What I Learned Speaking to 100 People

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak at the ACEs Conference in Austin, Texas. To those who know me, I'm not a huge fan of public speaking. My most recent experience on stage, however, changed that.

I've spoken at three conferences since graduating from college. At my first job out of college, I started a conference for mentors associated with the nonprofit I worked for at the time. Our first ever conference drew a total of about 140 people and I got to go on stage and do some minimal emcee work and share a few stories for a total of about 5-10 minutes on stage. I knew almost every person in the audience by their first name and where they had come from to attend our conference. Yet, I could hear the shakiness in my voice the entire time I was on stage and I hated every second of it.

A year later, I found myself speaking at a church conference in Macon, Georgia. My boss had originally been scheduled to speak, but he was on a cruise and threw me to the wolves instead. I did some preparation for my 40 minute session and still found myself mortified before the session began. This particular conference was much smaller and more intimate than my first experience and I was able to alleviate some of the pressure by personalizing my talk. I was able to interact with the attendees and spend extra time answering questions, which made the talk seem less formal and more comfortable. I was still nervous and had a shaky voice, but it was a slight improvement from my first experience.

Yesterday, almost a year and half after that experience, I found myself standing in front of 100 strangers. Most of these people had never heard my name or seen my face, but I felt completely calm. The differences between this conference and the other two I spoke at were minimal. It was still public speaking and a room full of people. However, the difference between the preparation for this conference and the first one I spoke at were worlds apart.

This has been an eye opening experience for me. For this particular conference, I began writing a script for myself in January 2016, 4 months before the event. I began revising in February and in March I started reading, and re-typing my script to embed it in to my brain. As soon as April hit, I began practicing my talk out loud while recording myself on my iPhone. During these sessions, I would be holding my script and reading from it. 

I did this once a day for a week and spent time each day critiquing myself. The next week, I began weaning off my script. I'd do a run through with the script in front of me and then try my best to record my talk without using the script. Inevitably, I'd run in to multiple speed bumps where I would have to refer back to my source, but each time I could feel myself improving. The following week I was able to get through 1/3 or 1/2 of my talk without referring to my notes. I continued to retype my script to memorize what I wanted to say and where I wanted to make flexibility based on the audience's reaction.

The last step of my preparation was to practice with my co-workers. I shared the stage with two guys I work with and as a result we began practicing together. We did it once in person at our office, once on a Google Hangout, and then a few times the week of the conference. After we arrived in Austin, we did a few dry runs of our talk on our first and second days in Austin. In fact, we even hooked our slides up to a TV and did a full rehearsal the day before the conference. Twice.

I was able to get through both run throughs without any issues. One of the most valuable pieces of rehearsing in front of my co-workers was gauging their reaction to my talk. What jokes landed really well? And what words should I tweak so I didn't come across as offensive or stupid? Because of that instant feedback, I was able to adjust my talk to make the most impact.

I cannot overstate how critical that was for my confidence. Never in my life have I felt as confident about speaking publicly as I did today. I may have seemed nervous to the audience because I was pacing across the stage quite a bit, but I was amped. Energy was pumping through me. And if I'm totally honest I really had to pee and was trying to distract myself.

My biggest lesson walking out of this experience was that speaking in public can actually be fun and a great rush of adrenaline. The way to enjoy it is to prepare. Extensively. It's a long process and it takes a lot of hard work and consistent effort, but it will pay off in the end. I was able to confidently walk off stage, knowing that I'd achieved success. When we finished, I was able to have that reinforced by tons of people thanking me and telling me how great the talk was, and how valuable it was for them. 

Mission accomplished. Great learning experience for me and, honestly, I can't wait to land my next speaking gig.

Thanks ACEs Conference for the opportunity!