Sometimes, I like to take my own advice. Revolutionary idea, I know.
About a year ago, right after the 2016 APC Conference in Chicago, I wrote this article about the virtues of throwing oneself in over one’s head on purpose.
Remember this guy? Well, he and several other speakers that year inspired me to do something pretty terrifying: to sign up to be a speaker myself.
As Mandi Stanley told us at this year’s conference (2017) in Las Vegas, Public Speaking consistently shows up in the #1 spot on the international top ten fears list.
And for good reason: public speaking is an incredibly vulnerable act.
When we share our thoughts, ideas, research, etc. with others, we are inviting judgment on the most intimate parts of ourselves.
Unlike acting, which allows a layer of distance between ourselves and the material we present (with the exception of autobiographical monologues), public speaking does not allow us to hide behind a character, or the words of some other author.
Rather, it requires us to present ourselves to the world exactly as we are, and that takes a tremendous amount of courage.
At that 2016 conference, several presenters asked me when I was presenting. At first I was amused. Then I was bemused. Then I realized this might just be the universe trying to kick me out of my comfort zone.
I have learned well that when the universe sends that kind of invitation, you RSVP “hell yes.”
The more I thought about applying to be a speaker, the more the thought terrified me. And so I knew I had to do it.
The process of applying was much less frightening, and far more invigorating, than expected. So many topics I could cover! So much value I’d love to bring to my fellow EA’s… And I must say, the conference organizers who contacted me with follow-up questions were simply delightful.
But then, I had to actually create the presentations. And immediately, the panic set in.
I’ve never done this before! Where do I even start??
Who am I to try to teach these brilliant, uber-organized admins anything at all?
OMG my Power Point skills are so rusty. I’m going to look so unprofessional and unprepared.
Am I just wasting their time? Is this just an exercise in abject humiliation?
I took a few deep breaths and recalibrated.
Why am I doing this?
Not to dazzle the audience with my polish and professionalism.
Not to blow them away with my brilliant insights.
I am doing this to learn, to grow, and to improve.
Bonus points if I can bring some actual value to the audience.
So, with that in mind, I did my research, wrote my outline, and put together my power point presentations.
And then, I waited.
Definitely not my strong suit.
But finally, September rolled around, and it was back to panic mode again.
Because here’s the thing: no matter how many rational reasons you give yourself not to be afraid of something that scares you, it’s still going to scare you. The trick is to just accept that fear as the price of admission for the experience, and to do it anyway.
And so, armed with my trusty MacBook Air, my shockingly supportive fiancé David, my Thai silk suit and my only pair of decent high heels, I boarded a plane to Las Vegas, stomach knot be damned.
It all started off so well. I was seeing old friends and getting great content at the Executive Assistants’ Summit. But then I had to go and open my big mouth and mention to my conference buddies that I would be presenting. And they all started promising they would come.
On the one hand, It was wonderful that they wanted to support me, and I knew it would be helpful to have some friendly faces in the crowd.
On the other hand, now instead of a bunch of strangers judging me, it would be a bunch of strangers and a handful of folks whose opinions I already respect, and whose judgments would sting that much more.
If that wasn’t enough to make me want to fake an embolism just to get out of this, the afternoon workshop that day was Mandi Stanley’s “Powerful Presentation Skills for Executive Assistants: Confident and Effective Public Speaking,” in which I learned exactly how many common first-timer mistakes I had made in the creation and rehearsal of my presentation.
As soon as the class ended, I attempted to open up my PowerPoint files to make a few tweaks, only to discover that PowerPoint refused to open on my laptop. I tried again: same error message.
The bowling ball in my stomach was now accentuated by clammy hands, goosepimpled arms, and shoulders so tight it triggered a pinched nerve in my neck, rendering my head unable to turn to the left. Yes, seriously.
I ran back to the hotel room, handed the MacBook to David and said, simply, “Save me?”
He got to work, but hadn’t quite cracked the case by bedtime. I got about 3 hours of sleep that night, and woke with a headache from grinding teeth and a clenched jaw.
David had my PowerPoint working again by lunchtime, so I skipped the second half of the day’s content to rework my presentation and practice the new version. Over, and over. Until my voice was hoarse and my test audience (aka David) fell asleep in his chair.
