How to speak in public about design three times in six months without dying of fear in the process

This year, I’ve checked one of my biggest fears off my career bucket list. (Yes, I have a bucket list of fear.) Public speaking. Other people speak about design at events and conferences all the time, and I’ve always thought to myself: Varför inte jag? (I’m Swedish. It means “Why not me?”)

The only problem is that public speaking is terrifying. But like many terrifying things, I decided to dive into it, head first. It ended up being the best thing I ever did. No, that’s a lie. It was just as scary as I imagined and I can probably come up with a million things that I still enjoy more than being on stage. (The ocean, drinking margaritas, travelling to new places or eating leftover pizza.)

In the past 6 months I’ve spoke at conferences three times, and I didn’t die. And I’m slowly getting better at it.

How did I end up in this situation? Halli, my boss at Ueno got a request to speak at the Awwwards conference in Los Angeles. But since Halli is very busy and important, he asked Robbin and me if we wanted to do it instead. I said Yes. Robbin said No.

So of course we were going.

You may or may not know this, but it turns out that when one conference announces that you’re speaking, other conferences will start contacting you, too. (So that’s how that works.)

I declined a few (phew!), but decided to do a panel for Epicurrence in February, and a keynote at One Day Out in May. I told myself this was for practice for the big event: the Awwwards in June. Here’s how it went.

Robbin Cenijn, Jenny Johannesson (me!), Anthony Harmon and Mackey Saturday at Epicurrence in Jackson Hole. Photo by Rico Castillero.

February: Epicurrence, Jackson Hole

Epicurrence is great. It’s like going on a field trip without teachers! If you haven’t been yet, add it to your to-do list now. I had already been on one of these before (thanks, Ueno!), and jumped on the opportunity when Dann Petty asked me to come speak at this one. I was part of a panel about design agencies, so the whole thing was more of a discussion together with the audience. Easy peasy. Especially after a couple of beers. Cheers!

Takeaway:

Smaller groups and panels are pretty chill. It feels more like a conversation and hanging out with friends and less than a Shakespeare monologue.

Chill level:

9/10 😎

Yours truly, at One Day Out in Odense. Photo by Joel Califa.

May: One Day Out, Odense, Denmark

One Day Out is an annual conference in the middle of Denmark, organized by a rad group of developers and designers. January-Jenny thought speaking there would be a good trial run for Future-Jenny’s appearance at the Awwwards conference. Plus it’s pretty close to my hometown of Malmö, which means I could combine it with a trip home. Two birds, one stone, thought January-Jenny. Truly clever. At least until the time Future-Jenny found herself hanging out with friends and family, while screaming internally the entire time.

Speaking at this conference was probably the most terrifying thing I did. Thirty minutes alone on a stage, with a thousand eyes staring back at me. I was wearing one of those Britney Spears microphones, which means the whole audience could hear me breathe. Terrifying! At this conference I talked about how I stay inspired on a daily basis, how I keep up with people whose work I admire, why people should stop centering designs (for real).

Takeaway:

Get to know your audience beforehand. Try to find out what type of people go to the conference, their general background in the field, as well as talking to people before your presentation to try get a little confidence boost. It was very uncomforting thinking I’m on stage talking to a crowd of strangers.

Chill level:

2/10 😩

Jenny Johannesson (me!) together with Robbin Cenijn at the Awwwards conference in Los Angeles. Photo by Aristide Benoist.

June: Awwwards, Los Angeles

To be honest, my chill level before this conference was relatively okay. I wouldn’t be alone on stage, and if I’d die, Peter Smart, the conference MC, promised he’d turn on the smoke machines to cover my dead body. So of course it would be fine. Of course.

At this conference we were invited to speak in the name of Ueno, so it was all about Ueno and how uniquely we work with our clients, not for them. Even though this is something I’ve talked to people about a thousand times, my nerves still got to me while getting up on that huge stage in front of that huge crowd. But I do feel that having someone else there with me was very comforting. So if you ever decide to do any public speaking and feel nervous about it, feel free to call Robbin!

Takeaway:

This time I got to pick between the Britney Spears mic and a normal karaoke mic. With my last experience, I went for the second. And I think I made the right choice even though I had to swap hands a million times because of my nervously sweaty palms. But at least I didn’t have to think about people hearing me mouth-breathe.

Chill level:

5/10 😬


What else did I learn from this adventure? Public speaking is terrifying but also very rewarding. The audiences are very supportive (they even laugh at your bad jokes!) and people are generally very interested in talking to you, asking questions and being overall nice and supportive afterwards. I’m proud of myself for somehow pulling it off this year. But now that it’s over I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. And you have no idea how happy I am to be back in my design cave and not having to worry about it for a while.

So cheers to doing scary things!

And thank you Awwwards, Epicurrence, and One Day Out, for having me 💖

Something something *mic drop*