Public shame is bad enough, but doing it in front of one of your professional heroes is worse, much worse, especially when you've felt like you've overcome something to get there.
I'm not a natural public speaker. I was shy as a kid and didn't like being on a stage. I started to shed this somewhat in college by participating in activities and doing jobs that required some form of public speaking, like giving tours and teaching. It was liberating to be able to shed the worst parts of this debilitating fear.
Many research studies rank public speaking as one of our top phobias. The Chapman University Survey of American Fears from 2016 has a pretty comprehensive list showing 25.9% of Americans are afraid or very afraid of public speaking. It ranks surprisingly high relative to other fears, some obvious, others surprising:
- Corrupt government officials: 60.6%
- Terrorism: 38.5%
- The Affordable Health Care Act/Obamacare: 35.5%
- Global warming & climate change: 32.3%
- Nuclear weapons attack: 31.5%
- Corporate tracking of personal data: 28.7%
- Public speaking: 25.9%
- Becoming unemployed: 24.6%
- Heights: 24.5%
- Illegal immigration: 23.8%
- Murder by a stranger: 21.9%
- Dying: 19%
- Small enclosed spaces: 16.8%
- Zombies: 10.2%
- Clowns: 7.8%
Yeah, some of the things in the list are disappointingly high, but that's 2016 for you.
My first professional public speaking experiences happened while we worked on the Xbox 360 starting in 2004. Because of the public nature of and interest in the work, and (thankfully) positive critical response to it after it launched in 2005, there was significant interest both inside and outside Microsoft to hear more about how we did it. I was one of the team members who pulled together and told variations of the story of how we took the brand from the hardcore, Hulk-like, bulging, green Xbox to the more broadly appealing, svelte, Bruce Lee inhale-before-the-punch, silver-and-white Xbox 360 (you can read about our design values here). I gave a number of presentations that culminated in a group plenary panel presentation at CHI 2006 where we did an "expert critique" of the Xbox 360. That was definitely a highlight.
I started to believe that I was pretty good at this public speaking thing. I would show up with an Xbox 360, tell our story, show some nice behind-the-scenes images, and people responded well. I started to confuse their interest in the work as interest in me.
After the initial wave of interest in the Xbox 360 died down, I received an invitation to speak at a conference to give a presentation on a topic of my choosing. Feeling cocky, I accepted and tried to come up with this presentation based on this half-baked metaphor that I had regarding organizational change. I used a couple examples using projects that I had been involved in to illustrate my point. I built a Powerpoint presentation with cool images and transitions. I thought it was cool and I was going to be awesome.
I show up at this small conference with my presentation and meet the guest of honor and keynote speaker, none other than Ed Catmull, a co-founder and president of Pixar and, after its acquisition by Disney, President of Walt Disney Animation Studios. I was in awe. When he took the stage, Ed spoke from a few pages of notes for a mesmerizing 45 minutes.
I didn't know that Ed was the speaker before me.
I also didn't know that I was scheduled to present over lunch in a brightly lit room with large, round tables filled with people eating and drinking with clanking plates and glasses. Ed-freaking-Catmull was seated less than ten feet from the stage. I was utterly horrified, wondering why the hell I put myself in this situation. As I took the stage, I felt that I had no business being there and that my clever metaphor was, in fact, dumb. I looked at the screen and my oh-so-cool presentation was barely visible, the projector being mostly washed out by the brightly sunlit room. The show must go on, right?
It was an utter disaster. I felt like it couldn't have been worse if I had soiled myself onstage. Actually, that would have been better as it would have given me an excuse to end it early. When it finally ended after what felt like hours of torture, I left as quickly as I could, avoiding making eye contact with anyone, especially Ed. I felt absolutely horrible, stupid, and ashamed.
After rocking back and forth in the fetal position in my hotel room, I flew back home and never spoke of this experience with anyone for a long time. I stopped giving public presentations for years. I'm thankful that this happened before everyone had smartphones with cameras. It was that bad.
After a couple years, I started getting over the worst of the shame and humiliation. I thought that it was a potentially career-limiting move to swear off presenting and public speaking completely so I finally decided to actually think about what I did wrong and work on making sure that never happened ever again.
I studied good public speakers. I read books. I practiced. I learned to ask basic questions like "Who's the audience?" and "What's the room like?" Crawl, then walk. It took a few years of working through it, but I finally got to the point where I started to get comfortable speaking in public again.
I used to spend most of my (minimal) effort on building the presentation. Now I spend as much time crafting the story and message as I do creating the presentation, and again nearly as much time rehearsing, reviewing, editing, and rehearsing again.
I once read that the highly-rated TED talk speakers had a ratio of 100:1 when it came to time spent preparing versus presenting, so a 12-minute TED talk had about 20 hours of preparation behind it. When I had a 45-minute presentation at SXSW last year, I ended up spending about 40 hours preparing for it, a ratio of over 50:1. Not quite TED-level, but much more than I did in the past.
I am not thankful that I had that traumatic experience years ago, but I'm glad that I've learned enough not to repeat it.