Before last year, the first and only time I ever felt comfortable in front of a crowd was at my grandfather’s memorial service.
Barely lucid in his final days, I watched him slowly lose track of the corporeal and succumb to lung cancer. He was my first hero, and here he was, human, weak, no longer able to teach me about building character and Charles Bronson films. I did my best impression of an emotionally secure human and stood in front of my family and his friends and, out of nowhere, eulogized a man who helped shape my life.
And then, I gave up. Speaking wasn’t my gig. I’d just be a writer and write in the security of my introversion.
Enter The Internet
Except, that’s not what happened. Instead, I became a part of the internet, where the playing field is leveled out if you’re willing to overcome your own insecurities.
So last year, I made a change. I decided that my introversion was a crutch. I used it to stay quiet. To be safe. To keep from failing.
I pitched for speaking gigs. And then I got one. I spent what felt like months on my slide deck. I practiced once a day for two weeks leading up, and twice a day in the few days before I’d go live. I tweaked. I ferreted out the details and made them right. I picked out a shirt ahead of time and kept it hidden and clean. I gave a damn about everything.
I had never been more frightened of a crowd in my whole life.
I went through with that speaking gig, and I didn’t shit myself or ball up on the floor, crying for mercy. Instead, I stood tall. I understood the situation. I realized I couldn’t do anything about the butterflies or the room size – all I could do is be who I was and stop giving a fuck if I failed.
Karen McGrane took this entire process and summarized it perfectly in her column for A List Apart, “Give a crap. Don’t give a fuck.”. There are two competing forces when we jump into public speaking: the need for everything to be perfect, and the understanding that we can’t always be perfect. But it’s that definition of “perfect” that holds us back. Are we being perfect for appearances? Or are we being perfect because that’s what is perfect for us?
“Care deeply about your personal values and live them fully in this world. Don’t get caught up in worrying about other people’s checklists to tell you what good work means to you.”
In other words, there’s a need to focus on every detail, but there’s an even greater need to focus on the details that make better things. Your shirt might not be ironed correctly, but at least your heart is on your sleeve.
My Three Rules
Over the month between preparing for my first talk to the week after, a decade of fear faded to calmness. I attribute this to three things – the three things that are most important to public speaking, and the three things Karen expertly laid out in her article.
- I learned to prepare. This was taught to me by Deane Barker – if you haven’t practiced your talk at least ten times, you’re already behind. The power of this preparation not only helps you for the current talk, but it also prepares you for future talks.
- I cared about my audience. I’ve sat through boring speakers. I didn’t want my audience to be bored. I hated that someone might call me out on being too dull. So I fought to stay interesting, relevant and, most of all, connected to the situation.
- I knew enough to open myself up. I’m not perfect. I’ve made mistakes, and I’ve learned from those mistakes. So instead of focusing on other companies and the ways they’ve screwed up, I talked about my own screw ups. I talked about how I learned things. I didn’t care about how it made me look, because I knew it made me look genuine.
“What elevates someone’s work from ‘technically excellent’ to ‘truly great’ is the extent to which you feel like you’re seeing them live their truth, be fully themselves.”
This takes more than just a bunch of preparation. It takes a lowering of defenses, in which we stop worrying about our mistakes and start learning – no – teaching from them. It takes understanding that there’s a fine line between giving a crap and not giving a fuck, and that finding the balance between the two can open ourselves up to the rarest of combinations: being both impressive and believable in our convictions.