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  • Oriana Skylar Mastro

When to Balk and at Giving a Talk

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

OK, balk may be a bit strong, but it conveys a basic point: you can't say yes to every speaking opportunity that comes your way. If you're like me, you'd end up spending all your days giving talks on panels, at conferences, research seminars, classes, student groups, and government briefings. There would be no time actually to become an expert in something!

So, what to do?

If you are just starting out and trying to get your name out there, the answer may be yes all the time. But for everyone else, you need to have a system to decide.

This may be the defense planner in me, but I like the idea of pairing what I do with specific lines of effort towards objectives. If it the event doesn’t contribute to my goals, then the answer should be no. You may have different categories of consideration, but here are some of mine.

Is this event directly affiliated with my university or think tank? I’m asked only a handful of times to speak in events directly associated with my programs. It would be a real d*ck move to say no. I mean, at some point, they may start wondering what they are paying me for. So I always say yes. BUT, I make sure to include this information in my materials for performance evaluations. For requests outside my organization, it gets more complicated.

Are the organizers offering a lot of money? I know we are all supposed to be driven by a passion for our work, but as Destiny's Child reminds us, bills, bills, bills. So, when a retirement community asks me to come to speak to them, and they'll pay me more than a month's salary? YES. Sometimes, I say yes to pretty miserable things. Next month, I'm lecturing for 8 HOURS STRAIGHT ON ZOOM FROM 10 PM TO 6 AM. My husband thought it was worth the money. I wanted to sleep. So we agreed that I would do it, but in return, we get to hire cleaners to come each week. NOW it’s worth it to me. Need tips on subtle ways to ask for more money? Read my post here.

Is the event somewhere I want to go? This is kind of a subsection of the first point. Discussion at Lake Como? I'm there. I've given a disproportionate number of talks in Italy actually. Especially if I can pair it with a family vacation, we save on flights since mine is covered. If it's a lovely place, I make sure to give myself time while there to explore a bit. Go to the museums, see the sights, eat the food. Enjoying my time is even more important now that I have kids because when I get home, they want to play! Hearing that mommy is burnt out doesn't work for anyone. If it is somewhere I want to go, but I don't have time to enjoy the place and the situation doesn't meet one of the other situations, the answer is no. I once made a 36 hour trip to Taiwan – never again.

Will my participation significantly improve my research? OK, the organizers aren't paying you, and they want you to travel somewhere boring. That doesn't mean the answer is no! When I’m invited to present my research in academic research seminars or at academic conferences, I always say yes. These appearances are a forcing function to make progress on my work, are great ways to expose others to your research, and are good networking opportunities. These are some of my most valuable speaking engagements.

Is the event or opportunity ‘prestigious’? So you aren’t being paid, no cool travel, and you won’t get useful feedback on your research. The next question I ask myself is, is this prestigious? Of course, what fits this category varies from person to person. But for me, things like congressional testimony, Economist podcasts, BBC/NPR type of news broadcasts. And this can depend on your work, too – ask around to see what your organization considers prestigious or important for their mission.

Is this a key networking opportunity? Is there someone you’ve wanted to connect with – potential future reviewers, publishers, homes of fellowships – and this is your opportunity to not only meet them but let them see for themselves how great you are? Do it. But then make sure to stay in touch so you can casually mention you applied for this or that later on.

And then, drumroll, please…


Try to come up with your own decision rules. Not sure where to start? Make a list of your priorities. Ask your boss(es) what their priorities are. Make notes about the events you were happy you participated in and why. The most important thing is to make sure you are using your time in ways that are useful and fulfilling.

If you decide to say yes, read my post on making sure you are getting what you need from the experience.

If you decide to say no, read my post on how to be the bearer of bad news.

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