Speak and Be Seen

By Whitney Hess

Image credit: Jessica Hagy

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.

26 thoughts on “Speak and Be Seen

  1. Barb Ward

    Great article Whitney…

    I too was painfully shy as a child….I once nearly fainted during a presentation in Grade 8!

    I discovered in my early 20’s that I loved to hep people and train one-on-one. I parlayed my passion
    into a career and today I work as an IT trainer. I had to push myself out of my comfort zone but it
    was well worth it. I have discovered that as kibg as I really know the material that I am presenting, the audience
    will respect and listen to me.

    I still get a bit nervous (I don’t think that ever goes away if you are shy) when presenting in front of a large crowd, but I have presented to audiences with over 300 people and now I really enjoy it!

    1. Barb Ward

      Sorry…a few typos there..not sure what happened!

      “I have discovered that if I really know the material that I am presenting, the audience will respect and listen to me”.

      Barb :)

    2. Whitney Hess

      I think many people find that the things that scare them are the things that are most worth doing. Fear of success often outweighs fear of failure.

      Thank you for sharing with us, Barb.

  2. Duygu

    Thank you for sharing this. I’ll stop and make sure I remember your post next time i’m hesitating to step out of my comfort zone, which will probably happen within the next few hours :)

    1. Whitney Hess

      Duygu, it happens all day, every day — to all of us. Remember what matters to you, raise your voice to share it, and never let a silly thing like fear get in your way. We’re all rooting you on.

  3. Catt Small

    This was a really inspirational read. As a person in their twenties who’s just getting into the world of design conferences, it’s really comforting to read about your transition from a shy introvert to a powerful person with great things to share. Thank you so much for writing this, Whitney!

    1. Whitney Hess

      Catt, thank *you*! You’re never too young or too inexperienced to make your mark. Many of those who’ve been around forever think they have nothing left to learn. Prove them wrong. You don’t realize just how much of an advantage you have being where you are and who you are. Seize it!

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  5. Mel

    Thank you very much for your article. It gives me strength to pursue my dreams. I’m a young woman and I was a shy child too. I studied literature for years and I just started studying architecture information. It was hard at first because it was very different from what I knew. But thanks to this experience I learned a lot about myself and I discovered an extraordinary universe. I hope your article will encourage people to live unexpected adventures.

    1. Whitney Hess

      Mel, I suspect you’re going to be very successful in your career because of your ability to study, to learn, and to make sense of things around you. It is an extraordinary universe indeed! Revel in it.

  6. Colleen

    Thank you for posting this. I am actually responsible for one or two of those 70,000 views on your “Evangelizing Yourself” talk. I can’t begin to tell you how inspiring it was and continues to be for me today. In fact, I have a post-it on my desk with a quote from the talk – “You can’t change the world if no one knows your name.”

    So, I guess what I want to say is…thanks!!

    1. Whitney Hess

      Colleen, what an enormous compliment. Thank you for taking the time to view Evangelizing Yourself and thank you for allowing my words to impact your life in some small way. I have many post-its on my wall with words of affirmation, and I can’t tell you how often I’ve looked at them for guidance in my darkest days. I have no doubt that your words will be on a post-it on someone’s wall, someday very soon.

  7. Noelle Webster

    I was totally cracking up with your comment above about your school play, I can totally relate. To this day, I still get teased by my family that I used to cry when everyone sang me happy birthday as a kid. I absolutely hated attention focused on me.

    Even now, I still have issues getting up before a crowd. I’ve always been told I can speak well and motivate others in front of a large audience – to which I respond with thank you, but internally cringe. With as much anxiety as I have speaking in front of a crowd I can’t be that great of a speaker, right? Too often, our self-doubt gets in the way of achieving our dreams.

    You, Whitney, have become a huge role model for me in the time that I’ve discovered you on Twitter. What you stand for epitomizes how I lead my life. Women are strong, we can be leaders, we can speak up. Thank you for writing and speaking out regarding so many inspirational topics.

    1. Whitney Hess

      Noelle, I am only able to inspire others because of the constant inspiration I receive from people like you who share stories of their own struggles and triumphs. Thank you for your very kind words, thank you for making the connection between us, and thank you for raising your own voice to help the rest of our raise ours.

  8. Whitney Hess

    I got a call from my dad yesterday afternoon. The first thing he said to me when I answered the phone, even before Hello:

    “Whitney, everyone hides behind cards — some are big and some are small. But we all hide.”

    He congratulated me for sharing my struggles, and hoped that what I’ve learned will inspire other people to speak and be seen. He told me other stories about how shy I was as a child, how I used to cry every time people sang me Happy Birthday, how I used to sit on the sidelines hoping no one would notice me. “Why did I do that?!” I asked him. “Why did you do that?” he asked me back.

    I might never know the reasons why I was afraid to stand out, and I probably will never fully understand what compelled me to take a chance on another way of life. But if I could go back, I wouldn’t change who I was then. It made me who I am now.

    1. Jenn Lukas

      I totally understand the happy birthday song anxiety!! There’s a weird feeling when all attention is on you, especially through song.

      “Why did I do that?!” I asked him. “Why did you do that?” he asked me back.
      I love this. Your dad rules. Which makes sense. :)

  9. Ken Clench

    Absolutely amazing article and quite inspiring. Who knows how many other people like yourself, with wonderful, magical gifts are terrified to share their ideas, paralyzed by fear of speaking in public. Thank you for being so candid.

    1. Whitney Hess

      Ken, thank you for being so kind. Yes, that is exactly what I worry about — how many people have something to say that can change the world but are too afraid to speak up? We all have to work together to do something about this.

  10. Discover More

    Nice post. I learn something new and challenging on blogs I stumbleupon on
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  11. Ashley Journet

    Thank you x a million for sharing Whitney…. Your childhood mannerisms sound exactly like mine, and it followed me into adulthood. I’m boisterous around close friends, but in a shell when it comes to ppl outside my circle.

    I recently landed a job as a consultant, go figure lol. The income is limitless, I believe in the companies vision, however my fear and insecurities are beginning to affect my confidence. And I have a presentation in a week, I feel like crumbling… I didn’t go to college, honestly didn’t even graduate from high school, but I’m very driven & have walked through many doors because of that. I wanted so much more for my life, so even knowing that I have a real fear of public speaking, I applied for this position that entails just that PS. Btw I should mention I’ve spoken for the Dallas Morning News Paper about my life story, and at about 5-7 other similar events over the past 5 years…. However the heart palpitations, & panic attacks seem to stay… I’m so fearful I’ve thought about quitting this amazing job, which God knows, it’s only his grace that I was able to obtain a position that requires a degree. I started a couple of small companies & ran once I started, when it hit me that I would also have to be gutsy, personable, & speak to people. I think I have a good personality, just wish I was not so shy…. Also a suffered from a speech impediment growing up (stuttering) & when I get scared, nervous, etc it tends to resurface…. I’m sorry for the lengthy explanation, had to share. Any advice would be greatly appreciated :)

    Best, Ashley

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