What’s Better Self-Promotion: Speaking or Blogging?

What’s Next?
Like many software developers I’m afflicted with ‘What’s Next?’ Syndrome. It’s a disease whereby you’re never content with your situation, no matter how cool it is, how long you planned for it, or how many hours you spent working to get there. My stagnation range is 6-12 months; if I’m not learning new things by then I start to unravel. Blessing? Curse? Not quite sure.

It seems like the most common activities for climbing the ranks in the development community are blogging, writing books, training/teaching, and public speaking.

Blogging? Check.

So what’s next?

I’ve waffled on this decision for a long time due to the high barriers to entry and uncertainty of the payoff. Since I’m an independent developer working for an hourly rate, taking hundreds (thousands) of hours to write a book is a tremendous commitment. Training is similar: it requires learning a whole new set of skills, earning a certification or two (the easy part), and shifting your work schedule and marketing approach to accommodate a hybrid business model. I’m not sure how many trainers remain day-to-day developers.

But of the three options public speaking certainly has the lowest barrier to entry, especially in the .NET community where there are frequent local events that welcome new speakers. So 6 months ago I dipped my toe into the water and participated in my first speaking engagement.

The Numbers
I had mixed emotions about the outcome. On the one hand getting out of the house and seeing other developers face to face was a welcome change (even though it was 28 degrees outside). On the other hand, the amount of time invested seemed out of synch with the benefits.

Since I didn’t have much development experience with my topic I spent 8 hours learning it, creating the slide deck, and coding the examples. Then on a chilly Saturday morning I traveled an hour to the conference, spoke for an hour, and traveled home. In the end I spent about 11 hours and spoke to around 25 people.

As a point of comparison, in 11 hours I could have written 1-2 long-form articles or 5-10 blog posts that would have been read by 12,000-50,000 people (depending on the post’s popularity). In terms of people influenced, blogging is going to be more effective for me due to the massive up-front time investment I’ve made over the past three years (my “sunk costs”).

What makes things complicated is that face to face contact is exponentially more memorable than someone skimming your essay in their RSS reader. In addition, if I dedicated as much time to speaking as I have to blogging I would be speaking to much larger crowds, speaking more often (which would allow re-use of my talks), and generally glean a lot of benefits that a single speaking engagement at a local code camp wouldn’t bring.

The conclusions I’ve arrived at are:

  1. Assuming you have any lick of natural ability, investing hundreds of hours into any of these options (blogging, writing, training, speaking) will pay off, and I would venture to say that hundreds of hours is what’s required to obtain a good return on your investment.
  2. Pick the one you think you’ll enjoy most, and only get started if you have time to invest.
  3. A combination of two or more is a good approach; that’s why it’s so common among big names in the community. Plus it will keep you from getting bored.

Any thoughts?

[tags]programming, self-promotion[/tags]

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8 comments ↓

#1 Michael Eaton on 05.30.08 at 10:34 am

I agree with your conclusion. Some combination of things you enjoy (speaking, blogging, training) is the way to go.

I’ve recently started speaking at developer events – 5 Code Camps / Days of .NET in the last 2 months with one more scheduled in June. It’s been a great experience and has dramatically increased the size of my network (along with twitter). It’s also helped the quality of my blogging.

#2 Sean Tierney on 05.30.08 at 1:22 pm

Rob,
this is another situation where i don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. There’s a network effect achieved for writing a blog and doing public speaking simultaneously. Like you say, the face to face interaction has more staying power but you can cover more surface area with a blog. You meet core people at events who then sub your blog and stay in touch with you via that. You pick up random friends via blog/podcast authorship who you later meet in person.

IMHO Blogs are different than traditional web sites in that I would rather have 10 key people reading my blog and responding thoughtfully than 10,000 digg-monkeys reading it and forgetting it in the next breath. The conversation that occurs at both the events and in the comment thread is where it’s at.

sean

#3 Mark Freedman on 05.30.08 at 1:40 pm

Fascinating. I never realized that was your first speaking event. Again, I apologize for the technical difficulties before your session. I’m sure it made the first time unnecessarily more difficult. We’re also going to expand the session lengths at this November’s code camp.

I’ve been thinking a lot about putting together a session myself that I could present, starting with the FF/WW UG. One of the reasons I helped start the UG was because of the rut I’ve been in at work. I wanted to get more involved with the community and remind myself what excited me about the field to begin with.

I’ve been blogging on and off for a while, but due to the very generalist role I’ve been working in, it’s still missing a focus. Perhaps preparing a presentation would help reacquaint myself with a couple of topics I used to specialize in.

I think blogging and speaking together would exponentially increase your exposure and impact. It’s more a product of the two than the sum of the two.

Mark Freedman
Co-Chair, Fairfield / Westchester .NET User Group

#4 Chris Mullins on 05.30.08 at 4:38 pm

I think the clear answer is that you need to blog about your speaking engagements. 🙂

From a self-serving point of view, I’ve personally found high-profile speaking engagements to be as beneficial as blogging. If you can present at Tech-Ed, VS-Live, PDC, etc, then increased developer rates seem to follow shortly thereafter…

If you’re talking about speaking at local user groups, the only real payoff is that you’re “an expert” to local companies who may see you there. These are companies likley to hire you when they need something..

#5 Nothing to see here : An Experiment in Scotch on 05.30.08 at 6:58 pm

[…] Rob Walling writes that he figures it’s taken him “hundreds of hours” to develop the blogging acumen he currently has. Hundreds of hours is exactly the kind of dedication jazz musicians and top programmers put in. Of course, when you put hundreds of hours into something, you’re taking those hours from somewhere else. I think that’s my main problem (but not point, I clearly don’t have one of those today), I have a hard time deciding that I want to spend hours on one thing over another thing. […]

#6 Arjan`s World » LINKBLOG for May 31, 2008 on 05.31.08 at 5:24 pm

[…] What’s Better Self-Promotion: Speaking or Blogging? – Rob Walling ‘ Like many software developers I’m afflicted with ‘What’s Next?’ Syndrome. It’s a disease whereby you’re never content with your situation, no matter how cool it is(..) ‘ […]

#7 Alan Stevens on 05.31.08 at 8:38 pm

I think blogging and speaking create a virtuous cycle that increases your exposure and learning. I would include Twitter as an activity of equivalent value. See my blog post about this here: http://netcave.org/HowIFoundMyTribeOnTwitter.aspx.

Personally, I lean toward speaking because I get so much out of interacting with people directly. While I’m sure speaking has benefited my professional stature, it is satisfying on it’s own merits for the new relationships I build.

++Alan

#8 Jeff Atwood on 06.01.08 at 4:03 am

> As a point of comparison, in 11 hours I could have written 1-2 long-form articles or 5-10 blog posts that would have been read by 12,000-50,000 people (depending on the post’s popularity). In terms of people influenced, blogging is going to be more effective for me due to the massive up-front time investment I’ve made over the past three years (my “sunk costs”).

I struggled with this as well, and it’s one of the primary reasons I quit my job to take on stackoverflow.com and blogging full time.

That said, I do think limited amounts of speaking, networking, and in-person engagements can make good sense to complement and enhance your wide audience online work. There’s a lot to be said for showing different dimensions of yourself. Simply being a writer, even a very good one — which you clearly are — offers an incomplete and sometimes inaccurate picture of who you are and what you can do.