- Text Shelly Peleg
- Images Alan Tzatzkin
- Date January 19, 2017
- Est Read time 9 min
If you google “top fears” or a similar term, you’ll usually find “fear of public speaking” rated somewhere among the top 10 results.
This wasn’t something I related to. Don’t get me wrong – I fear a lot of things, but standing on a stage and speaking to a crowd just wasn’t one of them. Even though I’d never actually done it, I didn’t perceive it as terrifying – it seemed more like a cool thing to do rather than a scary one.
This is what I had in mind when it was decided I’d be one of three speakers to represent the Wix studio at the 2016 OFFF Festival in Barcelona. I would share the studio’s story along with Hagit, studio manager and VP of design, and Andrew, the studio’s UI expert.
This was my first real public speaking experience, and I was excited more than I was nervous. At least that’s how it began. Then came several stages of understanding until the full effect of what was about to happen dawned on me.
Allow me to break it down for you, and share each stage along with the lessons I learned along the way (sometimes the hard way) until May 30th in the Design Museum in Barcelona.
Lesson 1 – You know nothing
The first thing to tackle was actually writing the talk I was about to give. That scared me even less than standing on a stage. I mean, I know how to write, right? I do it all the time so it won’t be a problem, right? I should be able to manage this task quite easily, right? Well you guessed it – wrong!
Because what didn’t occur to me is that writing a presentation is completely different than any other type of writing I’ve done before.
I realized this the hard way. I started writing, thinking I knew what I was doing. I only managed to get through a couple of sketches and notes before I understood – I know nothing about writing a presentation.
It’s kind of funny when that happens – when you realize that there are things you thought you knew, but you actually don’t. The challenge is viewing it as an opportunity to do something completely new, and remember the most valuable lesson – you’re not as smart as you think.
I didn’t let this realization get me down. I stared it right in the face and said, I’m on it. I’ll learn how to write a presentation.
Lesson 2 – Make time in your calendar for panic attacks
Luckily I had a few good months ahead of me to prepare, so at first I calmly set out a plan which looked like this:
Month 1 – Creating the presentation.
Month 2-5 – Designing and practicing (and working on other stuff on my plate).
In reality, a month into the “I’m learning how to write a presentation” phase, I discovered it will go a bit more like this:
Month 1 – Realizing I don’t know how to write a presentation (see Lesson 1).
Month 2 – Constant panicking and generally living in a state of shock that leaves no place for actual creativity and work to be done.
Month 3 – Getting my shit together and starting to form an actual topic and theme that would be interesting enough to keep a crowd of 350 designers interested.
Month 4-5 – Spending all my time (and I mean ALL of it) re-writing, re-designing and re-concepting the entire presentation + practicing in front of anyone who will listen, including my laptop camera and my cat.
Lesson 3 – Your own story is the hardest to tell
The idea of “choosing an idea” for the talk wasn’t as simple as you’d think. At first I thought, “I don’t need an ACTUAL concept, I’m just there to share about my role in the Wix studio.”
But again, I was wrong. Apparently in order for me to talk about what I do in the studio, I needed to talk about myself first. I had to understand that my personal story is the integral foundation for my professional story.
Luckily, we hired two professionals to guide the three of us in the process of building our presentations. It started with one-on-one sessions, during which they insisted I explain more about myself and where I come from. I was pretty reluctant at first to do so. It seemed strange to talk about myself in terms of personal life, or rather, my life before Wix.
Eventually I understood that there was no way around it – I needed to bring myself to the stage, meaning I needed to talk about myself. And with that understanding, eventually came the topic and the framing for everything I wanted to share and talk about.
I realized that you can’t just speak to a group without introducing yourself, your beliefs, your state of mind and your place in the world, it just won’t work.
Lesson 4 – Beginner’s Mind is a Good state of Mind
Finally, I calmed down. I had a professional helping me and a good understanding of what my talk would be about. Now it was time to embrace all these new lessons, let go and face the challenge at hand. Harness my sense of confidence in order to push myself forward with no judgment and self-criticism. And that’s where and when the real journey began. When you let go of what you thought you know, of what you think you can or can’t do.
