put a stake in the ground
My voice carries. Annoyingly so at times. I talk with my hands and I’m a little bit of a klutz. This winning combination garners more than it’s fair share of broken wine glasses, glares at restaurants, and shushes at most movie theaters. I’m sorry, Greater Seattle Metropolitan librarians. It’s not you, it’s me. As an adult, I know I should probably have more control over the volume of my voice (and limbs), but I really don’t. Get a few drinks in me and I turn into a whirlwind of arms and wild, booming laughter. I’m not a little guy either, so imagine the joyous spectacle: a slightly inebriated animatronic Abraham Lincoln flailing about, knocking over children at Disneyland. Thanks genetics, you’ve created a monster.
Ever since childhood, I’ve struggled to harness this energy, this weird gift/curse I can’t shake; never afraid to grab a microphone, clear my throat and convince strangers that they should listen to whatever I’ve got to say, as I point at things with enthusiasm. I belted out Disney songs in middle school choir, shouted encouragement (and threats) to teammates (and parents) in High School hockey, butchered Pearl Jam in the shower, even barked orders in Air Force officer training, alternately pointing at things and saluting at things. I guess I’ve been yelling about things most of my life, though in the last ten years it’s slowly tapered down and focused into crafting stories and bundling up ideas for people to understand. More rationale and preparation, less bullshitting and waving of hands. It all sort of worked out over time, gradually forming opinions on things I care about.
Over the timeline of my career, I’ve probably given over 500 presentations of some kind. Not even kidding. Add up all the client pitches, military briefings, product demos, class instruction, political introductions, best-man speeches, event emcee’ing, formal toasts, poetry readings, singing and theatrical performances. Pitching blue-sky concepts and getting people excited about ideas and ready to pounce on the work is kind of my thing. Sending up the people and all the subjects I care most about comes naturally, as long as I’m passionate about that subject matter and have a perspective to share with confidence.
When I was in college and even in the military, I didn’t always prepare much for my presentations or speeches. Sure, for the really important ones, I would prep a script ahead of time and stumble through it easily enough. But a lot of the time I was winging it, leaning heavily on my confidence in speaking and past experiences. I used to believe that if you had passion for a topic in some form (or could fake it), it almost didn’t matter what the subject matter is, you could get through ANY presentation. Believe it or not, this only bit me in the ass a few times! But it wasn’t until I worked as a designer that the other shoe dropped, and I learned a much more valuable lesson.
Up til 2009, most of my presentations and public speaking engagements were either instructive, political or purely social subjects. Even if I didn’t prep, I could BS my way through most of them or prepare a generic script that I never updated again. It was fine. Confidence, right? However, the first public talk I ever gave on actual design was a miserable failure. Crash and burn. I mean a “jazz-hands my way out of the room” kind of crash.
In 2009, I was invited to speak at a local design meet up and show & tell series named Refresh Seattle; they are still active today. Pretty sure I BS’ed my way into this speaking engagement, being a relative unknown in the creative community (SPOILER ALERT: still am) and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just desperately wanted an opportunity to speak in front of a group of design peers. And because I don’t plan for things, I figured the subject and opinions would come naturally before it was too late and I could dial it in at the last minute.
For all my confidence, nothing came to me. The stakes weren’t remarkably high, but for some reason I just couldn’t wrap my head around any single topic or talking point in which I had expertise or cared enough about to dig deeper. I was still a bit junior in my career and didn’t really know anything. I mean, not like, I didn’t know how to do my job or operate simple machinery. Sure, I knew design from an operator’s perspective, it’s just that I didn’t know enough about anything specific to have a valuable opinion. I was not a thought leader, I was just a cog in the machine. I should’ve walked away at that moment (seriously I really should), but I was still convinced I could find a way to talk my way through the unknown.
So there I was, committed to a masochistic rabbit hole. Tabs of half-hearted research topics piled up in my browser windows. Beautifully unhelpful articles and thought pieces on interface and type design lay waste to my evenings. More coffee. Some whiteboard notes. A keynote presentation with 6 empty slides, quietly judging me with blank white silence. I dug my heels in. I procrastinated. The date of my talk was next week and I still didn’t have anything to say. My big mouth and animated hand-waving couldn’t rescue me out of this hole.
Three nights in a row, I stayed up until 4am scribbling wildly, praying for that last minute piece of inspiration to get me through til morning. Rushing desperately to sculpt a wobbling monolith of half baked opinions out of incoherent building blocks. The result was a meandering tangent about typography and web fonts, how designers are getting lazy with templates, and some easy rhetoric about staying true to the craft. Yawn. Ok.
And then I was out of time. The talk was tonight.
I walked into a room of talented, thoughtful designers and with all my might, I just threw a bunch of bullshit at them. I was in talking out of my ass. No confidence. No evidence or data. No real opinions. It was brutal. Bless their hearts, I got some head nods. A few thoughtful questions. But one guy totally called me out on it. He saw through all the hand waving and hot air, stood up and asked me point blank, “what is it that you are advocating for? I hear a lot of meandering logic, but what’s your position?” I froze. I might’ve backpedaled a bit. I coughed up a few excuses as I melted a little under the lamps. But the truth was out there now. I didn’t have a perspective on design.
I was kinda shamed at this point. All my years of successful and confident presentations… and the first one about real design in front of really real designers, not just a class project, leaves me burrowing my head in the sand. And that’s the crux of it. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t prepared (that’s fine, I can always handle winging it, and I still do when my designers need me). It was that I didn’t form the rationale. I didn’t put a stake in the ground and state that I have a real perspective on something, and up until that moment, with design, I never had to. So many of those other scenarios on stage with hot mic’s and bravado, the blustery toasts with arms flailing, the laser focused briefings, all leading to this moment, the perspective was given to me by a boss or creative director, or were emotionally driven because I knew someone like a brother; many times I was just stating facts for people. Boring, right? It was so rare for me to encounter a design problem and form a truly thoughtful design rationale around solving it. Not like this.
Of course, I didn’t make the connection until much later in my career about what really went wrong that day, but fear of being labeled a fraud has steered me away from public design talks since. Sure, I give internal-facing presentations frequently. I pitch ideas and get alignment with stakeholders of all disciplines. But now there is much more intention behind the words. I toast my favorite people and get teary eyed. I get emotional when I talk about design. For many years, I’ve still been consciously avoiding a public stage, mostly because I haven’t found topics that I genuinely cared about enough to form a perspective. Until now.
Something inside is telling me it’s time to grab the mic again, clear my throat and convince strangers that they should listen to whatever I’ve got to say. I can’t openly talk about the work we do behind the scenes at Disney, but leading teams, designing and delivering massive mobile products and working daily with people spread out across the country has given me much more to internalize. So maybe you’ll see me back up on stage soon. I promise, I will bring my perspective, even if it’s ugly. I promise I’ll bundle it all up in a cozy sweater, ready to be sipped like a hot toddy. More rationale, less bullshit. Just keep your eyes open and ears perked for the loud guy waving his arms like a mad man, catching shade from the librarians as I point at things with endless enthusiasm. I’ll be there.