It’s Okay to Puke

When You’re a Public Speaker


Blaharp. Blaharp.

The hard-to-wordify sound of my iPhone pissing in my ear brings consciousness to my morning. I tap it, tap it again, stroke it, hit it, almost fling it, and finally shut it up.

The ceiling is unfamiliar. I’m in a hotel room.

Look left. Red alarm-clock digits inform me it’s 6:00am. Somewhere.

Ugh.

I have to get up and speak.

I feel nauseous. I throw up in my mouth, a little.

I tell myself that I hate myself for putting myself in this position all by myself with no one to blame but myself.

I want to be back at my desk, back in the office, hiding back behind my words the way it used to be.

I’m in Minneapolis. I go on “stage” in 3 hours.


It’s 2 months since I changed my role at Unbounce, and I’ve been in airports, planes and hotels ever since.

I erased Creative Director from my title, leaving only “co-founder”. The goal was to spend a lot of my time on the road as a public speaker.

Changing my title was a big commitment.

Sucking at, or hating speaking would mean returning to a role that wasn’t really even available anymore.

I’ve never pitched or asked to speak. It’s just come my way. I’m lucky and grateful for that.


Here are the (tour) dates I’m doing:

Done >> April 28-30: Hero Conference — Austin, Texas

Done >> June 4: Inbound Marketing Day — Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Done >> June 10-11: Search Marketing Day — Warsaw, Poland

Today (at time of writing) >> MN Search Summit — Minneapolis, Minnesota

Upcoming: August 12: The Optimizely Experience — Chicago, Illinois (#firstkeynote), September 12: Call To Action Conference — Vancouver, British Columbia, October 14: Hero Conference Conversion Summit — Indianapolis, Indiana, October 22-24: AWeber ASCEND Summit — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, October 27-28: Search Love — London, England, October 29-30: Conversion Conference — London, England, November 4-5: Conversion Conference — Berlin, Germany, January 22-23: Carnegie Conference — Disney World, Orlando, Florida.

I should make a t-shirt.

I always wanted to be a rockstar. Maybe a t-shirt would make me feel like a rockstar. I’d need to find someone to buy it to validate me being a rockstar. I don’t think wearing a self-designed, self-printed t-shirt really qualifies one as a rockstar.


Rewind to Hero Conference.

Hey. You. Give a short 10-minute presentation to warm up the crowd for a 3-person live landing page critique. This was my task.

Does that make me a fluffer?

The fact that it was a 3-person panel was the only reason I let our director of marketing (Gia) convince me to participate. To be fair, landing page critiques have been my thing for years — they’re my bread and butter in many ways — so saying no would make me look like a real chicken shit.

Two small customer meetups aside, this was my first “actual” conference speaking event.

Fucking it up wasn’t an option.

I can get a bit rabid when I start something new. Remember that time I taught myself 5-pin Canadian bowling by reading a 400-word blog post? And how my score went from 80 to 220 in about twenty minutes? (Was that even a question?)

Can I bowl on stage?


My new BHAG (big hairy audacious goal): become the best marketing speaker in the world.

I did 4 things before I got on stage in Austin:

  1. I read How to Deliver a TED Talk by Jeremey Donovan. One of the best, and certainly the most useful book I’ve ever read. A signal of its greatness can be seen by the collection of blue sticky page-marker things you’ll see hanging from the page edges if you ever borrow it from me.
  2. I watched a TED talk every morning on my commute to work — it takes exactly 18 minutes (the length of a TED talk) to get to Vancouver HQ from my old home in the West End. #serendipitous. This routine also had the impact of delivering me at work in a state of mind where I could — hyperbole warning — change the world.
  3. I also watched a particular TED talk about how the position of your hands can impact your audience. Watch it. It’s brilliant.
  4. Then I practiced the shit out of my presentation. This is probably why my presentation had no shit left when it came time to deliver.

Austin, Texas. April 29, 2014.

63 speakers and 400 attendees were crowded into the main hall watching Bryan Eisenberg — the godfather of Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO). He gave Unbounce a couple of shout outs and even asked me a question during his opening keynote.

By mentioning me in his talk, Bryan upped the pressure.

