Conference Speaking and Defining Success

I’ve begun traveling a lot more for speaking engagements, both here and beyond. It’s part of what I do, now, along with write blog posts about content strategy, help businesses with content strategy, and run away screaming from the attention when it periodically finds me.

Which is why I was thrilled – and completely blown away – by how well Karen McGrane’s recent A List Apart column, “Give a crap, don’t give a fuck” summed up not just her experiences with speaking and conferences, but with the general concept of what makes a presentation or conference successful. In her words:

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. When I watch Mike Monteiro on stage, I don’t see someone who’s obsessing over every detail (even though I know he is.) What I respond to is the fact that he’s putting himself out there completely. When Brené Brown talks about being vulnerable, that’s what she means. And that—more than beautifully designed conference swag bags or hilariously-written e-mails—is what makes Webstock amazing. It’s an event where you can tell they’ve put their whole heart into it, and everything great you’re seeing is a reflection of how great they are as people—they’re pursuing not what someone told them it meant to be good, but living their deep, abiding personal commitment to being good.

I’ve wanted to write an article about this for a long time, and Karen’s talk spurred me on. Because the post is only marginally related to content strategy, I’ve stuck it over on my personal blog at Black Marks on Wood Pulp, but here’s an excerpt from what I wrote: “How I Started Talking Out Loud”:

Speaking wasn’t my gig. I’d just be a writer and write in the security of my introversion. 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.

I’ve only got a handful of talks under my belt – nowhere near the number Karen McGrane or Mike Montiero or any of that Webstock crew have racked up – but I’ve also seen a certain shift toward audience-centered talks, especially from the content strategy and user experience fields, as if our work in understanding empathy for our users and clients has also bled into being empathetic for the people whose time we’re borrowing.

It goes both ways, too. Confab treats its speakers right, as did CS Forum in Cape Town. Good conferences attract good speakers, and good speakers attract good attendees, and the community grows from an awkward mingling to an outright party.

We’re lucky to have people like Karen leading the way, and I feel lucky to have been invited to the party in the first place.