Last week I gave my first ever presentation as a conference speaker.
It was one of the most terrifying days of my life.
And also one of the most incredible and exhilarating.
It has been a dream of mine for so many years. But one of those impossible dreams. You know the ones. We all have them don’t we? Win the lottery, fight a dragon, be a wizard, live in a castle, become an astronaut, be a conference speaker. For me they were all in the same unreachable implausible fantasy world.
I’ve always sat in awe of those courageous souls who can stand up in front of a huge audience and hold them all in the palm of their hands. Put me in front of a powerpoint slide and two people and I fall apart completely. Even my own name escapes me sometimes.
So how on earth did I find myself here? Presenting a workshop at a huge international conference — Women in Tech in Amsterdam.
My very short and rather hectic journey started just two weeks ago when my colleague Evy invited me to co-facilitate a workshop at the Women in Tech conference. My immediate reaction was “Good lord no! Run away! Run away!” but somehow as I typed my response to her email my traitorous fingers wrote the words “Wow that sounds exciting! I’m in!” and they hit the Send button.
I was horrified! What on earth had I done? What was I thinking?
For a moment I’d let my dreams loose, and they had taken wing and soared. I’d been helpless to stop them. But how could I possibly do this?
I couldn’t. I was convinced of that. It would all end in tears and humiliation.
Anyway the following day I met with Evy and my co-facilitator, Jenn, ostensibly to decide on a topic, but very much considering some lame excuse as to why I couldn’t possibly go through with this. Maybe I could break both my legs? Somewhere in the discussion it seems I got carried away with the whole idea and I couldn’t quite bring myself to back out. It sounded so amazing. I would feel such a failure to walk away from something I had dreamed of for so long. The door was open right there in front of me — could I really turn my back and walk away?
We brainstormed various subjects and agreed on Social Styles, a really amazing communication tool that has me totally fascinated in its simplicity and usefulness, and a subject which Evy herself runs workshops on at work. The three of us would do a great job with Evy at the helm. Yeah — I could do that. I could be a secondary helper for this. Sure thing.
So Jenn and I readily agreed with some excitement and also some trepidation.
It was roughly an hour later we realised that sadly Evy was unable to join us on this occasion, so it was just Jenn and myself — two gals who had never before presented at a conference, were both terrified of doing so, and neither of whom possessed Evy’s in-depth knowledge of the topic.
We had just ten days to prepare a workshop for a hall filled with professionals all expecting a top class learning experience at a huge international conference for which they had paid good money and invested their time in attending.
So no pressure there then.
Designing and preparing the workshop while frantically trying to become overnight authorities on the topic was pretty intense. Those crazy ten days passed in a blur of ridiculously late nights, headaches, next to no sleep, a great deal of comfort eating, and several gallons of wine.
Our workshop came together and after just a week we did a dry run with a room of friendlies at work. The nerves almost killed me then, but our little hand picked audience seemed to really enjoy it. They embraced the exercises with good cheer and gave us nice positive feedback at the end. We hoped they weren’t just saying nice things to protect our feelings.
We were now feeling pleasantly nervous ( in that giggly kinda way ), but excited.
The next day, our bags all packed, we made our way to the airport and headed to Amsterdam for the real thing.
Some unexpected last minute requests for changes to the slides and the actual content just three hours before our workshop almost killed me — I went into meltdown. I’m not at all a last minute person so I freaked out at that point and could feel my brain just hurling up protective walls all over the place before it shut down completely. That was the end of me — how on earth could I do this now, when right at that last minute everything I’d been mentally preparing for was being changed? That was the rock bottom point for me. I thought I was finished and just felt so nauseated I couldn’t speak to anyone.
I managed to escape into my own little bubble and get some quality “me time” by taking almost a thousand sheets of paper to a quiet corner and mindlessly stapling them all together into the handouts we would distribute at the end of our presentation. At least it took my mind off the impending doom into which I was about to blindly hurl myself.
And then suddenly it was time.
Running was no longer an option. I had to go through with this. “Death or Glory!” as they say. Honestly I was expecting the former, or it’s metaphorical equivalent.
With my mouth so dry I could barely speak and legs like jelly, Jenn and I set up the room and got our laptop all set. There, on the biggest screen I’d ever seen in my life, were our slides.
This was it. There was no backing out now.
As luck would have it we had about an hour before our audience arrived so we did a dry run to the room of empty chairs. I think ultimately that saved us. It certainly saved me at least.
We got used to the feel of the room and to moving around in it, filling the space. We talked to the walls and to the doors and to the furniture and to each other and after a while it somehow became a little less scary.
By the time we got to the end of our practice run a sort of nervous calm had befallen us and we actually felt ready for “real people” to arrive. My nausea had left me and I had recovered some use of my brain functions.
Wow — this was it. This was really happening. All those times I had watched in awe as others took the stage and held their audience, and now we were about to join their ranks.
And we did.
Our audience arrived. We ran our workshop. And it was brilliant. Utterly, totally brilliant. I’m still amazed as I think back.
The room was filled with such a buzz of positive energy that lifted us and infused us with the confidence to give a great performance. Later we were inundated with people coming to thank us and tell us how much they enjoyed it. What a great feeling that was.
And we even got to repeat the workshop again the following day due to popular demand. How cool was that? It was a full house for a second time. Wow!
It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Something I honestly never imagined I could do. Now I just can’t wait for the next time — I’ve got the bug! There’s no stopping me now.
If you’d asked me a month ago whether I thought I could ever do that, I would have said a very resounding “NO!”. But it turns out that I would have been wrong. Very wrong.
It’s funny how your life can change so suddenly when you’re looking the other way. I feel a brand new road has just opened up in front of me, filled with fabulous shining opportunities. A road I never knew was even there for me. One that had always been an impossible dream.
Richard Branson once said “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes — then learn how to do it later!”.
And that’s exactly what I did.
This is just my beginning.
I’m most definitely coming back for more.