“Beginner’s mind” is a concept in Zen Buddhism which refers to having an attitude of openness and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” (Shunryu Suzuki)
For me, this was spot on. The minute I realized I’m a beginner in this was the minute I actually succeeded in the task. I could finally get my story right, and start to write.
Lesson 5 – Practice, practice, practice
And then there was the whole “standing in front of a crowd” part, which was nerve-racking but also super important. I knew I wanted to practice as much as possible – there’s no way I’d let the moment of truth in Barcelona be my first experience public speaking. I had a few nightmares about it and I wasn’t going to let them come true!
So once I had a basic draft ready, the rehearsals began. There were many days I stayed to work at home, since it was the only place I could just stand and talk out loud without interference or people looking at me like I’m crazy. I video taped my presentation, hoping the neighbors weren’t watching. I stood in front of the bedroom mirror and practiced to my own reflection. I met with friends and performed in their living rooms. I sent the video to more friends. I dragged colleagues into empty rooms at the studio and asked them to listen.
And of course we had weekly practice sessions with the three of us, combining our talks and getting feedback from our specialists. That’s where I learned how to breathe before I talk, how to stand, that I talk too fast, I mess with my hands too much, I tend to look to the floor; and that the act of stepping onto a stage with even one set of eyes looking at you can be both a terrifying and exhilarating experience.
Lesson 6 – Time flies
It was three months of craziness. Not only did we need to prepare the talks and practice them to perfection, but the presentation also had to be beautifully designed and revised according to every little change we had (up until the last moment). AND – that wasn’t it. Our sponsorship for the festival also included a booth we had to set up for the event itself.
But the time and hard work flew by, and before we knew it the date has arrived – it was May 25th and we landed in Barcelona!
Lesson 7 – You worry about the wrong things
Our talk was scheduled for the last day of the festival – May 30th at 15:00, in the smaller auditorium. I was sad and happy accordingly. Disappointed about carrying my stress until the last day of the festival and not being able to enjoy until then, but also relieved to only stand in front of 350 people rather than 1,000.
On our scheduled day, other worries began. What if we end up talking to an empty room? What if I have a sore throat from so much practicing? What should I wear? Needless to say, I instructed myself to take many deep breaths during that day.
I had practiced every day to the mirror in my hotel room – everything was done, all was set. It was the moment of truth.
At 14:00 the three of us were escorted to the auditorium, with us an entourage of 20 Wix designers no less. We took our position, they arranged us with the mics and we set the laptop with the presentation. From the outside we looked calm and nonchalant, but inside each of us we were stirring like crazy. The room was filling up steadily up to the point where people sat on the stairs, and I remember I couldn’t help smiling – I was SO excited.
Lesson 8 – ENJOY!
And then it was time. Lights were down, our cue was on, we started. Hagit took the stage. Andrew and I stood on the side, jumpy and exchanging smiles and stares until it was his turn. Then Hagit was beside me, and I was so envious that she was finished but happy she had done so well. I have to admit I wasn’t quite focused on Andrew’s part. I just kept practicing my breathing, the “winning pose”, and reminding myself to ENJOY.
And I did – I actually managed to enjoy! I can’t say I really remember much of my actual presentation, it was sort of an out-of-body experience. I was there but also not there; I remembered to say almost everything correctly, but I don’t remember how; it felt like forever but was all over in a second.
Lesson 9 – The aftermath
Sunday, the day after. What a day.
It was over! It was finally “the after”. We had the day off so we took a beautiful stroll to a beautiful park, to enjoy a beautiful day, stopped for a beautiful coffee along the way and brought along champagne and snacks.
You get the drift – everything was beautiful to me! I was filled from the incredible experience, everyone cheering, the great responses afterwards and the support we received throughout.
As I laid there on the grass and sipped the bubbly from a plastic cup, I let go again – this time from any cynicism and self-judgement. And until the next time I’m a beginner again, I’ll just be proud of myself and enjoy feeling proud.