5 Confessions of This Public Speaker

Just over a week ago I spoke at Cre­ative South where hun­dreds of cre­atives from across the globe gath­er each year. I com­mand­ed the stage like a sea­soned pro, shared a poignant sto­ry of fail­ure, taught from the heart, and con­fi­dent­ly walked off stage know­ing I had nailed it.

When it comes to pub­lic speak­ing, I’m a nat­ur­al. It’s as sim­ple as that.

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Today I drove home from a one of a kind con­fer­ence, @creativesouthga. It’s so ener­giz­ing see­ing peo­ple take time to share pho­tos, quotes, sto­ries, etc from a talk. This kin­da stuff fuels me to keep shar­ing with oth­ers! • • • These three shots come from @shaunmoynihan, @iamsamwhite, and @heybrittanywong. Thanks, y’all! #cs17 #hug­necks #grate­ful

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Okay, so that’s most­ly bull.

I’m def­i­nite­ly not a nat­ur­al pub­lic speak­er. (What­ev­er that is.) And I def­i­nite­ly didn’t walk off stage think­ing I had nailed it. But it turns out that this was the per­cep­tion of some. In fact, some of the open­ing para­graph above came from some com­ments from one per­son in the audi­ence at Cre­ative South.

After talk­ing to a few folks I real­ized it might be help­ful — to at least a few peo­ple — if I pulled back the cur­tain a bit on my per­son­al expe­ri­ences of pub­lic speak­ing. Plus, one of my company’s Core Stan­dards is to Keep it Real and I want to hon­or that here as best I can.

Truth and courage aren’t always com­fort­able, but they’re nev­er weakness.

Brené Brown

With that, I’ll get straight into my con­fes­sions. This should be fun.

Con­fes­sion 1: My body hates me

At least, it feels like my body hates me when I do any speaking.

Around 3 – 4 weeks pri­or to a speak­ing engage­ment, my stom­ach is in knots any time I think about actu­al­ly being on the stage. It gets worse as the date gets clos­er. And the top­ic I speak on seems to have an effect on the inten­si­ty of the feelings.

As an exam­ple, I spent many years writ­ing code and build­ing web­sites. Many of the talks I’ve giv­en have been tech­ni­cal in nature. Prepar­ing for a tech­ni­cal talk and prepar­ing for a non-tech­ni­cal talk are dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences for me. The more vul­ner­a­ble I’m going to get on stage, the hard­er my body reacts.

The worst came one year ago when I spoke at an event called Peers (which is a fan­tas­tic event, I might add). My talk was the most trans­par­ent one I’d giv­en at the time. I felt a weight on my heart to share open­ly and encour­age oth­ers in a way I hadn’t before.

The night before was ter­ri­ble.

I tried to go to sleep fair­ly ear­ly to be well rest­ed. But my stom­ach was a wreck, I couldn’t slow down my brain, and sleep was nowhere to be found.

I’ve now giv­en vari­a­tions on that talk a few more times. Each time is slight­ly eas­i­er than the last. But my body still hates me and reminds me before I get on stage.

Con­fes­sion 2: Who am I to even be on this stage?

Iron­i­cal­ly, one of the top­ics in my talk last week was Imposter Syn­drome. (It’s that voice in your head that says you don’t know what you’re doing — despite your pri­or suc­cess or expe­ri­ence.) But being able to talk about it from a stage doesn’t make me immune to it. I’ve thought to myself many times, Who are you to even be up there? Have you seen the line­up of oth­er speak­ers? Did you hear that one talk from yes­ter­day? You’re out of your league, dude.”

That’s the inner voice that I have to shut down each time I speak.

Each. Time.

Photo of a selfie I took on stage with an excited audience in background
There’s noth­in quite like a self­ie with an audience

Con­fes­sion 3: I walk off stage with an imme­di­ate list of mistakes

I have a full time job and it’s not pub­lic speak­ing. I try hard to pre­pare well in advance of my time on stage. I owe that to the audi­ence, the orga­niz­ers, the oth­er speak­ers, etc. But even with the prepa­ra­tion I do I make mul­ti­ple mis­takes each time I’m on stage.

