Watch Yourself

By Jenn Downs

When I first had the idea to write an article comparing my very first speaking gig with my most recent one, I thought I would share the following narrative:

  • Woman gives her first talk and nervously babbles for 45 minutes.
  • Woman can’t bring herself to watch a video of her first talk because she knows what she did wrong and doesn’t need to be discouraged.
  • Two years later, woman finally watches that first talk and confirms she was definitely a terrible speaker.
  • Woman then watches her latest talk and is blown away by how good she is and how much she has grown.
  • Woman encourages others to take a leap into their first speaking gig because “look how bad you can start out and people will still love you and you’ll be awesome soon.”

The problem with that narrative is that what I anticipated seeing in these videos was not what I actually saw. Aside from saying “um” about 3,000 times, my first talk was so much better than I remembered.

My First Talk: I Didn’t Faint

In the months leading up to my first talk, I questioned why on earth I was doing this to myself. I had a terrible fear of public speaking and the stress was starting to get to me. I almost booked trips out of town on the same date as the conference so I could have a reason to be suddenly unavailable. But I knew deep down that I had something I wanted to share, and if I didn’t overcome this fear I would be disappointed in myself as a person and professional. So I learned some coping techniques to deal with the stress and some positive visualization techniques to change the stress to positive energy. Those techniques worked well enough to get me onstage, but didn’t eliminate the fear altogether.

My talk was part of the 2011 Remix South conference and was called “Experiencing the Monkey Love: MailChimp’s User Experience.” I shared tidbits and stories about how UX wasn’t just a department at MailChimp, but a mindset. This was a topic I could have talked about for hours without ever slowing down (and frequently did so after a beer or two). It was something I lived every day and I approached the subject from a place of “this is what we do; it’s not what I’m telling you to do.” It was a light topic for a technical conference, but I was passionate about it and knew I could pull it off.

When I started watching the video of this talk all these years later I was absolutely shocked at how clearly I was speaking and how much of what I was saying made sense. All I could remember about this talk once I stepped offstage was hearing every “um” (it was actually 3,000 times) and noticing every shake in my vocal chords (not as many as I thought) and stopping after ten minutes to collect myself because I thought I was going to faint. Can you see it on my face at 11:55 in the video? I can’t see it there, but I remember being so nervous I was starting to blackout.

I had another one of those near blackout moments about a year later. Almost as a reflex, I stopped in the middle of my talk and I heard the words coming out of my mouth again, “Sorry I’m nervous.” Someone came up to me after and said, “A word of honest advice: we couldn’t tell you were nervous and it was surprising to hear you say you were. Don’t say that anymore.” How right they were!

I think I was right not to watch the video right away, but wrong to wait as long as I did. In between I had gained quite a bit of experience watching and listening to myself conduct user interviews and got used to the sound of my own voice, so I didn’t have that new sound self-consciously distracting me from the content and delivery of the presentation. But because I waited so long, I missed a chance for an early confidence boost and the reminder to always be humble and deeply excited about my topic.

My Last Talk: Still Haven’t Fainted

At my most recent speaking gig at Web Design Day 2013, I remember coming off the stage thinking “I’m not sure how that went” and not really wanting to check the back channels for feedback. I knew that technically I’d said everything I wanted to say, but I wasn’t really happy with my performance. This was the video I knew I wanted to watch immediately to find out where I could improve.

It seems inevitable that, as a recovering perfectionist, the negatives were the first thing I focused on while assessing my performance, both in the moment and while watching the recording. Instead of fighting that part of my brain, I simply allowed myself to make a list of everything I felt was wrong with my performance. I can see in the video that I’m looking at my computer a lot. I’m using my notes as I always do, but I’m clearly using the computer screen as a crutch. I’m breathing funny and my voice is nasally (I’d forgotten I was sick with a nasty cold). I sound slightly snobby about the topic instead of excited, genuine, or spontaneous. My haircut isn’t as interesting as it was in the first video and my dress looks awesome on me in person, but a bit weird on camera. That improvised joke wasn’t funny.

Then I forced myself to forgive all of those wrongs, note them as opportunities for improvement, and then make a list of everything I did right. I’m not holding myself up on the podium anymore. I’m not rambling. My lines are punchier and better thought out. My boots look really cute when I move from behind the podium. I’m gesturing with my hands, but not in a weird way. My narrative is strong. I sound like I have years of experience with my subject. Sometimes I tell great jokes and people laugh!

This exercise felt scary at first, but ended up being a very matter-of-fact thing for me. I don’t mind honest feedback on my performances (it’s the only thing that makes them better), even if that honesty is coming from my own brain and is a little harsh. The exercise even inspired me to record a rehearsal of my next talk in order to correct some of the negatives before I get on stage.

Watch Yourself: Be Brave

I used to watch my old bands’ performances, but I was always comfortable with myself as a musician so that wasn’t as hard to do. I learned to not let my mouth hang open with bass face (see :45); that squaring my shoulders when I play makes me look tougher; and that standing behind the mic when you’re not singing disconnects you from the audience.

I recently saw Margaret Cho at a small comedy club in Atlanta. She was testing out new material and recording herself on a small handheld recording device, checking for what jokes worked, how lines flowed, and how the audience reacted. Some of her jokes fell flat and I’m sure she’ll be trashing or reworking them. I should do the same for some of the things that were funny in my head, but not to my audience.

If your talk isn’t being recorded, don’t breathe a sigh of relief that it won’t ever be online and no one will know how it went. If that’s the case, you’ll never know how it went either. Find a way to record it and give yourself that feedback and encouragement.

I wish I’d had the guts to watch videos of myself speaking much sooner, but I was so scared of hating my performances that I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I rested on my own bias of what things felt like in my head instead of what things actually looked like. I encourage you, if you have videos or recordings of your performances of any kind, to be brave and really critique yourself. If you can only stand to watch five minutes, watch five minutes and then go do something fun or hug a puppy. Be kind to yourself, but be real about where you need to improve; I know I will do the same for my own performances in the future.

21 thoughts on “Watch Yourself

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  3. Golli

    This is great advice Jenn, thanks for writing it! I promise I’ll listen to you and watch the video of one of my talks from almost a year ago…


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