Who’s that guy?

Me?

My Hero Conf talk was at 12:45pm which meant I had time to sit in the hotel bar and down a couple of glasses of Dutch Courage before going “on”.

You might be reading this thinking “What’s the big fucking deal about giving a 10 minute talk?” The big deal — for me — is that I’ve spent 5 years building a significant online persona as a marketing writer, and I didn’t want to shit the bed my first time on stage, and have everyone call me a fraud.

It wasn’t a big audience — 75 people maybe (there were 4 tracks). Frustratingly the organizers had placed my talk at the exact same time as Chris Goward & Lance Loveday which was one of only two other CRO talks going on at the conference.


I like to start with a pregnant pause when I speak.

It creates tension.

Then a bold statement to provide some shock value and reason-to-care for those watching.


One of the joys of being well practiced is being able to change slides and deliver/react to those changes without looking back at the screen. I say joy because it feels amazing to be facing the audience as you click through slides that they can see — and you can’t — remaining in perfect sync.

I don’t have a 4ft vertical standing leap like Jordan, or the hockey equivalent for Gretsky, but I do share a technique for practicing my talks. I visualize every moment, the reaction of the crowd, my reaction to their reaction, where I’ll go next, how the stage looks, what the screen will look like when I turn around, and how it will feel if I stop once in a while and just wait, wait for a reaction, or just wait for the sake of inserting tension through pause.

It’s not scripted, it’s full of ad-libbed material. But it is rehearsed. Because I want it to be brilliant.

I had run through my deck at least 15 times in advance of this gig.

You might think this is normal (it’s not) or obsessive (no, I have a BHAG), but because of my attention to detail, I knocked it out almost exactly as I’d hoped.

Aaaaand we’re done!

Not quite.


We were back in the main hall after the closing keynote, listening as they announced 4 speaker awards: most actionable, most entertaining, most {I forget this one} and best presentation.

When they called my name out for best presentation I lost my shit (internally), sauntered matter-of-factly (externally), and climbed the 2-step staircase to the stage to collect my award.

Part of the event closing was to get the four of us to sit on stage for a 40 minute open-question panel discussion.

Piss.

After mic’ing us, the questions came in from around the room. The expectation was that we would each take a turn answering each question.

Note: Hero Conf is a majorly nerdy hardcore Pay-Per-Click (PPC, read:Google AdWords) conference, and I’m just a landing page dude.

First question: “Given Google’s big announcement yesterday, blah blah {a whole bunch of things I had no clue about} what do you think about {more guff}?”

Like a dog that’s been kicked in the nuts, I backed away (in my seat) and made myself look small so I could think of an answer while the others pacified the crowd. And being PPC experts they doled out some seriously good advice.

When it came to my turn I had three options: Say “I don’t know”, lie, or try to be funny.

My response: “Google made an announcement?”, cough. Ripples of laughter. “I must have missed it while I was working on my best presentation…”

Whhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaat?!

I take a look over at the Unbounce table where Gia (who’s disowning me by the millisecond), Corey and Stef are staring at me.

Pause for a beat.

And the audience bursts into laughter.

#rulenumberone #beyourself

That felt pretty good.


Milwaukee, Wisconsin. June 4, 2014.

I don’t know about you but I didn’t hold out any hope of Milwaukee being cool.

Let me break the trip down for you.