Each time I walk off stage I almost imme­di­ate­ly go into a list of things I for­got to do, didn’t mean to do, or can’t remem­ber if I did right.

Using Cre­ative South as an exam­ple, with­in about 90 sec­onds of being off stage I not­ed the following:

  • I real­ized I flubbed up a few of my quotes
  • I for­got to attribute one of my quotes/​ideas
  • I total­ly messed up one of the pas­sages that should have been more impact­ful — but I for­got the order it came in dur­ing the talk so when I noticed in my notes that it was time for the pas­sage I had to shift tone quick­ly which didn’t work out
  • I real­ized how poor­ly I told one of the sto­ries (com­pared to how it felt dur­ing prac­tice runs)

And this is the third time I’ve giv­en this talk! You should have seen the list from the first time I gave it.

I always strive to get bet­ter at the things I do. Pub­lic speak­ing is no excep­tion. So walk­ing off stage with these types of thoughts is no big deal to me—at this point. I write them down and com­mit to mak­ing the next talk even better.

Con­fes­sion 4: I need notes

This one is sim­ple. I can’t seem to mem­o­rize a 30 – 45 minute talk. And I’m fine with that right now. Each talk I’ve giv­en in the past has been very inten­tion­al­ly writ­ten. So if I don’t have notes to remind me of what’s next I just miss stuff. You can see that in the list from Con­fes­sion 3 above.

Screenshot of my talk notes and slides in progress
The writ­ten form of my talks live in Ever­note. I include reminders or full state­ments in my slide notes as well.

Con­fes­sion 5: I’m my own worst critic

I rec­og­nize that this is not a new idea. Nor is it unique to pub­lic speak­ing. But I’m men­tion­ing it here most­ly so oth­er speak­ers, main­ly those who are still new to the stage, can under­stand how nor­mal it is to be crit­i­cal of one’s self.

In Con­fes­sion 3 I talked about the things that run through my head when I walk off stage. If you’re not care­ful, those can be destruc­tive thoughts instead of con­struc­tive ones. I’m often my own worst crit­ic with my talks because I’m often the only per­son who knew every­thing I meant the talk to be. But I can’t let that take away from what the audi­ence actu­al­ly got out of it.

One of the most reward­ing things about speak­ing is speak­ing with audi­ence mem­bers after­ward. The oppor­tu­ni­ty to hear how my sto­ries and lessons learned have impact­ed some­one else is one I cher­ish. I’m hon­ored to have a chance to be used in such a way. And this is just the med­i­cine I need some­times when I’m being my own worst critic.

I could go on

But this is prob­a­bly enough for now.

My main goal in writ­ing this was to encour­age any­one ear­ly in their pub­lic speak­ing jour­ney. I tend to keep a lot of my thoughts inter­nal and with­in a small group of close friends. While I’ve shared every­thing above before, none of it was in a pub­lic forum where any­one could get a glimpse. Even my own busi­ness part­ner thought speak­ing like this was a pret­ty chill thing for me these days. (Nope!) Hope­ful­ly this helps oth­er new speak­ers know they aren’t alone if they share in some of my confessions.

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The Real­i­ties of Fail­ure. Suc­cess isn’t final. Fail­ure isn’t fatal. The courage to con­tin­ue is what counts.” @erikreagan’s talk at #cre­ativesouth on Sat­ur­day was so real. Thanks for putting things into per­spec­tive. #cs17 #hug­necks

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After a dozen or so speak­ing engage­ments I’ve learned plen­ty of lessons I can share with peo­ple just get­ting start­ed. But I’ve got far more to learn. And I plan to do just that. Keep learning.

After all, one day I might just be a nat­ur­al pub­lic speaker.

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