Do or do not. There is no try.
When I was five years old, my parents took my sister, Ana, and me to Hong Kong as part of a business trip. On the last day, my mother took us into a toy store and, feeling generous, told us to pick out anything we wished. Ana chose a red toy piano.
I chose a toy computer.
Fast forward a few months and it was time for me to graduate kindergarten. The entire school was celebrating graduation, so I was in for an evening of listening to speeches. As children are likely to do when bored, I promptly disappeared as the ceremonies began. My parents panicked, wondering where I’d run off to, when the answer became blatantly apparent: I’d somehow managed to find my way on stage so I could conduct the school choir.
I chose to be on stage.
In later years, and now as an adult, I’ve learned to make studied and thoughtful decisions. While I’ve tamped down most of my childish impulsiveness, I realize the reason I made those fateful decisions wasn’t just due to being a kid—it was due to focus.
As far as I was concerned, there were no other options.
No Other Choice
Some choices come naturally to us, like my choices above. A lot of this is due to the sum of our experiences. Becoming a web designer and choosing to speak at tech events is synchronous to me. However, it’s not just because of who I am — it’s because there’s a purpose to all this madness.
There are many things that lead to a fulfilling career: “autonomy, a sense of impact and mastery, creativity, and respect and recognition for your abilities” (source). Choosing to speak to your industry and to your peers checks all the boxes above. For me, and I think for many other professionals, framing the idea of speaking as a way to directly affect someone’s life promotes a sense of impact. The alternative may be no effect at all. Is there really any other option but to get on stage? Many would try to undermine this statement as grandiose, but the point is that when you are on stage, you have a platform for impact, both big and small.
Want to shine light on a subject you think is being ignored? Speak. Want to remind people of techniques that should be honed? Speak. Want to share common ground with your peers? Speak!
After I spoke at Future of Web Design in NYC, my first-ever professional speaking opportunity, one by one, people told me that my topic resonated. It made the voice I almost lost due to a cold, the tiredness I felt for being the last speaker of the conference, and nervousness regarding what I spoke about all disappear. One of the most satisfying feelings in the world is having even one audience member come up to you and say that your talk, or your work, or your contribution to the industry, has changed their outlook or has improved their workflow.
Choose Your Topic
Now that you’re feeling compelled to speak, the next hurdle is what to talk about. I feel that we take our knowledge for granted because we compare it to that of our heroes, to whom we aspire. So how do we know what nugget of information, technique, opinion, or story would resonate? Guy Kawasaki said that “brands are built on what people are saying about you, not what you’re saying about yourself” (source). The experiences we have with our family and friends, colleagues, clients, employers, and peers all add up to what people perceive are your strengths.
Why not ask them what they think you know and see if it’s in line with what you perceive is true? In their responses, you may start seeing patterns emerge and voila! Topic found! That’s how my topic, Art of Self Branding, came to be. People told me to talk about it. Also, the confidence boost of asking those you trust what they find are your strengths will only help you for the next step: actually being on stage.
Choose to be Brave
I’m not naturally shy. I don’t suffer from stage fright as badly as others: I’ve been in choir and drama throughout my youth. I even emceed a school event in front of hundreds, at the tender age of fourteen. I’m used to being on stage.
Still, despite all that, I do suffer from the occasional nerves. The extent of these nerves are so personal and individual that it’s hard to explain how to get over it, but I’m going to share what helps me:
Instead of worrying, flip your perception of nerves as an indication you care as opposed to dread of failure. There is no shame in caring deeply about a subject and what people think about your talk. It’s natural to be nervous. You aren’t the only one. Consider nerves as a simple physiological response you cannot control, the same as breathing.
Think this doesn’t work? Various studies have shown that the way we deal with stress and frame our thinking can affect the outcome. Despite the reality of stress and nervousness, it can actually be turned into a positive force! You can learn not to reject stress, but embrace it.
I’m going to suggest something that may sound crazy. If you’re going to be stressed anyway, find the biggest venue where you can speak. If you’ve managed to gather your courage, you might as well go big. Anything afterward, such as local meetups or tech gatherings, will be gravy. Did I mention that the first two chances I got to speak professionally were for Future of Web Design in NYC and the main stage in SXSW in Austin?
And hey, I’m still here.
The Illusion of Control
In the end, you do have a choice not to speak. While there are a myriad of reasons why you would turn down an opportunity, I think that perhaps the biggest reason is, while you’re on stage, you no longer have complete control. The number and types of people who attend, the level of audience participation and their motivation for being there, the success of audio or tech equipment, and your state of health are all out of your control.
At the end of the day, all anyone should expect is for you to be prepared and then, do your very best. There are still many things you can control, like how you react to any of the above situations. You need to let go of the illusion that you can predict how your talk will go before, during, and after.
In the end, I want to leave you with this quote from the sci-fi novel Dune:
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing…Only I will remain.
Choose to speak like you don’t have any other option.