My public speaking journey. The challenge, the preparation, the plan

The Challenge

Public speaking is something that most of us dread and we’ve all heard that the fear of public speaking is placed higher than the fear of death. Somehow I wonder how public speaking can be worse than death, but I was certainly not one of the great people on our planet that have mastered the art. It is an art. So, I had a fear but I wanted to beat that. I had taken part in numerous elevator pitches over the years at networking events, but they are normally limited to a minute or two, so the challenge there is simply to condense your business description into a sentence or two.

Standing up and delivering a talk about a specific subject for 30+ minutes was something I always wanted to tackle and not just tackle but master. I have witnessed many fantastic talks and been in awe at times. I’ve also witnessed many terrible talks and sadly watched people fall apart ( which I wouldn’t wish on anyone ). Any person that has the courage to attempt to talk to an audience is a winner before they begin in my book.

There were decisions to be made, on what subject would I talk about, who to, when and how would I approach this?

What subject would I talk about then?

Now, there is public speaking to an audience and public speaking to an audience of peers. I’ve always disliked that word ‘peer’ but it’s relevant. Also dislike the word ‘eclectic’ as well but hey ho… no idea why just do!

I’m always up for a challenge, and I have faced a few in my life. I was challenged in my past by an ex, many times. They are ‘ex’, not for the reasons of the challenges ( ironically ), but I am sure the fact I faced them all and achieved them all wripped their narcissistic control apart and built up huge resentment. I was strong and faced my fears and didn’t fail. That must be torture for a control freak eh? Especially when one of the challenges was passing the PADI Open Water Scuba Diving qualification and completing a 30metre scuba dive. Yes, a huge challenge when I grew up with a fear of water, not helped by my Dad who used to leave me hanging onto the side of a swimming pool freezing to death ( there’s the death word again ). As a baby apparently I made it clear with my screaming that I hated the water, especially the sea and sand…but that didn’t matter, I wasn’t nurtured through it, just expected to deal with it and if I didn’t I was left to fend for myself. So I faced the PADI Scuba Diving challenge and won! Not easy, far from easy, in fact it was petrifying, but I beat it… maybe I will write another post about this very subject as their was a huge triumph in the achievement and the results of facing my fear saw me scuba dive in the Maldives… what a reward that was…

Then the next challenge was a sky dive… from 14,000ft… Yep, you guessed it, sorted that as well! Boom. Down I dropped… Here’s the photo to prove it.

Challenges are good… 3 Marathons under my belt as well… Paris, London and New York! Sorted. Boom. Numerous half marathons, 100 mile cycling sportives, 80 mile Exmoor Beast cycling challenges, 60 mile Dartmoor Classic and on the list goes… I am proud of the achievements and the medals that have come with it.

This challenge was equally as important, even though self inflicted! Well so were the Marathons to be honest, something I had always wanted to achieve…at least one marathon anyway. Public speaking, proper public speaking, not a networking elevator pitch! That doesn’t count in this challenge.

The first decision had to made and that was on the subject of the talk…

What could I talk about that I had enough knowledge and confidence in? I thought long and hard and whilst I know a lot about web development and WordPress, I felt I needed to ease into this, so a softer approach was going to be business related, I thought. Yes, that felt right.

Further thought brought me onto my business model and thinking that this subject would be perfect. It was a story after all, a story that had a good start, middle and end and one I knew a lot about and the reason for that was it was a result of another challenge… saving my business from going under. Simple as! I saved my business by creating a subscription business model for creating WordPress websites for customers. This all came about as a result of business changes and ‘emergencies’ as it were. That decision was made then… I will talk about my subscription business model and how it saved my business. This tied in beautifully with WordPress, after all WordPress was at the core ( pun intended ) of the subscription model. That then moved me onto…

Who would I talk to?

You know I like challenges yes? Yes, I made that clear for sure…With that in mind if the connection is WordPress and I need a challenge who would I talk to? Only a flippin’ WordPress Meetup, in London of all places! Why, would I do that? I live in Bristol and I haven’t ever give a ‘proper talk’ to anyone, let alone a room full of WordPress gurus! In London!

Bring in the awesome Gary Jones of Gamajo. Gary is a WordPress ninja, PHP ninja, in fact ninja of pretty much everything, with that there is a wonderful personality and zero ego. I first came across Gary when I bought his book on the Genesis framework. Then I became a WordCamp London Organiser and this guru is suddenly there in the same room. Then Gary becomes a friend, we all become friends in the WordPress community ( that’s why contributing, organising and volunteering in the Community is so rewarding ).

What happens? Gary calls me to ask “Mate, would you be up for speaking at the WordPress London Meetup?”… “Uh, uh, uh, uh” ( cough, splutter, choke, catch my breath ) “Yeah OK Gary, count me in” ( My knees were knocking right there and then I can tell you ).

The preparation

Where would I begin. I knew this was going to be a challenge and I had to attack as I have everything else… with courage ( even with the fear ) and do my best to prepare. Preparation is absolutely the most important aspect of any challenge. You don’t have to be good at something, but if you haven’t prepared you will not only fail, but your fear is increased as a result. Fear lessens the more familiar you are with something.

