This is a speech I prepared as my Icebreaker speech for Toastmasters. Toastmasters is an organization that promotes public speaking skills, and the famous “Icebreaker” is the first speech a new member gives to introduce themselves to their club-mates. This is mine (with edits suggested from the feedback I received from other members and friends).
Hi, I’m Will Beason and I’m going to change how you think.
While preparing this speech I put a lot of thought into how it differs from introducing myself to someone or writing an “about me” article. I don’t normally introduce myself in speeches, so it was important for me to think about how the medium is different than the modes I’m comfortable communicating in. I can’t simply take what I would say in a conversation or bio and put that into a speech: I’d run into the same problems people have when adapting books to films – they are different media with different strengths and different weaknesses. I want to give you an impression of the care and thought I put into creating things, and why I decided to focus on public speaking now. Along the way, I want to help you understand what drives me.
When using a speech to introduce myself I can’t tailor my responses to an individual. I have to generalize and can’t personalize it as I can in a conversation. So, how do I highlight core components of myself in a speech rather than simply turning my side of an introductory conversation into a speech? In my case, metatext. Metatext is writing that references how writing is put together. In this case, I’ve written a speech that references its own structure and themes as an effort to highlight how carefully I construct things and think about how they go together.
One natural structure I could have followed is listing facts about myself – I attended West Point; I have worked for Google; my professional specializations are data analysis and natural language processing for building artificial intelligence. But these are just rote facts that could overshadow my point. Being able to regurgitate a list of statements about me isn’t really “knowing” me; to know me is to understand the common themes that I’ve used to structure my life and make decisions.
That suggests covering why I decided to focus on public speaking now. What can my answer to that question tell an audience about me? I believe I can have a positive impact on the world by sharing my ideas.
We are responsible for the effects of systems we’re a part of. What’s real – the truth – matters and is something we can discover. We have to be aware of the effects of using data to influence people’s lives. We’re going to have to figure out how to live, to learn, to build with the seven billion other people on the planet.
Being able to speak clearly and impactfully about these ideas gives me another avenue to communicate with others. Writing and one-on-one conversation can only take me so far; I have to be able to reach wider groups in order to be effective. I recognized this years ago, but until recently I lacked the self confidence in myself and my ideas.
I attribute much of this change to my move to San Francisco. Here, for the first time, I connected with the local gay community. I found people with similar life experiences and interests. I felt a connection to a place; that there was a network of people willing to support and guide me as I grow into my own.
I’m taking the time to learn about the influence I can have on the people around me. I want to become a better mentor. How do I introduce people to concepts they wouldn’t otherwise come across, and share the joy of figuring out how to change things for the better on a grand scale? I want people to not only understand and appreciate the thought I put into what I create, but inspire them to do the same in their own work. These aren’t easy tasks, but they’re deeply important to me.
For now it’s the struggle to find what’s next. I’ve finally learned that it’s the people I work with, so much more than the project I’m working on, who will help me grow and find actualization. I’ve worked on five different machine learning projects, each with its own immense potential benefit for the world, but without the right team for me. They’re good projects with smart people working on them, but I’ve realized that just being able to solve any problem isn’t the only requirement for greatness. It also takes a professional drive to make sure the right problem is being solved. A sense of responsibility to make sure we aren’t creating a system that will actively harm society – a path most often entered blindly.
It isn’t easy finding people of that caliber. I can’t force people to really accept that these things are important and make it a part of themselves. The best I can do is be an example that inspires people to follow my path. To quote one of my favorite books, The Clean Coder, “You can’t convince people to be craftsmen. Arguments are ineffective. Data is inconsequential. Case studies mean nothing. [It] is not so much a rational decision as an emotional one. This is a very human thing.”
It’s that human element that I’ve had the biggest struggle with. That we all struggle with. If you have the craftsman mindset, as Robert C. Martin calls it, then you know how it has changed how you see the world. If you don’t, all I can do is speak of a world beyond what you can see and show you what it looks like to live in it. One that glimmers for you in moments of introspection. But you alone can decide for yourself whether you will take the next step.