Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Speaking at Inspirefest

On Friday 1st July, I spoke with three of my Outbox sisters, Vanessa Greene, Niamh Scanlon and Edel Browne, plus Outbox fairy godmother Mary Carty on the Future Leaders panel at Inspirefest chaired by Ann O' Dea. 

It was an amazing experience all round, from the moment I heard I'd been chosen as one of the Outbox representatives. Honestly, I think I just pestered Ann so much that she let me do it but I like to think it wasn't just that. Anyway, when Ann emailed to say I'd be on a panel with Vanessa and Edel (found out about Niamh later), I was excited because I was starting to wonder by that point if I'd get to go to Inspirefest at all!

I'd done a little bit of speaking before - the Soroptimists public speaking competition, work with the British Science Association's Youth Panel, a keynote at the World Youth Organisation's International Women's Day event and a Stemettes panel included. But I was particularly looking forward to this because I attended Inspirefest last year and really loved it. 

I'm not going to pretend I wasn't nervous - I'm a very anxious person so I was definitely nervous at points leading up to appearing on stage, even though it was just twenty minutes of chat in front of a few hundred people (I'm not sure how many, though I think Ann said in a podcast they were expecting two thousand people at the event). But I just put together some points on Outbox and what I'd been up to over the past year in case I got up there and suddenly forgot everything that's ever happened in my life. 

So, the first part of the speaker experience was noticing a lot of (optional) segregation between speakers/VIPs and attendees. We went in through different doors, had different areas to hang out in, ate different food, different areas of the auditorium ... We were spoiled! Isn't that weird, actually? For a ten/fifteen/twenty-minute keynote or panel, we got two whole days of royal treatment. I mean, I loved it, but you'd swear they were trying to give us/me impostor syndrome - who could possibly deserve all this? 

(On that point - I am so appreciative of the lovely hotel room Inspirefest HQ provided, and terribly sorry to have been a hassle about it.)

The VIP lounge was lovely; full of sofas, lovely view of Grand Canal Dock, buffet-style fancy food (although the pasta was cold and I refuse to accept "pasta salad" as a thing, hot pasta forever, plus I would've loved some chips or other food I could actually name). The best part, in my opinion, was the bar. The drink in glass bottles was kinda strange, but the hot chocolate was absolutely gorgeous. And I'd never seen hot chocolate made by swirling a cube of chocolate on a stick around hot milk before, so that was a cool novelty.

It was also good for chatting to people - I spent a lot of time hanging with the youth crew, but also got to have great chats with people like Liz Jackson, who is so cool. And Sinéad Burke, who kept insisting I made her feel old which is honestly ridiculous. Sinéad, on the off-chance you see this, you're awesome and admirable and in your goddamn 20s. You're a young person, deal

The volunteers were unbelievably helpful and generous and lovely, but it was a very strange experience because I felt like I should be cleaning up after everyone with them, not having them clean up after me! They were all great, but I have to give special shoutouts to the people at the doors of the VIP lounge who for some reason insisted on opening all doors for me before I could soil my delicate speaker hands on the wood, and to the SNP staff on the way to and in the green room and backstage. I appreciate the water you got me, for which I suddenly had a desperate need right after we left the green room! 

About the green room itself: oh man, that was cool. There was a classic mirror with lights all around it, a bathroom complete with shower, and then in the room beside it snacks and drinks and places to leave your stuff. Also, thanks to everyone who minded my stuff because frankly I carry an excessive amount of it around with me at all times. 
It was cool getting to hang in the green room with friends because knowing we were all in it together made things more relaxed. We could also make fun of each other (mostly Edel, for forgetting to mention that she'd literally won a goddamn car the previous day) and banter about stupid things we could say on stage (but didn't actually). 

All five of us who'd be appearing on stage around the same time (me, Edel, Vanessa, Niamh, Mary), accompanied by Claire (I want to make a rhyme here with extraordinaire...) went up together to get mic'd up and then wait backstage. Mary went on first and gave a brilliant and quite emotional talk about Outbox, then Niamh went on, and finally Edel, Vanessa and I went on along with Niamh and Mary and our panel began.

Like I said, I had been nervous for the panel, but there was no need. Even though we were being watched by hundreds of people, something about the design of the stage, being surrounded by friends (more Outbox execs filled the front row for moral support) and the atmosphere of the conference made it really comfortable, like we were just having a rather formal conversation. We talked a bit about ourselves, then about Outbox and its benefits, then about stuff like CoderDojo and BTYS and probably more things but I honestly can't remember them because after the first few minutes I seem to have gone into that stage state I always do where I can't remember anything that happens while I'm on stage. Oops. 

Fortunately, it did seem to have gone well, judging by the 60 (!) Twitter notifications I got over the next hour (how did they even get my Twitter handle?) and lovely comments from attendees and other people afterwards. Ann was such a good chair and so lovely when we got backstage too, so that was reassuring and I left delighted with it.

I was on a massive high for about an hour after the panel, and felt similarly to Vanessa about my lovely Outbox compadres. 

So to anyone who's considering speaking at anything even remotely similar to this, I'd definitely say go for it. Over the last few months, I've discovered that even though it's nerve-wracking, the high you can get from public speaking is definitely worth it. Why get into drugs when you can get your highs legally?

Some other benefits of speaking, as well as all the undeniably enjoyable compliments,  were the connections and increased investment in the conference. 

The thing with speaking is that people tend to come up to you. So you don't have to do all the work in seeking people out to talk to, and I got to have some really interesting conversations with possible collaborators and just generally cool people. Although there is at least one person who came up to me and I seem to have lost her contact details when I really wanted to follow up D: Also, the VIP area at the Fringe was excellent for talking to people. I remember someone on Twitter thanked me for providing a new phrase for networking, "building a community", but honestly I wouldn't call it a direct synonym for networking as I think that cheapens it. Building a community means genuinely creating a community of people who love and care for each other outside of the tangible benefits they can offer each other, and that's what we did at Outbox, CTYI, etc.

Secondly, being a speaker (almost by necessity) means that you'll have a greater personal investment and involvement in the conference, which I really like because this is such a great event. If I wasn't a speaker, I wouldn't have gone to the launch party or afterparty and wouldn't have paid such close attention to the whole event, so I would've missed out on a lot. So I think being a speaker really makes you care.

In summary: speaking at almost any event is a rewarding experience that I'd definitely recommend, but Inspirefest takes it up to 11. I had a really fantastic experience and was treated so well, so thanks to everyone. I feel like at this point I should particularly mention Outbox and our Stemettes, who made a lot of this possible. 

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