Should I do that talk?

Probably the furthest I’ve got

Oddly, seeing Chad’s post about writing reference letters made me think of this current topic. In both cases, it’s work that’s obviously linked to our ‘day job’ (whatever the hell that might be), but also feels like an add-on, and certainly one with resource implications.

Before you switch off from this because you don’t get asked to give talks, stick with it, because all of us used to be in that position and a big part of getting past that was precisely about working out what to do.

So, some context here. Right now, I get asked to give a talk outside my home institution about a couple of times a month, which sounds not too bad until I re-present it as possibly 24 talks a year. This includes speaking to local study groups, research seminars and keynotes, briefings to practitioners and the occasional request to run a workshop on L&T. If we chuck in media interviews (which is slightly different), then I’ve got maybe another hundred queries to handle.

I do not do 24 talks a year. So how do I decide?

First up is being responsive. Any one who has emailed me with a request like this gets a reply from me as quickly as possible, regardless of my decision. For those of you starting out, this is critical, because even if you can’t do that event, the fact that you’ve (politely) informed of this with minimal delay will count very much in your favour down the line: I’ve had several cases when I got asked to do something else another time, in part because they knew they’d get a reply out of me.

Obviously, this should be useless advice because everyone’s very good at this. Equally obviously, you’ll know that everyone isn’t good at this: just don’t be that person.

Secondly, and assuming you don’t have a diary clash, ask whether it’s something you could actually do. At some point, you’ll get asked to talk about something that’s either on the edge of what you can do, or very much not something you can do: I recall being asked to go on local radio to talk about UFO sightings, which I declined. I’d suggest you also stick to that for what you are confident you could produce a contribution of the required level.

Of course, there’s a bit of judgment called for here. Back in early February this year, I was asked if I could do a talk on Ukraine to a local study group that I’ve been presenting to on Europe for the last 5 years. It’s not my specialisation, but I felt across the issues enough to produce something that would meet the needs of the group, which I was well familiar with. Plus it was a good opportunity to marshal my thoughts on the topic.

Again, if you’re at the start of this, you might feel limited in what you feel competent to talk so, so I’d ask for more information about your audience which might open up more options.

The magic of TV

Thirdly, consider whether it’s worth it for you.

You’ll note that I don’t put this first, mainly because I think we all have an obligation to share our research and understanding with others, especially if it’s a subject where we can offer something more balanced and considered that otherwise is available.

That said, we all have other stuff to be getting on with, and probably stuff that our employer treats as more of a priority than going to help out other people. So you do need to make that call.

Value here is a vague notion, but it includes things like making connections to useful contacts, or opening doors to other opportunities, or giving you a concrete example of how you engage with dissemination (for your promotion paperwork). I guess at the margins it also includes getting to see a place you don’t otherwise have an opportunity to see: I’ll happily admit I’ve been able to go to some pretty cool destinations on the back of an invite, but I’ve never been somewhere just because of the location. Case in point: I turned down one invitation this week to somewhere I’d very happily go to, but I just couldn’t find the space to do the talk properly.

For the starting-outs, you might accept because it’ll help get your name out there: certainly I found that it was once I began to to a few talks that more came through. Maybe it’s someone in the audience, maybe your name pops up on a mailing list: precisely because there’s no rhyme or reason to it, working what you’ve got is important.

A final thing to think about is that if you can’t do it, then recommend someone else.

Organisers are busy people and they might well not be specialists in the field: maybe they did a Google search and your name randomly popped up. Whatever. You hold in your hands the opportunity to pay it forward.

In my case, I’ll also try to recommend people who I think would be a good fit for the opportunity. That might be about location, or expertise, or the type of audience. But I also always make sure I recommend as many female as male colleagues, and I try to vary who I suggest in the hope that I’m helping to give a wide range of people opportunities. I have little sense of how much those suggestions get picked up, but again there’s no harm in being helpful (see the first point).

And that’s about it. Don’t say ‘yes’ to everything, but also don’t say ‘no’ to everything and generally don’t be an ass about it. Probably good advice more generally, as I might say in a TED talk one day (if I ever get asked).

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