I was as ready as I was going to be.
The next morning I did a short meditation, made a failed attempt to eat some breakfast, slurped down some chamomile tea instead, and headed to the room to set up.
The room was big. Much bigger than anticipated.
I went to plug in my MacBook and realized… wait… this computer has no HDMI input. One panicked phone call to David and one visit from the A/V crew later, I had the necessary dongle and was once again breathing relatively normally.
And again, it was time to wait.
But instead of just sitting on the edge of the stage watching the crowd trickle in, I decided to head to the speaker’s lounge. Perhaps the seasoned vets in there would have some words of wisdom for a rookie like me.
True to form, the speakers were not shy to speak. This was my favorite quote:
“Hey, if a missing dongle is the worst thing that happens to you today, that’s a pretty fantastic day.”
And so, bolstered by their words of encouragement, I headed back to the room to give my first talk: “How to Get Ahead by Standing Behind: the Deep Work of Assistance.”
I stepped into the room and promptly froze. There were A LOT of people in that room, youguys. Nary an empty seat, and folks lined up a
long the back.
“How *does* one fake an embolism?” I thought.
But, too late. There I was, and there they were.
Might as well teach them what I know, and who can say? I might actually help someone.
Just before I started, a woman in the front row said, “You know you’ve got a tough act to follow, right? That was the best keynote speech I think I’ve ever heard.”
I’m not gonna lie: it was a rough presentation, at least by my PhD in Theatre standards.
I lost my place more than once. I stumbled over my words. I forgot something important and had to backtrack. I went too fast. I paused too long.
I did exercises that were far better suited to a smaller group, and was disheartened, if not surprised, to watch a fair number of folks leave the room amidst the deafening din of hundreds of admins attempting to make a meaningful connection with one another.
I failed repeatedly to get their attention back and had to resort to a kindergarten trick (“Clap once if you can hear me!”) offered by a helpful audience member.
And yet, afterward, several people stayed just to thank me and to tell me how much they had gotten out of the presentation.
Alison Massari was right: we humans need each other, more than we know. And even the tiniest act of kindness, well-placed, can be absolutely magical.
I survived. I learned. I brought some real value.
But I wasn’t out of the woods just yet. I had to do it all over again after lunch, and this time, my friends were in the audience.
Of course, I survived that, too. And of course, my friends were patently lovely. Supportive, attentive, encouraging, engaged. And afterward they gushed over me and insisted on getting their picture taken with me as if I were some sort of celebrity.
And I started to think, “Huh. Maybe this whole speaker gig isn’t so bad after all.”
The next day’s presentation, “Dealing Gracefully With Difficult Executives,” went better still.
It was a smaller group, much more suited to the hands-on interactive workshop I had prepared. And I could tell that the people in that audience weren’t just there to fill a space in their schedule.
They needed those techniques and that information. They needed my expertise. They needed me.
And as a support professional, there is nothing more gratifying than providing exactly what someone needs at exactly the moment they need it.
Afterward, three different people came up to speak to me. The first was a gal who had come to my talk the previous day, and enjoyed it so much that she changed her schedule to come to this one.
She said it was, hands down, the best presentation she had been to this year. I was, in a word, floored.
Next, a woman came up to tell me that I had given her the courage to do something she knew was long overdue: to leave her abusive boss and find a better fit.
“When you said, ‘You can’t change them, you can only control how you respond to them,’ I realized you were right,” she told me. “I can’t change him, and I’ve done everything I can on my end. It’s time to move on.”
And that alone was worth all the stress and preparation: knowing I had helped one person live the life she wanted to live.
Finally, the gal who had been my “brave volunteer” in the first role-playing session came up to thank me for taking her out of her comfort zone.
“What do you mean?” I asked, cocking my head, “All I did was ask for a volunteer.”
She shook her head. “Actually,” she told me, her small voice cracking, “You asked for a brave volunteer. That scared me, so I knew I should raise my hand.”
And that’s when I gave her a hug.
Here’s to running from safety.
Here’s to making a fool of ourselves now and again.
Here’s to failing fast, and failing frequently.
And here’s to getting back on that goddamn horse immediately.