There are certain things we can expect during the course of the annual conference season. Every year at about this time, the breathless headlines start rolling in, describing the impending doom due to some vulnerability or other. The stories we may hear less about, which could even be the most innovative, are those inaugural speeches by people who are new to the security conference circuit.
Many of us may feel like we shouldn't be on the stage if we can't bring headline-generating topics or a TED Talk level of showmanship. But it's those new voices that keep conferences interesting in the long run, and which may offer the perspectives that bring big changes in the effectiveness of security. As you attend conferences this year, it is my hope that you give some thought about how you could add your voice to the conversation.
My own inaugural security conference presentation was one born of necessity. I had been to enough events to get completely hooked on repeating the experience, and when travel budget cuts dictated the need for stronger justification to send people to future conferences, I submitted my first abstract for consideration. No one could have been more shocked than I was when it was accepted; I was a relative newcomer with zero experience in computers before I started in this industry. I could not have been further from the definition of a security expert at that point.
I prepared for this speech harder than I've ever prepared for anything in my life. I did all those things everyone tells you to do to ensure that you are comfortable and at ease, so that your talk will go smoothly. I had so many friends in the audience that it was not simply a mental game to pretend that I was talking to a group of my favorite people. The elements were all there for things to go well.
Of course everything went perfectly, right? As you might guess, the answer is a resounding No. It was a total disaster that was precipitated by my overwhelming anxiety, which led to a cascade of technical glitches, and me speaking so rapidly that I ran out of material way before the end of my allotted time. It took everything in my power not to vanish into an awkward puff of smoke when the talk was over.
And yet, it was not the end of the world, nor was it even the end of my speaking career. I learned two important things about public speaking that day: living your worst-case scenario is never as bad as you think it will be, and not all of us need to fit in a certain mold to be a good speaker.
If you've never read the Bloggess blog or any of Jenny Lawson's books, you should probably remedy that right now. If you have, you probably know that she is screamingly hilarious and that she has struggled with anxiety issues of her own. There was one particular talk she did (in a bathroom stall, and with her taxidermied service animal) that I found especially helpful to envision other ways I could speak effectively. And it served as an entertaining reminder of how much I personally enjoy talks that offer something truly unique.
There are only so many times one can watch a variation on the "Hacking (X) for fun and profit" theme. For the last few years, I have found myself seeking out conferences and presentations that offer an angle that's new to me: for example, speakers from outside the mainstream security industry discussing issues that are unique to certain business verticals, or who offer a different perspective on existing technologies or techniques. No joke — I've even gone to a herpetology conference for security inspiration.
If we keep doing things the way we've always done them, we will continue to get the same suboptimal results. We need new voices from people with different perspectives to help us make a substantive change in the way things are going. You could be one of those voices; even if you don't think you're the type of person whose talk would be accepted, even if the mere idea of talking in public makes you want to hide in a bathroom stall with a stuffed bobcat. There are ways to make your voice heard that make your differences creative advantages.
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