I interrupt your current series on Conference Terror to refer you to today’s blog post by Seth Godin:
Information – good information – is a precious thing. If it is ours to give, we shouldn’t be afraid of giving generously. Generosity tends to be reciprocated. It doesn’t mean that you should happily do all your work for free – generosity does not go hand-in-hand with self-imposed poverty. Actually, it means the opposite. When you give, people give back. It is unlikely someone is going to steal your material; it is much more probably that they’ll cite you, give you credit, and refer people back to your work.
Just like I’m doing here.*
So share your knowledge. It feels great, and the returns are very much worth your while.
*It isn’t like Seth Godin needs my approbation or referrals – even I’m not that egotistical. I like his work, and I like pointing people his way so that they can like his work too.
Note: I haven’t decided how many instalments of this topic I’m going to do, but I do know that there’s a part 2 and 3 on the way…
Finding a venue to broadcast your message is easy; what’s scary is actually doing it. There are lots of ways you can practice speaking in front of groups or talking with people you don’t know. You can take responsibility for reporting current project activity at the next meeting at work. You can host a party where people outside of your social circle are invited (think baby shower, or a potluck for members of your sports club and their families). You can take on training initiatives for new hires. You can join Toastmasters and regularly practice in front of a bunch of people with similar speaking goals.
These are all good steps – they’ll ease you into the world of addressing a group or holding court. There comes a point, though, where these settings are no longer enough. Skill improvement requires constant challenge, and when you get comfortable in one setting it’s a signal to up the ante or change the setting.
A favourite challenge I issue to both myself and my clients is to find conferences or similar events and apply to speak at them. There thousands of these opportunities out there for every industry, every profession, every conceivable topic or crowd or interest or milieu. There are events happening in your hometown, or at least within an easy drive. There are events happening in places you always wanted to visit, giving you a good reason for a spot of travel. There are events that you’ve wanted to attend for your own reasons, and presenting at them can often result in a special registration price, or compensation for travel, or an honorarium. There are piles of reasons to give conference presentations a try.
So why is it so hard to convince people to do it? Because the emotional risk of applying for and speaking at a conference is much higher than it is at work, or Toastmasters, or the backyard potluck. When you apply to be a conference speaker, you need to invest time in creating a presentation and then submitting that presentation to the organizers for acceptance or rejection. If accepted, you are again faced with in front of a crowd, this time under some mantle of expertise, and the risk of rejection is again there. The crowd might love what you have to say. They might want to gut you alive. When faced with this kind of risk, our knee-jerk reaction is to assume the latter and run screaming for the hills. Most people loathe rejection and we avoid it like the plague. Applying to speak at events means we need to suppress our lizard brain that tells us to hide under the nearest rock.
When convincing my clients to apply for conferences, I often come up against a very interesting wall: the need to get permission from their boss. This is a risk-mitigation behavior: if my boss says yes, than someone else is deeming me as being smart or good enough to do this. It gives permission; not just permission to attend this event on company time or permission to spend company funds on travel, but permission to speak. Someone else thinks I’m worthy. If they don’t, then I can blame them for not letting me try. Behold the lessening of risk and dodging of emotional responsibility! By asking permission of an authority figure, we take the onus and emotional risk away from ourselves and place it elsewhere. It’s not me, it’s them.
To hell with permission, I say.
Why does your boss have authority over your voice? Why let a manager tell you that you have nothing to say?
So your boss won’t give you the time to present? Take vacation days. You aren’t permitted to speak at a professional event because you can’t be a representative of your company? Strip your company out of the presentation. You don’t have anything to say about work? Then find an event completely unrelated to work. I got my start speaking by presenting at nerd conferences about topics like video game soundtracks and the different manifestations of deus ex machina in sci-fi TV series. I was interested, so I spoke. I can usually find one or two events my clients could apply for in a 15 minute Google search.
It’s when those events are found that the real issue comes up. It flicks across their eyes – fear, apprehension, the certainty that they aren’t worthy of speaking about that topic at that event. I sympathize; those are feelings I still experience myself.
At some point, you have to stare those feelings down and say to hell with it. To hell with permission. You don’t need permission, you need to speak. And if you look outside yourself for that permission, you might never find it. So dig deep. Admit that you have something to say, and know that there are people who want to hear you say it. Then put it out there. Find the events, create your proposal, and send the email. The worst that can happen is that they say no, and if that happens you can take that proposal, tweak it a little, and throw it at the next event and the next event and the next. Submitting those applications require permission from nobody but yourself.
Hugh Macleod illustrates the problem and solution beautifully:
Next time: From permission to application
We live in a hyper-connected, info-flooded world. This is no secret.
We have limited space in our brains to take in all the information and connections available to us. This is also no secret.
Limited brain space affects the speaker (or writer) as much as the audience. The onus is on the receiver to decide what is worthy of their attention. The onus is on the speaker to create content worthy of that attention. This doesn’t mean making packing as much valuable content in as little space as possible. It does mean being very selective of what content we do give at any one point in time, and then ruthlessly editing it down until our message comes across clearly, plainly, and memorably.
This hit home today while I was prepping a new set of business cards. There’s so much I want to say about myself and my business, and so very little space in which to do it. Someone needs to pick up the card, have something about it stick in their brain, and then remember my name and one contact method. That’s a tall order for a piece of paper that usually gets a glimpse less than one second long. I’ve got six lines, each less than three inches wide. It isn’t much, so I need to decide what’s important and what’s important has changed. Email, telephone, and website obviously get some real estate. Do I need to give a physical address? Not really – people are going to email or call before they send a letter. How about my Twitter handle? Something that last year earned my derision has proven its usefulness to me and I deemed it worthy of a line. My father would cringe that I would add such a thing, but my business world is very different than his.
Six lines, each less than three inches wide. That’s not a lot of room. Neither is two minutes for an elevator pitch, or ten minutes for a business presentation, or an hour for an educational lecture. Decide your most important point, write down everything that you want to say, and then ruthlessly hack back anything that doesn’t support or drive that #1 point home. Our jam-packed brains will thank you for it.
“Art is the narrative of being alive. [. . .] The pain of facing the void where art lives is part of the deal, our stretching into a better self.”
-Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception –
Speaking is my art. Communication is my art. Bringing this art to others through coaching, training, writing, and presenting is my art. I love this art so much that it frightens me. It’s power and temporality of it makes me shiver. It is my muse, and while I always fear destroying that muse in front of others, I also know that if I neglect it then it will neglect me.
The best way to ensure I never neglect my muse is by bringing my art to others and showing them how to make it their art as well.