Before Agony Left Me
Updated: Jun 11, 2019
Happy New Year, y’all. With the dropping of balls, Peeps, and Bologna, (I live in a weird slice of PA) InfoSec ushers in another year filled with Call for Papers for the myriad of conferences we throw throughout the year. If you’re a Twitter junkie like me, you’ve noticed some of the bigger cons like DEF CON have already opened their CFP’s to the world. Black Hat will be soon to follow, so on and so forth.
Some of you might be speaker novices. Either because you thought you had nothing to offer, or you know you have something to offer but just can’t stomach the thought of getting up in front of throngs of people and…ya know…talking. After reading a speech given by Mark Twain in 1906 on dealing with his own bouts of stage fright, I’d like offer up some of my own thoughts and experiences on the subject. The screenshots below are of that speech and come from the book “Lend Me Your Ears” by William Safire. Read Mr. Clemens speech first or read my pontifications. Choose your own adventure, I’m not your supervisor.
I, too, will never forget my feelings before the agony of public speaking left me. It was during my 8th grade English class & thanks to one of the biggest influences on who I am today, Mr. Miller. I grew up with a horrible stutter. Not as debilitating as some but enough to be absolutely anxiety stricken when we had to take turns reading aloud to the class. Those moments were just reading answers to homework, I had never had to give an actual speech before Mr. Millers class and I damn near called in dead the day it was my turn to go.
Thinking back, the topic of the speech was a bit of Social Engineering. We had to tell a story and the class had to determine if the story was true or false. SE 101 for anyone who’s ever taken a class in the discipline. I can’t recall if it was during my speech or a day prior, but he gave me the key to survival that I rely on to this day if I get lost or frustrated speaking in front of people. He told me to shrink my scope. Instead of worrying about what all 20 kids in the class were doing or thinking during my speech, I was to scan the audience. I’d pick a few different people to make eye contact with, rinse and repeat. Everyone else, look at the tops of their heads.
As it turns out, I ended up fixating on and subsequently creeping out one particular girl in the class who I was friendly with. I later apologized after the restraining order was lifted but the point is, it worked. From that day forward, my fear of public speaking got smaller with each iteration. Later on in life I ended up being on the radio for a few years with Cumulus Broadcasting. Not only being alone in a room on mic, but introducing nationally touring bands in front of a thousand people. I lived for those moments then.
Today, I regularly give talks and run contests at various conferences as well as give training and webinars in my daily professional duties. I live for those moments now. However, I will never forget my feelings before that past agony left me. Truth be told, a bit of it still hangs around and I wouldn’t have it any other way. A few butterflies keep me sharp. This blog is just one attempt in which I hope to pass on my experiences to those who are still trying to find their way to their own moments on the stage.
I know, “Cool story, bro, but what do I do to get over this?”
Recruit! Like Twain mentions doing in his speech, if you’re giving a talk, ask some friends to sit in the audience to act as your anchors.Perambulate, don’t fixate. Take a stroll around the stage, scan the audience. If eye contact leaves your shaky, just scan the tops of their heads. Left to right and back again. Keep the blood flowing.Improv. Learn to rely less on your carefully prepared notes and more on your expertise. If you lean too heavily on your script, you’ll get flustered when you miss a cue or otherwise lose your place. The key to a successful presentation is not memorization of notes about the material. It’s knowing the actual material so well, it’s impossible to get it wrong.
Let your ego gallop a bit. Unless you’re tying up homeless people in your basement and lecturing them on BlockChain, the people sitting in the audience are there of their own volition. You have something they want. That puts you in charge. You are, in that moment, the main attraction. Act like it.
That’s all for now. Con season is upon us. You have something to say, now go out there and say it. If you can’t find your own anchors & I’m at the same event as you, just DM me on Twitter. I’ll be front and center.