Saying that, how do you prepare for a 14,000ft skydive or scuba diving to 30metres? Well they still prepare you to a degree. In the skydive we had classroom tuition on at least how your body is supposed to be positioned as you drop and how to lift your feet for landing so that you don’t break your legs. Scuba diving is prepared for initially in the shallow end of a swimming pool and then into the deep end, then out to a quarry and then into the opening of the Cornish Sea, before you qualify and are let loose in the ocean. It makes sense eh? No wonder the limited amount of preparation for a skydive adds to the fear and tension. I have never attempted a bunji jump ( my gorgeous Fiance has ) but that has to be even worse, no preparation at all right? Just jump!

At least with public speaking you have the chance to prepare, prepare, prepare… there is no excuse not to prepare. So that’s what I began with. The preparation.

I now knew what I was talking about and who to. The first part of my preparation was to plan out the talk, with a beginning, middle and end. I knew I had 35 minutes to talk ( how was I going to fill that up? ), that put fear in me alone. But here was the first lesson in preparation and planning… I wrote out what I felt would be a good start, covering the major points and then ran through it to get a rough time count… which came in at 40 minutes and still had a tonne to get through. Wow. Major editing and thought required.

Had I not prepared with planning the content I would have fallen flat on my face as the message wouldn’t have been delivered, but not only that, the anxiety of realising I had too much content as I was speaking would have rammed my face into the ground even harder!

Major editing done I was already feeling more confident, so the preparation continued, into creating the presentation itself. I’d read some books on the subject and with my design expertise made sure the slides created were interesting and legible… job done.

With a smart looking deck of slides it was now time for the weird part, well it felt weird to me… as they say in Dragon’s Den… “Talk to the wall”. Which is what I did. Keynote has a great ‘rehearsal’ mode which I tried, but it was really odd! The whole thing weird. But I knew it had to be done. It get’s you used to the sound of your own voice, work on the pitch of your voice and removing the monotoneness ( is that a word? ) ;-)… the last thing I wanted to do was give a boring delivery that puts people to sleep.

I am used to rehearsal being a drummer but also used to drumming with bands without rehearsal, but that confidence only comes with years of practice, or in other words, preparation. Rehearsing was an odd experience and I restarted many times, tripped myself up many times, but allowed me to make mistakes in the privacy of my house, not in front of a room full of WordPress friends. Each rehearsal became easier and I started to feel more confident and felt the benefit of the preparation. I got to a point where I was as ready as I will ever be… then I tapered! What is that you ask? Well if you are a runner you will know exactly what that is, especially a long distance runner. You can overtrain and over practice, I have known people to do both! So I got to a point where I felt confident enough and gave myself a rest from the stress and decided I would perform one rehearsal on the morning of the talk.

Like running, you can complete a short run the morning of the race to warm up, just enough!

The big day

So we were there, the day of reckoning. I travelled to London to meet my partner in crime and great friend Paul Smart ( whom is part of the WordCamp London Design Team ). Paul is a regular at the WordPress London meetup, so was great to see a familiar face. We grabbed a beer and a burger across the road from the venue, but I kept it to one! Calm the nerves yes, but not affect my performance ( oooh err Mrs )… needed my wits about me of course.

This was the meetup…

It didn’t help that I was speaking last, but I sat and tried to relax and just get myself into the zone.

The time came, break finished and I am there, standing, ready to perform. Just like with my drumming I get into the zone and give my best when behind the kit. With my running, I listen to music when I train ( to relieve the boredom ) but for the race I leave the music behind. That puts me into ‘performance mode’. So here I was and running through the start of the presentation in my head and remembering to swallow, pause and not begin speaking faster… plus work on my monotoness ( there’s that non-word again )…

So how did it go? I am pleased to say it was as good as it could have been. There was some ‘cotton mouth’ a few minutes in, but with a swig of my beer ‘what a great meetup having beers on tap’ and a ‘Cheers’ I seemed to settle into it and it flowed as well as it could. I performed as well as I could for the first major talk given. I ended my talk pretty much bang on time and then received an unexpected amount of questions, so that really pleased me, as technically I had come across OK and the audience took in my message and were interested enough to want to know more. I was really pleased with the result.

All my preparation had worked for me. That was a proud moment. We all visited the local pub after the event for a few drinks ( their meetup ritual ) and I did stand there and give myself a hypothetical pat on the back. Another fear had been faced, challenged and beaten. Well, I knew I could have done better and there are bigger public speaking challenges ahead. But, to have delivered over 35 minutes to a room full of WordPress friends was the first challenge met, in my book.

The next challenge is to deliver the same talk to the WordPress meetup in Bristol and that is happening tonight.

Then, it will be into planning another subject for a different talk, different audience maybe, different place for sure. I have one major goal though and that is to speak at a WordCamp somewhere…Watch this space.

So for all of my friends out there who fancy giving public speaking a go, please do! It’s a challenge yes, nerve wracking yes, takes time to prepare for, yes, raises your confidence, yes and inspires others to do the same? I do hope so.



Photo by Ezra Jeffrey on Unsplash