Presenter at front of the room

On Fears, Limits, and Being on Stage

A couple of weeks ago, I gave five hours of presentations at MadCap’s Madworld conference in San Diego. I’ve sat down a number of times to write out some of my key takeaways from that conference—the cool sessions I attended, the amazing things I learned, and the incredible people I met. Every time I sit down to write that though, my heart wants to go in a different direction. Rather than trying to muscle through a post that my soul doesn’t feel like writing right now, I’m just going to roll with it and write what I feel like writing.

Not a “natural” presenter

I’ve received a lot of positive comments from a lot of extremely kind people on the presentations that I gave at MadWorld. I accept and am grateful for every positive thought and word that people give me. A number of the great comments I’ve received are along the lines of “you’re a natural presenter.”

Here is the truth: I am FAR from a “natural” presenter.

Presenting is extremely taxing on me mentally, emotionally, physically, and socially. This year was my fourth year presenting at MadWorld, and every single time that I make my way to the front of the room and step onto the stage, I ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” This year, as I was setting up for my first presentation, I literally had sweat dripping off my face and splattering on my keyboard. Twice I had to remove my glasses to clean sweat off them. I was a nervous trainwreck mere moments before my shaky hand turned on my microphone.

Why do it then?

So, why do I do it? Why do I keep submitting papers year after year to present at MadWorld and other conferences?

Over my 17-year career as a tech writer, project manager, consultant, and trainer, I’ve learned a lot about work and life. One of the key truths I’ve learned is this:

My fears define my limits.

For the first 12 years of my career, I spent a lot of energy avoiding stuff that scared me. I wanted to stay safe and comfortable. I thought that’s what led to a satisfactory life. Through very painful life experience, I learned that I was wrong.

For me, if I’m living within my limits, then I’m not growing. If I’m not growing, then my life lacks vibrancy, energy, newness, and excitement. My thinking about fears has completely shifted. I used to see my fears as things to avoid. Now, I use my fears as my compass.

Starting and growing

Six or seven years ago, I would never have stepped on a stage. I literally would have run out of the room if someone were to ask me to get on the stage. As a result, I knew that presenting was something that I had to do.

My first few presentations were brutal, not just for me, but for my audience. I think back to those first two or three presentations I did, and I cringe. Still, I did it. I’m proud of it. Honestly, I don’t know if there is a way to start at anything new without being pretty bad at it at first. That’s just a reality that I’ve learned to accept. If I don’t accept it, I won’t ever do anything new. My limits will control me.

Even though my first few presentations were duds, I had the desire to improve. I didn’t want to stay where I was. I started paying attention to what makes a great presentation, and I started working on stuff—voice management, pacing, empathy, comprehensive listening skills, building connection with the audience, storytelling, room management, understanding room psychology, body language, strategic silence, non-verbal cues to know to when speed up or slow down. I’m not an expert in any of these areas, but the pursuit of them has brought progress. It’s been a thrilling journey!

Post-presentation management

I mentioned that presenting taxes me on many levels. For me, I’ve had to learn techniques to manage those challenges and direct them in productive ways. Here are a few techniques that I’ve picked up on:

  1. Celebrate after finishing
    The moments right after finishing a presentation are extremely vulnerable moments. Self-evaluation and self-criticism can be consuming. The energy swing from being on the stage for an hour or two to suddenly being off of it can be jarring. For me, I’ve learned that I simply won’t allow myself to do any evaluation of my presentation for at least a few hours after the presentation finishes. I block that out, and I instead keep myself in a mode of celebration that I actually did it.
  2. Evaluate and point all energy forward
    After a period of at least a few hours has passed and the energy levels have leveled back to normal, it’s time to evaluate. For me, this is a critical step. I get a sheet of paper, and I answer these four questions:

    • What went well?
    • What didn’t go well?
    • What did I learn?
    • What 2-3 things am I going adjust or do differently next time?

    This exercise allows me to find what I feel like I did well and, in a positive way, zero in on those few things that I want to change for next time. Using this method, even those things that didn’t go well become positives, because they give me direction. I have one of these sheets for every one of my MadWorld presentations from two weeks ago. I’m working on those things I want to adjust, and I can’t wait to get back on the stage at some point soon so that I can implement them.

    I limit myself to 2-3 adjustments because I want to keep things at a manageable level. Finding more than that can be overwhelming, even though there may be more. Even if I can come up with a list of more than three in my head, I allow myself to write only three on my page. Progress, not perfection.

  3. Read comments from attendees
    Only after I’ve done these two steps do I allow myself to read the comments from the attendees. Attendee comments are golden, but they can also be brutal. I’ve learned that I have to do my own work to get myself grounded and excited for next time before I start reading attendee feedback. I always appreciate and accept the positive comments. I accept the negative comments as well. Based on their consistency, I may revisit my “adjust” list for my next presentation.

Putting patterns and systems in place

Becoming willing to present is one area of a number of areas in my life that I’ve been working on. In every area where I’m going into a fear, I’ve learned that putting patterns and systems in place allows me to manage myself much better. In the example I’ve used in this post, I described a pattern I use after every presentation I give. I know what to do when I finish a presentation. Patterns and systems remove guesswork and can help you manage the onslaught of emotions that can arise when pursing new directions in life.

So after all this, I have to ask: what is your next step? What is the thing that you fear that you know in your gut you need to pursue? Where are you allowing your fears to limit you? And what practical patterns and systems can you put in place to help yourself as you start to pursue that path?

The most costly thing you can do in life is treat yourself small. Breaking out of that mode of thinking takes courage, but the payoff is incredible. If you’re lacking vitality, excitement, or vibrancy in your life, choose something productive that you fear, and go pursue it.

I can’t wait to see what you’re going to accomplish!