On presenting, anxiety, and moving forward

I have four presentations on my calendar, spread over the next two months. They’re all on topics I’ve written about: two talks on networking, one talk on presentation tips, and one talk on Emacs. I should prepare the presentations over the next two weeks.

I catch myself procrastinating. And if I’m going to procrastinate by tidying or writing, I might as well turn my reflections to why I’m procrastinating, so I can figure it out and fix it.

The advantage of having a blog is that I can review what I felt and thought before. For example, in one of my earliest blog posts about public speaking, I wrote that I wanted to become a professional speaker. This was why:

I love sharing ideas with people. I love bringing my enthusiasm and my passion to a hall and infecting as many people as I can. I love learning about presentation techniques and fascinating ideas. I love getting people to think. Besides, speaking is a great way to get to meet other fascinating people. I’ve made friends and learned about opportunities at post-conference dinners.

Reading that, I feel something dormant stirring. There’s something about sharing my passion and being inspired by other people.

There are more posts in my archive. I wrote about reaching people in the back row. I wrote about dealing with stage fright by turning presentations into conversations. I wrote about keeping things fresh and shared the feedback I’d gotten from presentations.

I can also see myself changing. In October 2009, after an occasion that really showed me the contrast between face-to-face presentations and the reach of online ones, I started thinking about how and when to decline invitations to speak. In March 2010, preparing for another presentation, I found myself reflecting on what I was missing from face-to-face presentations.

Maybe I can find a new equilibrium. I think it’s a combination of factors, and I’m going to think about them for a bit because it’s useful to understand a challenge before you use its force against it, turn it flat on its back, and tickle it into submission.


Higher costs lead to higher standards. With the shift of many presentations to virtual channels, the rise of blogs, Slideshare, and recorded presentations as alternative ways of sharing information, tighter travel restrictions at work, and a flourishing life at home, I’m much less inclined to travel to conferences myself. The relative opportunity cost has increased. I project my higher standards onto other participants, and become more anxious about delivering enough value to justify the time and expense.

As I get better at writing and occasionally illustrating my thoughts, I become more impatient with presentations. Presentations take more time to prepare and more time to deliver. They are not as searchable or as linkable as text. Their main benefits are that they are more engaging than plain text or static illustrations, and they can reach a different audience – people who prefer listening to reading, for example.

Unlike blog posts or stand-alone slide decks, presentations have deadlines, expectations, and potentially mixed reception. I can postpone writing about something, but I can’t back out of a commitment to speak. I promise something with the abstract and I’m not sure if I can deliver. If I write a blog post that offers little value to people, they can simply move on. If I give a presentation that people are too polite to walk out of, I not only take an hour of their life but make them miss the opportunity to hear a better speaker.

Then there are changing comparisons. In a world filled with TED and Ignite and all sorts of great talks available through Youtube, beautiful slides on Slideshare, and whatnot, it’s hard to put together something without feeling like a nattering newbie.


And now that I’ve got that all written down, I can see that it doesn’t make sense. The thing that trumps all of that hasn’t changed: I’m moved to speak and connect with other people because I want to help them make a change in their life and because I’m curious about what I can learn from them too.

I tell myself sometimes that I come up with presentations because other people ask me to, or because I want to learn about something myself. But even the things I already know–have struggled with, have come to understand, still continue to explore– those are already worth sharing.

I’ll experiment with a few changes. I’m going to try speaking with minimal or no slides, which will force me to be more vivid and memorable in speech. I may choose some topics to focus on, and see if invitations and speaking opportunities can align with those. I might illustrate if inspiration strikes, but not by default.

For my upcoming presentations, I just need to dig deeper and find the core message I have to share. With that, all the rest of the words and images will flow.


Writing about all of that seems to be working. I could hardly get to sleep last night thanks to all the presentation ideas running through my head…