He Is A Freak

One of my personal goals for 2010 is to speak to groups outside of my technology niche. Like most of my ideas, I don’t have a definite plan, just a sense that I want to widen the audience I address.

Last week, I saw some chatter in my Twitter stream about a local business group I hadn’t heard of. Because people I interact with on Twitter are involved in the group, I decided to inquire about speaking there. I messaged a Twitter friend and found out who to contact.

I sent a short email inquiring about their speaker selection process and included a link to my Coding In Public talk from last spring. I thought including a link to a video of a 75 minute presentation addressing a room full of 85 people provided some credibility to my inquiry.

I didn’t check my email again until the next evening after giving a talk in Chesapeake, VA. I was sitting in my hotel room when I read this reply:

Watch his movie. He is a freak.

I was confused until I saw another reply apologizing for the earlier email. It seems that the person I contacted has an administrative assistant who screens his email. It was her summary judgment that I had accidentally received.

Now, I try to keep cool in such situations, but this took me by surprise. I’m human, and I felt insulted. I had just spent the last several hours listening to  people tell me how great my talk was that very night.

I felt certain that my critic in this case hadn’t even watched my entire talk, or attempted to evaluate my ideas. Ironically, in the video I sent, I’m dressed conservatively. I can only suppose the pony tail and chin beard are what made me a freak in her eyes.

After being initially offended, I began to realize some larger implications of being labeled a freak. Up until now, I have addressed a very narrow population of software developers. As a culture, software developers tend to place value on technical skill over appearance.

I saw clearly that if I am to expect to earn the attention and respect of a broader audience, then I’ll need to build credibility slowly. I am starting all over in a new arena. Any credibility I’ve earned speaking to software developers over the last five years doesn’t transfer to this new audience.

The morning after receiving this instant review, I realized how lucky I was. This knee jerk evaluation from a stranger wasn’t intended to be shared with me. It is only blind luck that I got this feedback so early and so unvarnished.

I have no intention of modifying my appearance to suit the expectations of any audience. It is very useful, however, to know what my appearance telegraphs to an audience before they ever hear my ideas.

At this point, I’m quite content to be a freak. Anyone with novel ideas is a freak. Anyone willing to attempt a creative endeavor is a freak. Frankly, I don’t want to speak to audiences that aren’t looking for new perspectives. Normal is boring.

So yeah, watch my movie. I’m a freak.