savvy panda are hosting. i like them. it’s sunny. dan zarrella is opening the show. he’s a big deal. there’s a river running through town. it’s like a mini chicago. happy days was filmed/based here. fonz has a bronz(e) statue beside the river. ezra fishman from wistia is here too. there’s a stage. the projector is below foot-level on the stage which means you can’t actually work the stage because you’d be blocking the projector. dan does a good job of walking the floor instead of the stage. i try to use the stage. mic doesn’t work. I try to speak loudly to compensate. mic really doesn’t work. exchange mic with audio dude. make testing sounds. I hate making testing sounds. mic works. crowd is intimate and responsive. having fun. rock through 209 slides. you heard me. I like to do punctuated typography statements that can run 10 sides in 3 seconds, so get over it. luke summerfield has more energy than the sun. he speaks faster than my slides. the crowd is energized. it’s good marketing times. ezra plays awesome wistia videos that make other videos look lame. I like them. not digitally, there’s no like button. go for post-event drinks at a mexican place. plot with ezra to break webinar world record held by dan zarrella/hubspot. savvy panda become awesome tour guides. which I take note of for the unbounce conference. go to top-secret bar that requires a password. fail to present password. do weird dance to gain entry in absence of password. play blackjack with dealer who’s actually a magician. win so much I get enough fake money for a free beer. decline said beer in favour of keeping famous voucher for free beer. lose voucher. tour milwaukee. visit harley davidson museum. visit miller brewery. visit local lakefront brewery that destroys miller brewery in terms of fun and beer quality. play local game called bar dice. get waterboarded with red bull — really. learn that milwaukee has summerfest, the world’s largest music festival. it’s not happening for another 3 weeks so I don’t see it. eight hundred and fifty thousand people attended last year. milwaukee is officially a cool town.

We’re going to beat that webinar world record.


Warsaw, Poland. June 10, 2014.

I was seriously worried that the humour in my pres wouldn’t translate to a foreign language audience, but surprisingly, I didn’t sense there was much difference in Warsaw — a little delay here or there perhaps, but the reactions were still there.

Why does that matter you say?

I say; a successful talk needs to do 3 things: educate, inspire and entertain.

I don’t think you can succeed in a meaningful way if you don’t master all three, and nail at least two.

In my limited experience, you can judge these things during your talk in a couple of ways. If they laugh, you’re entertaining. If they participate in your polls/questions, you’re educating/motivating. If they want to talk to you afterwards, you’ve been in some way inspiring.

The setup in Warsaw was very unique.

We were speaking in a cinema. A giant effing cinema! I remember hearing Phil Nottingham (awesome speaker from Distilled) comment on the uniqueness of the setup.

The screen was enormous, about 30ft high and 90 feet wide. It also had very good image clarity.

This is a big deal to speakers.

The visual details seem oft overlooked. Which is a shame and a big problem. The world is full of shitty, boring-ass, rancidly-fucking-ugly slide decks.

Part of my visualization process includes knowing/feeling how the slides look behind me. So when I show up at a gig that has a small blurred screen, with poor colour balance, light streaming in from un-coverable windows, lack of contrast, unsharpness, pixelation, blurriness — I sigh. Through my nose. Try it. You’ll get how I feel.

These things kill presentations. Yes, the medium is the message, and the medium is me, you, us. But a beautiful visual experience is viscerally impactful, and provides a more delightful experience to both the speaker and the audience.

Warsaw was visually awesome.

If anything, the screen was so giant that it was hard for a speaker to turn around and make any sense of what was behind her.

For the audience, it looked incredible. The shot above shows the magnitude, the clarity, and the visual accuracy of what I was trying to portray.

I’m smaller than the letter K. That’s rad.


The talk went down really well (Phil asked me to speak at another conference within 60 seconds of finishing) and I got a ton of positive feedback from speakers and attendees afterwards.

However, I was scheduled to do an all-day workshop the following day.


8 hours of me. Teaching.

I failed miserably.

Teaching is completely different to speaking and I fucked it up. I didn’t know how to prepare for something that long, and foolishly thought that I could spend time with everyone critiquing and working on their marketing campaigns. That would be super valuable as it’s always been when I’ve done shorter sessions, and has the potential for big impacts for those concerned.

It didn’t work. Hardly anyone had actual landing pages that I could critique. Those who did were in Polish. I felt embarrassed, and I didn’t deliver.

It took me a couple of weeks to get over that. Professionally, I don’t fuck up. I don’t fuck up because I try really hard to be exceptional at everything I do. I can honestly say that this workshop was the low point of my 17-year career.

That sucked. And yes, it’s taken me weeks to get over it, partially get over it. It’ll nip at me for a long time I think.


Minneapolis, Minnesota. June 27, 2014.

I thought I was going to puke in my bed.

Nope. Just my mouth.

Why am I here? Rand fucking Fishkin and Lee Odden are the keynotes. Rand is a friend. He’s also one of the marketing world’s biggest names when it comes to public speaking. He’s a walking keynote.

