Not too long ago, my six-year-old son invited a friend from school over for a play date. A few minutes before the boy was due to arrive, my husband and I got a call from the boy’s mother saying he had a question for us. When she put him on the phone, he began asking about a number of safety-related issues: “Do you have any smoke alarms in your house? How many? Has your house ever been on fire?”
We were a bit confused why he was asking. Turns out, the little boy was pretty anxious about going to new places, generally, and about fire safety, specifically. Apparently, he would go through this routine before he visited a new place so he could feel comfortable enough to go.
I sort of think he was onto something.
I’ve thought a lot about the importance of making yourself comfortable when public speaking or, let’s face it, deciding whether you even want to speak. I’m a big fan of speaking at conferences, but I know that there can be barriers to doing so. And sometimes, unfortunately, those barriers result in talking ourselves out of presenting in the first place. It’s very easy to convince yourself that the emotional, physical, or financial obstacles to putting yourself out there are either insurmountable or not worth the attempt.
I’d like to argue that that’s not the case, that these obstacles can be overcome, and that it may not be as hard as you fear. Here are some suggestions for how to define what it takes to make a comfortable space for ourselves that allows us to speak up.
Make yourself physically comfortable
In 2006, I was scheduled to speak at the daylong UPA-DC chapter conference about a usability project I had worked on for the federal government. I had a five-month-old baby and was dealing with complications from the pregnancy (Emergency C-section! Baby four weeks premature!).
Now, the next part of this story has to do with breastfeeding. If you’re squeamish, or the topic makes you uncomfortable, just skip to the paragraph that starts with an asterisk.*
At the time, my baby was still nursing about every three to four hours, which meant that my body was producing enough milk to meet the constant demand. Going to the conference meant traveling a couple of hours away from home and being there for an entire day. After I submitted a presentation proposal, it occurred to me that there were going to be some logistical issues for a lactating mother without a hungry baby handy to make use of all this milk.
I would need to figure out a way to deal with my current physical reality. One option would have been to turn down the presentation slot I was offered. But because I really wanted to do it, I brought along a breast milk pump instead. That solved part of the problem. The other part was having a private place to use it. I neglected to ask, electing instead to figure out what to do on my own. So during the morning break at the conference, I found myself in a stall in the hotel’s ladies’ room using the hand pump I’d carried in my purse to express the milk.
Yes, it was as awkward as it sounds.
My plan worked, sort of, but I learned a valuable lesson. While I figured out a way to take care of my physical needs during the conference, I did so without asking anyone for help. Probably because it didn’t occur to me that there would be anything anyone could do to help. If a new mom were to seek my advice today, I’d recommend asking the organizer or the venue if they have a “mother’s room” or private, comfortable place to pump. That would certainly be an improvement over the do-it-yourself space I’d created in the bathroom stall.
* Still here? Great.
Figure out what you need to be physically comfortable in a situation, and then do what’s necessary to make it happen. Whatever the requirement may be—a vegetarian food option, allergy-free bedding, or a refrigerator for your medications—acknowledge what it is, then make the request. Conference organizers and venue managers are used to accommodating the needs of their speakers and guests. Most will be willing to help you out once you tell them what they are. Just give yourself permission to ask; you don’t have to figure it all out on your own.
Make yourself emotionally comfortable
A couple of years later, I was invited to speak at PLAIN, the plain language conference, in Sydney, Australia. It was to be my first time overseas and my first time away from my kid for more than an overnight trip. After a lot of waffling back and forth about whether I should go, I figured out a way to balance my desire to attend the conference with the desire to be away from my family for as little time as possible. I did this by traveling from the east coast of the United States to Australia and back—twenty-two hours in the air each way—in five days. It totally made sense at the time. And it made me comfortable enough to accept the invitation to speak.
This was, as those of you who have ever traveled twenty-two hours in a plane over the international date line will attest, a fucking stupid idea.
Jet lag kicked my butt. Being in a gorgeous, far-flung locale that I might never have the opportunity to visit again, but didn’t give myself enough time to explore, was profoundly disappointing. Hearing that my kid sort of missed me at first, but got over it really quickly, was also hard.
I learned that thinking about what you need to be emotionally comfortable is important. But it’s also a good idea to try to challenge yourself. And that you shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking you can ignore physical comfort in the service of emotional comfort (although where you land on that continuum may be different from where I did).
While some emotional comfort issues may involve travel and time away from home, others involve the social aspects of the conference itself. Here again, it makes sense to think through your needs. Speaker dinner scheduled for the night before your workshop? If you want to participate, but are concerned about staying out late before an early morning start time, or need time to recharge your introvert’s batteries before leading a group of people for eight hours, say so. Don’t know any of the other speakers? Let the organizers know. See if they’ll pair you up with a conference veteran, or even another newbie buddy. Ask if there is a contact person to handle special requests or in case of an emergency. All of these are pretty typical emotional needs; acknowledge them and then figure out what you can do (or ask for) to satisfy those needs.
Make yourself comfortable with the finances
Speaking can also present a financial burden, what with travel, lodging, conference registration fees, and so forth. If the money you’re going to have to invest to accept a speaking invitation is going to be a barrier to your involvement, let the conference organizers know that. The one time I was prepared to decline a speaking invitation due to the steep cost of airline tickets to the conference location, the organizer offered to defray those costs because they really wanted me to participate.
Don’t turn down a speaking gig because of money without at least addressing your situation with the organizer. They may say no, but you might as well ask.
Come up with the equation that makes sense to you
I’ve learned to weigh a number of variables when figuring out how to carve out a comfortable space in which to speak: the benefits of speaking, issues of physical and emotional comfort, and even financial considerations. That equation is going to be different for each person. By figuring out what you need in order to even think about speaking, you’ll at least have a game plan for getting there.
That equation won’t be the same forever
Remember our little friend from the play date? He may have to call ahead to ask about smoke detectors and fire safety for a while to feel comfortable in new surroundings. But I expect that one day, he won’t have to make that call. He’ll no longer need to ask the same questions to ensure his emotional comfort before he’ll even think about going to a location he’s never been before.
I’ve also found that the things I used to need to make myself comfortable in public speaking situations don’t apply anymore: no more breast pumps (hooray!) and much less reticence about leaving my kid with another caregiver for a few days. And it’s made the process of deciding whether or not to propose a talk or accept an invitation to speak a lot less anxiety-ridden.
Do what you have to do to make yourself comfortable enough to speak. But know that eventually the list of things you’ll need to feel at ease when speaking will get a lot shorter. Or, one day, disappear altogether.