My mom loves to tell a story about when she and my dad came to see me in a play at day camp. I was six.
I had the very important job of carrying title cards from stage-left to stage-right, which depicted time passing between scenes. It wasn’t exactly a leading role, but my parents were filled with the same pride as all the other parents in the audience. They couldn’t wait to see me in action.
Sadly, they didn’t get to see me at all. Every time I crossed the stage, I carried that big piece of cardboard right in front of my face. As my mom tells it, the audience roared. But I still remember what it felt like — I was petrified.
I was so painfully shy as a child; I didn’t want to be seen.
Growing up, I never played sports. I never joined the dance troupe or sang with the choir. And I most certainly never tried out for the debate team. I wrote for the school newspaper, hung out in the darkroom, and spent my afternoons on AOL.
For the first 26 years of my life, I drew as little attention to myself as I possibly could. Big groups of people freaked me out, and I didn’t particularly like talking to strangers. I was passionate about my work and boisterous with close friends. I had big ambitions but little motivation, so a life of status quo was pretty much what I expected.
Life had other plans.
When looking back at the inflection points in my life, it seems easy to retrace the steps it took to get me there; as it was happening, I had absolutely no clue what lay ahead.
It was early 2008, and I had managed to get myself on a great design team tackling tough problems for a wildly profitable company. The work was good, and I was enjoying the challenge.
We all had an annual budget to spend on professional development, and my manager wanted to talk with me about how I was intending to spend it. He told me about a few conferences that were coming up and suggested that I attend them.
Though I had always been chatty and opinionated with colleagues, I had never socialized with a professional community outside of work. It was a revelatory concept to me.
When deliberating between two conferences, my manager suggested that I consider the IA Summit because “it’s where most people speak for the first time.”
It was the first time a boss implied that speaking at conferences is something people like me try to do.
The notion that I would ever choose to speak was totally absurd. Still, I thought the program looked interesting, so I decided to attend.
There are a lot of stories I could tell about the power of Twitter, the benefit of having just started a blog, and the kindness of strangers I encountered there. But I’ll cut to the chase: by the end of the conference, my new friends had persuaded me to submit a proposal for the 2009 event.
While I spent the next few months pondering over what my topic would be, it still hadn’t fully occurred to me that speaking at a conference would require me to stand in front of an audience. My brain somehow conveniently blocked that part out. So I figured out my topic, wrote the proposal, and submitted it without much fuss.
Only when I got the word it had been accepted did it hit me like a ton of bricks.
The next three months were hell. I had no idea what I was doing. When I had a stray thought about my topic, I jotted it down in a notebook. I was so paralyzed with fear leading up to the conference, I never actually created any slides. Along the way, I’d convinced myself I didn’t need them.
When the conference finally arrived, I spent time catching up with people I’d met the year before, attended other presentations, and did everything I could to pretend that I wasn’t going to be giving a talk.
Finally, someone asked me how my prep was going, and I had to admit that I hadn’t really done any. The look on her face was enough to send me straight to my hotel room. My presentation was the next day.
I went into laser focus mode. After eight hours, I had turned my scattered notes into a fast-paced, 80-slide, 50-minute talk. I spent the next morning rehearsing in front of the mirror and committing my narration to memory. I was under such a time pressure that I didn’t have a chance to be nervous.
When the person introducing me said my name, I was in a daze. There were 40 or 50 people in the room, some of whom I knew, many of whom I didn’t. My knees were shaking so uncontrollably, I had to hold myself up behind the podium for the entire talk. My voice broke. I almost cried twice. I was a total wreck.
Then a strange thing happened. I clicked past the last slide. My presentation was done.
I was still standing. The audience was clapping. I did it.
To my utter disbelief, the talk was a huge success. People from the audience wanted to talk to me afterwards. At the after-party, strangers were coming up to me saying they’d heard I’d done a great job. It was surreal.
I posted the slides on Slideshare, and somehow they made their way to the homepage. I saw people passing them around on Twitter and Facebook. As of today, Evangelizing Yourself has been viewed more than 70,000 times.
When people started to hear that I gave presentations (to which I thought, “I gave one presentation!”) they began to invite me to speak at their conferences. I spoke at 10 more events that year alone.
Every single time, I would wake up the morning of my talk with the shakes. I wouldn’t be able to eat the entire day. And five minutes before I was due on stage, I would still be hiding in the bathroom stall crying and gagging, trying to think of a way to get out of it.
And every time, an inner force would take over. I’d pat my nose, fix my mascara, wash my hands, swallow my nerves, get on that stage, and say what I needed to say. I got through it, and I was better for it, and it felt like the audience was better for it, too.
Then the unthinkable happened: the organizers of the IA Summit asked me to give the closing keynote at their 2010 conference. It was the biggest shock and greatest honor of my career. I didn’t feel worthy then, and I don’t feel worthy now. But it happened, and I survived it. And it made me better.
It has been four years since that first presentation. I’ve since given 50 talks in 20 cities across four continents to approximately 11,000 audience members.
Going outside of my comfort zone has brought me around the world and made me feel at home just about anywhere, even on stage. I never imagined that this would be my life, but now I can’t imagine it any other way.
Over the years I’ve come to realize that I never would’ve been able to build such a successful business without putting myself out there. The exposure I’ve gained from public speaking has attracted a ton of clients, earned me respect within the community, and inspired countless others to share their voice. But most importantly, it has given me a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction and pride.
I wish I could say that public speaking has gotten easier for me, but it hasn’t. As the pressure increases, so do my nerves. Bigger venues mean higher expectations. Now that I’m getting paid to speak, I’m obligated to perform. Speaking has become a part of my job. If I don’t impress, I’ll stop getting invited, and I’ll lose income. I’ll lose the reputation I worked so hard to build. It keeps me up at night.
I’m still the same little girl who was so afraid of being seen that she hid behind the title cards onstage.
But it turns out, hiding wasn’t allowing me to be my true self.
I have a passion for what I do and I want to share it with others. I want to teach, and I want to learn. The only way to achieve that is by speaking up.
I still have the urge to run and hide every time it’s my turn to get onstage. But I remind myself that I get to do this — I get to be seen, and I get to be heard. And it’s been one hell of a fun ride.