You might have read about the Milwaukee gig above and surmised that this life is all cotton-candy and blow-jobs. Yeah, there is always fun after the event. Every time. But the work that happens before the event is so different to anything I’ve done in my previous 12-ish roles.

I arrived at my hotel 7 hours late from Montreal after Air Canada overbooked my connecting flight through Toronto. This meant I missed the speaker’s dinner (something I really enjoy as it’s a chance to meet some pretty special people). More importantly, I’d lost the opportunity to get familiarized with my surroundings and my hotel, and to practice a couple of times in my room before hitting the hay.

Blaharp. Blaharp.

What! Already?

Sigh. Fuck. Tits. Wank. Piss.

(Those are verbal thoughts, not actions).

Here we go again. Do I really have to get up at 6am. Do I really have to practice now? Before I eat breakfast? I don’t eat breakfast so that’s a bullshit reaction. It’s hard to practice this early. But in truth it’s only hard to get started.

If I can drag myself up and click start on Keynote on my laptop, within a moment I’m right there. Dancing before my imaginary audience, running through anecdotes (and the room), making sure that when I run from right to left, it appropriately signals a movement of left to right for the audience. Red button, green button. Right hand, left hand. Don’t turn around and look at the projection, it looks amateur. Click as you speak, nail the timing.

Three energy drinks into the day (it was 9:40am). I was all set to go, hoping that people would actually show up for my talk in a 2-track event.

I must say, Minneapolis was my favourite gig so far. The event was simple, very well run, I had a massive “Rand-is-on-the-card-reminder” stabbing me in the back of the head, that added some welcome tension, and I absolutely LOVED my talk. I think I nailed it.

I also found my #wordthatsbetterthanstrideorgroove.

From the feedback I’ve had from the organizers and attendees, it went down exceptionally well, so I really couldn’t be happier.

And yeah, I was trending on Twitter while my talk was going on.

The Minneapolis part of Twitter. But still.


The questions still looms: Why do I get such a sick self-loathing feeling whenever I have to speak?

Maybe I feel sick because I really, genuinely give a shit about the experience people will have.

When I walk out in front of an audience of marketers hungry for great insights, I need to couple great educational content with a great time. Can you imagine going to a conference where you actually had a great time, all day long? It should be the defacto way, but it’s not.

We’ve all sat in too many talks that bored us to the point of frustration/anger/nausea/sleep, and I don’t want anyone to feel those emotions when they come to one of my talks.

Involuntary defecation on the other hand, is a strong social signal of success. No wait, that’s fear. Involuntary urination! That’s laughter.

If I can’t entertain, educate and inspire, then I’m not doing my job.

There’s no way I’m not going to give every ounce of enthusiasm, effort, knowledge, humour (and foul language) that I can muster.

Because as soon as I’m 60 seconds into my talk, I absolutely LOVE every single moment.

I wouldn’t change it, I won’t trade it, and regardless of how shitty I feel when I wake up, I know that it’s just a necessary part of my new job.

I can’t wait for the next one.

Maybe you’ll be there.

The Big Payoff — 2017 Update

In 2016 I was the top rated speaker at 76% of the events I spoke at. Professionally speaking that’s incredible. It opens up a huge number of doors and opportunities, and is something that makes me immensely proud. But it’s not the biggest win for me.

The single greatest, most amazing thing to have come from becoming a public speaker was that one year later, I’d be on a stage in Vegas, and my fiancée – and fellow marketing speaker Nicole Mintiens – was sitting in the crowd, waiting to see me speak after seeing me on the show Page Fights.

Speaking has changed my life, in every way, and I would encourage everyone to call bullshit on their own fear and do that first 7 minute gig.

About Oli Gardner

Unbounce.com Co-Founder Oli Gardner has seen more landing pages than anyone on the planet. He’s obsessed with identifying and reversing bad marketing practices, and his disdain for marketers who send campaign traffic to their homepage is legendary, resulting in landing page rants that can peel paint off an unpainted wall. A prolific international speaker, Oli is on a mission to rid the world of marketing mediocrity by using data-informed copywriting, design, interaction, and psychology to create a more delightful experience for marketers and customers alike.