9 May, 2014
I've never given a talk at a conference before.
I tell myself it's because I've got nothing to say, but I suspect this blog proves me wrong in some ways. I've got plenty to say: whether it's any good is another matter.
But no, the real reason that I've never given a talk at a conference is not because I have nothing to say, but because I'm scared that what I do have to say has either been said before, or worse, is just flat out wrong.
And it's not so much that I'm scared of people telling me so, it's more that I'm scared that I'll be found out for the fraud that I really am.
I suspect I'm not alone here.
I've alluded to my understanding of the differences between talking and writing before: talking lets you see your audience—and their reactions—in real time. That's terrifying. For someone like me, who likes to adapt his message to the shifting responses of the audience, it could be paralysing. I've had that happen to me before when giving presentations at work: Someone asks a really interesting question, and it's not so much that it throws me off, rather that it throws me on to a completely different tack.
I forget I'm supposed to be giving a talk, and end up having a conversation.
So when I say I'm scared of being found out, it's not just that: it's that I'm scared of being found out and having to immediately deal with the consequences.
At least if I spout some incorrect bullshitty crap on this site, I get a chance to write a considered followup that outlines what I've learned. If I have a conversation in the corridor after giving my talk, and someone points out the factual errors, great, I've learned something, but at worst I've told a room full of people something wrong that they'll blame me for, and at best I've demonstrated to an entire room that I don't know what I'm talking about. For a sizeable proportion of those people, I have no way of reaching them to share what I've just learned.
And in any event, why would they trust me now?
The best talks I've seen are the ones that have been worked on and worked on and worked on: Obsessed over and honed down to the point of, if not perfection, then certainly down to the simplest essence of what the speaker is trying to say.
The best talks have a point. A single, simple point that either gets hammered again and again, or is arrived at so beautifully that it resonates like a clear bell throughout your memory of the speaker's closing remarks.
The best talks are the results of hours and hours of worry and sweat and conviction that it's "not right" yet.
And from talking with the speakers, they're the results of those speakers still being convinced that it's not right, even after delivering a knockout performance.
And it's that "not right" feeling that I think drives most true talent. There may be some exceptions, but most of the people I know who are "talented" (and I'm lucky in that I count most of the people I know as such) realise their talent not through some miraculous gift, but through sheer doggedness.
Talent isn't magic, it's hard work
More than that, it's hard work that the person doesn't notice they're doing in the same way they "notice" doing something mind-numbingly boring. They don't notice the work, they notice that the thing they're working on isn't right.
And boy, do they notice it. It drives them crazy, it compels them to skip lunch, skip dinner, skip sleep. It's not the work, it's the glaring wrongness.
It's the ability to see how it would look if it was "right", and to understand, even vaguely, how to push it in that direction.
And that's why telling a talented person not to worry, that they'll be awesome, is likely precisely the wrong thing to do. It reminds them of all the things that are not awesome about their unveiling, and adds you to the (long, long) list of people they feel they're going to let down.
Yes, it's nuts, but it's likely true.
There's only one thing that boosts confidence for a lot of talented people, and that's practice. It's how they got good at their craft; it's how they got confident enough in their abilities to be able to accept money for them, and it's how they're going to stop freaking out before each talk.
It'll probably take years.
So I should probably get started.