Calm above the water, and paddling like hell underneath

This week I took another step in overcoming my greatest fear, by presenting at the Respond 2014 conference in Sydney. It was only 15 minutes, but those 15 minutes have taken decades to prepare for.

There are two moments in my life where I remember, with vivid clarity, not being able to speak in public. The first was a presentation about a musical instrument, any musical instrument, when I was around 12 years old. I was so panic stricken that on the big day I went and hid in the local park until it was over. I spent just under one hour watching the clock tick down whilst sheltering under a slide with rain pouring around me. The second time was much later in life, over 30 this time, and being asked to present about a project my team had just completed at work. I was desperate to get this right, I rehearsed and rehearsed but I couldn’t quite get it right. Then, when asking my girlfriend to help me practice (she knew very little of what I did in my job), she took one read through of my notes and delivered the presentation with timing and style that I could only dream of. I sent a message to the mate I was supposed to present with and told him I was out. I knew I wasn’t ready.

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking, number 2 is death… now this means to the average person if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than giving the eulogy.” Jerry Seinfeld

In 2013 my new years resolution was to overcome my fear of public speaking, but given that I don’t know if I’m a straight up introvert or a shy extrovert this was going to be a challenge. But I felt that the alternative was less desirable, to continue to watch boring presentations about the subjects I love.

The exact moment I felt this is clear, it was at Web Directions South ‘09 in a presentation called “Engaging user interaction with jQuery” delivered by Earle Castledine. His presentation showed me that you could entertain an audience whilst educating them, having fun with the subject is equally as important as showing how to do things.

So where do you begin with conquering this fear? Lots of people recommended things like toast masters, to which I would nod my head to and say “that’s a great idea” but behind the scenes I’m thinking that sounds too scary to me (shy) plus I have an image in my mind of Homer Simpson at the stone cutters. I felt that it was important to figure this out for myself, as the fear was mine. So I started in the place that was most obvious, watching other people present, then asking them how they did it.

In the last five years I’ve watched A LOT of people present, and before this time I thought it was black and white: you either can or you can’t. But it turns out it’s a bit more complicated than that, there are those who can but shouldn’t, there are those that can and don’t know when to stop, and others who can’t but some how do. What all of these people will tell you (well apart from the can but shouldn’t crowd) is that the biggest secret is that the audience want you to do well.

It’s amazing how clear each of my memories is for each step taken towards presenting at Respond 2014. I can remember delivering my first presentation at News Digital Media about a project my team had delivered. I can close my eyes and take myself back there, waiting for Paul Colgan and David Penberthy to stop waffling on and hurry up and move to my part of the meeting, how with each second they spoke another bead of sweat rolled down my forehead. How there was a video camera pointing at me and I wasn’t sure whether it was on. How I didn’t even know if this audience cared what some nerd had to say. My time finally came, I made a joke about the video camera, the audience laughed and I was fine and they did care. Afterwards many people commented on how well I came across, who knew that Lewis was so funny?

I went on from this to deliver quite a few small presentations at News, I even went on to deliver one public presentation with Ben Buchanan about our work implementing and applying standards (my presenter notes failed but I still managed to do it). But eventually I left News, and those opportunities went away, I found that the fear I had was still there and it was stopping me once more. For 12 months I did very little in the way of public speaking, I worked at a small agency and I tried to put a little sparkle into a couple of meetings, but it just wasn’t happening. That job came and went.

The end of 2012 came and I moved to a job at Bigcommerce. Within the first couple of weeks they held their own meetup, I was really excited (I’d become a total meetup nerd by this point). I was going to see what my work mates were like when they got up and spoke about their subjects, I could have a field day with picking apart their presentations, then asking them how they did it. They were great, each and everyone of them. But, and I think I’m ok in saying this with any BC people reading, the night sucked big time! No MC, poor seating, no MC, bad location, no MC, bad promotion of the event, did I mention there was no MC? What, what? The next day I sent an email to say “do you need some help with the meetup?”. They did, and for the next 12 months it became one of the most rewarding parts of my role, it also forced me to stand up in front of everyone at Bigcommerce on a regular basis. One of the most surreal things about this whole period is that people think I’m a natural public speaker; that still blows my mind.

Now its 2013 and this is the year of the public speaking resolution. It was filled with good ones (being able to take the p*** out of every department at Bigcommerce and still get a round of applause) and bad ones (completely freezing in front of the crowd and having to stop). But if I were to single out one thing during this time as being an example of me fulfilling my new years resolution, it’s the creation of SydCSS with my good friend Fiona Chan.

Photo taken from the Feb SydCSS meet up

Fiona laughs at all my jokes

I could, and do, prattle on about how much I love that meetup, but in terms of conquering my speaking fears it has been the place I can draw on to give me confidence. Fiona and I place fun and a friendly atmosphere as the important things about what we do, and with that I can talk to the audience with barely any of those doubting voices creeping in (they are still there though, just very quiet).

Now on to Respond 2014, I think I did ok, my presentation was designed to highlight a few existing ideas and show people that it’s not as complex as they may think. But for me personally it was about whether I could deliver a message. As the clock ticked and the moment to present got closer many things raced through my mind: being that boy hiding in the park, having backed out of presenting before and letting a mate down, freezing in front of people. I wandered around the crowd as the day went on, people spoke to me and distracted me, asking me what I was talking about and told me it sounded interesting. Then the bad thoughts started to go away and I remembered how I felt when people laughed at my camera joke, how I managed to keep going when my presenter notes failed, and how people had said that they’d learned something from what I’d said.

It’s three minutes to go before presenting now, the MC John Allsopp is about to stand up and introduce me. He’s looking for me; I’m sitting in the audience. I shouldn’t be sitting in the audience; I move to the front of the room. The lights go down, my slide deck appears, 10 seconds now. My final thoughts as I take a sip of water is that Davina, my girl, enjoyed my presentation the night before if she liked it, it must be OK. And I deliver it.