Small plant growing in someone's hands

It’s not just me, is it?

The 35 Stages of Creating a Conference Talk

You may well have heard of the five stages of grief, well in this blog post we’re going to cover the 5 stages of creating a conference talk. And then 30 more.

Before these five stages comes a crucial first step. It’s the one where you see a conference CFP, and you’re already at least 1.5 gin & tonics in because it’s 7 pm on a Saturday (or Tuesday, whatever). Before you know what has happened, you’ve come up with a suitably smart-sounding talk title and abstract, and you’ve submitted it grinning to yourself at your play on words. Then you get on with your evening and forget about it. You forget about it until, with a bit of luck, you get an email six weeks later that says something like, “Congratulations! Your talk has been accepted at <insert conference name here>.”

You cast your mind back to that Saturday night, but your memory is hazy. Still, it seems like a good idea, all you have to do is write the talk; the idea was the hard part! So you graciously accept the invite because it’s eight weeks away and then… read on.

Actual timelines may vary – not to be used as a project management tool unless you’re me.

Stage one – Denial

T-8 weeks, I bury my head in the sand and pretend that I didn’t just say yes to a conference that’s in eight weeks for a talk that I haven’t yet written.

Stage two – Anger

T-7 weeks, I start asking myself questions such as:

  • Why did I say yes to this? What was I thinking?!
  • This is stupid; I don’t want to do this/I can’t do this!
  • I’m never submitting to a CFP again, ever.

Stage three – Bargaining

T-6 weeks, I wonder what the impact would be on my sanity and brand might be if I email the conference and say something like:

I’m sorry I can no longer make the conference because <insert suitable excuse here that clearly isn’t even true>

Don’t do this. It’s okay to think it though!

Stage four – Depression

T-5 weeks, I can’t lie, it’s not right. I have backed myself into a corner and now I have to write this (stupid) talk.

Stage five – Acceptance

T-4 weeks, FINE I’ll write the talk! This is usually when I start writing the talk itself rather than just putting notes together. However, there’s more to acceptance than meets the eye. For me this step can be broken down into 30 separate steps (yes, 30)!

  1. Write content
  2. Decide content is crap
  3. Write different content
  4. Realise initial content wasn’t that crap
  5. Tweak content
  6. Decide whole talk is crap
  7. Briefly revisit stage three
  8. Force self to write more talk
  9. Decide whole talk is crap
  10. Give talk to brick wall
  11. Consider talk might not be crap
  12. Rework talk
  13. Decide whole talk is crap
  14. Give talk to friendly face
  15. Accept whole talk isn’t crap, mostly
  16. Incorporate feedback
  17. Realise talk doesn’t match the brief you submitted
  18. Decide brief was crap, revisit stage two
  19. Overhaul talk and make it pretty
  20. Give talk to more friendly faces
  21. Incorporate feedback
  22. Practice talk
  23. Practice talk
  24. Practice talk
  25. Practice talk
  26. Practice talk
  27. Practice talk
  28. Give talk
  29. Decide whole talk wasn’t crap
  30. Vow never to do this again, until the next time

It’s not just me, is it? Hope to see you there!

Stop Calling them Soft Skills

I’ve had a bee in my bonnet about the phrase ‘Soft Skills’ for as long as I can remember. I can recall thinking, and indeed being told, that ‘Soft Skills’ are super important and I needed to master them if I was going to succeed in life. Oddly very little emphasis was put on ‘Hard Skills’.

I’m pleased to report that I still have no clue as to what succeeding in life looks like (leave a note here if you know). In addition, I recently realised that despite me hating the phrase ‘Soft Skills’, I’d not taken the time to work out why I hated it. This is what I set out to do here. Hopefully, I will also make you think twice about using the phrase in the process. The same goes for ‘Hard Skills’ but that stirs up less irritation for most.

soft skills rocks.jpg

First up, hard and soft are used as adjectives in this context. Hard conjures up notions of challenging or effort

Soft conjures up notions of agreeable and smooth. Quite a contrasting picture!

In order to understand why we should stop calling them ‘soft skills’, first, we need to know what they are. If you’d have asked me 20 years ago for examples of ‘soft skills’, I would have reeled off a list like:

  • Communication, Empathy, Respect, Integrity, and Authenticity (to name but a few)

When I started to really think about this, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t really know what a ‘soft skill’ was. Like all self-respecting human beings who are seeking information in the information cesspool of the digital age, I turned to trusty Wikipedia (that never lies, right)?

Image by Gidon Pico from Pixabay 

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Apparently, Soft Skills are:

…a combination of people skills, social skills, communication skills, character or personality traits, attitudes, career attributes, social intelligence and emotional intelligence quotients, among others, that enable people to navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals with complementing hard skills.

Hard Skills, for completeness, are:

… also called technical skills, are any skills relating to a specific task or situation. It involves both understanding and proficiency in such specific activity that involves methods, processes, procedures, or techniques.

I read these definitions multiple times before I realised what irked me. The definitions imply that ‘soft skills’ are easy and somehow less relevant, and indeed less valued, than ‘hard skills’.

Furthermore, the ‘soft skills’ all are behaviours and there is nothing soft about them! They’re HARD!

So with that in mind, what if we call them what they are?

What if we stopped calling them ‘soft skills’ and ‘hard skills’ and started called them behaviours and tools instead?

Note: Please don’t call them “technical” tools, that’s just another categorisation that excludes people.

When we take down the barriers and division of skills and call them what they really are we can assign appropriate value and weight to them.

What would you value more? Someone’s behaviours that overlay every single interaction they have? Or someone’s skills at using a machine, something that can be relatively easily taught. Which one of those things sounds hard?

I could go further too and argue that behaviours are needed when learning tools.

These behaviours:

  • Can’t be as easily taught (but they can be taught)

  • Are not deterministic (A + B may or may not always equal C)

  • Are hard to quantify (metrics to measure many of them don’t exist)

  • Are hard to qualify (they appear defined by what hard skills are not)

  • Modifying behaviours for a human being is hard (well I find it so anyhow)

Behaviours take time, passion and practise to master!

So please, stop underselling and undervaluing them, and start investing in them!

If you are interested in learning more about where the notion of Hard and Soft Skills came from, I encourage you can read the US Army Report from 1972 here