While knowing your topic is important, you don’t necessarily need to be the most experienced person in the Universe on your chosen subject.
There’s a strange irony that the most experienced people in a particular topic are often the worst communicators, while those relatively new to a field can be great at explaining things, because they’ve recently gone through the process of synthesising the information themselves. As such, great storytelling usually trump superior domain knowledge.
There’s no point being a great storyteller if you don’t have a good story to tell, so its worth thinking about the particular point of view you bring to the topic. Do you have recent experience in the subject matter? A project that went well of badly? A technique you’ve developed, or a perspective that’s slightly different from the norm. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about something that’s been spoken about before, as long as you’re bringing a new and interesting perspective to the conversation.
Its also worth mentioning that just because your topic have been done by other people, doesn’t mean that everybody knows the subject inside out already. There’s a tonne of new people entering our industry every day, so there’s always a market for seemingly obvious stuff. In fact, I have no problem finding people to talk about cutting edge techniques at my conferences, but I really struggle finding people to talk about foundational skills. So don’t think you have to have something unique before you start talking about it.
Another common mistake new speakers make is coming up with a new talk for every event. Public speaking is a learnt skill, so the more you do it the better you get. That means that the first time you do a talk will probably be the worst time, and as you do it more and more, you’ll get better and better. You’ll learn which parts of the talk work well, and which bits need tweaking. You’ll see where people laugh, and where they don’t, and use the feedback k to improve things the next time you speak. As such I generally find I have to do a talk three or four times before I’m happy with it.
A lot of professional speakers will have 3 talks on the go at any one time. They’ll have a talk that they’re just debuting, a talk that they’ve been doing for a while and really happy with, and a talk that was super popular a few years back, but they are slowly running down. The new talk will be reserved for smaller conferences or conferences looking for fresh material, the main talk will be for the big events looking for a surefire hit, and the older talk will usually be the one you’ll do for free at local events.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m seeing a lot of new speakers expecting to start right at the top, with the big international conferences. I’m not sure if there’s an x-factor type level of expectation here, but most of the good speakers I know started building their reputation and learning their craft by talking at small local meet-ups. After a few years they’d start speaking a local and sometimes national conferences, and only start being invited to speak at bigger international conferences after a good few years on the circuit.
This is similar to bands and comedians, who spend years learning their craft in local bars and comedy clubs, before getting the big TV spots and stadium gigs. As such, my advice would be to start small, get in loads of practice, and work up to the bigger conferences and events over time.
Public speaking can be a nerve-racking experience, and even the most experience speakers feel stressed before going on stage, In fact I have a few friends who are literally nervous wrecks in the run up to their talks, wondering why they put themselves through the stress, and swearing that they’ll never speak again. Yet the moment thay step on stage something changes, and as an audience member you’d never know the stress they were going through back stage.
A small amount of nerves are arguably a good thing, and can act as a performance enhancer. However there are lots of “tricks” that can help you combat the inevitable stress of public speaking; exercise in the morning before your talk, listening to music backstage to get in the zone, or just being quiet and peaceful before your session, in order to blank out any fear and self doubt. Whatever techniques you use, things do generally get better with time and experience.
My top tip for getting over nerves isn’t anything especially revolutionary. I just try to memorise the first few minutes of my talk, so when I get on stage I can do it confidently and eloquently. It usually takes a few minutes for the nerves to subside, and for you to hit your stride. So nailing the first few minutes, usually helps.
The other little secret is the best speakers often get coaching. Public speaking is a performance, and generally get’s better through active improvement. So training and coaching can help you structure more engaging talks, develop a good stage presence, increase your vocal range, and generally improve your delivery and confidence. So no matter what level speaker you are, whether beginner or expert, consider getting some external help.
When you’re ready to move from smaller local events to larger conferences, organisers are looking for three things, generally in this order.
- Confident speakers who are able to tell a great story.
- A really interesting topic that fits with the current zeitgeist.
- Well known speakers or speakers from well known brands, that will help sell tickets.
Mostly, conference organisers are looking for people who can demonstrate expertise, so if you are reaching out to organisers to suggest your services, you need to understand their conference, the audiences it attracts, and the topics that will be of interest to them. If you’ve been to the conference before, let them know. If you haven’t been, maybe you should consider buying a ticket this year, and then suggesting yourself as a speaker next year. It’s always more flattering as a conference organisers when the person genuinely knows the event, rather than bulk emailing a list of conferences they got off lanyard. Even worse is when the person’s assistant or PR firm reaches out, as it demonstrates that person is to busy or self important to bother reaching out directly. This anonymous shotgun attitude always gets a black mark in my book.
If you’re already an experienced speaker with a good reputation, organisers will mostly know who are are, and what you talk about. If not, you’re going to need to give them a couple of possible talk ideas, along with a video or two of you speaking. If you don’t have videos of you speaking, it’s going to make your lives a lot more difficult as the organisers want to minimise risk and be sure that you’re going to do a great job. So consider recording a version of the talk when doing a run-through for colleagues or friends. Failing that, offer to drop by the event organisers office to run the talk by them in person. Organisers get dozens of unsolicited talk requests, so you need to make their jobs as easy as possible, by demonstrating how good you are and the value you can bring to their event.
When preparing talks, I usually allocate 1-2 hours of preparation for every minute of the talk. So a 45 minute talk would take me 90 hours (roughly two weeks) to pull together. The more you do it the quicker you’ll get. A lot of novices don’t realise the time it takes to put together a great talk, and will skimp on prep. In fact I see a lot of novice speaker (and embarrassingly some experienced speakers) bragging at speaker dinners about how little effort they’ve put in the talk. Even worse is when they get up on stage and say to the audience that they were finishing their slides off the night before.
While we’re all busy people, this unpreparedness is unprofessional and disingenuous to both audiences and event producers alike. So make sure you put enough time into the preparation of your talk, and run through it at least 3 or 4 times before you present to a paying audience.
Lastly, if you are a novice speaker, asking for a fee can be tricky. It’s amazing how many conferences don’t pay their speakers, or even cover expenses. In fact some conferences still expect speakers to pay for a ticket. While it’s tempting to speak for free, in exchange for the “exposure” you’ll get, this makes it harder for other speakers. Especially ones who are having to take time off work to speak at the event, or dip into their own pockets to cover things like childcare. So when you’re approached to to speak at a conference, it’s always a good idea to ask what package they can offer, and not necessarily take “no fee” as the first answer.
Of course you then have to decide what your fee should be. Whatever it is, you’ll be lucky if the fee covers your time out of the office, let alone the time it took for you to put the talk together. One way to look at it is to assume you’ll probably give the talk a half a dozen times, and spread the cost over a a number of events based on a rough day rate. Another way to look at it is to pick a fee that a low multiple of the average ticket price. At the end of the day there’s no perfect way to set and negotiate fees. It’s something that comes with time, practice and a certain level of experience.
I hope this article has given you a few ideas for whether public speaking is right for you, and if it is, how to go about breaking into the speaking circuit. In my experience, conference speaking is a highly rewarding thing to do, and its fun being part of a smart, supportive and diverse community of speakers. So I wish you all the best on your future speaking career, and hope to see you on stage at a conference soon.