This week I gave a talk at this month’s design themed Fenders meetup. It was my first talk and I honestly hope that it’s the first of many. Speaking is something I’ve always hoped to do. When I was in high school I was part of the ‘Speech’ team, took acting classes, was involved with theatre, and had aspirations of one day being an actor. For me, speaking seems to group all of my interests into one. It combines the enjoyment of acting (sort of), the storytelling nature of writing and journalism and my love of design. I’ve also always thought that the moment I was comfortable enough to get up in front of a room full of people and speak about something close to me would be the moment that I start to embrace an inner confidence in myself and in my opinions/knowledge/skill.
As I found out, speaking does imply a certain level of confidence (the other levels are of pure terror) but more accurately, speaking will only make you confident about speaking. Belief, on the other hand, will make you comfortable with your content, your words or the story you have to tell. From belief, confidence grows.
I hate to admit this but I was terribly unprepared. I could list my excuses here but snore. I spent the day before the talk writing the entire thing after having written it in my head in the months prior. I discovered that writing a talk is nothing like writing a blog post like I had anticipated. There is so much more to think about — the verbal nuances, the body language, the pauses, what the heck you should do with your hands, where to scatter strategic ‘ums’, so on and so forth. I wrote my talk right up to midnight and then hurriedly put the slides together in the early hours of the morning. I voice recorded the talk and listened to it several times before falling asleep. Then, I listened to it a couple more times the next day. That’s all. Like I said, I was terribly underprepared.
Here’s a mini lesson for you: leaving a talk’s preparation to the very last minute will leave you absolutely no time to run it by anyone and this, as I found out, is not good. I knew my topic well and it made sense to me but having not said it out loud to anyone else I couldn’t help but wonder, will this make sense to anyone else? Will it be interesting to them? All day, I sat on a big, stinking pile of anxiety until my friends at Humaan gave up some of their time to sit through a last-minute test run at the end of the day, two hours prior to the real thing.
It was my first time showing anyone and it really did not go well.
Having spent all day agonising over whether anyone would understand what I was actually on about decimated any shred of confidence I might have had. During the test run I was so nervous I stumbled over every second word, I missed important points and some of my references made no sense to the point that they were actually distracting. It was honestly like I had never come across the content before (given how unprepared I was, there is probably some truth in this to be honest). Of course, the Humaans were gracious, helpful and very respectful as always. They provided me with some valuable feedback and confirmed that, yes, the talk was both interesting and generally understandable despite needing some slight tweaks.
I sat on this feedback for a quick 15 minutes while I drove to the meetup venue. An hour before the talk I made some quick adjustments to my speaking plan and to my slides. Before I knew it I was just seconds away from doing my talk to the meetup group.
How did it go? Well, I actually think it went really well. I received some great feedback at the end and during the talk I remember seeing smiling, interested faces in the audience. At one stage, I even remember catching myself thinking “where the hell is this [confidence] coming from?!” . It felt good. Though, as it seems, knowing that the ‘real’ talk went okay clearly wasn’t enough. I couldn’t stop thinking: why did my test run in front of people I’m comfortable with fail, while the real thing in front of a group of strangers go so smoothly?
Well, at first I thought it was because I had managed to get a test run in, but then I realised that while that may have been part of the reasons, there was a much bigger reason that perhaps went a little bit deeper:
Running it by the Humaans let me know that that my talk was interesting and made sense to other people. This is what made all the difference between delivering it to the Humaans and delivering it to the meetup group. The shaky run through, although a little painful, afforded me a belief in my content and the opportunity to instead focus on calming my nerves and delivering an opinion clearly and eloquently. This meant that a thick layer of uncertainty and anxiety was removed from my mind during the talk. I wasn’t distracted by all of my internal talk because it had been silenced previously. It was really quite astounding just how much difference it made.
There’s just a one small problem with this that I’d like change for the future…
Belief shouldn’t come from other people, it should really come from within yourself. You should invest and believe in your own content first. Then, you should rely on others to validate it. After that, iterate from there. Don’t rely on other people for that initial belief or you’ll be starting on the back foot. If I had believed in my content to begin with, my first test run would have gone a lot smoother and I could have avoided all of that initial anxiety. If you don’t start with belief, you only progress with weariness and is never sign of strong foundations.
The startup world does this well. Budding entrepreneurs invest and believe in ideas, build them out into a digestible format and then make a big deal of validating their ideas with their intended audience. If it flies, great; but if it doesn’t, they change things. The same goes for good design work. If you believe in your work and your ideas, you’ve set a strong foundation. Then, test that foundation by turning to your peers or users to test. Then, based on those tests, iterate accordingly. The key is that in the beginning you have to at least believe in what you’re designing. Build that strong foundation and allow yourself that early confidence boost. You deserve it.
I have my next talk semi-lined up and I’m going to try my hardest to one, be super prepared and two, actively believe in what I’m saying. I think that will allow for a much smoother preparation process and a lot less anxiety on the day. In the meantime, here are my slides (they’re not particularly helpful out of context, sorry) and a little picture of my test run with the Humaans. I’ll update this post with the video once it’s up.
Believe in your *. Belief in whatever you're doing is the root of everything that you do. Belief will afford you confidence, confidence will afford you progress.