Suck It Up, Buttercup

Written by Pam Lefkowitz on November 11, 2021

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Increasing Visibility When You Don’t Like Being The Center Of Attention 

If you recall, I wrote a piece about Imposter Syndrome? Yeah, still an issue here, but not today’s topic. If you recall, one of the things I wanted was to become one of those presenters whose sessions required “the big room”…you know who you are, Tom B., Jim R., Greg N.

Setting my (fragile) ego aside, I really did want to do well for the conference itself. I wanted to set a good example for other women – we hadn’t had many women speakers yet and if I was going to encourage them to step up I had to walk that walk myself. I also deeply believe that presenting at a conference is one way to give back to the community. But, ooooh, to have the confidence to feel you actually have something to give back…that’s a whole different animal.

When the call for speakers went out, I sat down to brainstorm session ideas. I felt (erroneously) woefully unqualified to speak about every topic I wrote down. There were SO many more capable people offering up highly technical topics that I found myself giving up before I even put pen to paper. With some encouragement (read: guilt trip by one of the conference planners), I tried again. And I came up with a couple of concepts on which I had enough personal experience to speak about. The topics were all soft skills. Not what I had intended, but they felt like safe introductions to this new phase of me.

Focus on Reality

When I was first considering doing a presentation I was sure that everything I knew, everyone else knew already…because I learned from them! In talking through my concern with my colleagues, what I found out was that <sshhhh, don’t tell> they didn’t know about their topics either! You don’t have to be the topic-expert AND an expert presenter. We will love your presentation no matter your level of expertise. Remember, you are NOT an imposter. You do the work every single day. You’re reading this blog and going to webinars and listening to podcasts, so you know that you’re interested in learning more. You are ready to take this next step.

  • If you’ve chosen to present on a topic that you have solid experience on, you can feel secure in what you’re saying to the audience. One less thing to worry about.
  • If you lack experience but have knowledge and you are comfortable in front of crowds, you probably have a feel for how to weave a story or lesson, which translates to the content becoming less of a daunting task. Tick off another concern from your fear list.
  • If you have or can learn both of these traits, you have the makings of a conference star. 

For many of us, neither of the first two come naturally. For too many of us, we are so averse to trying something new that we won’t even try. So let’s dig into how we can change our actions around public speaking.

Change is the New C-Word

Being comfortable presenting is not about being liked or being eloquent. It’s more about being organized, being knowledgeable, telling the truth, and practice. And everyone should present at least once in their life. But doing that requires – for some of us – that we change. Change what? Change our perception of what makes a good speaker and change our perception of ourselves. 

We need motivation to change. It doesn’t just happen. We don’t wake up one morning and say to ourselves, “self? Today you will change into a dynamic speaker.” Oh if it were only that easy, eh? We need to find the motivating element. In some circles, the catchphrase is “find your why.” Why do you want to change “x” behavior, what is going to motivate you to make a change and to stick with it? Let me tell you what I’ve learned as an attendee and as a speaker.

Lesson Learned

Attending sessions, sitting around the lunch table breaking bread with others…this is great. It’s also a huge amount of work to reach a lot of people in a short amount of time. And too often we end up sitting with the same group at every meal. But get yourself in front of a crowd of 30 or 40 or 100 and, wow, your message and your talent just got seen by a lot more people in less time. Smart personal marketing. Opportunities like conference-speaking can be career enhancing. Being discovered at a conference is a networking goldmine. How many opportunities does one get to talk one-on-one with people who work at and with some of the coolest companies in the world? And if you’re a presenter you gain visibility; you don’t have to go through that awkward elevator pitch. They’ve already heard your spiel in your session. 

Not enough motivation for you? OK. Let’s use the tactic “fake it till you make it.” When you present, you gain a sense of self-confidence. You gain knowledge from any research you do for the session. You gain experience in organization and workflow. You gain confidence from everyone looking to you for the answers. You also gain the opportunity to learn from others – there will always be someone in a session who shares a nugget of amazing (new to you or others) information. That’s a LOT of gains.

So why is changing our mindset so difficult? We have the interest, we have the motivation. Maybe we just lack the courage (or so we think) to jump in the water. Our orbit is comfortable – even if distasteful. People, on the whole, are disinclined to change. Even when things are uncomfortable, we tend to shy away from change because it’s the devil we know. So we talk the talk until we can walk the walk.

Found My Happy Thought

Once we’re motivated, though, then what? Start by creating lists of topics you have already talked about in small groups or individually – with friends, with colleagues, with users, or with supervisors. No pressure. You don’t have to be the leading expert…you just have to know something. And everyone knows something.

Take it slow. Write a short, one-paragraph summary, of how you see a session on the topic going. Write up a list of key points you want to cover. At this point, you should start to feel a spark of inspiration. Capture that feeling and expand your points. Go with it until you’ve exhausted the inspiration. Then take a break. Congratulate yourself, you’ve just initiated a change, done something new. And hard (because it’s new).

The next change that will be hard is the actual presentation. You’ve created a slide deck (hopefully there are few words and few slides – nobody likes to read short stories on slides) and you can hear your presentation inside your head. Cool. That’s a big step. Now you have to actually say your words out loud. First to yourself, then to your audience.

This last part is what can be difficult. Scary. Terrifying even. We break through this challenge by practicing. The more we practice, the more we retain the central message of our creation. The more we practice, the more natural our speech pattern becomes. We relax our speech pace, we breathe, our voice lowers, vocal chords relaxing, we become more conversational. We grow confident in our ability to transfer the information from inside our head to inside the attendees’ heads. The more we practice, the less we have to rely on our notes. We may even be able to throw in a relatable personal story.

Then comes presentation day and you wonder why you decided to do this. What were you thinking? You didn’t really want to grow but now you’re committed. This is where you morph  from a tadpole to a frog. You got this. Maybe you use your superhero stance. Maybe you meditate. Maybe you walk around the block and give yourself a pep speech. Whatever you choose to do doesn’t matter, just do something to mentally charge up. Until you’ve done enough of these to become second nature, you do not simply walk into the room without having mentally prepared yourself. 

I’ve Got A Secret

Shhh, just between us ok? Even those of us who have done this many times still get nervous. Everything about the process creates change – creating a list of ideas, submitting a few to the conference staff, creating the presentation/slide deck, developing the story, practicing, and presenting. But, the change we’ve made is that we realize the benefits of “act as if” behavior and self-talk. We use the stage-fright feeling to spur us on to being better. We internalize that even the most practiced actors have stage fright (so say my actor friends). And, at some points during the process, we realize that we may have to pull up our suspenders and jump in with both feet.

Change is hard. Becoming more is a process. You can change, if only you’ll just take that first step. Summon all your courage and submit a proposal or say yes to moderating a panel. And remember, courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to triumph over it.

Let’s take this courageous discussion over to the JumpCloud Lounge #AdminLife channel! 

Pam Lefkowitz

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